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?

South Korean girl with dog and bunny ear phone on park bench
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.

 

 

 

 

How does your profile picture rate?

Using profiles to sort through people is a bit of a dirty word in policing but online we’d all be lost without one. We’re now “seen” hundreds if not thousands more times by people (and bots, and spammers, and other internet undesirables) online than we ever are in real life – but are we paying a proportionate amount of attention to how we -or our avatars– are being perceived?

You probably wouldn’t leave the house without at least a cursory glance in the mirror to check your hair, scan your complexion and make sure you had nothing large and green stuck in your teeth but how long have you had that cropped vacation pic up as a placeholder on LinkedIn that you’ve been meaning to change but just haven’t got anything better to replace it with?

Here’s something fun you can try out. I discovered PhotoFeeler while listening to a great podcast from Terry O’Reilly’s The Art of Persuasion . The site lets you upload a photo of yourself and have it ranked across three metrics (that change depending on whether your purpose is business, social or dating). The “free” test actually requires 10 credits which you can get easily enough by voting on ten other photos of random people the site serves up to you. The results, as this excerpt from an email I got today show, can be quite revealing, showing marked differences in opinions on the same person from photos taken seconds apart:

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Here are my results (for the first two I selected “Business” and the last one “Social”):

This is my current LinkedIn photo (soon to be old LinkedIn photo as you can see from the results):

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Not what I expected, but then maybe I should have sprung for the $12 evaluation which gathers more than 10 quick hit votes. Or maybe I need to change my photo. I do think that with half my face hidden behind the camera I may be turning off people as it’s hard to trust someone if you can’t see their eyes and a smile.

Now here are the results from my last LinkedIn photo that I just changed away from (but looks like I’ll be switching it back in!):

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My personal Facebook photo did alright, though I care a little less about this one. I think the hat is pushing up my grade in the Fun category.

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All in, though this was only the free version and a rough vote, I think it probably correlates well to how these images are perceived. A handy tool for anyone on the job/dating market looking to get a bit of insight in what their profile picture says about them. I’d like to see, in addition to these raw results, a few guidelines on how to improve the photos selected and more detail on what elements people are reacting to in particular, but perhaps that comes with more votes/the paid version.  In any case, a fun way to get a look in the mirror through someone else’s eyes.

 

 

The last time you did anything

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Anytime you do something, it’s the last time you do it. Even if you are working on a manufacturing line, repeating the same process day in and day out, the sameness of your experience is an illusion you can recognize and discard so that you can grow past it.  Just as you can never step in the same river twice, you can never truly repeat anything. You are always on the first and last attempt.

This to me translates into making every moment count. Everything matters when you realize that you won’t have a second chance at it.

When I am taking photos at the events I cover, I am pressing my shutter button hundreds of times a night. In a given week I may shoot upwards of 3,000 images.  Do I really believe that every shot matters?

Yes, I do. Because that instant I am observing, when a face breaks into a smile, or a pair of eyes light up with intelligence and interest, matters to me and in another millisecond it will pass. The light in the room will change, sometimes within minutes. The “vibe” and feeling in the room will flow and alter course as the night progresses. Nothing remains constant. Each shot is another opportunity to capture something that won’t ever happen just the same way again.

You might think that this is exaggeration and hyperbole. Philosophically you may cede the point, but really, does it matter that much whether you get a shot of that woman smiling over at table 68, or that man in deep conversation standing by the projection screen? Maybe it doesn’t to you. But when I’m working, I think it does. And if you are that person on the other end of the shot, it may matter to you.

I’ve had the experience now of having taken the last photo of a few people who I later learned died not long afterwards. I can’t be certain mine was the very last photo taken, but I think it’s probable. Once it was a young caregiver at my daughter’s daycare, another time a much loved and respected philanthropist. When I look at these photos I think to myself what if I had just not bothered that one time. If I had turned my attention inward or off a little, been a little blasé about what I was doing. After all, I’m just an event photographer. I’m not saving lives in an emergency room or devoting myself to teaching literacy to poor underprivileged children in the developing world.

If I had done that of course, these photos wouldn’t exist. And I like to think that whatever comfort they may have provided to the loved ones they left behind, would have been a little less. Maybe that doesn’t matter to everyone, but it matters to me.

I also recognize, when reflecting on these rare occasions, that you never know when you are living your last day. It always amazes me that we live our lives and then one day they just stop. Lurking in every breath we take is the thought, perhaps the fear, that one day we will take our last. Will I be ready? Will I have done enough? Will I have mattered?

