Friday, July 31, 2009

Why Pay a Pro?

When it’s time to cut costs, a lot of folks who are planning life’s special occasions look at their photographer’s contracts and costs and wonder if they really need to spend all that money anyway. I have to confess that I get calls all the time from friends who know I have a big, black camera and some cool looking lenses and some nice pictures on my walls. They want me to come and shoot their special days. If these are birthday parties or quick Christmas card portraits I’ll usually say yes, but on the occasions when someone has asked me to shoot something more important I say no. Here’s why.

If you are hiring a real professional here’s what you’re getting. Some of this you know, some of it you don’t. It’s all worth considering…

Your professional has taken thousands upon thousands of pictures, in almost any setting and in almost any circumstance, so they’re never seeing something for the first time when they shoot your special day. They know their equipment so well that they don’t have to think about how to make their camera do what it needs to do to make sure your face looks beautiful in direct sun, shade, or near total darkness. They know how to get the whole group in focus and they know when the only thing that should be crisp is the tear under your eye. They know what you will want to see in the images before you do. They know that at a certain distance in certain lighting and with certain lenses, cameras, etc., that if they’re not careful the tip of your nose may be in focus, but your eyes won’t be and they know that when you’re looking at an 8X10 of a special moment, your eyes are the only thing that matters.

In many cases, but not all, your professional went to a school for photography. Even if they didn’t, they’ve attended workshops costing thousands of dollars offering hands on training in extremely advanced techniques for everything from how to use an on camera flash for dramatic results (rather than the flat, over-cooked, red-eye prone images we see all the time) to editing workshops covering the features of professional editing solutions such as Aperture, Lightroom or Photoshop. They’ve studied and practiced framing images on the fly. They can see what is special in a moment, and they have the tools and experience to capture things you may not notice until you see their proofs. They’ll give you new angles for the memories you carry from your special day.

It’s not all about equipment, but equipment matters. Having a “blurry background button” on your camera doesn’t ensure a blurry background. These images we all love, where your hand pops but the fabric it’s resting on is out of focus, are not happy accidents. “Uncle Bob’s” big black camera and lens may look like professional gear, but chances are it’s not. (and if it is it only matters if he knows how to use it!) Why? The glass in professional quality lenses and the processing power of professional cameras costs much, much, much more than hobbyists are willing to spend. Most professional lenses cost over $1000. Knowing that in your photographer’s bag there will be three or four of those along with a camera body that averages over $2000 kind of brings it home. (Then consider that they carry at least two camera bodies, two flashes, etc., because they KNOW they can’t miss an important moment due to equipment failure.

Why pro gear is worth the price ..

Consider this situation. You’ve just emerged from the Limo and you’re getting your first look at the venue you chose for your special day. You don’t notice your professional photographer standing by the door, 15 feet away. You also don’t notice your limo driver picking his nose right behind your shoulder, but your photographer does. With uncle Bob’s ‘kit’ zoom lens, (average cost around $500), his minimum depth of field (area that will be in focus) is determined by the light gathering capabilities of the glass in his lens. It’s not GREAT, so he’s unable to get you “in” and the driver “out” and you end up with a crisp image of the two of you on this special moment. The professional on the other hand has positioned herself in advance to shoot this moment. She will see you emerge from the limo and notice the driver in the background and she’ll “open her lens up” so your face, captured in perfect sunset light is in perfect focus but everything else, including the driver’s finger filled nose, are so far out they’re indiscernible, even though the driver’s standing right behind you. Is this luck? No way. Your photographer knows that at 15 feet, their lens (wide open) has a maximum depth of field of 4 inches and they’re using that to create a memory you’ll cherish instead of just another snapshot.

Your professional photographer also doesn’t go to the party. When the open bar opens up they stay away. They don’t dance, they don’t toast, they’re rarely apparent, but always there. Uncle Bob may be regaling the bartender with stories of his fraternity bartending days, but your professional photographer is scoping out the best lighting angle to capture you dancing, laughing, cutting the cake or sharing a private moment with a friend or loved one. In an average shooting day they will capture literally thousands of images. (on average a wedding professional will shoot ~5000 images, an average portrait session several hundred). They don’t drink because they are working. With a technology as complex as a digital camera, that matters.

