Again, sorry for the lag in posting.

I came across this post the other day in my google reader. I was pumped for some guidance in this area, because I have basically always been underfunded. I was looking forward to getting some guidance in to how I could spend what little capital I have. The post was a total waste of time, though. Jim guides you through some very wise gear purchases that, yes, add up to $2000. But the premise that someone who does not own a camera would seriously consider becoming a professional photographer is pretty silly.

More likely, when you’re ready to turn pro, you already own an assortment of gear that, to some extent, works for you.

The problem with Jim’s post is that once you’ve got your gear, though, you still don’t have any business. Unless you’re starting out as a weekend warrior, that means you won’t have any income. If you have $2000, period, the worst thing you can do is blow it all on upgrading your gear. I’ve said it before: renting equipment is absolutely the way to go for beginners. You get gear far better than what you can afford for a fraction of the price. If you’re shooting commercial photography, equipment rental is a billable expense. Time your gear rentals for commercial shoots so you get to keep it over the weekend, and shoot personal work with it then.

So, how would I spend that $2000?

Every dime of that money would go to marketing. The way I see it, unless you have customers, not just now, but in the future, you’re toast. My plan: book the work, rent the equipment, stash the profits away until you can afford the gear. Here’s a breakdown of where my time/money would go:

Buy a domain – $100 – You’re a professional? Not on flickr, you’re not. Make sure you’re hosted without ads, too.

Get an awesome website with built in storefront – $200 – An online portfolio is an important impression, and not a place where you can really pinch pennies. I would hire that work out. Find a college student if you have to. The storefront really makes it easier (nay, possible at all!) to sell prints to wedding and portrait customers.

Print portfolios – $250 – You should have at least 3 copies of your portfolio. If you have multiple portfolios, you should still have 3 copies of each. 2 are always sent out somewhere, and one is always at home. Keep those 2 in flux. They’re not getting you business sitting at home. New photographers shouldn’t worry about getting a really fancy book. Focus on great prints in a nicer than average binder. No one is going to pick the crappier photographer with the prettier book. That said, get decent binders.

Print business cards – $100 – I like moo cards because they allow me to show off my work in an unexpected way, but use what you like. Make them memorable, and pass them out like candy.

Join local professional organizations – $200 – Some of these are free, others aren’t. Don’t shy away from the paid groups. The trick is to actually attend meetings, and stay after to talk with people. This is where it all happens. If you’re not selling, you’re not in business. That’s what so many of these ‘how to be a photographer’ posts miss. If you want to do weddings, partner with vendors in related fields. Shoot their product line in exchange for their endorsement of you to their customers. If you want to do commercial photography, work for these and other small businesses directly.

Buy FotoQuote – $150 – Great pricing software. The trickiest thing for me as a new photographer was learning to price my work in a way that would allow me to stay in business. FotoQuote eliminates a great deal of anxiety.

So far, we’re only at $1000. Let’s keep going. At this point, it starts to depend on what industry you want to move into.

Weddings & Portraits? Spend that money on creating a booth and getting into one or two big bridal shows. If you’re leveraging yourself with other vendors, and your work is good, you should be able to get some work.

Commercial photography? Spend that money on mailing lists and mailers. Do your research and create a short list of about 100 or 200 possible contacts. Send them a card a month for 6 months. Call after three months and again after six.

With $2000 invested in marketing, it is not difficult to book enough work to recuperate your losses and establish your business. As you can, begin to buy up quality, long term investment gear. Skip the Sb-26s and save up for profotos. Skip the ‘prosumer’ crap and save up for L lenses. Think of the money you save by not spending $900, and then $2000 (or whatever) on nicer and nicer camera bodies, when you rent, and then save up for top of the line gear.

Anyway, that’s enough. I will, again, try to post with more regularity.

I’ve got an all day product photography shoot today, shooting high end glassware and cookware for Juniper Homes. I thought it might be fun to document the whole shoot, and, decisive guy that I am, that’s what I’m going to do. When I refer to degrees and such, it’s how I think about lighting angles. Picture a circle around the subject that goes through the camera. The camera marks 0 degrees. so a light at 90 degrees right is on the same plane as the subject, camera right.

