I get asked, often, for helping choosing photographers for friends in other cities. I love doing it. I go to google, search, skip pages, open random links, and see what I find in their price range.
I thought it might be helpful to write a few... "things to look for" when looking for a photographer -- my top things that I look at when I then link my friends or when I am just perusing sites/blogs.
Look at blogs - not sites. If there is an option, click on their blog. always. Websites generally have the "best work" that the photographer has *ever* done - as opposed to most recent work. Hopefully they have more than just one "peek" per session so you can get a feel of all of the types of photos that they do for each family/person/newb/etc. It is easy to look "good" when you have been in business for a few years and get 1 lucky shot a session and then put it on your website. Clients need to see that there is a whole gallery full of those amazing photos - and a blog is a good place to look for that. Even going to their business facebook page and show you what they most recently did. Don't be fooled by fancy sites with subpar work.
Focus - first and foremost, photos should be in focus. This is often hard for people to see, though -- there is a difference between "i think thats in focus" and "crisp, wow, omg i can print that 24x36 on my wall" focus -- especially when looking at family shots. A lot of photographers who are still learning, tend to use their lenses at the lowest aperture possible - which leaves for a very small depth of focus. When they do this with a family that is posed in a group, people will be out of focus -- so you get, maybe, the middle person in focus, but those around them are soft. Their faces are clearly not as sharp -- look for this!! Also, there should be no blur. Don't just bypass the fact that a toddler's hand is blurred bc its waving around - that means they are not using their shutter speed correctly.
Alternatively, ALL of the photos you see on their site should be sharp - if you see some that are not, think to yourself that this photographer either 1. didnt see the difference 2. didnt think you would 3. or their gallery is just full of lucky/unlucky focus shots - which means that is what youre getting.
Exposure - this is, a lot of times, taste. I tend to take brighter photos. Some photographers tend to present rich/darker photos, but either way, they are still technically correct. Some things for exposure to look out for.... 1. so bright that detail has been lost in faces, white/light colored clothes, or blankets. 2. so dark that its [not purposefully] grainy. Generally, I see a lot of photos with the former -- white shirts that look like they have no folds in them and it hurts my eyes. Or newborn white blankets that look like the baby is on a texture-less cloud.
Use of light - whether your photographer shoots with the sun behind you with sunflare and haze or if they find some shade and shoot rich photos in the clouds, look at where the light is. No photos should look as if the subject is looking INTO the sun. Conversely, if you see photos where the side of someone's face is completely "blown" [ie: totally over-exposed with no detail], that can show you that they don't know where to position their subjects.
Overdone editing - everyone has a different style. that is what makes choosing a photographer so hard. Whether you like clean/true to life photos, hazy/vintage photos, contrasty/heavy photos.... you can find the photographer for you - but one who does it correctly. A few "warning signs" would be - heavy vignette [where you can actually SEE a black or white rim around the photo], overdone eyes [obviously too blue/green and sharpened after the fact. or extremely overdone whites of the eyes], vintage feel where the client's skin has changed drastically [vintage doesnt mean green ;)], unreal colors [so saturated that it look like a color pop went to far].
Remember that all photographers edit. A lot of photographers shoot RAW. They need to be "finished" and polished. If your photographer, even one that shoots jpeg, just shoots and says they'll burn it onto a CD that day -- that is a "red flag"
Business Legalities - a few things that can tell you that your photographer is 1. legal 2. paying taxes can be noticed when looking at prices and booking. Here in Texas, we have to pay state sales tax. Now, while your photographer may have already added that into the price -- its easy to ask them "so is sales tax included or do you charge that on top?" and see what they say. Another thing that is a MUST is a contract. Do not use a photographer who doesn't have a contract at all, if you ask for one. Its possible that they forgot to send you one at one point, especially during busy seasons, so just ask! If they do not have one -- there's a reason.
Not having a contract only leads to problems for the client -- a contact should list exactly what youre getting... prints? minimum number of images you will receive? do you get any digital images at all? do you have to pay more after the session? do you pick the images or does the photographer? will you be getting a print release? how long do sessions usually run? what is the photographer's turn around for editing/sending your package? ---- all of those things must be outlined BEFORE you shoot or you may be in for a surprise when things, in unfortunate instances, go wrong. If the photographer is not held accountable by their own contract, then who are they held accountable to?
Look at pricing, also - if you think youre getting a good deal bc a "professional" is charging $50 for your session - you can almost guarantee that they are not paying taxes. Otherwise, if you did the math, they are making less than minimum wage for your session. Some photographers are learning or portfolio building and, therefore, charge less - understandable. But full blown "I have been in business for a while, but want to be affordable!!!" photographers [likely] are working under the table. There is a fine line between "affordable" and "I am not paying taxes so it all goes to me!!" Of course finding a photographer in your price range is important -- sometimes its THE determinant for clients - and that is something photographers understand, but don't forget that you deserve the most for your dollar.
I want to say that everyone makes mistakes. When first starting, did I make some of them? of course - as a photographer AND a client. But that is the best part about learning --- sharing what you learned with others! No matter who you choose, you deserve the best that you can get. You deserve photos that can be printed HUGE on your walls without any problems. You deserve photos that stand up to the tests of time.