Midway through the reception, right before the toasts, the kit camera, or even the pro camera that Uncle Bob is using, fails. Now what? Do they have an extra battery? Is it charged? (Pro Camera batteries cost around $100. You can shoot hundreds of images on one, but when you’re going to shoot thousands, you need spares). What about spares for the flash? And what happens, if God forbid, they drop their camera? Your pro has a spare. Spare batteries, spare flash, spare lenses … everything.

Ultimately, the question is simple. How important to you are the memories you’ll have from your special day? How important is the day itself? Will you want to share it with your kids, your grandchildren? Do you want to look your absolute best? The answers to these questions will lead you to an answer that works for you. Hope it helps.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Art and artists ...

So I have to confess that I’m pretty much just flat out a sucker for art. Pretty much any art, too. I’m an incredibly lucky guy because I run a company called Pictage, a service organization dedicated to helping professional people photographers succeed. That means I get to actually contribute in some small way to giving them the freedom to explore their art/profession. That’s pretty cool and it definitely fuels my tank.

But last night I found myself getting positively misty watching “So You Think You Can Dance!” Not with the judging or anything like that. I wish they all could win but that would be bad for ratings. Just watching these people perform is incredibly moving to me. They’ve practiced their hearts out since they were kids and they have a deep seeded talent that simply compels them to dance. I can’t dance. Not like that anyway. I like to dance, so long as it’s dark and there is a sense of anonymity, it’s a fun way to express joy. But these people, through their art, find ways to connect so much more. That moves me.

I like to watch people paint, but I don’t like paintings all that much. I don’t know why. I’ve seen some of the most beautiful works in the world and I think I’m just unable to appreciate what it takes to make a beautiful painting so I just look at it and think -cool - and move on.

Singers and musicians move me easily. As a musician myself it’s easy for me to ‘get’ how hard the easy looking things they’re doing really are. It’s a rare concert where I don’t find myself at some random point celebrating their talent and the joy of their success with a tear or two.

With all of that said though, and it’s not because of Pictage, there is something about photography that I find transcendent. I think it’s because these are real things and real people and real moments. I’ll even stop and look for a while at a particularly good fashion photograph or tabletop image of a watch or food or whatever. I find myself staring at them and wondering, Canon or Nikon or Leica? Who knows, these days maybe a Sony, Video? Whatever. 50MM 1.2 or fisheye? Where’s the light source? Who’s eye was on the viewfinder? What were they thinking? I wish I could do that.

Images of places move me, too. Whether far away or nearby, nature or city. Clean and natural or gritty. The subjects almost don’t matter. I just like to stare.

Images that capture real moments though, these are the ones that tie me down. I can stare at these and wonder on both sides of the lens. I can be the photographer and frame it and see it and feel it. I get the light. I know the feeling of waiting for someone to turn their head just a bit to the left and hearing the click and knowing without looking, because when I learned there was nothing to look at, that you’ve got something special, captured in the camera in your hands.

And I’ve lived long enough now to know the other side. I know the joy of birth and mirth and marriage. I know the fullness of life with friends. I know the sting of death. I love that art is a gateway to these moments in our minds and I celebrate the artists who render it just so ...

Sunday, July 26, 2009

United Airlines Steals Luggage

United Airlines

To Whom it May Concern:

You’ve denied my claim. I understand you don’t cover electronic equipment. That’s why I never check my bags. On this flight I had to check it at the gate because there was no overhead space left. The customer service agent and the baggage guy were having a loud argument on the jetway and when I set my bag down the customer service agent told me I didn’t need a claim ticket and that I should get back on the plane or it would “leave without me.”

When I got to Chicago my bag did not appear back on the jetway. It also didn’t appear at baggage claim. I immediately filed a claim. We followed up on several occasions (you never initiated a call, email or anything to let me know what happened). Finally, we got a call that my bag had “appeared” in the baggage claim office in Chicago. The bag was delivered to me by United. We had already been informed that the electronics had been stolen.

