Sunday, September 25, 2011

Pricing Photographic Services

I am sure that every serious amateur has considered going “pro” at some point. This has become more common with the advent of affordable digital cameras with modest price tags that are capable of producing professional quality results. I freely admit that I have often said that “Education is my wife, but photography is my mistress”. And truthfully, when I leave my “wife” (retire), my mistress and I will run off into the sunset together, spending countless hours in unbelievable bliss. However, turning “pro” implies that I will start charging for my work, a convenient way of offsetting the costs of new equipment. But before I start working on an appropriate price structure, I must examine how I want to price my services and match them with the market I wish to penetrate. I must also consider the level of compensation for the number of hours involved, and any other expenses incurred during the shoot.

For most people, the first time we encounter a photographer is in elementary school, and the last encounter is at a wedding (usually yours), and with almost no contact in between.  The unfortunate result is that most people believe that all photographs are priced in “photo packages” like 2 5X7 inch prints with a dozen wallets thrown in. And about twenty years later, when people start shopping for a wedding photographer, the package mindset frames the entire price to product discussion, since the bride and groom often base their decisions on how many photos will be in the album. In both cases, the first impulse may well be to take the total cost of the package and divide it by the number of pages in the album. I guarantee that if you take that approach, you will be amazed by how expensive each page becomes. While this approach to pricing may seem appropriate in our consumer-driven society, it does not accurately reflect the true cost and the intrinsic value of the end product.

Post Production: Let’s examine the pricing process and work backwards, starting with the album and ending with the services required to produce it. Chronologically, album production has many stages, the first of which is the editing. This is a process where all the stakeholders have some input on the final selection, the theme of the album, and the cover material. These decisions don’t just happen. The selection meeting may take an entire hour, and must rightfully be included in the total price. Next, there is the album design. This is the arrangement of the photos, selection of complementary backgrounds, and a sense for creating a pleasing graphic arrangement that is both visually appealing and presented in a logical sequence.  And even with the availability of some very specialized album creation programs, the process could take many, many hours. Once this is finished, another appointment is scheduled to get final approval of the album design. Once written approval is obtain, the actual production of the album can begin.  As a rough estimate, 2 hours of consultation, 8 hours of computer time, for at total of 10 hours of post production. This is a very conservative estimate, by the way. Since the actual cost of the album will vary, I’m leaving it out of the equation.

Remember that up to this point, we haven’t mentioned photography at all. All this happens after the wedding and is commonly referred to as “post production”. Successful management of post production is not about skills with a camera. It takes a well developed sense of aesthetics and superior computer skills to create an album look that reflects the mood of the wedding.

The Equipment: The actual photography during the wedding is highly visible, but also misunderstood. Before we get to the specifics, let’s start to look at what is required to properly document the event. First, let’s look at the equipment. A professional photographer must use equipment that is reliable, durable, and expensive. Even if the equipment is rented, the cost can be surprisingly high. For a wedding, I would bring the following: a Nikon D3, 3 zoom lenses (17-35 2.8, 20-70 2.8, and a 80-200 2.8), 2 Nikon SB-900 speedlights , 2 Spare camera batteries, Nikon D90Backup camera (w/ lens)  for a total of  $371 per day. For a two day event, you must double the cost. Incidentals such as single-use batteries and memory cards are not included. These prices were based on an on-line check of day-rates at Calumet.

The Wedding: Next comes photographic time on location. For a fully covered wedding, the day starts the moment make-up touches the bride’s face. In the wedding I will be photographing, this starts at 9:00 am in Burlingame. After both the hair and make-up are done, I’ll return with the bride to Half Moon Bay where the event is scheduled to start on 3:00 pm. I don’t believe I’ll be finished until 10:00 that evening. Dinner? Drinks? Afternoon Tea?  Forget it. I’ll be too busy photographing the bride. Any time away from the party will spent working with the bride and groom, trying to produce some show-stopping images with sunsets and seagulls, flowing veils, or romantic moments on the beach. Maybe I’ll get an hour or two when I’m off duty, you say. Off duty? That’s when you start to backup up your images. So far, I count 11 hours of my undivided attention dedicated to the lucky couple. This doesn't take into account the file uploads, backups, mass edits, and the final design of the album.

The Total: I’m sure I haven’t thought of every possible expense. However, an incomplete tally of the time and costs total $371 for equipment rental and 21 hours for photographing the event and the subsequent post production.

In short, both the photographer and the client need to understand that making a photograph involves far more than just the time behind the camera. As a photographer, keep track of your true costs including time and expenses. I am sure that you’ll find it to much higher that you thought. Knowing all of the facts can help both the client and the photographer better understand the true costs of photography.

