Wedding Photography 101

Martha Stewart Weddings, Spring 2009

Meeting the right photographer should feel as powerful as finding the perfect dress. "When I saw my photographer's website, it was like a chemical reaction. I thought, Wow. I want to see what she's going to do with my wedding," says Kate Headley, a Washington, D.C.-based wedding photographer herself.

It was the same for Krissy Payne, 29, a bride from Royal Oak, Michigan, who met with no less than 10 photographers in the Detroit area before deciding to hire one recommended by a good friend. For her as well, it all came down to chemistry. 

"When I sat down with her, we just kind of clicked," she says. "I liked her style, and I liked what she had to say. She said that when she got married, she had gotten so caught up in the artistic part that, when her mother passed away right after the wedding, she realized she didn't have a single photo of the two of them together. I just knew she got it personally."

The person you choose to be behind the lens on your big day will be at your side for the good, the unforeseen, and the deeply intimate -- like those last anxious moments before you walk down the aisle. So it pays to really do your research and locate a photographer whose temperament and artistic style are in line with yours. Here's how.

Zoom In on the Perfect Photographer
Many brides, like Payne, turn to friends for recommendations -- specifically those whose wedding photos wowed them. In that case, not only do you know you like the photographer's work, but personal connections may help snag a super-busy photographer. Another good place to start? Log on to sites such as marthastewartweddings.com, where you can find photographers by ZIP Code (using our vendor search) and read reviews, and WPPIonline.com, the online directory of Wedding and Portrait Photographers International. And once you've decided on a venue, the staff there will often provide leads on photographers who know -- and love to shoot -- their space.

Once you've found reputable shutterbugs in your area, home in on the photographic style you want. Today, you can find professionals who shoot everything from traditional formal images to more artistic photos to the latest trend -- nothing but spontaneous shots of your big day. That's a style often labeled as "photojournalism," but most photographers caution brides not to use the term lightly. "I think people think that photojournalism means 'nontraditional,' " says wedding photographer Headley. "I made that mistake at my wedding. I had said to myself, 'I only want a photojournalist,' but my photographer didn't pose anyone. There are no family photos of everyone together. Now I wish I'd done it differently." 

Headley's own style, in contrast, is more artistic. "I'm on a prop kick right now," she says. "I bought a ton of vintage minks and hats. I used an old-fashioned bicycle and a parasol. I do a lot of posing of the bride and groom." The bottom line: Ask for references, pore over previous weddings each photographer has shot, and sit tight until you see the kind of images that really speak to you.

Focus on the Details
Once you've met your snap-happy match, it's time to negotiate your package. While most brides don't want to scrimp on their visual memories -- as Payne puts it, "In the end, what you have left is your photos and your videos -- there are many ways to ensure that you get what you're after without paying for more than you need.

First, most photographers offer a range of options. For example, Darcy Hemley, a Los Angeles-based photographer and co-owner of Paperwhites Photography, offers three plans: "Our packages start at $3,600 and go all the way up to $7,000," she says. The factors influencing the cost include how many hours of coverage you want, ranging from six to 10, and what type of (or whether) an album is included, an expensive and potentially DIY-able extra. If your photographer doesn't offer a ready-made option that appeals to you, be sure to speak up: "The package can be whatever you want," says Hemley. "You can say, 'I want package No. 3, but with more hours.' It's important to hire someone who's going to work with you to meet your needs."

Especially if your wedding will take place at a distance. Hemley and her partner, Trina Rosen, frequently shoot destination weddings. In that case, the cost is factored into the bid (you will generally pay a travel fee as well as cover your photographer's travel and lodging costs), but a good photographer will meet you halfway: "We usually give someone a discount if they're flying us to Tahiti," says Hemley.

Another important number to note: how many images you can expect to receive in the end. Hemley and Rosen shoot 1,200 to 1,800 images per wedding, and Philippe Cheng, a high-end New York-based wedding photographer, averages about 1,500, though, he says, it's often dependent on the size of the celebration. A rule of thumb: "If you have a wedding with 125 people, I would say 900 pictures. With every 25 guests, you'd add another 100 pictures," says Cheng. Another important question he recommends asking: Is that magic number before or after edits -- i.e., will that photo of great-aunt Jean with food in her mouth count toward your final tally?

