Professional Photography Alternatives

This week a reader emailed me and pointed out that a lot of the weddings I feature have gorgeous professional photography, and that I have a lot of photographers as sponsors. This is true. I admit to being a sucker for beautiful photography, and having a soft spot in my heart for indie photographers as wedding elves*. However, writing with a eye to the practical, I’m well aware that not every couple can afford, or wants to pay for, pro-photography. Lots of the weddings that I’ve featured have gotten photography for free, from a pro or semi-pro friend or family member, and I think that’s great. In fact, inevitably, some of the coolest weddings I receive are ones where a pro-photographer shot their best friends wedding for free – like Ember and Ben, or Kate and Colemine. That said, not everyone had a talented photographer friend. So! I can only blog about weddings people send me, so I would love for readers to email me weddings where the pictures were taken by family and friends, and stories of not using a professional photographer, and other tales of photo mischief.

When I asked for stories about affordable wedding dresses, you all blew me out of the water, and we ended up with the tale of the great wedding dress hack. So, team practical, what have you got in the way of photography hacks? Email me your stories, and leave your tips in the comments.

*Full disclosure: before I found a pack of indie photographers, I was in photographer hell. I’ve gone to weddings that were ruined with a photographer screaming orders “Cut the cake now! Kiss the bride!” I’ve interviewed photographers that came complete with scary generic shot lists. This is why I have been so excited to find photographers of the wedding elf breed.

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  • Polaroids! I’m entrusting friend with my Polaroid and a suitcase full of film. They’re not professional by any means, but they have an eye for art and composition. Buying 600 exposures of polaroid film was less than half as much as an art student.

    I also have plenty of relatives with nice cameras. They’ve been there my entire life with those things going off and I don’t think my wedding should be any different. :]

  • I am saving money as I am a bit of a photoshop guru and can do some special things with them. So we’re just gonna have a bunch of untouched pictures that I’ll work on myself.

  • I am paying my amazing friend a not-very-large sum to photograph my wedding. She is working as a barista right now, but we met in art school where she studied photography, and it is still something she does on the side and hopes, one day, to make a career of. I have had a couple of her photos framed on my wall for years, and when I got engaged, I knew I wanted her to take the photos. When I was in my MOH’s wedding several years ago (a very rushed event planning-wise, since her MIL was dying), the only photography still available was insane and made everyone “meow” instead of “say cheese.” I did NOT want that at my wedding.

    I know some people say that asking a friend to photograph feels unfair, since the friend isn’t a guest then, and can’t really enjoy it, but what my friend told me is that she sees the world best through her camera; this is who she is, and even if I hadn’t enlisted her, she would be snapping photos most of the time. I’m just using this quality to my advantage!

    People constantly ask if I’m worried how the pics will turn out. It’s one element they just cannot wrap their heads around. To appease my mom, we did get professional engagement photos, and I am glad we did that, but what I am so looking forward to in my wedding photos is the fact that all of them will be from the POV of my very good friend.

  • I hired a really good friend of mine – but he insisted that if I had to pay him to reimburse him for the rental of a very nice camera. The photos turned out gorgeous and since he knew us, it made the whole experience that much better. Best $105 I’ve ever spent.

  • Susan

    We’re having a friend who is just starting out. Then we’ll pick a few we would like to frame and display, and pay a SF photog we love but could never, ever afford to do the editing. $30 dollars a picture. I think of that great picture of JFK jr and Caroline Bessette coming out of the church and think if we had one amazing shot of the two of us looking incredibly happy and in love that would be enough. My goal is one great professional artistic picture of just us, then an album full of decent documentation of the day and maybe a few gems.

  • I was at my best friend/college roommate’s house for Thanksgiving, and her sister was getting married over Christmas. They were having a friend take their pictures, but last minute he couldn’t come. My roommate says to them- Janna takes great pictures- meaning, I had a camera, took photography in high school, and took reasonable pictures. Suddenly I was shooting a wedding. It was an enormous amount of fun, and though the pictures did not turn out perfectly or epicly, they loved their pictures. The greatest part of this story for me is that the couple started a professional photography business a few years ago- and their pictures are beautiful. I’m getting married next summer, and since I did their wedding for free (and because they are now close friends), they are shooting my pictures for free. I think I’m getting the better end of the deal.

  • I have two stories of friends to share.

