Nick Carver Photography Blog

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8 Tips for Hiring a Professional Photographer

Photographer For Hire Car Window Decal

I can't tell you how many times I've heard this story: Unsuspecting customer needs a photographer for their wedding/family photos/maternity photos. Customer goes to the web, finds a local photographer with a great website and a great portfolio. Customer hires photographer. Photographer sounds like he/she knows what he/she is doing. Photographer produces horrible photos. Customer is unhappy.

Ask anybody if they liked their wedding photographer. The answer is almost never "Yes! He was fantastic! We loved the photos!"

This is such a common story because we live in a weird age that is over-saturated with unskilled and inexperienced "professional" photographers that have access to the same web designers, logo makers, and advertising that a true, experience professional has. Both have flashy websites and advertise in the same places, so how can you sort out the pros who will deliver from the pros who barely know how to turn on their camera?

That's where I come in. In this post, I will give you 8 pointers on how to find a good professional photographer for your wedding, portraits, etc. Now keep in mind that I don't do "for hire" work anymore. I strictly teach photography and sell fine art prints. So I don't have a dog in this fight - I'm not trying to get you to hire me for your next engagement. And I have unique perspective on this because I talk to professional, aspiring professional, and amateur photographers all day, everyday. I know the red flags.

So let's get started!

1. Judge their work, not their marketing

We live in the golden age of marketing. Cheap, professional-looking advertising is available to anyone with the money. A photographer with 30 years experience looks no different to Google than one with 6 months experience. Anyone can take out an ad in a wedding magazine and anyone can get really high-quality glossy sample cards made up. Flashy business cards are inexpensive.

So marketing doesn't mean anything. Don't think a photographer is trustworthy just because they ranked first on Google or had the biggest ad in a magazine. There are so many photographers out there that are excellent at marketing, but horrible at delivering good photos under pressure. One referral is worth a thousand ads or website links, and testimonials from an unbiased website like Yelp are generally very indicative of what you can expect from the photographer in question.

And by the way, beware of photographers who plaster the rear window of their car with a big sticker advertising their photography business. No "real" professional wants or needs to do that. Great professionals who deliver the best quality have no problem getting clients. They are booked weeks or months out based purely on referrals. A big "Awesome Photographer for Hire" decal on the back of their SUV would only embarrass them.

2. Beware of heavy editing

Lots of Photoshop work and Lightroom plugins are often used by photographers to make up for a lame photo. They pass it off as a "style", but really it's because they can't get a good shot without the help of Adobe's software engineers. For a guy like me, I can see a heavily edited photo a mile away, but the average consumer doesn't have that trained eye. So how can you tell if they heavily manipulate their photos? Simple. Ask to see the unedited versions from a shoot compared to the edited versions. A photographer who is confident in what they do and who actually does use Photoshop to create a unique style - not to cover up shoddy mistakes - will gladly show you the unedited shots. If the photographer is too hesitant or straight up turns you down, just move on.

But don't get me wrong. There's nothing wrong with software editing, so long as you are okay with it and so long as it's used to enhance an already great photo, not fix a bad photo. The photographer's unedited shots should be tack sharp, well-composed, and capturing the right moment. Those things can't be fixed in Photoshop. It they then throw on a stylized vignette and smooth out some skin, that's fine so long as you like that style. But the key is that the unedited shots should be able to stand on their own as great photos.

3. 50 good photos isn't enough

That's great if the photographer has 50 excellent photos on their website, but that doesn't mean they'll deliver for your shoot. They could have taken 10,000 photos just to get those lucky 50. You need a photographer who delivers quality on every single shoot.

So ask to see more photos. Ask to see all of the final edits delivered to clients for their 3 most recent shoots. If they delivered a good crop of photos 3 shoots in a row, they'll probably do it again.

4. Anyone can get a flashy website

Flashy, template websites are available to anyone with $39.99 a month to spend on it. It's nice if the photographer has an inviting website that showcases their work nicely, but don't let that be any deciding factor in hiring them. Someone else is most likely designing the website for them anyway. What matters is their photos, not their website. Besides, most professionals with experience know that a website should be clean, easy to navigate, and not overly animated. Beginners like their websites to have lots of animated menus, background music, and other distracting crap that really just makes up for the mediocre photos.

5. A logo doesn't mean anything

You wouldn't believe how cheap and easy it is to get a professional logo made these days. You can hire some talented artist in Brazil for $100 to make up a top notch design for you. So don't be fooled by a logo. It doesn't mean anything. And truthfully, if I was hiring a photographer, I personally would shy away from anyone with a real fancy logo. Most experienced pros just use their name, maybe in a specific font, but minus the ornate designs and cutesy graphics. But again, don't get me wrong. A flashy logo isn't a definite red flag that the photographer is an amateur. There are plenty of very experienced, talented pros with ornate logos. But just don't let it play a factor in hiring them.

