September 6, 2009
I’m a member of a number of forums for professional photographers from Los Angeles and Orange County photographers as well as from all over the world. One of the most striking things that I’ve noticed is just how often people post problems that are rooted in the same issue; the failure of photographers to act like the creative professionals that they are.
I was recently approached by the DWF to do a video for their online instruction and chose to a “Ten Commandments” version of the following advice. I’ve taken out the “shalts” and the “thous” for my purposes here. We owe it not only to ourselves, but to our clients who put their trust in us, to bring the same level of professionalism to our business that we do to our photography itself.
These ideas are not by any means “original”, but rather a collection of much of the sage advice I’ve received over the years:
Treat yourself a professional, and respect both the importance and great value of the work that you do.
Respect your clients by only accepting those projects that you are capable of doing. A good rule of thumb is that if you couldn’t look a good friend in eye and tell them that you’d be a solid choice to hire, then you aren’t yet ready for the project.
Put all of your agreements in writing, including those with the people you hire. Most disagreements seem to arise between well meaning people who remembered or understood a “verbal agreement” differently. Written agreements are the best way to be sure everybody is on the same page, and that any potential conflicts are resolved before either party is committed to the project.
Account for as much as possible in your agreement. Forums are a great place to see what other people didn’t cover and later ended up having issues with. You can use their mistakes to your benefit.
Be open about your policies, and don’t charge somebody differently just because you believe they have more money. Charge based on objective criteria, such as usage and time.
If something feels wrong in your gut, chances are you’ll end up regretting you took the project.
If there are multiple clients interested in one day, the first one to be willing to commit to the date (by contract and/or deposit) is the one who deserves to reserve it. Don’t turn down work if you aren’t formally booked by another client.
Email can degenerate; if you see that starting to happen it is almost always better to pick up the phone before the conversation gets out of hand.
Your rates should be commensurate with what is necessary to maintain a comfortable lifestyle and building a long term business that can continue to service your clients for years to come. Photographing cheaply may have short term benefits, but in the end will put you out of business. If you are working in different part of the field (such a commercial photographer shooting a family portrait) be sure to charge professional rates for the appropriate kind of photography.
If you don’t act like a professional, expect that other people won’t see you as one or treat you with respect.
This article was written to help my clients who are new to hiring commercial photographers in Los Angeles, Orange County, California, and just about everywhere else. If you would like a PDF copy of this Los Angeles and Orange County Photographers thoughts, please email me…
HOW TO SELECT THE RIGHT PHOTOGRAPHER FOR YOUR PROJECT
You are about to make a substantial investment in a project that may have a tremendous impact on your brand and your business. Please take a few minutes to read through this primer on selecting the right photographer, I guarantee that it will save you time and help you make the best possible choice for your company.
Why trust my advice
By helping you really find the right photographer, I hope that you will make a decision based on quality and value instead of price, and that even if you don’t select me you willl hire a professional and remember me for the future photographic needs of your company.
PART ONE – FINDING A QUALIFIED PROFESSIONAL
Photographers are not commodities
While you may be able to buy beef futures, every restaurant will prepare the dish differently, and it would make little sense to compare a fast food restaurant to a five star steakhouse. In the same way, photographers are not interchangeable. Our technical approaches, visual styles, areas of expertise, and even our ways of doing business are highly individual. You need to take a lot more than price into account when choosing the person who will create the visual representation of your service or product.
Consistency is king
Every photographer has at least a few strong images, and only shows his or her best work in their portfolio. As a result, is it essential to limit yourself to photographers who are consistently showing work of the quality and caliber that you want for your project. Choosing a photographer who has a limited number of strong images on their site, and hoping that you will be fortunate enough to get images of that quality for your project, is likely to leave you with results that you will not be satisfied with. Their portfolio represents their best of their best – so if you don’t see quality and consistency there, you won’t see it in your images either. Consider only photographers who’s portfolios are consistently of the quality you desire, or preferably above it.
Photography is a broad description of a number of highly specialized fields. In photography, talent in one speciality doesn’t necessarily translate to competence in others. For example, an outstanding fashion photographer may or may not have a strong talent for shooting ordinary people, and a photographer who specializes in studio photography may be lost on location. There are many photographers who do a number of things well, but none who do everything well. The specific capability to shoot your project should be evident from the photographer’s website or portfolio. It is essential to find a photographer with a sizable body of work that is as close to the type of photos you need as possible.
