Wednesday, August 29, 2012


One of the best things about being a photographer in a fairly small town is that you get to develop real personal relationships with your clients. And to be a part of their family as their lives go on. This is a story about one local family I've had the pleasure to know and photograph.
I first met this family 5 years ago, when I did the Senior Portraits for the family's oldest son, Joe. His mother came along for the photo shoot, and the photos turned out great. At the time, Joe's sister Kristen was engaged to be married (to Dwayne), and since their mother loved Joe's senior portraits, she hired me to do Kristen's wedding photos (above).
It was a beautiful wedding on the beach in Coronado, CA -- and we got some great pictures of the happy couple.

Not long after, Kristen was pregnant...and wanted some photos showing the pregnancy and how happy they were about their impending arrival. We did a fun studio session and again got some great images, one of which is below:

In between Kristen and Dwayne's children, we did family photos of the entire family. Adriana (Joe and Kristen's mother) not only kept using me for her family's photographs, but regularly recommended me to others, helping to build my business. Not just a good client, but a good friend and reference!

Last week, we did new family portraits for Kristen and Dwayne -- now a growing family, with two great kids and a third child on the way and due any day now! We had a great location up in the hills, at sunset, and had some real fun making photos of another moment in this terrific family's journey through life.

We even got Kristen into the pool in the orange, fading light to show off the impending arrival -- and since she had been to the doctor the day before and been told that labor could start "any day," there was a bit of a sense of urgency to get these done before that happened! Fortunately the weather cooperated.

It's been a real pleasure to be a part of this family, and to be able to provide them with photos that they'll treasure for the rest of their lives. It's very satisfying to find clients that love my work, and that keep coming back again and again because of both the photos they get, and the relationship we have. For me, photography isn't just the impersonal task of getting clients in and out and getting paid, it's the joy of making friends and relationships through my photographs. Having clients and friends like this is why I love what I do!


Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Using QR Codes to Market Your Business

If you've got a smartphone (and who doesn't now?), hopefully you've seen and used QR codes, like the one above, for quick and easy access to information through your phone. QR codes are just information encoded into a 2D barcode format; with a free smartphone app, your phone can scan a QR code and take you straight to a web site, add a contact's info to your phone, and much more. If you're not using QR codes to market your business, you should. Here's why...

The QR code above will take To this blog's home page on the web. Point any camera-equipped smartphone at it using a QR code scanner app, and a browser window will open and show my blog. No tedious URL to remember or type in, instant gratification in a world that *loves* instant gratification. So how can you use this to benefit your photography (or other) business?

Generating QR Codes

First things first -- you need to make QR codes before you can start using them. There are dozens of free QR code generation sites on the web, but a bit of caution is in order -- some of them will redirect to their own web site first, making the user "click through" to get to *your* site. You want one that will generate a QR code that takes people scanning it directly to your own web site.
The simplest and easiest is from (not surprisingly) Google; it's built into the Google URL Shortener web page. Head to the page (from here, you have to oh-so-primitively click on the link above), type in or paste your web site's URL (for the not so web savvy, that's the web address of your page, that starts with http://...), and it will make a "shortened" URL suitable for quick posting in a Tweet or anywhere else you don't want to type in the whole long web address. Once it's generated a shortened URL, click on the link for "Details." On the details page will be a generated QR code for the shortened link. Copy and paste the QR code image to your local computer, and you can then use it any way you like.

Some other free and non-redirecting QR code generators are:
Kaywa QR Code Generator
Mobile Barcodes

Using Your QR Codes

Now that you've got your QR codes generated and saved on your computer, it's time to have some fun. The most obvious use is to put one on your business card -- that goes to your business home page. I started doing this about three months ago, and I not only saw a spike in hits on the home page from mobile browsers, I got a number of comments from people telling me they liked having it there. One word of caution: don't make the code on your business card too small! What's too small? Below about 1/2-inch on a side. Some web guidelines say to keep the printed codes at least 1-inch on a side, but I've yet to have *any* phone have a problem with 1/2-inch codes. Below that, it's a bit hit or miss.

One fun thing I'm doing with QR codes this year involves my Senior Portrait clients -- high school kids, ALL of which have smartphones. I've always done a web proof portfolio for my clients, but this year I'm generating unique QR codes for their personal portfolio pages. I print the codes on their printed invoice, I include it in an e-mail I send them, and I ask them for their cell phone number and then SMS it to them as a photo. They can then scan their invoice to go to their portfolio page, show the QR code I've messaged to their cell phone to a friend (so THEY can view my client's portfolio), or lots of other fun sharing of their page. The kids love it, and having more people view my work for clients is *always* a good thing.

If you do any event photography, print out one of your QR codes for your home page or an image sales page or a PayPal payment page, and stick it up on your table at the event. People can scan the code and be taken straight to a page to pay for prints, view their photos on-line, etc.

Have another QR code made with your contact information, and carry that around with you rather than (or in addition to) business cards. People with smartphones can then add your contact information straight into their phones without typing *anything* in...marketers drool over that kind of direct infiltration of a client's contact list!

So what are you waiting for? Go make some codes, and spread 'em around. And if you're already using them in some interesting or creative ways, say so in the comments!


Monday, August 6, 2012

Three Things Photographers Can Learn from the Olympics

The London 2012 Olympics are now half over -- one week down, one to go. The Olympics are not only the largest gathering of athletes in the world, it's also the largest gathering of photographers in the world. If you haven't noticed the throngs of photographers packed onto sidelines, stands, streets, and just about any other piece of real estate in London, you're missing out on opportunities to learn some valuable lessons about photography... Here are three things, out of many, you can learn from watching the photographers instead of the athletes at the Olympics.

Sometimes the Crowd is Wrong

Popular Photography on-line has an interesting post on an unusual photographer at the Olympics, spotted in the mass of DSLRs carrying an old 4x5 film Speed Graphic camera. Turns out the out-of-place photographer is David Burnett, a quirky, unusual photographer well-known for his amazing images produced using unusual (nowadays) equipment. Whatever he produces from these Olympics, you can bet it won't look like the same shot produced by 200 other photographers.
For me, some of the most compelling images from the games come from the photographers who found a unique vantage point, or didn't shoot with the "expected" camera or lens, or who weren't only waiting for the posed "winning athlete holds up and kisses gold medal" photograph. Sometimes, following the crowd isn't the best thing to do.

Sometimes the Crowd is Right

Next time you watch some Olympic coverage on TV, and see the big crowd of photographers, take a glance at the front of the mass of lenses pointed at the action; see any "protective UV filters" on any of the lenses? No, you don't. Not in the London rain, not along the splashy kayak courses, not on the sides of the beach volleyball courts with sand flying everywhere...not at all. Thousands of professional photographers, with some of the most expensive equipment available, and not a "protective" UV filter in sight.
The debate over whether or not to use a "protective" filter has been going on for as long as I've been taking photos (and that's over 30 years). But if you're a photographer who's been using one because some photo store owner told you that you should, or because you think you need it to "protect" your lenses, take another look at the Olympics. Those guys make their living from producing high-quality images in difficult conditions, and they certainly care about their lenses...but you won't find them using any "protective" UV filters. Why? Because they degrade image quality 100% of the time, for maybe a one in 100,000 chance (0.001% of the time) they might "protect" something.
Take a hint from the crowd this time; take your "protective" filter off, and improve your images 100% of the time. Sometimes, the crowd is right.

Don't be a Jerk

Competition at the crowded Olympics for a good vantage point to take photos is, certainly, intense. The professionals working there have tight deadlines, long hours, crowded conditions, and often only a fraction of a second to take that one special photograph. But that doesn't mean you have to be a jerk.

I've seen both some jerks and some admirable people in the photographer pool this year. In the "jerk" category:
- during one of the bicycle road races, as the TV cameras followed the cyclist you could see two photographers in the background shoving each other at one of the corners -- resulting in both of them missing the leader zip by on his bike!
- after a horrible fall in one of the womens' gymnastics routines, a crying young girl -- who knows she's just blown the chance she's worked for over many years -- heads over to her seat in the pit, sits down with her head in her hands, and cries her eyes out. Her coaches know enough to give her a few minutes of privacy...the photographers didn't. Not only did they swarm all over the barrier behind her, leaning over as far as they could, but the photographers on the floor stood, sat, and squatted around her in an ever-tightening circle...until the girl could take no more, and -- still crying -- pushed her way through the circle running to try to find someplace she could have ten seconds of private grief. Yes, those photographers are there to cover all aspects of the games, but that would have been the time to back off a bit and use a telephoto, instead of using the wide-angle lens right up in her face.

And in the "admirable" category:
- In one of the women's 400m hurdle trials yesterday, one woman tripped over the first hurdle, and fell *hard.* She didn't get up right away. While the race went on without her, a photographer on the infield of the track stopped taking photos of the other runners, and after it was clear she wasn't going to get up and finish the race, went over and helped her to her feet. That's class.

I love the Olympics...and sometimes watching the photographers is almost as fun and interesting as watching the athletes. Next time you watch an event, pay a little attention to the people with the cameras -- you might learn something interesting and useful!


Friday, July 27, 2012

Make Your Own Digital Drape Backgrounds

A while back I wrote a post on using gray backgrounds while shooting to make digital background replacement quicker and easier than "green screen" chroma-keying (Digital Backgrounds? Ditch the Green and Go Gray!). Whether you use gray or stick with green-screen, here's a quick and easy way to make your own digital backgrounds that look like classic draped-fabric, without having to hang up anything...
This quick method requires Photoshop CS2 or later. It uses the Displacement Map feature in Photoshop to make the drape backgrounds look realistic. Follow along with the steps below to get started.

Start with a blank new image file that's the size in pixels of your camera's images. Fill the background with black, select the paintbrush tool with a color of white and an opacity of about 90%, and a medium-hard edge (about 70-80%). Using the brush, freehand-draw some mostly vertical stripes on your black background, as shown in the example above. The straighter you make the lines, the more regular the drape will appear to hang in the final image; adding some curves and bends makes a more irregular and often more natural-looking image.
Once you have your striped image made, make sure the image is flattened, select the background layer, and use the "Shape Blur" tool to make it look like draped fabric (From the Photoshop main menu, Filter->Blur->Shape Blur). A dialog box like the one below (from CS3) will open:

I'm using a spatter shape from the included shape libraries, as you can see in the dialog box; you can experiment with other shapes to see what gives the effect you like. Adjust the pixel size in the dialog box to get a pleasing pattern of dark and light areas that look like folds in a drape background. When you're happy with the preview of the image, click on OK and let the filter run. You should wind up with an image that looks like the one below:

Note that using a harder-edged brush to make the initial "stripe" image, and a lower radius in the Shape Blur dialog box, will result in a more sharp-edged drape image; and using a softer brush and larger radius in a more blurry image. Keep those concepts in mind as you make the image, to produce the effect of a more or less blurred background drape.

This image will be both our base for our drape, and our displacement map we'll use in just a bit. For now, save the image as a PSD file on your hard drive, but keep the original image open.

To add some color to our drape, you can quickly paint up a new image (with the same resolution as the drape image), or use an existing image. For this example, I made a quick "painterly" background using soft brushes and a bit of motion blur, as shown below:

Paste this color image as a new layer on top of your created grayscale drape image, and set the blend mode of the color image to "overlay." You may want to adjust the levels of the background drape image if the color overlay doesn't have enough contrast. Your layer palette when set up this way should look like this:

Next, we're going to make the color overlay "fit" the drape background better by using the Displace filter. This filter uses a grayscale image to displace the target layer in 3D. We'll use the saved version of our drape image as the displacement map to make the color overlay be displaced in 3D to fit the underlying drape image. In the layer palette, make sure the color overlay layer is selected, then select Filter->Distort->Displace from the menu. A dialog box like the one below will open:

Leave "Stretch to Fit" and "Repeat Edge Pixels" selected as below; as for the vertical and horizontal scaling, start with values around 100-200; after you apply the displacement map, if you're not happy with the results, then Undo the filter, and try new values until you like the result. When you're finished, your layered image will look something like this:

That's really all there is to it. Save this image as a PSD file, and keep it in a library of digital backgrounds for you to use. Experiment with the scaling and parameters of the shape blur and displace filters -- you can get all sorts of interesting results. Try different shapes and patterns of stripes (or use circles, or waves, or other shapes) in the base image before the shape blur. Experiment and have fun! Using this method, you can create a lot of varied background looks in a very short time, that you can use over and over again.
Using the techniques described in Digital Backgrounds? Ditch the Green and Go Gray!, dropping these new backgrounds behind portrait shots is quick and easy. I started with the image above, used the techniques in the article, and wound up with this final image:

I keep a library of all sorts of backgrounds, and typically set aside half a day every month or so to make new backgrounds for my library. The more options you have, the better!
Have a shot at making your own backgrounds -- it's fun and easy.


Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Under $200 Speedlight Roundup

With summer in full swing, and lots of outdoor photography to be done, you may be thinking about getting an extra speedlight or two for outdoor work. If you're on a budget and want something that will work on or off-camera, here's a list of speedlights to chew on: six speedlights under $200 that you can put to use!

Neewer (Godox) TT560 Around $40

The least-expensive speedlight in this set is also the least powerful. It does, however, have manual control with a good range of settings, a useful 2-mode built-in optical slave, and decent power levels. For fill, hair, or edge lighting in a multi-flash setup, for a ridiculous price, this is a viable option.

-Around $40. For a speedlight that works.
-Decent power (GN 38 meters @ ISO 100, 124 feet @ ISO 100)
-Tilt/rotate flash head
-8 stops manual power control
-2 slave modes, normal optical slave, optical slave ignoring TTL pre-flash
-Works on Canon, Nikon, Pentax, or any other standard hot shoe camera/trigger

-No zoom for flash head
-No PC sync socket or external battery pack connector
-Plastic (but locking) hot shoe
-No automatic modes of any kind (including TTL)

Vivitar 285HV Around $80

The venerable Vivitar 285HV lacks a motorized zoom head, as well as a swiveling flash head, but makes up for those shortcomings with a reliable non-TTL automatic flash mode (which can be used on or off camera), good power, and a reasonable price. I own and use two of these, and am very happy with them. Note that Vivitar's manufacturing is now being done by an entirely different company, and there may be some quality control issues with these newer units. The specifications are the same as always, though, so make sure to purchase from a good company (links to Amazon and Adorama are below, both reliable) with a good return policy!

-GN 140 feet @ ISO 100 (44 meters @ ISO 100)
-Zoom/Tilt flash head (3 manual zoom steps)
-4 stop manual power adjustment
-Automatic (non-TTL) modes, 3 f-stop choices
-Sync socket (proprietary), external battery pack connector
-Locking hot shoe
-Works on Canon, Nikon, Pentax, or any other standard hot shoe camera/trigger

-No optical slave
-Plastic hot shoe
-Manual (non-motorized) zoom head, limited to 3 positions
-Limited manual settings, missing 1/8 power (1/1, 1/2, 1/4, 1/16)

Vivitar 285HV at Adorama

Yongnuo YN-560II Around $85

For a few dollars more than the Vivitar 285HV, the Yongnuo YN-560II gives you a motorized zoom flash head, both tilt and swivel, a locking metal hot shoe, useful 2-mode optical slave built in, and more manual power options. For an off-camera second or slave flash, this is one of the top two contenders in this list, the other being the LumoPro LP160 (below).
- Exact same form factor as Canon 580EXII (so accessories fit)
- Metal Locking Hot Shoe
- PC Cord sync port, external battery pack connector
- Guide number 58 (meters @ ISO 100 -- 190 ft @ ISO 100)
- Tilt/rotate/Zoom Flash head
- 8 stops manual power control
- 2 slave modes, normal optical slave, optical slave ignoring TTL pre-flash
- Works on Canon, Nikon, Pentax, or any other standard hot shoe camera/trigger

- No automatic modes of any kind (including TTL)
- LCD display can be hard to read
- Lightweight build quality

Sunpak PZ42X Around $145

The Sunpak PZ42X, available in both Nikon and Canon TTL-compatible versions, is a good combination of on-camera TTL automatic flash and off-camera manual flash features. It offers decent power levels (more than the Vivitar 285HV, less than the Yongnuo YN560II), and a very good 7-stop range of manual power settings. It lacks an optical slave or a PC socket, so for off-camera use radio triggers will be a necessity.

- TTL Automatic (Canon and Nikon versions available)
- GN 138 feet @ ISO 100 (42 meters @ ISO 100)
- 7-stop manual power levels
- Tilt/Swivel/Zoom (motorized) flash head
- Locking hot shoe
- Better than average build quality

- No sync socket or external battery pack connector
- No optical slave
- Plastic hot shoe

Sunpak PZ42X at Adorama

LumoPro LP160 Around $160

Designed specifically for "Strobist" off-camera shooting and available only at Midwest Photo Exchange, the LP160 is a very good choice for all-manual off-camera flash work. It has good power levels, multiple sync connections, a motorized zoom/tilt/swivel flash head, and a built-in optical slave that can "ignore" TTL pre-flashes. It does, however, lack any TTL or other automatic modes, making it less useful than some of the others for on-camera flash work.
- GN 140 feet @ ISO 100 (43 meters @ ISO 100)
- PC and miniphone (3.5mm) sync ports
- Tilt/Swivel/Zoom flash head (motorized zoom)
- Optical slave (normal, and "ignore TTL pre-flash" modes)
- 7-stop manual exposure control
- External battery pack connector
- Locking metal hot shoe

- No automatic modes (including TTL)

LumoPro LP160 at Midwest Photo Exchange

Sigma EF-610 DG ST Around $165

I'm a big fan of Sigma flashes -- but a bit less so of the less expensive ST series than the Super series. The EF-610 DG ST model does very good on-camera E-TTL automatic duty, and off-camera E-TTL duty as well (for Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Sigma, and other camera systems). It's not nearly as capable, though, as its bigger brother Super model when it comes to manual off-camera flash work. It lacks a built-in optical slave, and has limited manual power settings. A good choice for on-camera work at an affordable price, not as good as some of the others for off-camera work. It is, however, the most powerful of these under $200 models.
- TTL (Canon, Nikon, Pentax, others) compatible, fully auto modes
- GN 61 (meters @ ISO 100, 200 ft. @ ISO 100)
- Zoom/Tilt/Swivel flash head
- Manual mode, 2 power levels (full or 1/16 power)
- Locking hot shoe

- No optical slave
- No PC Socket
- Limtied manual power levels
- No external battery pack connector
- Plastic hot shoe

There are other speedlights in the under $200 price range, this list is by no means exhaustive. These six, however, are a good representation of the range of options and prices available, and give you lots of choices when looking for a new speedlight at a reasonable price that you can use either on or off camera. If you need some more summer light for your shots, pick one up and have fun!


Thursday, July 12, 2012

Learning from your Customers...It's still a Business!

As much as many of us would like our photography to only be about artistic vision, technical excellence, and the quality of our images, being a pro also means running a business. And (hopefully) making a profit at it, so we can continue to do what we love to do. One thing that can really help you run a better business is to learn from your customers what you're doing right, what you're doing wrong, and what you could do better.

In running my business, I keep careful records of my work, breaking down every job into categories that I can do statistical analysis of later. That includes breaking down each customer's payment into how much went into sitting fees, print sales (by size and type), etc. It's really not that hard with decent software (I use Microsoft Money Small Business Edition ). With good records, you can start mining those records to learn from your customers how your business is doing.

Since high-school Senior Portrait season is just about to be in full swing, I have been going over my data to evaluate where I'm doing well, and where I need to improve. For example, the chart above (click on it for a larger version) shows my total number of Senior Portrait clients per year since 2005 (when I only had one!) to 2011, along with the average total amount each client spent with me on their Senior Portraits. If you look at the chart, the blue bars show a very nice growth trend, that my total number of Senior Portrait clients has been increasing nicely year by year. However, the maroon bars show some not so good news -- that my clients are spending less as I get more of them.

Now, it would be easy to just ascribe that decrease to the crummy economy, and ignore it...but I decided to do a little more digging. I broke out the various categories of services and products involved in my Senior Portrait business, and looked at what percentage of my clients were buying each one. One such category, "big prints" (anything 11x14" or over), showed where I was getting declining revenues.

This second chart plots number of customers and percentage of those customers buying big prints. Notice how it's going the wrong way -- as my customer base has increased, the percentage of them that buy big prints has gone down. Since much of my profit resides in selling prints to my clients, and the bigger the print the higher the profit margin, this is something I need to know -- and I need to find out why it's happening and how to correct it. All of the other categories of products & services, by the way, had kept their percentages about the same or grown -- so "big prints" was where I was losing profits.

So how do I find out *why* I'm selling fewer big prints per customer? Unfortunately, that's not something I can mine out of my business data. It *is* something I can get at least some information on, though, from my customers themselves. By asking them.

I got into the habit of doing surveys of my customers not long after I started -- largely because I was new at running my own photography business, and I really didn't know the answers to a lot of my own questions. I survey my customers in two main ways: First, most of my customers get a "satisfaction survey" sheet when they do a session; and second, six months or so after their job is all finished and delivered, I send out e-mail surveys. The second method not only serves to let me know what my customers think, it also reminds them that I exist, so it works as a marketing tool as well. I typically get around 45-55% return rate on these surveys (of both types), which isn't bad as surveys go. And far from considering them a bother or intrusive, the ones who reply often comment that they appreciate me following up with them and caring about what they think. And I *am* sincere in wanting to know what they think!

A couple of years ago, after one such survey, I added a standard product to my Senior Portrait packages -- a "Facebook" CD. My Facebook CDs include low-resolution (typically 600x400) digital versions of all of a client's proofs, at no additional charge. The Facebook CD was motivated by my customers commenting that they would like to be able to put their senior portraits up on Facebook easily, and by me noticing that several clients had already done so...they had done horrible quality scans of printed proofs, and put them up, making my photography look bad. The images on the Facebook CD are too small for them to go make any decent sized prints from, they let my customers easily share their photos on Facebook (or e-mail them to Grandma), and they let *me* control how the uploaded images look, showing the quality I want them to. It's a win-win.

So an e-mail survey is going out to last years' customers this week, and I'm putting it together in a way that I hope will get me information on why my big print sales have gone down. Do they consider them too expensive? Would they like to see more samples of how good big prints can look? Did I not offer enough options (like framing, canvas wraps, etc.?) Do people simply not want to buy big prints as much as they used to?

I'll post up the results from my survey when I have them in. In the meantime, if you're not keeping good records, and learning from what your customers like and don't like, buy or don't buy...why not? It's still a business.