    One friend, who is a bit older (she’s been married a little over 15 years) opted to have a friend take photos, then she chose to frame just a few VERY nice pictures. She knew she’d never look at an album again, so she chose not to hire a photographer (which she did at the advice of a locally reknowned photographer, believe it or not!).

    The other friend hired a high school photography teacher. For $500 (or somewhere therabouts) she got some very nice shots, nothing too artistic, but very nice pictures. The teacher does not normally do weddings, but she was a friend of my friend’s mom, so she agreed to do it.

    Very practical!

  • i did hire a pro photographer (being a pro photographer myself, i felt comforted by having someone whose sole responsibility it was to make sure he was taking great pictures all day), but i also had a close friend from photography school act as a 2nd shooter (i would have asked him to shoot the wedding, but he’s not into the whole posed portraits thing, and i knew i wanted at least SOME of those), had another friend who’s working on a year-long polaroid project shoot polaroids all day.

    but here’s the best idea i can pass on to others: i set up a new flickr account where all wedding guests who brought cameras could upload their photos. we ended up with 500 pictures from many different perspectives, and unlike leaving disposable cameras for the guests, this didn’t cost us a dime!

  • I must point out that Kate and Coalmine did NOT get their photographer (me) for free. Not hardly my dear! I'm sorry to be a downer… but since this is my job, I can't afford to work for free. It can be a little sticky when a friend or cousin invites me to their wedding, because I kind of have to say, well, I'll come if I don't get hired for a job that weekend… especially during the busy season.

    Obviously there are exceptions to this rule, but with Kate and Coalmine, they planned their wedding two years in advance, knew that they wanted me, and were married on 4th of July weekend, so keeping it all professional with contracts and payment definitely made it possible for me to be there.

    I do definitely discount my fees for friends and family, but the only people I'll do it for free anymore are my immediate family (or maybe if a friend eloped or got married in a small wedding off season). Basically, to work most weekends May-October, I need to make a minimum amount, and I will gladly tell my friends that.
    Most of my loved ones, when they get engaged, tell me they want to hire me right away, and they work something out. Often they say, "but we want you to have fun, too", which I do – I love my job – but I never stop working (or at least not until late in the night!).

    Years ago, I was invited to a few weddings where it became clear as the day progressed that they sort of counted on me to just show up with my camera and be the photographer, without making those expectations clear to me beforehand. That was kind of a bummer. I have also been invited to weddings where they had no expectations of me, and I had fun just snapping away a few random, artsy shots and giving them to the B&G; as their wedding gift – it makes a big difference when there's no pressure and I really can relax and have fun! :)

    Anyway, on to the useful advice: I started out by just bringing a camera to a friend's wedding and getting some shots that I loved. I then started advertising on Craig's List for very cheap, and built my portfolio that way.

    So I guess the moral of my long comment is that, if you have lots of artistic friends, put the word out to all of them that you'd love for one or a few of them to take some fun photos throughout the day, whether for free, as their gift to you, or for a small payment. When some of my first friends to get married had their wedding (the bride being a photographer), they asked their photo friends to bring their cameras, supplied more cameras and tons of film, and paid for all of the processing. They ended up with a lot of different styles, which was pretty cool. Definitely look on Craig's List and ask at art schools if you're willing to take a risk on an inexperienced photographer – you can get some great deals and unique, artsy perspectives that way! If you have a skill, ask some photographers whose work you like if they would be interested in trading (massage, PR, web design, etc). And Polaroids are definitely a fun way to go! Just be sure to scan them in shortly after the wedding (since they'll only last a couple of decades maybe without fading).

    Finally (sorry about the length! maybe you need a discussion forum, Meg?), for my own wedding, we pseudo-eloped at SF City Hall, then had a really mellow BBQ in a park 5 months later with 200 of our loved ones. I knew I wouldn't want to be taking photos all day, so I set up a little self portrait area and asked everyone to take their own photos. So, while I am a little sad I didn't get a shot of the 200 cupcakes we made, I have some hilarious, awesome photos of our friends and family acting like their true selves… So fun!

  • Julie B

    We got married on the beach. The total cost of our wedding was just under $8k. Our photographer was included as part of a package that we purchased from the hotel that was base for our wedding and reception. Luckily, there were some back ups, because the “hired” photographer was crap.

    We hired, for $100, a girl that was working for my mom part time. she took about 20 rolls of film over the weekend… We got lots of great pictures from the rehearsal dinner and the recpetion.

    Though, I have to say that my absolute favorite pictures came from one of my bridesmaids’ boyfriend. I never noticed the whole weekend that he had a camera in his hand.

