Saturday, April 28, 2012

EQUIPMENT 101 - The Basics for Candid Photography

Could You Sell This Photograph?

Now, this image could be sold to this little girl's parents, her grandparents, and sold multiple times through the sale of stock photography. The image has a broad appeal. It is cute, out of the ordinary, and could be used for a variety of print ads. Cute kid=multiple sales.

Now, I may be a little biased, because she's my granddaughter, Gionna--otherwise known as "The Princess." She loves to be photographed. This photograph was not taken with my digital Canon SLR (although a Canon camera was used). This image came from a Canon PowerShot SX 110 IS--a point-and-shoot camera. Well, okay, it's a top of the line point and shoot that has nearly the same exposure controls as my Canon SLR, but it is still classified as an amateur camera. With the addition of an additional flash unit, I could probably photograph weddings with this camera (Canon offers the High-Power Flash HF-DC1 for around $100 on-line). But I probably wouldn't--unless I was a guest. Why? Simple...

Perception. If I show up at a wedding with a point-and-shoot camera and some brother-in-law shows up with a Canon 60D, Nikon D800 (or worse yet, a Nikon D3x) I'm going to look downright foolish. I know it isn't fair, but perception IS reality. Plus the fact I would be limited to the single zoom range on the camera, and I wouldn't be able to easily use filters for special effects. On the flip side, no one sees what camera you use for stock photography, so you can use anything that will take an image of sufficient quality to be sold.

"Gee, so what equipment do I need to buy or have to make photographs I can sell?" I get asked this question pretty regularly. It is a lot like asking someone, "What do I need to become a painter?" It all pretty much depends on what type of painter you want to be:

  • House Painter? 
  • Automobile Painter? 
  • Portrait Painter? 
  • Watercolor Painter? 
  • Landscape Artist? 
  • Body Art Painter? 
As an aside, that last one was always my goal, but I couldn't find many customers! J

Well, obviously you need a camera, at least one lens (two is better), a memory card, and an external flash unit to get started at the bare minimum. You really should have TWO bodies, and at least a couple extra memory cards and batteries.

What I will cover in this post is what equipment is needed for the majority of candid photography. This is typically classified as event photography (such as weddings, parties, corporate functions, team photography, and Bar/Bat Mitzvahs. I am not talking about shooting portraits, however with the addition of a simple background you could handle basic portraiture. If you want to do pro or semi-pro sports or animal/nature photography, this type of photography requires long telephoto lenses known as "super telephoto" lenses. The Canon 800mm f/5.6 L lens is $13, many would you like to order?

I am also going to assume you already have a computer and Photoshop (or other photo editing software). If you do not have these items, you can buy a legal version of Photoshop on eBay for $300-$400, Photoshop Elements 10 for $75, or other software for as low as $50. A computer with a QUALITY monitor 24-27" in size and calibration software will be around $1000-$2500. Don't buy a cheap monitor--quality counts here. A graphics (drawing) tablet is highly recommended if you are going to be doing your own retouching or editing--an Intuos tablet is about $150 on eBay. A scanner is another good add on, but not an absolute "must have" piece of equipment.

The brand of camera is not really all that important today. The more expensive the camera, the more features it has. And today, modern cameras have so many features most people never use 50% of them! I do not want to get too deep into camera selection, as camera models are changing rapidly because technology is changing rapidly. I use Canon cameras and so let's take a brief look at three current models.

The Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III is a top of the line professional model digital camera. It has a full frame 21 megapixel sensor. This means two things to the user: the lenses will have the same view as a normal 35mm film camera, and the image will be optimum thanks to the larger sensor. It is much heavier, due to it's heavy duty construction. This camera currently has a retail price of $6,999, and a street price of around $6000. If you can afford it, buy fact, buy two. Seriously, this is overkill for anyone other than full time pros, the founder of Facebook or Instagram, or a Columbian drug lord. Unless you fall into one of those categories, don't buy this camera.

Instead, take a good look at the Canon EOS 60D. It is what is called a "Prosumer" camera--it will be used by pros and consumers alike. It does not have a full size sensor. The 18 megapixel sensor is the smaller APS size sensor. This means a 35-100mm lens will be more like a 50-150mm lens in practice. This is an excellent camera at a reasonable retail price of $999.99, with a street price of around $800.

