It’s engagement season in Chattanooga Tennessee and I’ve been lounging on the couch in my husband’s robe drinking a mix of coffee and mimosas, even on the couch I brunch. 🙂

Christmas Eve
My lovely husband lounging in the recliner on the Christmas Eve.

My husband is sitting across the room from me in the recliner enjoying coffee and playing Fortnite on his phone.

My son playing Fortnite in my Chickamauga, GA living room. (Yes, my husband made the pallet island in the background!)

My youngest son is playing Rocket League on the living room TV.

As I sit here enjoying what is the most relaxing day of the year for me, no ringing phone, no editing left to catch up, nowhere to go even if I wanted to, except Walmart in Fort Oglethorpe, GA, but that’s a nightmare I desperately avoid even on a regular day of the year. I am not a fan of the commercialized holiday, but I adore the cozy, lazy, coffee/mimosa days I allow myself to savor around the holidays because for most of the rest of the year I’m riding the struggle bus all over the Southeastern US trying to keep up with clients, editing, kids etc.

Chickamauga
My son playing Fortnite in my Chickamauga, GA living room. (Yes, my husband made the pallet island in the background!)

By the time this post is published Christmas will be over, but today is Christmas Eve and here I sit, working. My husband and I have been together for 9 years and will be married for 6 years the day after Christmas, December 26. What a strange wedding anniversary! Trust me there is a story behind it, and someday maybe I’ll tell you all the details, but for now what you need to know is that 6 years ago it was either never see each other again or get married today, by forces outside of our control. So, we lept, and it was the best decision I ever made. We got married at the Ringgold Wedding Chapel in Ringgold, GA. I was wearing a tie dye dress and I can’t even remember what he was wearing. We hired Stephanie Brinkley from Brinkley Photography to snap a few photos just so we had something to remember the day by.

I was so nervous because I had been through an incredibly bitter divorce only two years before and was still currently going through a never ending custody battle. The abuse I suffered in my previous marriage left me a shell of a woman and even at the time I married Lee I wasn’t whole again. But, thankfully, I had picked a good one on the second go around. He stuck with me and even at the lowest of times, and when I say low I mean lower than the average bear can probably imagine.

Photo from our wedding.
Photo from our wedding.

Nearly 5 years after we ran to the alter the day after Christmas, we hosted a vowel renewal, which was meant to be the wedding we never had. We were surrounded by family and friends at Cloudland Canyon State Park. It rained all morning and it was freezing, but it made for the perfect misty mountain wedding, which is exactly what we wanted. Because we both grew up in the country near Pigeon Mountain and all of the beautiful National and State parks and all of the wildlife around us, we both have an undying love for the outdoors and would sleep outside under the stars every night if life allowed it. We wanted our vowels to include as much nature as possible. It wasn’t fancy, but it was our day and we ain’t all about fancy around here. We like dirt and we like authenticity.

I said all of that to say that I know first hand how a wedding photographer can completely ruin your memory of your wedding.

I am a graduate of the New York Institute of Photography and I have been working professionally in the field since 2011. Despite KNOWING that you cannot just pick up a camera and be a wedding a photographer, I chose a green photographer because:

#1 Budget – We aren’t your typical “wedding” couple. We have three kids all three play multiple sports, we love to travel, we have a mortgage, we have 3 dogs, 2 cats…. lots of things that take priority over our silly vowel renewal/wedding. We were ballin’ on a budget.

#2 She wasn’t bad – The photos she posted on Facebook were composed well, they had decent light etc. I wasn’t looking for Susan Stripling wedding photography (Though it would have been a dream come true because she is my idol). I was looking to have the day documented tastefully and affordably. I would have been happy with 3 really great photos to display and I thought this photographer was capable of that.

I coached her. I gave her a detailed shot list. I warned her the light would be dim and asked her to please make sure she is prepared to shoot in dim lighting. I was prepared to do all of the posing and come up with all of the ideas. I did ask specifically for candid photos, because my personal style is unposed. I like authenticity. I thought we would be fine.

The day of wedding went about as well as I expected photography wise. I made a lot of suggestions and felt confident we had some good shots.

The sneak peeks she posted on Facebook were pretty good.

Then she sent the gallery.

All of the photos were around 400 x 650 pixels, too small for even a 4×6 print. I asked for the RAW files and she sent me the same unedited JPEGS that I got in the original gallery with a note saying “Here are the raw files.” It became clear at that point that she thought a RAW file meant an unedited JPEG. It does not. A RAW file is a file your camera makes with tons of information that allows photographers to edit even the worst photo into something amazing, but, after pushing, she admitted that she didn’t shoot in RAW, she shot in JPEG on the smallest possible file size setting and that is photography 101, folks. It was apparent that, though she had a natural talent, she hadn’t even so much as Googled “how to be a wedding photographer.”

