The Goring of the Sacred Cow

David Jay, a wedding photographer, has caused an uproar with his online post 10 Step Guide to Starting A Photography Business.

Reviewers like KennyG on Cameradojo.com are wailing away that Jay’s guide is unrealistic. It all sounds like Chicken Little claiming the sky is falling.

Photography is a serious business the critics seem to be saying and Jay’s post makes it all too rosy.

Gary Fong, a former wedding photographer and now famous for the Lightsphere, wrote a post that I find just confusing but he talks about the crossover from teaching to marketing. I went to a Gary Fong workshop when he was in Toronto a few years ago and he was terrific and generous with his comments and information. (Fong made a lot of money up selling photo albums to brides as an add-on to the normal wedding shots. He boosted the sale of each album by posting images of all the family and guests online the day after the wedding so when it came time for the bride to pick her album photos she picked more rather than fewer photos to avoid leaving anyone out. Clever.)

But I believe Jay has figured out that the photography business has changed and changed forever.

Let’s face facts. Now for under $1,000 Uncle Fred can  own a great digital camera and two lenses capable of shooting professional quality images. That’s not to say Uncle Fred is capable, but his equipment sure is, so when the bride-to-be and her mother are shocked that you are asking $3500 to shoot their wedding while Uncle Fred will do it for free you’ve got to know these aren’t your preferred clients.

So how to you get preferred clients especially when you’re new and shiny?

You follow Jay’s suggestions which IMHO after 40 years making my living as a professional photographer are terrific.

Here’s what Jay says in brief (and in no particular order):

  • Network. Tell people you’re in business. Let people help you.
  • Don’t be scared into not doing it. Everybody has to start somewhere. You get better with practice.
  • Shoot for free. I completely agree as it beats sitting at home waiting for a phone which never rings. Volunteer with your local United Way or Business Improvement Association.
  • Build your business using referrals. This is essential in any business. And how to do you get referrals? You ask for them.
  • If you’re shooting weddings or special events figure out a workflow so 1500 RAW images reduce down to your best 100 JPGs inside of an hour or two.
  • Shoot first and brand and market yourself later. I know guys who have spent $50K on a website that never brought in one extra client. (But pay for decent business cards.)
  • Be prepared. Everything about running a photography business is online. Study and make it work for you.
  • I like Jay’s “Perform” page. Keep your gear simple. Go to Program mode* if you get confused. Shoot lots and lots. Smile…lots more.
  • Figure out how to provide your clients with a special experience. Most wedding photographers look identical online and have lost any possible competitive edge when it comes to pricing.

Look the old 80/20 rule still applies. Eighty percent of photographers suck. Not necessary suck a lot but some do and none of them are as good as the top 20 per cent. How do you move from being in the bottom 80 per cent to the top 20 per cent? You shoot lots of images. You create a plan of action and you work on your plan everyday. You work hard.

If you suck you either get better or you go into selling insurance or working at WalMart. It’s your choice.

I’ve said this before: Back in the early 1970s I was told there were no jobs available in photojournalism. And everyone who believed that never worked as a photojournalist. I started by freelancing for a community newspaper. I screwed up my first few assignments and they were unusable. When I finally shot a photo worth publishing the editor wanted to pay me with a photo credit. I asked for a $1. Astounded the editor asked why and I said if he paid me a $1 I could call myself a professional. Since that day I’ve always been paid for my commercial work.

And I’ve also volunteered my services a lot. (The shot above was taken at the TEDX Waterloo conference where I volunteered.) Why? Because there was no budget for photography at some of the places I volunteered my services and rather than sit at home in my self-delusion that I was better than that I went out and shot photos. Now I wouldn’t volunteer to shoot for places that were making profit out of what they were doing but it’s been my pleasure to volunteer for charitable and non-profit groups. And guess what? I got a lot of real business from my volunteer marketing work 🙂

The big trick to starting any business in any profession or craft is to start and then not stop. Oh yes avoid the critics.