You know quality when you see it
Many people can’t tell what the specific differences are between a professional and an amateur photograph, but they can still distinguish the two. Simply put, you recognize good photography on an intuitive level. Even when you can’t put your finger on the distinctions, when you examine at the work of two photographers side by side, the differences will be apparent based on your feelings about the work. Your clients will associate the quality of your imagery with the quality of your product or service.
The Devil is in the Details
After you’ve narrowed down your choices to those photographer’s who’s images feel are highly professional, spend some time really looking at their individual images. Are there distracting creases in the clothing? Does the hair and skin look good? Are there distracting backgrounds, or other elements in the photo? Do you believe what you are looking at? You will notice all of these details and more when the images are on your website or in your advertising. Take a long, critical look at the photographer’s work.
Brand, Brand, Brand
Outstanding commercial photography usually isn’t about taking the coolest picture. Great photography, it is about creating imagery that is consistent with your branding, and designed to communicate a message about your services or products. A series of employee portraits taken for a video game company (i.e., edgy, innovative, and youthful) ought to look very different than a series of employee portraits taken for a financial services company (i.e., experienced, safe, and professional). In my experience, this is one of the more difficult concepts for many photographers to grasp (I didn’t when I first started out). In the same way your logo and design should be designed to elicit a specific reaction and feeling about who you are and what you do, your photography must also support your brand.
Look for photographers who ask about or discuss your branding. These questions can take many forms, but they are essentially designed to help them understand who you are as company. Every photographer will say they understand branding, but only an experienced professional will be able to articulate how it should be reflected in your photography. Choose a photographer who understands branding.
You can’t copy vision
Every photographer has their own range of visual style. Always find a photographer who’s style and look are right for the needs of your company. It is rarely a good idea to show the work of one photographer to another and ask them to emulate that style, especially if they shoot in a very different way. If you need to hire different photographers to create imagery that will work together, then look for photographers who already have similar styles. If you can’t find work on a photographer’s site that is representative of what you need, they are very likely not the right photographer for that project. Find a photographer who already has the “look” you want for your branding.
PART TWO – COMPARING VALUE
Pick up the phone
After you’ve located a number of professional photographers who you feel may be right for your project, it’s time to speak with them personally. While email may be a useful introduction, actually talking to them is the best way to get a feel for who you will be doing business with. When you call, the more you know about what you want, the better the information you will get. Speak with the photographer personally.
Hire a business, not a freelancer
A professional photographer will distinguish themselves in a number of ways. They will have a business license. They will have a list of clients and will answer their phone like a business. They will have a substantial professional insurance policy with a minimum of one million dollars in professional liability and be able to provide you a certificate with your name on it at your request (although there is usually a small cost for this service). They will have a team that can include assistants, makeup artist, wardrobe stylists, prop stylists, location scouts, caterers, digital retouchers, and most other services that your project may need. Make sure you are hiring an experienced professional.
For more complicated projects, it can take a respectable amount of time to put together an estimate. The professional standard is to begin by getting proposals from the three photographers you think are best suited to work with you. This will also help you determine if the project needs to be adjusted to better meet your needs or budget. By considering only your top choices, you will put yourself in a far better place to have a successful shoot. Narrow your field to three.
Quality and quantity
Good photography usually takes more time than you expect. The reason that professional images feel and look so different from the work of non-professionals usually has to do with the time taken to set up and refine each image. Questions such as “how many shots can you do in a day?” generally need a great deal of clarification. Some images simply take more time to create than others.
The more time allocated to invest in each image, the greater quality the photo. It is usually very helpful to establish the level of quality you are looking for and the use to which the images will be put. Showing the photographer samples that represent the quality you are willing to invest in from either that photographer’s site, or from another site, is an outstanding way to help them put a proposal together. Establish the level of quality you want for your project.
When considering cost, compare apples to apples
Once you’ve narrowed down your search to those photographers who have the consistency, style, areas of expertise, and business acumen that your project requires, it is time to consider the relationship between cost and value. A budget is very much like an equation; you are asking somebody to solve for “X”. The difficulty that many photographers and potential clients have is that photographers are asked to bid projects with a large number of unknown variables, which islike being asked to solve for “X”, “Y” and “Z”. There is no such thing as a set cost for “a photo” or “a website”. There are many ways to compare photographers, but to be useful it is essential that everybody get all of the same information, and be asked to fill in the same blanks (preferably, as few as possible).
The shot list
If you know what you need, make up a list of shots with as much detail as possible. If budget is a concern, limiting that list and keeping the images simple will generally do a great deal to keep your costs down. On occasion, I’ve been presented with a long list of images and told that “this should take a day”, when it may actually take three to do well. Just because you have a budget and a wish list, doesn’t mean that it is possible to deliver the imagery at an acceptable quality at any particular budget.
