Have you ever found yourself in the following situation? You are researching wedding photographers, either as a prospective client or as a photographer scoping out the competition, and encounter the following:
2. A wedding magazine declaring the best wedding photographers in the country
3. A photography website listing the top 100 wedding photographers in the world
On a superficial level, these designations are quite impressive. But when the fascination has subsided and the analytical part of your mind awakens and you have a good think about it, you wonder: who ranks them? And based on what, exactly? I did this and decided that most attempts to rank the top wedding photographers are an utterly meaningless endeavour.
Although my fascination with this subject has existed for several years – researching the Toronto wedding photography market when starting my business – the direct inspiration for this article was two related experiences.
The first was an unauthored Toronto Life article (advertorial seems more apt) titled, “Wedding Guide: The Best Wedding Photographers in Toronto”. It listed seven wedding photography companies and included contact details and brief descriptions of their approach. Most notably absent was information about how they compiled the list.
I pointed this out in the comments beneath the article, writing, “Is it an honest opinion about the best photographers in town based on experience and polling, or were these spots paid for?” (Unsurprisingly, no one from Toronto Life believed my question was worthy of answering.) This was two years ago, and I was recently reminded about the article’s existence by several photography inquiries I received as a result. I impressed some readers with my forthrightness and because, unlike most of the other commenters, I chose not to engage in link-spamming the discussion.
The second experience involved a new Facebook friend of mine, English wedding photographer Ian Weldon. In early April, Ian posted a link to wedding photographer Nicholas Purcell’s list of the “100 Best Wedding Photographers in the World”, which included Weldon. (That list was further reduced to an arbitrary ten by The Carousel).
Purcell compiled the list by reaching out to wedding photographers he respects, asking them to nominate other photographers, and then poring over those portfolios. Quite obviously, a less flawless method for selecting the top anything has never graced the earth. The resulting list of the “100 best wedding photographers in the world” was presented in alphabetical order. To his credit, Purcell admits that many were left out, and that his list could have easily spanned a thousand photographers (but…). Further to his credit, at least he did not list himself, because that would be embarrassing.
The Problem with Creating Lists of the Top Wedding Photographers
The difficulty with any list of the top wedding photographers is that they are either a) arbitrary, b) favorites by another name, or c) based solely on portfolio images. In the Toronto Life example, the wedding photography companies appear arbitrarily chosen. They presented the list without any explanation or introduction. This lack of transparency in the criteria used for judging takes away from the objectivity and authority of the results.
Superficially, inclusion in the article seems bought, and that is a major problem because the article could be honest and could be right. Unfortunately, its exclusion of any quantifiable supporting material, such as client satisfaction, contest wins, or social media presence, leads me to suspect its legitimacy: it fails to answer the crucial question of why?
Nicholas Purcell’s article, while being less obviously dubious, is not free from subjective bias, being a curated list of favorite wedding photographers as decided by him based on the caliber of their portfolios. It is not my intention to question his choice of favorites, because doing so is impossible, since it is a matter of aesthetics (as futile as arguing about favorite colors).
At issue is the assertion, made via the title and introduction, that these are the best wedding photographers in the world, period. Additionally, inclusion on the list was based entirely on the wedding photographers’ portfolios, which is not an accurate measure of quality. Ranking the ultimate skill of a wedding photographer based upon their portfolio, as opposed to their entire body of work, is like ranking television shows by their strongest episode or musicians by their best songs, all the while assuming, rather naïvely, that it is a fair representation of the best.
Bad shows can have exceptional episodes and one-hit-wonders can top the charts and then fade into uninspiring careers. A true sign of the mastery of wedding photography is consistently good performance beyond the hits. For top wedding photographers, this would mean digging deeper, beyond the portfolio, and into the deliverables. Surely, no photographer is delivering portfolio quality work with every image they send to their clients, but each has a bar representative of their average performance. Should this not be the defining feat?
A system that ranks the best by their hits creates an inherent bias against those whose overall work is superior but whose hits are not as exceptional. The reality is, a photographer’s top images can result from chance (especially for wedding photojournalists), whereas good and consistent performance throughout all of their work is a more desirable trait, and in my opinion, a greater measure of overall skill.
