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Monday, 07 August 2017


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It's a weird business. Then you have the stories of the studios that go out of business, leaving people unable to ever get reprints of their wedding photos or portraits (though I doubt that more than a miniscule percentage of clients ever go back for more prints after the initial order).
Last night, I started looking through a photo book I picked up at a used book sale and in the back was a brief paragraph stating "No part of this book may be reproduced, altered, trimmed, laminated, mounted, or combined with any text or image to produce any form of derivative work." On the one hand, I should be able to do what I want to that physical object, but is a framed page a "derivative work" ? Not that I have any interest in doing this, but it's a large format book (11x16) and maybe some people would.

and maybe she HAD just spent a long time underneath that car and was proud of that impressively dirty t-shirt.

[It was very unflattering, let's just say. --Mike]

With portraits of non famous people, the likelihood ao any of the pictures becoming an on going revenue source for the photographer is about zero, so it is not something to stress or give stress about .
My Daughter & wife shoot weddings and events as well as individual & family portraits.
She did her first wedding for $300 about ten years ago and now averages around $5k. She insists on doing an engagement session free so that the clients learn what it;s like to be in front of a camera, and she learns how they photograph best. Plus, they get to know her, and her them, this reduces stress on the wedding day. They are told that the purpose of the day is to end up with about a dozen really nice images, she usually delivers more than that as digital jpegs.
The contract they sign spells out ownership and use of images for compensation. But she doesn't stress about that.
After the engagement session she insists on a detailed shot list ( she has a form to help them out)
This acts as protection for "Where is the picture of Uncle Fred"
She explains that she will be taking much more than the shot list and that its only purpose is to make sure nothing is missed that is important to them.
She further explains that every photographer has a style and an approach and explains her philosophy and shows examples.
She explains that if that style doesn't resonate with them, the best thing is for them to find a different photographer.
She does that honestly and sincerely, and people respond well.
It is the best way to avoid misunderstandings or unhappy clients.
Her pricing includes a high end album which is Printed in Italy.
The only up charge is more pages, and for thous who want digital delivery, she accommodates with a small discount.
She looks at the portrait business as advertising for the wedding and event business. Most of her business is referrals.
And yes, people print their JPRG Proofs, her pricing considers that.

As in all business 'The best surprise is no surprise' everything is explained up front, and if people want something else, she graciously refers them elsewhere. Explaining, THIS is what I do, you are paying for my skills and experience not commoditized pictures.
..."I want you to absolutely Love your Pictures......but here is my style and approach.
It works for all concerned.

A successful salesman will tell you that setting expectations is important.

On (date) at (time) I will take photographs of (subject) at (location). I will, by (date) deliver (number) of 8.5 inch by 11 inch color portraits to (subject). The cost will be ($) paid in advance.

Additional prints will be available for (price list).

Digital files (will/will not) be given to (subject).

After the sitting any discussion should be about "what we agreed" rather than "what you thought."

John Camp - all the more reason to wonder at how Chuck Close does what he does so well.

The photographer we hired to shoot our wedding last year shared proofs with us electronically, just straight-up JPEGs, at good resolution. That was mighty trusting! I would have expected at least a visible watermark across the image.

In this era of easy photo sharing I think you just have to assume your work will be stolen.

My primary experience with portraiture was as an Army photographer in the 1960s. Being the military it was by formula and thus avoided all the sort of problems you encountered. OTOH It didn't pay nearly as well. ;-)

We did shoot occasional portraits as "personal work" though and one of those has remained a favorite among all the portraits I have made over the years. It is a casual portrait of the sergeant in charge of the lab I worked from the summer I got married. I only shot a handful of exposures (we were shooting with 4x5 Press cameras) but I kept a print of my favorite. I don't know what became of the negative. I suspect that Sgt. Grabs kept it. You can see the photo here https://tinyurl.com/y847b53p

Perhaps the woman in t-shirt was trying to attract someone who was interested in her mind, not her appearance? Er...maybe not.

Re "found my carefully-made, selenium toned, archivally washed fine print attached to their refrigerator with a magnet, among all the color snapshots and cute sayings. "
Honestly, I would take that as a compliment to the photographer, that print probably got looked at more that way than if it was nicely framed but in a less well used part of the home!


After being intimidated by the whole genre of portraiture (“How do you ask someone?”, “What if they hate it?”, “Ugh, flash”, etc.), I decided that it's going to be one of my main subjects of shooting for this year, and probably continuing on to next year at this point. Things that I thought would be hard turned out to be pretty easy (my friends have willingly sat for me), and it's expanded my photography for totally different genres in ways I couldn't imagine before. For example, having to deal with lighting, I'm much more aware of not only lighting quality, but also the color of light.

