Cheyenne with makeup artist getting ready for wedding

Avoid Fake Wedding Portfolios – How to Spot a Styled Shoot

The wedding photography world is different than it was when we first started out two decades ago. You now have unlimited resources to find every vendor online. And when you find a wedding photographer’s website, it’s easy to think that what you’re seeing is real. You’re drawn to gorgeous bridal photos and believe that they’re from a real wedding. It may not even occur to you that they’re not from a real wedding.

We are here to help you with that. We don’t want you to be fooled by fake portfolios. How do these photographers even get fake portfolios in the first place? It’s simple: styled shoots.

bridal portrait in Monterey
This should go without saying, but all photos on this page are NOT styled shoots.
Kayla & Jake's wedding.

The Styled Shoot

When wedding photographers are first starting out, they lack a solid portfolio. Since, if they are newbies, why would they have anything in a portfolio?

There is a trend among wedding photographers, namely photographers who are just getting started in the business: styled shoots. These have gone on for several years, but for some reason they are rampant lately.

A styled shoot on its own is not necessarily a bad thing, but when photographers use them for the bulk of their portfolio, that’s a big problem.

What is a Styled Shoot?

A styled shoot is a carefully controlled photography session. It is staged by a host, who is sometimes the photographer. Every vendor involved pays a fee to be a part of the styled shoot.

The vendors are typically hair and makeup, florists, and a photographer. Depending on the type of styled shoot, other vendors are also considered. Models are hired to play the part of the bride and groom. This means that not only are the models perfectly dressed and made up, but they are unnaturally beautiful and know how to pose for ideal photos. None of this mimics real life.

Rentals are usually used to bring the staging together. Rentals typically include decor, clothing, and anything else the host and vendors prefer.

At the end of the styled shoot, the vendors end up with gorgeous photos that showcase their best work. And this is their best work, and may always be their best work, since it was in a controlled setting. It lacked the hurried timeline of an actual wedding day.

bride and groom dance outside Kohl Mansion
A first dance, with a real bride and groom and their very real guests.
Rachyl & Nick's wedding.

Why would a photographer participate in a styled shoot?

Most wedding photographers in a styled shoot are newbies. They don’t have a portfolio that they built themselves, and are relying on a styled shoot to build that portfolio.

Often, photographers use photos from the styled shoot to convince couples of the quality of their work. They even match their pricing to high-end photographers, which is unfair when you're expecting a seasoned wedding photographer.

Why are styled shoots a problem?

They’re a problem because they’re too easy. You want a photographer who has been through the ringer, who has experienced both the good and the bad. Someone who knows what to expect.

During a styled shoot, there are no hiccups or mistakes. They are able to shoot for several hours to get perfect shots. In a real wedding, we have 30 to 60 minutes (or often only 10 minutes) to get perfect shots.

There is no pressure during a styled shoot. Working under pressure is part of the experience that a wedding photographer needs.

Ultimately, it’s a huge problem because photographers use these photos to trick couples. They’re cheating couples of beautiful photos that they deserve to have, and will not get if they hire them.

We love this blog post from a few years ago about how "perfect" wedding photos are usually fake, due to the popularity of styled shoots.

Jennifer and Aaron kissing at Ardenwood wedding ceremony
You won't see ceremonies in styled shoots.
Jennifer & Aaron's wedding.

So, how should wedding photographers build their portfolio?

The way the rest of us did it - over time and with mentorship. We recommend that rookie photographers work under an experienced photographer at multiple real weddings. They need the experience of a day under intense pressure, timelines, and different personalities. Wedding days always have hiccups. Good wedding photographers know how to handle every scenario with confidence.

New photographers using a styled shoot as their main portfolio simply do not have the experience that you need on your wedding day.

How do you spot a fake wedding portfolio?

Red flags:
No guests
No bridal party
No reception
No dancing
No ceremony
Only bride and groom shots

A portfolio filled with bride and groom shots only is the biggest red flag. If you don’t see any photos of the rest of the wedding party, the guests, or the wedding ceremony and reception, you may be dealing with a fake portfolio.

However, some photographers’ best work are the bride and groom shots from real weddings. If you really love their work, ask for a full album. All good photographers will show you an entire wedding gallery. With digital albums as the norm now, it’s very easy for them to send over a link.

Can I spot an inexperienced wedding photographer by their pricing?

Surprisingly, no. Their pricing isn’t related to their experience.

If a newbie wedding photographer is using a styled shoot to build their empty portfolio, they often do not price accordingly. If anything, they make their pricing equal to or more than the local competition. This implies that they are experienced and high quality, which is far from reality.

Questions to ask wedding photographers

If you are unsure about their portfolio, ask them two questions:
-Can you send me links to full wedding galleries?
-How many real weddings have you shot?

A photographer may tell you that photos you love are from styled shoots. That alone is not a reason to not book with them - just make sure you ask for full galleries.

Other red flags

There are other red flags that you need to look out for:

Inconsistent testimonials from all social profiles, including Wedding Wire, The Knot, Yelp, Facebook, their website, etc. Do lots of digging and make sure that reviews are consistent across all platforms.

No contract. All good wedding photographers have a contract. If they don’t have a contract, run!

Don't Compromise

Don't make compromises when choosing a wedding photographer. You need someone who you know will take photos that you'll love. Look at multiple portfolios to feel confident in your choice. Read testimonials on multiple platforms, look at full wedding galleries, and be suspicious of portfolios with only bride and groom shots. We know that you'll end up with a photographer you love and trust if you keep your main goals in mind.

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