So What’s Your Rate? ...

…. she asked, knowing that whatever response other than, “No worries, you’re my friend, I’ll do it for free,” was going to be too much.  The contempt on her face said it all upon hearing the standard rate I charge to all of my clients. “I’ll tell you what,” I responded as I noted the glaring, yet familiar disbelief in her eyes, “I’ll knock a little off the price since it’s your first photo session with me.” “You know, I think I’ll just go to Walgreens and get them done there. I think they only charge like $20.00.” “Ok” is all I could manage to get out while cracking a reserved smile and nodding, trying to avoid any tone of sarcasm that could give her twisted mind reason to think that I was the one being petty, thus putting a friendship, which had been devoid of awkwardness until this moment, at risk.

Unfortunately, this is too common a scenario among photographers who make their living taking photos, i.e., professionals. Friends do favors for friends in everyday, normal life. Give someone a ride to work because his car is in the shop? Sure. Look after her dog while she’s on vacation? No problem. Give him $500 of professional services because he’s your friend and he asked nicely? Absolutely not, and it’s rude to ask, plain and simple.

There are hundreds of articles online that can justify (with real world numbers!) the prices photographers charge for their work, so I won’t really go into that. I do think that people forget about the overhead costs photographers have. The equipment is very expensive and must be kept in good condition and up to date. And the software, oh the software, that is now mostly subscription based, come with never ending payments. And for those who think…

“…But I don’t need to be Photoshopped.” Chances are, you do. The problem is you don’t know what you’re saying when you regurgitate a term like “Photoshopped.” No, I’m not going to spend a bunch of time making your legs look half as skinny as they really are or removing ALL the wrinkles and blemishes from your face because that’s what the fashion magazines do to celebrities and models. I AM going to import your photos into Photoshop and make some adjustments to the tone, contrast, stray hairs because you didn’t want to spend money on a stylist, and any other details to bring the photo to its full potential.

Don’t forget the intangibles either. Photographers make money for taking photos because they’re good at what they do. There is skill involved, skill that has been improving over time. Time and energy have been spent training and honing this skill. That’s not really something you can easily include as a line item on a receipt, but it is something that, without a doubt, has value. This value usually translates into money paid to the photographer for their services.

“But you took photos of John for free a few years ago, it’s not fair that you’re charging me now.” It is fair, deal with it. It is not uncommon for photographers to offer their services for free at the very beginning of their careers in order to gain experience, but that is normally a very short phase, and once that boat sails, it is gone. Didn’t buy Microsoft stock when shares were $21.00 in 1986? Well you missed your chance there, too.

Most photographers have standard rates, so be honest about your budget. If you can’t afford their services, kindly inform them. Who knows? Maybe they have a heart and try to work out a deal with you. Don’t have money and want them to work for free?  Just don’t ask. If you do manage to guilt some unpaid work from your photographer friend, you’re really putting an unnecessary strain on that relationship.

Still want to go to Walgreens out of spite? Be my guest. It will be a $20.00 lesson on the difference between amateurs and professionals.

Ultimately, you need to understand that your friend makes a living from taking high quality photos, photos better than you can get from your smartphone or DSLR or the teenager behind the counter at the drugstore, and needs to be paid accordingly for providing you professional services. So don’t be like that annoying kid from grade school who would always be like, “Ooooh, let me have one!!!” anytime somebody pulled gum or candy from their backpack in class. Be classy. Be a grownup. Be willing to pay for your goods and services.

 

Things I Learned Taking Photos at a Mall

I recently completed a 10 day campaign for IKEA here in Madrid, Spain where I was stationed at a photocall in a mall taking pictures of willing mall goers. The idea was cool enough: get your picture taken at the photocall, and a few weeks later, pick up the new IKEA catalog with your picture on the cover…for FREE! Below are a few things I learned about working at a mall, promoting the IKEA catalog in Spain, and dealing with the public. Although there were some bad apples, overall, people were nice and friendly.

 

·      Spanish people love the IKEA catalog. I had no idea. People even gift the damn thing to their friends and family. While most people were thrilled at the idea of having their picture on the front of their own, personalized catalog, many were disappointed, even angry, that we didn’t have any on hand to give out. I was called a jerk, an idiot, a liar, and several other nasty names because I “wouldn’t” give someone a catalog…it was clear that several people thought I was hiding them somewhere and just didn’t want to give one to them.

