Tuesday, February 18, 2014

What Being a Professional Portrait Photographer Means to Me

When I was young, I used to read all of the time. It wasn't uncommon for my parents to tell me to “turn off the light” because they could see it seeping out from under my bedroom door.   If the book was really good, I would grab the heavy silver flashlight that I made sure to have next to me, and read the story under the covers until I finished the book, the battery went dead, or I was busted when my parents came in to check if I had gone to sleep.  ~ This is likely why I had a hard time waking up in the morning to get ready for school, but that’s another story all together.   Come to think of it, this is probably why we usually had to use candles when the power went out too. :-)
These books were published long before I was born.

Even as an adult when I read a book, I finish it within a day or so.  (Unfortunately I can’t pull the flashlight trick on my husband since he shares the bed with me, so I now only read on weekends when he doesn't have to get up early and go to work.) When I travel I've been known to have to pick up a book on the second leg because I already read the first one.   (Now that there's digital I just download another on my phone.)  But I still have a soft spot for printed books, especially old ones. 

Having read so many books over the years, some of them are bound fade away to the recesses of my memory, while pieces others stay with me.  One such book was picked up at a garage sale when I was in Junior High. It was a 25¢ paperback, and the heroine was a photographer that captured weddings.  What I recall vividly was that she used a ladder to climb up and take images of the food!  Now food images and “behind the scenes” images are quite common today, but at the time I loved her attention to detail and the fact she didn't just stand behind a tripod and capture stiff, posed pictures.  (This was pre-digital, so the fact she spent time on the food pictures was also noteworthy since every image counted.)  This was just a brief blip of character development, but I can remember the scene described so well.   This was the first time I remember thinking I would love to become a photographer, and take lifestyle pictures. (Although I don’t think the term "lifestyle photography" existed at the time.)  It was the reason I took “Science 2” in High School and learned dark room techniques.  (Since I was the only girl in the class, it meant I was occasionally on the sidelines as the High School football photographer as well!) 

Cropped image showing my magazine stack when I was about 18.
It has taken me a long time to get where I am today, and I am far from done learning.  But in hindsight, photography has always been a part of my life.  In fact I recently found a picture of my first apartment in California, and there on my coffee table was an assortment of photography magazines. I had forgotten I even subscribed to them! ~ I was a nanny at the time, and yet found it important to spend money on multiple subscriptions to photography magazines.  I find this rather telling.

Things have changed so much since I first read that paperback book.  Almost everyone today has a camera right in their phone, and point and shoot cameras have gotten quite advanced as well.  With digital you aren't limited to a roll of 36 exposures.  Instead you can take thousands of pictures and “pick the best one”.  (Something people in the photo industry call “Spray and Pray”.)  Another common practice in digital photography is “Shoot and Burn", the photographer is hired to take as many pictures as possible and then burn them to a CD or memory card for the client.  Most of the time these are unedited files, or if processed, they’re not edited a great deal, nor are they optimized for the different print mediums, crop sizes, or web use, which is okay, because most of the time, these images never see the light of day, other than a couple of random social media posts.  Instead they are often left in a drawer “to do later”. 

iPhone image of my current magazine stack.
The thing that strikes me is that even though I grew up studying photography, read all of the magazines I could about the subject, and was rarely found without a camera in hand, I still hired a professional photographer to capture the special moments in my life.  (Reunions, milestone birthday parties, weddings, etc.) It wasn't because I didn't know how to take pictures, or couldn't, it was because I wanted them to take care of things for me.  (Kind of like my reasoning when I spend $5 on an espresso drink when I have all of the ingredients and an espresso machine at home.)

A pro will know where to stand to capture the perfect moment.  They can find (or create) the perfect light that will compliment their subject and set the mood.  They are able to coax their subject into flattering poses and smiles, as well as creatively capture the candid moments.  They have the knowledge to set up and re-create images without having to “spray and pray” and then sort through thousands of images to “get one that looks good” or just give the client the images to sort themselves. A pro will take these planned images and not only back them up, but edit them so you look your best (because, pimples and such can happen at the worst of times). They will have a color calibrated monitor, and the ability to print the images on professional grade materials, using a professional print lab.  On the down-side, a pro will also have to know how to run a business.  Which means pay taxes, obtain a business licence, etc.  This is the "dark side" of being a pro, but is equally important, and quite often overlooked.

My goal as a photographer is for my client to commission printed images. I have access to high quality print labs, and archival materials that aren't always available to my clients so why not take advantage of the service?  It does mean extra work to research the labs, and then optimize the digital files for the print medium selected.  It takes a lot less time to just shoot the images and burn a CD. With today's technology we can capture some pretty impressive digital images with our phones that work just fine for the web, and so we're overwhelmed with images online. that they're often posted and forgotten.  Instead, I want my client to love their images so much, they can't imagine not printing them! (As a thank you for their order, I often add a digital app of pictures for their phone/tablet so they get the best of both worlds.)

The only time I want a CD of images is when I specifically commission a session for online use or head shots.  Otherwise, I want my photographer to take advantage of their connections to quality labs, archival materials, and custom services, and I want them to take care of the hard stuff.  (The posing, edits, print lab coordination, matting, etc.).  I hire a pro for their knowledge, experience, and services, so I can "focus" on other things.

Everyone has their own idea of what a professional is, and as I get ready to attend a huge photography trade-show and workshop next month, I am aware of these differences even more.   I am really looking forward to not only attending, but to speaking with other members of my field; from shoot-and-burn photographers, to head-shot photographers, to ones who offer prints and custom services.  I'm looking forward to taking classes to learn new techniques, and to walking the trade-show floor to see what other print options and services might interest my clients.  I continue to learn and challenge myself, because I want to be able to take care of my clients, so that they don’t have to do the work themselves. It's what I expect when I purchase my $5 espresso drink, too.  I want someone who is not only knowledgeable about the service they provide, but someone who makes life easier in the process.   


  1. Suzie, this is such an amazing post! I applaud you for taking a risk and believing in yourself. I think you are a extraordinary photographer and a woman of very wise words.

  2. Came here from a post you had on another photography blog. Enjoyed your work. Especially the ninety year old woman.