What’s in a “day rate”?

0E7A6414.jpgConference planners (and the event companies that often interface for them and manage the local suppliers) often book photo/video teams well in advance of their conference, and usually long before the agenda for the event is finalized.

The upside of this practice for a client is that elimination of last minute panic scrambling to hire a reliable team during a busy conference season (ie autumn) when there are many other events running concurrently. For the photographer/videographer it’s a “bird in the hand”, a blocked booked date in the calendar which means paid time – always something comforting in the gig economy.

There is a downside, however, which I’ve encountered on numerous occasions, which affects both the contracting entity (whether that’s the direct client or an agency acting on their behalf) and the supplier, and it affects both the quality of the bid received/submitted, and the price.

“…as the day is long”

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I’ll start with an example. When an organizer is trying to lock down costs for an event taking place many months in the future (or sometimes just a few weeks ahead), the aim is to get all supplier costs in on fixed price bids.  In order to do so the RFP, or call for estimates usually asks for a day rate on the job.

A day rate is a fixed price, and means the client doesn’t have to worry too much about providing details on the exact schedule for the day. The problem arises when the concept of a “day” gets stretched to include every waking hour from the 7am early-bird registration/buffet breakfast to the 11pm last call after the bar closes at the end of the opening night reception.

When a supplier offers their day rate, they are usually calculating a day to mean 8hrs, give or take 45 mins to an hour. It anticipates a bit of lag time between programs, a meal when photos of open mouthed chewers are eschewed, and maybe the opening round of a cocktail event. Something like 8am to 5pm, or 9 am to 6pm. What people working regular jobs would consider a normal working day.

Alas, for freelance photographers/videographers, the idea of a normal working day doesn’t seem to factor into many client’s thinking.  And should you be so unwise as to have submitted a bid based on an average length day rate, you may find yourself working the equivalent of two days in one, or effectively getting paid 50% of your normal rate, because the goal posts shifted after you submitted and won the bid.

Being the lowest cost bidder will often win you work, but it doesn’t help your career and ultimately encourages the unfair practice of being asked to bid on work for which the scope remains undefined.

From a client perspective, it may seem like a win to lock in a supplier on a price based on terms that subsequently get redefined to the client’s advantage, but the result is likely a souring of the relationship and “you get what you pay for” attitude on site from a supplier who realizes they’ve been conned.

Build flexibility into the bid

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Most clients are not out to screw their suppliers, but this can be an unintended consequence of asking for fixed price contracts without provided full clarity on the scope of work being requested. One practice that I use that helps is to add a clear note in estimates that the day rate is based on an 8-hour day, and hours in excess of that are billed at a standard hourly rate. This keeps the bid submission price reasonable and averts sticker shock, and if, once the agenda gets finalized it is clear that the day is being stretched to include evening events that expand the hours in the day from 8 to 12, you have a fair basis for negotiating a price that better matches the work actually performed vs. what was anticipated when details were scant.

And now for something completely different…

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In case you missed my announcements here, here, or elsewhere on the internet, in between working for clients, working on getting clients, and working on keeping the clients I have happy to continue working with me, I’ve written and just released a book for freelancers who want to learn how to get gigs and keep on getting them. It’s called Gigonomics: A Field Guide for Freelancers in the Gig Economy and you can pick up a copy here on Amazon.

The gig economy is a hot topic these days and much of what is being said and written about it is negative and casts gig workers as people who’d rather be doing something else and making more money. That couldn’t be further from the truth – or at least my truth – and I’ve written about how freelancing can actually be a joyful, fulfilling, purposeful career choice. If you’re at all interested please check out my book. You can download a free sample section on my book site, www.gigonomicsbook.com and/or read a preview on the Kindle version.  Reviews welcome!

How much coverage do you need?

094A2476.jpgAs a conference and event photographer I am frequently asked to provide estimates for covering day-long meetings or multi-day conferences. It is not uncommon to be asked to provide a detail costing out for services even before the official agenda for the conference is finalized. The challenge here as the photographer – and I would argue for the client as well – is understanding how much coverage is enough and pricing accordingly.

There are some rare clients for whom budget is no object and they would rather have the peace of mind of knowing the photographer they hire will be there to cover whatever is happening, wherever, whenever and they don’t want to waste time parsing out an agenda to reduce the hours (and the bill). They would rather pay full pop and get more than they need and sort it out afterwards. These are great clients to have.

094A2395.jpgBut the vast majority of clients are not so loose with their purse strings and usually are operating on behalf of their client, who has hired them to organize the event. These kinds of clients may still ask for the complete coverage but they are much more sensitive to cost and may wind up tossing the baby with the bathwater if they receive a bid that seems high, without evaluating if what they had asked for a quote on was completely necessary.

For example, I am often asked to arrive onsite up to an hour to an hour and a half before anything actually begins. This is almost always to mitigate a client’s anxiety or worry about not having a photographer be there when they really need them and may speak more to the reliability of some freelancers than to the anxieties of the client, but the net result is either a lot of unpaid time for a photographer, or an increase in cost to a client paying for something they don’t really need. Every professional photographer or videographer I’ve worked with or hired has been able to size up a space, the pacing of an event and digest the order of action for even multi-day, multi-location events in a very short time. It does not usually require more than 15-20 minutes as it is usually very obvious to a professional what is important, and what isn’t.

094A2382.jpgAnother way clients ask for more than they need is if the event they are hosting involves a lot of repeat action in the same setup, with the same lighting, and most if not all the same people, perhaps moving from room to room for workshops or discussions in slightly different formations. Depending on the final use for these images, it may not be necessary to pay for a full day of coverage if you can capture the main look and feel of the event in fewer hours.

On the flipside, it is unreasonable to ask for a photographer or videographer to show up for a gig that won’t last more than an hour, or an hour and half and expect to pay the same hourly rate offered on longer jobs. I know of few (to no) people working regular jobs who would even consider going in to work if their boss said they only need to be there from 2:30-4 so will only get an hour and half’s worth of pay that day. Gig workers (and photographers and videographers have been working in the gig economy since long before it was even called that) also need to make a living wage and can’t afford to take small jobs without applying a minimum rate to cover their time.  In this case the client should be prepared to pay a fee that is higher than a job priced on an hourly basis would be if longer hours were offered for the service provider.

In the end, it makes sense both from a photographer’s point of view and a client’s perspective to consider what the desired end result is from the photos (or videos) produced and structure the work accordingly. Complete coverage, half days, partial or minimum fees are all based on finding that balance between meeting a client’s needs and making the work worth the time and effort a professional will provide. A little time upfront spent thinking through the event and even discussing it with the prospective supplier can save both time and money – and ensure that the client receives a fair and accurate quote they can build out their plan on.

My drone dumped me

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I lost my drone this weekend.

I should have known something was off when my puppy ran off into the dark the night before. A foreshadowing I ignored to my despair the next morning. I was lucky with the puppy. He must have sensed the desperation in my voice when I pleaded with him to come, after chasing him out the door with nothing but my underwear on waving my phone around in the air frantically trying to lure him back to me. He disappeared into the woods, popped back out again down the road, then to my horror slipped through the gate leading out to the darkened country road down which, if he had continued, he would surely have gotten lost, eaten by a bear or hit by a car. He turned and trotted over to me, and I managed to grab him by the collar and lead him back to safety.

Unfortunately, my Mavic Pro drone with whom I’ve shared so many adventures, was not so caring. It just decided, all of a sudden, it was over and left.

It happened so suddenly, I’m still in shock. One minute it was rising up over the Porsche I was photographing, trying to capture that beautiful machine in an as beautiful landscape, the next it slowly began drifting off centre.

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There were warning signs, (aren’t there always?) but I ignored them, as I had so many times before with no consequence. Alas, not this time. Those strong winds really were strong winds. I just I didn’t feel them from where I stood, alone, in that empty parking lot.

When I realized I was losing it, I began trying to nudge it back home. I didn’t panic immediately, but as I watched the distance grow between us, my attempts to bring it back grew more frantic. I began jamming that little joystick as hard as I could to the return position, but it only seemed to drive it further and further away.