An entry level camera is the Canon Rebel T3: at $350, it is affordable, and its 12 megapixel APS size sensor is certainly good enough to produce prints to 16x20 or larger if you are careful with exposure.While it does not have the features of the previously mentioned cameras, it is a fine starter camera. The main difference between the cameras is size of sensor and the dynamic range of the camera. The 1Ds has an ISO or Exposure Index (EI) range of 50-3200, the 60D 100-6400 (12800 with custom function setting) and the Rebel 100-6400 with no expansion function available. The 1Ds and the 60D also function in lower light levels than the Rebel.

Many times people will ask me, "Could I buy the top of the line camera and then buy the entry level as a backup camera?" You can do anything you want, but I would discourage this. The reason is the features do not work the same on two different cameras. If you are in a pressure situation, such as a wedding or other candid event, you may make an error. The other thing is that you may find the differences in images to be bothersome. It is far wiser to purchase two of the 60D cameras. Remember, you can purchase used cameras on Craigslist and eBay. Many people decide to take up photography in December and by May they have moved on to kayaking (or stained glass making, etc.). You can buy a used camera in excellent shape--many nearly unused--on these venues. You can also buy previous models of cameras as well. Many people feel they simply MUST have the newest thing. A quick check of eBay as this is written finds a Canon 40D body for just $300. In any case, you will want two camera bodies--ignore this advice at your peril.

You will also need storage cards and a case for them unless your camera bag provides a space for them. Get at least 6 storage cards and a wallet.

More important than the camera body is the camera lens--it makes no sense to purchase an expensive camera and put a "no-name" generic cheapo lens on it! My two main lenses were the 16-35 USM f/2.8 "L" zoom lens ($1699 retail, about $995 on eBay) and the 24-105mm f/4 "L" zoom lens ($1149 retail, about $700 on eBay).These lenses--while expensive--hold the same aperture throughout the zoom range. The non-L lenses sell for half as much, but have varying apertures. Buy what you can afford. If you absolutely cannot afford a Canon lens (or Nikon lens if using Nikon), the Tamron XR Di lenses or the Sigma EX DG lenses are an acceptable substitute. I wouldn't waste my money on anything less.

Regardless of the lens you buy, put a UV filter on the front of each one. It cuts down UV radiation (important for digital photography especially) and it protects the front element of your lens. Cheap protection--don't skip it.

For candid photography, the Canon Speedlite 600 EX-RT is the top of the line ($630 retail), but the Speedlite 580 EX II ($499 retail, $400 on eBay) is more than adequate. The $299 Speedlite 430 EX II is about 1 f/sop less powerful than the 580, but will do the job. Again, I recommend you have at least two strobes (speedlites) and I recommend you have two of the same model. You can also find these used at big savings on eBay and similar sites. As I write this, the older 580 EX is available for just $130 on eBay!

I normally use a flash diffuser. My friend Gary Fong produces the LightSphere. Besides working great, they are manufactured right here in the good ol' US of A in Indiana. He offers a couple of models, check them out. He also offers the PowerSnoot that lets you do dramatic portrait photography effects or accent lighting with your portable speedlites. Note: I do not get paid if you buy from Gary. Well, at least right now, I don't--if readers buy a bunch of product from him I may make him pay! J

Another choice is the FlashRight. Many people like it. In the examples I have seen, it leaves the eyes a little dark, but the reviews have been good. Remember I have not used this item. You can visit them at I am not affiliated with these folks, either.

A lot of photographers put a little soft box on their speedlight, and ask me what I think about them. My reply is, "Not much." You still have a tiny light source. The LightSphere turns your speedlite into a larger, more diffuse light source. I have also never been a fan of bounce cards...just never liked the quality of light. IMHO, they are good for photojournalism, not as much for people photography--YMMV!

Another item that is indispensable is a digital field guide or"Magic Lantern" guide for your camera model. These are available at Amazon or on eBay. It lets you find directions on how to use features on your camera that you do not use all that often. Don't skip it.

