It’s a bargain!

Every once in a while this topic gets brought up again in my mind, and I just feel the need to put some of it down.

It is no surprise that, as a photographer, I notice the countless people who want to get some kind of reduced rate on photographic services – and because of this, I may be mistaken when I perceive it to be extremely common. It certainly doesn’t help that I peruse Craigslist fairly frequently. Most common are the pleas for a cheaper wedding photographer, someone to just “take a few pics and put them on a CD,” but also prevalent are the searches for a photography student to “build their portfolio” and provide services on a TFP deal – this means “Time For Prints,” or basically a trade, the model’s valuable time and experience can be compensated by the photographer providing free prints, or nowadays a CD of images. In exchange, the photographer can use those images as marketing or stock of their own.

For some reason, I never see anyone seeking out a medical student to diagnose their illness, or an auto mechanic to trade repair services for the opportunity to have worked on some classic car. Yet it seems very common for people seeking photographers. I have been approached myself on a couple of occasions, but have only fallen once for this little tactic. It occurs to me that perhaps someone may benefit from hearing the various reasons why such appeals aren’t all that appealing.

Let’s assume that I’m a professional wedding photographer. This means that I not only have a decent camera and lenses, but several of each, because equipment can fail at the worst times. And the lenses aren’t those cute little things that come with the average camera kit, because the quality and properties of those aren’t going to produce competitive results – and yes, since I’m in business for myself, I’m going to keep ‘competition’ very firmly in mind. But, if I’m smart, I’m also going to keep a couple of other things in mind, like the overhead of the business itself, which includes not just the equipment, but the support network of wedding expectations, which means editing suite, computer storage space, the services of a decent photo printer (no, not some consumer inkjet piece of shit, but a lab service,) an account with album wholesalers, a knowledgeable assistant, and let’s not forget the business insurance and advertising, neither of which is cheap. Unless I really love the demands of wedding photography, I’m also going to want to make a little scratch for myself while I’m at it – that I pay my own income taxes on as well. Health insurance package for the self-employed? Yeah, those are cheap, too…

I don’t work for just those three to six hours of the wedding and reception – I’m busy in advance, meeting with clients and hashing out what they want (often for several hours,) and perhaps either renting or cleaning the tux. I’m checking all of the equipment and backups, cleaning it, charging batteries, packing lights, and making sure everything is ready to go, plus using my own vehicle for all of this (gas and repairs and insurance.) Then following the event, I’m picking through hundreds of images and selecting the best, putting together proofs and albums, and maintaining all of the necessary records of a small business, plus making it all look snazzy for the customer. I might have several events on any given weekend in the high season, but not a hell of a lot during the week, and virtually nothing during the winter. Yet, I’d better be around to answer the phone and schedule meetings during that season, since that’s when people are planning.

My costs are all up front, from equipment to advertising to processing costs to travel, with the exception of a deposit. I’m not getting paid until after the honeymoon and the proofs have been reviewed and the subsequent prints are done – and then the happy couple finally schedule the last meeting (that means usually four trips just to see the clients, and perhaps four to the lab, depending on proofing methods.) This might mean settlement comes nine months after first contact, and if I’m doing any kind of decent business, this is what every client is doing, so I’m continually spending and waiting for the reimbursement.

And, I’d better have experience, because that’s what people want from a photographer – otherwise the guests could handle it, right? And that means lots of time learning the trade, from getting good results consistently (and being a bit creative) to knowing how weddings work and what shots everyone wants. And the part that no one ever thinks about, which is knowing how to handle people and work with them, producing nice poses and honest smiles so the shots don’t look like cardboard cutouts pasted in front of a church postcard. Not to mention that very few wedding clients are models, but I’d better make them look as much like one as possible. If you think this is a minor thing, try it sometime. How often have you shown off a great photo only to have the person in it disappointed over how they look (and they always looks like that!) Very few people want accuracy.

I also feel the need to point out that, while weddings are stressful for the happy couple (and often the parents,) it’s only a little less so for the photographer. People want this moment to be perfect, and very few wedding photographers that I’ve known have no stories of unhappy clients. I’ve only done such on the side, and vividly recall the couple who scheduled a last minute wedding in the week after christmas in a tiny cinder-block church, then didn’t like the color cast of the images. You may already be aware that fluorescent bulbs and camera flashes are two different colors, so when shooting in a church using fluorescent lights, the flash-lit portions won’t match those areas lit by ambient light (like the background.) I was smart enough to throw a color filter on the flash unit, since there was no way I could shoot with only the weak indoor light, and counted on the lab to tweak the color cast back to neutral. But the filter wasn’t a perfect match for the fluorescents, and the lab did a poor job on the proofs. Somehow, naturally, this was my fault for shooting with three days notice and a nice low price that did not include a rack of extra lights (and see the rest of the story at bottom.)

