Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Selecting and Working with a Professional Photographer, Step One. Making Contact

I spend a lot of time on the Pictage Forums. It’s a great environment where I am able to interact with photographers on a daily basis. It’s closed, so they can talk about what’s really on their minds, and through that experience I’ve been able to develop a pretty clear view of their challenges in working with clients.

Here’s the thing. In my experience (and we currently serve just shy of 12,000 of them), these folks universally love what they do. They approach every job wanting to do their absolute best work. There are some things you can do to help them. Many of these are things they’ll discuss with you. Some are not. Some are just common courtesy. Some you may not think of. Taking a few extra minutes to think through these things will make your time with them and your experience and images just that much better. The work they do is amazing, so long as you follow a few simple guidelines.

Over the next few days I will be posting a series of posts that are free for anyone to use for any purpose. These will cover subjects ranging from selecting a photographer - the work you need to do before you get started - to preparing for a successful portrait session, to ways to make sure you come away with the best possible images for your wedding, mitzvah or other event.

Finding a photographer. Navigating the Website and Blog to find the perfect fit.

There are a lot of professional photographers. In almost any town you may find there are almost too many to choose from. It can be a little overwhelming and it is not surprising that so many potential clients essentially resort to sending a blanket or form email out to see who responds. You should know that the more a photographer is working, the less likely they are to respond to an inquiry like this. It isn’t that they don’t love you or want to work for you, and it certainly isn’t that they won’t do great work (in fact, quite the opposite is true), but these folks are busy and they simply don’t have time to respond to all of the inquiries they get. To make your search more fruitful, take a little extra time and get to know them before you reach out. You’re much more likely to find someone who will absolutely thrill you with the work they do!

The web site.

Think of this as their store front. You will notice that all photographer sites feature rich image galleries. This is the first place to go when you get to the site. They’re all going to feature great images, but how do you narrow it down? You’re looking for two things: Their style, whatever it is that makes their images unique. And, their specialties. If you are seeking someone to photograph your baby or perhaps a boudoir photographer, make sure the photographer’s galleries include images like these that you LOVE.

I recommend creating a folder and “favoriting” a few photographers on the first pass and then going back to spend a little time. View their image galleries (those most relevant to you) a few times so you know for sure that this is the way you wish to see yourself. (One thing to look out for here ... Are all of the people in all of the images model beautiful? Are you? If so, great. If not, then spending a little time to find a photographer whose work more closely reflects who you are is a good idea).

Photographer Pricing

In most cases you will also find their pricing on their websites. Make sure this is also in your range. As discussed in a previous post, their pricing is generally not significantly negotiable. You are likely to be able to make minor changes to what is included in a package, but you are not likely to get a 50% discount. You can actually find great photographers in many price ranges. Just know that those who are really good and lower priced will require a little more searching (and they’re generally building their businesses so they’re also very busy).

The Blog

If the website is their storefront, their blog is their family room. Once you’ve narrowed your search down to a few (less than 10) photographers you’d like to work with, go and visit their blog. You will likely find a combination of recent real client projects and personal work and musings. You’re going to spend some time with your photographer and even if you’re just doing some headshots you’re going to want someone you know you’re going to be comfortable with. Taking the time to do this will help you get comfortable and will also give you something fun to reference in your inquiry email. (and that’s the generally the next step). One other quick note is that on their contact pages the photographer will likely tell you how they prefer you make contact. Again, this isn't them being hard to work with. It is actually that they are trying to be easier to work with. If they are generally on location then it might be easier for them to get a phone call and a voicemail than an email. They'll tell you that. Going with their method is another way to start out right.

First Contact - The inquiry email.

These days it is common for photographers to make first contact with their potential clients through email. It is a convenient way for both the photographer and the client to communicate, so this makes sense. However, you should know that if you are seeking a photographer who is in demand, (and most are), sending them an email that appears to be a simple form letter is not likely to get you a response. This isn’t because they are snobby or don’t want to take the time. It is because they are generally very busy and they get a LOT of these. If they took the time to respond to every one, they’d never get anything done. Here is a good and bad example.

Response unlikely: “Hi. We are seeking a photographer to take some portraits of our children. Can you send us pricing?”

Response likely: “Hi. We’ve been looking for a photographer for a while and we found your website and blog and we love your work. (especially the picture of the child with the balloons!) We’d love to get together with you to talk through what we’re looking for. Can you suggest a time and a place that makes sense? Weeknights are probably best for us.

Granted, you’re not going to be able to contact every photographer in your area if you use this approach, but taking the few extra minutes necessary to spend some time in their portfolios, review their pricing, etc., will be a big help to you in selecting a photographer whose work you will love and in making sure that photographer understands that you are serious about working with them and that is the first great step to success!

(Note: For photographers - if you are interested in using any of this content for any purpose you are welcome to do so. Consider it a gift and use it however you please. Also, feel free to drop me an email at jim@pictage.com if there are subjects you would like me to cover. I’ve gotten a lot of great ideas from the folks on the Pictage forums so I have plenty of subjects to cover, but I always love hearing from you).

Friday, November 26, 2010

Selecting your professional photographer - an alternative to that survey that looks so good.

Before you send that survey ...

A number of the wedding websites have surveys on them designed to help brides select their photographer. Seems like a good idea in theory. But before you cut and paste that survey glance through this... It may make you think twice.

Having looked through one of these so you can make sure you ask questions relevant to you and make sure there are no surprises isn’t a bad idea. But sending a long survey to a photographer you are seriously considering may be the best way to make sure they aren’t interested in you.

Questions about photographic style (and definitions of style).

Frankly the best way to understand a photographer’s style is to view their work. Almost all photographers today will work mostly in a style closely tied to photojournalism. They’re going to work in the background, try to be unnoticed and catch the moments that matter. It is nearly impossible to put anything else related to style into words. Their images and their style is unique to them (if they’re any good), but any words they’d use to try to explain what that is will more than likely confuse or diminish the power of the imagery.

Go and look at their work. Are there images of people and venues that look like you and yours and do you like them? Then you know their style works for you.

Questions about how many, or "all" of the images.

Most professionals will shoot somewhere between 1,000 and 3,000 images during your event (some shoot many more). You will have no idea that most are taken.

I know this sounds like crazy talk but I promise that you don’t actually want ALL of the images your photographer will shoot. No matter how great they are some will be too light or too dark, some will be out of focus. Some will include things you don’t want to see. (your cousin’s hand up your mother’s dress?) One of the things you are paying your professional photographer for is to send you a collection of images that tells your story without burying you with so many that you can’t figure out which ones you want.

The number of images they take and deliver has little to do with whether or not they are good photographers.

Questions about pricing (why does a pro cost so much?)

I know. Your uncle and your friend take great pictures. Why not have them there instead of a pro? They have a big black camera. Won’t the pictures be just as good?

Truthfully, some may. However, a professional photographer understands the best use of light, situation and equipment. They aren’t there for the party. They’re working. Most of them will have photographed events in your venues. There are few problems they haven’t already had to solve for someone else. When you hire a pro you aren’t paying just for the time they’re there. You’re paying for all of that training and experience.

You’re also paying for all of the editing time. As a rule of thumb, it takes about three times as long to edit an event as it takes to capture it. That is a process of first culling out the images that you don’t want to see and then going through the remainder on an image by image basis to make them look their best. That may be done with professional image organization and enhancement tools like Lightroom or Aperture and it will also likely include some use of additional tools like Photoshop. Professional photographers will see and solve a multitude of ills before you ever see the pictures.

All of this is going to be included in what the photographer is charging for time.

Now - why the prints cost so much.

You aren’t paying a professional photographer to capture just any day. You’re paying a pro to capture a day that matters. It is amusing, and sometimes deeply frustrating, to pros that their clients seem so interested in taking these images to the local drug store to have the 14 year old kid print them out.

When you buy a professional photographic print you’re actually paying for two things. One, the use of the image. When you hire a professional event photographer to shoot your wedding you are paying for their time. The images they capture belong to them. When you want to use one of those images, either in print or online, you must license that image. Many photographers will include these licenses with their packages. That’s fine. It is their prerogative to do so. However, the higher end photographers will not do this. Their images are their art. They want to make sure that when they are used they are used in the best possible way. So they maintain control over the image and the way it is displayed. This is part of the cost of a print when you buy the print from a pro.

The other portion of the cost is the print itself. Professional photographers use professional labs. You actually have to qualify to be a customer in one of these places. They don’t serve consumers. Why? Because a professional understands that green is not green and black is not black. They’ve taken time and money to make sure that the screen they are editing on is calibrated to the printers in their chosen lab. Ever get a print back and look at it and wonder why the green dresses are teal? Or why what looks so bright on your Mac looks so dark on paper? This doesn’t happen in professional situations. The colors you chose for your day will be the colors you see. The photographer and the lab technicians spend a lot of time and energy making sure that this is the case.

Further, the materials used are a step above those found in the online sites or other sources. Archival quality papers ensure the colors are as vibrant on these images 50 years from now as they are today (and many labs provide lifetime guarantees).

Ok - So why are albums so expensive?

Any professional photographer has access to lots of different companies that can create books and albums for you. These are expensive for two reasons. One, they are a collection of the photographer’s images. (see above). Two, depending on the process and style (and this is particularly true for Albums) there is a lot involved in producing them.

Albums are actually still handcrafted. An album is a combination of archival quality photographic prints, a cover (usually leather, but sometimes metal, or other materials), and substrate (the material the prints are adhered - or glued - to). Someone actually has to go through and glue the prints to the substrate and then the prints and substrate are bound together to create the album. All of this then needs to cure - or dry - to prevent it from warping. There is very little automation in the album creation process. They are expensive to produce and are therefore expensive to purchase.

Digital, Film or both?

I have to admit that I almost laughed when I saw this on a survey. These days almost any professional photographer will predominantly shoot in digital. With this said, there are photographers who’ve made a niche of shooting some work in film. These photographers may employ older 35mm or square format cameras (such as Hasselblads) to capture some of their images. They may also use toy or plastic cameras, such as Holgas. In any case, know that their choice to shoot in film is a choice they’re making because they like that look for whatever it is they happen to be shooting at that moment.

When you are speaking to a photographer, asking them if they ever shoot in film may yield an interesting discussion. Whether or not they do will tell you nothing about the quality or level of experience of your photographer, but it is something all photographers think about and either do or don’t do for interesting reasons. With all of this said, if you are looking for someone to shoot in film these days, expect to pay a healthy premium.

Negotiating pricing and packages.. Some do’s and dont’s.

It is natural to want to negotiate pricing and a package that makes sense for you, and frankly almost any photographer is more than willing to do this with you. They want you to get exactly what you want at a price that makes sense as much as you do. The best way, by far, for you to do this is to simply call them, request a meeting, etc. But only do this if what you want to pay is within reason when compared to their published pricing.

The photographer’s packages are based on the amount of time they know they’ll spend on your day. Better photographers are in demand and they will command higher prices. Ultimately their business is entirely based on them and their skill, so once they’re hired for the day, that commodity is gone. There isn’t another. For this reason if a photographer has a published shoot fee, or booking fee, of $5000 (which is not at all unusual) you can expect that once you’ve negotiated, that’s about what you will pay.

Going to someone who has a fee of $2500 and telling them that someone else will do your event for $500 will almost always ensure that they will not call you back. If you want to pay $500, find someone who sells for around that price and negotiate with them. (But first, make sure you LOVE their work).

A photographer can generally substitute a book or some prints, or provide a slightly modified version of their coverage. As an example, if your event is on a Thursday night and it is only going to be three hours, they may give you a break on the coverage. However, if your event is a Saturday night and it’s only three hours the same will not likely hold true (because someone else will have wanted them for that whole day).


Most photographers will give you a full refund if they have to cancel for any reason. Additionally, most will also refer you to another photographer who they know can provide a very similar style and package to their own. (They are perhaps unique in their willingness to work and refer to each other).

However, if you cancel - and cancellations happen for all kinds of reasons - know that you will likely have to pay some amount, and perhaps all of the initial amount, for their time. The reason is that once they’ve committed to you they have taken themselves off of the market on that day. Most good photographers are busy, so this means they will likely have turned down events that they would have taken had they not already committed to yours.

Some photographers will offer you alternate uses for the time you pay for such as portrait sessions, etc. and these can be a lot of fun. (Doing a fun portrait session with your friends and family if the wedding is called off for instance). But they are usually under no obligation to do so.

Make sure you read carefully through the cancellation clauses in their contracts so you have a full understanding of your rights and theirs.

Selecting your photographer.

Ultimately selecting your photographer comes down to three things. Decide which order you want to put them in and then use these rather than a complicated survey and you’ll likely end up with someone who enhances your experience, both while it’s happening and in your memories.

  1. Photographic style. No two photographers are going to be the same. Make sure you look at many and take some time over a glass of wine or a cup of coffee to really immerse yourself in their imagery. Are the people you see real? (Watch out for models). Do they look like you and your friends and family? Does the venue look like yours? Do you love what you see? This will matter a lot more than the way they may describe their style. You want to love what you see when your day is long past. (for me, this is the most important thing).
  2. Personality. Once you find a photographer who’s style you love, spend some time getting to know them. Almost all photographers have a blog. Read what’s there. Many include personal tidbits with the rest. Here’s the thing. This person is going to be with you for your whole day - and these days aren’t always easy! Are you going to want this person with you while you’re getting dressed? Are you going to want them there when you’re stressed and losing it? Is their face the one that’s going to make you smile when you’re tired and getting cranky? You can learn a lot of that online, but when you think they are, meet with them and spend some time. This is nearly as important as style.
  3. Price. As previously mentioned. If a photographer’s packages start at $3,000 they’re not going to work with you for $1,000. Asking them is a waste of their time and yours. Ultimately this comes down to how important great photography is to you. For me, it was very important, and 20 years later I am so glad that we had such a solid photographer as we still cherish our album and the images of that day around our home. For you, the cake may be more important. Just remember this; the only thing you will have in 20 years is your pictures. Everything else will be gone. That may be worth a little extra sacrifice, so when you see them you’ll smile and remember the day and if you’re lucky, the cool person behind the camera who shared it with you.

Hope that helps.