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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A leap of faith

[No image with this, I don't have releases for the students and don't feel comfortable putting it up without permission. Sorry]

This past weekend I had my first experience as a "professional" photographer - I ran a "get your photo taken with Cinderella and the Prince" photo booth at the middle school show my wife directed. I say "professional" in quotes because I wasn't actually paid (I donated my time for the fundraiser), but people were purchasing my photos and expecting good results. And to be honest, part of me was terrified.

OK, as far as high-pressure photoshoots go, grip-and-grins at the local school play aren't really going to make or break my career, but my reputation (and my wife's and the school's) could definitely be affected by this. Worse, I went into it with no practical lighting experience and almost no portrait experience. You might argue that I should have said "no," but I knew I could at least meet the minimum expectations. For a $5 5x7, all I had to do was get the kid in focus next to Cinderella and the prince. Smiles, good lighting and quality prints are all icing on the cake. I've spent enough time over at Strobist to muddle my way through a 2 umbrella setup, and I think the results turned out pretty well - everyone is well-lit with a bit of directionality to it (anything more dramatic wouldn't be appropriate for this type of shoot, anyway). The monolights I rented from had enough power for me to shoot at f/8 ISO 200 with a minimum amount of tweaking in post required. I ordered prints from Mpix, and while I haven't seen them yet I know the quality will be good, as always.

A few things I learned from the process:

- Having the right gear is key. Renting a lighting setup was the best decision I made, and something I knew I would have to do right from the beginning. I heard several comments about how "professional" things looked, which was important. None of those parents knew I'd never done anything like this before, and because I did my research and looked the part, they never will. (Unless they read my blog, of course.) I also made sure to dress nicely so that parents would take me seriously and not have any qualms about me photographing their children: it's always better to over-dress for a shoot than to under-dress.

- Some kids just don't want their picture taken. Parents who stand to the side and yell at the kid don't help, either. ("Look at the camera!" "Smile!" Meanwhile, the kid looks right at their parent who is yelling and gets nervous. Duh.) A crowded lobby is far from ideal for a portrait session, especially with stressed out little kids in costume. (Have you ever met royalty before? It's pretty nerve-wracking.) I did the best I could, but a few just wouldn't have it and ran away in tears. I'd like to think I had nothing to do with that.

- Watch the eyes, and always take multiple photos. This goes back to the parents on the sidelines: the nervous kids kept looking at them for assurance. Not a problem, just make sure you're aware of it so you don't get them looking the wrong way. I always pointed to the lens and said "look right here" before taking a picture, that seemed to work pretty well. I took at least 2 photos of every kid to make sure I got a good one (more if I knew there were issues), which was a good policy. More is better, obviously, but we had a lot of kids to get through. Watch out for people taking photos over your shoulder, as the kids won't know what camera to look at. I didn't mind them grabbing a shot (hey, they already paid for the print, a snapshot for Facebook is ok by me), but more than one and I'd ask them to stop so I could get the photo they paid for. Everyone was understanding about that. If I do something like this again I'll make sure to collect e-mail addresses so I can send a low-res jpeg with my signature on it for web use, that way we can enforce "no photography" and cut down on some of the distraction.

- Good help makes things go a lot more smoothly. Cinderella and the Prince were great with the kids, and spent a minute talking to them before each photo. This helped them relax, and I didn't even speak up until the kid looked more comfortable. Things were a little crazy on the paperwork end. We had kids run up to get a photo before their parent had even started filling out a form, which I didn't anticipate. Fortunately we got it all worked out in the end, but next time I will go in with a much more systematic approach where I look at each order form before taking a photo. Shame on me for not running things better, but this is how we learn.

So, in the end, I'm glad I took a little bit of a risk and stepped outside my comfort zone for this one. With my growing reputation as "the photographer" among family and friends (and now at my wife's school), I'm sure this won't be the last of these types of events that I'll be asked to do. Now that I've gotten one under my belt, I feel a lot more comfortable saying yes and taking more on. I'm not suggesting that you agree to do things you really aren't prepared for, but you can handle more than you think. (Start small, work your way up, and always do your research.) Even if things don't run 100% smoothly (they never do), you can learn from the experience and be that much better the next time. As long as you show up and act the part, people won't question your ability. You might feel like a duck (calm on the surface, paddling furiously under the water), but you'll make it through.

Any of you have a similar experience? Would love to hear about it in the comments.


[title of blog] on flickr


  1. I have obviously never had a similar experience, but it sounds like you handled yourself really well! Did anyone take any shots of you during this? Or your setup? Maybe next time have someone grab a couple behind the scenes photos so you can share those. I would love to see. :)

  2. @ Kristan - yeah, in retrospect I should have had someone grab a shot. Oh well. There was a lot going on and I was in "get stuff done" mode, so I wasn't thinking about it. Maybe next time

  3. My first gig (and first time really doing portraits) was running the photo booth for a big anime convention about a year ago. I was using three speedlights with Pocketwizards, a gray background, and two umbrellas. The key to my success was the use of one of the lights to light up the background with a gel, so we got different colored backgrounds to compliment the various costumes. Some people were great at posing, and others needed some help that I didn't know how to provide. The gig didn't pay, but I got to stay in a hotel room, free food, and a chance to get out of town for a long weekend.

    They didn't hire me back this year, probably because I didn't have a website and therefore no streamlined "pro" way to get the files back to people. But most people liked their photos. The only thing that was truly frustrating was the sheer volume of people I had to shoot.

    At the time, I was really pleased with how everything turned out, but now I wouldn't use any of them in my "portfolio" except for one or two. Perhaps it's the fact that I've become used to the way film looks, or perhaps simply because I didn't do any Photoshop work to them. Since then, I've become a film-only snob and need even more practice with portraiture. It's hard enough taking pictures of people, but add to that the fact that you have to nail your lighting setup without any proof via an LCD screen, and it becomes intimidating.