·      There is always a way that they “get you.” By this, I mean IKEA or other big corporations. The notion that something is completely free is not something people here are used to. I was almost always asked, “What’s the catch?” I was honest. The catch was that they had to pick the catalog up at an IKEA store, i.e., it wouldn’t be mailed to their houses. Most were satisfied with not having to buy anything or pay for the catalog, as they go to IKEA frequently anyway. Others were angry that I “wouldn’t” mail it to them, as if I were calling the shots. Again, I was called nasty names. Some people just can’t be satisfied.

·      People like free stuff. This is not exclusive to Madrid, although the Spanish seem to have a particularly stronger obsession with getting things for free, no matter what it is. For example, the photocall was setup to look like a kitchen, complete with an island work station, chopping block, cabinets, etc. There were also little jars (sealed shut with a zip tie) with cookies, coffee, cereal, and some cookies stacked on a plate. All of there were, of course, props for the photo. Not once, twice, or even three times, but MANY times, I was demanded by passersby to give them a cookie, despite the fact that hundreds of people had handled them. When that request was denied, they would ask for a t-shirt that the hostess was wearing, a napkin, some cereal, or even a spoonful of coffee. Yes, I was asked to cut the zip tie on the jar to give someone a spoonful of coffee in the middle of the mall. Once again, nasty name calling ensued.

·      On a positive note, I actually work pretty well with babies and small children, but only for a few minutes at a time. Close to 1,000 pictures of babies taken and only 2 or 3 that cried. Pretty successful in my book.

·      It’s easy to become popular working at the mall, especially if you make people look good in photos. I was there for only 10 days but got to be on a first name basis with everyone at Starbucks, the security guards, the restaurants, and with folks from a few other places I frequented. I even got discounts at certain establishments. It was a nice boost to my self confidence.

·      After a few days, everyone starts to look the same. It felt a bit like the movie Groundhog Day. I swear I took the same photo of the same people 300 times.

·      I can pass for Swedish, at least according to Spaniards. I was probably asked 20 times a day if I was Swedish. It makes sense, I suppose: IKEA promotion + bearded guy with a funny accent = Swedish. However, I am not. I can’t even come close pronouncing the products I had displayed at the photocall.

·      Many people have no consideration for anyone else. “Hey, see that long line of people waiting patiently (enough)? Don’t worry, I’ll take 20 photos and let you check after each one to make sure you’re smiling just right and your head is tilted at the correct angle.”

·      Rules are made for other people. “You’ll notice that my camera is on a tripod in a roped off area. But don’t worry, YOU can just duck under and take a look at your picture. No, it’s OK if you bump the tripod and I have to recompose the shot and then spend an hour more when I get home at night explaining to the printing company how they now have to crop each photo differently so peoples’ heads don’t get chopped off in the print. Seriously, maybe you could come by my place, sit outside my window and blast reggaeton all night so I don’t sleep at all?”

·      The same ladies who complain about models being Photoshopped on the cover of Vogue ask me to Photoshop them for the cover of their novelty IKEA catalog cover.  Although they were half joking when they said it, they were not left smiling when I pointed out that, “Indeed, I do have Photoshop, but I would need Harry Potter’s wand to fix your face.”

·      You meet people from different walks of life. It was interesting to see the different people and families that stopped by. Several times, the people dressed nicely with their kids all decked out in Polo were the rudest and least grateful. Then a few minutes later, a guy wearing a street cleaning uniform and covered in tattoos would bring his kids by and make sure they thanked me for taking the picture. Money doesn’t buy classiness.

·      Mallrats are real. There people that are there all day, everyday. Not kidding. I was there 10 days straight and I don’t want to see the inside of a mall again for a long time. These people are a special breed.

·      I saw more mixed race couples and families than I’ve ever seen in one place. Zero incidents of racism, hostility, aggression, or judgement. Also, mixed race babies tended to be the cutest. Suck it, racists.

My path to a profession: Getting paid to take photos

 So here it is, my first post on the Matt Lazenby Photography blog. To kick things off, I’ll go back to the beginning, responding to a question that I, and I imagine other photographers, get a lot:

How did you get started in professional photography?

 This question can actually take several forms and be asked with different intentions. Most of the time it is simply out of curiosity, but sometimes it is someone seeking advice. This post is intended to answer how and why I got started without really giving advice. If you’re able to take something away from it that will help you, then I’m glad I could help.

 I’ve always had an interest in just about anything that allowed me to be creative. I’ve also always been interested in gadgets. Those two worlds collided when I was about 8 years old and I got a point-and-shoot film camera for Christmas, which I had asked for. I took pictures of anything and everything, my mother regulating my film consumption so we wouldn’t go broke. There was such a thrill of getting film back from the store and seeing the result of pushing that shutter button. This, of course, was back before the digital age, the internet, and instant gratification. Sometimes I miss those days, I miss loading a new roll of film and winding until I hear that ‘click.’ I loved taking pictures, but it didn’t take long before the rest of my busy young life got in the way and my camera found its way into the bottom of a drawer in my room.

