Sunday, September 4, 2011

Cost, Quality and Value of Professionalism

"You get what you pay for...."

We hear it said over and over again, and every time we roll our eyes and think that someone is trying to justify their inflated costs. Yet, truly, let's talk about professional photography.

First, let's define: Professional.

A professional in some sense is anyone who accepts money for services rendered. Consult an urban dictionary and a Pro may have an entirely different connotation. That definition at times might be a little more fitting for those shoot and burn photographers, they have no intent of seeking a reputable business position. It is simply a side line that is cash in their pockets.

There is something pleasing about instant gratification, and a bargain. I most certainly know that appeal. But pause for a moment and think about quality.

Let's step outside the photography box entirely, how about we talk about clothing.

You go to the store, you pick a T-shirt pay the lady at the counter and walk out with new duds. Simple right? So what exactly are you paying for in this instance? Well right off the bat you know that you're paying sales tax on anything you buy. Secondly we'll move on to the item itself. Your shirt has many levels, you're paying for the material, the construction, the label and the designer. In a nutshell you are paying for the entire construction process. Actually you are also paying for the upkeep that keeps those manufacturing companies equipment functional. You're also paying for the transportation from the factory to the store. Take it back even further and part of your funds are ending up with the farmers growing the cotton.

It's not quite the circle of life, but it's the circle of retail. Subconsciously we are all aware of each step of the process, but in all honesty more often than we are swayed by something being cute or stylish than the effort that has gone into creating the product.

Well, how exactly does this apply to professional photography?

I can go to walmart and get a shirt for $5. Yes, absolutely. You can purchase something at these big box retailers for far less than any mom and pop shop could ever offer. Why? Because they are not counting on your $5 purchase to get into the black. They are counting on the $35 other dollars sitting in your cart as you decide to throw in a top on a whim. They have thousands of stores, the massive quantities that they are able to order at wholesale prices keep them afloat.

As you well know, I am not Walmart. I am not Sears. I am not Kiddie Kandids. You are not a ten minute appointment, walk in/walk out situation.

I am a working professional. I have spent years developing my craft, and though my degree is not in photography I am heavily influenced by what I studied in college. I was a Theatre major, I am a chameleon.  I learned to direct a scene, act a fool to get a laugh, I designed sets, I learned about lighting, color, make up and costumes. I know the value of how props set a scene. What I learned there influences every aspect of my photography.

I am good at what I do because I continually learn and grow. I am a mom. I know how kids act, I know how parents stress, and I know how to help everyone relax so that we can all enjoy the experience! I constantly am studying new techniques, communicating with other industry professionals and challenging myself so that I can continually grow. After all, there are no promotions in my job, unless I create and earn them myself. 

Just like in my shirt analogy, as the photographer I am playing all of the preparation roles, providing the equipment, sending out the questionnaires and finding locations before we ever get to the point of "check out."

But my job is far from done at that retail finishing point.

At the session I work with each individual client until I am confident that I have in my camera what they want in their heads. Once home from the shoot I am officially off-duty, right? Silly, those images color correct themselves. Those flyaway hairs, heaven forbid zits or drool disappear on their own. A solid rule of thumb for my work flow is for every hour I spend behind the lens, I spend between six and eight hours in front of a computer screen tweaking and correcting minor flaws until we reach the final product.

This is the next step that you as a client would actually see. I understand that we forget how much effort goes into something as simple as a photograph that is professional and "wall-ready."

So when I hear anyone complaining about paying a session fee and then having to pay extra for products, I can't help but giggle. I know you mean no harm. But, when people choose to support the beginners that may or may not have a great artistic eye simply because of the price tag, it makes me a little sad. There are many of us in this industry that are paying our dues. We are paying sales tax, carrying heavy insurance riders and constantly upgrading and maintaining equipment that is not something we purchased on Black Friday.

Back to the manufacturers and all of that jazz we choose to overlook. Would you continue to purchase if you knew that the company was using sweat shops, inferior quality materials or not offering quality control? Of course not. So why would you choose a shoot and burn photographer that operates a shady business?

Take the average professional photographer's rates. Subtract between five and ten percent off the top for sales tax. That's not ours. Then you know when you look at your pay stub and see at least 20% going into various taxes and funds for the government. We lose that too, hopefully like you we may recover some of that in April come tax season. But as business owners, it's definitely not a guarantee.

Now add the hour or two spent with the client, throw in maybe eight or so hours for retouching. Divide what is left over from your session fee once approximately 25-30% of that is set aside for Uncle Sam as if it never existed. We are definitely not getting that $100 per hour that many people assume. And we haven't even covered image ordering and quality checking of prints. 

Here's the deal. I don't want pity, that is not the intent whatsoever. I love what I do, or I would not continue to do it! I want you to understand the value of the product and service that you receive when you opt to use a true professional photographer. I do not want to discourage you from using new professionals, but be the quality inspector, don't just one fabulous image as an example. If a factory provided one perfect product with fifty rejected irregulars, is it worth your time and money for the gamble that you'll catch that one perfect shot or maybe two or three?

Please look at the big picture, bad photography pun, I know. Support those that are doing their best to live on the up and up, you won't regret the quality of the images and of the experience!

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