It comes down to this: Those who can do and those who can’t complain. Now get out there and keep shooting.

*I was at a workshop where Beverly Hills wedding photographer Joe Buissink claimed he shot most of his amazing wedding shots on program mode. There was an audible gasp from the audience of wedding photographers who never use any other mode than aperture. If Joe Buissink showed up at my wedding with a $100 point-and-shoot I guarantee you he’d out shoot all of us…easily. He’s an amazing photographer.

The Importance of TEDX

This post appeared yesterday on my public speaking blog The Toastmaster.

Thanks to Toastmaster Glenn Marshall I was accepted to be part of the photography team for TED-X Waterloo which took place on Wednesday. For those of you who don’t know TED, it’s an incredibly important web-based phenomena that features 18-minute talks by some of the most interesting and important public speakers in the world. There are talks on TED which will cause you to wonder and marvel.

The TED concept is spreading and now local communities like Oakville and Waterloo hold their own day-long TED events which are video recorded and streamed and shared online to a worldwide audience.

Doing the photography at TEDX Waterllo was incredibly difficult and I’m only half way through reducing and processing the 1500 images down to around 100 finished photos suitable for showing on the web and for use by next year’s TED organizers to promote the event. When I’m finished they all will be up at my online gallery Peter West Photo.

But one of the good things about being on the photography team was I got to listen to all of the speakers and I’d like to share some of my thoughts with you,

So the following is an evaluation using language and terms that the members of my Toastmaster group will understand.

Right off the top I noticed there was a lot of content without delivery and a lot of delivery without content.

If I was to score the speeches, it became immediately evident that content was way more important than delivery. In those speeches where the speaker had something to say I would score them consistently higher overall than the really slick speakers who didn’t have much to say.

Story, folks, is everything. 

If you don’t have something beautiful to say, being able to say anything beautifully isn’t as engaging as the most inexperienced speaker who speaks from their heart.

BTW the speaking roster included Izzeldin Abuelaish, known around the world as the Gaza Doctor, who lost three of his daughters when they were killed by a shell fired by an Israeli tank. The doctor spoke passionately about is determination not to be victimized twice. While a bereaved father, he has refused to succumb to hatred as a result of his loss. I cannot image this man’s pain and I cannot imagine myself as committed to peace.

Mathew Ho was one of two Canadian high school boys who launched a Lego man into space. I think it was Mathew who said that last year he couldn’t buy a ticket to be in the audience and now one year later here he was on the TEDX stage. Nice point by Ho.

All in all there were 12 speakers and two video presentations along with a couple of musical numbers.

In evaluating the speeches, it’s my thought that almost anyone in First Oakville Toastmasters who had a couple of years of Toastmastering under their belt and who had developed some speaking skills would have done really well on the TEDX stage. That is, of course, if they had something to say.

So what makes for great content? Great even epic or life-chaing experiences helps. Trying to sell anything, even something the audience needs, doesn’t work. This is the bane of motivational speakers. They maybe slick and they may have information that can help you in life but their message pales in comparison to the simple story told by a someone who speaks from their heart and not just their head.

Oerall, when I was leaving I was a bit disappointed in the quality of the talks. Sure a couple were amazing but most were, as mentioned above, sometimes self-serving and occasionally just downright confusing. After one of the talks one of the other photographers turned to me and said “Just what was that all about?” I had no idea either.

So I finished the day at 9 p.m. walking in the dark down the sidewalk to my car and as I passed two teenage girls sitting on the curb waiting for the bus I asked them how they enjoyed TEDX. And both girls looked up at me and gushed: “It was amazing!”

And in that moment looking into their glowing faces I got it.

TEDX isn’t about the quality of the speeches. Great speeches are always welcome and it’s not even the content that’s key. It’s the concept itself.