Try it, go Google, “How to be a wedding photographer” and see if “shoot in RAW” isn’t one of the tips in nearly every single article on the first page of Google.

So, as I sit in my little Chickamauga home, across from my husband, who I still adore by the way, with NONE of our wedding photos on display, I am writing this article to help brides on a budget find a great photographer who won’t let them down.

#1 Education

diploma from NYIP
My actual diploma from NYIP.

My actual diploma from NYIP.

There are many, many, many phenomenal wedding photographers who have no formal education. However, one great way to find someone who who won’t leave you with 0 usable photos is to find a photographer with a formal education. I graduated from NYIP, the oldest and most highly rated photography school in the country, but there are tons, literally tons of great photography programs all over the US and many online.

I know that UTC has a fine art degree with a focus on photography and Chattanooga State has a photography program as well. I would suggest verifying their degree because I have seen photographers who boast attending a certain school but leave out the part where they didn’t graduate.

#2 Ask to see an entire wedding gallery

All wedding photographers are going to promote their best photos, but not all wedding photographers who have a few great photos take great photos all the time. Location, lighting, special moments being shared etc all create photo opportunities that make for amazing shots that anyone could snap. You want to make sure your photographer is able to take great photos in conditions that do not present themselves as amazing photo ops.

The first dance is a good example of a must have photo that often presents problems for newbie wedding photographers. It’s why you see so many outdoor, posed photos from weddings being posted on Instagram and Facebook and not a lot of first dance/reception photos. The outdoor shots are easy. Reception shots are often difficult. They are difficult because there is usually very poor lighting, which can make it almost impossible for your camera to focus. Add a moving couple, guests getting in the way and in some cases no walls or ceilings to bounce light off of and you have yourself a situation that only a trained professional can document properly.

Asking for a full gallery also gives you an idea of how many photos your photographer will actually provide you, but keep in mind that the wedding they are sending you may not have lasted the same amount of time as your wedding will, and that makes all the difference in the amount of photos you recieve.

Chattanooga
Getting ready photo taken at The Chattanoogan Hotel, downtown Chattanooga before her wedding at the Hunter Museum of American Art. There was a huge window to her left which lit the room almost perfectly. Anyone could have taken this photo.

#3 Ask to see photos in a variety of lighting conditions

Urban Lawn in Chattanooga
This photo was taken at Urban Lawn in Chattanooga, TN in the dark. The only light available outside of my own was a few strings of patio lights above them. This photo could not have been made without my lighting setup.

Because you may be sent an entire gallery of an outdoor wedding shot at 4pm, ask to see photos taken in several lighting conditions. Ask for photos taken in near complete darkness indoors, outside at night with little ambient light, lighting that creates harsh shadows like outdoors at lunch time on a sunny day (tip – if they send photos examples of harsh light taken in open shade(under a tree), they don’t really know what they are doing).

#4 Ask if the potential photographer shoots in RAW

No professional photographer will give you RAW photos, but you can ask if they shoot in RAW or JPEG. Try to leave the question open ended so they feel obligated to elaborate. My advice is to play dumb and ask what a RAW file is and if they offer RAW files to their clients. Being able to explain what a RAW file is and giving you a resounding NO as far as giving away RAW files is a good indication that they have at least a basic grasp of photography and the photography business.

#5 Ask if they are licensed and insured and ask for proof

If your photographer is based out of Hamilton County you can do a business license search here. You’ll be surprised when you find out how many photographers do not have a license. Also, ask for proof of liability insurance. Insurance is a significant cost that those side hustlers who can’t Google “how to be a wedding photographer” won’t want to fork over.

As far as the issues with my wedding photographer go, she refused a refund even though according to her contract she has to provide a refund, and she blocked me on social media and blocked my phone number and email address. I hope that since our wedding photo fiasco she made the decision to educate herself before taking anyone else’s money. She definitely had a natural talent, she just made a mistake that happened to ruin all of my wedding photos.

Please learn from a mistake I should have known better than to make and vet your photog.

Chelsea CagleArticle by Chelsea Cagle, owner and photography at Alchemy in Photography based in Chattanooga, TN.

Featured on Ascend Wood and Model Citizen Magazine, NYIP Grad, Chattanooga’s Best Wedding and Portrait Photographer.

“I grew up with Rick Owens as a role model. We went to church together and he inspired me to just go for it. So, with no clue, I bought a DSLR camera with my first paycheck from my first job at Mountain Cove Farms Store in Chickamauga, GA and I’ve been holding a camera in my hand ever since. I went on to graduate from the New York Institute of Photography and have been working professionally in the field since 2011.” -Chelsea

About Me!

I’m a graduate of the New York Institute of Photography. I have worked in the photography and arts industry in Chattanooga since 2010 and I’ve been picture making and painting since early childhood.

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