That’s when the low battery warning went off. 30%….29%…..Then I really did panic. I tried the Return to Home button which has saved me more than once, but my max height was foolishly left too low and I was high up on a mountain. There were too many obstacles in the way. Try as I might, it just wasn’t turning around.

And the distance grew. Fast. From 20 metres to 200 before I knew it. 300. 500. 800. Once it breached 1000 I was in the grip of fear.

The owner of the Porsche realized I was in distress and suggested we pull up the map and drive to where the drone was heading. Although I knew in my heart it was already too late (battery at 10% and falling) I was desperate and willing to cling to any shred of hope.

We hopped in and the Porsche sprung into action. But the drone was still flying straight out and away….it was over the lake now. Battery dangerously low. 7%…5%…alarm bells ringing, the Porsche racing, the wind buffeting my ears as I hung out the window desperately trying to get a signal.

Then it happened. Aircraft disconnected. The screen went black. It was over. And there I was, in the middle of my life, suddenly droneless.

I put on a brave face for my companion. I pretended to laugh it off. “It was bound to happen,” I said. Things had been a little rocky between us and we’d just narrowly avoided this very thing happening a week earlier in the Saguenay.

But I knew it wasn’t true. Inside I was still standing there at the top of the mountain, screaming into the invisible winds that had just torn my lovely little drone out of my hands and flung it into the cold, dark lake.

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We’d been together for just under two years. Not long, but long enough for the love to grow, while still feeling new and exciting. I took it with me whenever and wherever I travelled – racing over beaches in the Dominican Republic, swirling around the terra cotta roofs and quaint plazas in Lisbon, or simply sailing through the sky around Gatineau at fall shooting the vast and beautiful landscape as it blazes with autumn leaves.

I used to feel a trembly thrill just taking it out of its snug little carrying case and gingerly unfolding its wings. I’d removed the plastic cover that protected its delicate little gimble, set it down carefully on the ground and turn it on. As it whirred into life, I’d feel a surge in my heart.

We didn’t always get along. Just last weekend we had a falling out of sorts as it passed through the magnetic field over an aluminum smelter and skidded out of control until finally we patched things up and it came back for a safe landing. Maybe it was a sign. Maybe I should have been more sensitive. Paid more attention to those screen warnings to calibrate and update the database. Was I too selfish?

All I wanted was for us to be together, flying through the sky, taking in wide, stunning views of the land below. I never meant for it to get hurt. I thought I was doing the right thing, showing it the world, providing it with ample battery power. I even bought it a high speed 32gb micro card so that we could record more of our times together without having to face that dreaded “SD Card Full” warning (like that time in Lunenberg when it was all the way out over the bay ready for a well planned flight home. Sigh.)

It’s still hard to believe. Just a few short weeks ago we were so happy together, chasing after kayakers at Trout Point Lodge. On one sunset flight, mosquitoes swarming around my head, it came down and hovered there just out of reach, blowing all the annoying little bugs away to keep me safe. What we had was real.

But now, nothing. Just a remote controller with nothing to connect with. I still have the batteries. I’ve left them fully charged, in the vain, impossible hope that somehow, someway, it will come back to me.

I don’t have the heart to tell them it’s over just yet.

 

Local art for your Airbnb

 

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As the gig economy continues to colonize an increasing share of the real economy, many more Airbnb hosts are popping up in cities around the world. Many people, myself included, have mixed feelings about Airbnb and similar types of business models. While it creates the opportunity for some people to increase their revenue streams and even make a living off of hosting, it has a social cost that is invariably borne by those less-well off people who still need affordable places to live. Sure they too can benefit from becoming hosts, but not everyone has the flexibility and means to share their space with travellers. And while city regulations and condo building by-laws can also control the spread of room shares, in the end it is a trend that is likely here to stay. So how can the wealth it generates for some help create opportunities for others?

Continue reading “Local art for your Airbnb”

“The whole world is a cactus”

“Le monde entier est un cactus
Il est impossible de s’assoir
Dans la vie, il y a qu’des cactus
Moi je me pique de le savoir
Aïe aïe aïe, ouille, aïe aïe aïe” – Jacques Dutronc, Les Cactus (1967)

Roughly translated the above passage from Jacques Dutronc’s 1967 hit, “Les Cactus” reads:

The whole world is a cactus

It’s impossible to sit down

In life, there are cacti

I prick myself to find out”

Continue reading ““The whole world is a cactus””

Mix a little Wabi-sabi with your photography in 2018

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Memorial to Leonard Cohen on the doorstep of his home in Montreal days after the news of his passing

In the next few weeks many of us will have a little downtime and maybe even a chance to rest and relax (hopefully) with the people we love.  Many too will be receiving, or treating themselves to, new cameras, drones, or phones and will have a chance to start capturing images with them.

Continue reading “Mix a little Wabi-sabi with your photography in 2018”

How to thrive as a freelance photographer

I’ve been working as a freelance photographer for over fifteen years, starting from humble beginnings to having a pretty thriving practice today with a team of photographers and videographers to help me better serve the growing and changing needs of my expanding clientele.

Despite major technological changes in photography putting a camera in everyone’s hands, event photography has only grown. While there are thousands of photographers around today, there is also a huge and consistently growing need for images that tell stories, communicate brand personality and help event managers reach their audiences.

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In the past month alone I and my team have covered fashion shows, balls, multi-day conferences, trade shows, recruitment fairs, graduation ceremonies, business luncheons, unveiling ceremonies, gala events and parties, executive retreats and several fundraiser evenings.  It’s been an exhausting yet still exhilarating fall season and it doesn’t look like it’s slowing down any time soon.

Here are some highlight images from this hectic fall season:

Taking a moment to pause and reflect, I think one of the keys to having a successful thriving freelance photography business is keeping the needs of your clients foremost in your mind at all times.

A “client” may be one person, or a team of people, all of whom you as the event or conference photographer are there to serve. The agenda may change, schedules get moved around. You may need to deliver a quick set of select images in real-time, or show up at an ungodly 6:45 am call time for a cold walk outdoors in sub-zero November weather because your client needs you there. It’s all part of the job.

If I had to summarize the most important traits a successful freelance photographer (or any freelancer really) needs it would be the following (and only one really has to do with technical ability):

  • Adaptability: being prepared and ready to adapt to sometimes (often) very last minute needs and change requests from clients.
  • Client-first attitude: while it’s important to bring your experience to bear on events you are asked to cover (you should be the one choosing where group shots get taken, and paying attention to details that show up in an image that clients are too busy to think of), you are ultimately there to serve the client. If they need you to take a photo of every award recipient that gets up on stage, you do it.
  • Technical prowess: you need to know your gear and how to use it. Galas, conferences, meetings, trade shows – all take place in spaces where lighting is rarely natural. Understanding the best way to show off the room, the people and the space with the available light goes a long way towards delivering images your client will be thrilled to receive and happy to share.
  • Being easy to work with:  this seems like an obvious one, but remarkably, not every photographer seems to recognize where they stand in the pecking order. It’s great to be confident and proud of your work, but there is no place for divas or big egos when you are on a job. You do your work with a smile, or not at all in my opinion. No client needs to deal with you and ultimately everyone is replaceable so while getting the photos right is important, being someone people enjoy working with is even more important.

Getting the gig is of course the most important part of freelancing as a photographer, but once you have it, keeping it going relies more on your personality and how you interact with your client than anything else. Your work has to stand out, but in the end, clients may find you because of your portfolio, but they choose you because of your personality and how you work.

 

Using Pinterest to share ideas with your photographer / client

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Secret boards are only viewed by people you invite to see the board. You can invite them to view or participate in image curation by giving them edit rights. Photographers can start boards and invite clients to contribute, or vice-versa. Clients can also share in-house with staff and management who will be involved in the upcoming shoot.

When you are meeting with a photographer to discuss an upcoming photoshoot at your office or one of your facilities, using Pinterest boards can quickly bring you and your photographer’s vision for the shoot into alignment.