Start out by calling the photographer on your list who is your first choice. Chances are that they’ll have a lot of questions for you, and can help you establish how much time will be involved, what issues you may still need answers to, and will be able to help you better refine your project. Sometimes, when you don’t know all of the details, it helps to define all of your parameters (even if some may change) so that you can compare the responses of the photographers you are considering.
Some costs, such as model fees and location rentals, tend to add cost to a project very quickly, and some of those expenses are far more necessary than others. For example, if I suggest that somebody hire a makeup artist, those costs are generally not marked up, and I simply have the best interests of my clients at heart. It is always difficult to explain why another photographer doesn’t see it as a necessary expense, but it is usually either the product of trying to keep the budget down to help them win the project, or the result of a lack of experience. On the other hand, there are certainly instances where I’ve suggested using real people and another photographer has suggested agency models, where I thought the difference in cost for that client was greater than the difference in value. Put together detailed information about your shoot so everybody is considering the same project.
When you don’t know what you want
I often field calls that begin with phrases like “I love your work, and I’d like to find out about having you shoot our website”. These calls have led to some outstanding projects. However, in almost all of these cases, the client was wiling to share a budget with me, and knew what they liked about my photography. Can a website be shot in a day? Certainly, depending on how many images you want and what those images are. This is a great way to approach a project and work to the strengths of each of the photographers you are considering, keeping budget in mind. Chances are, you’ll need to go back and reconsider the budget at some point, but this is a good alternative to a shot list. Establish a budget and ask for proposals.
You get what you pay for
The photographer who seems perfect but charges far less than his competitors usually does so with good reason. Whether it is because they haven’t been working, because their portfolio isn’t representative of what they can do with consistency, or because they don’t know how to professionally bid your project, there is often a good chance that the result will be appropriate to the cost. Beware the lowballer.
Don’t forget about your first call at the end of the process
Since I have a strong website, I often get the first call for a potential project. What that means is that I often educate my potential clients about the process, and as a result when they call the next person they are able to present the project with a greater articulation, and therefore have a smoother experience with the following call. Two calls later, the shoot may have changed from two days to one, and my two day bid seems unreasonably high in comparison to another photographer, who is now actually bidding a very different job. Go back and call the first photographer or two again with your updated, organized information.
PART THREE – CHOOSING EXCELLENCE
Get it in writing
A professional photographer will always be able to provide a professional estimate that details your project, the cost of the project, what is included in the bid, covers the usage, and requires your signature. Without a written agreement, not only can the best meaning people can easily find themselves with different expectations, but from a legal point of vie,w no rights to use the images are granted to the client without a legal document. In my experience helping other photographers with difficulties they have had with clients, well over half of the time the issues stem from not taking the time to put the agreement in writing. Never do business without a clear, written agreement.
You are only as good as your image
Nothing is more important than a first impression. A potential client’s decision to do business with you will often be based in large part on the sense of competence and professionalism created by your photographer. The better the imagery, the more likely somebody will be to award you their business. Chances are very good that the person who owns your company drives a luxury car. While there were other choices that were far less expensive, and are equally capable of handing the commute to work, the differences in performance, appearance, and comfort were worth the investment. For similar reasons, comparing only cost when considering photographers is foolish. In most professions, few clients will ever actually see your car, but almost all of them will see your imagery and make similar judgements.
When considered with the costs associated with your image use, including media buys, design costs, marketing costs, trade show costs, etc., the difference in the cost of photographers generally makes up only a small portion of the budget. Photography is one of the few places where spending a little more can have a positive or negative impact on your entire marketing and promotional budget. Always keep value in the equation. In the context of your total marketing budget, the difference in the cost of photography pales in comparison to the difference hiring a better photographer will make to your bottom line.
Please consider Mark Robert Halper, Los Angeles Photographers for your next project. We can be found online at studiomark.com, and reached by phone at 888-273-2838. For most projects, the Los Angles and Orange County areas are handled at local rates, and we travel throughout the country and the world.
Copyright Mark Robert Halper Photography, all rights reserved.
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August 19, 2009
My response to a Photographer who talks about playing with photography like a child in her post, which I certainly think also has an important place in the process, but for me it’s about taking the time to discover what you find beautiful, interesting or compelling about your subject and using your technical skills to create an image that communicates your vision to others.