9:15

Got everything hooked up. I will be shooting with my camera tethered to my laptop, dumping raw files straight into lightroom. I’ll also be controlling my camera’s shutter and exposure settings with EOS utility. So, my camera will sit on the tripod the whole time, and I will control it from my laptop, based on the live results I get from lightroom. Slick. I only ever need to look through the viewfinder when I need to move my tripod. I am using a Canon 100mm f/2.8 USM Macro lens throughout the whole shoot that I rented from PPR Atlanta.

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Here are some shots of my initial set up in the morning. I have a collapsible black reflector mounted on a set of tripod legs. This will be my drop-in black background. I have a few strobes set up with snoots and grids, all homemade. These will rotate in and out based on the setup. My biggest light, the JTL versalight 160 (pfeh), is clamped to a post I have mounted to my ceiling (beginnings of my overhead truss system) will be dialed up to full power (again, pfeh) throughout the whole shoot. That full power will get me f/11 at 200iso, and the white backdrop will just barely not be clipped off the top of my histogram in lightroom. When I am shooting on white, I will have this light pointed at the backdrop, where it will kick back through my glassware for a nice, healthy glow. When I am shooting on black, this will swivel around away from the backdrop and down toward the subject at about a 45 degree angle. This will give me some of the backlighting that the white backdrop gave me, as well as some specular reflections.

Speaking of specular reflections, we are shooting metal and glass today, so that is pretty much the name of the game. As I go through the shoot, I will illustrate what each light is bringing to the party. When you’ve got hard reflections to deal with, sometimes a nice light can do more harm than good.

Once the client arrives, the first thing we have to do is get the product into the studio, and start sorting according to lighting setup. We’re going to be shooting basically everything on white, with a few special items to be shot on black. Client is going to sort the product while I get my metering tweaked in. We’re starting with glass.

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Here are our cleaning supplies. We are going to use them to keep our glass looking immaculate. Dusting is way easier pre-shoot than in photoshop (especially since I hope to do about 95% of the processing in lightroom!) We’ve got compressed air, monitor wipes (these can leave fibers behind, but are great on spots and streaks), and trader joe’s multipurpose cleaner. I love this stuff. It is remarkable for glass, and doesn’t contain any pollutants! The mitts you see are microfiber dusting gloves. Today, they are going to be used to transport glass from the staging area to the shooting area. Swiffer clothes (for dust) and microfiber clothes (for polishing) as well as optical microfiber clothes (for super polishing). A lot of this is just an assortment I grabbed. We will see what is truly useful as the day goes on.

11:30

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We’ve got product! Getting started on lighting tweaking.

12:41

Got the lighting set and the product sorted. Working through the glassware now. Showed Christopher, the client onsite, a few example shots, shown below. These represent slight lighting variations. The first shot is just the softbox on the backdrop, nice clean sillhouette. Second shot adds a snooted nikon sb-26 (set to 1/32) about 45 degrees above and behind the subject, camera right. The third shot adds another sb-26 that matches the first on camera left.

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We’re going with option two, with a few catchlights, because the 2nd strobe adds too much ‘interference’ (as i like to think of it) in the middle of the glass. Here are a few shots we’ve done so far.

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Keeping glass clean with compressed air, microfiber + trader joe’s stuff for getting gunk off, and the optical cloth for final polishing. So far, no dust.

3:45

Had lunch, walked through a few images with Christopher, who is pleased, so far! That’s good. I’ve moved on to the opaque stuff, and changed my lighting setup for the new products. We’re going for mostly wrapped, mostly hard light. From camera right, I have a gridded sb-28 about 90 degrees right, 15 degrees up, 1ft from the subject, at 1/32. 5 feet from the subject, at 45 degrees right and up, I have a bare sb-26 at 1/32. 4 feet away, 75 degrees right, 15 degrees up, I have another sb-26 at 1/8 through a white umbrella.

8:00

Slow going through each product, since this stuff is far less uniform than glassware was. My wrapped light scheme worked very well, because it was versatile. The best way to trouble shoot funky lighting is to turn your lights on one at a time, and see what each is doing. For each different product type today, I had to ‘rebuild’ my lighting. I didn’t move lights very much, except perhaps my grid as an accent light. I mostly had to adjust angles, and turn off a light or two from time to time. I will post some examples here shortly. I am shutting down production for the day. See you tomorrow.

