Here is an interesting fact.. most people can't tell a good photograph from a great photograph. We can all pretty much see it when a photo is BAD. But comparing photographers (not to mention having to choose one to hire for your family portraits) can be incredibly difficult simply because it's so hard to tell who is really good at their job and who is really good at seeming like they are.
Professional photographers can look at one another's work and instantly know the quality and caliber of it. How? It's very much based on years of experience and learning.. but there are certain tell-tale signs that instantly show whether someone is worth hiring for your family or baby portraits.
1. Are the images are sharp and in focus?
We will start off with a very clear technical indication whether a photographer is up to a professional standard.. Are the images in focus? Seriously.. It doesn't matter whether the kids are super cute and smiling in the picture if their faces are blurry. Specifically, the eyes should always be sharp (as in, you can count the eyelashes, sharp).
There are several reasons why a person's face can turn out that way in a photograph. The equipment might not be up for the challenge of moving children (high-end lenses are faster at focusing). Or, the photographer doesn't know how to use their equipment to make sure things are correctly in focus. Furthermore, sometimes softness is introduced after the fact, during the retouching process (on purpose!).
In reality, this is the one complaint I hear over and over again from parents that work with other photographers. They can't understand why the photographer delivered images that aren't in focus. And trust me, everyone knows the difference just by looking at the pictures.
Sometimes this one is hard to predict.. because photographers don't usually post these types of images on their websites. Read #4 below for how to determine whether this is something you should worry about with the photographer you're considering.
2. Do the skin colors look right?
The second big technical tell is COLOR. It's one of the hardest to master because the photographer has to develop the skill to visually tell whether the color in their images is correct or not. If the photographer you're considering has photographs with green-ish skin tones (this often happens when people are photographed on a grassy lawn outside) or orange tones (portraits taken during sunset), you know they aren't yet paying attention to the color aspect of their work.
Side note! This is one of the reasons I recommend hiring a specialist for the type of family portraits you're looking for. For instance, if you want portraits on the beach, hire the photographer who does them every weekend. They will know how to best capture your family in that situation and will get the colors right. And don't, under any circumstance, hire that beach photographer to take family portraits in the park. Or hire someone who typically works with adults to do family photos (hint, they probably don't have enough experience with children!). Look at the work the photographer is presenting and hire the person who's already doing the type of work you're looking for! This seems so obvious, but many people will get a recommendation from a friend who may or may not actually be a good fit for THEM.
3. Is the work consistent?
Consistency is another sign that the photographer isn't there yet. When we start out (and that's ALL of us), we try all sorts of different things to narrow down and develop our style. You can generally tell if someone is all over the place with their photography when you focus on consistency as the benchmark. Is the photographer capable of creating a cohesive look? If the photos are in different settings, do they still look like they were taken by the same person?
The main reason why this is so important for you, as the client, is because you absolutely want to be sure you will receive the type of work that you're seeing on that photographer's website. Because if the work isn't consistent, if the photographer hasn't yet learned to create a specific style of images for each and every client, you simply don't know what you're going to get in the end. This is one of those things that people pay of lot of money for (think Annie Leibovitz, you can always tell when a photograph is hers, right?), but most people don't realize how important it is!
4. Are the photos good outside of the portfolio?
If you take enough photographs, just about anyone can amass a selection of 20 really really great shots. That's why looking at a photographer's portfolio (usually featured prominently on their website) gives zero indication whether they're actually good at taking photos. The biggest (and possibly the only) difference between an amateur and a professional photographer is the fact that a professional can capture 20 stunning images within 1 hour, while an amateur can do the same, but within a much longer time span (a month, a year, etc).
Some, much better, places to look at that photographer's work are their Blog or Instagram feed. Because of the typically large amount of photographs posted, you will get a much better overview of that photographer's abilities. Look for the points mentioned above: are the images in focus, with correct color, and looking consistent across the board? If yes, then you know you've found someone who won't let you down!
5. How much do they charge?
This is probably the simplest sign of a photographer's experience. It doesn't require any knowledge on your part, or much effort really. Simply put, photographers who are really good tend to charge more.
When we start out, as we grow and learn, we learn not only about photography, but also about business. When you start reaching out to photographers for pricing, someone who is charging a lot less than others is probably just starting their photography journey (and listen, there's nothing wrong with that.. we've all been there!). And if a photographer is charging a lot more than you thought photographs could ever cost, probably has the experience and the expertise to warrant those prices.
There is a big difference between doing photography as a hobby and running a photography business.. and often you can very quickly get the sense of which is which by looking at the prices. And hey, if you don't mind hiring a hobbyist to take your family photos, go right ahead! Just know that the level of service might not be up to par with a professional business, that's all.
One more thing...
No matter how good a photographer is (or any small business, for that matter), if they're unresponsive (as in, won't reply to your emails in a timely manner or return your calls), you shouldn't hire them, period. Working with someone should be a pleasant experience. The person you're paying to do a job should do it properly and should leave you happy with the result. Yes, it's a creative task, but it should be done with professionalism, too. And understanding what to look for on your part is definitely half the battle!