 Fast-forward about 14 years. I’m in college and had only been taking photos while on vacation with the help and convenience of disposable cameras. These photos included trips to the Bahamas and my study abroad in Spain. I learned a lesson or two about the limits of flash coupled with low light and low ISO film.

 Fortunately, at the same time, digital cameras were just becoming available to the mass market. Needing to document my shenanigans, I got a digital point and shoot camera for Christmas. I believe it was a Canon Powershot, 3.2 megapixels…it was all about the megapixels at the time. It was a similar story as before, pictures of anything and everything, but in higher quantity since there was no cost of developing film. But this time the camera didn’t go back in the drawer.

 Over the next few years, I upgraded twice (sticking with the Canon Powershot series, in case that matters to you). During this time, I lived in Spain, in which I traveled throughout. I also made trips to Morocco, Russia, Scotland, and a few other places in the US, all the while toting and employing my camera. I enjoyed taking pictures and documenting my travels. Other people seemed to enjoy my pictures, as well. The photos weren’t necessarily groundbreaking, creative, or terribly dynamic, but sound in composition and with interesting subjects, telling a story of where I had been.  A little positive reinforcement from friends, family, and colleagues went a long way.

 In 2009, I got my first DSLR… for Christmas, of course. This time a Nikon D90, which the girl who helped me at Ritz Camera in Jacksonville, FL recommended as the best mid-tier (or semi-pro, rather) camera at that time. It had all the automatic settings of a point and shoot, but also had external controls for shutter speed, aperture, and ISO when shooting in manual. This gave me the option to grow creatively as a photographer if I ended up wanting to dive deeper into the art or sticking to automatic if I found manual mode to be tedious.

 The addiction was almost instant. I bought Scott Kelby’s The Digital Photographer boxed set (three volumes, I think there is a fourth now). If I give any advice to someone who is new to photography, especially to DSLR cameras, it is BUY THESE BOOKS! They will demystify manual mode and other settings that can be difficult for beginners wrap their mind around. I read the books over and over, camera in hand, practicing along the way. I bought a tripod, a speed light, and a couple lenses. Again, I spent my spare time shooting anything and everything, experimenting with angles, light, exposure, and HDR, pushing my imagination to its limits. My fingers quickly learned the buttons on the camera adjusting the settings became second nature. I was passionate about my new hobby. But as it sometimes goes, passion for a hobby leads to the question: Can I make a living doing what I love to do?

 I moved back to Spain in 2010. I didn’t really have a concrete life plan, I just knew the corporate life was boring and I needed a change. Plus, Spain has jamón ibérico and great wine. I taught English to pay the bills. Naturally, I used to my newfound photography skills to capture the beauty of the Iberian Peninsula in my free time, including some of the places I had been before when all I had was a disposable camera or a point and shoot. I continued developing as a hobby photographer, buying a nicer tripod, and shooting the amazing landscapes and cityscapes in Madrid. I learned more about ambient lighting versus flash lighting. I slowed down to study subjects to make sure I got the right angle. I moved away from HDR photography, which I began to find too fake looking. I tried harder to “get it right” in the camera and rely less on editing software. I studied photos of great photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ansel Adams, and Steve McCurry. I gave myself exercises and homework to do. I limited my shots to 36 a day when I was out shooting in the city. I started practicing the habits that professional photographers practice. I wanted to make a living as a photographer.

 I got my first gig from a friend who organized corporate events. He needed a photographer and asked me if I’d like to give it a shot. I took the opportunity and, despite being a bit nervous and unsure of myself, did a pretty good job. They liked the results. I got paid paltry sum, but it gave me the confidence I needed to go forward. Slowly but surely, I began to get more jobs, mostly based on referral. I upgraded my equipment, bought more lighting, lighting modifiers, and radio flash triggers. I built a website and printed business cards. I positioned myself in market as one of the few English speaking event photographers in Madrid...and probably Spain.

 After a year or so, I cut my number of English classes I was teaching so I could focus more on photography. My income shifted and I began to rely more on income from photography than teaching. I was getting paid to follow my passion. I was a professional photographer.

 The journey still continues today. I am constantly learning and practicing different techniques, taking on challenging jobs, assisting with big commercial shoots or fashion shoots to learn from established professionals in those areas. The learning will never end, nor do I want it to. I still love shooting as much as when I first picked up a camera. This is what keeps me going. This is how I know I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.