Hiring a Photographer: A Comprehensive Guide For Consumers

If you’re in the market for a professional photographer, it can be a bit daunting sifting through various websites and portfolios looking for just the right one. Maybe it’s your first time booking a photography session, maybe you’re looking for something better than last time, or maybe you just want to try out another photographer for a different style or type of photography. As a consumer, you might not understand what makes each photographer and their service unique, and what everything means. A little bit of a thought process should be made before deciding, as professional photography can be a highly customized service. I’ve put together a comprehensive guide to help you make the best decision in hiring a photographer.

 

 

 

Business Model

There are various business models a photographer may use. Two common models today are a “full-service” photographer and an “all-inclusive” photographer. You will want to consider the type of service and product that you want from your photographer when making your choice. Also consider that there are variations of these business models. It never hurts to ask a photographer what exactly they provide as a service and how the process works. Making the choice will be largely based on personal preference and what your end goal is for why you are hiring a photographer.

Full-Service: A full-service photographer will provide a high-touch, personalized service; usually including a planning consultation, session, and ordering appointment. This type of photographer will focus on prints, albums, and other products ordered through professional vendors for the best quality. Products made this way are meant to be archival quality, or to last a long time without changing appearance.  This business model is designed for those looking for a start-to-finish personalized experience and printed items. Quality over quantity is a major factor. The price will generally be a bit higher for this level of service as the photographer is giving more attention to each client unlike a high-volume studio. The end goal is typically prints to display, so the photographer is usually well-versed in the printing industry as well.

All-Inclusive: An all-inclusive business model (also commonly called “shoot and share” or “shoot and burn”) is where the photographer has a set price for a session and the digital images together. Digital files are delivered to the client to print themselves. This is a low-touch, high-volume service, usually with a lower price to match. While usually quicker and sometimes less expensive, there are downsides: A) Consumers do not have access to the highest quality print vendors or the know-how on making prints properly, B) It can be easy to put off or forget to make prints, C) There is a higher statistical chance of digital media becoming lost or corrupt than there is of losing printed media, and D) The photographer may not be shooting or editing with the finished print in mind, and thus may not have the same consideration for technical aspects such as cropping and color. When choosing this type of service, you may need to do more research to determine the photographer’s skill level or experience, as this business model has a higher concentration of new or amateur photographers due to the ease of entry.

When deciding between a full-service photographer and an all-inclusive photographer, you will have to determine what level of service and quality you are looking for.  Keep in mind: A more experienced or talented photographer who is operating their business legally and professionally will demand a higher price, no matter which business model they use.

A professional album designed by the photographer.

A professional album designed by the photographer.

 

Specialty

An often-overlooked factor is what a photographer specializes in. Some photographers are very exclusive in the subject matter that they photograph, while others photograph a few or several genres. Each genre and subject will require different skill sets and equipment. Specialties may include weddings, families, newborns, events, high school seniors, sports, and fashion, boudoir, children, product, etc. If the photographer you are looking at exclusively photographs sports games, they may not be equipped for studio newborn photography.  A product photographer may not have the quick-thinking skills it takes to capture weddings.  A photographer may not necessarily specialize or limit themselves to only one genre, but they may say no to certain genres that they do not feel equipped for or experienced in, or don’t particularly enjoy. Look for a photographer who regularly photographs the type of session you are intending to hire them for.

Product photography and outdoor portrait photography require different equipment and skill sets.

Product photography and outdoor portrait photography require different equipment and skill sets.

 

Style

When researching photographers, you must consider their photographing and editing style. The beauty of having a wide array of choices is that every photographer will have a slightly different artistic style. Your choice will largely depend on what you are drawn to and can see yourself displaying in your home.

Photographing style: Some photographers shoot traditional studio portraits with professional lighting equipment and backdrops, while other photographers shoot natural light portraits outdoors. A photographer’s creative photographing style may range from very posed to very candid, a mix of both, or somewhere in between. Posed, which is more directed and set up by the photographer, is often called “traditional” photography. Candid and un-posed, which captures natural interaction,  is often referred to as “lifestyle” or “documentary” photography.  Some photographers will exclusively shoot in one or the other style, while others will provide somewhat of a mix of posed, directed, and candid shots during the session.

Lifestyle/less posing versus a more traditional pose.

Lifestyle/less posing versus a more traditional pose.

Editing style: When looking through portfolios, you’ll probably also notice different editing styles. Photos can look dark and moody, bold and colorful, light and airy, or clean and crisp. Often a photographer will stick primarily with one typical editing style, and their portfolio will reflect this. Each photographer will provide a different level of editing and retouching as well- some prefer to keep the photo very natural to real life with very little editing or retouching, while others will edit in a very stylistic manner, and others will edit somewhere in between.

As a general rule, the photos you receive when hiring a particular photographer will look similar in style to the photos they are advertising in their portfolio.  It is best to choose a photographer who shows a consistent shooting and editing style that you love, because they likely won’t be willing to alter their style just for you.

