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How to hire a professional Raleigh Wedding Photographer

A quick look at weddingwire.com will tell you that there’s roughly 56 pages of wedding photographers that service Raleigh, NC. Now granted that’s more than just the people with ‘Raleigh Wedding Photographer’ on their website, but it’s also quite a long list of names.

To get started with choosing a photographer for your wedding, let’s talk first about what being a professional photographer actually means.



“Professional Photographer” seems pretty clear cut. If we emphasize professional, it means anyone that photographs for money. Merriam Webster says “(of a person) engaged in a specified activity as one’s main paid occupation rather than as a pastime.”, so is that all there is to it? Being a professional is simply collecting enough money where it’s now your main paid occupation or is there something else? How do you tell the good from the bad? What traits should someone have if they’re going to be shooting weddings?

Fine art dramatic engagement photo in new bern north carolina



So if ‘professional’ is stuck focused on money, what standard are we left with determining a professional photographer? Well, “photographer”. A photograph is “an image created by light falling on a light-sensitive surface”, so it should follow that a photographer is someone creating an image by light falling on a light-sensitive surface. This is where we start to thin the herd. Of course everyone taking a picture, be it iPhone or top tier camera, is in a way making an image by using light, but their awareness of the light, their control of it, and their ability to adapt to it is where we truly start to dive into what actually defines the modern professional photographer.

Kid playing in the waves on wrightsville beach in north carolina



When the light is good, you can get away with a lot less on the ‘equipment’ side of things. The image above was one of those moments where the light was just perfect, so my iPhone did the job perfectly. Had I tried to take this picture after sunset? It wouldn’t look nearly as good. In order to be a photographer, it has to come back to your light. Always. There tends to be this idea that photographers ‘have a good eye’ and that the image always boils down to composition. While composition is important, a well composed, poorly lit image belongs in the trash every time. Natural light, speedlights, constant lights, or strobes, a professional should be willing and able to adapt to whatever light is around them. Look at the light in the images below and realize how crucial it is to the image’s beauty.

Dramatic bridal portrait at wrightsville manor NC
This image was taken in an empty venue with just the chandelier on. By placing one light source (an orange flash) in the fireplace, and another to the bride’s left to light her, I was able to create a dramatic portrait in the middle of an otherwise empty scene.
This image was taken in Rangeley, Maine, and is actually a self portrait of my wife and I. Again, it had two light sources, but this time just one in front and one behind. The other thing to note here is the light from the stars in the sky (a nice clear shot at the milky way) has to be factored in to be just right.


So… Weddings?

Right. So now that we know light is important, let’s talk about the light on a wedding day. Of course everyone hopes for sunshine and rainbows on their wedding days, and sometimes we actually get it. The next image I took while working at the Pleasantdale Chateau with my friend Josh Lynn, an extremely talented wedding photographer who was gracious enough to let me share this image, and the light was just a dream. It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes you can just show up, look towards the couple and just start shooting. Check out the gorgeous rays of sun coming in behind the couple here. So little needed to be done to this scene that it almost felt like cheating.Natural light and airy wedding photo taken at pleasantdale chateau in New jersey

So the image above is great, and one that I’m particularly proud of, however it’s not really a great indicator of what light on a typical wedding day looks like. I’ll shoot in this light all day, but a lot of timelines get messy, clouds will slide in, and suddenly that beautiful light you were hoping for has turned to dark rainy skies. What happens then? Well if a photographer should be focused on light before anything else, they’ll adapt. Remember that dramatic bridal portrait from before? Here’s what it looked like taken with my good old iPhone. Wrightsville Manor with nothing setup
Not quite the same effect, huh? See when light doesn’t cooperate, it’s the photographer’s job to adapt to the environment and make it work. When hiring a wedding photographer in Raleigh (or anywhere for that matter)… ask them what happens when it rains, when the timeline runs late and you have to do all the pictures after dark, or how they’d take nighttime pictures outside with nothing but an empty white wall (and a dumpster around the corner) and remember… a picture’s worth a thousand words.

rainy day wedding photo at the inn at millrace pondoutdoor winter wedding twickenham house west jefferson nccreative indian wedding nighttime photo


So what other traits should I look for in my Raleigh Wedding Photographer?

So now that we’ve (hopefully) covered light there’s a few other things that need to be covered. Backups, experience, and equipment.


