By Josette Keelor
You've said yes to the ring, and maybe you've said yes to the dress. You've chosen your location, selected your wedding colors and assembled your bridesmaids.
Whittling down the endless options can be paralyzing to brides all around the country as they plan for a day they'll never forget, but increasingly one choice continues to baffle brides and grooms alike: photography.
Whether you want to hire your best friend or the best money can buy, area photographers have some words of advice for prospective newlyweds.
What's going to influence couples most is what they can afford to pay.
After recently planning her own wedding, Front Royal photographer Melody Williams reconsidered how she runs her business, Born Free Photography.
"I see how stressful it can be for a bride, especially when you're on a budget," she said.
"I was shocked by the pricing," she said. "It made me rethink how I price."
She said she's willing to accommodate couples more than she was previously. Now in business five years, Williams, 33, said she offers contests and other incentives to prospective clients. This month she's offering a free photography package to the winner of a love story-writing contest.
A typical package she offers is a proof book of 200 4-by-6 photos or a CD from which couples can choose their favorite 200 prints. Williams shoots thousands of photos per wedding, she said, "And my style and taste might not be their style and taste."
The smallest package she offers is the $750 Aristocrat, which includes two 8-by-10 prints, 10 5-by-7 prints, up to four hours of coverage and a proof book. She also offers custom packages without standard pricing.
"I don't want to turn them away," she said. At one time a single mother, she said she understands the difficulty in paying for a wedding on little means. She customizes wedding packages based on what the client wants and can afford, and she said working a separate full-time job allows her to offer better pricing to her clients.
"I do lots of engagement photos," Williams said. "I ask them if they have done [any] yet." If they haven't she added, "I will nine times out of 10 throw it in with their wedding package."
"I like being the hometown photographer that works with the community."
Brandon S. "Shane" Warren, a professional photographer in Inwood, W.Va., only shoots up to 12 weddings a year because commercial photography keeps him so busy, but he said the schedule helps him appreciate the work even more.
"If I was a bride, I would look for the most experienced guy with the nicest portfolio for the best price," he said.
Also, he said, look for photographers who have shot previously at your venue.
"Find the one that made it the most appealing," he said. He carries two of everything, like cameras and light reflectors. "That's so we don't get bottle-necked by some bride's venue."
Even the most beautiful wedding location can present lighting issues, particularly for an ill experienced photographer, he said.
Warren's pricing probably won't attract couples with a strict budget, but he said if they hire him, they'll get their money's worth.
He does offer bare bones custom photo shoots, but for his most popular packages -- $2,899 for six hours or $3,399 for eight hours -- couples receive a disk with print rights on high resolution photos to use through Shutterfly or other photographic printing websites, watermarked photos to post on Facebook, and $250 toward a complimentary post-wedding shoot with high quality prints.
"You get everything in one hit," he said. "If they want an album, they add it on later."
Also, they'll get two photographers, he said, "So you're fully covered."
Because he often travels up to three hours to shoot a wedding, he said he teams with a professional photographer local to the wedding destination who is as good as or better than he is. If in an emergency Warren can't make it, he still can guarantee that an equal or better photographer will be there.
"A lot of the new photographers don't have insurance," he said. What if the photographer trips over the deejay's equipment and damages it? What if the bride's grandmother trips over the photographer's tripod and breaks her leg? He said luckily he's never had any problems, but he has liability coverage just in case he does.
Cost aside, the deciding factor of which photographer to choose depends on how important illustrating your wedding is to you, Williams said.
"It's kind of tough, and people are all about saving money," she said. "Some people I've found don't care if their pictures are out of focus." A professional photographer for five years now, Williams, 33, tries to help couples with even the tightest budgets, but there's a difference between cost-effective photography and cheap photography.
"I think it all boils down to having those pictures to reflect on," she said. "You really get what you pay for nowadays."
When clients come to her with a backup plan of choosing a friend over a professional, she offers them visual comparisons of what hiring her might mean for their wedding album versus what using an amateur photographer might mean.
If they're still unsure, she reminds them of a real possibility: "Well, your friend's going to get drunk at the reception."