Addendum: October 3, 2011: Since I originally posted this article, I've had some interesting discussions with several photographers whose situation is similar to my own. Any photographer who is contemplating turning pro must consider how his or her work stacks up against other photographers who are competing for the same market share. It's not enough to have a cool camera and an impressive lens. It's all about the images, the presentation, and on-time delivery. It's called customer service, and includes all aspects of the assignment, camera related or not. Just being there is not enough!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

My "Frankenflash" Vivitar 283

If you spend as much time on E-Bay as I do, you will see the word "Strobist" appear in the descriptions of countless speedlight accessories. I purchased one such item several years ago, a Vivitar 283 modified to give "Strobist Quality Lighting". It has a parabolic reflector and an interchangeable flash tube. And while this hybrid flash will probably raise some eyebrows today, the "bare bulb" conversions to Vivitar 283's and to a lesser extent 285's were the hot ticket back in the day. Click here for some background information on the original 283 and 285 models. But more on this unique conversion later.

It's easy to wonder why anybody would go to such lengths to produce this "frankenflash". Come onto me, my young padawan learner, and talk I will of the glorious Vivitar years, and some of the more common accessories and modifications.

Ubiquitous: Since it's introduction in 1970, 3 million had been produced in the first 4 years of production, earning it the adjective "ubiquitous". Both amateurs and professionals bought them in droves because they were adaptable, reliable, and relatively inexpensive. While the 283 has been discontinued for many years, dozens of them, along with a wide range of accessories, can be found on E-Bay.

Exposure Automation: One of reasons for its universal appeal is that it has an early form of automated exposure compensation which would work on any camera with a standard hot shoe or PC outlet. When the flash is fired, a built-in sensor measures the amount of light reflected from the subject and stops the flow of light when a predetermined amount of light has been detected. This reflected light will produce a proper exposure for a number of f-stop/ISO combinations. An indicator dial identifies four colored zone settings. As a quick example, the "red" setting, the one that I generally use, will give a "proper" exposure for the following combinations: 5.6 @ ISO 200, 8.0 @ ISO 400, and 4.0 @ ISO 100, up to a very optimistic maximum distance of about 30 feet. The "blue" setting supports the following combinations: 11 @ 200, 16 @ 400, and 8 @ 100, with a theoretical maximum distance of 15 feet. As with all things, performance varies with lighting conditions, subject reflectivity, battery strength, and the phase of the  moon. At longer distances and smaller apertures, the recycling time can be painful.

While the new TTl (through-the-lens) flash metering systems are the current norm, this flash-based system does work well (enough) under most conditions. And when the conditions are less than ideal, you can always go manual.

Manual Settings: As issued, the sensor had an "M" setting for Manual. This mode was "all or nothing"; it would allow you to dump the entire output in a single discharge. You could also replace the sensor with an accessory called the VP-1, which would allow you to steplessly adjust the output from full through 1/64 power which represents a range of 6 f-stops. As you can see from the link, it is no longer available new, but can sometimes be found on E-Bay, again at very inflated prices.

Beam Modifiers: An accessory adapter could be purchased to allow the attachment of one or mere plastic lenses to vary the flash's output angle. Both wide angle and telephoto filters were available to match the coverage of the 24, 28, 70 and 135 mm lenses. Colored filter sets were available in Red, Blue, Yellow, 85B (daylight to 3200K), UV and Neutral Density 4X. A special adapter held the filters in place. However, the installation of the new reflectror and flash tube prevents their use on my modified 283.

Conversions: The 283's versatility inspired conversions beyond simple add-on accessories. Several small shops were converting the 283 and later 285 flashes to accept a parabolic reflector and a larger flash tube. The name that keeps coming up is "Armatar", which I believe was a small shop in New York that made many of the conversions. In addition to the bare bulb/parabolic reflector modifications, they could also increase the output to 100 and 200 watt-seconds. The parabolic reflector coupled with the large flash tube helped to overcome to problems common with most other flashes, including the unmodified 283. Out of the box, the light coming from the unmodified flash tube produced a rather harsh light with a "hot spot" in the center. This was due, in part, the the mounting of the flash tube perpendicular to the line of illumination, which allowed a large percentage of the outgoing light to strike the subject head on. Mounting the flash tube on-axis with to the line of illumination forced nearly all of  the light to travel sideways and be reflected onto the subject by the parabolic reflector. A flash so modified would produce a beam pattern with a gentle fall-off at the edges. In addition, some photographers removed the reflector entirely, allowing the bare flash tube to scatter the light and illuminate a much wider area. That was the theory at least, and in some cases (think small rooms with light-colored walls) it actually worked. I most cases, however, it was simply a waste of light output, since nearly 3/4 of the light was directed away from the subject, never to be seen again.

