I have some friends who booked a wedding photographer, thinking that this person had their best interests in heart and a desire to capture their special day in creative detail so they'd have memories to last a lifetime.
That's not quite what happened. Their photos were of low quality, the photographer was incredibly unprofessional, and the entire experience left them soured on hiring photographers as a whole. My friend asked me to write this, so that other people wouldn't have to go through the same thing that she did.
There are some sketchy photographers out there, more than we'd like to admit, and they can misrepresent themselves, sometimes even steal other people's work and pass it off as their own. (This is not a joke, Stop Stealing Photos is dedicated to exposing these people.) So how does someone who's never booked a wedding photographer before in their lives know what to look for to make sure that their photographer isn't going to swindle them or give them sub-par photos that don't look anything like what they were promised?
1- Investigate their website. They should have a variety of images to look at, not just a few. Take the time to look at the photos together. Do they seem to have a style in common? Do they have a similar level of polish? Are they edited in a similar way? If a photographer's website has wildly differing style and skill of images that could be an indication that they are perhaps not all from the same source. Also check out any online reviews on places like Yelp or Wedding Wire. There usually aren't a lot of reviews for many photographers up (it's not something you normally think of reviewing on Yelp) but generally if there was a terrible experience, a bride usually wants to warn other brides.
2- Meet in person and ask questions. Before handing over any money, you should get more information and definitely ask important questions. You should trust your gut and if the photographer makes you feel uncomfortable in any way you should look for someone else. They should be open and not evasive on any of your questions. If it seems like what they're promising is way too much for what they're charging, and they don't give an adequate reason as to why, look for another photographer.
Don't be afraid to ask a lot of questions! All of the reputable photographers I've worked with and met are more than happy to answer any and all questions potential clients have.
The top 5 questions I suggest:
1- Ask to look at a few full wedding shoots. You can see what they cover, how well they covered the event, and more than just the best couple of images they include on the main website gallery. If they are unwilling to let you look at one, I would look for a different photographer.
2- Ask about a second shooter or assistant. Some people use them, and some people don't. If it's important to you to make sure that the coverage is as full as possible, you might want to find a photographer who shoots with a partner.
3- Ask about contigencies. Do they have a backup shooter if they get sick or injured? (I definitely have one, all photographers should.)
4- Ask in detail what is included in the package. Get an itemized list if possible.
5- Ask for the name of a bride or two they've shot who would be willing to discuss their experience with the photographer. They should be willing to get in contact with a previous bride for your reassurance.
3- Get a contract, and READ it fully! This is so vitally important. A contract is important for both parties, but it can protect you. It should detail their contigency plan, their pricing schedule and amounts, and have information on how to contact them. If something goes wrong (fingers crossed that it doesn't) and you end up in litigation for some reason, a contract will be necessary to prove that you were not given what was agreed upon. Get EVERYTHING in writing. If something in the contract seems confusing or suspicious, ask for clarification.
Your wedding is probably the most you'll ever spend on photography in your life, so you should get the best quality that you can afford! The only tears you should have on your wedding day are tears of joy over getting married to the person you love, not due to your photographer.