A photograph is a moment in time captured as part of someone’s life story. Each photographer has a personal take on the best way to tell a story through photographs. The photographer’s portfolio will give you insight into what they take photos of, how they take them, what their particular style is in not only shooting but editing, and everything else in between. There are key points every photographer uses that makes their work unique and sets them apart from the rest. My goal is to highlight these elements to explain how to choose a photographer based on the event you want photographed, and how that correlates to a certain photographer’s style.
If you speak to any photographer, they’ll tell you that lighting is 90% of what makes an image good or bad. Think of the sky on a daily basis. Imagine you are outside in a field and think of how the sky is constantly changing; sometimes the clouds cover the sun and the ground beneath you is dark and shadowed. And then the clouds move and everything is bright and colorful. Photographers analyze light to not only decide the best way to show their subject and the moment in time they are wanting to capture. Some photographers prefer really bright images that make the world look light and airy, while others use light to create mood and emotion. For example, take the photos below. The location is the same, but taken at different times of the day. One is brighter with more light around the subject. The other is darker with a more moody tone.
As you start looking through photographers’ portfolios, pay attention to the lighting quality in the pictures. Are they dark and moody? Bright and romantic? Each photographer has a certain style, and there will most likely be one that you mesh with better than others. You may also notice while you’re looking through portfolios that some photographers refer to themselves as “natural light photographers” which just means that they only use whatever light is available, rather than a flash or other lighting setups. If you see lots of back lighting, and what appears to be bursts of light behind the subjects, it means that that photographer has the ability to create standalone lighting in situations where the light is nonexistent.
After lighting, the next thing you want to look at in someone’s portfolio is composition. This basically means: how did they set up the photo? Even when photographers are capturing moments as they happen, we’re still looking for interesting ways to tell the story. Take the below portrait, for example. The perspective here is on the announcement sign with the couple and their son out of focus. By doing this, not only do your eyes know exactly where to go the moment you look at the image, but you also get the added storytelling of seeing the outline of the family of three. While the meaning of the photo is pretty spelled out with the announcement sign, it allows you as the viewer to interpret the emotions without being able to view the facial queues of the subjects.
As you look through portfolios, ask yourself: Are all the photos taken from the same perspective and angle? How does the photographer make things more interesting? Are there moments like this picture below, where they get high above the action? Anything that makes you feel like you are in the moment is good composition.
Many articles about choosing your photographer will tell you to ask the photographer what type of camera he or she uses. Unless you are a camera aficionado , this is usually a wasted question. But as you look through portfolios, you’ll notice that certain photographers have different tools that they use to tell a story in their own voice. This could be anything from using special lenses like fish eye, to including an antique black and white camera, Polaroid, or shooting in film for a warm look. Macro lenses, like the one used for the below image, allow photographers to get really close to small subjects.
As you’re looking through portfolios, keep an eye out for what identifies the photographer’s portfolio as distinctly their own. At the end of the day, it all comes down to storytelling. Sure, according to any online photography forum, there is a right and a wrong way to take a photo. But when it comes to the moment that you want to capture, what you’re really looking for is a storytelling technique that matches your idea of how your event will be. Are you looking for a dark, moody, and brooding look? How about something more light, airy, and dreamy? Or how about fun, quirky and whimsical? Or are you looking for a portrait that looks like it came out of a magazine, all crisp, clean, and bright?
So ask yourself, does the image you’re looking at have a sense of humor? Is it romantic? Is there a softness to it? Does it look crisp like a magazine image? The story a photographer tells is going to be your story through their eyes, so you want to make sure that they match up.
If all of this seems like a lot of information, keep in mind two simple questions when choosing your photographer for your life event: Do you like the photographer’s portraits in their portfolio, and how do they make you feel? Not a super visual person? Then it’s totally fine to ignore the first question and move onto the second: Do you like the photographer, and how do their images make you feel? Is the feeling the images generate, the feeling you are wanting your own portraits to convey? More important than lighting, composition, or any fancy technology, those are the power rules to live by. Good luck and happy portraiture!