"You can't relive the day," Williams said. "If they mess up, those memories are gone."
And she's seen the results of inexperience, too.
"It honestly looks like a train wreck," she said.
Warren has been studying wedding photography since he was 15.
After following around professional photographers for a couple years, offering his help for free so he could learn the business, he practiced for another 13 years. He'd made a pact with himself that by the time he turned 30 he would be his own boss, and he did it.
Now 34, he tries to offer the most unique wedding photography experience he can to couples in Maryland, West Virginia and northern Virginia.
His first experience with photography in high school had him rethinking his perception of art, he remembered recently.
In an art design class he took, the goal was to "be expressive," he said, "Do what you like."
Then he took photography and learned, "Hey, there's rules."
"I did the opposite of what the teacher told me," he said. "I rebelled. But everybody noticed my work." The teacher gave him a failing grade because he didn't follow the assignments but later told Warren that his work had shown ingenuity.
"I'm still the same way," he said.
With Warren, couples can expect the must-haves.
"Everybody gets a first kiss shot," he said. He does first dances, he does wedding parties. But he also goes extreme.
"Everybody does ring shots," he said. He finds them boring, so he looks for alternatives in each situation.
"When they [brides] look at photographers, they all look the same," he said. Websites like the photo-sharing site Pinterest offer great ideas for brides, he said, but they also provoke a generation of brides who all want the same photo, and they all want it in the way one photographer shot it.
For that reason, Warren is skeptical of working with a bride who hasn't seen his work.
"If they love your work, you're not going to fail them," he said.
"I try to design the pictures on them. I go in with no lists." But he does go in with a knowledge of what the bride and groom like. "It's all signature, it's all original."
If he thinks they're adventurous enough to try something different, he'll suggest it.
That's how he got his "money maker shot," of a couple kissing at Maryland Heights, overlooking Harper's Ferry, W.Va. He'd been wanting for awhile to make the hour-long hike up to the look-off during a post-wedding shoot, and the right couple made it happen.
"I get a lot of compliments from guys, which is rare," he said. "I'm selling to the guy a lot too."
While brides tend toward the brightly colored photos, Warren said his grooms lean toward black and white. But he cautions couples not to be swayed by color alone, because a photo's tone, subject and composition are what sets apart the average photographers from the great ones.
"Take his pictures, turn them black and white, and then you start to notice all the flaws," he said.
You want to know what your photographer is capable of doing, Warren said. Couples should ask, "In this situation, what would you do?"
"It comes down to your lenses and your lighting," he said. The equipment he uses, "It's for going into a room completely black."
When shadowing photographers during his first few years, Warren learned never to get within eight feet of the couple while taking wedding photos, and never to stand in front of the couple's parents, such as during the cutting of the cake. It's something he's noticed amateur photographers have not learned.
The day belongs to the couple and the family, he said, not the photographer.
"Find places that you can hide," he said. "It's better to have [a photographer] that's good and respects the sanctity of the wedding." A good photographer knows how to disappear, he said.
As for Williams, "I find myself being everything." Besides photographer, at each wedding she becomes an impromptu wedding planner as well.
"I've done almost everything," she said. "You're whole goal that day is just to make the bride feel comfortable and safe."
Other considerations she suggests making when searching for a photographer are their references, their friendliness and their willingness to adapt to any situation.
In September, at a wedding for Dusty and Amy Cornwell in Bentonville, Williams said, a tornado warning changed their plans last minute, making their intention of outdoor photos unsafe. So Williams met with the couple on the next available sunny day for a post-wedding shoot.
"I did it no extra charge."
"It still was as if her complete dream had happened," she said. "So you also have to find someone who's completely accommodating, willing to help."
Mainly it's about finding a photographer who works for the couple and their needs.
Look for confidence, Warren said, and trust your instincts.
Of the bride, he said, "She's the one with the money to spend, and everyone with a camera is willing to take that money. And that's the scariest part."
For more information about Born Free Photography, visit Born Free Photography on Facebook or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about Brandon S. Warren Photography, visit icanstoptime.com.
Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or email@example.com