Here’s the problem. The bag never left UNITED Airline's possession. It was checked at the gate in Los Angeles. It did not reappear at the gate in Chicago. So, YOU stole my stuff. I realize it wasn’t the person who is reading this (if by some miracle it is read), it was one of the folks who works in baggage handling in Los Angeles or Chicago. They work for YOU. So UNITED AIRLINES STOLE MY STUFF.

Now, you’re not even willing to pay a claim. I would understand this if I’d checked the bag on the curb with a skycap, or even through the standard baggage claim process. I do not understand it under these circumstances.

In truth, I would have been surprised if things had turned out better. My sense is that United couldn’t care less about the customer experience. I understand times are hard. What with fuel prices, lower ridership, cost cutting, etc., it’s not easy. Here’s the problem. If you fail to care about your customers, your customers will fail to care about you … With lots of options in the sky, that can only lead to one place.

Unbelievable … and sad. United used to be one of the world's great airlines.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Are you really tired? Common, really?

"How are you today?" "Oh man, I'm sooooo tired." "Really, how come?" "Oh, I don't know, I just have so much to do." ...

Sound familiar? I'm beginning to think, 'I'm tired' is the new 'fine.' As in,' how are you?' 'Fine.' Which essentially means nothing but, 'I heard you say how are you and I know we don't really have the time to talk so I'm going to utter something reasonably meaningless and then we'll both know that we were courteous and move on.

The problem is that, 'I'm tired' means more than that, to the asker and the askee and I'm wondering if we're not beginning to convince ourselves that we are, indeed, actually tired. Think about the conversation that starts this piece. "I'm" not 'tired' because of what I've done. I'm tired because of what's in front of me. I'm debilitated by future events, so much so that I'm physically reacting to what needs to be done. But would we be so 'tired' if we just went back to 'fine?'

At least 'fine' meant nothing - to you or to me. To you fine meant, 'ok, conversation over.' To me it meant, 'getting on to the next thing.' Remember how irritating it was when someone actually answered your question? 'How are you?' 'Wow, thanks so much for asking.' (You're immediately thinking, asking what?) 'I'm suffering from a little goiter and I have HUGE anxiety about going to the doctor because I just know they're going to take some blood.' (What? What am I supposed to do with that?) So we just all nodded and said, 'wow, great, ok, see you soon,' and moved on.'

Think about it yourself ... are you really tired? Really? Why? Is your tiredness a choice you're making? Staying up too late watching Seinfeld reruns? To be honest, unless you're tired because you worked 18 hours yesterday in a soup kitchen I don't really care that you're tired. You're talking to a guy who gets up most mornings around 5:15. Drives 40 miles to work around 10 hours before driving home 40 miles to ride a bike for 45 minutes to make dinner, walk the dog and go to bed. I'm not tired. I'm disgustingly exhilarated by each new day. You should be too!

Tired ... bah!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Talent Floors Me

I have the best friends in the world. I say this all the time, but in point of fact, it's true. Case in point. This last Sunday evening we got an invitation from Patrick McClenahan to see Keith Urban and Sugerland at Staples Center (where the Lakers Play) here in LA. To be honest, I wasn't all that excited about seeing Keith Urban. I guess I had convinced myself that since he's married to Nicole Kidman, he must not be all that great. (never mind that there is no logic in this conclusion!)

When Sugerland backed out and was replaced by Lady Antebellum I was mildly depressed. I like "L.A." but I love Sugerland. What I wasn't prepared for was the talent and creative vision so apparent in the show.

I played guitar as a kid and I've spent a lot of my non-working hours both on, and back stage. I have a deep appreciation for what it takes to produce a quality, live event. Lady Antebellum was pretty good considering they had stepped in that day, so no lighting package was created, etc. Keith Urban was another story.

He's just flat out a virtuoso guitar player. He makes thing that are incredibly hard look easy. He's got amazing vocal range. He's got an incredible band (four other guitar players and a drummer who can all sing - and he lets them all do long solos during their introductions) and the staging, etc., was creative without taking away from the performances.

I sat there and thought about all that goes into that; the time rehearsing, caring about the details, writing the tunes in some cases and learning them in others, all of that stuff and just thought wow ... talent simply floors me.

For me, the best part of the whole thing was watching these guys perform together. They had a great time and their great time was infectious. What a great night ...