Day 2
8:30am

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Here are some shots from yesterday. I’m pleased! An assistant would have been very useful yesterday. Next time, I am going to build that into the invoice. I am also going to do some looking into propping things up. The one thing that really kicked my butt yesterday was getting the product at nice angles, without any obvious or ugly support. Shooting continues today, so we’ll see what happens. Today I will be finishing up a few smaller items: cake pans, a coffee press and some kitchen tools, followed by a few large appliances and then some more glass decanters that Christopher is bringing over today. That should be the end of the whole product line shot on white.

We’ve flagged a few products for ‘special attention’, as in extra detail shots, multi-item shots, or especially sexy shots. I’ve got this awesome macro lens and some really great glassware, so I intend to really knock some dingers right out of the park.

1:15

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Still working on shooting appliances. Slow going, but the good news is that I am getting some great shots and the client is pleased. I’ve posted the setup shots for the Beertender to illustrate what a pain in the butt chrome is. I love it, because chrome doesn’t leave you any room for mistakes. The beertender has a big rounded chrome section right down the center. From the setup shots, you can see that I have taken my white paper backdrop and run it down in front of the subject, and then back up again, where it is attached to the roof. I have cut a hole in the paper, and I am shooting through that. This white paper will give me a big, smooth broad specular reflection in the front of this unitasker.

I am lighting the backdrop with an sb-26 set to 1/8 power. I am also underlighting the subject with another sb-26. They are catty-cornered like that so they don’t cast shadows of each other, which would then show up in my reflections. No chance to be sloppy with chrome. I have a light back and behind the subject pointed over it, higher on the backdrop. Its purpose is to provide some catchlights higher on the subject.

Saturday Morning

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Shot more on Friday, finishing up the last of the appliances, and starting on the secondary shots for some items. Sorry I didn’t blog it, but I was very tired, and the client was onsite for most of the day. The secondary stuff is basically cool, sexy shots of certain products, like the waterford crystal. I was really looking forward to this part of the shoot. If you know my architecture work, you know that I have a geometry fetish (I even married a mathematician!). I was really excited to approach this glassware with an architectural eye.

Lighting the glass was really, really easy. I swiveled my backdrop light (the jtl softbox) around and dialed it way down. It was lighting the glass above and from behind with smooth light. Then, I would add 2 gridded sb-28’s about 15 degrees above and behind the subject. Sometimes I would use one, sometimes two. Sometimes I would use one, and use the other in a snoot, straight down on the subject. The trick with etched glass is to use very tight, controlled light. A little will go a very long way. Most of the time, I was shooting at iso200, f/18, 160th of a second, and my strobes were set to 1/32 THROUGH a grid. That is almost nothing. My lights had plenty of headroom, powerwise, so I was able to get up to f/32 for some stuff later on with ease.

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I am really happy with these two shots. Lit with 2 sb-26’s, one gelled full CTB camera left, and one gelled red camera right, each through a sheet of clear coroplast. Soft box high and behind and sb-28 bare and low, provide edge definition. Tried it without the softbox. didn’t like it.

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I love this Riedel decanter. Lit with a gridded sb-26 (1/8) behind the subject, gelled full CTO, and with a snooted sb-26 (1/32) from above, and again the softbox above and behind. The star thing is the decanter’s stopper, straight down, at f/32. Crazy. Lit with a gridded sb-26 off to the side. In fact, I am just going to post the rest of the series. Assume that everything is lit with one or two gridded sb-26s, on very low power, a little behind and above the subjects. Easy peasy, lemon Squeezey!

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I had a nice meeting today with a new client this week, an online-based home goods reseller. They’re a new enterprise. The client came to me interested in capturing the mood and character of their product line of high end glassware, cooking utensils and other luxury dining and entertainment accessories. This post is going to outline what lining up a shoot like this entails: all the whats, hows and whens. Let’s get started.


Concept

Here’s what it seems like the client is looking for:

We’re looking to incorporate their products into a dinner party setting with a story. Shots will focus on people conversing, holding our fancy glassware, or chefs preparing hors d’ouevres on gorgeous copper-core pots and pans. The copy for these products would, along with the image(s), tell a piece of the story and how the product plays in to it. We are going to weave together a tale of intrigue relating a few characters in our dinner party story. Each product, and its piece of the story must stand on its own, since we can’t determine the reader’s sequence, or whether they even look at all the items involved in the story.


