Where ever two or more photographers are gathered, the conversation will inevitably gravitate to experiences we've had with would-be clients who we could not come to an understanding with on the topic of the price of our craft. Even though there are hundreds, thousands of photographers out there charging well over a thousand dollars a day for the images they create, I for one am still regularly inundated with folks who can't seem to grasp that the time, preparation, experience, vision, and many types of investments that a true professional has made enable them to deliver empirically superior results to those of an amatuer flying by the seat of their pants. Why is it that people seem to lump everyone with a camera into one category called "photographer?" This whole whirlwind of frustration descended upon me this morning in a completely new way that left me strangely encouraged, and yet....still bummed out. Read on...
My wife and I are in Boston (my hometown) for a few days. She has work during the day, so as is our tradition, I spend the day walking the city with a camera and tripod, looking for nothing in particular, but almost always finding something wicked awesome :-D. We were staying on Copley Square which is adjacent to the Prudential Tower (one of the two tallest buildings on the Boston skyline). We were here four years ago and I took some photos in the area and now that I have better equipment, better techniques etc, I wanted to take another crack at it. Near the hotel there is a massive reflecting pool. It's gorgeous, with a rolled marble border that acts as an infinity edge, the surface of the water gently tumbling over it. Next to the pool is the World headquarters of the Church of Christian Science. Their beliefs aside, their mother church building is very stunning, and it all adds up to a vista that you can't pass up. As I walked around the reflecting pool taking test shots and looking for the best angle for the composition I wanted, I noticed some security guards in yellow vests driving golf carts, and one seemed to be looking right at me as he reached for his 2-way radio. I wasn't alarmed. In cities since Sept 11th 2001 it seems like everyone imagines that they will be the one to catch the next Bin Laden that is plotting right under their noses.
I made my way to the far end of the pool and set up my tripod, mounted the camera and started dialing in my exposure settings. As I started shooting, a guy in a partially tucked-in white oxford with a messy armload of notebook papers walks up from the street. He seems to be very stressed out about something, sort of in a very big hurry, but not really going anywhere in particular. The fact that he looked a ton like Richard Kind was a real treat for me and I guess I gave him just enough of a sideways glance and smile that he immediately felt the need to explain his slightly disheveled appearance and darty movements. "I've got a job interview in a little while! Can you tell I'm not nervous at all about it?!" As he finished his sentence he seemed to decide to stop and chat awhile. He set his notebook and papers down on a bench right behind where I was standing. He turned around with another sentence forming on his lips, and the scene I was setting up to capture must have hit him all at once because he literally lost his breath for a second and then said, "WOW, man what a view, I'm gonna have to try out this new camera!" He fumbled in his pocket and came out with a massive smartphone and started fiddling with the cover trying to figure out which end you point and which you look at. At this point, I'm not even upset that he's unabashedly bogarting my photo, and I'm about to make some wisecrack about smartphones only being as smart as the operator when a huge gust of wind whips up off the Charles River and carries all his precious papers toward Huntington Avenue and certain destruction and his job interview along with them. He lets out a shriek and hustles after them in a panic.
If you know me, you know I'm not above laughing at someone else's tragedy. If something's funny, it's funny, but I don't know this guy at all, some I'm holding back some chuckles as he keeps reaching down just to have the wind grab the papers again. One paper hadn't gone far, so I reached down and gently pinned it with my foot and then picked it up and waited for him to return. He finally did, out of breath, and promptly set the papers right down where they were before, and they promptly blew away again. "NOT AGAIN!" he bellowed and I finally laughed out loud. Surely he couldn't hold it against me, this is something out of a movie and my day is off to a great start.
As Spin City is putting his life back together, a stereotypical Vietnamese elderly couple shuffles up, the man with a big smile on his face like he found the fountain of youth. In his defense, he probably always looks that way. He positions his wife at the edge of the reflecting pool and then steps back a few feet and starts poking at the buttons on his Canon Rebel. It's so new that the red and black neck strap is still creased into neat loops from when it came folded and rubberbanded in the box. I'm about to turn back to my work before anything even stranger happens when I take one last glance back at Spin City and I see trouble coming.
The security guard who I saw from a distance has walked all the way around the pool towards me and he's brought a serious looking young woman with him. I've only got 3 seconds before they're close enough to start talking to whoever they came to talk to (I wonder) but in that time I have time to wonder, "did he go get her because she's his boss, or because she's better at confronting people? Or maybe she's better with a sidearm...."
"Excuse me sir," she said, in a not unfriendly tone, but still with a enough volume and annunciation to reinforce the official nature of her visit. Now that I think about it, I think she said said excuse me, with the "sir" but whatever, I'm not in Alabama anymore, you have to earn it up here.