When I meet with a client to discuss an in-office corporate portrait session, or plan out a day-in-the life type shoot where the aim is to build up a bank of customized (client owned) stock photos, I often find creating and sharing a “Secret Board” on Pinterest is a useful tool.

 

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Creating a Secret Board is easy, Just like creating any other Pinterest board. Just toggle the Secret switch and then invite collaborators/viewers.

From a photographer’s point of view the method helps stimulate ideas and allows you to show both your experience and skills in collaborating with your client. From a client perspective, the method can help generate concepts and be an easy way to share the vision for the shoot with everyone else in the company who needs to get on board.

Why not just use your own portfolio? Of course you can add some of your own images to the mix, but by the time you are having a client meeting, odds are your client has already viewed your portfolio or you’ve been recommended to them and they assume you have the skills to do the work you are being asked to do. Using images from your body of work that are relevant to the kind of photoshoot you are planning won’t hurt – but by sharing a “Secret Board” with your client and inviting them to collaborate on it you help ensure stronger engagement from your client and give him or her the opportunity to collaborate creatively in the planning sessions – which is actually a fun part of the project. You can also include a broad range of images – some of which may just be there as a means of showing what is possible, or to get people’s creative juices flowing.

The success of an in-office photo shoot relies in good communication.

As a photographer, your job is to walk your client through a typical shoot: How long will you need for set up? Where are the best places in the office to do the shoot? What should people wear? When will they receive their photos and what’s included in delivery? And of course, how much will it cost?

Your client, meanwhile, has the double task of meeting and coordinating with you but also communicating to the employees being photographed everything you’ve explained about the shoot and more. They will need to coordinate schedules (no small feat), and send reminder-“Tomorrow is photo day!”-type emails to employees much like the notes parents get on the eve of school photo day. (This is surprisingly important: you’d be surprised at how many professionals I’ve had to photograph in morning shifts who show up unshaven, unrested and with a look of dazed confusion claiming they forgot it was photo day).

 

 

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One very useful way for the client responsible for coordinating the shoot to communicate with the staff being photographed is to share with them a set of images setting the vision for what they are trying to achieve. If you create a board in Pinterest, then (ideally) gather up the employees for a brief meeting with the board projected on the wall you can quickly bring everyone onto the same page (literally).  Again, this becomes another opportunity for engagement and collaboration and can be done with or without the photographer being present. It can also help mitigate nervousness about the upcoming shoot and provide context for why it is important.

In portraits especially when dealing with non-professional models (ie most of us), people actually appreciate being told what to do, how to stand, where to look and what to wear. All people think in terms of narratives. If you can show your employees where the photos being taken will fit into a story – “we’re using this photo for the header image on our careers page to show people what it’s like working here”, it helps them understand their role and also alleviates their self-consciousness.

In corporate photography you have to think about what the photo will be used for, and how well it communicates the firms’ brand and culture. A conservative lawyer’s office is not likely to have their team stand out in the street in front of a graffiti covered brick wall for their team photo (which an ad agency may well consider as a great backdrop). You can be creative with the looks you try to achieve but in the end, what matters most is whether or not the photos help – or distract – from their core purpose.

Using Pinterest boards to discover, curate and share visual ideas with everyone involved in an upcoming photoshoot helps make photo day a success. The people in the photographs are likely to enjoy the process more, and the marketing or communications team is more likely to end up with images they expect and will be able to use for their intended purpose.

Give it a try. Create a free account on Pinterest and start pinning. When you’re done you can just delete the board or keep it if you think it will be helpful again. (Just be forewarned – Pinterest can be slightly addictive and you may wind up like me creating boards to match all your interests like reading, cooking, travelling, freelancing, etc, etc…)

 

 

Catch a falling leaf…

FALL2010 492I love this time of year.  Montreal is blessed with four very distinct seasons, if not of equal length (think 3 months of summer, 6 months of winter, 2 months and three weeks of fall, 1 week of spring). The weather turns cool very quickly, and overnight fall has arrived bringing with it, strangely as it heralds the advent of winter, a bustling, busy sense of growth and renewal as people go back to work after the summer holidays, and students of all ages head back to school.

Even if your work life is not that different from summer to fall, there is still a strong feeling of change in the air that has an effect on your psychology.

CK4A9716In photography, the autumn is a busy time. It is when many professional services firms do their recruitment campaigns, grooming their selected graduates for roles as accountants or lawyers, and the start of many companies year end events. As well, given the high number of universities in Montreal and related services and companies, there are many networking events, product launches and mixers aimed at helping people make new connections and build their networks.

DSCF9638.jpgAs the leaves soon begin to change, the fall foliage provides abundant and gorgeous backdrops for outdoor portrait sessions, whether you are getting engaged, starting a new job and looking for a modern non-conventional headshot, or gathering with your extended family for Thanksgiving.

Taking pictures of strangers – to ask or not to ask?

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It’s a dog’s life

Candids, or photos taken of people who are unaware they are being photographed, often result in the most interesting and emotive images a photographer can produce. These images are valued primarily for the emotions they convey and the stories they tell. However, by definition such images are an invasion of privacy and require an intimacy with the subjects that is essentially taken without consent.  But if you first ask someone if it is okay to take a photo, the essence of the moment you are observing is fundamentally altered and many photographers would argue, gone forever. What to do?

Though there are two scenarios where candid photography is essential – event photography and street photography – the challenge of whether to ask or not is one mainly faced by street photographers.

Taking candids in event photography vs street photography

In event photography, the photographer is a professional hired by their clients who often explicitly request a selection of good candids of attendees interacting with one another. Attendees are aware that they are going to be photographed – often through the placement of a sign at the entrance to the event or through explicit consent forms signed ahead of time – so the event photographer generally faces no dilemma and in fact, is encouraged to take as many strong candids as possible as these are the kinds of photos both clients, and subjects alike prefer when reviewing the final set of deliverables post-event.

Street view of main gate of Gyeongbokgung Palace

In street photography, a passtime widely enjoyed by both professionals and amateurs alike, the question of whether to ask or not to ask is more acutely relevant. With some very clear exceptions, my feeling is that the best images come from patient observation and that asking for them in advance can, and often does, ruin them. I believe if you always operate with a respect for other people and you abide by the photographer’s version of the Hippocratic oath physicians take, “to do no harm”, you are in the clear:

  • Don’t take photographs that could in any way embarrass, endanger or otherwise inflict any kind of harm on your subjects.
  • Don’t take any photographs of people in cultures where taking photographs is feared or frowned upon, for whatever reason without getting clear consent first.
  • Photographs of other people’s children is also off the list unless the parents or guardians expressly allow it – and then I make a point of sharing those images with them
  • No paparazzi photos of any kind

There is something inherently opportunistic with taking photos surreptitiously. The very word “snap-shot” implies a quick, reflexive response to something noticed that will quickly disappear. That precise combination of  composition, lighting, and subject matter that makes for a perfect photograph is often ephemeral.

This is both the thrill and the challenge of taking candid images, of course. Getting it all right in just an instant is where the skill lies. A photographer whose aims are to capture meaningful candid images must practice almost daily to develop the reflexes and familiarity with his or her equipment in order to be there when things are happening, and be able to get the shot when they do.

For the same reason, it makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to ask for consent to take a photograph in the same moment that the image presents itself to your eye.

Tips for taking better street photos

Dumplings for lunch

You get the best results in street photography when you are discreet both in your manner and the gear you are using. Whether you are at home or travelling your street photography can benefit from taking an anthropological approach.  Having knowledge of an area (often gained by having walked around it extensively), understanding they kinds of people who frequent it, what they are doing there and how the lighting and ambience of the place will change over the course of a day and into night, all contribute towards your ability to capture stunning street portraits and capture powerful images that tell stories and convey a sense of place.

Embed yourself in an a “target rich” environment until you effectively meld into the background, then wait before taking any photographs. Anyone who’s ever enjoyed the practice of street photography will develop a sense of where good photos are likely to come from. Even though the moments that occur are randomly generated by the multifactorial interactions of strangers, time, the position of the sun in the sky and countless other factors, a photographer with a good eye will sense a place rich in potential and spend more time there.

