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Four Tips For Hiring A Non-Professional Wedding Photographer

(And Living To Tell The Tale)

If you pay attention to the sponsored posts we run each week, you’ve probably already figured out that this site values photography. Meg has written extensively about choosing her own wedding photographers, and we even have two wedding photographers on staff. Which means that most of the conversations we have on this site are about how to choose the photographer whose aesthetic speaks to you. But let’s be real. Not every wedding budget includes a few thousand dollars to plunk down on photos, and not everyone has wedding photography at the top of their planning priorities list to begin with (which I’m pretty sure I’m never supposed to admit as a wedding photographer, but whatever, I live dangerously). So let me start by saying that it’s totally okay if all you’re looking for is a photographer who knows their way around a camera and is going to produce an accurate representation of the day. And maybe a little art too, if that’s your thing.

Most wedding and photography websites are going to tell you that you really should be hiring a professional wedding photographer. And while, yes, there are definitely more guarantees with a professional wedding photographer, that knowledge isn’t going to make an additional two thousand dollars appear in your bank account tomorrow. So instead of telling you all the reasons you should hire a professional wedding photographer, we thought it might be a little bit more helpful if we helped you guys navigate how to go about making the most of your decision and avoid the potential (but not guaranteed) trouble that can come with hiring a non-pro. Starting with:

Sign A Contract

In a lot of scenarios, the person you’re hiring for your wedding photography is probably someone you know already. Maybe it’s that old friend from college who’s always had a passion for photography, or maybe it’s your retired wedding photographer uncle who’s dusting off his camera for one day and gifting you with his skills. Whatever the situation, and no matter how well you know the person, sign a contract. Yup, even if it’s for free. Actually, especially if it’s free. Setting expectations up front is going to ensure that everyone knows what is expected from them in the arrangement, and will prevent uncomfortable situations in the future. I know it can be uncomfortable making a friend sign a contract when they are doing you a favor (friendor contracts are the prenups of wedding services, amiright?), but it’s way less painful than having to have a difficult conversation six months down the road about why you haven’t seen your wedding photos yet. Moreover, signing a contract will help set expectations in advance for how that person is going to act on the day-of. If it’s a family member, are they expected to be working the whole day? Or is it okay if they have a few drinks with dinner and quit at 8pm to dance with family?

Do A Test Run

If you’re hiring a non-professional wedding photographer, chances are they are still good at taking photos, even if they aren’t making a living off of it. But weddings present a lot of varied lighting conditions that can surprise even the most skilled of photographers (I’ve been doing this full time for three years and some venues still give me a run for my money). The best thing you can do if you’re really invested in your wedding photos but don’t have a ton of money to spend is to invest in your photographer’s skill. Have them do an engagement session with you in lighting conditions that are similar to your venue, and try out different lighting conditions to see how they deal with change from location to location. When you’re just starting your photographer career, there are limited opportunities to practice in these conditions with real people, so the more opportunities you can give your photographer to make mistakes and learn from them before the wedding, the better your photos will be.

Invest In Your Photographer (If You Can)

Better equipment can go a long way toward helping entry-level photographers take better photos. If there’s any extra room in your photography budget, think about offering to rent equipment for your photographer. Most non-professional photographers don’t have the money to invest in a ton of equipment or backups, and when you’re starting out and offering to do weddings for friends you’re mostly just trying to not lose any money in the deal (the first few weddings I did each put me a few hundred bucks in the hole). A three-day rental for a professional level setup can be as little as $200 from places like Adorama or Borrowlenses.com and can give you the peace of mind that if something breaks during the wedding, your photographer will have a backup. (Which reminds me: refer back to the section on contracts and make sure to talk about who is responsible if something breaks. Places like Borrowlenses.com have insurance options that you can just add to your order, which significantly reduces the amount someone will have to pay if an item breaks or gets stolen.)

Ask Them To Shoot RAW

If you happen to have hired a non-professional photographer who has the skill of Annie Liebowitz, but doesn’t normally shoot weddings and has made an exception for you because they love you, then go buy yourself a lottery ticket because you’ve found a wedding unicorn. But a more likely chance is that you’re working with someone who normally identifies as a hobbyist, but maybe is looking to break into weddings. (Which, thank you. All professionals have to start by building their portfolios, and it’s often only through the trust of couples like you that they are able to.) As photographers learn their craft and build their portfolios, they add new skills with each experience. Shooting RAW is usually one of the skills that comes later in the game, because it requires special editing software to work with RAW files.

I won’t get into the nitty-gritty of what RAW files are unless you ask, because boring, but I’d liken it to the difference between getting your oil changed at Jiffy Lube and changing the oil on your car yourself. Changing your oil isn’t actually hard, exactly, but you have to know a certain amount about cars and have certain tools to be able to even figure out where your oil pan is to begin with, let alone get to the part where you change it. Knowing what to do with RAW files is sort of like that.

RAW files offer a whole lot more control over your images, and more importantly, they give you a much better chance at fixing something after the fact than JPEGs do. Even in my professional wedding experiences, I’ve occasionally had situations where my flash didn’t fire during the first dance, or I metered incorrectly and overexposed or underexposed a photo and RAW files let me fix those things in a way that’s way less noticeable than JPEG. So ask if your photographer will shoot RAW for your wedding. That said, because editing RAW files can be tricky, especially when you’re just getting started as a photographer, I’d give yourself an extra safety net and ask your photographer to shoot RAW with JPEGs as a backup—it’s a simple switch in the camera’s menu. That way you get both finished images straight out of the camera, and the safety net of an editable image just in case those don’t come out the way you want them to. A few things to keep in mind if your photographer is shooting RAW:

  • RAW files take up a lot more memory space. Check to see if your photographer has enough memory cards to shoot RAW and JPEG at the same time, and if they don’t, consider buying a few extras. You don’t want to end up in a situation where your photographer is deleting photos as they go, or where they run out of space halfway through the reception.
  • This next tip is a hot button tip in the wedding industry, but like I said, I live dangerously. During the contract-signing phase, ask your photographer if they will give you the RAW images to keep, and get it in writing if they do. Particularly if your photographer is a friend or family member and their portfolio is less developed, having the RAW files gives you the option to not only edit the photos at a later date, but to even hire a professional editing service to pretty them up for you (Colorati and Fotofafa are two of the more popular ones in the wedding industry). Editing can do a lot for images. Sometimes the difference between an okay photo and a good one is as simple as a good crop and other times a photo requires more nuanced editing. It’s much easier to ask in advance than when you get back the finished images and have to tell your Uncle Ned you’re not in love with the filter he used on the photos.

Most wedding and photography websites will try to convince you that hiring a non-professional is a recipe for disaster. And while sometimes that’s true (and I wish and pray it doesn’t happen to you), hiring a non-professional wedding photographer can be a great exchange. It can mean getting professional-looking wedding photos at a price you can afford while also helping emerging artists to build their portfolios. But like anything else, sometimes the best defense is a good offense. Unless you managed to snag that wedding unicorn I mentioned above. In which case, all bets are off and I want your life.

How To Choose A Wedding Photographer: Part I

How To Choose A Wedding Photographer: Part II

How To Choose A Wedding Photographer: Part III

How To Avoid Photo Fatigue At Your Wedding

Photo: Emily Takes Photos

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