Choosing A Photographer

Five tips for getting exactly the photographer you need

By Daphne Gray-Grant

You've recently returned from an important family birthday party and you've dropped your film off at the photo shop. When you return an hour later, you eagerly rip open the envelope and pull out your pictures. You groan. The lighting is too bright, important people are out of focus, and worst of all, the photos just don't "capture" the great time you had at the party. Now re-visualize this same scenario. But imagine your disappointment if you'd actually paid a photographer to take the shots - and they were still rotten.

As someone who's spent more than 25 years producing publications, I've had to oversee lots of photographers. Most of them have been pretty good and a few have been exceptional. But every once in awhile, I've encountered a dud. And that's really bad news if you have a one-time event like a wedding or anniversary celebration, where there are no second chances. So let my experience help you. Here are five tips to help you get exactly the photographer you need and deserve.

1) Get Recommendations

This is an old piece of advice, but it's an excellent one. Ask family, friends and business acquaintances for photographers they've used and have been happy with. If you draw a blank, then turn to the yellow pages or the Internet. But be sure to get references and FOLLOW UP whether by phone or email. You may be surprised (pleasantly or otherwise) at what you learn.

2) Examine The Photographer's Portfolio Carefully

Make sure you see lots of examples of the KINDS of shots you want. It might help to think about photography like music. You wouldn't hire Elvis Costello if you wanted a James Brown sound. They're both great musicians -- just different genres. Photographers, too, tend to specialize. Some are top notch with portraits; some are better at scenics; others excel at shooting products. Furthermore, some are best at formal shots while others shine with candids. Go with a photographer who specializes in the subject matter, and "look" youÕre seeking. You don't just want a "good" photographer; you want the one who is exactly right for you.

3) Don't Shop On Price Alone

Of course price is important. It's always important. But before you set your budget, get a realistic idea of the range in your city or town. This might mean getting quotes from as many as five different photographers. Just be sure the quotes are apples versus apples. (Specify number of photos, time involved, film or digital, proofs, reprint rights etc.). Then, don't go with the least expensive. Would you pick the cheapest brain surgeon? Would you pick the cheapest roofing contractor? (Well, you might. But you'd be wrong.) The "cheapest" of anything can easily end up being the most expensive if the results are poor.

4) Give Specific Examples

Of course, you're familiar with the old expression "a photo is worth a thousand words." Well, this applies double to photographers. Photographers are visual people, otherwise they wouldn't be in their line of work. Thus, it only makes sense to communicate with them visually. I frequently troll the web or flip through dozens of magazines looking for photographs I can use to convey to photographers exactly the kind of "look & feel" I want for a specific job. Giving sample photos to photographers amounts to talking "their language" and it is one of the single most effective things you can do to guarantee a good result.

5) Ask & Allow

Ask the photographer for explicit directions and allow the necessary time. Don't just tell the photographer what to do; ask him or her for advice. If it's a photo of you, ask about clothing, hair and makeup (yes, this applies to guys too.) Arrive on time or early and don't have a pressing appointment you have to rush off to. Good photography takes time; allow for it.

The principles for selecting a photographer should be similar to those you'd use for hiring a contractor to renovate your home: Get recommendations; know what you want; don't go with either the cheapest or the most expensive bid; and communicate clearly and thoughtfully.

Come to think of it, those are also excellent recommendations for any sort of relationship, including a marriage!

Daphne Gray-Grant offers practical advice on writing and editing for anyone who produces publications whether print or online. Sign up for her free weekly newsletter, Power Writing, at

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