A nice item to have is a portable reflector: they are normally white on one side and silver on the other, 32"-42" in size. A round reflector folds down to a very small portable size, and these are also available on eBay. A tripod is another good piece of equipment to have, although most of the time you will handhold your camera. A carbon fiber tripod is ultra light and sturdy, but can cost any where from $300 to $1000 new. An aluminum tripod will work fine, but is heavier. You will also need a tripod head. In any case, stay away from the cheapo tripods...they are worthless. Expect to spend $100 or more. Do NOT purchase a video tripod for still photography. You'll also want a good quality camera case or bag. Tenba makes a good bag ($50-$100), Porter Case makes a great hard shell rolling case (about $200).

Finally, you will want to purchase a couple extra batteries and a dual battery charger. These dual battery chargers will work with a wall outlet OR a 12V car power outlet...indispensable if you find yourself running low on battery power on a "Two Wedding Saturday!" The other nice thing about the Canon is that I could purchase 3rd party batteries on eBay super cheap. However, battery life was never a problem with Canon cameras. It was a problem when I used Fuji digital cameras...they used AA batteries and the Fuji sucked 'em dry big time. To be able to power flash and camera I normally needed to have about 24 batteries charged and ready to go! I finally ended up purchasing a battery module that connected to a Quantum battery pack to power the camera. It added weight and another cord, but it was dependable power.

Well, let's add everything up--I'll base the pricing on purchasing new, so keep in mind you could cut the cost by purchasing used:

2 Canon 60D camera bodies @ $800 each - $1600
1 Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 L zoom lens - $ 995
1 Canon 24-105mm f/4 L zoom lens - $ 700
2 Canon Speedlite 580 EX II - $ 400
1 Porter Case - $ 200
1 Reflector - $ 50
1 Tripod and head - $ 100
1 Flash Diffuser - $ 50
2 77mm UV filters - $ 60
1 Digital Guide or Magic Lantern Guide - $ 10
Dual Battery Charger and 2 extra batteries - $ 50

Okay, your grand total is $4215. Once again, you could save money buy purchasing used and/or previous models on eBay and/or Craigslist. This also does not include a computer, a monitor, image editing software, calibration software, or a graphics tablet. You can see that even a bare bones, basic entry into a photography business will be $6,000 to $10,000. This is a pretty inexpensive way into your own business. When I started, it cost anywhere from $2,000 to $3500...but that was 35 years ago. You could buy a brand new car for about $4,000. What would one cost you today?

This does not include any cost for marketing our business, which we will discuss in future get togethers! Next time, I will do a rundown of equipment for those wishing to operate a portrait or commercial studio. Future posts will cover promotion, business practices, education, and more. Your questions are always welcome.

If you would like to be notified of any my Kindle publications regarding photography as soon as they are released, please send me an email requesting to be put on the notification list.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Don't Lose Your Home by Taking a Bad Photograph!

All right, I'll admit it--I've never known of anyone actually losing their house due to taking a bad photograph. But it could happen to the owner of H&H Photography. A New York man, Todd Remis, is suing H&H photography for $48,000 for neglecting to shoot the last dance and the bouquet toss at his wedding...six years ago! But wait, there's more: he's no longer married! That's right, the bride divorced this guy (gee, what a surprise) and went back to her native Latvia! 

Now, Mr. Remis has about as much chance of collecting $48K as I have of being elected the next Pope (highly unlikely, since I'm not even Catholic), but it shows that once you take payment for services, you place yourself in jeopardy. So now you know--the title was a shameless hook to grab your sue me! And actually, that's the topic of this week's discussion: protecting yourself and your property from legal action and other perils.

DISCLAIMER: I am not an attorney. I never even played one on TV. I am not giving you legal advice. Understand that laws are fluid and dynamic--they change with the times. Also be aware that the law in Minnesota may not be exactly the same in Mississippi. Before writing your own contract, or using someone else's, you are urged to have it reviewed by an attorney specializing in contract law. Your failure to heed this warning is your own damn fault, and not mine.

All right, back to business. When taking portraits, most photographers take the position that you do not need a contract to protect yourself. If the portrait gets goofed up, you can take additional portrait studies, right? Well, maybe not. What if the entire family came from all over the country, plus South America? What happens if your storage card bites it AFTER you had checked everything to make sure all was well? Now you have a little problem. My advice is to have a short release & limit of liability signed in these situations, that states you are not liable for mechanical failures, and your liability is limited to refund of any monies paid. On this same release, you can include your model release. On the BACK of the release, have places for several people to sign.