So let's pause real quick to review the scene. There's a bumbly guy with his smartphone and a bundle of scribblings of a reinvented wheel or something. There's me, and there's the Vietnamese couple. All of us with cameras pointed across the reflecting pool at the Christian Science center and Prudential tower. Three of us, or four for those keeping score, but it seems clear that the guards are approaching one of us. I feign confusion and look around as if to see who was going to respond, but my wry smile betrays me, so I look her in the eye and prepare to bust out my best Jason Bourne combat moves, or grab the camera and high-tail it like a scalded dog and see how good a charge the golf cart has. I decided to face the music and responded. "yes..?"
"Who are you with?"
"I'm with me."
"You're not with Channel 5 or something are you? You need permission to take pictures here."
At this point the Vietnamese couple have vanished into thin air, strange considering that I can see a long way in every direction. Spin City seems to suddenly need to go to his interview and mutters something about being late. I call "good luck!" after him, hoping that if I act like he and I are friends on some level that it will lend credence that the Canon on my tripod is only for taking pictures, not for firing terrorist Canon-balls. Now we're alone, but her stance hasn't changed. Just then I notice now that she's closer that her yellow shirt says "Church of Christian Science" on it. Am I going to be hauled into the basement of that castle and tried as a heretic and dismembered??
"No I'm not working. I am a professional, but this is just for fun....personal use." Ah yes, the magical phrase, personal use. That makes it all better, right? Kinda like personal space? Personal preference? You can't argue when it's personal.
Surprisingly, her tone did change then. She seemed to already be turning away to walk away. "That's fine, we just have to make sure people aren't publishing or selling anything without authorization. Have a good day."
Ok for those who are still reading, you've probably noticed that my topic paragraph now seems completely disconnected from the story I just told. I admit, I just had to tell the beginning part because it was so funny to me, but in the end, do you see what I was getting at? The guards saw three cameras pointed at the same thing. They never had the first thought about the Rebel and the smartphone. Part of their job is to be on the lookout for photographers and they didn't confuse anyone me. The obvious reason that they moved to say something to me, or anyone else they feel is a genuine possibility of a problem for them and their organization is that they knew that the power of influence and effect of a professional photograph can be far-reaching. If someone is going to write a damaging article about Christian Science, or whatever they were afraid of, they don't send someone with a smart phone. So to bring things fully back around, the guards can easily tell the difference between an enthusiast amater and a pro. But when someone needs to hire a photographer and their money is involved, they immediately mentally bring everyone down to a very low level and attribute very little value or worth to what we do, even though they will still expect high quality results.
This comes from a biased place, and I welcome comments on the topic, but there's a system ratio in my mind that applies to many things that people do for a living. Take a service like replacing an engine, preparing a meal, stitching up a cut on your forehead, bagging groceries, a car ride to the airport, whatever. (Or for the sake of this one-way discussion imagine that you need wedding photography services that cannot be replaced or re-shot, you have one chance to get it right) On a scale of 1-10, rate a service on how hard it would be for you yourself could personally take care of the need that that service addresses, and whether you would produce the exact same result as the paid professional. Keep in mind that depending on the service, if you aren't even capable of producing the desired results even with more time and more trial and error than you're willing to give a paid professional, you have to surrender a full 10 points to the service in this column. Next, from 1-10 rate how inconvenient or time-consuming it would be for you to do this thing to the best of your ability. For the heck of it, rate how much of a problem it would be if this thing was NOT done properly. Lastly, from 1-10 rate how important it is to you that this thing be done in an excellent and profession manor, in a timely and convenient fashion and the end product must be very high quality. NOW, add those scores up for a number somewhere between 4 and 40, or at least take a stab at it. The higher the score, the higher the price will be, and for the reasons laid out in the score. If the service is cooking a hamburger, the score will probably be pretty low. If it's a world-class, kobe-beef gourmet burger, bump the score up. If it's brain surgery, go ahead and max it out with all tens. If you care about photography and it's important that the pictures be excellent, there will be a high score. If you don't care about photography and you're not looking for anything better than what you can do with your smartphone or Rebel (and little or no experience), go ahead and give it a low score. If you think you can get a "40" photographer for a "4" price, you're essentially saying that you can do just as good a job as the photographer will, but you want him or her to deliver much better photos than you can take (stay with me here). It's not important that they do a professional job, but you want them to be excellent. It doesn't really matter what the end product looks like, but it better be awesome. Doesn't make alot of sense does it? Nope. You get what you pay for. If you want something great, go shopping for great. If you expect to find great for the same price as "meh" you are devaluing the photographer and his or her craft, and in a backwards way asking them to willing participate in a robbery of themselves.