Wedding Photos: Should You Hire a Pro or DIY?
Professional photography can take a bite out of your wedding budget, so many couples are tempted to go the DIY route. While it can help with the bottom line, it opens up a whole new avenue of special considerations and potential pitfalls. Here’s what to know before you decide to hire an amateur to capture your big day on camera.
Hiring the Right Person
"It's important for the bride and groom to have an open (dialogue) with the photographer about what they are hoping for," says Megan Marascalco of Megan Marascalco Photography in Oxford, Miss. You only have one chance to get it right, so strong communication is key to avoiding headaches and disappointments.
Above all, the person you hire needs to be prepared, yet think on the fly. "As a wedding photographer I not only capture the day as it unfolds, but I try to help in any way possible," Megan says. "Coordinating with the officiant, wedding planner, bride, etc., is an important part of the job. You have to be flexible and go with the flow of the day."
It's tempting to choose a family member or friend to shoot your special day. But think twice, says New York City photographer Tanya Malott, of Tanya Arianne Malott Photography. "Your pro is hired to observe, not participate," she says, adding that a friend or family member may get sidetracked by visiting with other guests. "If your guest or family friend isn't taking the job 100 percent seriously, then they will miss a lot of great stuff." Plus, the person taking the photos likely won't be in any of them. And if the photographer chooses to drink alcohol, their judgment — and the results — might slide.
Is a Pro Within Reach?
"Photographing a wedding is a huge commitment and responsibility for anyone, professional photographer or not," says Tanya. What's more, many well-established pros have big overhead costs built into their fee structure. But before you decide to use an amateur, she says, investigate your options. "A 'cheap' independent photographer has a lot less reputation to lose at a wedding, but they also have a lot of incentive to do a great job," she points out.
Look for photographers in a lower-priced market nearby, or consider flying in a less expensive pro. Art school students are another possibility, as is bartering your own talents. "Also, why not think of your photographer as a potential wedding gift?" Tanya says. "Tell the photographer you want to hire that you love what they do, but you can't afford it and want to split their fee into bite-sized certificates that family and friends could buy."
Making Your Day Easy to Shoot
If the DIY option is right for you, design your wedding to make it as easy as possible for an amateur to get quality photos. "If you know you are on a tight budget, then you should seriously think about the type of wedding you are planning from the outset," Tanya says. "Some weddings are more photogenic than others, and the more photogenic you make your wedding, the more 'photographers' you will naturally have — many guests will bring cameras — and the better their shots will be."
What tops her list for easier shooting? Great light, simple logistics and a naturally beautiful location. Sunset and evening events, weddings with black tie or other dark clothing, indoor or dimly lit locations, and locations with little character, such as hotel ballrooms, pose more of a challenge.
Although pros often bring tens of thousands of dollars' worth of equipment, an amateur has to work with limited tools. "Asking an amateur to shoot a wedding means they will have lower-quality equipment, and yet be required to perform with it at the highest level," Tanya says. At a minimum, she says, a photographer should use a camera that takes interchangeable lenses; Megan recommends a digital SLR (single-lens reflex) camera. Lenses and other gear can easily be rented, but Tanya emphasizes her No. 1 rule: Never try out new equipment the day of an event. The potential for disaster is just too big. Rent it ahead of time to allow for experimenting.
Make sure you have plenty of digital memory, Megan adds. "The size of the card and the number of cards needed will vary depending on the camera you are using and how much space each image takes up," she says. If you have a program such as Photoshop that can process them, shoot RAW images, which are a bit like digital negatives. "Even the best photographers make mistakes, and shooting in RAW can save an image," she says.
Plus: "This should be obvious, but bring backup for everything," Tanya says. "My best mechanical camera failed at my very first wedding in 1991. Fortunately, I had backup and shot the entire wedding on a camera I almost didn't bring with me!"
Lighting and Background
"I have probably said a thousand times, 'Background is at least 50 percent of any good photo,'" Tanya says. "Choose it wisely." Watch for bloopers like trees that appear to come out of people's heads, and think about what will be happening in the background of key shots, such as the first dance or the cake cutting.
The choice of background "really depends on the look you're going for," Megan says. "When photographing on location, bright colorful areas can make the image pop. Subdued colors and textures can be nice as well. Busy backgrounds could draw attention away from the bride and groom."
Also, "Be ready for the many different lighting scenarios that are present throughout the wedding day," Megan says. To avoid harsh lighting, especially for portraits, the photographer can add a flash, diffuse the light or move somewhere with softer lighting.
Tanya cautions that using a flash can be tricky for novices. "Flash basically works at one distance," she says. "When I see guests shooting from 20 feet away with a tiny pocket camera and flash, I usually tell them to get between five and eight feet (away) for the optimum picture."
"This is one area where people tend to underestimate the time needed," Megan says. She recommends that the photographer have a list to work from, and emphasizes that having everyone lined up and ready speeds the process. "It's a great idea to have a family member or friend who knows everyone help with the list and with making sure everyone is there that is needed," she says.
Tanya’s tips: Look for a spot with consistent lighting and a simple background away from guests, the band or other busy settings. "Get everyone to put their drinks and purses down," she says. "Most people don't think about what is in their hands and regret it later." Encourage people to crowd in close, and make them laugh (though not talk) to loosen up the shot.
She also suggests browsing magazines or sites such as Pinterest for group shots you like. "Print those out, and copy the groupings for your portraits," she says. "You will be amazed how much faster people get into position when you give them a visual clue."
Catching Candid Moments
"Knowing the flow of the day will help with capturing candids," Megan says. "Being able to capture a tear streaming down the mother's face or the groom's face as the bride walks down the aisle are examples of wonderful candids. A long lens, she adds, allows you to position yourself farther from subjects who might get self-conscious if they spot you snapping them at close range.
Tanya says her secret is to anticipate key moments and be in the right place with the right equipment when they happen. And always ask about planned surprises, she says: "Brides and grooms need to know it is OK to surprise your spouse or guests. It is not OK to surprise your photographer. You risk losing the shot."
Getting Guests Into the Action
Megan and Tanya both like photo booths to get guests involved in the pics. "People have a blast with photo booths," Megan says. "You can use fun props, fun backdrops and even come up with a personalized theme." Or, she says, ask the wedding planner or DJ to help coordinate a large group photo at the reception.
Tanya recommends the Wedding Snap app, which lets guests share iPhone and camera phone photos easily. "Many brides have a room full of guests taking pictures, but they never see the pictures. Or low-res images will only end up on Facebook, where you can't print them," she says.
Picks for Prints
Don't stint on prints, Megan advises. "People tend to be drawn to the discount prices at chain stores and pharmacies," she says. "Just remember that you get what you pay for." A photographer or a professional printing company may be costlier, but the payoff is quality prints you'll enjoy viewing for years.
And don't feel pressured to put together a wedding album right away if money is tight. "Better to have 10 quality shots you love than hundreds you hate," Tanya says. "If you can't afford the album right away, ask to do it later or, better yet, to buy the high-res files."
Tanya cautions that most album companies only work with professional photographers, so DIYing it can be tough. However, a few companies, such as Album Boutique, will accommodate amateurs. Tanya also suggests having a book created through consumer book company Blurb.