Of course you want your photographer to do a good job, and that is going to require a certain level of skill. Yet so many people think that if you can hold a camera, you can take good pictures. That is, of course, simply wrong. But how much experience is really required to be comfortable that your photographer will do the job you need them to?
There are a lot of reasons to hire a professional; one of the most important, of course, being experience. How much experience does your photographer really need? How much is a minimum, and how do you measure it?
The number of weddings a photographer has shot or how many years they have been shooting might indicate experience, but is that all you should ask? Are there other factors to consider? What about talent, training and equipment?
A photographer with a lot of weddings or years under their belt still needs a credible amount of talent. A good personality, the right training, and good knowledge of the equipment with just a few weddings completed might, in some cases, be as good as a talent-less photographer who has done many. A very talented photographer who has little experience might do a good job, but of course it is a greater risk to hire them.
A photographer with very little talent but who has studied and worked hard to improve their skills might not be good after 2 weddings, but do they need 10? 20? 100?
You might think that hiring a pro photographer who has shot Nascar for years and knows their equipment might be a great photographer for your wedding - but if they have never shot a wedding before, they may not understand the lighting or the flow of events at a wedding to really do a great job.
Perhaps you are starting to see the point. The equation is not as simple as "how many weddings have you shot", and the scale of "experience" necessary can slide depending on a number of factors. So let's break it down a little.
You might not think personality is important to take good photos, but after a long day of shooting, you will want someone who can remain positive and keep things light rather than tiring you out, or worse - making you upset. If you don't get along with the photographer, it will show in your photographs. You and your guests will smile less and your images will not turn out as well.
This is one of the main reasons you should spend time with your photographer before the wedding, preferably in a photographic situation. (This is also the reason why I provide a no-obligation engagement session - it is important not only that the bride is comfortable with the photographer, but also that the photographer is comfortable with the bride.)
Photography is part technical and part art form. You don't have to be Picaso to be a great photographer, but understanding photography as an art will improve the quality of the images being created. Someone who understands how to take a great photo, how to frame a composition, how to arrange or use available lighting, can learn to mimic other artists and do a good job, but adding talent will take it up a notch.
Without good talent, an "experienced" photographer might seem repetitive, uninspired or unoriginal.
When you look at a photographer's portfolio, are the images original? Do they "fit" with the subjects or do they appear to be cookie cutter stamped repetitions of each other, or of other photographers. And be sure they are showing you their own work - yes, some photographers have been known to pass off other people's photography as their own to gain the job.
Experience alone is not good enough either. There is so much to learn in photography that just doing it doesn't really provide you with the wealth of knowledge that is available.
Has your photographer had any formal training? What are they doing to improve their skills? Are they accredited in any way to verify that training? Do they see photography as something they understand, or do they see it as something they are still trying to master and constantly striving to learn more?
It has been said that a great photographer can obtain great images with even the most basic of cameras.
While that is true, and has been proven, you probably don't have the time it will take to set things up to get things just right and compensate for the poor equipment. A "good" photographer will benefit from good quality equipment and provide you with the best images more consistently.
At a minimum, your photographer should have a higher than consumer level SLR, and off-camera flash. It is also important that they have at least one backup camera body to ensure equipment failure will not cause tragedy on your wedding day.
Your photographer must also know the equipment. Ask your photographer what equipment they own and how long they have been using it for. If you understand a little about photography, you might ask them some technical questions to gauge their knowledge - for instance, do they know what a RAW image is and do they shoot in RAW? (If they say no to that question, I would find another photographer right away).
At some point, basic experience must factor into the equation. Experience is indeed necessary to ensure your photographer has been out there, doing what you expect them to do and this will not be their first wedding.
Does your photographer have to shoot weddings exclusively? No, but they should shoot weddings often enough that they know what to expect and how to handle the particular circumstances that make wedding photography special - posing, low lighting, photo journalism, respect for the ceremony, lensing, etc.
But experience is also subject to diminishing returns. Depending on other factors mentioned above, a photographer may begin to plateau or level off after a number of weddings and experience after that point becomes less important. What that number is depends on all the other factors.
Generally speaking the more experienced a photographer is, the more they will charge for their services, though just because a photographer does not charge as much does not mean they are an inexperienced photographer. So striking the right balance between a price you feel is reasonable and a level of experience you know is necessary should be your ultimate goal.
Gathering the info
Above all, spend time with your photographer and ask questions. Look at their portfolio. You're photos are going to be the way you remember your day for years to come. Be sure your photographer is going to capture them in a way that will not disappointed you.
What do you think? What is the minimum "experience" you think your photographer needs?