    We also printed business cards with our address and email address on them, with the request for anyone to mail us hard copies or email digitals of any pictures they took that we might like. We received several hundred pics from friends that way.

    It is so nice to have turned out with so many wonderful pictures, and the photography was such a small part of our budget!

  • The worst wedding my dad and I ever shot was on Valentines Day, the liquor was flowing, and the bride and groom used disposable cameras as centerpieces. A drunken woman followed us around taking photos of us while we tried to do our job because “No one ever takes pictures of you guys.” I’m sure that idea could work for other people, just keep in mind you’ll get a lot of interesting photos as the night progresses, especially if there’s an open bar!

    I’m all for not having a professional photographer, though I think when I finally get married the bigger part of my budget will be for a good professional photographer (and I assume my dad will want to go over the portfolio with a magnifying glass!). I wish my dad could do it, and I’m sure he’ll be taking pictures at the reception, but I’d rather have him walk me down the aisle. He’ll probably feel more comfortable taking pictures anyway.

  • Couples that value the quality of professional photography yet don’t have the budget for it might consider hiring someone the day of your wedding just for portraits, leaving friends/family/pro-bono student photogs to cover the rest of the event.

    If your wedding day is only a few months out and a photographer isn’t booked, they will often consider taking on an alternative arrangement at a discounted rate. You may not get your favorite photographer, but you can rest assured that you’ll have frame-worthy professional quality portraits of you and your partner looking your best. One less thing to worry about!

  • sue

    We are having a very small budget wedding (30 people) and the cost of a professional photographer is actually our full budget so that is definitely not going to happen. Luckily I have an old family friend who takes amazing artistic portraits so she is in charge of the main photos of us two during the ceremony and a bit after.

    I am also obsessed with documentary style photography displaying genuine emotion and events as opposed to staged group shots. Luckily my brother and brother-in-law-to-be, while both engineers, are incredibly skilled with a camera and actually own excellent cameras too, so they will be taking snaps all day. And for some whimsy, children always seem to have an interesting view of the world, so our three 8-12yr old cousins who are too old for the kids ‘activity packs’ that my younger nieces/cousins will be getting, will be armed with disposable cameras.

    We are also hoping that guests will either email or post their digital photos too. Hopefully the responsibility will be shared so everyone can have fun, as well as limiting the disposables so as not to end up with a situation that Skatej described. The cost will only be in the printing and making photo albums.

  • Cyd

    I have to admit that our photographer is likely to be our only true vendor so I myself have opted out of seeking an alternative to professional photography (it’s purely because I’m a photography snob whereas I could really give a hoot about a big fancy cake), but my stepsister was married this summer and opted out of paying for a photographer by having a good friend who is in graduate school for visual media/photography take over the reins. I also showed up with a fresh memory card and worked on taking lots of photos I wasn’t sure he’d had time to grab and she ended up with hundreds of great photos to last a lifetime. It worked out perfectly!

  • This is very timely, as I’ve been thinking a lot about this and I just blogged about it! We’ll just be asking friends to bring their cameras and I’m sure we’ll get some nice shots. The idea that a wedding should be covered as though it is an historical event is a bit odd to me!

  • I think for ladies who are in the beginning stages of their wedding planning, they should try really, really, REALLY hard not to get sucked into the wedding porn black hole. It’s a dangerous game – trust. When I first started planning, I would frequent a blog where the brides were…not so practical. Anyway, I got obsessed by the crisp, bright colours and oh-so-beautiful pictures, but in my world, a big budget photographer was not to be. I put my thinking cap (back) on and decided to find a budget photographer. I did google searches and stalked wedding chat forums and found my seriously budget photographer. She’s just starting out and bills herself as a budget photographer. I realized that while I would love to have a bajillion photos of my honey and I looking perfect and in love, , I will be perfectly happy with about a handful of great shots that captures the whole day. That and knowing all my friends and my very talented FSIL will be snapping as well, helps me to sleep easier at night now.

  • My future sister in law agreed to take photos. She’s a marine biology student, but photography is a serious hobby. I didn’t want to ask her, since I thought she should be a guest first, but my fiance was confident she’d be in to it, and lo and behold- she was.

    It’s WAY too easy to get sucked into the world of picture-perfect everything. Really, I’d rarely look through a wedding album. If I just have a few nice shots to frame, I’ll be satisfied. I’ll also put up a communal flickr account for all of my shutter-happy friends to post to.