Jul 30, 2009

Pricing your photography.


"How much should I charge a client for a shoot?"

Asking this question of a fellow photographer usually provokes the same reaction as asking someone at a Grateful Dead concert, "How should I dance to this?"

Because, although most Deadheads appear to be dancing the exact same way, they are—believe it or not—grooving a bit differently. (Also, if you gotta ask, you probably have no business dancing in the first place.)

My short answer is...

The maximum amount the client will pay... provided they are still happy next week.

Most pros will push the first half of that equation: "Don't race for the bottom", "Our craft is worth a lot of money", etc... etc... But there's something about a guy combing clients out of his hair, telling you not to "give it away". We all appreciate the philosophy, but at the same time... they're not the ones who are trolling friends' birthday parties, casually inquiring if anyone needs family portraits done. And I'm guessing Annie Leibovitz does not spend her evenings hashing out print-packages with clients and arguing over who gets the negatives.

So, seriously, whudyah charge?

There are no numbers here. Just my process. It's likely different than yours, but we may have common ground. Hell, I've just started learning. If you have the magic formula, then don't hesitate to use that comment button down there.

Keeping in mind that I do have a day job—meaning, I can be picky—this is my interior monologue when someone asks me to shoot for them:
  1. Have I done this type of shoot before? Generally, there's no way you should be charging someone the "going rate" to shoot their wedding, if you've never done one before. (Another good reason to narrow your niche. If you're "the guy who shoots anything and everything", you'll never be able to charge top dollar in one field.)

    On the other hand... if you kick ass in one area, you've probably got a fighting chance. As a friend of mine reminded me, "They're buying your style, not your experience." Bottom line: if Joe McNally offered to shoot your son's bar mitzvah, would you turn him down?

  2. What is the "going rate", anyway? Pick up the phone! Ask a pro, then ask someone closer to your level of experience. Pretend you're a client and relay the same information that your client has given you. Somewhere in there is a reasonable middle ground, I'd reckon. More homework means more money and more gigs.

  3. Do I need the money? If you're living on Ramen noodles and are on the verge of pawning your D3, who am I to tell you to back off? Quote them $10,000! They might go for it. Then again, they might resent your impersonation of a pro, and trash your name when the prints come back. Word of mouth works two ways—but always fast.

  4. Do I need the experience? Paging John Harrington. If a cheapo shoot is actually going to open doors for you in that field—and it won't— you might consider bargain basement pricing... at first. I heard of a guy who reno'd a friend's living room for dirt cheap. The catch? If anyone asked, the friend was to quote a much higher price to the future client. Sounds like an urban myth to me.

  5. Do I need the portfolio pics? If you don't need better pics in your portfolio, I tip my hat to you. Now run along and get your yacht polished. Seriously, though... I'm not saying that you should work cheap to fill your book, but the better your book, the less likely it is that you'll feel compelled to work cheap.

  6. Is it for friends or family? If you take yourself seriously as a professional, they will understand if you charge—but there are times when the best gift to give is your snaps. If it makes them happy, gives you solid experience and maybe even gets your name out there—and not just as the "free guy"—everybody wins (except the other photographer who isn't getting paid).

  7. Is it a charity? Ditto the above, but you don't have to endure your Uncle Craig's off-colour jokes in a house that smells like Cinnamon Air Wick.

The point is, only you can decide what you're worth—with a little help from your clients and colleagues, of course. Research and top-ten lists are only going to get you so far. Push your luck a little, and you may find you can charge more than you had hoped.

Reality check: if you get shot down three quotes in a row, you're asking too much. The good news is, you now have the second book-end to what your pricing should be. (The first bookend is "zero": if no one has ever questioned your pricing structure, you're charging too little. Just a hunch.)

Whatever happens, keep shooting. No one ever got good (or rich) waiting by the phone. Except maybe Annie.

Buying used gear...

With the announcement of Nikon's new 70-200mm VRII, I instantly thought to myself, "Hey. Good time to pick up the old model!" Then I remembered the last time I bought used gear. Sigh.

If I had a tail, it would be between my legs.

I goofed big time, and wanted to share the pain, if only to save others from my error.

This is a re-print of a posting I made on Flickr a while back:

I found a used lens on Kijiji. (Nikon 20mm f/2.8)

Although I think of myself as pretty astute on camera gear, I goofed on this purchase. Even after quizzing the seller methodically by e-mail and phone, I was assured several times that the lens was in "great condition".

I saw the lens, I tried the lens, I liked the lens. I paid for the lens. It didn't come with a filter, but the optics were good. I noticed some back-focusing issues, but I corrected this in AF Fine Tune.

But I didn't check the iris.

After shooting indoors at f/2.8, with good results, I shot outside and couldn't understand for the life of me why my camera kept overexposing in a huge thermonuclear fashion. The iris was locked at f/22 and I was on Aperture priority f/8 at the time.

Only when I got indoors did I remove the lens, unlock it and twist the ring. No movement. Zero.

I contacted the seller, who told me (quite rightly) that I freely purchased the gear after inspecting it and giving it a thumbs up. He was unaware of any issues, and - to be fair - the problem could have occurred
after I bought it.

(And monkeys might fly out of my butt
after I submit this topic.)

I am taking this lens to Nikon tomorrow and am going to hold my breath. Please learn from my stupidity.

*Note: I will not identify the seller here. If you're interested, please write me.

"The first guy to say 'caveat emptor' was probably bleeding from the a$$."
-George Carlin

[Update: Nikon fixed it. It works. In total, I spent the equivalent of a new one under warrantee. Live. Learn.]

Jul 16, 2009

Apollo 11... Starbuck 0

Some thoughts on the 40th Anniversary of that really expensive footprint...
  • I did a speech on Apollo 11 in grade six. Only ten years had elapsed, but it already seemed older than Dick Clark. Oh yeah, playing a cassette tape of the audio trimmed one minute off my script. Yesss!

  • Bonus! (also in spring of 1979): The final episode of the original Battlestar Galactica airs. In it, Apollo and Starbuck narrowly miss receiving transmission of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Would have been creepy for Apollo to hear his name on the radio, huh?

  • I'd watch the original footage any day of the week over Apollo 13. It was a fun movie and all, but not something I need to see again; mostly because the CGI was anticlimactic. Remember that fiery separation ring between the 1st and 2nd stage? Not even close, Ron.

  • Hey, hoax-guys. How's that life-long virginity playing out for ya?

  • When Michael Collins was orbiting the Moon, he became the world record-holder for the furthest one human has been removed from other humans. Until Michael Richards took the title several years later.

  • I know it was slightly more than just a jinjoistic whzzing-contest, but I still don't think I could look a Darfurian refugee in the eye and say, "You know, we played golf up there? Pretty amazing, huh?"

  • Neil... how's that life-long "sex-with-anybody-I-want" thing playing out for ya?

  • Umm, Ken Rockwell... easy on the "we-haven't-accomplished-much-since-Apollo" thing. You do realize you're making a living on that "internet" thing, right?

  • It still kinda bugs my ass that the mission was named after a Sun-god, but I guess we're never landing there.

  • I love the fact that the boys left their dusty moon-boots outside the LEM before going inside and taking off. Their moms must have been proud.

Jul 14, 2009

Take the plunge? Or play it safe?

Bruise / Cut adjustment layer

"When you marry your mistress, you create a job vacancy."
-James Goldsmith

Should you drop everything to pursue your creative dream? Should you just keep it on the side and play it safe? These are two sides of a question most photographers ponder — maybe less so with the recession — but it's right up there. 

Whatever your take on it, there's an ever-growing pool of good photographers out there. Some have decided that the best way in is to cannonball, while many of us would rather dip our toes. [Bonus: if you were blown away by how clumsy that metaphor was, I humbly direct you to this.]

Here's a personal example of diving vs. dipping:

For a straight-up portrait shoot (and this would have to be for a pretty good friend), I would charge about $200. That gets them a one-hour shoot and, say, ten cleaned-up images. It's a lot of schlepping, a sizable amount of post, and the whole process is riven with performance-related stress.

It's also usually a lot of fun, and I very rarely want to maim the client — hey, he is a good friend, right? If I'm really lucky and the planets align, I might end up with a portfolio shot and, who knows, maybe another word-of-mouth gig.

On the other hand...
I make roughly that, five times a week at my "day job" — just for showing up and not stealing all the Post-It notes. It's rewarding work that is creative and fun; and I'm very good at it. Sometimes I can even sneak in a blog entry at lunch :)

Same $200. Buys the same tripod. The difference is that I can count on one but not the other; even if I devoted myself to the "dream job" 24/7.

Quitting my 9-to-5 and diving into photography would make me utterly dependent on the success of that endeavor, while fairly ensuring I could not return to my old gig if things got tough. There's no do-overs in most careers — at least none that give you your seniority and dental plan back.

Which is not to say you should wear a leg-iron your whole life, even if it's velvet-lined. 

Take Zack Arias, working what I have to believe was a dead-end job at Kinkos... because his budding photo career took a jog into an alley and got whacked with a lead pipe. Did he give up his dream? Not even close. He shook it off, tied up his shoes, and ran right back out there; succeeding in a way he probably never dreamed possible. Was he scared? I'm guessing yes; but as Matt Damon says in Rounders...

"You can't lose what you don't put in the middle... but you can't win much, either."

You don't have to work for a living... you can live for a living. If you've got the drive, and you've done honest homework which indicates that you should take the plunge, do it! Who am I to stop you? There's nothing that says you have to do the sure thing your whole life... other than your parents, of course.

But I'm generally the guy on the dock, asking how the water is. 

Call me scared, but when you have a wife and two kids in the middle of a recession, you're gambling with more than one person's lifestyle when you roll the entrepreneurial dice. 

And it's not like I'm clawing my eyes out in the morning, contemplating my job. If you've got a decent source of income, which allows you solid time with your family and friends, with a few hours here and there to feed your creative side, there's nothing wrong with playing it safe. Some of the most creative people I know, like Sam Javanrouh at topleftpixel, have solid day jobs, and still manage to bring it every day as a photographer.

So, what am I trying to say? Do what's right for you, and your family. Go for it. Stay with it. Just do it. But above all, keep working at it. Because that is the true crime. Not regretting what you could have been had you rolled the dice, but regretting what you could have been had you done the work.

[If you want to read a much better, much bigger version of what I'm trying to say, go here. It's a long read, and if you lose interest after two minutes, it's probably not your bag. I'll see you at the lake.]

Jul 8, 2009

Free Portrait Day

Party in the Park (set-up)

[Update: Having received so much positive feedback from Strobist readers, I plan to have way more videos in the near future. Stay tuned. -Jeremy, Aug 25, 2009]

Once again, a charity shoot has given me an excuse to try something new — something I wouldn't have just blundered into with a client, and something I couldn't have just winged on my own.

[Note: the idea behind "Free Portrait Day" was explained in an earlier post, so I won't repeat myself to all my both of my readers. The deal was: contribute what you can, say cheese, then download your full-res portrait in a week. Other than a wee bit of Lightroom, the pictures are as-is.]

The event was the Party in the Park — an outdoor funfest with bake sales, big bands, and bouncy castles. My portable 'studio' was one of several fund-raising booths dedicated to the Mimico Moms. The 'Moms' include my wife, Michelle Sale, and friends of ours who are raising money for breast cancer research in honour of our friend, Jane, who died on Christmas Day, 2008.

[Update: The Moms tell me there's a bit more left to raise; so if you haven't maxed out your credit card... click away.]

The 'studio' consisted of a rented backdrop kit, three speedlights and a D700. (Now that I have the Kung Fu grip, I've been itching to shoot as many long portraits as possible. Don't tell her, but my wife thinks it came with the camera.)

It didn't occur to me until afterwards, but there's something a little wrong about turning a perfectly good greenspace into Sears Portrait Studio; but once I got the idea, it never occurred to me to do otherwise. Also, it was nice having enough headspace for once in my life.

(To add another layer of weird, consider this shot: two soldiers dressed in woodland camo, standing on a studio backdrop... in a field of grass and trees.)


The set-up video is here if you want a quick walk-through. Try to ignore the blaring music. It does no justice to the remarkably good high school band that was performing that day.
Subjects were lit by a Lumiquest III softbox in front, a gobo'd SB on either side (positioned behind and aimed slightly forward to get reflected light on the sides of their faces, rather than rim or fill.) The pop-up flash provided a bit of on-axis fill, too.

All in all, a good turnout. The weather co-operated and I wasn't put out one nickel, due to the generosity of Headshots, the local photo rental place. Not much I can say about these guys that doesn't involve the word 'awesome'.

One thing to keep in mind, if you decide to do an unsolicited portrait shoot: most people hate having their picture taken — even for free. It helps to have samples of your work on display, to prove that you're actually good. It also helps if your wife — or any other female friend — is on-hand to coax people over to the muslin. Might have been the trench-coat I was wearing, who knows.

Another thing I found out by sheer chance? If you have the time to review photos with your subject and delete the ones they hate — right on the spot — people get noticeably more relaxed. In addition to making your editing that much easier, this also helps draw more people to the booth, because there's always someone shouting, "Wow. Look at this one, Karen!"

Because this was also a research shoot, I'm not beating myself up on the minor flaws. The set-up was exactly how I pictured it, and I got some shots that I'm proud of. Again, having unlimited room for a backdrop has completely spoiled me for all future gigs that will take place in someone's cluttered den.

Black Belt

Things I would change next time:
  1. Would put 'studio' completely in the shade. It wasn't a big deal, but the first few shots had sunlight hitting the backdrop from behind, and a bit of lens flare.
  2. Would have used my bigger softbox, but I went in figuring that any wind would have made me insane. Turns out, there was none.
  3. I kept opening up my shutter speed to 1/60 without knowing it. I figure it was when I was reviewing shots by spinning the back wheel, and not being in 'review' mode at the time.
  4. I think I would ease off on the sidelight intensity next time, and give more thought to how easily group shots get compromised by people blocking each other's light.
  5. Cardinal Sin: I completely forgot about my model releases as soon as things got busy. I may live to regret this, but I'm tracking them down. Yikes.
"... and party every day."

Things that were awesome:
  1. Raised good money for a great cause.
  2. Pre-existing party = costumes and make-up!
  3. Got major practice with a set-up I had never used before.
  4. Got great neighbourhood exposure and handed out a whack of business cards — to people who actually wanted them.
  5. Got way more comfortable trying coax performances out of people.
  6. Got a few killer portfolio shots. Thank you Gene Simmons, Jr.
  7. Made friends and neighbours very happy when they got a peek at the LCD, and then got to download the real McCoy less than a week later. They're all here, if you're interested.
Finally, a tip of the hat to the Strobist community for their many charity-related projects (see "Strobist Boot Camp II" for the current assignment). As much as he gives out for free, David Hobby is quick to nudge us photographers into paying it forward. Props, Mr. Hobby.

(* as I explained to prospective clients, the portrait was free — the privilege of ever seeing it costs money.)
Recent charity shoot:
White Seamless at Lobsterfest.
Hike for Hospice.
Lumiquest III "review"