How to choose a wedding photographer

How to choose a wedding photographer?

It’s an age old question, how do you choose a wedding photographer…this is a long one, let’s start with some LOL’s…

boy presses face against glass looking at wedding cake

Don’t you love a good portmanteau?
I love word games.
You can blend two styles of photography to invent a brand new one, how about, fine art and documentary? “fineocumentary” or “docart”. Liam Smith – best docart photographer in the world (n.b, liam is the only docart photographer in the world and wins by default) 

I spent hours trying to define my own style. My work is fun, and it’s also documentary.

Wait… I’ve got it.


To answer my own question, how do you choose a wedding photographer? The answer is choose me. I’m obviously hilarious.

What styles are there? What do these words mean?

I believe in creating great images. I’ve read endless blog posts and magazine articles trying to define what a photography style is and what it means. In my years of experience I have found that there are essentially two types; posed and unposed. Unposed can be referred to as candid, photojournalistic or documentary, essentially they are the same thing; capturing people unawares. Counter to this there are posed images, or fine art, traditional and so on. These images are orchestrated and the photographer is in complete control of the outcome.

So who cares?

Well its easy for people within the wedding industry to forget that there is a world outside it. Phrases are coined and banded about and then thrown at the customer expecting them to know what they mean. If I question these terms objectively, fine art sounds like each image is going to take as long as a painting and photojournalism sounds like my wedding is going to be photographed like a war-zone. This is of course me being dramatic, but I hope you can see my point.

Documentary wedding photography (sometimes called photojournalism) refers to capturing natural moments, no staging or posing. The intention is to provide the couple with a narrative of the day, it doesn’t matter what happens on the day, your photographer will record it. Grandma falls over; click. Grooms scrunched up crying face; click. This is the real stuff. Pure emotions. No pretending. Great documentary photographers are masters of composition. Patiently waiting to create artwork out of serendipitous moments. Timing is everything. You have to be in the mix, switched on and up close and personal with people. Documentary photographers will also take couple portraits and group pictures.

A photographer who has established himself as one of the masters of documentary wedding photography is Kevin Mullins 
“Documentary Wedding Photography is all about capturing the moment and following the passion of the day. I go after moments that appeal to me from the inside and I strive to capture the emotions and energy of the day through the still image.”

Fine art
Fine art wedding photography focusses on recording your day in the most beautiful and elegant way possible. Lots of bright colours, clean whites, couple portraits and details. Stunning pictures that would look amazing on the mantelpiece or in an album. Fine art wedding photographers are masters of light and styling. Being able to find soft, even light is a must and a keen eye to arrange details to capture that editorial feel is a sure sign of a good fine art photographer.

The main man of the fine art world is Jose Villa, his work is exceptional, “For me, it is all about making something beautiful, even if I have to insert myself into the situation . Ultimately, my goal is to craft vibrant, energetic, fine art images that are as unique as the people in the photographs.”

Takeaway –
Documentary wedding photography – beautiful images, story telling, documenting not posing, people focussed.
Fine art wedding photography – beautiful images, posing where necessary, lots of details.

Important questions in making a decision

A few thoughts on what you should consider when trying to choose a wedding photographer.

How much should I budget?
This is of course dependent on your personal circumstance, no one should ever consider stretching themselves financially for the sake of a wedding. I love weddings, I think they’re truly magical. But life is long, your family grows and develops, magical moments happen on multiple occasions. Whether it’s a wedding day, the birth of a child or buying your first house and rolling around on the carpets, life is full of joy, pay what you can afford. Between £1000 and £2000 is realistic for someone who is good. “Define good” some may cry. Well that’s subjective, and I can’t. You have to use your judgement on this one and trust your gut. An iMac with the same spec laptop that I’m currently typing on would be one thousand pounds more expensive. Some products are more expensive because of their quality, some are based upon branding. Look at the photographers portfolio and then examine their blog posts in detail. Only then will you be able to gauge what a full days wedding looks like and then make a judgement on call on whether that represents good value.

Do I need a second photographer?
If you love documentary wedding photography, consider this; with a single photographer shooting in a photo-journalistic style, there is no guarantee that all of your guests will be captured in an image. Does this bother you? Maybe it doesn’t. Keep in mind that the photographer won’t know how your most treasured guests are. A second photographer can be a valuable asset as although it goes against my documentary ideology, the second photographer could arrange formal photographs to make sure that your most important persons are photographed in some capacity. If you’re a purist like me then ignore that bit, I like to give both sides of the coin. If your budget will allow it aim for two, more pictures is never a bad thing. Note, this is likely to push your costs up to the £2-3k mark.

How many hours coverage do I need?
Ten to twelve hours should be about right. I always say to clients the best way to judge this is based upon the general vibes of the day. If you know that your crew is going to rave until the early AM, then twelve hours might be a good idea to make sure you capture all the madness. In my experience, ten hours is usually plenty. It gives you approximately an hour and a half of getting ready and another hour or so post first dance.

What’s included?/what do I need in a package?
One photographer, ten hours, £1000-£2000 is the average cost in the UK.
I always recommend to clients that they book as many hours as they can if cost is an issue, they will always have the photographs and can save up for albums and prints at a later date.