There is no question, from an aesthetic point of view, that candid images are generally more appealing and more potent than posed images of the same subjects, or images in which the subjects know they are being observed.

For a good time...
For a good time…

The act of observing something inherently changes that which is being observed. This is one of the mind-bending results of a thought experiment known as  Schrödinger’s cat by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger in trying to describe the way two different quantum states can co-exist, or be in “superposition” until observed in which instant the superposition collapses into one or another of possible definite states.

While I don’t suggest taking photographs of two strangers kissing on a park bench in Paris is the equivalent of conducting one’s own quantum physics experiment, it is true that the kiss would be changed or possibly not transpire at all if the photographer gently nudged into their embrace and asked if it would be okay to snap a shot of them.

Ultimately, as is the case I hope every time you press the button on a camera, use your judgement. Take only photos you would be proud to share and show the world, and that enhance or elevate your street photography subjects, or that expose a story or place that brings a higher level of awareness and sensitivity to a wider audience for a subject you actually care about and are trying to make a difference in. In the end, there are no strangers in photography. Under the gaze of your lens, everyone is a somebody if you accord each individual with the respect – and compassion – each and every one of us deserves.

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Here’s looking at you kid

Candid photography lies at the very heart of why people love photographs in the first place. By all means you should pursue it as an art, a hobby or a professional practice. I believe the best photos are the ones where the photographer has gained an implicit trust from his or her subjects. This is gained through the sheer force of personality, the proof of the work you have already undertaken, and the evidence you demonstrate of having integrity whenever and whereever you and your camera are.

What photo gear to bring on your travels

What gear to bring with you when you travel

Glad I brought my spray paint with me

If you enjoy photographing the sights you see and the moments you experience while travelling, you have probably done some research into what gear to bring along with you on your summer vacation. As airlines get increasingly cheap with the amount of space they allocate to “cattle class” economy seats – the ones most people use – each piece of additional gear means added weight, and size, to your bag. With space at a premium, how do you choose the optimal travel kit to ensure you get the full enjoyment of your hard-earned vacation and bring home your trophy images that let you relive the experience over and over again when you are back home?

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Carrousel near The London Eye

Now if you are one of those people for whom a phone is going to be all you need, feel free to stop reading here. While the phone is often a great addition to the kit (and some new types of gear like the DJI Osmo+ Sports Kit, DJI Mavic Pro or the Ricoh Theta S require a phone interface), it doesn’t match up to any kind of pro lens. I know many would disagree, but the real photographers out there know exactly what I mean.

51Q9fK+1utL._SS40_Whether you are a professional photographer or an enthusiastic beginner, or just someone for whom photography is a part of the travel experience, your first and most essential piece of kit has to be the primary camera you are most likely to use and carry around with you. For me it has to be the Fujifilm X100T. (You may prefer the newer version, The Fuji XT2 but since I haven’t used it yet I can’t recommend it though I suspect it is as good or better than the one I use).

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This versatile and compact little beauty of a camera is my favourite travel camera. It hangs around your neck discreetly, looking as good in its case as out, and takes beautiful snapshots wherever you are. Great in low light, and with a few little tweaks you can make to adjust the shooting style to match your own, nothing compares to it in its price range. I would highly recommend it, or one of the similar cameras Fuji puts out for someone looking for a professional quality camera at a reasonable price that they can use in a wide range of settings. Whether you are visiting bars, taking family portraits or artfully composed images of the girl/boy you are trying hard to impress, in cathedrals, on beaches, traversing jungles or all of the above, this camera does the trick and if you only bring one piece of gear this should be it.

For a bit of extra weight it is worth considering a small GorillaPod tripod (useful for attaching camera to trees or rocks of you want to be in any of your own photos).

If you love drone photography (which once you’ve tried it is hard not to) than nothing beats the compact, travel-friendly DJI Mavic Pro. It is the smallest most portable professional drone on the market today and performs admirably in a wide variety of conditions. While I use it sparingly, I love being able to capture broad vistas, shorelines and other natural landscapes with its high definition 4k camera. Just the sheer thrill of flying it is worth bringing it onboard.

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View of Central Park in Songdo, South Korea (June 2017)

As I like to have options when I travel, I am willing to put up with the extra hassle of committing one bag of carry-on purely to camera equipment. Here’s what mine looks like for a two week tour of three European countries (the DJO Osmo+ kit not shown).

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Inside my Thinktank Airport International V2.0 I have:

1 Canon 24-105mm L series lens

1 Canon 16-35mm L series lens

1 Canon Mark IV body

1 DJI Mavic Pro drone with 3 additional batteries

1 Fujifilm X100T

3 extra Canon batteries

1 pair of Bushnells binoculars

1 full outdoor kit for the DJI Osmo+ (tripod, extension, car and bike attachment) *DJI Osmo+ packed separately

Chargers for DJI Mavic Pro, Osmo+ and Canon batteries

1 sling style BlackRapid strap for camera

1 Canon 600EX-RT flash head (batteries inside)

1 Ricoh Theta S camera with a GorillaPod tripod

2 Brinno Timelapse cameras (with one exterior weather proof casing)

This is excessive I know but as I plan to attend a wedding in London, tour Hamburg and then spend a week touring around Portugal with my family and some friends I wanted to have the fullest possible range of options for shooting the many varied settings I will find myself in, both urban and rural. With this kit I can shoot handheld video, panoramic photos, time-lapse videos, aerial photography and videos, landscapes, portraits and family sized groups of people. I’ll be equipped for virtually any type of lighting, and can be guaranteed to bring home a set of images and video clips that will satisfy my appetite for complete coverage.

When traveling by air, remember to keep all your batteries (at 50% charge or less) inside your carry-on as you are not allowed to pack batteries in your checked luggage. Given the way most checked luggage gets treated I keep all my gear with me at all times. The Thinktank Airport International V2.0 (though pricey) has a truly solid, well-made bag that theoretically fits inside most carry-on spaces. On smaller regional jets (the ones you are most likely to find yourself on if you are flying between cities in North America), as the overhead bins are designed for fitting a child’s lunch pail and perhaps a rolled up newspaper, you will have trouble with this bag. However, I always manage to bring it in and get it under the seat in front of me, even though a portion does overlap into your seat mate’s leg room. With a little understanding and friendly banter this can usually be smoothed over.  Do not, under any circumstances, allow the airline to gate-check your bag which is airline speak for handing over your precious cargo to unhappy workers who treat passenger luggage with the contempt and disdain of cruel prison wardens for prisoners. I suffered through one agonizing flight from Washington to Montreal watching my bag full of $20k worth of equipment be first picked up and tossed down the slide from the bridge to the ground, then get slammed onto a baggage rack, tottering on the edge, half falling off, as the cart was manhandled out of my site to the baggage loading area. Were it not for the sturdiness of the Thinktank Airport V2.0 construction I am sure my gear would have suffered. Nonetheless, I vowed to never let that happen again.

What to shoot?

Girl with flowers
Girl with flowers

Everyone has their own fun choosing what to focus on when travelling, so what follows is nothing more than a view into my own idiosyncratic way of interpreting my travels through my lens. Aside from the obligatory (and still treasured) shots of family and friends, I love shooting the kinds of things you see but quickly stop thinking about when travelling for a few days in a foreign country:

  • shots in the airport/train station on arrival/departure
  • street signs
  • graffiti
  • book covers in stores
  • postcards / souvenirs
  • art and displays in museums
  • market stalls of produce
  • street posters for upcoming shows
  • bus, train or plane ticket stubs
  • the different kinds of foliage you find in gardens
  • doors, store fronts, building façades
  • products on display in grocery stores
  • and random, quick snapshots of parks, skylines, views and anything else that tells the story of the place you are in without worrying all that much about compositions, lighting or even focus sometimes (a blurry shot through a train window moving at high speed sometimes is exactly the right expression of that moment in time).