There’s a poem that is central to understanding Buddhism. It’s called The Identity of Relative and Absolute or the Sandokai and it speaks of what’s real and what’s imagined. In the first line of the poem, the author speaks to how Buddhist thought moved from India to China by saying: “The mind of the Great Sage of India is intimately conveyed from West to East.”

In this phrase the writer is saying that the actual thoughts of the Buddha were shared one person to another (intimately conveyed).

And so it is with TEDX.

How To Get Published

I was talking with a new photographer yesterday and she asked the question: “How do I get published.”

What she was actually asking was how to do I actually make a living shooting photographs?

Here’s the easy answer:

Shoot lots of images. I’m doing weddings and engagement shots (see photo right) as a second shooter for a friend who wants to get into wedding photography. I get to shoot a lot of photos this way.

It helps (but it’s not necessary) to have professional-quality equipment. (Canon 5D Mark II or Nikon D-800 would be my preferences.)

The best news is you don’t need a lot of stuff. A top-end DX-format DSLR (7D or D-300)  and a f/1.8 or better f/1.4 35mm lens is a good start. Any old flash will do if you shoot on manual and it can bounce its light. (Always buy the biggest flash you can afford. You can never have too much light.)

If you’re young and eager get a police scanner or a police scanner app for your smart phone and go chase ambulances. Not the best way to get published but it works and will give you something to do.

Better still volunteer to do some shooting around your town.

Talk to your business improvement association and shoot their special events. Send a photo to your local newspaper immediately after the event with a cutline listing people’s name and ages (left to right) and two lines about what the event was and who to contact for more information. End by saying “Photo courtesy of your name.” Don’t ask for permission first (The editor will likely say no.) just do it.

Work or volunteer for the United Way in your community. If there’s a provincial or federal election, get to the top candidates early and see if you can become their personal photographer. (You can only work for one so pick the one likely to win regardless of your personal political affiliation. BTW these folks will have a budget you can draw on if you work this right.)

Find other special events to shoot. Hand out your professional quality business cards to everyone. Pin them on bulletin boards in coffee shops. Advertise on Craigslist and Kijiji.

Here’s a photo I shot at my local Toastmaster’s International Speech Contest. It’s one photo in an online gallery that shows my ability to capture the atmosphere of the night.

Create a professional looking web or blog site for your photos or get a SmugMug or similar gallery. DO NOT publish photos of your cat or vacation shots here. Do that on Flickr.

Finally don’t wait for anyone to give you permission to shoot anything anywhere (on public property) by anyone (including cops*). And more importantly don’t wait until some academic “accredits” you. Accreditation in journalism or photojournalism is IMHO a rip-off designed to fleece you out of a lot of money to provide you with something absolutely worthless.

When I was an editor I was always on the lookout for great talent. I had little to no interest in your resume and less if you had graduated from a school of journalism. What I wanted to see was your last story or photo shoot regardless of what it was about and whether or not you got paid for it. If your stuff looked promising I give you an assignment. If we liked what you did, you got paid for it. If we didn’t, we didn’t call you again.

Anyone who has a camera in their hands can be a photojournalist. The trick is they have to show some promise. Most don’t. (Same thing for writers. All you need is a pencil which is accessible to everyone on the planet. The issue is what do you write with it.)

BTW if you’re better than just promising, send your stuff to the photo editor of the publication of your choice. Keep sending them stuff until they call you.

If you’re really good then create assignments for yourself and publish them in your own online gallery. Try to get space to exhibit prints in local coffee shops. Take advantage of any photography festivals in your region.

Don’t give up. Everyone who gave up never got a job in journalism. I wasn’t the best shooter. I wasn’t an artist with a camera. I didn’t have the best equipment. But I persisted. I didn’t give up. I kept shooting. And, for the most part, I’ve been in journalism and photography now for over 40 years.

I’ve not regretted a moment of it 🙂

 

* Small town cops (Think of the G20 protests in Toronto. Much of the problems with policing was due to the use of poorly trained regional police officers who came to the big city ready to enforce the law!) will think they can prevent you from taking in photographs.

