Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Cost of Doing Photography

A friend of mine recently complained about the cost of portrait photography. She raved that studio photographers are ripping everyone off. "Why would I pay those prices when I can go to Sears or K Mart and get inexpensive family portraits?" She asked, her pitch rising.

I let my friend rant on for awhile before I asked her to consider a mutual friend of ours who owns a photography studio.

Does he live in a mansion? No.

Does his wife wear designer clothes? No.

Do they drive expensive cars? No.

Do their kids go to private schools? No.

"What makes you think he's getting rich off this business?" I asked.

Our friend has a decent business and takes good care of his family. His portrait photography is outstanding. Yes, you can go to Sears and pay a few bucks for a sitting with a part-time high school student who has learned the basics of how to seat your family, drop a background and fire the shutter button. She has no formal photography training and little skill in dealing with people. You might just as well have your family photographed by an orangutan. The quality of the portraits you take home demonstrate why your money is well invested in a good studio photographer.

For those of you who think all photography is way overpriced, perhaps I can enlighten you.

First, the really good photographers are well educated in their craft. These are not high school students or uneducated part time staffers like those hired to work in a Sears or Wal Mart portrait studios. I'm talking about men and women who have spent many thousands of dollars on course work, and have spent hundreds of hours studying, applying and perfecting techniques, and learning the various disciplines.

Second, they quite likely have worked for some period of time under well seasoned professional photographers, either as an assistant or apprentice. They've invested years and lots of film (or memory cards) learning everything possible about lighting, circumstances, people, animal behavior, and nature's quirks.

Next, they began amassing their own equipment, which is immensely expensive. Quality cameras, lenses, flash equipment, lights, props, backgrounds, filters, processing equipment, and - into the new age - digital equipment, which has mostly *replaced all the former processes. With the advent of digital imagery, photographers now also need high speed computers with massive hard drives for backup and lots of RAM for processing.

Then the photographer has to set up a studio. The costs for rent or mortgage payments on business property is astronomical compared to other real estate. Commercial space ain't cheap. The industry standards are constantly improving so she has to upgrade most of her gear every couple years to keep up with competition.

Now, he has to put up with canceled appointments, giggly uncooperative teenagers, crying babies, imperfect brides who expect perfection, and uninterested grooms. Not to mention the 27 member family that make it near impossible to get everyone looking good all at once - this one has hair in her face, another has his eyes closed, the three year old is lifting her dress up around her shoulders and the seven year old has his arms pulled out of his sleeves making strange bulges under his shirt emulating his buxom Aunt Betty. The daily frustrations of dealing with people alone is worth whatever it costs you for your session and prints.

Now, let's talk about the nature photographer because that's my nitch. As you might have guessed, people are not the best subjects for this photographer. Don't get me wrong, I love people. But I'm definitely in the butterfly end of the spectrum - sit for a moment then flutter away. I have little patience with my own human idosycracies let alone yours.

First, I want to cover the time element in nature photography, since this may be one of the greatest factors in elevating costs.

Since the season is upon us as I write, we'll explore fall photography. There is a limited window of access for Autumn color - a week if we're lucky - usually there are only a few days when the colors are at peak in most areas of Colorado. I have to travel quite a distance to get the shots I covet.

Sunrise is later in the fall so I can sleep in until about 3 AM. I have to get up early enough to get my gear loaded up, get a cup of coffee and saunter through my morning routine before I get out the door between 3:45 and 4 AM - usually alone because few are willing to meet this rigorous schedule to keep me company or snap a few photos of their own. I hit the road in pitch dark, driving two or three hours to get to my location, where I may or may not have been in the past, which is why I try to give myself plenty of lead time before sunrise. When I finally find the perfect spot for the shoot, I unload all my gear and set up. It's still dark, unless I'm fortunate to have any moonlight. Now I visually assess the area doing a 360 degree sweep for my best angles. Not easy to do in the dark while it's sometimes not even clear what I'm looking at or which way the sun will rise. I may click off a few long starry exposures or some moonscapes if possible while I'm waiting for the sun to pour out it's dawn glow across snow-capped peaks and golden foliage. By the way, it's cold out here before daylight!