Finally, there are two key ways to save before signing on the dotted line: First, negotiate for the right to keep the negatives or digital CD (for a breakdown of the advantages and disadvantages of film and digital photography, see sidebar at right). "A lot of photographers don't give negatives back, or don't give a CD, or require you to pay extra," says Hemley. And having control of your images can ultimately save you big down the line: Otherwise, you may have to pay twice the price every time you reorder. Last but certainly not least, the wise bride barters: "The interesting thing I discovered was that you can negotiate," says Payne. "The first meeting is always, 'These are my rates.' Then I'd go back and say, 'Can you take anything out of the package?' As long as your approach is respectful, people are willing to bargain."

Once you've struck a deal, find out when you can expect your proofs -- typically it's two weeks to a month after the wedding. Then, get talking about the good stuff: what you want to capture on your big day.

Telegraph Your Vision
While photographers may be visual artists, the most successful collaborations between brides and their personal paparazz0 actually depend immensely on verbal understanding. "It's your wedding, ultimately," says Cheng, "and you need to be as clear as you can be." This involves everything from working with your photographer to establish a smooth flow of events to spelling out what you might consider the obvious on your shot list -- like a snap with your sisters.

First, inquire about pre-wedding meetings: How many times can you expect to meet? When can you do a walk-through with him to view the ceremony and reception sites, an event which typically takes place anywhere from a month to a week before the wedding? (Try to schedule your tour during the same time of day as when your wedding will be held, so that your photographer can get a sense of the light at that hour.) Note to the anxiety-prone: If a walk-through is impossible -- e.g., you're having a destination wedding -- don't worry. Most photographers are unfazed by new locations. "As an editorial and wedding photographer, I'm flown all over the world," says Hemley; she assures brides that being air-dropped into an unfamiliar venue doesn't affect her ability to take great photos.

During those meetings, you should fill your photographer in on your master plan. What Cheng tries to glean when he meets with a couple is what is most meaningful to them: details like, "This is the street where we first met." Or, "My great-grandparents are coming, and that's important to me."

Typically, most photographers request a wish list of shots you'd rather not live without, and this is one list to craft lovingly: "There's something totally underestimated about what it means to get married," says Cheng. "It's one of the few opportunities in which we can remind ourselves that something special is going on." This is your opportunity to tell the person documenting your event who (and what) is most special to you.

Be sure to discuss timing and the sequence of events. The more realistic you can be about how long things will take, the better your odds of getting amazing photos. "People will say, 'I'm going to take an hour to get ready, ' " Cheng says. "Well, nobody takes just an hour to get ready." Do your best to give yourself enough time for the pictures you really want. Cheng's hint: Allow five minutes per grouping. If it's a picture with, say, your mother, that's five. If there's a separate shot with your sister, that's another five. And so on. Do the math.

Another tip: If your photographer is working with an assistant or second photographer, discuss how they'll divide and conquer. Who will be there to photograph the bridal party getting ready -- and who will be responsible for stills of the flowers?

Finally, is your photographer planning to shoot in color, black-and-white, or both? Discuss which shots he believes lend themselves to which style. Or, are there any portraits you absolutely want to see one way or the other? The more details you can plan in advance, the happier you'll be in the end: "It comes down to communication. If we all did that well, we'd all have perfect marriages," says Cheng.

And after all, isn't that the ultimate goal?

Film vs. Digital
Has digital photography finally evolved enough to eclipse film? And what's better for your wedding? Different photographers give different answers, but most agree that there are times when each has an edge.

Black-and-white images: Go with film.
When shooting anything in black-and-white, "film has a kind of depth -- a different, beautiful feel to it," says Philippe Cheng. Darcy Hemley, who shoots film exclusively, agrees: "A lot of photographers who are more fine-art still shoot film. Many came from an arts background and believe in film. To my eye, [digital black-and-white prints] never look the same."