I rarely had anyone balk at this. If they did, I simply told them, "Oh, I understand your concern. I am going to put these on my web site for you to view and make your selections. This is required by my insurance company and my attorney in order to protect me from litigation caused by someone objecting down the road--which I know YOU would never do. I thank you for understanding." It got signed.

Now, I rarely had anyone unhappy. I photographed a LOT of weddings, and I had less than one really dissatisfied client every couple of years. Now, the reasons why they were dissatisfied were normally unreasonable--but that doesn't matter. If the person feels dissatisfied, you want to make them as happy as you can, keeping in mind that some people will NEVER be happy no matter what--it is simply their nature! I really feel these people are happiest when they have something to complain about. What did they complain about? Well, here's a short list: 

  • Great Grandmother from Scotland not photographed (I was never told about this person)
  •  Bride's grandparents not included in pre-wedding portraits--they did not arrive at the church until 10 minutes prior to the ceremony, instead of the required 60 minutes prior. By this time the groom has been instructed to go the the sacristy and the bride and her bridesmaids have been ushered to the back of the church by the officiant. I would have done the portraits after the ceremony...but they left! 
  • No photographs of bride or bride and groom posed using stained glass windows in the church, as my sample albums illustrated. Well, their church didn't HAVE any stained glass windows, but that was a minor detail to this bride. 
  • I did not take a photograph of the bride going down the aisle from the back of the church showing her train. Her dress did not HAVE a train, but again, minor detail that I was supposed to take care of. 
  • Bride's parents both wore glasses, and they were thick--bride complained about distortion of facial features caused by severe prescription of lenses. 
Okay, they were unreasonable. But I did my best to fix the problem without complaining...well, without too much complaining, anyway At the same time, don't be an unreasonable hard-ass about it. If someone complains:
  • Listen to the complaint without interrupting; 
  • Issue a statement of regret (I'm sorry you are not happy); 
  • Ask what you can do to make them happy. 
You will be amazed at the number of people who will just say, "Oh, it's okay, I just wanted you to know." Other people might say, "Well I want a new Cadillac." Well, not really, but they might ask to have you refund a portion of any money they paid. I never refunded money if the job was done and their complaints were minor. I would reply, "What I CAN do for you is give you and your immediate family (not every Tom, Dick, and Harry) 10% off your first order of prints from the wedding." Say NOTHING more and let them answer--99 times out of 100 they are satisfied. Notice I never told them I could NOT do something.

Another place photographers get into trouble is to display images of people without a release. Now most states do not require a photographer to display images in his place of business. If you use them in a display at the mall, in a restaurant, in a direct mailer, in a print ad, or on the web, you better have their WRITTEN permission. I had a local assistant prosecutor once get quite upset when her family's image appeared in one of my newspaper ads. I told her that I had called her office and left a detailed message and if she did not want the image to run, please call me within 48 hours--no call ever came. You can find model releases on the internet that you can use.

She replied, "I have put a lot of people in jail, and they may want to take retribution on me! I am considering legal action." My response was, "Well, your family's picture appeared in your church directory, so you evidently were not concerned about it then. And I want to remind you that I do have a signed model release. And finally, I did call as a courtesy, but no call was returned. But this is America, and you are free to do whatever you want." And then I did not say another word. It was quiet for about a minute, then she said, "Well, could you please not run it again?" I replied, "Certainly," and that was the end. Now, she may have watched too many "convicted-felon-takes-revenge-on-lawyer" movies. In our small town, I don't think any prosecuting attorney has been harmed by someone they convicted. In actuality, this was a power play--she wanted me to know she had authority. But I had protected myself.

This is a perfect time to discuss INSURANCE. At the very least, you need liability insurance. If anyone is going to come onto your property, you are liable if they are injured. If you are at an event and someone trips over your camera bag, you are liable. Talk to your insurance agent. If you belong to the Professional Photographers of America, you can get coverage through the Indemnification Trust. For many photographers, it is worth the annual dues. Check it out. You can also get errors and omissions insurance as a member of ASMP, but check their restrictions. Hill & Usher have covered photographers' insurance needs for years. Their Package Choice for Media Professionals may be just what you are looking for. Finally, Brunswick Companies offer Errors and Omissions insurance for photographers.

