I tell you, the longer I'm at this as a wedding photographer myself, the more I'm keenly aware this isn't simply about having a talent for taking a photo. Talent alone is not enough.
1. First and foremost, yes, you want to see a great portfolio of work. Because after all, it's the work you're going to end up with. And so you want to see the photographer you have in mind consistently produces the same quality work, wedding after wedding.
But you also want...
2. A photographer that does what it takes to get the shot. I don't mean in a they knock people out of their way or disrupt the proceedings and get obtrusive to get their photos kind of way, but in that they don't stop five seconds short of getting the best image, looking for the easy or most convenient way instead or hanging it up with a "that's good enough." That photo's going to hang around for the next 125 years or longer. It's worth a few additional seconds of effort to nail it the best way possible.
3. Patience. A wedding's a live event and nothing seems to happen on time even when it is on time. So you want someone who doesn't have a short, immature fuse. Patience is a mature character trait. Much of which we may call "professionalism" are the very same attributes as those found in a developed, mature character.
4. An ego that knows its place. Many photographers are artists and artists have egos. Everyone has an ego, actually, but artists seem to be extra known for theirs. Ego is a double edged sword. On one hand, it fuels ambition to excel. It can drive the photographer to outdo their personal best. That's great. On the other hand, when it gets bruised, it can become a spoiled prima donna and act out. That's not great. Or it can inflate one's sense of self-importance. And at a wedding that's not so great either.
It's a matter of character again. The right professional knows how to keep his or her ego - the bad part -- in check.
5. Understands what it means to have you as their client. As a client, you're under the photographer's care and protection. They're there to take care of you regarding your photography experience with them. They're there to provide expert guidance in your photography decisions. They're not there to sell you whatever stuff they have. Whatever they offer you needs to be with your best interest in mind, as if you were their little sister or brother.
6. Fits in and relates to everyone. Nothing could be worse than bringing in a person who's insensitive to your loved ones or guests, or even to the other professionals you have working at your wedding. Yet again this is another character trait that also manifests as a desired professional trait. The photographer should be courteous, respectful and gracious to all, and consider everyone they meet at your wedding as significant no matter who they are -- and treat them as such.
In some circles perhaps it's acceptable to have a photographer who prompts smiles in photos by humorously using obscenities or being crass, but if that's not your circle don't embarrass yourself or your families and guests by bringing in someone who doesn't fit your social scene.
7. The ability to take a hit, roll with a punch, land on their feet -- and keep going. It's a live event. Even the ceremony which may be rehearsed a bit, isn't choreographed and rehearsed sufficient times. So many things may happen that present obstacles, delays and glitches throughout the entire day. But as the task at hand is to come out with consistent results no matter what, and the day doesn't halt for any one, the everyday situations which may present themselves as difficulties have to be surmounted, and quickly.
8. You want someone who knows exactly how to take advantage of and optimize every circumstance encountered throughout the day to deliver the best images possible under those circumstances. This of course requires accumulated knowledge, a well of expertise and honed skills. But that translates as the ability to know specifically what to do in every situation they encounter to provide the maximum results.
9. Has a vision. Photographs with a purpose. This is the difference between a true photographer and a warm body with a camera. It's the difference between someone who takes a picture and someone who crafts an image. That purpose is what gives definition, a backbone if you will, to the images.
10. And you want someone who leaves you feeling only one certain way after it's all said and done. Because there are three ways you could feel when you see your photos after your wedding. You could feel the photos are terrible and your money was wasted, and I wouldn't wish that on anyone. You could feel satisfied, that the photos are adequate, nothing to write home about perhaps but good enough. Or you could feel thrilled.
I think you'd want a photographer who leaves you feeling only thrilled.
By this time next week, I'll probably have another trait I think would've been essential to add to this list. If you've got a good one, let me know. Write me at my New York Wedding Photographer Facebook page with it.