Alternatives to Ranking Top Wedding Photographers
Most wedding photographers do not show their full body of work, and I’m no exception. Privacy is the main reason; in retail photography, most of what you shoot is not meant for public consumption. Wedding photographers are hired to record emotional, private events, and do not wish to violate their clients’ trust through excessive sharing. This leaves us with portfolios that are not representative of photographers’ overall consistency of product. Even worse are lists presented with authority but without explanation; they are absolutely meaningless and not worthy of our consideration. We can overcome this impasse by relying on objective and quantifiable measures of quality.
The following are a set of suggestions for objectively ranking top wedding photographers using measures that are relevant to both the business and the art, but not as susceptible to the subjective bias art is known for.
Top wedding photographers by revenue.
This would be interesting. Here, “studios” as opposed to solo photographers, would have the clear advantage, and thus the category would require splitting. In either case, the assumption is that when you are making the most money, you are courting the most demanding clients and thus doing something right. What generates revenue? Shooting many weddings, commanding high fees, or some combination of both (the most likely case).
Top wedding photographers by number of weddings shot annually.
This, too, would require splitting between multi-photographer studios and solo photographers, as the differences could be too dramatic. Furthermore, some wedding photographers specialize in just shooting the ceremony, sometimes shooting multiple events on a single day, which would be impractical and too onerous (and risky) for the typical full day photographer.
Top wedding photographers by number of weddings, ever.
If a photographer has photographed more weddings than any other, does that make you the best? That depends solely on whether you believe that experience is directly proportional to skill. Whatever the case, good luck proving the numbers!
Top wedding photographers by number of awards won.
Awards may be judged by expert panels, peers, or the public. Each individual judgement may certainly involve subjective bias. The subjective opinions of each judge combine into a reasonably objective aggregate when a wedding photographer develops a pattern of winning across multiple awards. The results will indicate a pattern of mastering the art. The trouble lies in deciding what submissions qualify for consideration, portfolios or full weddings?
Top wedding photographers by number of features in wedding and photography publications.
This is similar to awards, but not necessarily as a result of entering contests. Photographers are more likely to be selected by panels of judges experienced with either weddings or photography (depending on the publications). Despite the decisions being based on subjective preferences, multiple features across different publications demonstrates real skill. However, it is more than likely that these would be based on portfolio images alone. Disclosure of the process will allow readers to judge the utility of the results.
Top wedding photographers by number of positive reviews (Yelp, Google, etc.).
This is very straightforward and does not require explanation. Better yet, since the reviews are done by the clients, you are reading impressions of the photographers’ full wedding performance, not just the hits.
Top wedding photographers by unique website visitors.
If they have the lion’s share of the wedding photography web viewers, they must be doing something right. People would not be flooding to their website to view inferior work… unless it was a viral joke.
Top wedding photographers by number of inquiries received.
If you are getting more inquiries than most other wedding photographers, you must have a lot of demand. This may require price subcategories, because I am certain that some of the wedding photographers popular for their budget-friendly fees may see many more inquiries than those charging a regular month’s salary or above.
Top wedding photographers by number of times they have been referred to as the best by relevant publications.
Being featured by photography and wedding publications is one thing, but having them declare you one of the best is a far greater accolade. Assuming they are playing by the suggested rules, consistent praise throughout various independent sources can act as a kind of meta-analytical praise.
Top wedding photographers by peer review.
Similar to the first phase of Purcell’s approach, but requiring a larger base of nominators (not just the photographer’s respected by the compiler). This technique would work well within the confines of a photography group or association, as long as everyone understands that its authority does not extend beyond the group’s immediate membership, since they would be ineligible for consideration.
Note: When results are based entirely on subjective appeal, and where such judging is unavoidable, it is important to establish who should participate in judging. Judges could be other wedding photographers, wedding industry peers (planners, makeup artists, videographers, etc.), or clients (past, present, and prospective). Wedding photography’s raison d’etre is client demand and delight, because that is what drives sales and profits, so it is appropriate to ensure that their preferences are included. A simple “expert” and “clients’ choice” poll would suffice.
When Subjective Rankings Are Unavoidable, Explain Your Results
Ultimately, some of the above suggestions are based on subjective preferences, submission of portfolio images versus full weddings, or both. To foster honesty in ranking the top wedding photographers in the world, we have to be transparent about how the results are derived. For example, creating a list based on the highest rated wedding photographers on Yelp with over 50 reviews allows readers to determine whether the list has utility for their individual needs. Creating the same list but leaving out the method of its results will create suspicion and distrust.
Let us be open about how we assemble these lists – whether or not they feature me. ;-)