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HOW TO FIND YOUR IDEAL WEDDING PHOTOJOURNALIST

How do you find the ideal person to document your wedding?

Just as there is a skill to taking memorable pictures, there is also a know-how to choosing the person you want to take them. How you conduct your search for a wedding photojournalist can make a big difference in ensuring that you’re more than pleased with your photographic experience on the big day, as well as with the moments and memories captured in pictures.

For tips on how to best conduct your search, we’ve spoken to three of the WPJA’s past Photographers of the Year (POY). These acclaimed pros are all at the top of their game and obviously know their stuff. They’ve provided us with their advice on getting a sense of style and shooting philosophy, what questions to ask, logistical considerations, how to judge who is a solid wedding photojournalist and more.

START WITH THE WPJA

Wedding photojournalism has become quite the buzz phrase in many circles within the wedding industry, and a great many photographers these days call themselves wedding photojournalists though neither their portfolios, nor their talent attest to such status.

Portrait Photograph of Gary Allen, North Carolina

Portrait of Gary Allen

For that reason, a good place to start in your selection of a bonafide wedding photojournalist is at the WPJA’s Web site. Its members are screened and pre-qualified in that they are accepted by the organization as accomplished wedding photojournalists. In fact, only a fraction of those who apply to the WPJA are granted membership.

You can then narrow the field even further by focusing in on those who work primarily in your state or region. Then you may wish to proceed by looking at the various service icons and starting prices next to the photographer’s names. And be sure to consider the added recognition that is automatically attached to the photographers’ awards, signified by the gold and blue medallions on the WPJA Web site. These don’t come easy. The best of the best have been selected oftentimes by Pulitzer-prize winning photographers, as well as other award-winning photojournalists and newspaper/magazine picture editors.

The WPJA also provides an online calendar for each individual member--many WPJA photographers utilize the calendar to help couples find out their availability for specific dates.

Once you’ve taken these first steps you’re on your way! But there is still much more to consider in your selection process.

GET A SENSE OF TALENT AND STYLE

The ultimate factor in finding your ideal wedding photojournalist is in the portfolio of your candidates. Through their images you must determine if that particular photographer can produce the type of images that will capture the emotions and other rich memories of the day in a way that will resonate deeply with you for years to come. You’ll need to get a sense of the photographer’s shooting style. Take as much time necessary to peruse their portfolios—a relatively easy task these days, thanks to the Internet.

“Clients nowadays are pretty well educated, and the Internet is a tremendous tool,” states Wilmington, NC, USA-based Gary Allen, who was named the WPJA’s POY in 2004. “If nothing else, it’s a great way to look at 20 photographers’ work and narrow it down to two or three.”

Portrait Photograph of Eric Francis, Nebraska

Portrait of Eric Francis

Viewing just a few photos isn’t enough. Our panel of POYs recommend that you look at the pictures from at least one entire wedding, if not several. “Anybody who has been a wedding photographer for ten years can throw together a good 50 pictures that are all good,” advises Omaha, NB, USA-based 2003 POY Eric Francis. “With a whole wedding, you can get a very good idea of their style.”

“Brides and grooms should in general try to assess the photographer’s imagination; someone who strives to be different rather than shooting the same kinds of pictures all of the time,” suggests wedding photographer Huy Nguyen, who works out of Texas, USA. “They should look for humor and feeling in the work. Rather than just looking at the pictures for the content, assess them in the light of how the photographer approached the scene, and whether he or she can do a lot of things well. You also want to make sure your [wedding] photojournalist is a versatile photographer with a lot of skills.”

For example, the cake cutting is a routine event that could easily result in a cliché image. “I challenge myself to find a kind of cake-cutting photo that’s not similar to other photographers',” Nguyen states. “So I always keep an eye on what happens to the cake after the couple walks away from it. Sometimes, cool images happen where people aren't looking.”

GET TO KNOW YOUR CANDIDATE

Despite its usefulness in viewing photos, and in providing biographical and approach philosophy information about the photographer, a Web site is not the be-all and end-all of wedding photojournalist research. In fact, certain sites can be terribly misleading these days, with some photographers even cutting and pasting from other people’s pages. “Everybody is an ‘award-winning photojournalist,’” says Allen, “but I would have to say that if you’re not an award-winning photographer and you’ve been in the business a few years, then you need to get out of the business. When I worked at newspapers you would have had to have been a rookie or brain dead not to win an award during the year.”

For some, it may also be beneficial to meet a photographer in person or at least have a phone discussion in order to find out more about his or her personality. The conversation can range from a deeper discussion of your photographer’s professional background, to his or her favorite photographs, sources of inspiration, to the specifics of how he or she approaches the wedding day on a logistical level. Is your photographer planning to show up 15 minutes before the ceremony or two-and-a half hours before? Talk to them about your wedding details and any specific expectations you may have regarding your pictures. Share with your photographer what style and approach you prefer, but more importantly listen to him/her to find out how well your wedding day vision matches their mode of operation.

Portrait Photograph of Huy Nguyen, Texas

Portrait of Huy Nguyen

Nguyen recommends choosing a photographer whose working style closely matches your own preferences and personality, rather than hiring a “jack of all trades” who is willing to change his or her normal approach just to please. “If the bride and groom have a great sense of humor, and they think that the wedding is going to be funny and fun and raucous and loud and vibrant, then they need to hire a photographer who is like that,” he states. “That will bring better results than just hiring someone who will say ‘I can do anything’ or ‘we’ll make it work.’”

You also should be looking for somebody with whom you can spend the day and be comfortable. And that comfort level works both ways. “I get better pictures that way,” says Francis. “When everybody is more comfortable, they’re going to open up to you more and not be so self-conscious about it.”

Most importantly, you want to choose someone who doesn’t just view your wedding day assignment as simply another business transaction. Finding a photographer who really loves what they do and is very passionate about their work is key. “That is the type of person who is going to go the extra mile,” Allen says. “The one who will still be shooting pictures even when you’re having dinner.”

EXPERIENCE AND BRAINS

Referrals and references are valuable. Talk to friends. The references of sisters, brothers or other brides are some of the best intelligence you can use when focusing in on a wedding photojournalist. You may also check out feedback about the photographer through past client testimonials, which can often be found on the photographer’s web site.

A news background can help, but isn’t mandatory, according to Allen, who has shot both news and sports for several wire services and newspapers in his distinguished career. “When you’re used to covering Presidential inaugurations, a hurricane hitting the coast, or a Final Four, you don’t have any control over what’s going on,” he notes. “You have to think on your feet and hope you have the right lens on and…that everything is going to go your way.”

Yet news or sports experience is not a pre-requisite for excellence, as demonstrated by the numerous WPJA award winners who came into the business from other careers. Talent in capturing spontaneous moments can be innate, and achieved through individual personality and skill.

“Situations will happen, and you won’t have control over them, so you want somebody who can go in there and won’t be afraid, and just roll with it,” Nguyen notes. “You need someone who can make the pictures regardless of the conditions.”

“If a person has been doing professional photography for 15 or 20 years, it’s a good bet that they know how to handle any situation, and when problems come along, they become a problem solver,” Allen advises. “And ultimately, one of the most important tools a photographer has is his brain, because a photographer who thinks is going to get great pictures.”

—by Michael Roney for the Wedding Photojournalist Association