Even though as a Wisconsin wedding photographer I believe in showing a good portfolio, I advocate to all couples that a simple collection of highlight images isn't enough to hire a wedding vendor. It's too easy in the 21st century to steal images, put up a fake website over night and start collecting checks from clients, and there are thousands of documented cases of these scams.
Anyone -- photographer, florist, uplighting, caterer, planner -- asking for your investment should be able to produce credible examples of her own work, whether a third-party's pictures used with permission (for non-photographers) or her own pictures.
I'm going to teach you how to identify probable sources of images so you can decide if the person you're researching is worth your investment.
If you find an image used elsewhere, it's probably stolen, but there are some other possible explanations.
The person may have legally purchased the image from a stock company, in which case he has permission to use the image, maybe even commercially. But does that represent their own work, and why don't they have real images of their actual work? If they're charging you money to provide something for your wedding, demand to see real examples of their work, not stock images anyone can download.
Vendors who don't normally take pictures, like florists or caterers, may be using images that other photographers or parties have taken of their work. This is OK as long as they have permission, but the wedding industry and especially photographers frown on the use of third-party images without permission.
Often, a vendor simply steals images without permission or credit to represent her own work. This happens not just with photographers but DJs, florists and almost any vendor category. They steal the work of a professional, put up a free website with some generic text and try to book clients. If someone has stolen images, they're likely running a scam and you should avoid them especially when there are plenty of professionals who don't need to steal to earn your business.
Some photographers use duplicates of the same images cropped differently to make it appear as if they have more images than they actually do. Before hiring a photographer, always ask to see at least two complete wedding galleries or albums so you know the precise level quality and consistency you're getting for your hard-earned money.
There are no excuses. If they don't have enough weddings to give you a juicy sample, what have they been doing as a photographer? More importantly, what have they been doing with everyone's money, and how will they treat yours?
The goal is to know what you're getting and be comfortable with it -- beginner or expert -- which is difficult to do without a portfolio that's fleshed out.
Stop Stealing Photos is a blog dedicated to exposing image thieves. It compares source images to stolen images and documents the infringement. You can also report someone to Stop Stealing Photos but it's easier to do via the Facebook page Photo Stealers. Search for your vendor by name. The site rarely lists other vendor categories, however.
If someone is asking a professional fee to perform services at your wedding, you have the right to ask challenging questions that test their experience, knowledge and ability to perform. Ask about how they photograph in challenging light and get examples if possible. Ask about their process, training, procedures, which are all second nature to professionals, even an obsession, but vague for the inexperienced and scammers.
Always ask to see at least two complete wedding galleries or albums, not slideshows as those are only highlights. Anyone can take a few decent shots at a wedding, but a galleries or albums will give you a good idea of a photographer's consistency and quality throughout the entire day across multiple weddings.
Ask to see your photographer's Wisconsin tax registration certificate. Photography is a taxable service in Wisconsin and photographers are required by law to charge and collect sales tax. If your photographer doesn't have a certificate, she's not a business.
Again, the goal is to know what and whom you're getting and be comfortable with it, and avoid scammers and cheaters. If you know you're getting an inexperienced hobbyist who may not meet expectations, there's nothing wrong with that. But if you just assume all photographers are qualified and get the cheapest one, you, like thousands of brides each year in Wisconsin alone, may not get what you intended.
Wisconsin Circuit Court Access
It's amazing how much trust couples place in random people that about 80 percent of the time they found online. Check Wisconsin Circuit Court Access for all the names of the people involved in your wedding vendor's business. With larger companies with a physical retail presence, this may not be as much of a concern, but it never hurts to check. It's rare that anyone scams couples only once. WCCA will tell you if a person has a history of judgements against them. Also check the BBB.
Report the stolen images to the original photographer if possible and use your best judgement in hiring a vendor. Any vendor who's asking you to pay professional prices for services should be able to provide many examples of their own work, not images they've stolen, purchased or used without permission or credit.
Any dishonest use of images, dismissive behavior (not answering calls or emails/not responding to requests), or anything that feels unprofessional should be taken as a full indication of what you can expect on and after your wedding day.
Remember, there are no regulations on who can be a florist, videographer, DJ, caterer, photographer or planner, and your only recourse is with the vendor or small claims court. It's your job to vet your vendors thoroughly.