Replacement Feet: Another modification thought necessary by many photographers was the replacement of the plastic mounting foot with one made from aluminum, or at least a metal of similar strength. Holly seems to have been the gold standard, as they were beautifully machined from solid aluminum and converted the proprietary Vivitar cable with the more standard "household" or "H" plug. If you look closely at the photo, you will see the two slots that accept the sync cable's prongs. On reason given for the foot's somewhat fragile construction was that if the flash was bumped HARD, the foot would break, preventing damage to the camera's integral hot shoe, which was infinitely more expensive to repair. With that line of reasoning, a metal replacement foot seems counter-intuitive.

The Frankenflash In Use: I still like to use the flash from time to time. I have used it mounted on a CB Junior flash bracket connected with a Household / locking PC cable connected to a Wein Safe Sync. I usually put a 1/4 CTO (a gel warming filter from Rosco) when I can afford to lose a bit of light. The built-in flash automation allows me set my aperture at 5.6 at an ISO of 200 and pretty much forget about it. I tend to use wide angle lenses, so my corresponding flash-to-subject distances are generally quite short. When working outdoors, I alternatively mount the flash on a monopod. I can trigger it with the cabling setup I described, or attached a small, cheap E-Bay flash trigger using Velcro and a short PC to Household cable.This gives me a little more flexibility in light placement, but restricts me to a maximum synchronization speed of 1/800 of a second when used with a Nikon D70/D70s body. However, I do not use a Safe Sync between the flash the the radio receiver. If the Vivitar fries it, I'll just put on another. 

Do as I say, not as I do.

Disclaimer: The Vivitar 283 has the earned reputation of burning out hot-shoe equipped cameras due to it extremely high triggering voltage. It is recommended that these flashes, and other flashes made in the last century, should NEVER be attached directly to the camera. I will not enter the debate concerning the safety of the Japanese, Korean, and Chinese iterations of the flash. If you decide to experiment with these older units on a modern camera, you do so at your own risk.  

Sunday, September 11, 2011

All gave some. Some gave all.

We honor those who went before,
Their silenced fears, their firm resolve.
Their dreams are gone, but now become,
The light to guide tomorrow's path.

September 11, 2011

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Samuel Jung 1913 - 2005

Becoming an adult "orphan" is never going to be easy, no matter who you are, or when that change comes to you. I will always miss my father, but am forever grateful that I was, as my friend Suzette said, "...there for him when he needed you."

Just this year, I found a collection of what must have been my father's favorite photographs. All were 11 X 14 prints, and considering the cost of paper and chemicals, these images must have been held dear. I found this portrait in the collection, mounted using a glue that had since deteriorated beyond its original intention, with a mat that was stained from years of careless storage.  The window of the mat had a thin, black-line accent with the name "Elizabeth Z" neatly printed in the lower right hand corner. I do not know who Elizabeth Z was, but she captured a moment in my father's life that now belongs to me. Since I plan to re-mat and frame this photo, the only evidence of the mystery photographer's efforts will be lost forever. Based on my father's general lack of sentimentality, I must conclude that he printed the image himself.

When I tried to make a quick, digital photo for this entry, I was disappointed with the results. The digital camera could replicate neither the range of the grays that make up the photo, nor the warmth provided by the matte paper my father used. There was, and still is, some deep dark magic that comes when the silver crystals in both the film and the paper, during an intricate interchange of positive and negative reactions, come together to create a truly unique image. And "unique" is not too strong a word because each time a print is made, the processing chemistry depletes almost imperceptibly, subtly altering each print that followed.

I had once believed that painters were to be envied because they could alter the perspective in their paintings, add and subtract visual elements, and subdue or excite the viewer with the selective application of color. While Photoshop provides today's photographer with the means to address these issues, there is still something missing. Every photographic print carried the unique interpretation of the photographer as it moved from enlarger to developer to fixer. The moment the enlarger's light goes off, the photographer was committed to the notion that everything possible had been done to achieve his final vision, even though the results would not be seen until the chemical processing was completed several minutes later.

Once mounted and framed, this photo will be held dear. It will be an original photograph, printed by my father, and the culmination of his own efforts and those of "Elizabeth Z". All I can do now is to hope that both his pursuit of the photographic art and his commitment to the craft will serve as a constant inspiration for my own work. If a boy spends his youth trying to live up to his father's expectations, I will always be his son. This is a photograph I will see not only with my eyes, but with my heart.