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When I get back home I love looking through the images and putting together a mosaic of my time away.

I also love shooting a video (with my phone), of me speeding through all the images on my Fuji X100T to give a high speed tour of my travels. Stay tuned for June (coming soon)

My particular gear and shooting preferences aside, in the end, the best camera for travelling is the one you have with you at the time and the best things to shoot are what you see that strikes you as new, interesting, unusual or representative of the place/season/mood/experience you are in at the moment you experience it. Rather than make a production out of hauling out your big gear, use the simplest, most versatile camera you can reach readily when something – anything – twigs your curiosity. Whether that’s just your phone, or something as lightweight but also a full-fledged camera, having a camera in your hand when you see something that excites you matters more than having the absolute perfect camera and lens for the shot that’s packed away in your bag.  When you travel, you are ultimately a visitor – a tourist. You can dress and act however you want to to fit in, but ultimately, your time is limited in your destination of choice so if you care about taking home visual souvenirs, do yourself a favour and keep your camera around your neck or in your pocket, with a spare, fully charged battery and a card with ample space to hold your images in RAW or the highest JPEG you can shoot in so that you have the option to do prints or make a photobook when you get home and don’t have to deal with the frustration of having a great shot in resolution too low to do anything with but post online,

Happy travels!

How photographers benefit from the gig economy

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Say “CHEESE!”

The gig economy, alternatively known as the connected economy, the sharing economy, or the on-demand economy, is a growing and still not very well documented trend that is changing the way many different kinds of people work.  Characterized by short-term contracts, a high degree of autonomy and payment by task or assignment, working a gig is how many people today earn part or all of their income.

A recent report by the McKinsey & Company estimates up to 162 million working-age people in the EU and the USA are working in the gig economy, with as many as 33% (or 54 million) Americans working as a freelancer. In Canada, 2.7 million working age people are either self-employed, or running micro-enterprises (fewer than four employees). 

For professional photographers, who have been in the gig economy long before it ever had a name, this trend is hugely beneficial and they are poised to be big winners in a future where there will still be a lot of work, but a lot fewer permanent jobs.

In the gig economy there are three main categories of work, all of which benefit professional photographers (and videographers too).

  1. Freelancers – people who sell their labour or offer services either directly to clients, or via a digital platform like Upwork, or Uber, or Taskrabbit.
  2. People who sell goods (artists, artisans, up cyclers, makers, etc) directly through their own blogs or websites, or via a digital platform like Etsy or eBay.
  3. People who lease our assets (a couch, a spare room, a condo, a stock pot) mainly through digital platforms like AirBnB.

For all three main groups photographers are either major players (freelance photographers) or creating the gorgeous images necessary to enable people to sell their goods and services or lease out their condos to travellers.

Photography, as a craft, is also open to anyone with enough drive and passion to develop their talent and build up a portfolio of good work. It is a perfect second career for a retiree (people age 55-64) who doesn’t necessarily need to earn his or her primary income from the trade (which actually represents one of the largest slices of the gig economy workforce), and it is often a profitable sideline for people working other main jobs, or, in true gig economy fashion, living a portfolio lifestyle. (Also known as “slashers” as in, I am a photographer/writer/podcaster).

As with the rise of any hobbyist-turned-worker trade, their can be a negative knock off effect on professionals whose work is undercut by others willing to do the same work for less pay (think Uber drivers vs professional taxi drivers) but this kind of change is unavoidable and must be faced head on by the working professional.

While anyone in theory can take a photograph and call themselves a photographer – only the truly committed will invest the time – and money – needed to learned the craft inside and out, stay up to date with the latest software, equipment, trends and techniques all while doing the hard work of building up a client list and keeping them all happy.

Continue reading “How photographers benefit from the gig economy”

Rethinking the holiday e-card

life-celebration

This image, the one I am most proud of and the one that has touched me most deeply this year, was taken during a celebration for a life lived. The image shows the family of the deceased, while a slide show in the background plays of his life. There is the mother, the sister, the wife, the daughters in a moment of grief and powerful human connection. This one image tells the story of human life and how our lives are defined by who and how we are connected to one another.

I think that is what we are all trying to do, every day in our lives. Find and create and feel connections between ourselves and the people around us. I think that all the horrors of what happens when those connections are severed or unformed is how we end up with much of the tragedy we’ve seen in the world. As trite as it may sound, there is only one thing that really matters and it’s love, the ultimate connection.

I think that’s what people are trying to say when they send a holiday card. They are reaching out and saying, I think of you, I want to stay connected with you, I want you to know it.

But it often fails to touch us that way. In this final lead up week until the holidays your inbox has probably been exploding with holiday messages from everyone you know, work with, or for.

Thought and care evidently go into crafting these messages of well-wishing and gratitude and hopes for peace and happiness. Nonetheless, they all end up sort of sounding the same, and you may be developing a kind of holiday e-card blindness.  You may even (gasp) not open the email or worse, send it straight to the trash.

It’s understandable, given that the messages, though well-intentioned, come to us through a tool (email) we use primarily for parsing information and, well, there’s usually not a lot of information to parse from a holiday card. Seen one, seen ‘em all just about sums it up.

From the sender’s perspective, the “holiday e-card send” creates a little extra bit of year-end anxiety. Especially if you are a freelancer or running your own small business. It’s one of those things you know you probably should be doing, but it’s hard to do it with any originality or creativity and, of course, there are still all those presents to buy.

So either you do it in a generic, check-the-box kind of way, or skip it, or buy yourself more time by saying you’ll send a Happy New Year’s message instead (my approach).

But, this year, being 2016, and maybe the weirdest year I’ve ever been consciously aware of with the world turning inward, and a lot of unsettling changes taking hold, I felt the need to do something a little bit differently. I’m genuinely concerned that we’re living through an era of change, not for the better.

And so I began to ask myself questions, to realign myself with my purpose and to give myself and my business a strong sense of direction as this pivotal year comes to a close and a new one is about to begin.

Asking questions, as it turns out, is much easier than answering them, and much more useful. So as my holiday message to you dear readers, friends, clients and random people who come across this on their internet searches for great gift ideas for the holidays, here are the questions I am using to realign and renew myself personally and professionally.

Questions to think on over the holidays

What did I learn this year?

What am I grateful for?

What would I like to change?

What would I like to stay the same?

What relationships did I strengthen?

Which ones did I let go or lose touch with?

What did I create that I am proud of?

How many people did I help?

Did I love well enough?

Did I ignore opportunities for kindness?

What ideas did I have? How many did I act on?

What became of them?

What projects did I begin?

Which ones did I complete?

What am I excited about?

What change do I want to see in the world?

How will I make it happen?

The final two are, I think, the most important, inspired by this famous quote from Ghandi (found here), which I’ll end my 2016 holiday message on:

“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Final sale-or how to fail at customer service

at-your-service

Where I shop

As a professional photographer based in Montreal, there are surprisingly few retail options for buying camera equipment and studio accessories. Over the many years that I’ve lived and worked in Montreal, I have shopped at all of them and I’d like to share my thoughts on the experience, with the hope of seeing some improvement overall.

Now of course there are online options but the biggest and best of these are US-based which means as Canadians we get hit by both a our weaker currency and duties. The gold standard for online (and actually retail too if you ever get the chance to visit the super store in New York City) has to be B&H Photo Video a long time favourite of mine. I have ordered countless items over the years through their online store and on the one occasion where I experienced an issue I was ultimately offered a full refund, though not without a bit of wrangling initially. However, notwithstanding that one blemish, the customer service offered by both the online and telephone support staff is unparalleled.

Another online (US-based) site is Adorama.com. And there are Canadian sites like Vistek.ca, but I haven’t used either.

