Matthew and Jazmine Gallegos a couple that was married in Albuquerque, NM, back in September 2016 recently were featured in KRQE News 13 because their wedding photographer never delivered their wedding photos. They paid the photographer, the photographer showed up to their wedding, but when it came time to receive their photos…the day never came.
With tears forming in her eyes, Jazmine expressed “Those are memories that…”, “That we can’t get back” her husband interjected. Shaking her head in disbelief about their situation, she clarifies their loss “The photos that she took, the ones that we wanted to have up in our house to show our kids when we are old to look back on.”
It is this part of the interview that really stood out to me. Clearly, having photographs displayed throughout their house was a priority to this couple. Yet somehow they misplaced their trust in a photographer that didn’t deliver the most important part of the wedding photography process. So how did this happen? Based on the social media outcry in response to the story, everyone seems to know how it could have been prevented.
There is an old saying that sums it up well. “You get what you pay for”. This couple paid for the services of an inexperienced, untrained, out of area, hobbyist photographer, but expected more than they paid for.
There are a few flags that really stand out to me as a wedding photographer that I want to share with you. First, photographers are a dime a dozen. Most professional photographers learned photography shooting film cameras. If you go to a university for fine art, they are still going to make you learn how to develop your own film. It is crucial to understand that relationship between light and camera obscura to train your artistic eye in photography. Unfortunately in an art sense, but fortunately in every other sense, in 2018 everyone is a photographer thanks to our cell phones. And that is awesome and very convenient. But when it comes to art, selfies are not part of the curriculum. Which I believe led to the sad uneducated state we experience today, where the average person cannot tell the difference between a good photograph and a bad one. Which also explains why there are so many “professional photographers” that really just picked up photography as a hobby, have little to no artistic training, and yet offer wedding photography as a service to the general public for a price they came up with by looking at what other photographers in their area are charging and undercutting it. This is a big flag: Price.
We all price shop, but there are certain times when I am willing to pay extra to get a better quality product. For example, leather. There was a time in my life when I would buy cheap leather shoes for work (back in my public accounting days). I would spend about $30 for a generic store brand, not like you could see the brand anywhere anyway right? I made sure I would get shoes made from genuine leather because even though I wanted something cheap, I wanted decent quality that would last a while. Despite my attention to that detail, my shoes would fall apart in about a month. I went through this cycle about three times before I got fed up and started looking into spending more for shoes that would last longer. It turns out that as I looked into the features that would help shoes last longer, I learned that genuine leather is not so great. In fact there is only one type of leather worse than genuine leather, and that’s bonded (junk pieces glued together like a plywood of leathers). I was floored. Now I know to get full grain leather, a leather that not only holds together better, but gets more beautiful with age. And guess what? Full grain leather shoes cost about 4 times as much as genuine. I have two pairs of different full grain leather shoes that I have had over 4 years now. One month compared to four years. Even though the price up front was much higher, the cost of the shoes over their lifetime is much cheaper.
I share this personal story with you because this is the case in every industry including photography. Many photographers have strayed from the traditional value of displaying photographs on physical walls and have moved onto the walls of Facebook. The average life of a digital file from the archivists I have spoken with, is about 5 years. Whereas when I visit my parents’ house, I see framed photographs on the wall that have been displayed on a wall my entire life.
This couple expressed their physical loss of the ability to display their wedding photos in their house. They clearly valued that in hindsight, but they didn’t value it enough to spend the kind of money it takes to hire a professional photographer who makes a living from making such images and physical artwork for their clients.
Which brings me to the next flag, a professional photographer is anyone who earns more than 50 percent of his or her annual income from photography. Back when I was a public accountant, and Elise was a photographer, we mistakenly referred to her as a professional photographer. More than half of her income, the money we used to support our family, came from my public accounting job, not photography. Why is that distinction or level of detail important? Because people who make their living from photography are more qualified than someone who just purchased a DSLR camera and decided today they are a professional. And sadly, that is how the industry works. There is no accreditation for the photography industry. There are associations, like the Professional Photographers Association, that awards it’s paying members “degrees” for their commitment to their group. But that is neither here nor there since their members don’t have to be professional photographers to join in the first place. Most brides aren’t looking to see formal education listed on the about page of the photographers they are price shopping. A photographer doesn’t need to hold a Bachelor’s of Fine Art degree in order to create a website that states they are a professional photographer. So the overwhelming responsibility depends solely on the client. The client must determine with their artistically trained eye, or lack thereof, to determine for themselves by critiquing each photographer from their area’s individual portfolio to determine the validity of that person’s claim to be a true professional photographer. Which is crazy, especially considering most have never been through or seen a formal critique to begin with let alone the photographer who they are critiquing.
Next flag, reviews. I read comments saying this couple should have looked at reviews to know whether the photographer they hired was legit or not. The photographer they chose had an A- on the Better Business Bureau’s website, which means they had good reviews. Why are reviews not cueing unprofessional photographers? Because my friends, no news is good news. Reviews are usually received when requested. New photographers tend to offer friends and family free photographs to get their foot in the door of the industry and build a portfolio. Then they turn around and ask those same people for reviews. When is the last time you left a bad review for a service or product you got for free? Ratings are not enough when browsing reviews. It would be foolish not to read several of the reviews to determine what people are actually getting from hiring this photographer. What was their experience? Would they recommend or use this photographer again? And even after looking at reviews with this in mind, understand how limited this source pool is. When is the last time you switched service providers in any industry and found out that the new service provider is so much better? Did you go back and leave a bad review on the previous service provider? Of course not. People have their reasons for switching and often are bad at putting those reasons in words without being a troll. So why bother? And that is the downfall of relying on reviews. Look for a wide range of portfolio images form the photographer. Is their portfolio comprised of several different people or is it the same people over and over again? If you see nothing but photos of their kids, then this is a sign they are new to the industry. Look for these kinds of flags, and gamble with your money not your photographer.
Lastly, beware of new photographers to the industry and your area. There is a reason why people praise experience so highly in any profession. Hire new photographers at your own risk. Ansel Adams said it best “The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it.” Ultimately when you hire a professional, you are paying for their capability, consistency, and ability to deliver after the end of the day. All of which comes from experience doing so over and over, time and time again. And going back to professionals making their living from photography not their spouse’s income from their job, beware traveling photographers that move from place to place to wherever their spouse goes for their job. That is a big red flag that this person can disappear with your photos in a heartbeat. The best way to support local businesses is to look for the old salty dogs of the industry. Those who have deep roots in your area and don’t just talk about how much they love the area, but are actually grounded there. They have family here. They went to school here. They contribute to the community here. That is how you build your local community, not by chasing the cheapest, newest options. Those are just gimmicks like genuine leather.
Some simple questions this couple could have asked to prevent this from happening to them would look like this. Do they make a living from photography? Have they been providing photography to my area for several years? Do they have a formally trained artistic eye? Have they ever used a film camera and developed their own film? Do they have a wide variety of portfolio images as well as several different clients in the images?
If you are reading this thinking “Oh they are just saying look for a photographer like them”, you are right. That is exactly what I am saying, because we would never do this to one of our clients.