Honestly, I’m not posting this to be arrogant or to punch down on new/inexperienced photographers. Every professional photographer – me included - was once an inexperienced “newbie”. Early on, I was lucky to connect with an experienced, dynamic professional photographer and it changed the trajectory of my photography career. Different clients have different desires and different budgets. There is a photographer for every budget and a budget for every photographer. I don’t knock that.
That said, I regularly get asked what clients (the people wanting photography services) should look for and what questions they should ask to navigate through the crowd of potential photographers. I’ve listed five questions below that you can ask a potential photographer to determine their level of experience and to plan your budget.
NOTE: There are dozens of genres in photography. For this post, I’m limiting my focus to clients that are seeking photography services for senior portraits and family group photos. Wedding photography, professional headshots, and event photography require a much larger scope of questions.
- Do you have a price list?
Notice that the question is NOT “how much do you charge?”. There are many different variations of portraiture and most professional photographers will have a detailed price list that differentiates those variations. If a photographer answers with something like “I charge a flat rate of X dollars per hour”, you can probably safely assume that they have not done a lot of professional work. This question also allows you to determine if the photographer is in your budget range.
- How many years have you been shooting professionally?
This is simply a logical question to ask. It’s not intended to disqualify “young” photographers, nor does it intend to qualify “experienced” photographers. I’ve worked professionally with some really talented “young” photographers, and I’ve worked with highly experienced photographers that produce what I consider to be mediocre photos. Years do not necessarily translate to quality. This question just helps you get a general idea of the photographer’s professional experience.
- Do you use off-camera lighting?
There is a perpetual debate between the “natural light” crowd and the “classic portrait” crowd regarding lighting. I’m not going to say that you should not use a photographer that doesn’t utilize off-camera lighting. What I AM going to assert is that if a photographer DOES use off-camera lighting, they are exponentially more likely to have a firm understanding of the principles of photography lighting. They will also have a much broader range of shooting locations than a “natural light” photographer. For example, a natural light photographer is significantly limited if a client wants photos in a shady area (like a forest), indoors, or in low light situations like a sunset or evening.
- What camera or cameras do you use?
I know what you’re thinking… “I wouldn’t know a good camera from a bad one”. That’s ok. The reason you ask this question is to determine the level of experience of the photographer. Write down the camera brand AND MODEL and look it up on the internet. A professional-grade camera will NOT have a built-in retractable lens or a built-in pop-up flash. No exceptions here. ALL professional-grade cameras use removable/interchangeable lenses and have a “hot shoe” for attaching a flash. Again, I’m not going to say that you should not use a photographer that has a non-professional grade camera. You should just expect that the resulting photos may be lower quality and will likely have lower resolution – meaning that they may not print well in larger formats like 8x10. A photographer with professional-grade equipment will likely charge more. That’s because professional equipment costs a LOT more - in many cases, thousands of dollars more - than consumer-grade equipment.
- Do you have a website that I can view?
Here is where I want to be careful to not sound arrogant… but 99% of professional photographers have a website that showcases their photography and gives contact and pricing information (it’s a “plus” if the URL for the website includes the photographer’s name or company and it’s not SmugMug or PhotoBucket, etc). If a photographer does NOT have a website, it certainly does not disqualify them. It may mean, however, that the photographer is not shooting a regular volume of work. That may point to relative inexperience and if that is the case, their prices should reflect it. Personally, I would want to see SEVERAL examples of a potential photographer’s work to ensure that they can produce the quality and style that I want.
Bonus question: If you're still not sure about a potential photographer, ask them if they shoot in RAW format. If they don't know what RAW format is, or if they tell you that they shoot in .jpg format, you can be pretty sure that they are not doing a lot of professional work. It's fine if they tell you that they shoot in RAW format and then convert the photos to .jpg format to deliver to their clients. Most professionals do this.
My disclaimer for this post is that there is no sure formula for finding the perfect photographer. My purpose for these questions is the hope that they can help you narrow the field of potential photographers and that they can ultimately result in photos that you love for the rest of your life.