The equipment side has been interesting too. Besides lenses, the camera isn't terribly important, and lenses seem important only to the extent that you can frame the sitter properly and at a flattering distance, so that's been mostly the classic 85mm to 135mm range on a full-frame camera. And the lenses are all shot stopped down a few stops and the camera's on a tripod, so optical performance is excellent. I can shoot the camera at base ISO because I have plenty of light, so there's plenty of headroom for post-processing, which is another whole learning curve for portraiture.

What has been equipment intensive is the lighting equipment and not in the way I expected. I now own more lighting stands than I ever thought I could use. Just as often as they're used to hold lights, I've also used them to hold black foamcore for flagging lights and for blocking reflected light. Grip equipment in general (clamps, stands, arms, etc.) is now strangely fascinating and can become pretty expensive.

And finally post-processing. This isn't hard as there are many, many YouTube video tutorials out there, but it's something you just need to commit to sitting down and learning how to do, so it's a time and practice thing, like most things in photography. The basic technique is simple, but knowing how much to do and when is the hard part. Most post-processing techniques are brush-intensive, so get a good tablet to control the brush tool. I use an Intuos Pro Medium on my desktop, but for those on a budget, their $79 small pad works very well.

So while this has kind of turned into a technique-heavy response, the most important thing I've learned so far for what I do, which is probably closer to art portraiture than commercial stuff, is the relationship with the sitter, and how the photograph reflects that. I guess that's true in general for any kind of photographic subject. If that relationship doesn't work and you don't have anything to say about your subject, then the rest of the stuff above doesn't really matter. I'm fortunate that I have my friends as sitters because I like them and know them already, so the job is that much easier.

OK, one more equipment-related comment: print your portraiture! It's amazing how much better they can look as a print than what you see on-screen. Since so many people see each other on-screen on social media these days, a beautifully-made print on a good paper is a qualitatively different kind of experience. I've really liked what my Canon Pro-10 has been turning out on Red River's Palo Duro Soft Gloss Rag, a clone of Canson's Platine Rag, which is excellent too, but inconsistent in quality nowadays and somewhat difficult to get in some sizes.

Those clients are just following Mr Eastman's "You press the button and we do the rest" ... but in the modern way :-(

It's amazing to me how selective human vision is. We look at a photograph and see what we want to see. Fortunately, photographers are trained to look for trees growing out of heads and other issues. A friend of mine recently posted a lovely photograph of his father at his 80th birthday. Sitting next to him was the mother with a very unfortunate view up her skirt. Before I could react, another photographer friend of mine had downloaded the picture, cropped it nicely to exclude the accidental up-skirt and encouraged the original poster to edit the photograph and post the replacement. Just goes to show that people have tunnel vision!

"...And she never returned the negative, of course. Sigh."

Around 1970, during my last couple of high school and first few college years, I shot with a local wedding photographer on weekends. That taught me two valuable lessons. First, from the experience itself, don't turn an enjoyable hobby (photography) into a job. Second, quoting directly from the established wedding guy, "Jesus Christ himself doesn't get the negatives." :-)

Karsh of Ottawa

I always confuse "senior portraits" with photos of old people...

In my limited, non-commercial experience in portraiture, a portrait subject will reliably choose the image that makes me look the most incompetent. For my own sake, I show them only images I'd be happy for them to use.

When in decades past, I shot weddings to help pay for university, I sold an album of 10 to 14 prints with a couple of 8 x 10 matted prints at a package price. The client picked from 35 mm proofs using a loupe and got what they chose. When I started, I offered to sell the negs after 3 years on the theory that if wedding pics weren't ordered within 3 years, they were never going to be ordered. After a couple of weddings, I realised that (a) my clients were never going to buy the negs, (b) I had not place to keep them, and (c) they had no value anyway. So I just put the negs in sheets at the back of the album and gave them away.

So many of these problems boil down to a difference between what the customer thinks they're buying and what the photographer thinks they're selling.

If you find your print stuck to the fridge, then you know they really like it. :)

Doing portraits of models, which is roughly what you're talking about, can be challenging. At least experienced models have learned a lot about how to present themselves the way their familiar photographers want them, and it can be hard to get them out of that. And the real art of portraiture is figuring out enough about the person to then show it in a photo, right? So you need to do the interaction to learn it, rather than starting in with a clear idea beforehand (about a stranger, anyway; a friend is different).