No photographer is ready for the professional world of weddings until they’ve got a backup system (or more accurately two or more backup systems) in place. Current professional grade cameras come with two memory card slots, which is incredible. That means that while photographing your wedding a photographer shooting on the right equipment will be generating a backup with every image they take. No memory cards getting lost, no memory card corrupted and lost someone’s wedding day. A pro knows how precious your wedding is and wouldn’t let anything stand between you and your memories. Certainly not cutting corners on the one piece of equipment they absolutely need to do their job. And of COURSE they’re going to have a backup system for the files once they get home placing every image from your day in at least three places and a cloud backup… but maybe make sure to ask anyone you’re considering hiring to shoot one of the most important days of your life… you know,  just to be sure.


The first wedding day you photograph is a weird combination of herding cats, getting hit by a truck, and taking a physics exam. You get the job done, and you get better. If Mastery comes after 10,000 hours of doing something, it’s safe to say that getting good at it probably doesn’t come after shooting your cousin’s wedding to build a portfolio. Make sure whatever photographer you hire to photograph your wedding day, be it in Raleigh or across the globe, has done enough weddings to feel comfortable with what they’re doing. You wouldn’t want a doctor performing surgery on you if they’d only spent 10 days in the operating room so far. Everyone starts somewhere, but this is your wedding day. Leave it to the pros.

Fun photographer pose inn millrace pond
How experienced photographers do photography. Or so I’ve been told



The thing no one wants to talk about, either because it’s too nerdy, or because it offends someone, but whether we want to discuss it or not, there is a baseline to what equipment can handle all the conditions a wedding day can throw at you. From dark reception halls, to fast moving moments, to the ability to plan ahead for a difficult ceremony, obviously an iPhone isn’t going to cut it, but truth is, most SLR’s that you’d grab at best buy won’t either. We already covered that a professional photographer’s camera should have two memory card slots, but it also needs to be able to work well in low light. Without getting too technical, the name for those cameras is ‘Full Frame Cameras’. The Full Frame speaks to a lot of things, but they perform well in low light, and allow a photographer to let more light into the camera before it gets grainy using what is called ISO. Again without getting deep into the nerd talk here (I used to work for two camera companies and have built cameras from parts, let me have my nerd paragraph) a professional photographer’s cameras should be able to provide clean images at at least 6400 ISO. Feel free to ask them if their camera can, and if not? Maybe keep the search open.

Other than camera, the lenses are just as important. A professional photographer should have lenses ranging from 24mm (for all those wide group shots) to 200mm (for grabbing those ceremony moments from an unobtrusive difference). All of their lenses should also have apertures (wideness for the light to come in) of 1.4-2.8 at a max as well. Wedding days aren’t always well lit, it’s our job to be prepared.


Wrapping up

There’s a lot to consider when you hire a photographer for your wedding. Obviously. But I hope this helps shed some light on the subject. Hah. Sorry. Horrible photographer pun. Couldn’t help myself.

Everyone thinks that they’re good at their job, and of course a lot of people mean the best, but the truth is there’s a lot more to being a wedding photographer than ‘a good eye’. Raleigh has some of the trickiest venues around when it comes to light, and you want someone to be prepared. Obviously I have a bit of a bias here when it comes to photography, but when you make the choice of who to hire on your wedding day, factor style into the mix, but not at the cost of ability and experience. Ask your top choices the important questions first, make sure they’re even able to shoot your wedding, and then dive in. When all the pieces come together, you get… a professional photographer who can create a memory between you and your now husband enjoying the fireworks on your wedding day, that weren’t planned, because his light was ready to go after the first crack and all that he had left to do was to wait for the moment you turned to your husband and realized you were finally married.

candid firework wedding photo

These images were taken with combinations of a Nikon D4s, Nikon D750, Nikkor 85mm 1.4G, Nikkor 45mm Tilt Shift, Nikkor 24mm 1.4G, Nikkor 70-200MM F/2.8G and three off camera SN-910 Speedlights with an assortment of MagMod modifiers. All images color corrected with Adobe Lightroom and none of them are photoshopped.

Raleigh Wedding Photographer Dave Shay is available for wedding and couple’s portraiture along the entire East Coast and worldwide. To see more work from Raleigh Wedding Photographer Dave Shay, please head over to the portfolio page.

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