Thinking that way pushes me right back into the present moment. If this could be my last day, time with my child, meal, walk in a park…I want it to matter. I want it to count. I want to take it all in and absorb everything possible from the experience.

This also transforms the natural fear of death, into a powerful joyful fuel. You will end. So while you are here, make everything matter. This moment now won’t come back. So be in it. And the next one to. For as long as you have.

This kind of thinking infuses not just my work, but all of my life. How I spend my time with friends and family. The things I like to do. The way I recover when I mess up and break the trust with myself or another. When I am losing my temper over some kind of momentary situation, I always return to the awareness that the moment is passing and if this were to be my last, I would not want it to end this way.

It doesn’t matter what you do. Whether you drive a truck for a living or trade financial derivatives that no one understands but are making you filthy rich. The moments matter. Being conscious of them can enhance your time infinitely and bring richness to every encounter such that the everyday becomes almost miraculous in its power to give and teach you something new.

Don’t wait.

When does pricing per image make sense?

When should a client and photographer opt for a per image pricing contract?

Pricing in photography has always been a challenge and will continue to be so as the demand for creative images increases in tandem with the abundance of suppliers.  While quality can vary considerably between photographers, the bottom end of the range has risen in line with technology so an average shooter ten years ago is now able to deliver reasonably good images with some basic kit that may meet the needs of some clients. On the upper end, the possibilities of what can be done with images in post-production, as well as the quality of images that can be captured and created now with top-line professional gear that can include virtual reality cameras like the Ricoh Theta S, drones and a range of pro lenses, is even more impressive and can satisfy even the most demanding of clients.

The struggle remains however, for the independent photographer, in determining the right price for their work when a request comes in from a new client. Given the paucity of full time jobs for photographers and the oversaturation of people in the field all calling themselves professionals, pricing for any given type of photographic assignment is really widely distributed. The range begins at free and rises up through the thousands for the same kind of assignment.

I recently read a very good and thorough article on PetaPixel by Rosh Sillars that explores the idea of pricing photography in 2016 in great detail. I recommend reading it for anyone – producer or buyer – who is in the market of hiring photographers, buying photographs or producing images. I want to focus on just one aspect of the article, regarding per image pricing as it is a concept I am beginning to explore with my clients and feel that in certain contexts it makes the most sense from both the photographer’s and buyer’s point of view.

Specifically, I want to explore types of assignments I am experienced in where it would and would not make sense to offer per-image pricing. I look at four types of photography: event, portrait, editorial/website and wedding.

EVENT PHOTOGRAPHY:

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Per image pricing? Not for most situations

One of the challenges an event photographer encounters with every gig is how to gauge what balance of images a client actually needs and will use vs coverage provided. In most events for which a photographer is contracted, there is a planned agenda which is followed with more or less adhesion depending on the client, type of event etc. While not every event has speakers or centre-stage activity, there will be a timeline and detailed plan for the night that an event manager has hashed out, often down to the minute. This holds true whether you are covering an international conference or a local wedding.  As the person responsible for providing visual coverage of the event, one of your tasks is to capture everything that happens – which includes both scheduled agenda items, as well as candid moments, beauty shots of rooms, important items, and often signage and evidence of sponsorship activity.  The result is a tendency to err on the side of over-shooting such that at the end of even a brief 2 or 3 hour event you may well have a few hundred images to subsequently sort through, curate, edit and then deliver to the client.

How would per-image pricing work in that scenario? I have never met a client who wants to pay more to do more work, which is exactly what would happen were a per-image pricing model enlisted in this context. Furthermore, some of the most beautiful and engaging images I have captured as an event photographer happen in those unscripted moments where people experience some kind of emotional uplift or response to each other. These images are often my signature pieces but would they make the cut if a client is suddenly sensitized to the idea of having to pay for each and every image?

I suppose the model exacts a discipline on both the photographer and the client to really focus in on the essentials, and this kind of a constraint can have a positive impact on creativity, but I believe it would have a greater negative effect on the overall workflow of the shooter and result in a less attentive, less responsive style of shooting that would skew towards the main event, ignoring or overlooking the often much more interesting, fun and engaging, off-stage type moments where the magic tends to happen when people gather.

PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHY

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Per image pricing? Yes, almost always

Portrait photography much more easily lends itself to per image pricing. Often a client is booking for a number of employees, the shoots take place on site in the client’s office and there are invariably last minute additions when random employees wander past and see a photoshoot going on and beg to have a shot “so I can update my LinkedIn profile”.  A day rate or per hour contract in this scenario can be costly for the photographer as the workload is effectively uncontrollable. When shooting portraits in the client’s office, there is a lot of pre and post work involved, not the least of which may be physically accessing sometimes inconveniently located office spaces, navigating a labyrinth of loading dock, freight elevators and shipping doors lugging around the unwieldy collection of light stands, gear, etc., required to make everyone look beautiful. Then there is the set up-almost always in an office that is cramped and small-before the shoot happens. While each subject may not require more than 10 or 15 minutes, post-shoot there is the added work of sorting, and editing final versions of images that are highly scrutinized by their likenesses. It is not for the faint of heart and all in, a per image pricing model makes a lot of sense. How much per image is a completely different story of course, as the end result needs to still align with client expectations and counter the misperception that all you’re doing is pressing a button.

I normally calculate portraits on a per image fee, starting from a fixed base for the onsite studio set-up than a per head fee that can be adjusted based on discussions with clients vis-a-vis budgets, as well as the type of client being served.  I consider it fair to offer lower, more flexible rates to smaller businesses and charge full pop for corporate users. My pricing is based on a fairly elaborate calculation that takes into account not just all the work required to perform the specific task, but the overhead involved in marketing a corporate portrait business, and aftermarket support to clients.

EDITORIAL/WEBSITE PHOTOGRAPHY

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Per image pricing? Yes, almost always

Thanks to the convergence of social media sites and formerly corporate websites, there is an ever-growing demand for fresh photography to populate an array of digital properties most companies have to manage today to ensure their brands stay relevant and they are engaging their customers where and how they like to be engaged. This generates, in turn, an  insatiable desire for imagery which is heavily skewed to photography. While video is a rising star in the digital marketing world, use-cases for video are still more restricted than photography. While it’s quite possible to envision a website with no video on it, it’s nearly impossible to imagine the same with no photography. And as most stock imagery these days is recognizable as such, clients with even a little budget are thinking creatively about their needs and hiring photographers to generate their own library of custom stock photography. It can be done affordably and may often be less expensive than the ostensible cheaper option of using stock images. But in either case, a per image fee makes a lot of sense here. Clients who hire photographers to come in and document a day in the life of their office space usually have a set of images in mind that they’d like to see at the end of the day. A talented photographer can work through that kind of list and add value by shooting the shot list with their own brand of creativity that can excited clients when they see the final results. As well, this can be a very low-risk type of contract for a client to enter into as there are no fees paid other than for the images they themselves select and place a value on.

For these kinds of contracts, whether the images are ultimately destined for internal client use, a public facing website or publication or media, the pricing per image should reflect both the effort and skill required to take them, as well as the post-production necessary. While some photographers will share unedited proofs, I believe this to be a terrible idea that is highly disfavourable to the photographer. A movie producer does not release a trailer of the unedited cuts. Most clients, regardless of their sophistication and experience purchasing photography, do not have the time and skill required to parse an image, as it were, and see it for its potential from an unedited proof. More than likely they will deem the work subpar, and judge the photographer accordingly.  While there is a risk to the photographer of editing a batch of images that may not, in the end, be purchased, this can be mitigated against by making a judicious selection of images to edit and share with the client initially. Once the client’s appetite has been whetted, more images can be processed and shown should the client express interest.

WEDDING PHOTOGRAPHY

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Per image pricing? No.

Wedding photography (which I run through a separate weddings focused business here), is in my opinion, the mother of all excess and the source of the most widely varied pricing in the industry. This is due to a conflux of factors including: first time buyers, people spending other people’s money, vast gaps between expectation and reality when it comes to desired outcomes vs real budgets, and good old fashioned price gouging, exaggerated markups and unscrupulous vendors taking advantage of misinformed or unsaavvy buyers to charge huge, unwarranted premiums.

Now before all you wedding photographers get your corsages all tied up in a knot, I’ll say that some wedding photographers are truly gifted artists and power to them for charging as much as they can and finding receptive clients happy to pay. These comments are not for you. But for the wedding factory type photography outfits, the fly-by-nighters, and the countless hacks who claim to offer some kind of premium service when all they are really doing is grabbing at extra margin because they’ve inserted the word “wedding” into their portfolio, I believe the balance of power is shifting to consumers and your days of overcharging are numbered.

