Portrait Photographers And Money

Beautiful boys, curious and attentive. Nikon D800e camera and Nikon 24-120mm f4 lens.

Are you an aspiring portrait photographer? Do you struggle with how much to charge for your expertise and the particular product or service you offer? Likewise, do you have a real sense of the value associated with the brand you should be trying to build?

Money and Art

While I am not, nor have ever been, motivated purely by money the reality is that, when it comes to running a business, the most passionate and talented photographers often fall by the wayside. And that's not through a lack of hard work, creative flair or in lieu of a pleasant and affable nature. More likely their downfall has resulted from a lack of focus on the fundaments of running a business. Ultimately, the most basic concept underpinning any business is Money In and Money Out. And the sooner we change our focus and begin to respect ourselves, as professionals, the happier and more success we will be.

Success Breeds Creativity

There are so many examples of successful photographers who have remained creative. What's their secret? In many cases it's a partner or spouse who brings a hard nose approach to business that is often lacking in their more (artistically) creative partner.

But how does one remain creative for so many years? Often it's by being able to free oneself from the shackles of business. I've known many photographers that find a way to get away from the business for one or two days every week so that they're refreshed and enthused for a heavy weekend of creative photography. They're able to do so because they have the confidence to let their partner and/or staff do what they do best and look after their business for them. 

Feed the Angel, Not the Beast

Needless to say the books we read, the music we consume and the movies we watch also feed (or otherwise) our creative spirit. Want to grow your creativity? Look at art, of all kinds; walk in nature and, while doing so, study light, shadow, color, shape and texture. Most of all observe and participate in life. It's all around you and, for the most part, it's free.

Despite difficult conditions a well organized and positive customer can make all the difference.

Saying Goodbye

One of the hardest things in life is to break away from negative people and to free yourself from manipulative relationships. This is hard when you're young or you've known the other person from childhood. And it's particularly difficult when you've invested a lot of time and energy (you might even say your youth) into that relationship. But it's a necessary part of growing up, by which I mean reaching psychological maturity. Life and death, at so many levels, are intimately intertwined. And before you can fully embrace you new life you must, by definition, say goodbye to those parts of your our life that no longer serve you.

To live a happy and creative life it's critical to surround yourself with decent, right minded and positive people. You'll be a better person for doing so, your creativity and health will improve and you'll be able to live a life of meaning and contribution. In doing so you'll realize how empty the pursuit of significance really is.

Here's a Simple Fact

Years of experience has taught me that, no matter whom you deal with, when the money is paid upfront (i.e., well before the photography session begins) the final results are dramatically improved. Why? The timeliness, preparedness (including wardrobe choices, for all members of the family), attitude and motivation of those being photographed changes dramatically when they pay in advance.

I think, on a subconscious level, that folks who have paid upfront begin to realize that they are also responsible for the success of the session. With this recognition of shared responsibility they're more motivated, more energetic and happier during the session. And that makes the whole process of making great photos so much easier.

None of us are Immune

The only times when I've had problems with portrait sessions, and it's only happened on a couple of occasions over thirty-five years in the industry, are when I failed to get the money up front. Folks don't show up, they're tired after a late night or they don't have their wardrobe properly organized or co-ordinated. As a result their heart just isn't in it and their head, well that's in another place entirely. They may even want to finish up much earlier than the photographer, no matter how beautiful the light is becoming. I guess they feel, as no money was paid upfront, that they haven't lost anything by not fully committing to the session. Which, of course, is just nuts! Attitude determines everything!

I would add that, due to implementing the appropriate policies, it's been many years since I've experienced such difficulties. And it's because I want your own photography sessions, whether as photographer or consumer, to go well that I share this information with you here.
 
Try to picture someone who has't paid you any money, came to the photography session with a poor attitude (which can absolutely affect the way they look in the pictures) and, as a consequence, didn't really enjoy themselves. Is there any chance they won't be completely pleased with the results of that session? Absolutely! And it's most likely because the state they were in created, in their mind, the reality in which both they and you currently find yourselves.

An Essential Truth

The concept that photography is all about communication and psychology cannot be understated. It's as important a concept as the need to understand how to use your camera or work with light and composition.