You also want your auto insurance to cover you to and from assignments, and you want your equipment covered against theft and damage. Speak to your insurance agent to discuss your concerns and ask his advice.

Soon I will have forms and contracts available. If you want to be notified when these are available, drop me a note, and I'll let you know as soon as they are ready.

Over the coming weeks, I will publish a new post here every SUNDAY (unless I'm away or on vacation). You are bound to find something that interests you--if you don't, let me know what you want to see! I will take questions from readers and if they have broad appeal, I will make those questions a topic here. Maybe you have a topic you would like to write about--if so, let's talk! Do you have a photography site? Maybe we can trade links. You can always contact me. Tell your friends, your neighbors, or any other photography enthusiast you know to tune in. Til next time...

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Do Not Make the Decision to "Go Pro" Based on...

So you think you are ready to go pro, do you? Well, if you have made that determination based on the misconceptions listed below, you may want to give that another thought. Take a look and see how many of these apply to you. Be honest, because we're tracking your reaction on a special web camera that you cannot see, and we will know the truth! J


Hah! You'll have LOTS of bosses: your spouse, the bank, and every single customer you create a photograph for. 


Absolutely--as long as your "own hours" means 12 hours a day, 6 and even 7 days a week. Remember, not many weddings take place Monday thru Thursday...that means you're workin' the weekend. And if you are holding a full time job AND working as a photographer, you work all day, go home, and work all night. But hey, you work when you want, right? 


Your family and friends like your images because they look GREAT when compared to their snapshots, because their snapshots SUCK! Plus, they like you, so they naturally want to like your images and encourage you. Here's the bad news: your customers are not going to compare your photographs to their crappy snapshots. They are going to compare them to the images they see in their favorite magazines--after all, you ARE a professional photographer, right? They are paying you money, right? Then they want those images! A simple guide: if someone offers to pay you for your photography, you can think about going pro. 


While it is true many commercial photography pros charge $150 an hour, they don't make $150 an hour. Overhead eats into their profit. What's overhead? Things like, proofs, prints, CD's mailing, advertising, depreciation (every time you trip the shutter on your camera, it takes one more click towards wearing out), capital expenditures, repairs, maintenance, utilities, auto expense, insurance, etc. You may also have travel time and waiting time. Can you charge $150 an hour for that? Probably not.

On top of that, you are not very likely to be able to photograph 8 hours a day, 5 days a week and earn that amount. There is a LOT of downtime, especially when you first get started. This is why SO many new photography businesses are shuttered in the first year of operation. You must learn how to price your work where you can earn a profit but not be so high that you have priced yourself out of the market. And then you have to effectively MARKET yourself so you can cut your downtime to a minimum.


That's what I thought, too--when I was young and ignorant. I had a guy tell me, "You need to use just available light like Annie Liebovitz--then you're a pro!" It was a short time later I saw a photograph of what Annie takes on a job. THERE WAS ENOUGH LIGHTING EQUIPMENT TO PACK A VAN! Plus her two or three assistants. She is so damn good at using flash she makes it look like available light--no that's when you KNOW you are good! When someone tells me, "Oh, I only use available light!" I know one of two things are true: they are too cheap to buy lighting equipment or too lazy to learn how to use it. 

My son went to Central Michigan University and the photo instructor marveled at his photographs (taken with flash). The instructor told him, "I do not even own a flash unit!" Geesh, and this guy is teaching the class? Other students went to my son for advice! Yes, there are great natural light photographers out there, but they are few and far between. Most consumer type photography will require you to use flash--learn how to use it well, and you will be in demand.
It doesn't matter if your photographs are hip, hot, creative, fashionable, or all the rage. If the client doesn't LOVE her daughter's hair, clothes, or smile, they are not going to love the photograph--regardless of how great you think it is! The late Dean Collins had a saying: Beauty is in the eye of the CHECKBOOK HOLDER. Here's a hard fact: clients care a whole heck of a lot more about what THEY look like than they care what the PHOTOGRAPH looks like. 
Sure it is. How about your client? One lawsuit, and you can be washed up. Get it in writing and make sure the writing spells out what you are to produce and what the customer is supposed to pay. Make sure the language of the contract protects you. Learn this: no contract, no work, no exceptions.


Yes you can. Just be willing to live with the consequences. Join a trade association (PPA, WPPI, ASMP, etc) or your state or regional professional photographer's organizations--they often have standard forms. Even then, you want to consult an attorney to make sure all of the clauses work in your state. If you write your own, have an attorney review it and make corrections. Failure to do so can be hazardous to your financial health! 


Ohhh, yeah...they will. And they are not going to choose you over the next guy who has a great variety of poses AND subjects in his gallery. Trust me, they will notice. When I was doing weddings, I had several albums of wedding photography. Each album was of a different wedding--from beginning to end. I would tell people, "I understand you do not see this at the other places, but they have printed the very best images from each wedding. I show you what your entire wedding will look like from start to finish, in Storybook fashion."


Oh, if it were only true.  You may have the best images in the world, but you will have made the same mistake as 80 out of 100 photographers make: all images no text--and no text = no content. No content = crummy placement. You will end up on page 49 of 50 pages on a Google Search for "Georgia Photographer." Google cannot tell that you are a photographer just because you have images on your site. YOU NEED CONTENT! If you are not trained in Search Engine Optimization (SEO) you will either need to hire someone who is to build your site, or pay someone to teach you how to do it. 


Sure you can!  And I can make a million dollars a day by starting a unicorn ranch! Social media marketing has it's place, but freebies normally bring you people who do not want to buy--they just want the free picture. They'll copy it for more--sorry, it happens. You have to learn how to market and advertise. 


No, you don't. Let the other guys build them and you can wonder why they have business...and you don't. You want to build a good relationship with other photographers. Meet with them for coffee or lunch and see what equipment they use so you can offer to loan them a body or lens if they need one in a pinch (and maybe do the same for you one day!). Also, because if they are booked on a particular day, you want them to send you the referral. In my town we had a group that kept track of everyone's booked dates. If a customer called, they would say, "Gee, I'm sorry, but I'm booked for that date. But Steve Bohne has had a cancellation and he's open right now--call him right away!" Then they would call and give me the details. The customer was very impressed that I had all the information when they called. 

Don't forget about your vendors! I would routinely send a picture of the cake, the flowers, the dress, etc. to the shop that it came from that they could put in an inexpensive comb bound album that I had provided. The agreement was ONLY MY IMAGES went in the album. They would also display sample albums of my photography that I provided. I would rotate these as often as possible. Most would brag me up when a bride visited their shop. Some had relationships with other people; that was okay--I couldn't do ALL the weddings, could I?


Here's a question for you: if you had children, were any of them ugly? "Of course not, you say, "My kids are beautiful!" But you and I can agree that there ARE ugly children, right? Here's the unvarnished truth: customers want to look good in their pictures. They don't want justice, they want MERCY! If they see beautiful models, they figure they'll look good, too. You don't need to hire pros, you can work with local people and offer them a few prints or maybe a CD of their images. In addition, many people are just blown away that you want to use them as a model--they brag to all their friends that they are on display at Bohne Portrait Galleries, and they stop in to look. Gee, imagine that! It makes a big difference. 


No. They don't. If I have to read one more post that says, "Worked with the Smith family, here are 10 of the best shots, they were soooo fun to work with!" I am going to PUKE! Established pros make this same mistake--it's a waste of time and bandwidth. Instead, how about, "What NOT to wear in your Senior Portrait," or "Ten Tips for a Terrific Family Portrait!" Good for the customer, good for prospective customers, and good for SEO (content)!


Ahh, they are so cute when they don't know the hard truth, aren't they? Photography is lots of fun when you do what you want to do when you want to do it. Then, customers come along and foul it all up. Here's how it works: you are not making images for you, you are making them for the customer. Then you have paperwork, taxes, sales, details, minutia, blah, blah, blah. If you can work with a local pro--even for free--it would be worth it to see if you really do love it THAT much.


Perhaps, but you have to contend with supply and demand. There are far more photographers than there is demand, and that's why the industry is growing. Trust me, there are people who cannot SPELL "photographer" who go out, buy a camera, and then they are one! And they ALL think about making big bucks with that camera (even though they don't know AUTO from PROGRAM from MANUAL). You have to have a UNIQUE SELLING PROPOSITION (USP). Without it, you're just another picture taker. What's a USP? It's what sets you apart. Domino's Pizza USP was: "Fresh, hot pizza delivered to your door in 30 minutes or less." Notice they didn't say the best pizza or the cheapest pizza! If you can’t clearly answer what makes you better than any other photographer in town, then you have to work on establishing a recognizable brand. Amazon has several books and Kindle eBooks on USP so you can develop your own USP.

Be sure to come back each week--I publish a new post here every SUNDAY (unless I'm away or on vacation). Some upcoming posts will discuss legal issues, insurance, promotion, pricing, the cost involved in getting a photography business started and what is needed in the way of equipment. I will take questions from readers and if they have broad appeal, I will make those questions a topic here. Maybe you have a topic you would like to write about--if so, let's talk! Do you have a photography site? Maybe we can trade links. You can always contact me. Tell your friends, your neighbors, or any other photography enthusiast you know to tune in. If you have a comment, be sure to let me know about that, too! I'll see you next time!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Introduction to Photography for Income

I've worked as a professional photographer for over 35 years. I hold the Master of Photography Degree and the Craftsman of Photography degree from the Professional Photographers of America. I was the National Wedding Photographer of the Year (sponsored by Art Leather and Bride Magazine). I was a runner up in Studio Photography Magazine's Cover Contest, and I have an album of my photographs on permanent display in the Photography Hall of Fame and Museum in Oklahoma City, OK.

I had very humble beginnings as a photographer. I purchased a Canon FT 35mm SLR camera, a couple of floodlights, and a white movie screen for a background. I created my portraits in my parent's living room. After a trip to Europe, I had quite a few images. I sold some for stock, I presented some slide shows, and did some party photography.

After an exhibition, a high school friend asked if I would photograph her wedding. I told her I knew nothing about wedding photography (I'm not even sure if I had been to a wedding at that time!), but she said she couldn't afford much and she liked the images I had on exhibit. So I set out to learn what I could.

I bought a few books that were really outdated: they talked about the "new" electric strobe (no more flashbulbs!), and making 8x10 black-and-white proofs with a string stretched diagonally across the easel to prevent the images from being copied. One of my best friends was taking a correspondence course on photography, and he had just received the wedding photography lesson, so I studied that. I borrowed a Kako Super Elite strobe from a former neighbor, and a telephoto lens from a college friend to go along with my wide angle and normal lenses and I photographed the wedding.

Amazingly, the resulting images were pretty good. As the bride showed them to her friends and family, other people started to request wedding photography. I decided I would discontinue my studies as a musician and become a professional photographer. I still had a full time job (I had a wife and child to support), and I used photography to supplement my income. I worked from 7 AM to 3:30 PM as a clerk in a muffler factory. By the time I got home at 4 PM, my driveway was full of people who wanted my photographic service. I photographed and processed film until late into the early morning hours nearly every day. On weekends I might photograph a wedding on Friday night, two or even three weddings on Saturday, and every now and then a wedding on Sundays. I was busy.

A few of my neighbors complained about my home business. Boo-hoo. In Michigan, the Home Occupation Act permits you to operate a business from your home. After 4 years, however, I had to decide on photography as a part time income or a full time job and ended up at the peak of my career with 3 studios in two different cities and I was a silent partner in a third for a short period of time.

A lot of people ask me how they can become a professional photographer. They think it is glamorous, high paid profession with little work and lots of fringe benefits--like photographing naked super models all day...

They have been watching  w a a a a a y  too much television. A study by the Professional Photographers of America in 2004 revealed that the average studio was a "mom and pop" operation, and the owner earned LESS than $20,000 per year for working on average about 60 hours per week. The owner had about $40,000 invested into his business. The photographer would have been money ahead to invest the $40,000 into a mutual fund  or an annuity and get a job working in the camera department at Wal Mart. A college student working as a Management Trainee at a chain burger joint makes more money without ANY investment--and s/he has benefits! And just as an aside, I never photographed anyone naked--super model or otherwise--during my career.