 

Quality

Besides the varying styles you can choose from, you will also want to look at the quality of the photos that the photographer produces. Looking at an online portfolio you will be limited somewhat due to the type and size of monitor (or mobile device) you are viewing them on, so while it may not give you the absolute best representation of the quality, it should at least give you a general idea. A visually oriented person might have an easier time picking out good quality vs. bad quality, while for most individuals, this can be hard. The subject matter may even influence your perception of whether or not an image is good (i.e. most people will love a photo of a smiling child regardless of the actual technical quality of the photograph). Try to look objectively at the photographer’s technical abilities.

 

What to look for in a photographer’s portfolio:

  • Focus: The photos look sharp, crisp, and in focus. This means the subject, especially eyes and other facial features, should stand out as the sharpest portion of the photo and not appear blurry. Often the subject of the photo will be sharper while background may be softer. A poorly focused image will look bad in print. (*Your monitor or device resolution may cause photos to look blurry.)
  • Exposure: The photographer’s use of light. Exposure is one of the most basic aspects of photography. Generally speaking, the lighting should not be too dark (underexposed) or washed out (overexposed).  Lighting should be even yet still have good contrast between light and dark. A photo with uneven light, harsh shadows, or “dappled” lighting is generally considered poor quality. Skin tones of the subjects should be bright enough to stand out yet still retain some texture and contour. (*Your monitor brightness setting may affect how you are seeing the photos; try turning your device brightness down to 50% for a more accurate view.)
  • Color: Skin tones should look true-to-life, and the colors of the photos should not be oversaturated (i.e.blue tones in objects that are supposed to be white, extremely orange skin, a purple tint to brown hair, or neon-green grass and trees). Color, however, may be difficult to judge if you are viewing on a phone screen, or on a non-calibrated computer monitor.
  • Composition: How the subject and surrounding elements are arranged in the photo. Composition is largely subjective, but you should watch for issues such as crooked horizon lines, photos cropped at the subjects’ joints, or distracting objects in the background.
  • Editing quality: This is more so related to the photographer’s artistic style, but you should look for the overall finished look of the colors, tone, and contrast to appear fairly natural. Be especially wary of extreme high contrast, overly saturated colors, or editing that appears over-done. Consistency is key; the photographer’s editing style and quality should be apparent across several sets of photos.
The image on the left is an extreme example of being out of focus, but look for well-focused images such as the one on the right where the eyes are the sharpest part of the photo.

The image on the left is an extreme example of being out of focus, but look for well-focused images such as the one on the right where the eyes are the sharpest part of the photo.

 

Experience and Education

Photographers shouldn’t buy a camera and jump into business right away. Attaining a level of both technical and artistic competency requires discipline, whether in a classroom setting or by self-study and practice. Looking for a photographer who clearly has at least a few years of experience working in the field, as well as some sort of education in photography, can help ensure better results from your session. Their portfolio should reflect a variety of photos taken in different types of settings to be assured that they can capture photos no matter when and where your session takes place.

 

Professionalism

An important factor to consider when forging a business relationship with a photographer is their professionalism and how they conduct business.

  • Legal: Every business, large or small, is required to be registered with the state and paying taxes. Each state will have different requirements for business permits or licenses.
  • Insured: The photographer should also carry a business insurance policy to protect them in the unlikely event of injury or damages.
  • Contract: While not a requirement, having a contract is a good idea. Photography is a custom service, so spelling out expectations in writing helps prevent misunderstandings.
  • Professional-grade equipment: Certain types of cameras and lenses will produce better quality images depending on the situation. You may not be able to tell the difference, but some photographers will readily volunteer up the fact that they use pro gear.
  • Backups: It is only smart for photographers to carry backup camera gear in the case of a malfunction. It is also very important that they take measures to store image files in multiple locations to prevent loss in the case of a disaster or hard drive crash.

Because there isn’t a required degree or test to start up a creative business (like there is for a doctor or lawyer, for instance), being legal and insured is a good indication that the photographer takes their job and their clients seriously. Often when there is a large disparity in price from one photographer to the next, it’s because only one of them is operating professionally, and pays the added behind-the-scenes expenses.

A professional comes equipped with the best gear for the job.

A professional comes equipped with the best gear for the job.

 

Connection

You’re hiring a photographer to capture your important life events, so you should feel good about working with them. Communication and connections should come naturally. Prompt response to your inquiry shows they are interested in gaining your business, and using professional discourse in calls, emails, social media, or their website is important. Being able to answer your questions with confidence shows they have a strong business sense and are confident in what they do. They should make you feel comfortable and welcome!

 

Cost

All in all, the last determining factor should be the cost. All photographers will charge different prices and run their business differently, as portrait and wedding photography is a very customized service. Generally speaking, you will get what you pay for. One can use the analogy of going to a fast-food burger joint vs. a fancy steakhouse- quality and a good experience comes with a higher price. Photographers, like any small business, must charge adequately to make up for the costs of doing business (thousands of dollars per year) plus make a profit so that they may continue to stay in business. After all, a photographer is providing an artistic service, which is a luxury.

 

When making your choice, you will have to weigh the options between cost, quality, and service when choosing a photographer.

 

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