I have, however, spent time in the three main camera stores in Montreal where most professionals shop (all of which also offer online stores though I have not used any). These are:

Camtec Photo (26 Rue Notre-Dame Est, Montréal, QC H2Y 1B9)

Photoservice (222 Rue Notre-Dame O, Montréal, QC H2Y 1T3)

Lozeau (6229 Rue St-Hubert, Montréal, QC H2S 2L9)

Since there is such a low-level of competition, pricing is roughly equivalent in all three stores. Availability of product varies, as the stores are not all of equivalent size, but I’ve never personally had any issues with finding what I was looking for.  The only real point of differentiation that matters to me is customer service, and here there is a clear loser, with two others close but ultimately one winner.

I’ll start with the winner: Camtec. I’ve shopped at Camtec several times over the years and have always found the service top-notch. I am usually greeted when I walk in, and though the store is very small, it allows for more conversation and whoever is behind the counter is always knowledgeable about the products and friendly, and fluent in both English and French. While it’s location in Old Montreal means parking can sometimes be a hassle, I’ve usually found street parking nearby with little effort.

Just down the road on Notre Dame there is Photoservice, and it is my second choice. I have had mixed experiences there though largely positive. The staff is very friendly and knowledgeable there as well, but my one main point of contention is the checkout process which is just not streamlined enough. If you are behind a few people in line you could easily wait 10 or 15 minutes because of the antiquated manner with which reciepts are generated. I don’t know exactly why but there are always multiple copies printed and the products often need to be looked up by product code number manually. And while the service person is usually pleasant and polite, standing around waiting for the process to hurry up (while worrying about the metre running down where the car is parked) is annoying and really needs improvement.

And then there is Lozeau. By far the largest (in terms of square footage and product offering), Lozeau should by all counts be the best. But it is a very distant third for me and a store I personally won’t ever shop in again because their customer service is not just bad, it is offensive.

Here’s why: as a professionals who has to spend a lot of money on expensive equipment to do my job, I expect that when I return to a store where I’ve shopped many times over the years, I should be treated with a certain amount of respect. Because I try out and purchase new items frequently, I sometimes encounter products that don’t live up to expectations (see my earlier post on the dud performance of a recent instant print camera I tried out). This of course means that the product in question needs to be returned.

Final sale

final-sale

And here is where Lozeau fails miserably. Because rather than treat a product return as another touch point with a valuable customer and a chance to turn something negative into a positive, store policy seems to be to treat the returning customer as a kind of scammer who is returning the item to somehow rip off the store.

On my most recent-and final-visit to the store (which is an hours drive for anyone living in the West of Montreal), I had to speak with four different individuals, explaining my story to each one over again, to return a non-performing product and this was AFTER I’d taken the time to pre-clear the return with a manager over the phone because I was anticipating exactly this kind of insecure, lowest-common denominator service. Not only did I have to fight for a refund for a product that failed utterly to perform as advertised, but I was forced to do so without any evidence that anyone at the store really cared at all.

More than one staff member tried to make the particularly galling point that “Final Sale” was printed on my receipt next to items distinctly non-perishable, such as camera bodies. While I understand that you may not want to accept returns of film that can be damaged by exposure to heat, it’s not clear to me (and was never explained when I asked) why a camera purchased less than a week earlier could be considered a “perishable item”. But having printed “Final sale” on my bill, the store acted as if those magic words recused them of any further responsibility.

It is just not acceptable to sell crappy products, then tell your customers that they’re stuck with them and treat them like juvenile delinquents when they ask for you to honour your side of the bargain as a retailer serving professionals.

In a world of abundant choice enabled by online retailers, customer service is perhaps the single most important aspect every business should aim to compete on. Sadly, my experience at Lozeau was neither the first nor all that rare, given the amount of feedback I’ve had from other photographers who’ve had their own versions of the customer showdown at the store.

So if you’re shopping for camera gear in Montreal, I recommend Camtec as your first stop and Photoservice as a good second choice and somewhere with a wider variety of products than you’ll find at Camtec. And if you still choose Lozeau, well, brush up on your latin: Caveat emptor!

How 360 cameras are revolutionizing photography

Sailing on the open sea....
Sailing on the open sea….

Perhaps the most defining characteristic of a photograph has always been how it is framed. Not the actual frame you hang it on (though that too plays a role) but exactly what the photographer chose to capture with his or her camera. Framing a shot, its composition, has always been the most important part of what makes a photograph work, or not.

The technological constraint of a lens, until very recently, required photographers to make choices.

I, photographer, am somewhere where something is happening. I can look around and see everything that’s going on, but when I put the camera to my eye, I am immediately (and quite literally) putting on blinders. I am looking through a kind of keyhole, and almost like a symphony conductor calling out the lead violinist during a performance, am visually selecting the element(s) of the scene that I wish to focus on and draw attention to.

The resulting image, stilled into permanence, has a beginning, middle and end, just like a story. It has edges. You can’t see what’s happening outside the frame, and often that which is not shown reveals something as well and can add poignancy and another layer of meaning to the image.

All of that, of course, is completely upended (if a sphere can be said to have an up or a down) when you use a 360 camera like the Ricoh Theta S, for example as I have begun to do at the events I cover. Suddenly, the image the photographer has chosen to take, is no longer fully within his or her control. Once it’s created, anyone who chooses to view it, can also chose to spin it around, and transform the view from whatever was in the photographer’s mind, to their own.

While these devices are still in their early days, and their use still largely treated as a novelty I wonder where it will take us. As brand marketers and other message-makers are pondering – how do you tell a story when you no longer can restrict the narration to a controlled point of view?

How does a photographer focus on a visual element that resonates with some emotional quality or narrative thrust when the image is no longer bound by a frame?

Virtual reality is another way forward on photography’s perpetual technological evolution and expansion. Photography has always been driven by technological change and will continue to be. With each new development, photography has expanded its reach and moved deeper and deeper into a wider audience of both consumers and practitioners.

The distance between photographer and subject is foreshortening. We are all both photographer and subjects now. And with 360 images, the compression is complete, as in every 360 taken (by hand), there appears not just the photographer’s subjects but the photographer him or herself.

I am certain, as with every techno-driven change in photo equipment, we are on the cusp of a whole new way of experiencing photography, and of course even more so with video. I don’t think VR will replace traditional photography, just as cell phones haven’t killed the DSLR, or the DSLR the SLR for that matter, to wax technogeekily for a moment).

We’re just now entering a new and thrilling phase where professional photographers can now use multiple points of view to document and create a record of what has happened. The images produced – with or without edges – can convey an even deeper and more resonant sense of the experience. And that’s very exciting.

The power of a simple “Thank You”

Thank you
Thank you

“Thank you”

Two words with a big impact.

The under appreciated habit of saying thank you speaks volumes about a person’s character, motivations and genuineness. It is such a simple thing to do yet it is often overlooked.

People who take the time to feel and express their gratitude are not only likely to be happier people in general, they encourage others to help them more often and more readily than those who don’t make the effort to show thanks.

I am always touched by those people who do make the effort to send a thank you note, or leave a kind review online, or simply send a quick email thanking me for sharing photos I’ve taken of them. And conversely, I am always amazed at how few people take the time to show their appreciation and gratitude for a kindness showed to them.

As a conference photographer I may easily encounter hundreds of people over a 2 or 3 day conference, some of whom will approach me to ask for a copy of any photos I may have taken of them during the event. I really don’t mind sharing the photos (provided my client has given consent) because it’s an opportunity for me to make a new connection and I genuinely like giving my photos to people who appreciate them.

But I am always a little surprised by what happens after I’ve sent the link with the photos. By surprised I mean I am sometimes a little disappointed at how few people actually even acknowledge receipt of the link and bother to send a thank you message.  Despite appearances, it takes time and a bit of effort to scroll through a few thousand images and pull out the ones of someone who’s given me their card. I never have any trouble remembering who’s who, as I have a strong visual memory and never forget a face, but I do take (unpaid) time after delivering my client’s images to put together galleries or pull out images of individuals who’ve asked for copies.

I usually give these images away and with my email ask for their feedback on my Google+ Business page, if they are happy with what they get. Only a few ever send a thank you reply email and fewer still take the extra step to leave a review.