Color images: Go with digital.
"I work in a hybrid of film and digital," says Cheng. "But what you're able to do with high-end digital cameras is amazing. There's no reason to shoot color film."

Low Light: Go with digital.
"Digital color has tremendous latitude now," Cheng says. "You can shoot in a lot of situations where, before, it would have been difficult -- for example, if you're in a very low-light situation, say, under a tent. With digital, you're able to shoot in ways that are much more expansive."

Portraits: Go with either.
"I wouldn't photograph someone's bridal portraits with digital," says Hemley. "I find film more soft and subtle. ­Digital is more harsh and crisp." Kate Headley, however, appreciates film but shoots only in digital. "Film, I think, looks really beautiful," she says. "But with digital, you have more options. There are really cool things you can do these days. Digital editing. Special effects. I like to brighten the colors or make the photos look old."

How to Cut Costs
When it comes to your photography, there are plenty of ways to keep your bottom line in the black without sacrificing quality. Consider these budget-minded tips from professional photographers.

Be bold. If you really want a certain photographer but can't afford her, Darcy Hemley suggests saying, "I don't want to offend you, but is there any way we could get a discount? You're the one we love, but we're having a hard time with the price."

Do it yourself. "Most albums start at $1,200," says Hemley. "If you're the least bit creative, order the prints and make it on your own."

Go "green." Give a young photographer -- who will do the job for a fraction of the price -- his big break: "There are lots and lots of great young photographers out there, dare I say," quips veteran lensman Philippe Cheng.

Think digital. Going digital all or partway will likely save you some. Ask your photographer about options.

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Behind the Shot: Capturing the Couple in Love
The photographer: "There is always a whirl of activity, and with the crowd, it can be hard to focus on the couple. This was about meeting the challenge to make images that give the viewer a sense of the ceremony's ambience, the intimacy and emotion." -- Philippe Cheng

The bride: "We were having the time of our life when this photo was taken. Swaying our hips to Bob Marley's 'One Love,' we cut our beautiful wedding cake and entered our own little world." -- Sophie Derrickson

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Behind the Shot: Capturing the Perfect Group Photo
The photographer: "I had already taken a group shot of the wedding party, but it was too traditional for me -- all of them in a row, perfectly lined up. When they started moving to the stairs, I thought it would make for a much more free-spirited photo. Getting everyone's face in took a few minutesit's like a puzzle." Kate Headley

The bride: "It's one of those pictures I wasn't sure would turn out, because there are so many of us! I was so pleased with the outcome. Everyone in the photo is very special to us, from our nieces and nephew to other family and friends. Looking at this makes me really treasure the day." Sonya Funna

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Behind the Shot: Capturing the Spontaneous Moments
The photographer: "There was a great deal of love and emotion that afternoon, especially right after the ceremony. Not only were two people getting married, but two families were becoming one. We look for laughter or moments that are organic and uncontrived. We usually like to position ourselves at eye level and in close proximity to the guests. That lets us take the image from the perspective of someone who's in the moment." -- Darcy Hemley

How to Pose
Good news: You can learn to be photogenic. Ivan Bart, senior vice president of IMG Models, shares insider tricks for putting your best face forward.

Find your best side. "Many women have difficulty studying themselves in the mirror, but you need to get comfortable with it," says Bart. You'll know you've succeeded when you find the angle that makes you feel "glittering." And that feeling, he says, "is just what the camera is going to reflect."

Lift your chin. Afraid of the double chin? Here's Bart's fail-proof formula: 1) Lengthen your neck. 2) Stick your chin out a bit. 3) Look more down than up. "It will give you a longer neck, and you'll appear thinner," he says.

Look at the camera. The best place to be looking is right into the lens. "It's going to help you look very present."

Don't fear the light. Most photographers love to shoot in natural light; the downside is that bright sun can cause squinting. His tip? Blink a few times, then start fresh. "Remember, this is your day. Ask the photographer to take a break if you feel the need."

Adopt a signature pose. Nearly every bride has some body part she'd like to play up -- or hide. Find a celeb with a similar body type and copy her red-carpet pose. After all, looking good for the camera is how she makes a living.

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