The mere thought of a photographer backing out of a contract was, frankly, inconceivable.
Pam and Brian, 2009
A shot from the early years of Studio Orange
Today? Such a thing is not only commonplace, but I personally have been contacted just this year alone by a number of couples in a panic because their “professional” photographer has canceled on them. Either by giving notice, or dropping off the face of the Earth.
Why is this a thing? One word…
Wedding photography looks like such an easy and fun career. I get the appeal. Some days it feels like I know more people calling themselves wedding photographers than not. And unfortunately, a lot of people jumping into this industry wind up in way over their heads.
This problem is most prevalent at the lower price end of wedding photography, where it hurts the people with the tightest budgets.
Now, before I go any further, I want to stress that the point of this blog post is not to bag on lower cost photographers. A lot of the people in the lower tier pricing are merely inexperienced, and their pricing reflects that. I get it. I was there when I started out, too. And there are plenty of wedding photographers early in their careers who take this job seriously, work with contracts, and wouldn’t dream of cancelling on a client.
But they tend to be mingled with those who view their agreements with couples as optional. As something to uphold if it’s convenient, to walk away from when it’s not. Those struggling to be taken seriously are trying to shove their way through a crowd of those treating wedding photography more like a lucrative hobby than a serious business endeavor.
I’m sure that most, if not all, of the people who cancel on their clients had the best intentions when they entered into their agreements. But best intentions don’t really count for much when two months before a wedding a panicked couple has to scramble to find a replacement photographer and none are available.
The thing is, there’s a side to wedding photography that isn’t so readily apparent. This business isn’t always conducive to a normal social life. We are generally working on the very days our friends and families have off from regular work hours. In the 10 years I’ve been doing this, I’ve missed birthday parties, family reunions, the weddings of my own friends.
While some types of photo sessions, like engagement or portrait shoots, can be flexible if necessary, a wedding date is all but chiseled in stone. Over the last decade, I have never so much as considered missing a wedding. I’ve sucked down DayQuil and shot through a flu. I’ve inhaled pain pills on the final day of a memorial day weekend marathon of three weddings in a row. I’m not a superman for doing this. It’s just that there is no such thing as a “sick day” for an event that cannot be rescheduled. And I know of many, many other professional wedding photographers who have sacrificed or worked through just as much. Because this is our job.
While I do understand how difficult, even frustrating, this profession can be when a best friend calls to announce their wedding on a date already booked, I have zero sympathy if the response is to bail on a contract with a client. When money has exchanged hands, there is an obligation to follow through. This is the commitment we make. As far as I’m concerned, when my clients sign a contract and give me a deposit, they own me on that day.
I’ll have to be in a hospital bed before I’d miss it.
And when you are spending your money, be it $500 or $5000 on a wedding photographer, it is not unreasonable for you to expect that level of commitment.
So how do you, as a client, protect yourself from The Flaky Photographer? Read on…
Number one: Make sure you’re working with someone who has a contract. This is the big one. If there’s no contract, RUN! I don’t care how much you like their photos or how much they are within your budget, a lack of contract is an irrefutable deal breaker.
Also, make sure their contract actually says what happens if they have to cancel on you. I mean, even I can’t guarantee that I won’t get hit by a bus. At the very least, the contract should agree to refund your money. Or make sure to provide (at no cost to you) a replacement photographer.
Number two: Ask how long they’ve been doing wedding photography professionally. Now, at the lower price points, you’re probably going to find people who haven’t been doing it very long. If that’s the case, it’s ok to ask if this is something they plan to make their full time job, or if it’s just a side thing. There’s no right or wrong answer to that question, but you want to make sure they seem passionate and serious, regardless.
Ask them if they’ve ever had to cancel on a client before and how they handled it.
Number three: Find out if they are willing to let you speak with past clients, so you can ask what it was like working with them. Again, if you find someone fairly new, this might be tricky. There simply may not be many past clients for you to talk to. But if you can talk to at least one, it will help give you the peace of mind that they actually have followed through with a contract before.
Number four: Ask your other vendors (reception space, DJ, etc.) if they have heard of the photographer or ever worked with them. If you are going with outside help to plan and coordinate your wedding, such as a company like Event Design, they can be an excellent resource for steering you toward a reliable photographer (as well as other vendors).
Number five: If you feel uneasy about the photographer at all, don’t be afraid to walk away. It doesn’t matter if the price is right. If your gut tells you they might be flaky, then trust it. It’s better to locate another photographer, rather than go with someone you’re uneasy about. As long as you’re planning far enough from your date, you’ll have plenty of options. But if you get left hanging out to dry close to your date? That’s when it’ll be tough to find a replacement.
Now, maybe unsatisfactory answers to any one of the above might not be a strong enough red flag (except the no contract — if they don’t have a contract, don’t even think about it). But if some or all of these add up to someone you just aren’t sure about, then it’s really not worth it for you to risk it. As I’ve said above, and I can’t stress it enough, this is a saturated enough market that as long as you’re planning ahead, you will be able to find plenty of photographers to choose from.
Look, if you’re here reading this, I’m not going to lie. I hope you’re considering Studio Orange to photograph your wedding. But even if I’m way out of your budget, I don’t want to see you get burned by someone you put your trust in. Your big day is too important for that.
I would say that, in general, most of us photographers are honest and enthusiastic about helping you on your big day. But there are a few who seem to be causing some real problems for couples, and giving the rest of us a bad name in the process. Some diligence on your part will help to keep you safe and give you a much better chance of making sure the memories of your wedding are preserved.