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How to Spot a Photo Phony

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If that photographer who offers eight hours of shoot time, a book of 50 pictures and a high-res CD of all your images, all for under $1,000, sounds too good to be true, it just may be. According to The Wedding Report, a wedding industry tracker, recent trends have shown a proliferation of untrained, inexperienced wedding photographers. Working out of their homes, they tend to undercharge clients but use inferior equipment and create images of lesser quality than professional photographers. Couples might think they’re getting a deal, but, in essence, they’re wasting $1,000.

“The one area in which no one should skimp on their wedding day is the photography,” says Anne Chertoff, senior editor at Brides.com and author of “The Wedding Organizer” (russell+hazel, 2008). “After your memories, your pictures are really all you have left. You want a qualified, expertly trained wedding photographer, not just some guy who was cheap who you found on Craigslist.”

But it’s understandable that determining who’s a pro and who’s not can get confusing. Wedding photographers are not members of a union, like plumbers or electricians, in which you have to be licensed, says Chertoff. Some photographers are graduates of art or design schools like Parsons, some have apprenticed with big-name photographers, some are photojournalists and some are artists who do shows. But some are just people who happen to have a digital camera.

One helpful hint for figuring out who’s who is to look at the fee. The average cash paid for wedding photography in 2007 was $2,038, according to The Wedding Report, but the fees in bigger cities like New York and Los Angeles can easily range from $4,000 to $10,000. Wedding photography is a lot of work, during the event, of course, but especially after, which can include organizing, correcting, developing, printing, assembling books and paying assistants. If you want good quality, professional pictures, be suspicious of anyone who charges less than $1,000.

To avoid scams, the best way to get started is to request recommendations from friends, family, locations or other vendors, although taste is subjective so make sure you do your own research anyway and explore a variety of options, warns Chertoff. You can narrow that list down by checking out Web sites and seeing whose style you identify with, says Aisha Harley, a wedding photographer and owner of Aisha Harley Photography in Portland, Ore. Once you have a few favorites, meet with each one in person and look through a few of their books. If you find that you consistently like their work, you are probably going to be pleased with your own wedding photos. If not, you likely won’t.

Regardless, it’s a good idea to ask any potential photographer about his or her background. “The most important factor contributing to the quality of your wedding pictures is the vision and the eye of the person holding the camera,” says Harley, who got her degree in photography and then spent seven years as a first assistant to an accomplished commercial photographer. “How does the way in which they see things make them special and different than everyone else?” If they are inexperienced shooting weddings, it will reflect in the product they give back to you.

A good photographer will be happy to answer any questions you might have. You should also ask to see a copy of the contract – in addition to cost and what you get, this document should include information on travel fees or meals that you must provide for the photographer and assistants, if applicable, as well as offer details on a backup in case your photographer is unable to perform on your wedding day.

But equally important as the pictures and the paperwork, you need to click with your photographer’s personality, says Chertoff. “You are going to be spending a lot of time with this person – they will be in the dressing room with you, sharing intimate moments between you and your new spouse and interacting with your guests,” she says. “You really need to like them, and feel comfortable in their presence.”

Take some time and think about it before you sign on the dotted line. Meet with a few people and compare. Wedding photography is a big investment, and you only get one shot at it.

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