In Ontario, they can’t. There’s nothing in Canada’s Criminal Code (yet) that prevents you from taking photographs of anything in a public place. (Be careful in Quebec where the law is based on the Napoleonic Code and there you can be sued if your photo holds someone up to unreasonable ridicule.)

Back to Ontario, you can’t publish photos of juveniles under arrest if it could identify them although you can and should shoot photos at the scene of an incident and get the law straight later.

People arrested under the Mental Health Act are similarly protected however nobody on the scene is likely to tell you anything at the time so again shoot first and investigate later.

Finally if cops persist in obstructing you then buy a cheap 70-300mm zoom and stay away from the cops. Avoid confrontation.

If the situation worsens, complain to the chief of police. (After being pushed around once too often I threaded to publish a photo of an officer as he grabbed me and roughed me up at the scene of a break-and-enter. Of course I didn’t have the authority to do that but the police superintendent I complained to didn’t know that and the situation was resolved with an apology and promise of more professional cooperation. Relations with the police actually improved for the most part.)

Who Needs A Light Meter?

In this age of digital photography with our built-in light meters and histograms, why would anyone want a separate light meter?

The main reason is an incident light meter like a Sekonic L-358 (highly recommended), which reads the light falling on its hemisphere as opposed to your reflected light meter built into your camera which reads the light reflected off your subject, can create more accurate exposures.

Why should I care about more accurate exposures when we can shoot in RAW and manipulate our exposes by four stops of light or so in software?

It’s all got to do with the dynamic range of your digital camera’s sensors.

You’re going to read numbers that differ from mine but the principle is the same. If you miss your exposure when shooting digital your camera will be much less forgiving than film.

The human eye can see about 20 stops of light from absolute black to pure white. A great film camera can record about 10 stops and a digital camera records around 5 or 6 stops.

What that means is your digital camera has to record all the graduations in light to be found in the image in only five or six stops.

So if you miss your exposure by a stop to two and you clip either your highlights or shadows they’re gone and software isn’t going to bring them back. This is why amateur cameras have tons of software fixes like Nikon’s D-Lighting which underexposes your image slightly (to avoid clipping highlights) and then rebuilds them in using software settings. It works, and works well, but doesn’t beat getting the exposure right in the first place.

How about using the histogram that appears in your camera’s replay window?

It’s a great tool but not many photographers use it. The histogram shows whether or not your exposure is clipping but it doesn’t give numbers like f-stops or shutter speeds in the same way a light meter does. That’s where your separate meter comes into play.

Exposure is made up of the speed of the film you’re using (now it’s the speed of the digital sensor) in units called ISO. The aperture or size of the opening of your lens (fast lenses that can open to f/1.8 or more create images with shallow depth of field which is what is often wanted in portrait work) can be pre-set in the light meter which will then take the desired ISO to determine the correct shutter speed. You can do the same thing when setting the ISO and shutter speed to get the correct aperture for a more perfect exposure.

Finally when it comes to dynamic range full-frame sensors are better than DX-format sensors and way better than point-and-shoot sensors which can be as small as the size of your fingernail. Full-size sensor camera cost around $3,000 and up just for the body but yield images which have greater dynamic range, less noise in the image and can use higher ISO settings for shooting in less light than other cameras (ideal for wedding photographers). True full-frame camera sensors also capture more megapixels but this isn’t a major concern as just about any camera that has a sensor of 8 megapixels  or greater will produce great images in sizes approaching 16″X20″.

You’ll hear a lot of nonsense out there comparing full-frame to DX sensors.

Here’s what it comes down to: For 99.99% of all photography a decent point and shoot is terrific. A step up to a micro four-thirds (Olympus Pens and others) or a Sony APS-C format will allow for more creative photography and better images under more difficult conditions. All of these are light enough to carry around all day.

A decent DX-format camera (think top-end Canon Rebels or Nikon D-7000 or D-90) will shoot everything perfectly well including sports, landscapes, weddings, kids when matched with faster lenses. Most photographers will never need anything better or even be able to notice the difference between these images and those shot on full-frame cameras.

