Thursday, August 13, 2015

10-ish Questions to Ask When Looking for a Business Portrait Photographer OR Why Pay More?

OR  Reasons Not To Cheap Out on Portrait Photography
by Kathryn (Kate) Hollinrake

You've been asked to submit a portrait of yourself for the internal directory of the company you work for, or for an upcoming speaking engagement, or you need one for your website, or for an online networking site, or you have to book a business portrait session for your boss. You don't know a photographer and if you do a Google search for, say, Toronto, you get over a million results. Finding a photographer can be a daunting proposition. Many of the people I work with, by virtue of their jobs in advertising, graphic design, corporate marketing and communications, publishing etc. know the value of good photography, but there's another sector who hail from unrelated backgrounds and have no experience in (through no fault of their own), or reason to understand, the buying of photography as the service and product that it is. The following is for this group. In this day of almost everyone having a pretty good camera and really anyone being able to call themselves a pro, and photography, increasingly, being perceived as a commodity, how do you differentiate between photographers who say they're professionals and those who actually are, and what difference does it make anyway? Most importantly, what is the difference between a good picture and and a bad one?

It would seem to me that there is some confusion regarding the answer to this question. Maybe people are just too busy. I'm not sure. If you've looked online at professional networking sites and corporate websites you will have seen the vast array of portraits that range from polished and professional, to professionally done but just not very good (poor lighting, strange colour shifts, awkward, uncomfortable poses and expressions) to amateur and downright inappropriate (think sunglasses on head, drink in hand, shoulder of fellow partier just not quite cropped out).

Who would you trust? O.K., I admit most people would crop out the beer bottle!

What constitutes a good profile portrait could be debated endlessly as the answer is subjective. But I would assert that you want to look professional  (to the extent that it's appropriate to your business), trustworthy, comfortable in your own skin, and approachable. Beyond that you want to exude your own personal style and vibe and create a positive first impression for potential colleagues, clients, and customers. 

Why pay more, or more importantly, why not pay less?

I recall over thirty years ago, I was starting out as a photographer, actually before I even went to photo school and I felt pretty good about my 'eye'. I thought I had pretty good skills from doing workshops, and offered to do free portraits for the budding actors with whom I was taking an acting class. I remember saying with confidence, "I can make anyone look good." Except I couldn't. Most of them turned out O.K. But, there was one guy who had been on a fast and looked kind of ill, with pasty, blotchy skin and had not a great disposition. He and his girlfriend were not impressed with the portrait I did of him and didn't want to pay the fee (which just covered the cost of film, processing and photo paper for the print). What an uncomfortable situation that was.

Thirty years later, hundreds of professional portraits, including presidents of companies and a few celebrities and other notable individuals I look back and think, wow, I knew so little, but that didn't bother anyone until I took a truly sub-standard picture. I said I was a photographer and they believed me, and if it hadn't been for that one guy I would have got through that first professional portrait shooting experience fairly unscathed. However, having been 'scathed' I sure intended never to let that happen again. I honestly didn't know at the time what I could have done to have made that guy look better. (Now we have Photoshop, but that wouldn't have helped his expression.) I didn't do a paid portrait again for a long, long time.

You can pay from very little (as low as $100 or close to) to a lot ($1000 and up) for an individual  portrait these days. So what are you getting for the money? Obviously there are varying costs commensurate with the complexity of a shoot...for example duration and location of the shoot, photo assistants, hair and make-up, wardrobe, etc., but independent of those, why would you pay more?

More story telling: some years ago a client of mine moved from one large corporation to another, so I asked if she'd like me to do executive portraits for her new company. She showed me the work they had been getting from the photographer they usually called. He was clearly using a quantity over quality business model. The clients got several 'retouched' frames from their portrait shoot for (to me) a shockingly low rate. Shocking at least until I saw the pictures. They showed very clearly that there was not a lot of attention to detail happening during the photo sessions, and very little sensitivity regarding what the subjects might think about how they look in a photo. And the retouching was incomplete and mediocre. (Forgive me for sounding harsh.) Basically they were just not good pictures (the client even admitted that the subjects were not all that happy), but until I came along and specifically asked them to switch to me, they were apparently not unhappy enough to change photographers. Why not?

