After more than a year of preparation, in March 2015, I was awarded my Licentiate with the prestigious Master Photographers Association. Definitely something to shout about, but since that day, I've been so busy with weddings, engagement shoots and family portraits that writing this blog - and in fact, blogging generally - fell off the to-do list. Well now, some eight months later, with my last wedding of the season this weekend, I've decided the time has come to talk about being qualified as a wedding photographer.
OK, so I'm proud of what I've achieved, but why write a blog about it? Two reasons: The first, for wedding photographers seeking qualification. When I first embarked upon my licentiate journey, I was hungry for images and information from other photographers who'd been through the process, and found this hard to find. And the second? For couples planning their wedding. At virtually every wedding I photograph, guests tell me their stories of disappointment in their own wedding photos. A minority have told of nightmare scenarios of receiving mostly out of focus images or heads cut off (and not in a trendy, show off the funky socks kind of way either). Or photographers heading straight for the bar once the group photos are completed (yes, really!) But while devastating for the couples involved, these stories are fortunately rare; the more widespread concern I hear is disappointment with photos that were only 'OK' and bore little resemblance to the amazing images displayed on their photographer's website. Competition is indeed fierce in the wedding photography industry. And apparently nowhere more so than the South East corner of England, a rumour I'm inclined to believe. For many couples planning their weddings, photography is of the utmost importance - they want all those months of choosing the perfect venue, accessories and cake to be perfectly recorded, not to mention the one time in their lives (most probably) when all their favourite people in the world are together, in one place, and looking their best.
Gone are the days when - pre-Internet - couples would head off to their local photography studio, look through an album or two and select the package which best suited their budget. Nowadays, the bride- and groom-to-be are spoilt for choice, with a myriad wedding photographers popping up online at the click of the Google button. Purchase any bridal magazine to see a plethora of images advertising local photographers, not to mention the online click-through ads that decorate the 30-or-so largest wedding blogs out there.
It's not surprising that many couples feel overwhelmed and simply don't know where to start.
Wedding photography is, I believe, in a period of transition. It's only really in the past ten years that digital photography has become mainstream, and in the past five or so that professional level SLR cameras have become affordable to the keen amateur. For every couple that chooses me as their wedding photographer, at least one will be asking their 'Uncle Bob' to do the honours, an phrase that has become synonymous with the keen photographer with a decent camera at a wedding. This isn't necessarily a negative - some amateur photographers have honed their skills over many years, and have a great eye for a photo. But equally, it can be disastrous, and has proved one of the biggest causes for regret for many couples understandingly seeking to reduce their costs. Photographing a wedding successfully is about far more than owing a professional camera and couples need to do their research.
As with most things in life, the key to making an informed decision about wedding photography is understanding the pros and cons of different styles and approaches, and exactly what's involved. For a start, it's not just one day's work! Book Jenny Rutterford, and you'll receive a pre-wedding shoot, a site visit and at least three full days of editing. Then there's the viewing session - handing over the images in your home along with a stunning video slideshow that you can keep and show off to family and friends. And running a successful business is not just about images - there's the accounting, insurance, equipment maintenance and myriad other tasks that befall the sole trader.
To make an informed decision, the client needs to know exactly what it is that they want. It's often only when couples sit down with me to discuss their weddings in detail, and we talk about what they haven't liked about photographers at weddings they've attended, as well as the types of images that appeal to them, that they are able to pinpoint what's important to them from their photography. This, in turn, helps them to prioritise their budget, and narrow down the choices.
So, to return to the subject in hand, when choosing a wedding photographer, do qualifications matter? Many of my clients are professionally qualified - doctors, lawyers, teachers, accountants - and most expect their photographer to have a certain level of accreditation. But whilst I know this from my conversations with them, very few actually ask. There is a general assumption that all wedding photographers are qualified professionals. However, this couldn't be further from the truth. The fact is that anyone with a camera can call themselves a wedding photographer and attract paying clients. The barriers of equipment cost and technical know-how have dramatically lowered with the advent of digital photography, and without any formal regulation governing wedding photography, the flood gates have opened.
Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. Competition is good for the industry and, I believe, keeps us wedding photographers on our toes. There are photographers to suit every budget and style, and with the many and varied venues and options out there, this is all good. However, where it falls down, is where client expectation is not met - whether they've paid £500 or £3,000 for their wedding photographer. This is the main gripe I hear, and certainly an area where qualifications can help. One of the reasons I decided to become qualified with the Master Photographers Association (MPA) was its stringent evaluation process. As qualification is not mandatory for the industry as a whole, and I do have an honours degree in an un-related field, I knew that if it wasn't sufficiently rigourous, I wouldn't value it, and therefore, could hardly expect my clients to either. Unlike other industry bodies, the MPA only permits photographers to become full members once they have passed their Licentiate qualification. The examination consists - among other things - of rigorous assessment of 20 images, 10 of which must be from one wedding, and 10 from at least 7 different weddings. The judges are looking for technical merit, lighting, posing and creativity. Key to the assessment is showing competence across all parts of the day, in all different lighting environments - from, for example, the indoor ceremony, to couple photos outdoors, to group shots, the first dance...
Why is this so important? Well, it would be easy to choose a photographer on the basis of his or her lovely couple photos - all taken outside in picturesque surroundings. Many wedding photographers starting out take their first portfolio images on training courses, using models. Everyone's got to start somewhere, and as long as they are upfront about this, and honest about their level of experience, that's fine. You may well nab a bargain. But if you are looking for reassurance of consistent photographic quality, come rain or shine, in the darkest church, candlelit barn, or outside in bright sunlight, then it certainly makes sense to check a photographer's credentials against more than the images they choose to display on their website.
While weddings do, in the main, follow a pattern of events, from my perspective as a photographer, every wedding is different - different weather, lighting, timings, and of course, very different personalities. Being able to adapt to any situation at a moment's notice is key, and is one of the reasons why many photographers who excel at studio-based work refuse to do weddings. No matter that you've just set up lights ready for the first dance - one of the guests has brought sparklers, and the bride drags you outside and excitedly asks for impromptu photos of sparkler hearts, like the ones she's seen on a blog somewhere. Quick - grab the tripod!
Adaptability is part personality and part experience. If you know instantly how best to capture any given situation - with the right combination of equipment, composition and people direction - then you will produce consistently great images throughout the wedding day, and from one client to the next. This is where experience comes in, and why the MPA insists on a minimum of about eight different weddings to be represented in a licentiate submission. They must be real weddings too - images from a training portfolio are not only achieved with models and amazing locations, but also with expert direction and plenty of practice time. In a real wedding, the photographer must nail it instantly or will miss the shot.
Eight months on, do I feel that achieving Licentiate has made a positive difference to my business? Absolutely! The process of having my work evaluated by a respected industry mentor and scrutinised by a team of experts certainly took me a long way out of my comfort zone. But in return, I've gained confidence and a unique selling point in a saturated marketplace. One of the challenges is educating prospective clients about the benefits of choosing a qualified photographer, something which I hope this post has begun to address. Certainly, clients who've booked me for their 2016 and 2017 weddings are reassured by my qualification. Equally, having access to other qualified MPA members in the event of an emergency provides peace of mind - not only for my clients but for myself too.
So next year, Associate? (The next level of MPA qualification.) Well, probably not next year; it wouldn't be valuable if it was easy and I intend to embark on some advanced level training and put that into practice for the season ahead. The most important thing for me is to keep growing and pushing my own boundaries to produce the best and most innovative work for both myself and my clients. And if you're reading this as a photographer considering whether MPA qualification is right for you? Please do contact me, and I'll be more than happy to discuss the process in detail. And if you're a bride or groom looking for a photographer, please get in touch with me here and let's arrange an informal meeting to help you take the first step in understanding what's really important to you from your wedding photography.
PS All images in this blog were included in my successful Licentiate qualification submission with the MPA (Master Photographers Association)