Why sunrise? That's the best time to photograph scenic images. The other best time is sunset. It's all about color and saturation. Think about morning dew, moisture deepening the color of every object, the clear cold sky, rich hues and textures. Mid day, everything is dry and washed out (unless it's overcast or even drizzly which can produce some wonderful imagery as well.)

I have literally only a few minutes at dawn in which to get some decent images recorded once the sun begins to give the sky some color and peek over the horizon. As soon as it has made its appearance and the dew evaporates, harsh light creates high contrast that doesn't record well on film or digital media. This is when I have to start filtering to continue to get any shots worth keeping. That's where education and patience pay off.

It's all over very quickly. I will stay in the area driving around most of the day taking shots of whatever I can. If I'm lucky I'll find some good wildlife. Deer, moose and elk are good for early morning and late afternoon into dusk. I often shoot chipmunks, gophers, squirrels, birds, and other small critters just because they're there. I love all things in nature. If I can't use the shots for my work, I like them for my own scrapbooks and creating greeting cards. Depending on what else is going on, I may stay in the area the entire day to get some sunset shots if it looks promising. Sunrise and sunsets are always a crap shoot because you never know what you're going to get until the moment happens. There's just no way to predict the most specatcular catpures. Nature forces us to rely on chance.

At the end of a very long day (remember, it began at 3 AM,) I might get home around 8 or 9 PM.

*I mentioned earlier that the digital camera is quickly becoming the modern photographer's device of choice. However, there are exceptions - rare and priceless gems in the field of photography today. I recently explored the work of Christopher Burkett, an old school photographer that disdains digital technology and has perfected his craft with a finesse few come close to. This from a man who's practically blind. If you ever had any doubt about the depths a person is willing to go to for the perfect image, Burkett will surely give you something to think about. He not only shoots in 8x 10 sheet film format, he photographs using color transparency chrome products rather than negatives. He prints all of his own images in his private lab and publishes his own books. He is literally a one man show with control over every aspect of the process from start to finish. That's dedication to the art! His equipment alone is worth more than everything I own.

Just for the record, I admire the work of Christopher Burkett immensely, but in defense of digital imagery, I must disagree with him in some regard about the best medium to produce a worthy photograph. What he says about acuity, color reproduction and ability to print an image that equals what he sees when he shoots, could also be said about digital work with the right gear in the hands of another photographer. I have seen some astounding images come from digital equipment enlarged to 30" x 40" and larger with beautiful results.

In photography, everything is relative to conditions and location. If conditions are unfavorable, whether poor lighting, bad weather, wind and dust, or any number of obstacles - images are going to be substandard no matter what kind of filters one carries. If I show up at a place I know is idyllic to find road construction blocking the very area I want to shoot, I have to find an alternative spot quick. This year I didn't find a good spot for my fall sunrise shoot when I encountered construction vehicles parked in the area I'd planned to photograph. I spent the day shooting anyway and got a few decent images but much of the day and most of the images were a disappointment.

The nature photographer frequently finds himself in precarious positions. I've often wondered if I might end up being a statistic at the bottom of a canyon or in a rushing spring run-off. We're commonly cold, lonely, and hungry. There is cause for concern about heat exhaustion, sunburn, windburn, and dehydration at times. You'll find the avid shooter on her belly zooming in on spring blooms, leaning out over a dangerous rugged outcropping, climbing trees, moving in too close on a wild animal, and in every bizarre position imaginable to get the right angle on a subject.

Now, that's just the easy local stuff. We go where the images are. Photographers travel to far away oceans, deserts, deep into the woods and high into the mountains. We sit for hours watching birds, small animals and waiting for the big game to come along. We trudge miles in all kinds of conditions.

It's all about the art. It's about passion. It's about drive and willingness to be uncomfortable and go where others won't. Nature photography draws the artist to the far reaches of the earth.