Before Photoshop, digital lighting equipment, auto exposure flash units, flash meters, and digital cameras with auto focus, auto exposure, and built in instant preview, most people were overwhelmed and would never trust an important family event to anything other than a trusted professional photographer. Today, photography has become much more pedestrian. People figure anyone with a camera can photograph their daughter's wedding. Hey, anything can be fixed in Photoshop, right?

Most of my friends and colleagues who are still in the business are not doing well as full time photographic studios. Don't get me wrong, a few are still earning a good income, but nothing like it was 10 years ago. Most are eking out a very small profit or breaking even. Some are losing their butts. I recently visited a long time friend to discuss a financial product with him. He used to have 3 locations and now he was working from a studio attached to his home. The temperature outdoors was 28 had to be about 50 degrees in his studio. I asked if the furnace was on the blink, and he replied a little sheepishly, "No, I can only afford to keep it at this temperature. I try to schedule any appointments I have all on one day so I can turn the heat up to 65 degrees."

"But Steve, I went on the Internet, and there are sites there that say a professional photographer earns $150,000!"

Hmmm...was the site trying to sell you a set of books, VHS tapes, CDs or DVDs on how to become a professional photographer? Yeah, that's what I thought. The Internet is a great source of information that can be accessed instantly. The problem with the Internet is that there is no oversight. Anybody can publish whatever they damn well please--true or not. Here's a little tidbit from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics:

"The average annual salary for photographers was $35,980 in 2010; the middle half of these photographers earned an average of $29,130 per year. The 25th percentile of photographers in 2010 earned a salary of $20,710 and the 10th percentile had an average salary of $17,350 per year. The 75th percentile of photographers had salaries averaging $43,700 per year and the 90th percentile earned an average of $63,400 per year."

Do you see $150,000 anywhere on there, Bunkie? Of course not. It is rare, especially today. Photography is one of those fields where there are too many applicants chasing too few jobs, so jobs just aren't that easy to find in the photographic field.

Many students believe the BS that the Admissions Office of their Art School or Photography School tells them. Brooks Institute is a great place to learn photography, but it doesn't mean you'll get paid when you graduate. Brooks was busted in a NY Times article "The School That Skipped Ethics Class." It seems the California Bureau for Education had one of their own investigators pose as a prospective student. The Admissions office informed her to expect a starting salary of $50,000 to $150,000--or more--in the her first year of employment. However, examination of Brooks's own records showed not a single 2003 graduate had even $50,000 of earning potential. Brooks reported that 45 graduates employed full time earned an average income of about $26,000. If that's not bad enough, it gets worse: 45 were employed, but Brooks has about 300 students annually. That means that only about 15% of the grads found jobs!

I had a young lady who came to me after graduating from the Ohio Institute of Photography. She told me the school said OIP grads averaged $40,000 in salary. I told her that her school lied to her. She was working on weekends for a very good photographer in Ohio. I told her HE probably didn't earn much more than that as the studio owner! But I told her if she could find that $40K salary first year job she wanted to make sure she called me, because if she could provide proof, I would match it and she would make $80K first year.

She never called me.

I would go to conventions where photographers would brag they were making $100,000 a year from their studio. I would be standing behind that same guy when he tried to check out of the convention hotel and every one of his credit cards were declined. There's an old saying: 9 out of 10 day traders lose money, and the 10th guy lies about how much he made. It pretty much applies to photographers--not in that same ratio, but pretty close. I had years where I made over $100,000, but I had years where I only made $20,000 when Michigan's economy went South in the early 1980's.

I gave business seminars all across America and Canada. I started the presentation with the toll free phone number of my color lab, which was also my business consultant. I told the attendees, "Here's the number of my color lab and consultant--they have my complete permission to share any financial information with you. They can back up my numbers, because they get my financial statement every month." There was NO ONE ELSE that would do this on the platform. What does that tell you?

Okay, that's the bad news. The good news is that money can be made from photography, and you can make it.

Over the coming weeks, I will publish a new post here every SUNDAY (unless I'm away or on vacation). I discuss legal issues, the cost involved in getting a photography business started and what is needed in the way of equipment. I will take questions from readers and if they have broad appeal, I will make those questions a topic here. Maybe you have a topic you would like to write about--if so, let's talk! Do you have a photography site? Maybe we can trade links. You can always contact me. Tell your friends, your neighbors, or any other photography enthusiast you know to tune in.