I believe it was either Litchfield, or Snowdon, who would flip the negative in the enlarger so that the sitter would see a mirror image of themselves - exactly what they were used to seeing whenever they looked at themselves.
It's an interesting experiment. Give the subject 2 prints / files. One 'normal' one flipped in Photoshop, and see which they prefer.....

Reminds me of a hint in an quite old - but still funny to read - photo teaching book by German author and amateur photographer Alexander Spoerl ("Mit der Kamera auf Du" - To be intimate with your Camera). He used to mirror all portrait shots of his friends after one evening with lots of wine he accidentially put the negative in the enlarger the wrong way. His friend was excited about the outcome as "the first 'true' portrait shot of myself I ever saw". He had never seen himself other than in a mirror ... Would bring you to court today, I presume, on shameless photoshopping. Rgds, Robert

My advice is don't hire a professional model. Your area is chock full of interesting people and stories. Tell folks you are restarting a portrait business and soul like to build a portfolio of local people.
If they will sit for you, you will give them a nice finished print, Matted but not framed. All you need is a camera and one reflector.
And perhaps a muslin backdrop if the location is awful.
You will meet and photograph interesting people, build a Portfolio and start word of mouth advertising.
Since they are getting 'Paid with a print" they will usually be compliant with your shot idea.
In my opinion there is no way to get better faster than having to produce work for other people.
Along the way you can do market research. I doubt this digital 'everyone is a photographer' age will support your DC sitting fee of long ago, but even if it is half that you will be out taking professional pictures of a kind you like and bringing in a bit of extra money.
You could save up and buy something like a Mamiya 7 ; -))

If you were new at it, a professional model makes sense. Young photographers can learn a lot from good models.

I disagree about people picking the wrong proof.
People always pick the right proof, the one that makes them happy.
Portraiture of non famous people , paid for by them is a retail business, not an Art business. NY Times magazine cover portraits is an Art business. Granted they do not have your expertise in reading portraiture or 'Good' photography, but neither do they want it. The ones you like better are for your portfolio, the ones they pick please them & Grandma, and in a retail business that's the way it is supposed to be.
Stated another way what you are suggesting as a business model is that people pay you to take pictures of them that they don't like.
It's Retail.
Have you bought a pair of sneakers lately? I just did, walls full of the most garish, outlandish things you could imagine. As I looked in vein for a white pair, I remarked 'Who the hell would buy these things' my salesperson said that one of our biggest sellers.
How far would I get hanging around the store trying to convince people that they were buying the wrong one ?
I may be exaggerating here, but only a bit ;-))

"Technically, legally, the client only owns the print or prints—the physical object—and doesn't have the right to reuse or re-purpose the image in whatever way they see fit. This is difficult for clients to understand, and if they do understand they often don't respect it because it seems unreasonable to them—they paid for the picture, it's a picture of them, and they think that means they own it."

So yes, that's a technicality based on the photographer being paid as an independent contractor rather than as an employee. But does it make common sense? Most everyone goes to work with the understanding that their employer owns everything they work on.

As a photographer, should you be a *** about it, or should your engender goodwill with your clients by using an income model that seems more fair to them?

When doing commercial headshot (not quite portraiture I admit) I often send proofs, digital and not fully "corrected, to the client. I explain during the sitting that I will send the picture reversed so the person will look at the image as they see themselves in the mirror.

The asymmetry of the human face viewed as a typical photograph shows the subject "backward" and is typically disturbing to them. This can be why others may be a better judge of the "good" portrait from an un-reversed image, this is how we always see them.

To give credit I found this out from Adobe's Bryan O'Neil Hughes when I asked him why "Lightroom" has an import reversed image feature. It is for models reviewing images during a shoot, they can better judge their expression as if looking in a mirror.

Very interesting post.
I am an amateur photog and always struggle with the editing. My partner Euan will post the photos he thinks he likes on the refrigerator to see if he still feels the same way after living with them for a while. It's a neat idea, not only does it turn our kitchen into an art gallery but also allows us to objectively consider the photos after the initial emotions have gone. At present, up on our fridge we have a photo of you Mike, with your dogs that Euan snapped during our visit to Penn Yan. Even after all these weeks it's still a favourite :)

I recently took photos at my brother's wedding dinner. It was low key but still an important event. I snapped over 1500 photos and gave them all unedited to my big brother per his request. I thought that was best as it was his wedding but Euan warned me against it for all the reasons you mentioned in the article. Well he was right (yes honey, you were right). The photos he chose are not the best in my objective opinion. He's been critical that in some shots the exposure was off (yes, because test shots!). I feel slightly miffed because although it's his wedding, the photos are my work.
I will definitely be incorporating some of your strategies if I give photos away again - thanks for a great read.

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