Finally we come back to full-frame. Remember back in the good ole days of film? Wedding photographers traditionally used 2 1/4 cameras such as Rollies and Hasselblads.

Why?

A 2 1/4″ by 2 1/4″ piece of film captured a lot of dynamic range. Images shot on these cameras looked way better than images shot on 35mm film cameras and just blow away anything shot on digital. (And again this is why there are many many producers of plug-in filters, pre-sets and editors for Lightroom and Photoshop. We keep trying to recapture the look of large-format film cameras.)

Funny thing about large format cameras. Most of them didn’t have a built-in light meter. You had to go out and buy a separate light meter! Funny thing what?

A $20 Photo Editor?

I use NIK’s complete package of software in Lightroom 3 (and now 4 but don’t buy LR4 until Adobe figures out why it’s running so slowly) and Photoshop all the time. I’m not sure if I could live without Color Efex Pro 4 or Silver Efex Pro 2 and I do like HDR Pro (and I should do more HDR shots).

BTW NIK doesn’t pay me (or could pay me enough) to give this sort of endorsement.

NIK’s stuff works great. The folks at NIK are very helpful. NIK has online webinars and videos to show you how to use their products.

Having said that, we now come to NIK’s SnapSeed photo editing app for Mac.

Snapseed uses NIK’s control points which allows you to drag up to 16 different control points which can change all kinds of parameters right on your image. Once you’ve used NIK’s U-Point technology, you won’t want to go back to using layers in Photoshop ever again 🙂

Make colours snap. No problem. Reduce noise. It’s a snap. Make the sky blue. Easy. And the list goes on.

This photo editor works on your Mac, I-Pad or even I-Phone. I’m watching an introductory video lesson about Snapseed on the Mac and I am blown away about how good it is for so little money.

For $20 Snapseed is insanely cheap and wonderfully effective.

The Search For The Perfect Bag

I’ve actually lost count of how many camera bags I own now. It’s well over 10 and could be more.

I’ve got a Crumpler 7-million dollar bag as my main walk around bag carrying a D-300 with a 17-55mm f/2.8 attached along with a 12-24mm super wide and at least one more lens (35, 50 or 85mm all f/1.8) plus two SB-900 flashes. It’s a big bag without being huge and really well padded with lots of pockets. It sits well on the shoulder and I’m very happy with it.

My big travel bag is an expensive but very excellent Think Tank Shape Shifter which can carry more than I can support on my back.

It’s got neoprene pockets and holds so much that I need a map to remember where I put everything. Did I mention this bag can hold a ton and it feels like that if you’re walking in a huge airport terminal.

But if you absolutely have to carry everything you own, the Shape Shifter (which has an expansion zipper so it can hold even more) is ideal. It also pass the airline restrictions on carry-on and has a zippered back pocket for your laptop. It’s what I used on my trip to Brazil.

My big bag is a Lowepro Magnum AV. This bag is BIG and can carry all my wedding photography gear in one bag. I can even get half of my video stuff in there as well as two cameras and essentially all my lenses. I use this bag when I’m teaching as again I can bring everything. But it is getting old 🙂

My special event photograph bag is a Think Tank Speed Freak.

This sucker carries at least three big lenses and two flashes either over my shoulder or around my waist. If I wear it with the bag forward there’s access through a top zipper.

This is a cool tough bag that is made for action and perfect for those events when I’m running and gunning with two cameras and need quick access to lenses and flashes.

There’s a whole bunch of lesser bags sitting in an upstairs closet.

And all this brings me to my latest purchase at Henry’s camera here in Oakville. (Good place. Good people. Great prices.)

I got an Urban Disguise 40 V2.0 exclusive to hold my two Olympus Pen cameras (EPL-1 & EPL-2) and assorted lenses (12mm, 40mm, 17mm, 14-42 zoom, 9-18 super wide, and 40-150mm ling telephoto) plus an old Nikon SB-28 flash which works just fine on manual.