Do I need an engagement shoot?
I think the question should be why do you want an engagement shoot?
If the answer is to get used to the camera, then it may be worth considering the reality of that for a moment. If you prefer documentary style images, there’s no need to pose, so no need to get used to the camera. Documentary photographers are skilled at being unobtrusive and capturing people off guard. Practising poses will not put you or the photographer at ease as you’re both engaged in an activity that neither of you want.

IF however, you love fine art style images, then engagement shoots are perfect. It gives you a chance to understand your best body position for posed photographs and gives you an idea of likely how long your posed pictures will take on the day.

Gut instinct shouldn’t be ignored. It exists for a reason. It’s not a random part of your brain making decisions. It’s a combination of all of your thoughts, feelings and experiences coming to the fore at an important moment. Trust it.

What defines a good photographer?

This is also tricky as it is so subjective. Awards are difficult to judge a photographer by as some are more valuable than others. Certain awarding bodies use client feedback to judge the photographers quality of images and service. Others prioritise certain styles, so it’s worth investigating whether or not the wedding photography award has come from a relevant and established source. 

If I were to pin such a big decision on a question or statement, it would come down to this; when you look at their work, do you feel something? Great images move people. They stir something in the soul. Whether laughter or tears, if you can feel a connection to the images, and the people within them without even knowing them, then it’s a great picture and you’ve found yourself a great photographer.

How do I approach the day? – Blending the styles

I believe that weddings should be photographed with care and compassion as well as integrity. Capturing the narrative of the day, true to events. However, weddings are an opportunity to dress up. Thought goes into every outfit, from the bride to the second aunt, everyone considers how they will look and wants to look their best. I believe that the bride and groom should also have a series of images that document the connection between them and have them looking amazing. This is possible if you shoot in a documentary style and I believe gives more genuine images than pure fine art. By mixing the two you have the benefit of controlling the location, the light and the basic body positioning, but then you let your confidence as a documentary photographer take over and let the moment unfold naturally. Believe me this takes serious practice and belief in yourself as it can feel super awkward at first, but you have to be bold, if you’re confident, then your client is confident in you. Continue as if this is absolutely normal. I’ve found if you stand maybe twenty feet away and say “I’m going to shoot this one quite wide so feel free to chat” something magical happens. All of a sudden they feel free to express themselves, everything becomes more relaxed and the real people emerge, not the ‘people in that pose’. Then, because you told a fib and you actually have a 50mm lens on, you can shoot at f1.4 and capture those dreamy fine art style images which have all the blown highlights and shallow depth of field, AND capture a natural moment. Hazaahs all round.

Here’s the magic

Here’s an example to demonstrate my point. Here we have a beautiful couple and a beautiful location and an outrageously sunny day. The control part from me is placing them in this location under the willow tree. I have used my knowledge of light, environment etc. to place them in a setting I know will look good. The boughs of willow trees create a perfect canvas of elegant greens to create a couple portrait. Next, my instructions are thus “enjoy yourselves, the wedding flies by so take this opportunity to be together in the moment”. They look great, the light looks good and everything is peachy. Then I say “I’m going to shoot this one quite wide so feel free to chat!”. Then the most extraordinary thing happens. It’s as if people feel like they’re no longer being watched and the most intimate moments happen. I’ve heard of some photographers who say to their clients “imagine a comet is about to hit earth and these are your last few moments, what would you do?”. Whilst this may work for some, having to enact a scenario isn’t real to me, plus my clients would probably tell me to fuck off, after all, they did hire me because of my documentary *ahem* unposed style :). The recent image that went viral is a beautiful example of how inviting clients to interact can work. The instruction in that image was “whisper in her ear why you married her”. The sentiment is beautiful as is the resulting image, but if we’re going all purist, is that a real moment? If my one aim is to show clients images of themselves that they recognise, will they look back on that image and say ‘that was the most amazing moment of my life’ or ‘that was when the photographer instructed us etc. and I cried’?

Here is the magic moment. No instruction from me, everything apart from the location is spontaneous. Even the holding of the dress looks amazing, but had nothing to do with me. For me this is the perfect blend of fine art and documentary. The image is absolutely them, this is how they interact, how they stand, how they hold each other. Its magic.

nether winchendon house wedding

The one thing clients always say

The second best thing about this image? We were only gone from the crowd for fifteen minutes. Everyone tells me they hate it at weddings when the bride and groom disappear for the entire drinks reception for photographs. There’s simply no need. Find a nice spot, be calm, relax, let the magic happen. It’s a moment, it only lasts for a few seconds and then it’s gone, so you have to be ready.

So Liam what do you do for the other 99% of the day?

I take pictures like this:

bride and sister in law cryingvicar explains that marriage needs a whiskgroom hugs sonwedding guests laughing playing croquetbrother of bride cryingbride and groom at alterbridesmaids hug and laughblack and white wedding photography first dance

Liam Smith is a documentary wedding photographer from mars (probably)

If you like the look of my work and my philosophy, hey, why not get in touch?



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