What if I want to shoot wild horses? Or gorillas? Or Flamingoes? Or lions, tigers and bears? I'm going to travel a long way for those kinds of images in most cases. Sure, I'll capture images of buffalo, bears and wild horses right here in Colorado if I'm lucky. I could even get some decent shots at the zoo. But I can't get into the zoo at sunrise and I sure won't catch the animals in their natural environment. Sometimes my best work will come from a focused outing with a trained guide to get me into places that are either inaccessible to the general public, or are astronomically expensive for individual tours. A good option is to join a small group of photographers who have access to places and animals others don't. Travel and guide time is expensive. There are transportation fees, hotels, land use fees, meals, and many other associated costs. One good action photo of a lion in Africa has cost that photographer literally thousands of dollars. If interested, here are a couple of my favorite guide photographers: James Hagar Photography, Russel Burden Photography. You'll find other great photographers, some who also offer tours, at the Mile High Wildlife Photography Club.

So that takes us to development. In the old days, we processed, printed and enlarged in the same way Christopher Burkett continues to use today. Traditional printing is a cumbersome, exhausting labor of love which for some (like me) is very rewarding. Digital photography takes a completely different approach to deliver the same end product, which is an outstanding image you will enjoy. It keeps me going out doing what I love most, and what most would rather not do.

It's a process that is at once exciting and fulfilling but is also tediously hard work. This is what it looks like when I return from a typical day of shooting...

After my very long previous day of wandering all over scrubby rock rugged mountainsides with my muscles still aching from the strenuous task of holding me to the side of that steep terrain against the laws of gravity, I get up early to download my 600 plus images to my PC. I will spend hours first looking critically at every image. On a good day, selecting the best is difficult. On a bad day, with lots of sighs and groans I trash more than I keep. Those I deem worth offering for public enjoyment, I first do some basic tone and lighting adjustments to if needed. Then every inch of the image is inspected for any flaws. I look for possible dust particles, fibers, hairs or spots that may have gotten on the lens causing image degradation, cleaning up whatever is necessary. Sometimes adjustment layers must be added to compensate for light problems, much as the printer in a traditional lab uses dodging and burning tools to compensate for highlights, shadows and other issues.

Here's where the digital and traditional photographer part company. The digital processor has the ability to remove unsightly objects or trash that may have been overlooked or impossible to remove during shooting. You may never know the hard work that went into producing the breathtaking image hanging on your wall - we certainly hope you won't. If you can tell the image has been enhanced, we haven't done a good job!

Now, to change the subject for a minute, let me ask you something. Do you think a physician's fees are unreasonable? Do you opt not to have your bad appendix out because the surgeons fees or your insurance deductibles are too high? Your physician went through years of intense study and hard work, not to mention the outrageous cost for his medical school education and the long grueling hours he's put in. He deserves every penny he earns. He puts himself at risk every day he shows up for work being surrounded by germs and risking a lawsuit every time he makes a decision about your health. He's under tremendous pressure. We don't think twice about paying the high fee he charges.

We don't have to hang art on our walls, or have nice coffee table books of pretty photos to look at and impress our friends. We don't need nature guide books to look up wildflowers and trees. We don't need an encyclopedia with photos, or cool computer desktop backgrounds. Why, we don't need photography at all if you really think about it, any more than we need sculpture, paintings, or architecture. Why don't we all live in box houses with bare walls?

The fact is, human beings are asthetic creatures who are visually stimulated. We do need art. We can be mesmerized by creativity, color, content, and tones, which speak to our very soul.

Whether they evoke feelings of meloncholy...

Joy with a chuckle...Art is as necessary to our existence as medicine. It can soothe anxiety, stir passion, inspire and motivate. Beautiful imagery used as a focal point has even been found to relieve chronic pain, depression and a host of medical and psychological conditions. Photography is not cheap. Capturing a good image on film or digital media is hard work, costs dearly and brings great pleasure to those who enjoy the view. So please, the next time someone tells you the price of a good image is too high, enlighten them. Photographers want the world to understand we're not out to rip anybody off. We love what we do, but it doesn't come without great effort, time, patience and a good chunk of change.

May you find delight in every image,
anne hughes