My perspective is that of a commercial photographer, but it works for nearly any kind of portrait, and many wedding photographers have been able to improve what they do by stretching outside of their more photojournalistic ways of seeing. We all learn by stretching – one of my best experiences was doing an improv class.
Forum Post by Mark Robert Halper, a Los angeles and Orange County Photographer
August 17, 2009
I feel that it really does take a lot of shooting and work to find your own VISION. A vision is about the way you see, while a style is a set of technical parameters that apply to a set of photos (images done with a short lens, in black and white, with hard contrasty lighting, on location, with people in the corners of the image – that’s a style, not a vision).
I believe that the best way to develop one’s vision more quickly is to shoot in a way that makes you very conscious of the choices you make. (Get ready, here comes the plug.) I think that without a formal education many photographers fail to do that, and get lost or hit creative ceilings.
July 16, 2009
I work with non-professionals in the vast majority of shoots that I do, and in the corporate world many people I shoot would rather be anywhere than in front of the camera. Families do offer their own challenges, even with these considerations, but I do think that it is very possible to create work that is simply out of reach of what soccer moms with cameras can do.
I’ve found a style or two that works for me, but I’m suggesting that each photographer ought to work to create a style that is more or less unique to them and technically demanding enough that it is not easily copied, especially by a non-pro. So much of what was once considered professional skill (and I’d argue that it really was) is now available on modern DLSRs.
Orange County photographer Mark Robert Halper is based in Los Angeles and is a commercial and advertising photographer
When I speak with clients who are shopping price (those who aren’t seem to be far more likely to work without these strange blinders on), I try to suggest they put my images side by side with the other photographers they are comparing and ask themselves which set of images feels like it belongs to the more established and successful company. I tell them not to worry about being able to understand why, since their clients will have an emotional rather than a logical response to the work.
I also explain what my strengths are. For the portrait world, the question would probably be which images belong to the family with the nicer home.
Los Angeles & Orange County Photographer Mark Robert Halper is based in Los Angeles.
May 24, 2009
I don’t think only artistic types appreciate good art. Good art evokes emotion and doesn’t require a degree. I don’t think everybody will get my work, however, but if they did then it probably wouldn’t be good. Please keep in mind that I’m in LA, and the motion picture community is well within my reach if I can properly target it.
I don’t know of any specific competitors who shoot like I do, which I consider a huge plus, but I do have a friend who also does strong work and I like her business model and think that I can make it work for me in my own way. On the other hand, I do intend to re-define my market and look for clients who want a family portrait, but also have an art collection and want it to all go together. Most family portraits don’t, in my personal opinion, and I’m there to change that. My images ought to be good enough to hang in galleries – I’m not always hitting that mark, but I always try to. Of course, I have a long road ahead of me, both creatively and in my business development.
Forum Post by Mark Robert Halper, a Los angeles and Orange County based commercial photographer
I’m looking to be part of a portrait organization that also sees growth and change not only as inevitable, but as desirable. I want to join an organization that isn’t only open to new voices, but actually seeks them out. I want to enter a print comp that believes that being stunned by a photo is more important that counting up the numbers or being able to explain why its a stunning photo – some photos just break all the rules and it makes no difference.
I want to see a wide range of photographers at the conventions and events, in a way that would make our differences look small. I want to be challenged creatively. I want to look at the best of the best in terms of imagery and be blown away by some of the photos, even if I hate the others – but I want each to really have an effect on me. I want them to all feel like they came from completely different photographers – and I want each to have avision that you or I couldn’t replicate no matter how hard we try. I want to be able to have a heated discussion about what great photography is and is not and enjoy it over a drink, both knowing that we really had the best interests of each of us at the heart of the discussion.
Halper photographs portraits of families in Orange County and Los Angeles, california
May 11, 2009
While I agree that experience is crucial to the success of as studio, I think the quality of the work is equally important.
I’m likely to take some heat for saying this, but I’m entering the family portrait market because I see it as the one place in photography where the work really isn’t very good most of the time. As a commercial photographer, the technical and creative standards necessary for success are just higher than they are in portraiture. In my view, portraiture is where wedding photography was ten years ago. Most portrait photographers either work within typical PPA guidelines, shoot wedding style portrait photography, or are creative but not technically competent. I believe this is a ripe market for photographers who are shooting images that can’t possibly be done by a non-professional, and are more sophisticated than the PPA standards.
I think we’re seeing much more of this in senior photography and in boudoir, and I see myself as part of the vanguard bringing a more sophisticated and contemporary approach to the family market.