Brides and grooms, while subject to a vast array of marketing machines aiming for their wedding dollars, are becoming savvier and more prudent with who and how they hire. Paying a fixed package price that takes into account all the extras and additional work of a wedding is fair, but spending over $10,000 on wedding photography, no matter how jaw-droopingly beautiful you may be, is just a silly waste of money. Yes, weddings are a lot of work and they are rightfully a little more expensive than your average event photography contract. While the same skill set is required, given the intimate nature of the event, the vast number of guests who are all in their own way important, and the richness of opportunity for touching moments to happen and be captured by a sensitive photographer, there is necessarily an increase in effort that needs to correlate to price. Within reason.

I would not see a per-image pricing model as any way satisfactory for clients for their wedding. In a typical wedding photography contract a photographer works anywhere from eight to fourteen hours on the wedding day. There is often more than one location, multiple lighting situations to accommodate for, and a parade of necessary if rather formulaic images the clients will expect to receive. The photographer is also considered the expert and will have a leading role to play in organizing groupings, and managing the “formal” parts of the shoot. All of this is best covered under a blanket fee based on a blended rate that covers both time on the ground, as well as the significant post-production work that will be done on the images.

In reviewing these four types of photography assignments, it is clear that in all cases, the best pricing model for both client and photographer is aligned. Much noise is made in photographer circles about the costs of maintaining a photography business (expensive gear, high upgrade costs, time to market, etc) but I don’t think that is at all relevant to clients nor should it be. No one forces a photographer to go into business. If you are a photographer, you’ve chosen a career with variable income, and high operating costs. Complaining about that to your clients doesn’t get you better pricing and won’t make you more money. Choosing the right kind of pricing structure for the job that places the client’s interests above your own, on the other hand, will.

The most beautiful woman in the world

People Magazine just released their pick for the most beautiful woman in 2016: Jennifer Aniston.

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I have nothing at all against Jennifer Aniston. I think she is a great actress with lots of comedic talent and yes, she is quite pretty. But I do have something against beauty contests in general, and something about this headline really bothers me.

First of all, it celebrates celebrity which I think is a vacuous and thoughtless focus on a small percentage of humans who through luck, genetic windfalls and of course skill and hard work too, find themselves splashed across the covers of things like People magazine and movie screens. Yes, they are often nice to look at and they entertain us and move us emotionally, but they receive a disproportionate amount of attention to the value they add to society, and distract attention from other important issues that are harder to think about (like climate change, or corruption, or systemic racism, etc…) that actually have much greater impacts on real people’s lives.

Celebrity culture, the nadir of which would be someone like Kim Kardashian showing off her shapely buttocks and expensive bathroom, demeans everyone who engages in it. It locks us into an inherently superficial relationship with ourselves and each other, that actually dehumanizes both the star-struck fan and the celebrity whose personality and true self lies buried beneath the persona.

It also makes regular people, regular looking people with regular lives, feel badly about themselves. It idealizes specific looks, body types, hairstyles, skin tones, accessories and lifestyles that aren’t a part of most of our lives.

As a photographer of course, I stand accused. My work is to photograph people and I know that the more recognizable my subject, the more attention my work gets and the more “important” by association, I become.

But the worst thing about the epithet of “The most beautiful X…” is it implies a judgement and sets up the entity making the announcement as some kind of authority on beauty when such a thing is purely fiction. A fantasy. False.

There is no one most beautiful anything. We are all capable of being beautiful and carry within ourselves the real source of beauty, in how we behave towards one another and what we can contribute to the communities we share.

I know it’s just a marketing ploy (I used the same tactic for my headline), but it isn’t harmless. I’ve seen so many people through my lens who fret about how they look, and how they are perceived – particularly younger women – and their misperception about the way they look affects their self-esteem and sense of self-worth and that’s what really bothers me.

If we spent more effort seeking out and seeing the real beauty in the people around us, and less time and energy on the images of famous people, perhaps we’d make the world a kinder place for all of us.

 

 

 

 

How to survive as a freelance photographer

How do you survive as a freelance photographer?

I encounter a lot of people who are curious about what it’s like making a living as a freelance photographer. Because I often go into offices during the work day to shoot an executive or pickups of office life for company websites, I am in contact with lots of people doing a lot of different jobs.

