And so it started…

The call started like many others,

Caller: “I need a photographer to photograph our event. Its 4 hours, we would like candids and a photo station.”

Me: “Ok, sounds good, what kind of event is it?”

Caller: “Its an awards ceremony at [name omitted] school.”

Me: “Ok, we can certainly provide those services. Any other services you need?”

Caller: “Well, the last photographer said he would give us all of the images so we can make our own prints and give them to the guests.”

Me: “Ok, well, we do provide online services so your guests can get additional prints and we are certainly willing to work with you to provide low-cost gifts for your guests. Does that sound workable?”

Caller: “No. We really want to get the pictures. Sometimes we sell them.”

Me: “Ok, well that does increase the cost substantially, but I will put that option into my proposal. When is your event so I can check my calendar?”

Caller: ” It starts  at 7pm, but if you could get here at 6:45 to set up that would be great.”

Me: ” Tonight? That would be extremely difficult for me to do. I would not be able to get to your location until at least 7p.m. and it will take me 30-45 minutes to set up the photo station. What happen to your primary photographer?”

Caller: “He got a pass to shoot the NBA Finals, so he called me this morning to say he can’t come.”

Me: “Doesn’t his contract for services prevent him from doing this?”

Caller: “Oh, we didn’t have a contract, he is a parent of one of the students and works for a newspaper.”

Sometimes I am asked why professional photographers are so expensive when anyone with a digital camera can be a photographer. Why spend the money – sometimes thousands of dollars – to have some “shuttermonkey” just press the button a few times. Can’t we just fix the images in photoshop later?

Like with any other professional service, there are substantial difference between service providers: Education, experience, equipment, insurance and licensing, industry and community standing are just a few of the ways that photographers, like doctors, dentists, lawyers, and auto mechanics can differentiate themselves. However, one of the fundamental differences between a professional photographer and a person with a camera is the adherence to professional practices.

First, when hiring a photographer, whether you need your wedding photographed or your company’s new widget for advertising materials,  a professional photographer is one that adheres to industry ethical guidelines. Among other things, you should expect some form of contract that obligates the photographer to provide the specified services at the specified time and place and obligates you to pay them. The photographer should have and be able to prove they have insurance. Additionally, the photographer should act professional at all times – which means not blowing off your event to shoot something more interesting.

When the time comes to create your images, the tools the photographer brings is directly reflected in the quality of the images. The time the photographer has spent learning his craft, refining his style, and continuing to learn about digital imaging forms the foundations of  every image shot and ultimately, these skills determine how well the photographs fill your needs.

Once a photographer masters the art of visual communication, comes the science of capture. There are huge difference between amateur and professional equipment. Camera bodies alone come in hundreds of different configurations that differ in color fidelity, bit-depth, focus sensitivity, and reliability. According to Seth Resnick, the average professional digital photographer spends between $50,000 and $150,000 on their cameras, lenses, lighting and all the computer gear that makes up their digital darkroom. Ultimately, this all adds up to image quality. As good as Photoshop is,  Photoshop is only as good as the original image being worked with. Crap in results in crap out. If a photographer underexposes the image, the colors will not be vibrant and the image could have a lot of noise; overexposure results in no detail in the highlight areas and again, problematic colors. Either way, Photoshop can not fix the image.  However, an expert digital retoucher can do a lot to improve an image – given the time and a proper budget. Last I checked, the top retouchers were charging more than $200 per hour. So while it is possible to save some money on your photographer and hope for the best, the alternative is always  gut-wrenchingly expensive.

Certainly this is not a complete list of the qualities of a professional photographer, but becoming a professional photographer is more than picking up an expensive camera and printing a business card. It requires dedication to the field like any other discipline: continuing education, adherence to professional practices, and most of all, the ability to capture great images under the worst of conditions as well as the best of conditions.

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