But hey, after setting my prices and worrying about whether I’ll have enough clients with every friend who’s ever produced a “good shot” getting into the game, now I’m supposed to drop my prices for the client for… what, exactly? Because they know lots of people getting married and will provide lots of referrals? Because all they want are “just a few” shots? (Wanna know what the difference is between “just a few” and a whole wedding? One, maybe two hour’s worth of time out of the whole affair. Seriously, is someone going to line up the key parts of the ceremony, first dance, bouquet toss, and cake cutting all at once so I can be out of there faster?) Because all I’m going to do is burn a CD? Because the client is going to pay promptly after the wedding, or even (a ha ha) up front?

Beach weddings with the lifeguard and power poles in the background also aren't going in my portfolio

Wedding photography runs on referrals, and on people being made to look special in their photos of the event. It doesn’t matter how many people anyone shows their discount pics to, if those images don’t look impressive, I’m not getting the referral, so even if relaxing my standards made much difference in the time and effort spent, I’d be taking a bigger hit than just the discount. Most likely, the only business I would get from discount packages is even more discount packages. I don’t even put the home or basic weddings in my portfolio – I put the big, elaborate and decorated shots in there, because that’s what every bride imagines, even if she knows she’s not going to have it. And if I book a wedding, I’m committed, even when a much better offer comes along. Sign a contract for the new home portrait sitting, next wedding, and children’s photos, and we’ll talk.

There’s also the common idea that “all I want is a CD,” which is somehow supposed to be easier. Yes indeed, some of the money wedding photographers make is off of the subsequent prints, so dumping this aspect means simply reducing profit even more – yet, nobody is going to want to see the unedited RAW files on that CD, are they? How many know the framing differences between 5×7, 8×10, and 11×14 prints, and how they should be subsequently cropped? Oh, I need to provide all of these on that CD too? That’s even more work than a print order, save the trips to the lab (which is often consolidated with other orders anyway.) A CD is a onetime sale – nothing further comes from it – and in contract terms this is called, “All rights;” it carries a hefty additional fee.

The digital revolution dropped the costs, because “you don’t have to pay for film anymore”? Don’t make me laugh. Digital cameras are a lot more expensive than their film counterparts, and require more support in the form of computing power, digital editing suite, and storage – yes, I’m a businessman, so I’m running multiple backups externally. Because of the different size of digital sensors, that means a whole new lineup of lenses – or I can spring for a full-frame digital body for a few grand, to keep the same viewing angles in my existing lenses, an important aspect of the equipment kit (ever tried to find a distortion-free wide angle that was both fast and sharp?) That all translates to a few years worth of film costs, so I can break even if none of that needs replacing or upgrading within that time, maybe even bring out a little extra profit margin. That I’m supposed to give up for the client, just to be nice I suppose?

Or, there’s the aspiring model wanting to start their portfolio. Until someone has seen just how lackluster, if not outright bad, photos from an inexperienced portrait photographer are, they have no idea how much is involved in making someone look good. Lighting is a whole facet of knowledge in itself, and not cheap, either. Does anyone think reading light levels with a handheld meter and knowing which units to add softbox or barn doors to is a basic skill? Or that some student is going to have radio triggers and variable power sources? Not to mention the cost of maintaining, or simply renting, a studio, especially one with a variety of settings. Sure, you can do a few shots outdoors for the “natural” look, but even that is involved, and good settings and good light don’t just pop out of nowhere. And I’ll be blunt with you: as a model, you won’t pull down any decent clients if your comp looks like it was shot by a student.

Then there’s the photographer’s end. Whatever ego causes the aspiring model to believe that their mug is portfolio gold to the photographer, it doesn’t take the place of actually knowing what the hell the model is supposed to be doing. Numerous professional photographers that I’ve known and heard from would rather burn their fingernails off with a soldering iron than work with an amateur model, because poses and expressions are not a casual thing, and hard as hell to try and communicate. Do you know the difference between “look to your left” and “turn your head to the left”? How about hearing, “now look a little bit impish,” and knowing how to pull this off? That’s just two of the basics I’ve struggled with myself, and I’ve done this only casually. Not looking contrived is perhaps the biggest hurdle for models to overcome, and an inexperienced photographer isn’t going to teach it better, either.

And finally, my portfolio gains nothing by having a full shoot of only one person. What I want is a variety, and only a handful of images from any one model at best. Imagine the model that sets their hair, does full makeup, picks the best of their wardrobe, waits patiently for the lighting and set to be arranged, and then has two frames taken? Seems like a waste, doesn’t it? Yeah, that’s how most photographers feel about TFP shoots. How about this deal: You pay the full fees for a photo shoot up front, and every time I land a client based solely on your image, I’ll kick back a small percentage of the money I receive from that client.