And I see the look of incredulity on people’s faces when I tell them what I do for a living. They can’t quite seem to fathom that in this digital age where everyone is armed with a camera in their pocket, and people are uploading hundreds of millions of photographs daily to Instagram and Snapchat, that anyone could possibly earn enough to survive by just being a photographer.

And while I am not “just a photographer” (I do a lot of freelance writing as well), photography is my main occupation and what I fill out on customs cards when I travel.

Do it for love, not money

I am the first to admit that photography as a career choice is not one made with an eye to getting rich. Indeed there are very wealthy photographers out there, those who shoot celebrity portraits on exotic beaches, for example, but I am not one of them, and the vast majority of working photographers are not either. Gigs come and go, clients come and go, and you are never guaranteed anything. It is not a surefooted, clearly marked career path and there is no security. So if you are looking for anything of the sort, it may not be the best choice for you.

It is, however, one of the best jobs in the world if you enjoy meeting a lot of people in a wide range of contexts, and engaging with each one of them on a human level. One of my first ambitions in life was to become a journalist, and though I never realized it, photography affords much of the same exposure to different situations, different groups of people and an array of ideas (if you keep your ears open as you do your work) that is very exciting. It is totally unscripted – one day you may be doing a CEO portrait in an office tower, the next you’re covering a tree-planting team building event in a city park, but the opportunities are truly endless for encountering new, interesting people and getting a snapshot of who they are by being a fly on the wall in their every day lives.

So if you love meeting lots of different people and having many interactions throughout the day (if you are covering a large event like a conference or tradeshow), than it is a very fulfilling job.

Get your hustle on

How do you get business? In that sense it’s no different than any other freelancer gigness out there. Whether you are a writer, a designer, graphic artist, videographer or the guy who sets up window displays for shops on High Street, getting gigs is about showing up, doing your best work every time, listening and understanding what your client really needs, delivering everything you promise (and more), and then doing it all over again for the next client. And the next. And on and on until one day you get a call from someone who says they heard about you from someone else.

While you can never stop hunting for new clients – and that can mean making cold calls, running e-mail marketing campaigns, maintaining a blog with regular, useful content, and good old-fashioned networking both on and off-line – holding on to the clients you have is also part of the job. If you develop a good relationship with your client – mainly by doing good work consistently for them – you earn the benefit of their repeat business. Having a few regular clients can help smooth out some of the variability in your income and provide a degree of security, though nothing ever lasts forever.

Developing your hustle muscle is also critical. I never go to any gig without a pocket full of business cards, and my spiel ready to deliver at the right moment if I meet a prospective future client. While the main focus is always on the paid gig at hand, part of photographing people necessarily entails talking and connecting with them. Not doing so makes you that awkward shooter lurking on the sidelines and yields a crop of photos showing people with slightly annoyed looks on their faces at your interruptions. You have to interact, and mingle, professionally. Sometimes, in so doing, you’ll meet someone who might need what you’ve got to offer and you follow up. I’ve landed a lot of new business this way.

Don’t let your love go cold

Finally, staying at it and always looking for ways to up your game or improve your skills, tools and technique is all part of the job. You are only ever as good as your last job, and no body cares how expensive your gear is. They just want great photos and it’s your job to get them done.  I read up on photo news, stoke my perpetual gear lust with Pinboards full of the latest gadgets, and experiment constantly with new approaches to my work.

It’s very important not to let your passion ebb away by letting your work go stale. After the 100th portrait of the old guy in a suit against a grey seamless backdrop in a cramped little fluorescent lit office downtown, you may be tempted to just mail it in. But that would be the beginning of the end of your career, I believe, because to that man, this portrait means something. It’s a sign his company is investing in him, a chance for him to show who he is to his clients or to accompany a news article about his recent accomplishments. Having your portrait taken is something to be proud of, and it’s important to always keep your emotional IQ running high to ensure you never lose sight of what a photo is really about.

Taking good pictures, and being the kind of photographer people like and want to hire is ultimately not about the tech you are using, or any tricks you’ve learned along the way. Yes, you need to understand your gear, have mastery over the tools you have, and not flub the shots technically. But the most important aspect of the work is making sure your heart is in it, and keeping it there.

Stick with it

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Mr. Stickwithitness

Being a freelance photographer is really an amazing life. I’ve been able to travel, meet interesting, friendly and wonderful people and see places and things I never would have were it not for the work. That’s imparted a very deep sense of gratitude in me and a respect for my work. I truly believe that it’s a privilege to be hired by every client, and every client deserves my best work. If I let that slip, even a little, it’s the beginning of the end for me.

The work is important. The gigs will vary. You’ll have to nail your pricing and be flexible and able to talk frankly about cost vs. value, and you’ll need stamina. All entrepreneurs will tell you that it takes twice as long as you think it will to be successful, and will cost twice as much as you expect it will to get there.

How you define “success” of course, is up to you. I consider the option to wake up every day, direct my efforts towards my goals and do important work for great clients a success. And as my economics professor once told me, I’ve got “stickwithitness” which is probably the single most important thing you need if you want to make it as freelance anything.

Two lessons I’ve learned observing humans

Girl flying over flowers with fairies or butterflies
Girl flying over flowers with fairies or butterflies

Working as a photographer sometimes feels like having a secret superpower. You get to blend into rooms and become invisible. You stand apart from the crowd, rather than being a part of it. And your work is to look at humans as they interact and go about their lives. You are a professional observer.

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Big Red Heart

In my life, somehow becoming a photographer was the natural thing to do, bringing together my myriad interests in anthropology, art, story telling, culture and languages, and above all else, the human condition. After fifteen years on the job, I am still amazed that I can manage to survive on my trade, and that people will pay me to do what I do. Because really what I am very good at is looking at people and seeing them almost with an X-ray vision. After working at hundreds of events and taken hundreds of thousands of images of people being people, I have an intuitive sense of a person’s nature and can see through them in a way that is wholly a gift of practicing photography for so long. And what I have observed most often, is that almost all people all want to feel a connection to others, and everyone looks better when they smile – and the two are deeply related.

It may be simplistic, but I think that the recognition we feel when another person smiles at us, and shows an interest in who we are, however brief the interaction, is what we all live for. As a photographer, I have observed people from all walks of life, from the super rich to the homeless, hyper-connected successful professionals to intellectually challenged autistic individuals who may never have a “real” job. I’ve witnessed marriages in every major faith of the world, as well as the many variations of love and spirituality that people have today that do not fit categorically into any one religion. CEOs, white collar workers, blue collar workers, parents, children, singletons, newlyweds, doctors, lawyers, students, soldiers, homeless men, investment bankers, and artists. It doesn’t matter who you are, what you do, how much money you have or don’t have, where you live, what you wear, what kind of shape you are in, what your hair looks like, or whether you have hair or not. It doesn’t matter if you are overweight or anorexic, tall, short, or in-between. What you really want – what you need – is to connect with another, feel accepted, feel appreciated, and to give the same to others around you.

rain-lightning-rainbowSo for what it is worth, I would say this to anyone who’s still with me this far down the page: in 2016, smile more often, not just because someone is taking your picture. Pay attention to the person you are with. Listen to their answers when you ask a question about them. And know that everyone struggles with something sometime, that no matter the appearances, deep down inside, we’re really not so different from one another. Most of us don’t need more stuff in our lives. What we need is more patience, love, acceptance and peace. And mostly, we need each other.

*Art courtesy of Tessa

Using HDR & long exposures for blur effects in your travel shots

Ghostpeople of Berlin's East Side Gallery
Ghostpeople of Berlin’s East Side Gallery

I read an article this morning by Adam Karnacz in Vantage (on Medium), called Removing People with Long Exposure, in which he described the technique he uses to disappear people from photos at sites where it is impossible to otherwise get a clear shot. Places like St. Peters in Rome, Stonehenge or any major tourist attraction. It’s a simple trick which I also discovered myself recently while visiting Berlin. I was at the East Side Gallery, a 1.7 km long section of the Berlin Wall left standing and completely painted over by artists after the wall came down on November 9, 1989. I had wanted to visit it the first time I was in Berlin two years ago, but ran out of time. Even this visit was rushed, arriving by cab at the end of the day just as the sun was setting. In addition to the dim lighting, there was a metal fence up in front of a large portion of the east-facing wall, erected by the city of Berlin just that day for temporary cleaning of the site. But even at this later time of day there were crowds of people milling by, congregating around the most recognizable sections of the gallery.