Logistics

A shoot like this will require securing a suitable location to host a posh dinner party. The location will need to be staged with nice furniture and decor. Using someone’s home is our first choice, whereas an empty home would necessitate furnishings and decoration. We will need guests. We’re going to stage the dinner party with real food, real drinks and real guests: a few dozen neighbors and friends. We’re going to have a team of hair and makeup stylists to keep everyone looking awesome throughout the evening. Since I will be running and gunning throughout the shoot, I will need an assistant to help me set up, meter, and move from shot to shot, according to our game plan (outlined below). I am planning on renting some extra lights, so I can have 2 lighting setups, the one I am currently shooting, and the next one being set up.


Estimate

At this point, a fair estimate of the shoot’s cost can be made. The concept and the logistics are the raw materials you’ll use to create your proposal to the client. What do my vendors require of me? How much should I be paid to do the calling and organizing to have the shoot go off without a hitch? How much is my experience and talent worth? How will the images be used? Etcetera! These questions are extremely important. Luckily, a far better man than I am has covered these questions in explicit detail. If you haven’t purchased Best Business Practice for Photographers by John Harrington, you are throwing your career in the trash. Don’t freak out on these like I used to do. I would get panic attacks and put my prices just criminally low. I had no budget, cut corners, and sometimes, it would blow up in my face. It’s a vicious cycle, but paying yourself is just plain good business. Negotiate your way to an agreeable budget for your shoot. Once you’ve got the finances taken care of, and a contract signed, it’s time to move forward.


Scheduling

The next thing we’re going to need to settle is the scheduling. Are there any real, hard deadlines that need to be met? Do these images need to be delivered by a certain date, no matter what? That needs to be known first. Beyond that, it’s a matter of lining up availabilities for stylists, talent and location. I find that it really pays off to have a fat rolodex (ha! does anyone use those anymore? i don’t.) of stylists and models. Line up back ups as well. I covered this a little bit before in my post on lining up TFP fashion shoots. The difference here is that this is a paid gig. Unsurprisingly, stylists are far more amenable to make time for paid work. Imagine that. I’ve said before that free work is worth what you pay for it. Paying someone is basically the only way I know of to hold someone accountable. Don’t be afraid to hold someone’s feet to the fire when you need to. Be a leader, not an asshole. I usually pay in 30 days, so I don’t have to float the cost of stylists waiting for the client to pay me.

Lastly, this is a location shoot. Think of your location as another person, with its own schedule of availability. Oh, and it also needs to be insured. The difference is that it can sometimes be impossible to substitute in a different location at the last minute, unlike stylists. The idea is to line up all of these schedules to find a shooting date that works for all involved parties. Book a potential back-up date in case Murphy decides to drop in and screw everything up. The best way to anticipate problems is to imagine all the worst things that could possibly happen and then address them in your mind.


Game plan

The date and time have been set. Now, it’s time to figure out what you’re going to do throughout your time slot. At this point, the client and I will head to the location, if necessary, at a time when the lighting matches that of our proposed shoot, and decide how we want to present each product, basically storyboarding. Once I have a list of how each product is going to be shot, I can sequence those shots based on the logistical realities created.

It then becomes my job to create a stream-lined and efficient process to get myself through these shots. How many shots can I line up in a single location, or with a particular set of lighting modifiers? I optimize my shot sequence to maximize my creative versatility. These images are source material: the greater the variety of images, the greater the value I present to the client.

Your game plan is how you work smarter instead of harder. I’ve got to make sure everyone knows their part and is moving in the same direction. Write up a nice schedule of shots, and give a copy to all your stylists, your assistant, and the client, if present (they will be).


Execution

Ideally, I can get access to the location the day before the shoot to bring in gear, get set up and prepared, and to check out the location in the proper lighting for our shoot. I take notes and determine my camera settings for my different shots. I walk through the whole shoot, running worst case scenarios through my head, and deciding how I would deal with them. Paranoia is just good business.