And by the way, I've said it before and I'll say it again, if aspiring professional photographers spent as much time honing their craft as they do designing their logo and shopping for equipment, we'd be surrounded by talented photographers. 

6. Equipment doesn't mean anything

A professional needs to have the necessary equipment to deliver a product, but really, it's not as vital as you think. A DSLR from any manufacturer along with a couple lenses is enough. It doesn't matter if they have the latest Canon 5D Mark Whatever or if they have that one lens that all portrait photographers must have. In fact, a true professional is running a business, not a hobby supported by a day job. So a true professional doesn't look forward to spending $3500 on a new camera that won't really make them a better photographer. It's an expense and it means less money to pay the mortgage, insurance, etc. Unless this new piece of equipment will actually make them more money, then it doesn't make sense to buy it - that's how a business person thinks and that's how a real pro thinks.

Also, if the photographer has all of their equipment proudly listed on their website, that's a red flag to me. Newbies like to show off to the world what equipment they use. Believe me, I know. I used to have a section on my website devoted to my equipment. It was when I was 15. But experienced pros care more about showcasing their work, pleasing clients, and keeping the business profitable. They know it's not about the equipment and, really, they want people hiring them on the merits of their photos, not for the price-tag of their equipment. They'll only bring up their equipment if you push them on the matter.

7. Experience is most important

New photographers are like new drivers - they may know how to operate the equipment, but they get distracted easily and make a lot of mistakes. Experience is the only thing that can train that out of a person. When it comes to a wedding, the photographer has to be 110% in the moment without a single ounce of energy spent trying to remember what f-stop will give them a faster shutter speed. They need to be calm, collected, and they have to be able to anticipate important moments before they happen. Newbies can't do that. They are too caught up in the settings on their camera and they simply haven't attended enough weddings to know where to point the lens.

I personally wouldn't hire a photographer with less than 5 years experience. So ask your photographer how long they have been shooting. Ask them when they first picked up an SLR camera. Ask them if they shot film previously. Ask them how long ago they opened their business and whether or not they have a business license (they should). And expect them to add 6 months to a year to their answers.

8. You usually get what you pay for (but not always)

High prices don't mean they are good or that they will deliver, but generally speaking, only photographers who know they can deliver will confidently request high prices. Really good professionals have to raise their prices again and again because their schedule is filling up too far out. And they'll have no problems asking for those high prices. They know they are worth it and they know you will be happy with the results. If they seem uneasy about their fees, then they are uneasy about their skills.

And if you are able to talk them down, don't hire them. Professionals with experience and those who aren't begging for clients aren't willing to budge much on their pricing. They might throw in some prints for you, but they won't lower their service prices very much if at all. In fact, they'll usually try to get rid of people who talk them down. They have clients lining up around the block and don't have time to negotiate. Might sound arrogant, but it's not. It's literally that they don't have time to negotiate with you because they have other clients willing to pay the stated rate and they are booked solid for weeks or months.


So there you go. 8 tips to help you hire a professional photographer. Just remember that these aren't hard, fast rules, but good guidelines. Feel the photographer out. You can tell when someone knows what they're doing and when they don't. Trust your instinct and trust referrals.

A Year in Review – Best of 2012

Well, the Mayans were wrong. We made it all the way to the end of 2012 and a new year is on the horizon.

2012 was a milestone year for me. The year started off with a bang as I finally made my way into a gallery in Laguna Beach. My new relationship with Artist Eye Gallery has been a major boon for my fine art pursuits. I'm still building up my name in the art community and I have big plans in the coming year in regards to my new releases. This year also marked the move of my business headquarters out of my home and into my own office in Tustin, CA at the all-new Nick Carver Photography Learning Center (as I'm calling it). It's been quite a ride getting the walls painted, the rooms furnished, and the new classes organized. It's a very exciting step for me.

The past 12 months saw my highest ever online course sign-ups, website visits, and profits with my private lessons growing an unprecedented 62% over 2011 and my online courses growing by 76%! The fine art side of my business also grew by 34% thanks in no small part to my new presence in Artist Eye Gallery in Laguna Beach. Plus, my work appeared in Sunset magazine this year and I made the big decision to venture back into film - a very rewarding move for me.