I did not have a tripod, as I rarely travel with one since the time I almost missed a flight leaving the Canary Islands because my tripod needed to be checked by security. It is cumbersome to travel with one anyway, but I’ve found a makeshift one can be found by using what you find in your surroundings. A pole to lean the body of the camera on one side works well, or the top of a car or nearby mailbox. A garbage can will work in a pinch, depending on how recently it was emptied out.

I set my camera to shoot high dynamic range (HDR) (which means the camera takes three shots in succession at three different exposures, one under, one correct, and one over-exposure, then merges the three images into one). Shooting HDR requires very static subjects, otherwise the merged images don’t match up and you get strange, electric looking outlines. However, an unexpected advantage I discovered was that if you shoot HDR where something is moving in front of your static subject, i.e., people walking, you get a beautiful shot of your subject and the people either blur right out of the picture or add a surreal, ghostlike effect, showing the traces of humans but nothing recognizable. (See some of my photos of Berlin’s East Side Gallery here)

I thought the effect worked particularly well in some of the shots of got of the East Side Gallery.

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As darkness fell, I switched over to using longer exposures, but this time pointed my lens to take in a bit of the road to capture oncoming traffic to create some random light paintings with headlights next to the wall imagery. I liked the effect in these shots as well.

Electric avenueAnd then there was this final image, which had nothing to do with the wall but was in one of the cars parked right in front of it that I was using as my makeshift tripod. Somehow seems to perfectly capture the quirky, captivating, energy that Berlin emanates and is maybe one of my favourite photos I’ve ever taken.

Berlin's Hula Girl

It’s mid-November, time to clean up your photo library

Here we go
Here we go

Like most people I know, I learn things the hard way. Although I should have known better, a few years ago I lost a hard drive that just died on me for no reason, taking with it to its cold cybery grave, a passel of unbacked up images that no one will ever see again. It was a heavy blow at the time, as it contained some of my best work as a wedding photographer, and a huge collection of creative work I’d done over the years prior. But it had one positive result: it taught me the vital importance of backing up my work.

Since then, I’ve adopted the habit of backing up everything I do in triplicate (two separate hard drives, and one on the cloud). I don’t do it with every single image I produce, but once I’ve curated the set, I do it for the ones I want to keep. With the exception of my personal family photos and videos which I indiscriminately keep all of, around this time of year I do a big purge. As a busy conference and event photographer, I accumulate a lot of digital detritus just doing my job. While my clients want to see the full set of images I shot for them, once the event has come and gone, there is no reason for me to keep the majority of the images I’ve shot. There are only so many photos of an engaged audience looking up at a speaker that I need in my portfolio to prove I can capture the energy and excitement in a room. After the 30th conference of the year, I have to admit that the rooms all start to look the same, and the faces tend to blur into one another. Hence the need for the purge.

It’s hard going at first, but once I get into the flow of it, it starts to feel really good, as most decluttering sessions do. I’m currently still using Aperture (though plan to switch over to Lightroom in 2016 now that Apple has abandoned its pro software in favour of its new Photos), but what I find particularly useful for purge sessions – or curation sessions if you want to use a prettier word – is an old version of Adobe’s Bridge that I have. I like the way you can copy, move or trash a lot of files at once, and visually assess their quality from a grid perspective with ease. But regardless of the tool you use, the key to an effective photo library cleansing session is to not get too attached to any one image and really be brutal in selecting only the very best. There is just no need to save everything. The world is awash in images, (an estimated 80 million photos are posted on Instagram alone – daily!)

If you are facing a mountain of unsorted image across multiple devices, the digital equivalent of an office with folders strewn across the floor you have to thread your way through to reach the door, I understand your reticence in dealing with this task. It is easier to just buy more space, add a new hard drive, dump everything in there and move on. But it’s not what I would recommend. For one thing, doing so just kicks the problem down the road. No matter how much digital storage space you acquire, you will still be at risk of one or more of the drives failing (and if they contain disorganized files, you won’t even know what you’ve lost). But even more importantly, if you don’t take the time to review what you already have – whether you are a professional photographer, amateur or just camera happy mom and dad clicking away at every second of your child’s life, you won’t ever really get any enjoyment from the images. And what’s the point of a picture locked away on a hard drive that no one ever looks at?

