Commentary # 52 - September 2011
Previous Commentaries
back to the main page

"Be Prepared to do Something . . . . "

September 2011

- by Craig Wassel

In many ways, my past two commentaries were very different from each other. July's "A Thousand Missed Photography Lessons" was about how many photographers go about learning the craft of portrait photography very differently than they did a decade ago or more, and how that can lead to many important lessons being missed or learned late. August's "You GOT One" was an auto-biographical reflection about my first good camera, and about how it changed the way I think about making photographs. In their cores, though, they are very much related; both are about all the important lessons that often make the difference between a snapshot and a photograph.

After those commentaries, a photo enthusiast I know asked me, "how did you know you were ready to start charging people for your work". Humbly - at least I hope - I have to admit that I probably began doing portrait work before I was truly prepared enough. True story: Not long after I started, I got a complaint call from one of my customers. They said their portraits looked "green". I thought to myself, "they must be kidding - their portraits are great". I went to visit the customer, she pulled out the work I delivered, and sure enough the photographs had a green cast. Surely something strange must have happened after delivery, so I took them home and compared them to the proofs. They matched EXACTLY. The green cast was there on both. I then pulled out a light magenta card and put it up next to the proofs. I almost puked. Not only was there a green cast, it was most noticeable in skin tones. It was very embarrassing and humbling, and needless to say that customer never booked me again.

What caused the green cast, and what went wrong? The light from my softboxes bounced off the olive colored wall I used as a ready-made backdrop, then bounced off of the white diffuser screens on the fronts of my softboxes, and then back onto the faces of my subjects. In addition, there were florescent lights in the ceiling which I left on. Both film and digital see florescent as much more green than our eyes do, and I did not use a grey card to set white balance nor did I gel my strobes to match that ambient light, nor did I place my subjects far enough away from the wall to avoid a color-casted light-bounce. I added a final touch to my screw up by not checking skin tones as I began work on the proofs, so my eyes had no "color" frame of reference. I never even noticed the green cast until I went back a week later at my customer's request.

So there are the technical reasons for what went wrong, but that is not what really caused the green cast. The real cause was I was not fully prepared and experienced enough to avoid the mistake. It was very easy for me to think I knew enough to do that portrait session and charge for it, but in truth I did not. So how can I know I AM prepared to start charging people for my work? What else do I need to know? Well, could I teach a hour long class on most of the following?:

  • Working with people in front and behind the camera
  • Posing individuals and groups
  • Flattering composition for different facial features, body shapes, and complexions; Angle, perspective
  • Background and foreground composition, negative space, cropping, dominance, and mergers
  • Color wheel, tonal relations, color temperatures and white balance; Contrast
  • Light: catch/spectral light, key light, fill light, rim light, hair light, ambient/natural light, reflected light, produced light, combined light
  • Light modifiers: scrims, reflectors, umbrellas, softboxes, snoots, grids, gels, butterfly lighting, clamshell lighting, low key and high key lighting
  • Choosing the best (not necessarily the most expensive) lenses for portraits
  • The effects focal length has on composition, depth of field, bokeh, and compression
  • The effects apertures have on composition, depth of field, bokeh, and light fall-off
  • Balancing fill light with ambient light
More important than being able to talk the talk, could I show work from my portfolio where I leveraged my knowledge and demonstrates these subjects?

I realize this is quite a list, and may even be overwhelming to some. The reality about doing paid portrait work is it is like becoming a parent. We can never be fully prepared, because portrait sessions – like life itself – will throw us many curve balls. Still, getting as much experience as we can is still the best play, because being ill prepared makes it far easier to make big mistakes, and mistakes you didn't even notice but that a discerning customer will notice. Mistakes are not beyond anyone, and I certainly do not rank myself as a world class photographer. I always review and nick-pick apart every portrait session I do, noting what I would like to have done a little better. I have little tolerance for myself even very small things I miss. The critical thing, though, is to minimize the moderate to big mistakes, and produce work that is beyond the quality of mere snapshots.

So how do we get that experience when we have little? It’s the same Catch 22 we found ourselves in when we first entered the workforce: we needed experience to get a job, but we couldn’t get the experience WITHOUT a job. So what did many of us do? We did internships and externships that paid little or nothing, and we can do the same thing in photography. As I covered in “A Thousand Missed Photography Lessons”, assisting an established portrait photographer is one very good resource for learning volumes.

Another way is to ask for help from family, friends, and acquaintances. This is nothing new, and you will find this suggested by many teaching resources. Do portrait sessions for free, and then get good and honest evaluations on what you produce from a third party. You would have to pay for their time, but also there are people who specialize in marketing artists and photographers who will critique your skills and your portfolio, and evaluate your work.

As your skill rises and your work and develops greater and greater appeal and lasting value, you can begin to charge more and more. What you don’t want to do, though, is charge the same or more than competition that is creating better portraits. Sometimes I am asked how I decide what I charge, and the answer is "on relative value". There are several extremely good photographers in my area that I truly greatly admire, and I am ever aware that no matter how good my portrait work may or may not be, theirs is better. This also drives me forward to get better and better, as well as being my gauge for the value of my work.

Many people will tell you that you have to set your prices based on what your time is worth. Normally I would agree, but it is my opinion that this is the backwards way to start a portrait business. If you dive in without being prepared enough, not get good critiques on your work, and charge beyond your work’s value, this can backfire on you. If you charge family, friends, or acquaintances $50.00 to do a “learning” shoot and their photos turn out green or have other flaws, they will be very forgiving. If you charge a new customer $100.00 or $300.00 or more, then fewer mistakes and much higher quality work will be expected and deserved. If you don’t deliver a higher level of work that has lasting value and appeal, the customers you book - beyond your friends and family - will not be lasting either.

". . . Light is the shape and play of my thought . . . my reason for being a photographer . . ."

~ Barbara Morgan ~

To Subscribe to These Commentaries, Click Below:


" . . . The reality about doing paid portrait work is it is like becoming a parent. We can never be fully prepared, because portrait sessions – like life itself – will throw us many curve balls. Still, getting as much experience as we can is still the best play, because being ill prepared makes it far easier to make big mistakes, and mistakes you didn't even notice but that a discerning customer will notice . . . "

© All content Copyright 1978-2012 Craig Wassel Photography ©