It was a year for the books and it's going to be tough to top it in 2013 - but I will. Thank you all for your continued support, whether it's by enrolling in a class, taking private lessons or just visiting my site and enjoying my work, I truly appreciate your contribution. I am very grateful to have so many followers, fans, viewers (or however you want to word it)! Thank you!

I thought I'd start 2013 with a blog post featuring my 5 favorite pictures and my 10 favorite blog posts from 2012. Here they are:

My 5 Favorite Pictures from 2011

Click the first 3 photos to view larger

^ This is, hands down, my favorite photo from 2012. Taken on my visit to the White Mountains of California, I photographed this ancient bristlecone pine tree in the warm glow of the setting sun over the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It's my favorite photo for a few reasons. First, visiting these ancient bristlecone pine trees was a life changing experience. I'm not going to bother trying to explain that fully in just a couple sentences - that'll come in a new blog post. Also, although this photo isn't my first 4x5 large format shot ever taken, I consider it my first truly successful 4x5 shot - the first one where I feel like I didn't mess anything up and I really did things right. 

Interior of an old barn in Utah - Ilford Delta 100 Film

^ I know this shot may not do much for most people, but it means a lot to me. Taken in my aunt's old barn in Utah, I really love this shot because of the memory tied to it and the fact that I shot it on 35mm black and white film. I spent time inside the barn, soaking up the rich textures and dramatic light with nothing more than my camera and a ladder serving as a makeshift tripod. Good times. See other photos from that shoot here and here

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes at sunrise in Death Valley National Park, CA

^ This is another one of those shots that didn't get a huge reaction out of people compared to my other pictures from this trip, but there's just something about it that I like. I took it during a one-on-one destination workshop with a student to Death Valley who was nice enough to bring some beautiful sunrises and sunsets with him. I made this picture on 35mm Provia 100F film at the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. If you know me, you know how I love sand dunes and film. So I guess this picture just brought those two together perfectly for me. See the rest of the pictures from that trip here

Sunset in Crystal Cove State Park, CA

^ Taken with my trusty old Canon 5D, I liked this picture so much that I chose it for the cover of my 2013 wall calendar. If I'm honest, I don't remember taking this photo as well as I remember most shots I take. No special memory tied to it, no special feelings or emotions - the composition just worked out well and the waves came in at just the right angle. See more shots from that sunset here

Run-Down Houses Near Lee-Vining, CA off Highway 395

^ Yet another vertical photo. Hmm...I guess I had a thing for vertically oriented photos in 2012. Anyway, I was pleased with this shot because the clouds were kind enough to break at just the right time in just the right spot. The fresh snow of the incoming storm laid down a beautiful blanket of white to spruce up this old shack outside Lee Vining. I love me some inclement weather, so the memory of the storm alone is enough to put this image in my list of favorites, but I'm also happy with how the composition worked out and how the sky turned out with the use of my tried-and-true split NDs. No HDR here, just good ol' filters. See more photos from that trip here and here

Top 10 Blog Posts from 2012

10. Tips & How-To: Understanding Lens Names - view
Lens nomenclature is ridiculous. A lens name has more abbreviations and code than a Thomas Guide. This post should help. 

9. Video From Death Valley Trip - view
This video probably didn't impress my readers as much as it did me, but it gives a nice behind-the-scenes look at one of my trips to Death Valley.  

8. Choosing a Tripod - view
There are too many tripods out there. This article will help you sift through the options to find the right one for you.   

7. How Many Megapixels Do You Really Need? - view
With the release of the obnoxiously over-megapixeled Nikon D800, I thought I'd give you the straight dope on how many megapixels you really need.   

6. What Lens Should I Buy Next? - view
Be wary of "Gear Acquisition Syndrome" (GAS) and buy equipment you really need, not what internet forums tell you you need. 

5. Choosing a Telephoto Zoom Lens - view
Here are my recommendations for telephoto zoom lenses organized by price. Buy the right one from the get-go.

4. Shooting Film in Death Valley - view
I've been to Death Valley many times, but this was my first with a film camera.  

3. Nikon is Backwards - view
The Nikon vs. Canon debate is stupid. That being said, let me tell you why Nikon is the backwards one.  

2. The Virtues of Film: Tangibility - view
This post has gotten a lot of response from my readers. I guess it strikes a certain chord with people. 

1. Venturing Back Into Film - view
This post may not be as informative as some of my other posts, but it marks one of the most exciting decisions I've ever made in my career. 


So there you have it. Goodbye to 2012. You've been good to me.

I hope 2013 brings you, me and everyone in between all the prosperity, joy, and growth we can handle. Stay positive and stay grateful. 