As with any big task, my suggestion is to break it down into bite-sized chunks. If you work on multiple devices, start with the one you use most often. Put all the images in one place. Then break that down further, either folder by folder, or by date, or some other logical system that you can start and stop at, picking up the next time where you left off. Getting started is the hardest part. Once you move past your current state of inertia, you’ll get more efficient at doing it, and the mountain will chip away, one gigabyte at a time until you’ve got a neat little set of images, properly ordered, that you can then save on at least two hard drives, and pump up a copy to whatever cloud storage service you use (I like Dropbox, but there are several to choose from like Google Drive, or even your own hosted server).

2016 is around the corner, and it will be full of new events, new people and places to photograph and another 500+ gigabytes of image files (if you’re a professional photographer). Don’t wait until you lose a year or more’s worth of images before getting organized and backing up your work.

Is there really a difference between event photographers?

Mike Harris
Mike Harris

I was shooting an event in Toronto last week of an award dinner / fundraiser at a ritzy hotel with several very high-profile attendees. It was a fairly typical event, the kind I’ve covered hundreds of times before, with a pre-dinner cocktail hour in the lobby area of the reception hall where guest agglomerated over drinks and canapés, chit chatting and catching up with each other as they waited for the main doors to open up. The lighting was subdued, the bars mirrored. The men wore suits and ties, the women elegant evening gowns. 450 guests were there, each having paid a handsome price for the ticket with over 20 fully sponsored tables of ten. It was an important event for the organizer, with an important group of patrons and having covered events for this client in the past in Montreal, I was happy to have been invited to cover this one in Toronto as well. Clearly they liked my work I thought, and realized that having an experienced hand at working these kind of high-society events yields the right kind of images for their purposes.

FI-JACK_COCKWELL 17That’s why I was quite taken aback when I was chatting with one of the client team members (albeit not the one who hired me) when she asked, quite genuinely, “Is there really that much of a difference between event photographers?”. We were standing in the main hall looking out through the doors at the thickening crowd of mostly dark suited men gnoshing on smoked salmon and quaffing glasses of white wine when she asked. “Well, yes, I think so.” I responded, trying not to sound defensive or overly surprised at the query.

And the truth is, I shouldn’t be because though I don’t often hear it, I do experience the effects of that sort of thinking often. When you work, as I do, in a highly competitive field where the barrier to entry is low, and the perceived value of your service, under appreciated, this attitude translates into many behaviours clients and prospective clients exhibit such as:

  • Brief (one or two liner) email queries asking for a price based on loosely defined schedules for upcoming events, usually in the very near or immediate future
  • Requests for detailed quotes based on unspecific requirements
  • Refusals to acknowledge or present a realistic budget
  • Assumptions that your price is always negotiable
  • Discussions focused on price rather than value
  • Focus on detailed shot requirements rather than discussion on what the purpose and end use of the images will be
  • Assumptions that all photographers also provide video coverage at the same time for the same price

Part of this is due to the ubiquity of photography today and the near infinite demand for constant content feeds through a warren of social media networks. This ubiquity is both a blessing and a curse, as it proves that there is a near constant need for photography, but there is also a decreasing respect afforded to professional practitioners and a widespread belief, exemplified by the leading question of this post, that the service is a commodity, photographers by and large undifferentiated from one another and consequently, price takers in the economic relationship between client and provider.

But then, what is the mark of a good professional photographer worth the fee being asked and one who will work for any budget (or none) and claim to offer the same service?

The answer I think comes down to a blend of factors that some clients get instantly, and others will never really get.

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A good photographer covering an event will do so in a manner that does not cause guests to feel uncomfortable or hold awkward smiles or poses for long. The images will be well-lit, attention given to background, colours and flattering angles for all manner of the shapes and sizes that humans come in. He or she will take the time to understand the event, the importance of key attendees, and if working with a brand, the brand values and personality, to ensure not only their images, but also their behaviour is consonant with the client’s. The photos delivered will also be well-organized, easily accessible, rapidly turned around, and the transactional details of the contract conducted professionally and with respect to the client’s needs and internal processes. And the photographer will still be there after the event is over and the bill paid, to respond to any additional needs that may come up and of course, to serve again on future events having now established him or herself as a known quantity which eliminates at least one element of potential concern in the many moving parts that comprise event coordination, planning and execution.

FI-JACK_COCKWELL 394Hiring experienced professionals may appear to cost more than hiring newbies, but is the same value being provided by both? If you think that indeed, there really is no difference, than the cheapest option makes the most sense. More experienced providers who are able to offer premium level service cost more. Many clients may be satisfied with less, and that’s perfectly okay.

Some, however, realize that talent is worth paying for.