But then there are the people who go above and beyond. I’ve had people send me expensive bottles of whisky and champagne, comfy travel pillows, handwritten cards, and leave glowing reviews on my Google+ page for whom I did nothing more than snap a few photos or some minimal photo retouching.

To these people who’ve made the effort to say thank you, I want you to know how much I appreciate it. As an independent, freelance photographer, I do not have performance reviews or get an annual bonus for doing a good job. I don’t have colleagues coming around to chat with on a daily basis and don’t get a pat on the back for delivering great photos. I get paid, and if I am fortunate, get re-hired or a referral from my happy clients, but when I do receive the unexpected thank you note, or the email telling me how much someone enjoyed my work, I am truly touched. I feel like I contributed something positive and that my work has an impact.

I save all the thank you notes I’ve ever received and am as proud of them as I am of the work I did to get them.

Saying thank you isn’t hard to do. But that doesn’t diminish the positive energy it releases by doing it. It is probably the best return on effort you can get in life. And it is something we could all stand to do more often. It’s easy to underestimate its impact or think that a “thank you” is unnecessary if you’ve paid the bill or left a tip on the table. You don’t have to say ‘thank you’, of course, especially if you are a client. You can just move on to the next project and never think twice about the suppliers you used or the people who contributed to the work you’ve completed. And that’s what makes it all the more special when you do say “thank you”. You don’t thank someone because you have to. You say thank you because you feel gratitude and you want to acknowledge the person – the human being – who provided you with something that you are grateful for.

And that is always worth the few extra minutes it takes to accomplish.

The hidden cost of free

Way, way back when I first began working as a freelance photographer, I was sometimes tempted (and asked) to work for free to gain experience, or because the client pitched their event as a “great chance to market yourself.”  I sometimes accepted, reluctantly, and almost always found myself regretting the decision.

The experience gained was usually not as it was presented by the client, and invariably, the “great marketing opportunity” translated into more offers to work for free from the client’s guest list, if any at all.

The concept of how you can give stuff away and still make money was written up in a book by Chris Anderson called “Free: How Today’s Smartest Businesses Profit by Giving Something for Nothing“, (notably not for free on Amazon), which commented on and helped fuel the whole Freemium model startups love, in which a basic service is given away for free (like Google does with Gmail) and then a small percentage of users are charged for the more advanced features of a premium account, usually on a monthly subscription. 

As much as I’d like the idea of selling subscriptions to my services as a photographer (a day in the life, once a month for a year anyone?), on the few occasions where I did actually work for nothing, the results never paid off.

It shouldn’t really seem all that surprising. People who expect something for nothing aren’t usually the kind of people who turn into great clients. And as amplifiers and marketers on your behalf, the only message that usually gets communicated is that you work for free.

In creative fields like photography, writing, videography, graphic design, etc. where a large number of freelancers are competing for contracts, there is still pressure to “sell” your services for free in the hopes of winning a paying contract down the line.

When it’s a bad idea to work for free

Here’s why it doesn’t work for service providers the same way it might work out for a startup whose only cost is server space.

  1. You want to develop a customer relationship: Alas, customer loyalty just ain’t what it used to be. Because of the pernicious effect of freebies spawned by internet startups and the mass disintermediation the internet has enabled (allowing rich market businesses to buy services from poorer market labourers), loyalty is an increasingly rare resource. As a freelancer, odds are, your clients won’t come around as often as you’d like them to. Even with a regular working relationship, you may only get two or three contracts a year. For most freelancers, that’s not sufficient revenue to survive, let alone thrive.
  2. Free is expensive: If your free client does ever come back to you, you’ve set the bar very low for when you do eventually need to charge them real money to cover your operating costs and keep putting things into your body like food. At that point you’ll realize that negotiating for a fee compared to free. vs. a lower fee compared to a higher fee leaves you with less green in your jeans.
  3. Free gets ignored: People don’t respect what they don’t pay for. It’s as simple as that. Even if you charge a very low cost that just barely covers your operating costs, you are sending the message that you respect yourself and are confident in your ability. Any client not willing to pay even a low fee is not ever going to turn into a client that values you for what you can provide and you are better off putting that time and effort into finding clients who will.

When it’s okay to work for free

There are some times, however, when it’s okay to give your services away. (In fact, I was recently sent a bunch of free custom usb drives from someone I didn’t know, and unusually, I accepted the offer. I don’t know if I’ll buy more, but I liked the way I was approached by the company and the fact that they were willing to offer me something of value just because. I also like the way the drives looked -ego stroke!):

  1. It’s for a cause you care about: If you are drawn to a particular charity, or cause, and want to help them with their fundraising efforts, then you could consider offering your services to the organizers as a gift-in-kind donation. I do this for charitable causes related to children’s health, girls education and cancer research because I care about these issues and like the feeling I get lending my talent towards a worthy cause. It feels good to give, and we should all do more of it, but it should be clear both to you and the recipient that it is a deliberate choice that you are making because you care. It is completely justifiable and fair to ask for a charitable receipt for the fair market value of your services, in this scenario.
  2. You need content for your portfolio: when you are just starting out as a creative professional, your most important asset is your work, your book, your portfolio. It’s the first thing prospective clients want to see once you’ve established contact and if yours is too lean or weak to impress them you’ll never break into the field you’re trying to get into. If this is your case, then it’s okay to do free work, but be very careful about how you do it and it is still worth putting a contract in place that specifies that you own the work, and get to promote it and include it in your portfolio.
  3. You want to learn: in photography and many other creative fields, you start out knowing enough to get going but you are far from expert at anything. It is an art form that takes years to get really good at. And that’s great because one of the things that inspires lifelong passion is the chance to always be learning something new. If you are looking to master a technique, or just gain exposure to a line of work you are researching, then again, offering your services for free can be worthwhile. It isn’t really free because you are getting educated and making contacts in your industry. If you choose this path, research the person you want to work alongside and always keep the focus on your learning while trying to offer something of value to the person or organization you’ve joined up with so that when the time comes for you to strike out on your own for real, you’ll have someone who will feel comfortable referring work to you and or maybe even hire you first.

Working at something you love is a reward in itself and it pays dividends throughout your life in terms of happiness, self-actualization, self-confidence and just being free to live and work on your own terms. Autonomy and independence are enormously empowering emotions and should factor into anyone’s decision to go it alone and become an entrepreneur, whether as a freelancer or business owner. But giving yourself away for free for too long ultimately slows down your growth and potentially undermines it completely.

Access & Reach

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Lewis Hamilton, winner, Grand Prix Formula 1, in Montreal, June 12, 2016

After a weekend shooting Formula 1 Grand Prix races in Montreal, I came away with slightly damaged eardrums and new insights into what access and reach really mean for a photographer. While getting those “money shots” of car closeups in action is all about track access and high quality long range lenses (which I happily got to use courtesy of the Canon support desk – thank you Canon), getting good candids of famous people requires more than just a press pass.

At mega events like the Grand Prix, there are multiple layers of access. I was walking around with four different sets of credentials around my neck, not counting the track access vest, to cover the VIP areas I’d been hired to shoot. Having credentials and being granted access, however, is not the only requisite for capturing the ambience and vibe of a prestigious event. Being able to embed yourself and flow through environments and being recognized as a friend, rather than paparazzi, makes a world of difference in the types of photos you will be able to get, and the guests’ experience of you as their photographer.

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Javier Bardem arriving at the Grand Prix Formula 1, smiling despite the cold rainy weather

I was made acutely aware of this when Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem arrived on the scene. As lovely in person as they are on the screen, with their level of star power they have a lot of experience with photographers, and understandably evince an attitude that hovers somewhere between recognizing we are a necessary evil, and wanting us to go away. While it was my job to photograph them taking in the race, it was also important to respect them as guests and not intrude. Despite having both access, and reach via suitably powerful telephotos, it was still very challenging to get what I would consider good shots of either of them, as the moments they seemed most natural were precisely those in which it wasn’t appropriate for me to be snapping photos. They had come to the race with their family and had asked that none other than the two of them appear in any photos. I respected their wishes of course, but had to leave the best photographs (to my eye) untaken as a result. I am a photographer, not a paparazzo.