The Urban Disguise won out over a whole long list of bags I was looking at including the Domke f-803 and Think Tanks own Retrospective series of messenger-stype bags for the major reason is the Disguise an zip up all the equipment. This is really important if you put the bag in the overhead bin in an airliner. You don’t want your lenses rolling out in the storage compartment.

BTW, if you buy the Disguise watch the video above as there’s a hidden back compartment that can hold two camera bodies that I didn’t know it had! Glad I watched the video review. Who knew?

The Disguise 40 is just a little deep for Pen-size camera but I added extra padding (Think Tank supplies a ton of dividers plus a detachable memory card wallet. Very cool.)) around the lenses and put a double divider between the two camera bodies which I can store with lenses attached. The equipment is thus secure and protected and the bag doesn’t scream out camera bag.

Look let’s not mince words. The Think Tank bags aren’t cheap. You can buy similar looking bags of half the price but at half the price you don’t get anywhere near half the bag. The Think Tank Bags are universally comfortable to wear for hours on end. The straps don’t bite into your shoulders. They come with rain protection. They actually have padding to protect your expensive equipment. They are so well built that they should outlast me. To say I highly recommend Think Tank is an understatement. When it comes to my professional-level shooting I don’t compromise on my equipment. The pain of the expense fades over time but well-thoughtout and functioning equipment is a continuing blessing.

So is that it for bags?

Well I do have my eye on the Airport Roller Series and if Think Tank wanted to send me an Airport TakeOff for an evaluation  I wouldn’t refuse delivery at the door 🙂

The Second Lesson

So the student mentioned below had her first lesson with her D5100 where we covered resetting the camera (and why) along with reformatting the memory card (after safely storing and backing up the images already shot) followed by when and how to shoot in automatic, program, aperture and shutter priority modes.

In lesson two, which took place at a coffee shop here in Oakville we reviewed the above and then did some shooting right there at the table.

The first thing I had our student do was shot a photo of me with the camera in automatic. Because I was sitting with my back to the big bright window I wasn’t sure how the camera was going to react in auto but the Nikon came through like a trooper and forced the flash on to give a perfectly exposed fill-flash look where the background was properly exposed as was I. We repeated the experiment in program mode (where the shooter controls whether or not the flash pops up) and the results were extremely predictable with the outside background perfectly exposed and I was just a shadow. Now I had her force the flash on in program mode and now we got another perfect image. (In a future lesson I’ll show her how to vary the ambient light exposure and at the same time vary the flash exposure to create some truly wonderfully exposed images.)

So my student learned to trust automatic mode so long as it created the image she wanted and if she wanted to take control of the flash to go to program mode.

We also shot in aperture mode where she picked how much depth of field (the mount of stuff in focus) as the camera picked the appropriate shutter speed to create a proper exposure. When she closed the lens down to f/16 which resulted in a photo where everything from about three feet from the lens to infinity was in focus, she got a shot that was properly exposed but blurry. She figured out that the camera had set a shutter speed that was too slow for her to handhold the camera. So since we didn’t have tripod with us it occurred to her to raise her ISO from 200 to 1600 which allowed the camera to shoot at a higher shutter speed. By opening the lens up a little to f/8 she still got almost everything in focus and a sufficiently high shutter speed to prevent blurring.

In automatic and program mode you can’t make the camera create shots where the depth of field is very shallow (often used in portraits) or very deep (as in landscapes).

But for point-and-shot vacation shooting I like program mode.

It’s quick, easy and for the most part creates really perfect images…but sometime program mode misses the exposure. That’s where the exposure compensation button comes into play. I showed our student how to change the exposure the camera had picked in program mode using the exposure button to lighten or darken the image to her preferences.

And then the second class ended with this admonition: Go shoot lots and lots of photos. It’s the fastest way to get radically better images.