Photographers build trust through their thoughts, words and actions. Your photos are a result of who you are and the trust you establish with your customers. Build that trust from what you post and from that very first email or phone conversation.

Staying in Control 

Of course one of the skills of being a good portrait photographer is to be able to keep control of all manner of difficult situations. Soothing ragged nerves, tempering tantrums and lifting deflated egos are all a part of the process of making beautiful, life affirming images. But, when you're young and/or inexperienced such behavior may be beyond your ability to deal with in the midst of all manner of exposure, lighting and contrast concerns.

In some cases you'd be better off walking away. But your sense of professionalism and loyalty to the customer will likely prevent you from doing so. However, unless you can turn things around quickly, you could well experience all manner of difficulties throughout the session and beyond with a myriad of "why don't you just fix it in photoshop" remarks which, by the way, they will expect you to achieve without any extra payment. You may be able to reduce the appearance of wrinkles, but down right nastiness is another matter entirely. Finally, you may even be pressured to lower your prices. Yikes! 

The Great Lesson

But, regardless of what you do, you'll be unlikely to truly please this person. And you lost control when you allowed them to show up to the photography session unprepared, uninformed and without paying you upfront. And that's where it all started to go horribly wrong, your honor.

Over the years I've had to work with my share of difficult people: prima donnas, feuding families and the like. But it's my job to make beautiful photos, even if they end up being more about the myth of the happy, loving family than the reality of the day. And it's in my nature to always give folks a second and third chance. After all, everyone's entittled to a bad day. But get the money up front, educate your customers and the day that matters should work out just fine.

Being Normal

The world is full of deeply insecure people. And that's okay. Being imperfect is what makes us human and, sadly, not all creatives fit the Dalai Lama mode. The point, for each of us, is to recognize such inadequacies and, where possible, work to eliminate or, at the very least, minimize them. But, when that insecurity is manifested into horrible behavior, the world can become a very uncomfortable place for the innocent. And that's very sad.

The Need for Significance

I guess such behavior comes out of a need for significance. "If I yell and scream loudly enough they'll pay attention to me and I'II feel loved". How it is that this kind of thinking survives beyond toddler tantrums is beyond me. I'm just not qualified to talk about such things. But I do want to protect other photographers, as much as I can, from such an experience which, to the young and uninitiated, could be totally demoralizing.

Here's some suggestions that will help protect you and allow you to provide your customer with a great experience and some truly memorable photographs. In doing so you'll turn a potentially horrible experience, the ramifications of which could last for a considerable period of time, into a joy. You may even find that you end up creating the best possible ambassador you and your business could hope for. 

Recommendations

My recommendation, for portrait photographers, is to ensure you have the money in your bank account NO LATER than one week before the day of the photography session. It's essential that you clearly communicate, in writing, that "if the money isn't there the session will be cancelled'. In fact there is no booking and, therefore, no commitment on you to be there without the money being paid by the given date.

I'm referring here to the money you charge to photograph the family or event and produce the original photos, whether they be considered proofs or supplied as completed digital files. If you receive the enquiry months in advance you might decide on a smaller, non-refundable, booking fee which both acts as a part payment and, importantly, secures your availability on the day. The balance of the job would still need to be paid NO LATER than one week before the day of the photography session.

(Of course the sale of prints would not, normally, fit into this model. That's a separate transaction that would occur after your customers have viewed their photos. In this case you might like to charge a 50% deposit on any print/frame orders placed).

Once you have the money (i.e., deposit or full payment) you can begin to provide the appropriate range of information, ideally in a written form (for their retention and your own protection) concerning details of the session (date, time, photos to be made) and the end product you'll be providing. This is also your chance to qualify your customer by subtly suggesting wardrobe choices more suited to the time of year, location and their preference for black and white or color photos. 

If you haven't actually received the money into your account by the required date you'll probably experience problems on the day and, quite likely, afterwards. And when it comes to unchangeable, time consuming and probably unappreciated photoshop fixes you can see how the job could easily end up costing you both money and reputation.

Worker, at Rest, Kolkata, India

Sage Advice

I wish you the very best of luck with your photography endeavors. If business is not for you, let it go and live the dream by making the photos you want to make.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru