Light Reading

I like to end the day with a little light reading (currently John le Carré’s The Pigeon Tunnel), but much of my work involves reading the light. Painful punning aside, what I mean is when I’m out taking pictures I’m studying the light; the quality, the quantity, the colour and so on.

Typically I’ll be in an office getting ready to take photos for my client and what I’ll be considering is the light source (window, overhead strips, or a mixture of the two), how much of it there is and what its qualities are.

Most office lighting is great as far as the client is concerned. To the human eye it will appear bright and white, but the human eye and brain are incredible feats of biological engineering and capable of filtering out all kinds of crazy colours and of seeing details which a camera simply can’t.

These two shots demonstrate a rather extreme, if non-typical, example of what I mean.

I was asked to take photos of a group of scholars for University of Bath at an event hosted at The Roman Baths in Bath (let’s see how many times I can work the word Bath into this blog post shall we?)

One of the shots required was a mass group of all the scholars, not too formal, but arranged along one end of the Great Bath. This was an evening job and being early February there was no daylight left. In fact the only available light was from spot lights pointing at the back wall, and a couple of gas torches either side of the pool.

Given this situation, I knew just from looking at it that whatever I did with the camera settings I wouldn’t get a usable image without the addition of flash. Since camera-top flash (which I hate anyway) wouldn’t be attractive and would probably just illuminate the steam from the water, I set up a pair of flashes on stands at the far end of the bath from me, one each side of the bath pointing towards the students.

The test shot (left) shows what the camera sees without the addition of flash. Obviously the students weren’t there for the test shots as I wanted to make sure they weren’t hanging around while I got the settings right, but my stand-ins Rachel and Chris did a fine job.

So if I’m coming to your office to shoot a series of “simple” pictures, don’t be surprised if I bring quite a lot of lighting kit even if the light looks fine to you. It’s rare that the available light on a location is already attractive enough to render the best photos, but if I can illuminate 100 students across a steamy pool of water on a chilly night, I can probably make something visually appealing in your office space.

Creative Field

Assuming for a moment that Mark Twain actually said “golf is a good walk spoiled,” I wonder if he would have been happier taking a good walk with a camera?

Last weekend I went for a walk in the countryside just outside Frome and as I returned across a familiar field, the way the evening sunlight glinted off the grass struck me as especially interesting. So I took a photo. Nothing special there of course, but having taken that photo I decided it wasn’t enough just to show the field as I saw it from my (approx 6’1″) stance. I wanted to explore other ways to convey what I was seeing and feeling as I stood there. I was getting dangerously artsy.

And so I used the same technique I employ when working for a client; I stood quietly for a few moments, considering options, looking at the light, the field, the grass and thinking about what other possibilities might present themselves.

I tried a very low angle which emphasised the narrow footpath through the grass as well as the sunlight glinting off the blades and then I tried for one more shot. Far more abstract this time, but still making use of the sunlit highlights, I lowered the shutter speed and rotated the camera as I took the shot. I might have looked a little daft, but no one was around and I wouldn’t have cared if they were. I was having fun! To be honest, I could have spent hours there interpreting that field in different ways, but for this post I just wanted to illustrate what’s possible with something seemingly lacking in options.

It’s all too easy to see what’s in front of you and assume there is either no photo to be had, or that there is only one way to photograph it. Taking time, engaging the brain and having a think about what, if anything, you’re trying to capture or say in a photo is not only an excellent way to explore ideas, it also saves you taking up golf.

Keeping Organised

Any freelance will tell you that there is a great deal of admin involved in keeping things running smoothly. As a photographer one of the more critical elements of my admin, apart from making sure I keep my accounting up to date, is to ensure my photo archive is accessible.

By this I mean that if I need to look up an assignment I shot a decade ago, this shouldn’t be an exercise in rummaging through a suitcase full of random CDs, DVDs and hard drives hoping to find the one I need (and keeping fingers crossed that it hasn’t become damaged and un-readable).

Since I went digital in 2000 I’ve kept a catalogue of every assignment I’ve ever undertaken. It’s a simple piece of software which I use to record each job. It pulls keywords from the captions I’ve written to the image files, so when I go to search I just need a place or person’s name or something relevant to the assignment and the catalogue will return thumbnails of any pictures with matching keywords.

When I click on a thumbnail the software tells me which disk or drive that image (and therefore the rest of the job) is stored on. Since all my storage is kept in strict order it’s easy to find any job pretty fast.

The software, called Media Pro, has changed little over the years; I can’t remember who developed it because it has been owned by various companies including Microsoft. It’s now owned by a company called Phase One and I have to say it’s been brilliant.

The beauty of its simplicity is that even when Phase One took it over I didn’t have to start all over again, re-importing every job from the last 15 years. I just had to buy a new licence to use Media Pro, and the software automatically recognised my catalogue file.

Now you might be wondering why I’d bother to bore you with all this back-story, but the simple fact is that clients occasionally need me to relocate a job from a few years ago (and they’re often on a deadline when they ask me to do this) and my ability to reach back, find older work and resupply the images as needed is a valuable part of my service.

Of course this facility requires admin time, reliable storage and very occasionally a little extra cost in paying for a new licence, but I take these factors into consideration when setting my fees.

When you’re looking to hire a photographer it’s well worth checking what their storage and archive policies are; how long do they store images for? Do they have a system for retrieving long-forgotten jobs at short notice? Is their archive duplicated and held in different locations to protect against loss through flood, fire or theft?

No one can 100% guarantee to keep everything for ever, but I’ve kept my system safe and accessible for over 15 years now. I wonder how many other photographers can say that?

Photography Fees Explained

A couple of weeks ago I promised you an article about how photographers set their rates and where I fit into the market. Then I spotted some shiny things and got distracted and ended up writing about other stuff. Suitably self-chastised, I’m back on track and ready to tackle the subject properly.

I’ll qualify this article by admitting that I can’t explain all photographers’ rates for all genres. This article concentrates on photography for commercial usage by businesses, charities and other organisations. When it comes to rates set by social photographers (think families, pets, dinner dances and weddings) this is structured in a different way because the images aren’t generally licensed for commercial exploitation.

There was a time when commercial photographers worked up an estimate by showing the shoot costs plus their licensing fee based on usage and a fair few still do this, but in my experience I found it difficult to keep explaining all the cost elements repeatedly because the vast majority of clients booking me are not specialist in the field of commissioning photography. More often than not I’m contacted by an office secretary or perhaps an in-house or externally-hired press officer or public relations person.

This isn’t a criticism, it’s just one aspect of how the industry has changed and a few years ago I realised that things had shifted in such a way that I needed to simplify my fee structure in order to speed up the understanding of what I was charging and what was included or excluded.

Lego male minifig with camera takes picture of female minifig.

Now if I was a Lego photographer, I wouldn’t have to worry about running costs*
*random stock photo

What I ended up with was three main packages, one of which hardly anyone ever goes for (ironically my cheapest package, albeit with the greatest number of restrictions). And of the two other packages, the highest fee package is by far the most popular because it’s the most flexible.

If I break down my fees into their constituent elemets, essentially what I’m charging for is a combination of time on site, editing and processing time and the client’s licence to use the images for their corporate communications.

However, if you asked me to make that break-down specific, I couldn’t. I might be able to suggest rough percentages, but they really would be vague and not very informative.

There are of course other factors to account for. Within any freelance photographers fee there has to be an element of skill level and experience charged for. This is probably where I start to look pricey compared to someone who has just picked up a camera, read the instruction book and decided it’s their life ambition to take pictures for money. I reckon 25 years’ experience shows in how I approach clients, how I conduct myself on assignment right through to how the end results look and I consider all of these factors important and worth a premium.

Slightly more tangible are the running costs of being a photographer. Cameras, lenses and supporting equipment (batteries, chargers, bags) as well as a car and its associated costs, public liability insurance, computers, software, image hosting, image storage… All these things and more have to be considered before even a profit and salary (on which tax will be paid) need to be accounted for within a fee.

So where do my fees fit into the overall picture? How did I set them? The simple answer is that before I introduced my current structure I was spending quite a lot of time drawing up estimates for clients who were all of a certain level (SMEs to larger businesses with multiple office locations, but not the Goliath organisations with global span).

More often than not I found my estimates coming to very similar amounts by the time I’d factored in all the costs plus the licence fee. Eventually it just made sense to set up the three packages I have now and they’ve not only attracted more clients with their simplicity and up-front openness, but I spend much less time writing up estimates, which has to be a good thing.

Much of this has the air of a guessing game, but having worked out what it costs to run my business, what I need as a salary, and how many days a year I can expect to get paid commissions, it then comes down to whether I can attain the kind of quality that enough clients are willing to pay my fees to make the whole thing viable. This, in effect, is a business plan and is very much why I charge what I charge. Simple really, but also quite complicated which is probably why cheaper photographers charge what they do, but find they can’t sustain their businesses. That’s a whole other post, which I’m sure I’ve written already.

A Word (or 717) on Photography Fees

It’s a chicken and egg sort of scenario; you need a photographer for your next project, be that headshots, a PR campaign or website refresh, but you don’t know what the cost will be. If you look around on photographers’ websites you might get an idea from their fees pages (most photographers don’t publish guideline fees, which can be unhelpful), but even then, you don’t know what the budget should be.

In the meantime, the CEO or company accountant will want to set a budget for you to go and spend without exceeding it, but they won’t necessarily know what’s involved or what a photographer is likely to charge.

The other problem is you might not know how much time will be required to get what you need. It’s likely it isn’t your job to know, because you probably don’t book photography regularly enough to get a feel for what can be achieved in a given time period. Well, let me simplify and shorten the process of working out what you should be looking to spend.

high view of conference attendies mingling, shaking hands and drinking teas and coffees

Bear in mind events, conferences and large gatherings tend to generate more images which can affect fees

Start with the brief. I set out here what’s required in a brief and it’s important to make sure you have some idea of how many photos are required and what they are to be of. Take into account that mixing headshots, product shots, more feature-friendly portraits and other disciplines will extend the amount of time required because each will need a different set-up. Lighting, lenses and location will often change from one scenario to the next.

Now look at what uses the images will be put to. List them all from social media to local press/public relations (PR), trade PR, national PR, through company website, brochure, pitch documents and general corporate communications and also say if they’re going to be used in advertising. This is really important because any photographer worth their salt will set fees to reflect the levels of use you require (my standard fees cover all uses from social media, through press/public relations to company website use, but paid-for advertising is negotiated separately).

If it’s an event with set timings, look at the time period for which coverage is required. Having a start and finish time will help define the time the photographer needs to spend on site.

Consider any special requirements; props, backdrops, locations, transport and so on.

All of this can be talked through with a photographer, but the more information you have from the start, the easier it’ll be for a photographer to put an estimate together. Every so often I’ll get an email asking how much I’ll charge for “some photos,” which really isn’t enough information to work on.

Once you have a reasonable idea of what’s required, you can start to find photographers who cover the kind of work you need to get done. Use relevant search terms (discipline and location i.e. “corporate photographer Bristol”) in a search engine to find what you need. Check out online portfolios for the quality, style and content which most closely matches your brief, then call or email the most likely-looking candidates.

Of course I can’t speak for other photographers, but armed with this level of information I can help a client choose which of my fee packages will best suit their needs. It might be we have to negotiate on elements which don’t fit the standard fees, or it might be a reduced fee will cover everything. On the whole I find my fee structure helps the client get what they need with the minimum of admin and to-ing and fro-ing over details.

Even with a fairly detailed brief, I like to follow up an enquiry with a phone call just to clarify any points I need more information on and also to introduce myself personally to the client. It’s good to know who you’re going to be working with, and that cuts both ways.

This might seem like a bit of an effort, but it’s well worth it to get the best from the photographer before, during and after the event. Next week I’ll expand on how photographers set their fees and where I fit in the market. I bet you can’t wait!

Anatomy of Photo Delivery

According to my records, I’ve been serving up my images to clients via an online library system for exactly six years. What follows is a little back story and (spoiler alert) why I’m not about to change my setup.

Flowchart showing Tim Gander's workflow for client photography

The way I currently shoot and supply client images goes something like this

 

One of the benefits of my current system is that the turnaround of work is much faster; wherever possible I aim to deliver images within 48 hours from the end of the shoot.

Beyond this, the main benefit to clients is that they have a central image library which they can access at any time and download the images they need, when they need them. The image files are also available at a variety of sizes from web resolution to large print format, which can save the client the headache of having to resize files for different media.

Corporate photographer Tim Gander's old workflow, now obsolete

My old workflow was cumbersome and was prone to delays

The old system relied on building a web gallery which was really just for proofs, from which the client would then choose the files they wanted me to edit, process and deliver, and had the distinct disadvantage that what the client saw on the gallery were un-processed, imperfect images. I also had to await the client choices before I could finish the editing and processing stage, after which I usually had to burn a CD or DVD of photos and post them off. Lots of delay in that system, but it was as up-to-date as things were at the time.

Clients who are still served by photographers supplying images via email or posted disc have the added problem that if the originals are lost, they have to go back to the photographer (assuming they can remember who took the photos) and request duplicates. With the system I use, the client merely has to log back into their gallery and re-download their pictures with no unnecessary delay.

The gallery system allows me to offer simple, set-price packages which suit the majority of my clients. I can also set up reprint sales galleries on the odd occasion people will want to buy prints from an event. I can taylor gallery content to suit the client, removing pictures which have become obsolete and adding new pictures after a fresh photo session. I can set up duplicate galleries with different levels of access security, I can create multiple galleries with different content for different client requirements. It’s an incredibly versatile system which I imagine will serve me well for years into the future. Assuming, that is, no one invents a way of delivering photos via telepathy. Now that really would be fun!

Photographing Children for Corporate Communications

School pupils in casual clothes arrive at University of Bath campus with suitcases

Making sure faces are hidden is an obvious solution when identities can’t be shown.

One area of photography which can really give clients the jitters is the use of children in promotional and editorial materials, and rightly so. Extra care should be taken when featuring people under the age of 18 in corporate communications, but this doesn’t mean they have to be invisible or horribly pixelated to disguise identity.

In some areas I do feel protection can be heavy-handed and overzealous. I particularly dislike the habit amongst local newspapers, and it’s a habit which seems to come and go with the tide, to only feature children’s first names or no names at all. Newspapers form part of our local history and are to some extent historical documents. A photo captioned simply with “James wins the 100m swimming competition” is pointless and silly. James has a surname and deserves recognition for his achievements just the same as any adult, but I won’t labour the point here.

What I want to focus on instead is how I get around issues of keeping youngsters’ identities safe where it is necessary to do so while still fulfilling the brief and communicating some kind of narrative.

My approach will vary according to the situation, the brief and age of the children. I sometimes have to account for special behavioural needs which will again guide my approach, but in any case there is always a way to take interesting, well-composed, properly lit photos which show the client at their best and respect the dignity of the youngsters involved.

THe hand of a child colouring in with a pencil

Details of activities is another good way to give a picture life without giving away an identity

One important thing to remember is that if children are identifiable in something which is to be used to promote a business or organisation, permissions will be needed and care taken about how images are used. I will always liaise with my clients at the briefing stage as to the requirements and limitations of a photo session involving minors, and there’s nothing like good old common sense to make sure everything goes smoothly before, during and after the event.

Portable Portraits

If there is one thing I do an awful lot of, it’s business portraits. The days when businesses will tolerate having stock image models represent them on their websites and in brochures seem finally to have passed, at least among businesses wishing to maintain any kind of credibility in their marketing. If you’re a high-street accountancy firm in Bristol, pictures of orange-tanned, square-jawed Canadian actors pretending to be Bristol-based accountants just don’t really work any more.

In fact they never did, but fashions come and go and now I find I pick up a lot of business from clients wishing to obliterate any sign of perma-tan or American dentistry from their About Us pages. Heck, we’re not all super-models but we are who we are and shouldn’t try to hide behind fakery.

All this is great for my business, and as dull as it might sound to be photographing business people in air-conditioned offices on build-fill-repeat office parks all over the country, getting to meet so many people is fun and interesting. And part of my job is to put people at their ease, so there are always a few laughs involved. And laughing is medically proven to be good for you, so me and my clients are reaping health benefits too, right?

Now if you’re a business wanting to get away from the look of the business clone offered by iStockphoto, apart from a few minutes of your colleagues’ time as they sit for their portraits (this can take as little as 10 minutes!) the only other things I need are somewhere to park (as close to the office as possible is ideal as there is a fair bit of kit to carry in) and a spare meeting room.

a portable studio lighting set-up in an office

A decent-sized meeting room is perfect

I’ve included a photo of a typical set-up to give you some idea of the kind of space I need. It isn’t a huge amount, but it helps if tables can be moved and chairs tend to fill a room up pretty well, so if they can be taken out before the shoot this is really helpful.

The distance between myself and the sitter is usually less than 2 metres, and I need enough width to get a decent space between the lighting heads, but again 2 or 3 metres tops is ample.

All my equipment is battery powered, so no need to be near power sockets. In fact I was doing a portrait session in an office in Edinburgh last year when there was an unexpected power cut. Since none of the staff could get on with their work, I was able to work on through the list of names pretty efficiently.

So there you have it, if you use portraits on your website, in brochures or pitch documents, there’s no need to believe that getting proper shots of your people will be a massive logistical nightmare. If you’re still not sure, why not get in touch and I’ll be happy to tell you more about the practicalities and fees.

Fan Control

It’s an exercise in stating the bleedin’ obvious to say that a computer is an integral part of most photographers’ equipment, unless perhaps you’re Bill Eggleston, though it’s possible even he uses one now, I don’t know. Bill? Billy? If you happen to be reading this, why not drop me a comment at the end of this article to let me know. That’s if you have a computer with which to read this post of course.

Back to the plot, I certainly do have a computer. In fact I have a relatively prehistoric Apple MacBook Pro which must be getting on for four years old (that’s 50,000 computer years, 1.3 trillion if it’s a PC) and I was starting to worry it wasn’t up to the task any more.

Over the time I’ve had this computer I’ve asked ever more of it. The files from my cameras have doubled in size, I’ve upgraded to Lightroom 4 and PhotoMechanic 5 on top of all the regular software anyone uses when they have a computer and I’d become increasingly aware of the fan noise that would start up whenever I worked on images. Lightroom in particular seemed to get the fans working hard.

Sometimes it was as if there was a DC10 on my desk getting ready for takeoff, and I had been wondering if some harm was coming to the processor, which is what the fans are there to cool. I say fans, there are two in my machine, and a nifty piece of software called Fan Control tells me what the temperature of my processor is in ºC, what speed each fan is doing in RPM and I can adjust various settings to dictate when the fans kick in and what temperature they’re trying to maintain.

Fan Control preference pane for MacBook Pro

Hours of geeky fun controlling and monitoring processor temperature

I was alarmed to see my processor running at around 80 ºC or more on a regular basis, the fans straining to reach their top speed of 6,000 RPM presumably to stop the laptop catching ACTUAL fire. And then I had a brainwave…

When you open an older MacBook Pro, the hinging movement of the screen reveals a long slot along the back (see photo) and this slot is the air intake which the fans use to draw in cold air and expel the heat. So I got my vacuum cleaner with a brush attachment and gave the slot a good clean out. What a revelation! Where my laptop would routinely be running hot on even basic tasks like writing a blog, it is now silent. Running Lightroom still causes the fans to kick in, but instead of around 85 ºC, the processor runs at anything up to 20 ºC cooler.

Air vent on a MacBook Pro

Cleaning out the vents lets the fans work more efficiently

The laptop doesn’t run any faster, but it’s quieter, cooler and will be using less power. Plus the processor and other gubbins are less likely to fry and I’m less likely to be hit in the head with the shrapnel of an exploding fan. That really would be a disappointing way to die.

Don’t be the bird that swallows the plate.

I’m a huge fan of Black Adder, and there are many hilariously memorable scenes, but the one which springs to mind as I write this week’s article is in Black Adder II when Percy enters Black Adder’s chamber wearing an outrageously large neck rough. On seeing it Black Adder remarks that Percy “looks like a bird who’s swallowed a plate!”

Why is this relevant to anything I have to say about photography? Well it’s simple really, dear reader; When a business plans its photography in small, manageable chunks throughout the year it can cope with getting what it needs without too much drama, but leave it for a year, two years, five years, and the project becomes rather like a bird swallowing a plate. Trying to ingest the ingestible, and risking some kind of injury in the process.

I’ve said before that photography should be treated as part of the over-all marketing plan, not as part of the web budget, because photos can be used in print as well as web. Try printing a website as a brochure, and you’ll start to understand what I mean – they’re separate budgets within the over all marketing budget.

By keeping your photography fresh and up-to-date you might very well spend a little more over time, but at least you won’t have a colossal expenditure to make in one go if you’re trying to start from scratch, having neglected the photography for some years. And since business people like to say “cash is king,” doesn’t it make sense to make smaller investments that add up to a solid image library than to trying to buy your entire photo library in one huge gulp?

So keep headshots up to date regularly, don’t wait until there’s a week’s worth to be shot unless you’re prepared for the cost. Keep on top of product, site, process and PR images. Consider planning a shoot every three months (or whatever suits best, so long as it’s regular). Or at the very least, review what you have and what you need on a quarterly basis.

espresso cup and small change

You’re buying the coffee, not the cafe. Buy in stages and don’t insist on all copyright.

To extend the subject a little, think more carefully about the image rights you need. Consider restricting your requirements to (for example) a three-year time limit. Certainly avoid all-rights or full copyright buyouts as it’s extremely rare for a business to actually require these rights, and most sensible photographers will charge more if you demand full copyright because they’ll assume you wish to allow other businesses use of your images, when the photographer might reasonably expect to be able to re-licence the images to those third-parties (with your permission, of course).

Certainly it’s normal for editorial images to be bought on licences that are limited by print run, territory/language and duration of use. Commercial images tend to be sold on wider licences, but limits can help in the negotiation process and you can always top-up the licence later.

If you have any questions about anything I’ve said here, or have a favourite Black Adder scene, feel free to comment below.