Sunday, April 26, 2009

Technique: Meter and Manual Mode

I'm fired up after my Super Monday seminar. I learned about exposure calculation and white balance. Just two days after the seminar, my new Sekonic L-358 meter arrived and I spent some time getting to know it. I also ordered a Photovision 14" Calibration Target. Together, these two items will let you take images that are both well exposed and perfectly color balanced.

This image is a great illustration. I metered the flowers at ISO400 and got f/11 at 1/500 second. I wanted that high speed because it was a little breezy out and I was shooting with a 200mm lens. The f/11 was my desired f-stop: enough to render all three of the flowers in focus, but throw out the background.

The steps are simple:
  1. Meter the scene and choose the exposure parameters that give you a good exposure.
  2. Put your calibration target in the scene and shoot an image. It has a black, grey and white band.
  3. Review your exposure histogram on the camera and verify you have a spike at left end, middle and right end.
  4. Use that image to set a custom white balance. It's about 2 keystrokes on the Canon 50D.
That's it! You get solid exposures without a lot of fiddling, and great white balance. This image was untouched except for titling and resizing for the web.

Bottom line: Don't be afraid of the meter. It took me years to get it and get comfortable with it. Use it early in your career and you will start to understand the exposure triangle much sooner, and you will get killer images out of the camera!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Earth Day Special: Being a Green Photographer

Happy Earth Day!

If you want to run a profitable photography business and still want to be nice to the earth, you will have to think and act green. In general, that means you will want to look at ways of reducing your consumption (energy, materials), and your emissions (CO2, waste, hazardous materials).

Let's kick around some ideas on how to reduce consumption and emissions. You'll find out that most of these ideas will also save you money, and increase your bottom line!

Change out incandescent bulbs with compact flourescent. Last year I changed 90% of the bulbs in my house and yes, my electricity dropped. Cost: $50-100, payback <1yr.>

Put your house and/or studio on a setback thermometer, which has both time of day and day of week settings. There is no sense in heating or cooling when no one is there. Cost: $50-150, payback around a year. Keep the filters and ducts clean and unobstructed. Make sure your buildings are properly shaded and sealed against air and heat loss.

Switch to that tiny car. Advertise your green-ness by driving a hybrid or high MPG vehicle. We have two hybrids, which I promote in my business marketing. I will be honest that you probably won't get a payback on a standard model vs hybrid, but if you're trading in a Hummer or Conversion Van at 10MPG for a Civic (my story), the main gain is the small car...the Hybrid option is more of a statement than a real financial gain. Also - you can save a lot of fuel with basic driving behavior changes: combine trips, keep those tires inflated, and drive like you have no brakes - limit heavy acceleration and braking, and look 1/2 mile ahead to decide if you need to accelerate. Since I don't have a studio, I advertise that my studio (Civic Hybrid) gets 45MPG!

Don't print and use lots of paper for your internal workflows. Use spreadsheets and online to-do lists. Sign up to have junk mail reduced or eliminated. Switch from direct mail to online marketing - Facebook, etc. Reduce your "dunnage" related to photo delivery. Drop ship orders to your customers to avoid double-handling. For the waste from your incominb print lab shipments, find someone in your area who can use the bubble wrap and other packing in their outbound shipping business. Recycle paper (shred the personal stuff), magazines and cardboard, regardless of whether your municipality requires it. Replace your seamless paper with muslin or durable vinyl.

Recycle your disposable batteries. Use Lithium instead of alkalines. Use rechargables when you can. Minimize proof printing to keep your labs' chemical use low. Do more online and on DVD. Recycle the inkjet cartridges and used computer equipment.

Collect "grey" rainwater for your landscaping. Don't offer bottled water in your studio. Follow basic water conservation - low-flow shower heads, low-capacity toilets. Turn it off when you shave/brush.

Solid Waste
Compost. Recycle the cans and bottles and all plastic stuff. Separate and recycle all of the applicable trash.

Marketing Ideas

Here are some ideas to leverage your "green-ness" in promoting your business:
  • Blog about the top 10 reasons why you are green. Here's my post from last year.
  • Offer a "GREEN" senior session. All natural light, all outdoors destinations, all e-proofing, no paper at all (except for the final prints). Bundle a tree seedling or other nice eco-gift or give-back.
  • Offer a reusable shopping bag with your studio logo instead of paper delivery bags.
  • Sponsor a volunteer activity such as adopt-a-highway or waterway cleanup.
  • Volunteer your time and services to help an environmentally-oriented nonprofit.

