the papercraft lab

How to Choose a Family Photographer


I originally wrote this post for my personal blog, and have revised it here.  I'm committed to getting regular family photographs (twice a year while the girls are small) , and I know a lot of people *mean* to do it, but just haven't gotten around to finding someone.  The easiest way?  Find a friend whose family portraits you love and get the name of their photographer.  But if you can't do that, read on for my process.

The Search

When searching for a wedding photographer, I had no idea what to look for or how much it would cost.  I started with one of those local wedding resource pages and just started browsing other photographers' work.  I found one I completely fell in love with, but alas, they were already booked for our date. They were nice enough to send me a list of area photographers with a similar style, and eventually we found "our guy" from that list.

What I learned from all that browsing was narrowing down the the style that I loved. It's called 'photojournalism' - less emphasis on posed pictures and more on just capturing the event and the unexpected details. So I started using that term in my web searches and found more photographers, and also found a site for the Wedding Photojournalist Association - bingo!  This site gave me more options in my area, narrowed to the style I preferred.

I then browsed a LOT of photographers' websites.  My method isn't scientific - it can't be, because what I'm looking for is *art*. I simply sat back and browsed. Looked to see whose pictures jumped out at me.  

Some photographers had a style that just didn't do it for me.  Others had a few pictures that caught my eye.  But there were a few where nearly every photo in their portfolio was a WOW shot.  Of course, these portfolios are heavily edited compilations of many events, but I felt confident that if nearly the whole portfolio wowed me, then that was a pretty good bet that I'd like their work at our wedding.

These are the common themes among the work I loved:

  • Interesting small detail shots, like trim on a dress, or a closeup of a shoe
  • Shots with a definite "vibe" that showed what the subjects were feeling
  • Limited posed shots, where the subjects look like they're having fun with each other and not looking *at* the camera.
  • Both black and white and color shots, but more importantly, a knack towards choosing which shots were better for the color treatment used
  • Pet photos that capture the "dog soul" 

Since this is an artistic judgment, it's like trying to outline what I like about a piece of music. I can't say for sure, but I know I like it when I hear it.

Some photographers have the gift of being able to capture pets well on film, and some don't, even those with mad skills with people-pictures. So if you want to include your pets in a family shoot, make sure the photographer you pick has samples of pet photos in their portfolio and that you love the style of those too. 

First Contact

The next step was to review the prices (if posted) and then reach out and contact the short list. I eliminated anyone who didn't have a way to email them, because I hate phone calls. I asked a few key questions:

  • Rates (if not posted clearly) and whether there was a print order minimum $
  • Availability for the dates we were considering
  • Whether we could get all of the original files on a DVD and if that was an extra charge

Surprisingly, in this digital age, there are photographers who *won't* give you the digital files or charge ungodly amounts to give them to you.  You need to order all prints through them, and you don't have copies of the pics to share on Facebook, websites, etc.  

We're social networking kind of people, and we don't print most of our photos so this was a deal-breaker.  Obviously, I respect intellectual property and copyright, and give credit to the photographer, but I want those pictures in digital form.

Making the Decision

Once I got the answers back and narrowed the list based on availability and budget, we had to make the big decision.  For things like weddings or family portrait shoots on weekends you need to book early and decide fast because the good photographers are BUSY.  We got around this for our family portraits by booking them on a Friday afternoon and thus could get the awesome Kristi Lloyd on relatively short notice.

Depending on the significance of the event, you may want to *meet* with the photographer in person before deciding who to hire.  For a wedding, this person is going to be following you around for most of the day, and it's a pretty big responsibility you're entrusting them with.  There are no do-overs.  

We did this for our wedding photographer Bradley Hanson, and meeting with him was what really sealed the deal.  He and TJ talked about motorcycles, he told us his philosophy of work, and showed us some recent wedding photos he'd taken.  We liked him, and really got the sense that he was a professional.  We also felt he wasn't going to be intrusive, which was a big deal for us.  We didn't want to be constantly aware of the photographer, or worse, interrupted by him to "look here at the camera!" or "hey, can we recreate that moment?  I missed it."

At the other end of the scale, we met with another guy who was just starting out in the business. He was timid and shy, and didn't give us that confident "I can handle this" vibe. He might have done just fine, but our wedding was not a time for experimentation.

Closing the Deal

Most photographers ask you to sign a contract and put down a deposit once you've made your choice, and that holds the date for you.  This is especially important for weddings - you don't want to get close to the day and then find out the photographer wasn't really holding the date for you.  It's really hard to find a great photographer on short notice.  For a summer wedding in Seattle, the good ones book over a year in advance.  Crazy, right?

Our family photo shoot last Sunday morning was the only open weekend slot available with Kristi Lloyd who is fully booked with weddings from spring through fall. We rearranged our schedules to make it work, because I wanted my parents to join us and they're only in town for a few more weeks. Kristi is essentially the "Official Creath Family Photographer" - this was our eighth session with her!

We are lucky to have found someone who works well with our family, including the furry members, and is happy to do shoots at home or at interesting locations around town.

My next post will be about how to prepare for a successful photo shoot - your job is not to just show up and hope for the best!

I hope this helps.  I'd love to hear any tips you have on finding a great professional photographer! 

See related posts at The Papercraft Lab