The Virtues of Film: Tangibility

This is the first in my new series of posts under the heading of "The Virtues of Film." With my recent venture back in to film, I often get asked "why'd you go back?" I usually respond with "I could write a book on why I've gone back to film." So here it is, the first chapter in said book. 

The Virtues of Analog PhotographyThese are photographs, not 1's and 0's

Those of you who are close to me know that I'm "old timey" at heart. I like the whole vibe of the turn of the century - late 1800's to early 1900's. The fashion, the technology (or lack thereof), the fact that things were built in America, the robust cast iron construction of old machinery and the way things were designed back then, the muted colors, the music...I just dig it. The way I designed my website is a perfect reflection of my affinity for the old timey style. I even dress old timey when I'm in the mood.

But it goes beyond simply the look and feel of these old times. There's something else to this period in history that speaks to me. And the best way I can describe it is in one word: tangibility.

It was a time when dialing a phone meant rotating a wheel that had some resistance to it instead of tapping intangible pixels representing faux-3D buttons on a glass screen. We wrote letters on paper with ink and dropped them in a mailbox. Now we shift pixels around on a computer screen, sending a bunch of 1's and 0's out into the ether that we trust will be reconstituted into a matching arrangement of pixels at the recipient's end.

Pixels have replaced tangible maps, books, calculators, phones, notepads, record players, phonebooks, and even money. Yes, money. Think about it. You get your direct deposit, you see the pixels change in your online bank statement, you pay bills electronically, the pixels change again. How much of your money do you actually get to hold and touch?

Pixels have replaced things. The tangibility of our daily lives isn't what it used to be.

I know, I know. I love my iPhone, too. The digital revolution is awesome and it amazes me every day what we can do with it. Information is always at our fingertips and everything is accessible now. It's great.

But I feel like this degradation of tangibility is unhealthy for society. We need tangibility. It's gratifying. We all know it's gratifying. That's why it feels so good to build something yourself instead of buying it or hiring someone to make it. It's why a long day of spring cleaning is ultimately so rewarding. You accomplished a goal or you created something. You did it, you can look at the finished product, you can touch it, everyone else can see it and touch it, and it ain't going anywhere just because you turn the power button off on your computer.

This is a big factor in why I shoot film. I like the tangibility of it. It's rewarding.

One thing I've always hated with digital is that it leaves me feeling like something's missing. There was always a small void in me at the end of a shoot. After all the effort, time, and planning I put in to creating a photo, I felt like I had nothing to show for it. Sure, I had pixels on a screen that represented what I captured, but nothing more than that. All it took was a power outage for my pictures to be unreachable.

Digital photos don't exist on their own. They only exist in the presence of electricity and a computer screen.

I don't like that about digital photography. I can't touch my digital photos or hold them in my hand. I could only look at them on a powered up computer screen or phone. Sure, I could touch a print, but that's not the original. A print is just a facsimile of the original creation. I want to touch and feel the original. And the original digital photo is just a bunch of 1's and 0's on a hard drive that looks like nothing more than a clump of metal.

With analog photography, I have a roll or sheet of film that I can touch. I physically put that film in my camera, made an exposure, then I put it in chemicals I could smell and that I mixed in a jug with weight and heft to it. I clipped that film to a clothesline to dry. Then I looked at those images on a light table that I could touch before storing them in binders that I have to open and close and store on shelves in my office. And even if I have a lab develop the film for me (like I do with color film), I have exposed film that I hand off to another human being who will then return it to me in a box that I can open and touch. It's all tangible. It's all actually really there. It's all there for me to touch and see. And I don't even need electricity to do it. I just need a window with some sunlight behind it.

35m film slide in front of windowLook, ma! No electricity!

For me, this tangibility with film puts it on a completely different level than digital. It's the difference between the tactile experience of driving a car versus playing a racing video game. And for all you digital fanboys out there thinking "That's ridiculous. I now it's not that different. The instant gratification of digital, the freedom to take as many photos as you want, and the fact that it's really all just photography anyway - there are a million reasons why digital is better and more rewarding."

Well, maybe "to each his own." But I wouldn't go waving the flag for digital until you've used both extensively. Who knows? Maybe there is a big void in your photography that you don't even know is there. Maybe your photography could be a thousand times more rewarding than it already is. And with how rewarding digital photography already is, imagine how much greater it could be with film.

But don't get me wrong. Film isn't for everybody. Digital is much better for many subjects like sports, family photos, wildlife in many cases... Besides, film never fails to weed out the real photographers from the fair-weather pixel jockeys of the digital revolution.