Stay Green!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Education: PPA Super Monday

Today I took a day to attend one of Professional Photographers of America (PPA)'s Super Monday seminars. These sessions, produced yearly by studio owners, are a great way to learn new techniques and approaches.

I attended the course entitled "Where Is the Light?", taught by Dana Nordlund, CPP. Dana, a Certified Professional Photographer with over 20 years under his belt, put on a great session oriented around understanding and using light. Using a light meter and custom white balance, we had many hands-on sessions in both natural and studio lighting. Dana's excellent work can be found on his website:

Bruce Hahn from Hahn Photographic in Rochester was on hand as well to offer technical information on the various equipment that is used in photography. His input to me on soft boxes and light meters was much appreciated.

I urge all new photographers to become active in local and national photography associations. PPA in particular offers an aspiring photographer rate for two years, which will put you in contact with many great photographers and other industry sources of products, services and information. Many areas of the country also offer PPA-affiliated local chapters, which give you opportunities to network with local area photographers.

Thanks Dana for a great, inspiring day. I'm off to make up a practice plan!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Group Events: Presell or not?

I have worked group events for several years now. I haven't tackled the 1000 pose super-events such as soccer tournaments...yet! Usually the events number between 15 and 100 families or groups, shot on one or two days. I have taken events at races, middle school graduations, church program book events, public broadcasting fund-raisers, retirement homes and dance studios. I always try to get model releases so I can use the images in promotion and blogging.

Selling Choices

After an exhausting day of shooting, I then have to focus on selling. Over the years, I have struggled with the right approach for ordering and offering products to customers. I have used three general ways to approach sales to groups:

  1. Post the images online and let them order using a website
  2. Make them pre-determine their order and pay the day of the shoot
  3. Offer them the opportunity to review proofs and order after the event
Web Presentation

For events where I will not see the subjects again, the first two choices work well. Actually, I have found that posting on a website generally yields the lowest return, as people see but are not compelled to buy. I usually do this when I am shooting spec shots, such as at running races, or when the customer has not had a chance to view the many images from a shoot and needs to view and make choices. The orders tend to come in slowly with this method. I have used a couple of professional sites in the past - and They both have their pros and cons. I have shifted to hosting my own online catalogs which has saved me lots of fees and commissions. I use Jalbum templates and a skin called Fotoplayer. There are earlier posts which describe using these tools.


Better than online posting, when I have a captive audience and I am posing each subject and speaking with them or their parents, I will try to get an order that day. Usually I'll make up a form with specific packages and collect the funds at the time of the session. I have credit card clearing services at home, and I'll run it when I get home. Or, I'll accept checks and cash. Then I'll edit, print and mail the photos. Lately I have started drop shipping orders from my lab (Richmond Camera) directly to my customers. I have yet to see how that works out...maybe in a later post I'll talk about that experience. The benefit is lower effort in packaging and reshipping, but the disadvantage is that I cannot package the images to my usual hand-delivery preferences, nor can I see the finished prints.

Proofing and Direct Sales

Overall, I have found that the best method is to offer proofing and consultation. I do this a lot with dance studio work, as I can set up "visiting hours" at the studios and work with them on editing options and package choices. I usually end up with very nice order sizes with the consultation, but it tends to break down with large groups and run into lots of editing and time consuming "sitting around".

I have found a couple of things that work for me when I do in-studio order consulting:
  • Offer the customer a la carte, small packages and a "kitchen sink" option.
  • Offer bonus items if the customer prepays a large package on the day of the shoot.
  • Demo and show the specialty products - collages, keychains and other goodies, and they will sell.

I also sell proofs at certain order levels. It drives additional revenue and recaptures the proofing cost.
I set this up so that I have captured a large sale from the customer, so I am not fearing that they will scan the images. During the review process, I don't let proofs leave the studio, unless they have purchased the kitchen sink. Then it's exclusive!

Once I receive my orders, I enter them into my sales files and print them in batches. For local delivery or drop off, I batch them all for delivery to my business address, and break them down on my own. As I edit each image, I rename them to include the customer's last name. Then I match up the order form with the prints and specialty items and put them in a nice bag.