Most photographers, by the way, don’t market model images on their own, because there isn’t much market for stock model images, certainly not the kind that aspiring models want taken. Stock photos are “Hispanic person using computer” and “domestic woman looking inspired” – there is practically no use for random models looking intense or joyful, because such things don’t market a product very well unless they’re specific. Images to advertise a model are not images that anyone buys – they’re just advertising for the model. Nor does anybody come to the photographer for model photos to use anyway – they go to stock agencies. So “free use” of whatever images the photographer takes is virtually meaningless. You might be interested to know that such a clause is included in almost every wedding and modeling contract in the first place, which hasn’t dropped the cost of the package down a lot, has it?

Worth even less is the “photo credit” that seems to get offered so often. Wow, my name appears on the edge of an image in a major magazine! That’s free advertising! Yeah, right. Quick now, name the photographer listed on the last three images you’ve seen in a magazine. What do you mean, you never look at that? Okay, but you know the names of everyone who shot the images on the calendar on your wall right now, that you’ve been looking at all year, right? No? Okay, that’s the value of “photo credit.” It should be received automatically on top of the fee that is paid for usage.

Sure, there are circumstances where deals may work out for everyone involved. A student photographer and aspiring model coincide and are willing to work with one another’s inexperience. An established wedding photographer has an apprentice or assistant available that wants to build their own portfolio. In such cases, you get what you pay for, and it’s a crapshoot – go in with low expectations and you might be pleasantly surprised. Or you might simply be a valuable lesson to the photographer about why high-end lenses are usually necessary or light augmentation is a useful expense, and you end up with an album with dark backgrounds, missing the bouquet toss, and the first dance with the awkward position of some guest yawning in the background, one that you really didn’t want to be present anyway. Oh, yeah, part of the skills of decent photographers isn’t what they get in the pic, it’s what they leave out.

And believe me, none of this is accomplished with a “really good camera,” any more than someone can drive better with a “really good car.” What the photographers are paid for are their skills, the knowledge to get great results from the situations, as well as being able to handle whatever comes up. The end result is not a piece of photo paper or a CD, it’s a collection of images that don’t make you wince or frown, that represent your event and spark the pleasant recollections, that make others wish that they’d been there. The cake is long gone, the flowers in the landfill, and the decorations taken down and stored or returned. There was one moment in time when it all came together, and the photos are what remains to serve as reminders or illustrations. Just bear this in mind as you’re working that budget.

*       *       *       *

I mentioned the rest of the story, referring to my experience with a “cheap package.” The happy couple also hadn’t gone for a reception hall, being super-casual about the whole process, which is fine by me, really – I personally think the ceremonies are often overblown and pointless. But this meant that the reception was in a steakhouse, with a cake bought at a bakery on the trip from the church. Everyone at one long table under low, dark-beamed ceilings. Picture this if you will. There was no position where I could see more faces than backs when shooting the guests, and half of them would be beyond the reach of my camera’s strobe unit (remember, I wasn’t working with extra lights for this deal.) Light levels for a row of people running straight back from you, as in, shooting from the head of the table (the only place where I wasn’t seeing the backs of heads,) are impossible to balance, especially without being able to bounce the flash from the ceiling. Bordering tables cut down the room to move, and of course, nothing in the background was anything that should be included in reception photos.

Naturally, the cake was cut right there on the table, not at its own setting as is customary – and every guest with their own camera was leaning in to get that shot too. The restaurant provided the knife, which was this half-meter long macheté used to debone rhinos, I suspect. You know the classic cake cutting pose, with the bride and groom both holding the knife in their clasped hands? Yeah, well, I positioned them to try and disguise the sword they were wielding, with the bride’s hand halfway down the freaking blade and the handle practically going up the groom’s sleeve.

We did some outdoor shots too, in bright midday Florida sunlight (yes, Florida is often warm enough to do outdoor shoots the week after christmas.) Super high contrast, harsh shadows, people squinting, and no balancing reflectors or screening to be found – not to mention a pretty stiff wind. You are remembering wedding dresses and hairstyles, right? Yeah. Take a wild guess how many images from that event made my portfolio…

Don’t let me misconstrue it; they were a nice couple and understood the last-minute deal (they’d been planning to elope until the family got wind of this,) even though they’d hoped for better from the church images. I had to explain why the colors were off, but that doesn’t fix them, and I still felt like I’d failed them. Yeah, I made a little money in a slow period. But the only reason any photographer would subject themselves to such things is through their good nature, and they’ll have nothing to take from it. If anyone seriously has a budget issue (and are not simply trying to save money on the photographer while spending typical amounts on the dress, cake, flowers, and so on,) then they need to understand what they’re asking, and throw the photographer a bone of some kind for their consideration.

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