I get a good night’s sleep, and on the day of the shoot, I am prepared. Having done the best I can to squelch any potential explosions, I can now focus purely on making creative decisions. Call everyone and verify their arrival. Check all your gear and show up early. Batteries? Focus working? Lenses clean? Your sensor clean? Laptop? Cables? Between the time that people start showing up and the stylists are finished getting everyone done up, stay out of the way. Don’t meddle with the stylists unless they’re doing something you’re sure is wrong.

With adequate preparation, the job of moving through your shoot becomes easy. Smile, relax, schmooze with your subjects, and get your job done. Stay on top of what your assistant is doing, and make sure you’ve got a hair person and a makeup person to maintain the subjects while they are being photographed. While I am concentrating on my lights, my composition, metering, focus, and the model’s positioning and gesture, it is usually too much for me to stay on top of hair and makeup as well. It’s nice to know that there is someone who is standing by, concentrating on just the kinds of things I tend to miss.


Conclusion

The whole process is one of reductionism. I am solving problems before they can become problematic. Have a plan. Prepare for contingencies. This is what you are being paid for: 10% of it is getting the shot, and 90% is making sure you get the shot.

That’s enough for now, I think. See you later. I am going to get to play with the Canon 100mm macro lens this week!

Harry Nowell Photo Blog » Blog Archive » #121 The high cost of low-cost photography.

Wow, this post really hit the nail on the head for me, although the excessive use of bold text is a bit irritating. Pricing myself too low to stay in business is exactly my sin.

Had a pretty busy labor day weekend, with 3 family portraits and some live music. All my portraits this weekend involved small kids under 2 years old. My sister, Tara Miller, blogger and knitteratus, and I have been working on a neat project creating a youtube video advertising her totally awesome neighborhood: Tributary, in Douglasville, GA. Douglasville is a bit out in the sticks, but this neighborhood is like a Shang-ri-La. Great architecture, wonderful community, lots of activities that aren’t a token gesture and a complete waste of time. Poker nights here are great; some of the best hunch punch I’ve ever had. People really chip in and help each other out, sharing baby gear, business networking and just great relationships.

So, we planned on making our video a photo montage of lifestyle and portrait photography: kids playing in the park, folks walking their dogs, having a neighborhood cookout, etc. I was going for a ‘documentary-with-spin’ kind of vibe – show all the things that are inherently awesome about the place, and show them in a good light. String the photos together, with some CC-licensed music and sound bites of the residents, and you’ve got a great video! So, Tara sent out an email to the Tributary Women’s Group looking for folks willing to pose for some family photos for the project, in exchange for a free 8×10 from the shoot and a signed model release. A ton of folks signed up basically right away.

Things were coming together nicely, when the whole project got canceled right out from under us, for reasons unknown. Total bummer. I really didn’t want to let go of this body of potential repeat customers, though. Instead of canceling the free photo shoots, I decided to re-fashion them into a new promotion for Tributary residents: a free, on-location portrait sitting for all-first time customers. Anyone who signed up before the contest was cancelled still gets the free 8×10.

Lemons -> lemonade. This is going over great.

I generally think it’s a bad idea to give free work now on the promise of paid work later, but I think this is different. First of all, the ‘free work now for paid work later’ garbage generally comes from businesses, not consumers. If a business can’t pay for you now, what makes you think they will want to budget for it later, once you’ve shown them they can get it for free (and if not from you, then someone else)? Consumers are different, though. Build a relationship with a family, and they will keep coming back. It may hurt a bit on the first shoot, but if I do my job right, these folks will all be repeat customers. Think of the freebie as a loss-leader.

Moreover, the work I am shooting now is not free. Thanks to my awesome store-front provided by Smugmug, print sales will (hopefully!) defray my shooting costs and time. This is, of course, a risk. Maybe nobody buys any prints. I am banking on the hope that parents will want to buy pictures of their kids. A pretty safe bet.

Finally, I am getting a lot of value from the pre-existing social networks here. Tributarians are closely-knit. Since they know each other, they listen to each other. By focusing on them, I am generating a positive feedback loop of cumulative buzz (coined!). Given the non-existent results online and print advertising has provided for my business, I am now focusing 100% on generating word-of-mouth recommendations, and I am starting right here.

We’ll see how it goes.

Anyway, next up, I’m going to post a few of my favorite shots from my shoots this weekend. Stay tuned!

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