When I first got started in photography, I was in a state of "portfolio building". In other words, I knew I wanted to take pictures and get paid for it, but I didn't have any pictures to show to potential clients. Ah, the infamous catch 22. So I did what 99% of wannabe professional photographers do... I started taking pictures of friends and family and in exchange for them "modeling" for me, I gave them a few prints (aka: TFP, time for prints.) It worked! I started building a portfolio of images that I could show people and say "hey, I'm a professional photographer. Now I'd like you to pay me XX for me to take YOUR pictures." If folks liked them, I was in business... and surprisingly enough to me at the time, they did like them.
Looking back at those images and the ones that followed over the next year or two, quite frankly I'm embarrassed by many of them and surprised that so many people actually wanted to pay me to take their portraits. That's not to say that they were horrible... compared to uncle Bob's. Compared to seasoned pro's though, well, let's just say I wasn't winning any grand champion awards (though I did take third place in the reflections category in the county fair! We'll save competitions for another article.) What I had realized though in building my portfolio and in those early days of charging clients for my services, was that if I could compose a decent image and didn't cut anybody's heads off... folks thought they were pretty good. Why? Because they couldn't get their kids to stand still for them and because grandma always cuts everybody's heads off in pictures (at least mine does... I love you Gammer, but you know it's true!)
At this same time I was getting started, I had this idealism that I would be able to bring "fine art portraiture" to the masses... in other words, amazing portraits at prices that could undercut the expensive studios. I remember actually writing somewhere, that I felt like "regular" people should be able to have the same high quality portraits as people who could afford to go to the fancy studios in town who were charging outrageous prices for people to get their pictures taken. I figured, if I got enough people through my doors at those "affordable" prices I'd be set for life. You see, while I loved photography, I hadn't yet been in business as a photographer. I mean, yeah, I had charged some people money for the work I did and had a business name and all, but I hadn't had to support my business or my family with that income yet.
Boy, was I in for some surprises!
So there were several factors at play during this time period. First, I was an inexperienced photographer with a decent eye but not such great technical skills. Second, as an inexperienced photographer, I didn't know much about quality prints and I was either giving away my digital files on a CD with sessions and/or getting all my prints for people done at Costco. I'm going to talk about the digital files in a minute, but lets talk about prints for just a second. I thought things were going along pretty well in terms of the product (prints) I was giving to people. I was charging a fair price ($18 for an 8?10 in 2005) and was getting a GREAT deal on my cost by getting them printed at my local Costco. I had even done a little research on printer profiles and had my online ordering set up so that I could get accurate colors through them. Then I had a huge wake up call.
I was graduated from an university I took all my camera gear with me including a couple of backdrops, lights and stands... the whole nine yards. The images themselves weren't too bad. I got home, posted them online and told people to start placing their orders. Well, my brother-in-laws mom ordered some prints from me and I got them all done, sent them off to her in California and about a week later I received an email from her. I don't remember the exact wording of the entire email, but I do remember this one part:
"Why is he gray? My grandson is not an Indian baby!"
Um, first of all, I'm not sure why she thinks Indian babies are gray... but, the point was that these were color images and babies should not be gray. I pulled out a bunch of other images that I had from Costco and when I looked at them with a now critical eye, she was right. Everyone was kinda gray. Wow! That's not good. So I had them redone and double checked my monitor, my color profiles, everything. I sent her the new prints. Better, but still gray. At that point, I started doing some serious research. I contacted several professional labs and had sample prints made. Here's what I found out:
1.Babies really are pink in printed images (not just on my computer monitor)
2.Quality does matter! I'm talking paper here to packaging.
I was truly blown away with this new-found knowledge and couldn't believe the difference that one discovery made in my presentation as a professional. And the funny thing is, I could now see my work in a different light. I could see the quality in what I was providing people. It boosted my confidence and guess what... I boosted my prices a little.
So my next big wake up call came in December of 2007. I had the amazingly fortunate opportunity to go to a week-long "digital boot camp" with one of the top photographers in the country, Kevin Kubota. It changed my world in terms of my career and who I am as a photographer. Without going into all of the details that would be way too long for this article, what I came out of that training with was an appreciation for who I am as an artist and as a business person. (Keep in mind that I had been doing this for about three years now and my technical skills were getting much better.) I had been so UNDER-valuing my work that it was just plain sad. I was basically giving it away. Why? Because I loved what I was doing and wanted to be able to share that with as many people as possible. In my mind, that meant that if I charged an "affordable" price that more people would hire me. I was doing charity work for several organizations and I was giving discounts hand over fist to any paying client who seemed like they needed one. At the first sign of resistance to my prices (which weren't that high to start with) I would start offering discounts and throwing things in for free. "Oh, you can't afford to pay for a session and for prints because of the new baby? Well here, let me throw those on a cd for you. How does $50 sound?"
That's great for a hobby, but it's sure as heck no way to run a business!
I'm a very compassionate person. I like to be involved in charity organizations and I like to help people. Kevin said something to us that was so profound about this... he said (and I'm paraphrasing here) "If you want to help somebody out who can't afford it, then give it to them for free. Otherwise, charge what your worth and what it takes to run your business successfully. Then take some of that money you've been so successful with and go help a whole bunch more people."
So what did I do? I came home and I got to work. I reworked my pricing. I reworked my philosophy on giving out my digital files. I reworked my branding and marketing to better match who I now saw myself as in terms of being a true professional with both passion and ability, as well as a business to run. I STOPPED giving my work away! Read that again... STOP GIVING YOUR WORK AWAY!
I had gone through a true metamorphosis from being a wannabe professional photographer in 2004, to a highly skilled, confident business woman and professional photographer in 2008. Four years and a world away from where I had started. That doesn't mean that I didn't have a whole lot more lessons to learn in a lot of areas, but I had taken myself and my business to the next level. That's what I want to help all of those aspiring photographers out there do as well. You don't have to start out with an art degree from a university to be a professional photographer. Anybody with a digital camera and a desire can do it... or can they?
I'm an optimist and a dreamer... so that part of me wants to say "YES!" absolutely everybody can do it. But here's the caveat to that... anybody can do it who is willing to step out of their comfort zone and learn what it takes to run a successful business and then have the guts to do it. The artist in us wants to dive into the creative process and be all about the smiles and fun. The business person in us must take a hard look at what it takes to be successful.
So, what are worth? And can you support yourself and your family on what you've been valuing your work at up until now? If the answer to those questions don't meet up with reality, then it's time to start making some changes.