Penelope Cruz posing with La Robe de Victoire in support of breast cancer research
Penelope Cruz posing with La Robe de Victoire in support of breast cancer research

In other ways, access also provides an opportunity to help others reach their goals. Photographs can tell stories and help spread ideas and messages more efficiently than many other kinds of media. They are particularly useful for non-profits who want to draw attention to their cause. Having both star power and a good cause with a made-for-photos prop presents a golden opportunity.  I was happy to oblige when I was asked to shoot portraits of the VIPs standing with “La Robe de Victoire” (The Victory Robe), comprised of 153 bras donated by breast cancer survivors.

LA-ROBE-DE-LA-VICTORIEIn my work, everybody is a somebody (my IG handle is @ursomebody for this reason) and I always keep that belief in focus whenever I am photographing anyone. I don’t differentiate between famous and not famous, recognizable or unknown. Every person whose face I take into my lens is someone whose image I have a small bit of responsibility for. I don’t get the right to modify the photo too much, or use that image in a way that person would not want to be used. If you don’t also believe that as a photographer or anyone whose “content” is derived from other people, then your access and reach is a waste. Both are on loan to you, and both are ultimately a privilege not a right.

Devon Windsor, "Angel" Victoria Secrets model posing with La Robe de la Victoire
Devon Windsor, “Angel” Victoria Secrets model posing with La Robe de la Victoire

How to deal with the difficult clients (and how not to be one)

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Making a living as a freelance photographer means you are going to work with a lot of different kinds of clients. That is actually your goal, and one of the perks of the job when you have them because from a business point of view, you’ve got a diversified portfolio and are never too reliant on one contract. However, variety means not all of your clients will be as easy to work with, as others. In my several years of experience with hundreds of clients, I’ve really only encountered a small minority whom I’d classify as difficult, but the lessons they can teach are worth sharing.

First of all, as it relates to freelance photography. I define as “difficult” any client with particularly onerous demands, specific interfering behaviours on site when the job is being done and/or having highly unrealistic expectations vis-à-vis the budget.

For clarity I would say, it is perfectly acceptable and in fact, preferable, to have a conversation with your photographer about what you are expecting, the kinds of shots you want, when you need them ready by, etc. As a client, you are also fully within your rights to ask your photographer to dress appropriately for the venue, and express how you expect them to behave at your event. After all, whether it is a corporate luncheon, a gala evening or a private affair, it is your event and your photographer is a guest and should be expected to behave accordingly.

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Thorny issues
Difficulties arise when a client takes it upon themselves to get too into the details of the work at hand. As my German father-in-law tells me, “You don’t tell a painter how to paint.” That is, if you hire well and are dealing with a professional, it is not your job to tell the professional what kind of lighting to use, or specify every pose and generally interface between the subject(s) and the photographer. These choices and these interactions are best managed by the person holding the camera and you theoretically have hired that person because they are demonstrably good at it.

Standing very very very close to the photographer, asking to review every shot, pointing out shots to take repeatedly, for example, is not helpful. It is in fact, highly counterproductive as it will likely result in distracting your photographer and probably will yield a much worse result than if you just let him or her shoot the event or portrait as they best see fit.

A good event or portrait photographer is someone who is skilled at working with people. Trust them. As someone whose work entails several interactions with lots of different kinds of people during a regular work week, I am comfortable with a broad range of personality types and can deal with almost any situation that arises. Any difficulty I’ve ever experienced has come, not from the subjects, but rather a micromanaging client whose behaviours indicate both a lack of respect for the professionalism and artistry involved in being a photographer.

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Generally speaking, there are two broad types of clients: those working on behalf of a company, or business to business (B2B), and those hiring you directly and paying for you with their own money, or business to consumer (B2C). The former category includes PR companies, communications and marketing professionals, and event managers. The latter can include entrepreneurs, and of course, the vast majority of wedding photography clients and people seeking a family portrait or some other personal event.

B2B clients are working with budgets and may have demands for rapid turnaround on edited photos etc, but because they generally have experience contracting with photographers, transactions are conducted more quickly and they tend to let you do your work without too much hands on management.

B2C clients tend to be more budget sensitive, less experienced hiring photographers in general (it may well be their first time), and will consume a greater amount of your time before and after the contract is completed. With good communication, friendliness and transparency on both sides, dealing with B2C clients can be rewarding personally and financially.

Advice for photographers:

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If you run into trouble with a client onsite, my recommendations are the following:

  1. Be clear in advance about what you can and cannot do within the time/budget allocated (with yourself as well as your client): this is perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned and it really applies to any freelance situation but is very valuable to remember as a freelance photographer, especially if you are just starting out. You may be tempted to take every job that comes along, or to offer to do whatever the client asks for without feeling comfortable charging for it, but in the end, this, more than anything else, will be detrimental to your business and your relationship with the client. If, for example your client asks you to shoot and then edit 150 product shots, that entails using the pen tool to create very detailed clipping paths, and then editing each and every one of their used products to look like factory new — and wants it done overnight, you cannot possibly do it on your own. Saying yes to satisfy your client up front will surely result in unpleasantness afterwards.
  2. Get Zen, fast: ultimately your client is your responsibility. You are, at the end of the day, a service provider and no matter how expert and experienced, you can be replaced. You do have to give the client the benefit of the doubt and you cannot, under any circumstance that I can conceive of, lose your cool no matter how irritating and frustrating an experience you are having.
  3. Be communicative: sometimes all it takes to turn around a frustrating experience is the right words. There is a way to express how you are feeling and to provide feedback to your client that communicates your objective without damaging the relationship. Explaining how you like to work, and proving yourself capable of achieving what they are ultimately after – great shots – can mitigate your client’s anxiety and let you get back to doing what you do best.
  4. Be patient: some people take more time than others, and require more effort. That’s just how people are and you, as the professional, need to adjust to them and not the other way around. If you don’t already, start learning about mindfulness. It goes a long way in dealing with moments where your instinct is to blow your top.

Advice for people hiring photographers on how to be a good client:

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Whether you’ve been tasked with finding a photographer in a different city for an event happening tomorrow night, or you are doing long range planning and booking your wedding photographer for next year, here are a few tips from an insider’s point of view that will ultimately help you find the right photographer for your job and ensure you get the best value from the experience:

  1. Speak with the photographers you’ve found online: Everybody will go to Google to find a photographer before doing anything else. Once there, you’ll look through portfolios, read up on their online reviews and probably make a choice there and then to short list or bypass the shooter. If you’ve decided you’re interested enough to send an email, don’t just ask for a rate and give a brief description of the job unless all you really care about is price.  Making the small bit of extra effort to actually speak with a photographer can save you time and money, as well as instantly provide you with a sense of the person’s personality and demeanour which should factor into your decision as to whether or not to contract with him or her.
  2. Ask for recommendations: a good photographer will have ample reference clients you can refer to, in addition to online reviews (here are some of mine) and other forms of social acceptance like an active presence on social media and a recently updated website. Don’t be shy to ask for client references.
  3. Be clear with your expectations: once you’ve decided to contract, be clear in advance about what you expect as deliverables, when and how you want your photos delivered. Articulating in advance (writing it down) makes sure there are no surprises on either side, and that if you are expecting something that would exceed the amount you are agreeing to pay, the conversation can be had in advance to avoid a more awkward one post-event about what is and is not included in the agreed rate.
  4. Trust your choice: once you’ve vetted your photographer and actually signed a contract, trust yourself. Don’t interfere with how he or she does the work requested. Let them discover the moments to shoot, and set up the shots that they think will look best. If you’ve provided a shot list, then let them have at it. If you’ve chosen wisely initially, you won’t be disappointed at this stage

Everyone has a bad day once in a while and a little patience and understanding goes a long way in resolving most issues if/when they arise. But for photographers and clients who find themselves at odds for whatever reasons, hopefully these few tips gleaned from over a decade’s worth of overwhelmingly good client relationships, can help.