I cannot tell you how many times I have greeted my corporate portrait subject to be told that they have hated their corporate photo forever, are not photogenic, hate having their picture taken, and sometimes feel they have never had a good picture of themselves. For reasons I can easily imagine (super busy schedules, no opportunity to opine on choice of photographer, reluctance to spend more, no time or inclination to reshoot, etc.) they have just been been putting up with a product (or products) they really don't like.

If you are willing to believe the premise that portraiture is the responsibility of the photographer, do you want to trust the results to the cheapest, fastest guy, or to the person who charges more because they take a little more time and bring more to the table? As an analogy, would you choose a hairdresser based on cost alone, or even cost and speed? If part of the reason they were cheaper was that they could do your hair cut in ten minutes would that give you a feeling of trust and confidence that they would do a great job? Or, if you do want to commoditize photography, let's look at shoes. If you are 'dressing for success' you may not need to wear Christian Louboutin shoes to the office, but you're not going to wear the cheapest shoes you can find either. Likely, you will need something in between that looks really good, but is not the most expensive option. So in terms of photography, not an Annie Leibovitz high cost, high production value Vogue-worthy shot, but not a snapshot from a point and shoot, either. 

If your portrait is going to be your representation online, on your website, or in newsletters, internal communications within your company…etc. do you want to know that you are going to look your best or do you want a picture that is not great, and succeeds mostly in that it is identifiable as you?  If that picture is going to be your face to the world for the next (up to) two to three years what's it worth to you to like the picture?  And what do you want it to say, by association, about you…"you're awesome!", or "you're O.K."? What does a bad photo say about the person who has chosen it as his or her avatar? To me it suggests a certain lack of personal awareness, attention to detail, and professionalism.

Some clients have no question at all regarding price. Others who are perhaps just not used to the cost of professional photography have a hard time imagining why they should pay some photographers more than others. Understandable. I get it. And unfortunately, it's really not until they've had the experience of working with a true professional that they 'get it.' Again, these days there are many, many "photographers" to chose from. Interestingly, a colleague pointed out to me recently that it has even become less and less common to hear people differentiate themselves as amateur or pro photographers…everyone, now, is a "photographer". How do you know if a photographer is going to show up with a point and shoot and one light, or no light at all because they 'only use available light' (possibly not a good sign)? If their camera stops working do they have a back-up? If their light stops working do they have a replacement just in case? I've had clients question cost before a shoot, but never after.

Corporate portrait photography is, in my opinion, a highly active process. A photographer who knows what she is doing will take the subject in hand and guide and direct that subject to show up in the portrait as the best visual iteration of him- or herself possible. It is not up to the subject to make this happen. It is up to the photographer. If you are a professional model the photographer is going to expect you to perform accordingly (and how much direction they offer will depend on the shoot), but as someone whose job is not posing for cameras it should be one hundred percent the other way around. If you can buy into this concept then how important is the skill of the photographer and what is that worth to you?

Moment of cold, hard, truth (Kevin O'Leary whose book cover I shot can use this phrase without alienating his audience so I hope I can, too...): I have adjusted my pricing repeatedly in an effort to stay competitive in an increasingly competitive market, but as the market for photography continues in its race to the bottom, there has to be some recognition of what's being sacrificed. I'm not the cheapest and I never will be, because at some point it becomes impossible to claim truthfully to be conducting oneself and producing at a professional level.

A final thought: Good photography (of any subject matter) is an art. And yes, daunting as this may seem, you can't just believe a photographer is going to do a good job because he/she says so. It will serve you to do a few things to make sure you know what you're getting. Remember the old addage: there are three things buyers of services/products typically want: they want what they're buying to be cheap, fast and good, but you can't have all three, so if it's cheap and fast it won't be good, etc. All corporate portraits are not the same. Do you want to risk having to book a redo with another photographer if the first one doesn't work out? I can tell you that thirty years after telling those clients I could make anyone look good, now, I really can, but it took a lot of practice. When you choose a portrait photographer, choose a true professional, who brings talent, a practiced eye, technical knowledge and skill to the process. You'll be able to tell when you look at their website and see samples and testimonials and ask a few questions. And remember to ask whether retouching is included and to what extent. If you hire the right person, not only will you look good if you're the subject, you'll look good to everyone who knows you were the one who hired that photographer. 

If you'd like me to help make you look good e-mail me at

No comments:

Post a Comment