Your wedding photographer is your historian, your journalist, your biggest fan. While everything about the day is in your hands… the memories of the day are within their domain. And there is no shortage of people with camera equipment to consider for the role.
So, you scroll through dozens of pictures and portfolios. Is there any science to choosing a wedding photographer?
Assessing talent and creativity is anything but scientific. It is difficult to know what standard to assess pictures on. Every wedding photographer has a different style and different equipment to capture it. Every person being photographed is having either a good day or a bad day. If someone looks good on a picture, does that mean the photographer’s awesome? Possibly… but not necessarily.
So how do you evaluate a wedding photographer’s portfolio?
Here’s the basics. The photographer’s job is to present everyone – especially the bride and groom – prominently and clearly, without distractions, in the best possible light, and in a way that’s interesting. In addition, the photographer’s job – and if you ever photographed little children, you’ll know how tricky this is – is to capture genuine emotion.
Now, before we delve into some generalizations, let’s understand something about photography. We love all styles of photography – those that follow the rules we identify here, and those that don’t. The rules we set out are often broken for startling artistic effects and great results. All we are saying is that wedding photography is inherently a bit conservative. It is all about portraying people in most natural, least distracting ways. The rules we are proposing were developed based on the way human eyes naturally interact with images.
Also, although the photographs look simple and uncontrived, let’s take a moment to recognize the difficulty of the photographer’s task. From her perspective, your wedding day will be a day of chaos, rush, and anxiety. Unlike in her own studio, the photographer has to go with the flow while working in cramped space and insufficient light.
That said, you should be able to expect certain quality from her portfolio. So, take a look at a couple fairly representative pictures and ask yourself the following three questions: what is your eye drawn to? Do you see emotion on the pictures? And do people on the pictures look flattering?
1. What is your eye drawn to?
When you relax your eyes and get them a little off focus… what are they drawn to? Do the faces stand out? If are they too small (too dark, or surrounded by too much clutter), they get lost. For example, do you notice how your eye is drawn to the white shirt instead of the face of the woman in the picture to the left? Another issue could be that your eyes are drawn to something strange or unnatural about the image – a distraction – instead of the people portrayed in it.
If you sense that there is something off with the shot, but you aren’t able to put your finger on it, here are some things you may want to look for:
– Rules of composition in photography. Rule of Thirds recommends that the focal points of the image be placed along the two horizontal and two vertical lines that break the frame into equal thirds. The photo of a person in the sunset (left) respects that rule, but the photo of the man sitting on the railing (right) does not. Did you look at his hand and boots more than his face? Another rule – Rule of Leading Lines – recommends that straight lines in the shot should lead to the main subject of the image. The example to the right is a striking – albeit artistic – demonstration of that.
– Clutter or unnatural poses in the shot. Still life and moving objects are perceived differently. When objects are moving, the human eye can naturally ignore the distractions and pick out the important matters to focus on. On a picture, clutter or an unnatural pose attracts the eye like a magnet. Just notice the red balloons (left) and the seemingly broken leg of the football player (right), and you will see that these pictures are not really about the people that happen to be pictured there.
– Hotspots. If it’s supposed to be a picture of the bride’s face, and what captures your attention is bright sky, white expanse of the bride’s dress, or bright red bouquet, then the photograph is a little distracting. The faces should be lighter and brighter than the background – otherwise, the viewer’s eyes will travel from hotspot to hotspot, always missing the subjects. Let’s be real, the mighty sun makes it near impossible to photograph a scene outside in the day without any hotspots – say, the sunlight striking the ground or a tree – but hotspots right near the subjects’ faces should be avoidable.
– Off-angles. If something that needs to be vertical or horizontal is not – if it veers a bit into the diagonal – it can be distracting.
– Light. There are many dimensions to a well-lit photograph. At the most basic level, the faces should be well lit – in other words, they shouldn’t be dark and they shouldn’t have overly dark shadows distorting the overall view. Dark shadows in some places, such as dark circles under the eyes or prominent shadows from wrinkles, make a face look older and unflattering. Likewise, dark color of the surroundings (maybe red brick wall or dark green carpet) can reflect as an unflattering color cast across people’s faces.
On the other hand, though, there should be some shadow to lend depth to the image. Otherwise, you get a flat – two-dimensional – image. You need to have a realistic shading and perspective. Remember learning to draw an apple? Ideally, you would have a shiny spot, bright space, and space gradually receding into shade. Same with the human face – a picture of a man to the left is a good example. Shadows that appear gradually lend more depth (three-dimensional perspective) to the image. Another trick that lends liveliness to a picture is light falling on hair (see the image of a woman to the right).
2. Do you see emotion?
Clarity of faces are important, because you’ll want your photographer to record the exhilaration, tenderness, tears & happiness. Meet emotion – the stuff a wedding is really made of. Do you see genuine emotion on at least some of the photographs?
When people notice they are being photographed, they often try to hide their emotions. Replacing it with their best smile, they aim for a more flattering look. But the image loses some of its meaning.
When they are not looking at the camera, what expressions do you see in the eyes of the mother of the bride as she is giving her daughter a hug? How does the groom’s son look when seeing his dad at the ceremony? What are the bride and the groom silently promising each other with their eyes as they embrace each other? Do people’s eyes and faces look warm and inviting? Do they appear engaged because there are little reflections of light in their eyes (like in the picture of an older lady to the right)?
There is more than just luck involved in capturing emotion. Good photographers are keen observers who know when to look for an emotion. Maybe they will be on the lookout for a slightly awkward moment, after which friends usually reward each other with a bright smile. Maybe they will wait for the smile to run its course from the initial awkwardness and maybe confusion, to the mid-point which is its most photogenic part. Either way, their photographs will bear testament to that ability.
3. Flattering looks.
Although much of the posing – and certainly facial expressions – will be outside the photographer’s control, they should know what poses generally look flattering and be able to direct the couple, playfully and efficiently, to strike those poses.
– The biggest challenge for a photographer often has nothing at all to do with their skill in taking pictures – and everything to do with the fact that they are a stranger. A natural reaction to a stranger with a camera is guarded. The photographer never met anyone from the bridal party, but somehow he is expected to pick up on the dynamics between them, get everyone to relax, make them laugh and feel great about themselves – all the while directing them how to pose. Again, if he succeeds, you can clearly see it on the pictures.
– If there is one thing a photographer should get right, it’s to make the bride look flattering. Some angles make for unflattering looks. For example, brides standing in front of the camera, with the dress directly facing the camera, sometimes look unnecessarily wide. An experienced photographer would take a step to the side to improve the angle. (As a bride, help out your photographer. Always turn sideways to reduce the distraction. See here for more advice on looking more photogenic in front of a camera)
– Do the wrinkles of older people show a lot? Contrary to what you may think, it’s not at all inevitable. Photographs can make people look younger or older than their real age, and the amount and angle of light is what does it. Often simply re-positioning the person towards the light addresses the problem. Every possible wrinkle has to be filled with direct light.
Of course, you want a bit of a perfectionist photographer who can make your wedding pictures sing your love story. That may mean more assistants on site to manage light equipment, and a few re-takes to capture the best looks. That may mean higher cost of the services.
But we have to say, be careful what you wish for. If you also want to have a good day, that may mean letting a few less-than-perfect shots slide.
During the initial interview with the photographer, ask about their style and about how they work. Do they use assistants? Do they use second photographers? How many photographs they pose?
A great way to get to know a photographer is to schedule an engagement session with them. Check out our engagement photo shoot inspiration and guide.