As wedding season approaches and people are inquiring, I've come to the realization that I need to express my thoughts and opinions on the importance of ensuring you hire a good photographer.
The first thing I want to point out, from my own personal experience is: don't go cheap. A lot of people feel that hiring a photographer is expensive; well yes, it can be, but the one thing you will take away from your wedding day and have forever are the photos. The food, the music and entertainment, the venue, these are all things that you only experience that day and through memories you can enjoy them, but often memories are easier to recollect when you have photos to look at.
Secondly, pay attention to the quality of work. Now I know that I look at photos in a different way than an average person would - I understand the technical side of photography, so I pay attention to things like lighting, depth of field, composition and so on. You don't need to understand all of this to know what to look for; simply go through a photographers website and look for yourself. Do they have a lot of content? Do they limit their content? Do all photos look the same?
Why does this matter? What the untrained eye might not understand is that if a photo is off, meaning out of focus or the aperture (depth of field in this case) is off or the lighting isn't right; you can't really fix these things. On a computer screen or your mobile device, they might look great, but when you go to blow them up for print, the information isn't there and the photo will not look good.
I know that one of the common trends lately is the soft focus look. That's fine, not everyone wants to look at their photos and have them tack sharp, but what people might not understand is that a tack sharp image can be softened up and toned down; the information is there and archived for you to adjust and edit. However, the opposite doesn't hold true - you can't take an image that's out of focus or if it has a shallow depth of field and make it better; the information isn't there on the original file.
What a lot of people don't realize is that what you find appealing based on looks is merely an editing technique. It's a rather simple process and easy to apply to an image when you're using your editing software. I am the type of person who enjoys a sharp photo and I love using fill light (flash). I want to see the detail and the reason I like lighting is that it creates another dimension between your subject and the background that wouldn't otherwise be there. When you shoot with natural light, everyone is on the same meter meaning that it all blends together. Introducing a fill light allows you to meter for your background and adjust your fill light to have your subject standout from the rest of the frame. I think it looks far better as you put your subject on another plane separate from the rest of the image.
Below I have posted some examples to visually explain what I am addressing above. I know some of this may sound a bit complicated, but when you can physically see the differences I think you'll grasp the information above much easier.
A) This is an example of a correct edit according to the histogram in Lightroom. What that means is that my highlights, shadows, whites and blacks are all at their proper exposures.
B) For this image I added a contrast curve in Photoshop. This dials back the highlights and contrast areas while giving a film-like finish to the image.
What I am trying to show in the examples above is that often the difference in a photo you see and like can simply be the editing style in which the photographer applied. Editing is a personal preference and most photographers will choose the style in which they finish your images. I, personally, like Option A - the reason being; I like images to look real and authentic, like you would see it in person. That comes from my background with landscape - I am a firm believer in replicating what I saw with my own eyes. That said, I'm also the style photographer who prefers to talk with clients and cater to their needs, after all, they are the customer.
A) This is an example of what a difference fill light makes. In this particular example, I used two separate lights. There is a light in an octabox about 8' overhead of the model; behind her another light on a reflector. The overhead light almost recreates sunlight; the light spills down over the subject in a very natural manner. The light behind the subject is there to create some detailed glow on the background behind her. The final result is a subject that stands out from the rest of the image as a result of using different lighting outputs for different aspects of the image.
B) This is shot without the use of any additional light: this is what you call "natural light". It looks nice, however, the subject is on the same plane as the background in terms of light exposure. It definitely does look nice, especially when the photographer understands aperture and can distinguish the subject from the background through depth of field, but without fill light you can't really create numerous planes of separation.
I enjoy natural light: it's far quicker and easier to shoot, but I would much rather shoot with lights when possible. The unique difference you can get in working with lights is incredible, and you can also get really creative by using different lights and modifiers in different ways. Fill light introduces an entirely new spectrum of photography that you wouldn't get without the use of light.
I hope this can be helpful and informative. There are a lot of fantastic photographers out there, but at the same time with such a saturated market, there are a lot of photographers who really don't grasp the technical side of photography, and that will make a big difference in the products you are provided. Look around, ask questions and decide based on your overall appeal to the photographers work and their personality. It may sound cliché for a photographer to refer to their services as an "investment", that's exactly what it is. It's an investment into your future, something that will happen in a day, but you will carry the final product with you for the rest of your life.