With groups, there are appropriate times for web-based sales and prepaid ordering, particularly if you will not see your subjects again. But the best revenue potential comes when you can sit with your customers, review their proofs and sell them on your various packages and options.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Getting Started in Photography: 10 Steps to Jump-Start Your Photography Business

This is a reprint of an article soon to be published on

Here are ten key steps to start and grow a profitable, debt-free photography business.

1. Practice! Keep a camera with you all of the time. Study other photographers and try to emulate images that you love. Spend time learning basic and advanced image editing. Learn your camera in and out, and practice with settings and modes that you don't normally use. Take advantage of free and low cost photography blogs and web sites. Consider joining PPA, WPPI, SEP or a local photography group or club. Make a list of 50 things you want to do with your photography and try to cross of one item each week.

2. Define Your Business. Create a business name and get some cards printed up. You can get several hundred cards for under $20. Do your web research to make sure you aren't choosing a name that is already used.

3. Define Your Finances. Get a separate business checking account. You will want to completely separate your business financial activities from your personal finances. Get online banking so you can check your balances. Keep a spreadsheet at home or use a program like Quicken to track and record your expenses.

4. Get online. Hosting a website is not expensive. You can purchase great photography web templates for under $100. Create and feed a blog. Get on facebook and create a business page. Search for and join web-based business locators like Merchant Circle and Google Local Listings. Create coupons and special offers to draw in customers.

5. Define your target market, both geographically and demographically. What kind of work do you want to be known for? Seniors? Weddings? Landscape? What other work would you take? Draw three columns on a sheet of paper. In the first, note the kind of work you would love to do; in the second, what you would be OK doing, and in the third, what you would rather not do. It will help you formulate your mission and marketing messages.

6. Set Your Prices. Define your value proposition to your customers. You can't give work away, or undercut everyone, or you'll go out of business. If you factor in your time and the cost of everything to keep your business running once you get established, you will understand why prints cost what they do from other professionals. Benchmark your competition and understand their pricing and offerings. It's better to be in their range but not highest or lowest as you are getting started. If you price cheap, people will undervalue your contributions and as you grow it will be harder to command the prices you need to be profitable. It's OK and expected to change pricing.

7. Spread the word. Read "Guerilla Marketing" books by Jay Levinson, and "Purple Cow" by Seth Godin. Blog like crazy. Study "Search Engine Optimization" to make your web's page rank higher. Look for ways to generate publicity. Approach family, friends, co-workers and people in church for special "starter" sessions. Offer your customers rewards for referrals.

8. Develop Partnerships. Create cooperative relationships with local businesses, nonprofits, schools, churches and other organizations. Become their "go-to" person for event photography and promotional photography. Donate sessions, products and gift certificates to fund-raising auctions and galas. Get to know the leaders in your community and find ways to make them successful and visible through your work.

9. Grow your business debt-free. Create a list of the hardware, software and purchased services that you would like to have. Price them out and rank them in order of your need. Only buy them when your business bank account allows it. Make sure you have reserves in the account to cover samples, upcoming fees and taxes and insurance. If you devote a high percentage of your first few years profits into growing your business assets, you will be able to stay debt-free and keep the business growing, while still taking some profit each year.

10. Pay your Bills. Make sure you collect and pay sales and use tax. Retain and pay quarterly federal and state taxes if appropriate. Have the right amount of liability insurance. Keep good records of mileage, supplies, prints, office expenses, education, advertising and any other expense category that would count as business expenses.

What about equipment? Of course you will need a camera and other equipment, but don't assume you need to run out and get the latest and greatest SLR and lighting systems. Start small, with your current camera or an older model picked up off of Craigslist or other used gear source. Add some inexpensive reflectors and/or home-grown lights to start with. As you earn money, you can work your way through your list, and you'll appreciate every new piece of gear even more. The same goes for software. Free, open source image-editing software such as The GIMP is a great way to get started. Corel's Paint Shop Pro is also excellent and very reasonably priced. And you don't need a printer, other than to print normal business correspondence. Hook up with a good local or national professional lab and you can get great prints and great support. One idea I have found useful is to put your wish list on Amazon, and drop some hints around the holidays and other occasions. Your family will appreciate knowing that what they buy you will be put to good use!

There you go! By following these ten steps, you can take your vision of being a pro photographer and make it a reality! What are you waiting for?

John Huegel is a photographer in the Erie, Pennsylvania area who specializes in Seniors, Dance Studio, Families, Weddings and Events. He is active in many charitable and volunteer activities in the Erie area. His work can be seen at He operates a blog for professional photographers at

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