I was asked this question several times this holiday season from possible client who had the latest “big box” store flyer in their hands with the 19.99 portrait special with a “free” 8×10 and “free” 25 holiday cards. It’s a good question but not a one with a simple answer.
On the surface, it appears that the typical professional photographer does not have a chance in competing with the big box cheap price. But lets take a look under the “good deal” for a few enlightening thoughts.
When you go to a store like Wallmart or JC Pennys for a “portrait”, you will be there with other people, often more then a few other people all milling around waiting in a small and noisy area to wait your turn. The hired help is normally not a professional photographer but someone at minimum wage or close to it with just enough training to take your information and key it into the computer and then take your money. The photographer has to use the store’s equipment which will be set up per the store’s policy and procedure. No creativity allowed, no sir, we dont allow that here.
If you are trying to get portraits on a holiday, it is even worse than normal with the extra crowds there trying to get the same good deal you want. If the kids are having a bad day, so sad for you. They do not reschedule and they do not wait for the kids to wind down. When you get your print or prints, it has normally not be retouched. What you see is what you get.
Lets contrast this with a professional portrait session. These can be normally take one of two ways, either in the studio or on location which could be your house or somewhere agreed to like a park or favorite spot. In either case, you have the photographer’s undivided attention and you are not trying to battle your way to a cash register first. I did one Christmas shoot for a neighborhood where we used a local “man cave” (fancy garage) as my studio and I set up my portable studio in there. Everyone had to just walk a few yards to the “studio” and each client had a 30 minute window which in some cases allowed for changing of clothes or calming down the kids. It was a very relaxed environment for all concerned. At the end of the shoot, my clients received a CDR with 10 edited and touched up images suitable for 8×10 or smaller prints plus a set suitable for emailing. They could then place orders for their pictures through myself or their favorite printing house.
Custom photography like this is as much about the “experience” as it is the images taken. Unlike the box stores, you have a pleasant experience and you received your own copies of high rez images. The box stores gave you a print or two but additional prints are expensive and if your shoot has more than two or three people in it, many times they charge extra. Most times a CD is not available to purchase since they want to make their money off the prints you order along with keeping you in the store.
Professional portraits are not just studio shots, they can be “Lifestyle” images taken candidly during a set time at a favorite location. This image of a “cowgirl” was taken in front of her house playing in the street. The hat was a favorite of hers at the time and I was able to catch the fleeting smile of hers using a 200mm lens so I was not in her face while snapping them. Again, this is the type of image that you can not get at the box store for twenty dollars but everyone will sigh over when you show it off.
And it is not just Christmas, there are many times of the year to consider getting professional pictures taken. I went to a client’s home to take pictures of the kids done up in their Halloween costumes which they had put a fair amount of work into. Can you imagine trying to get three kids to the local box store in their costumes to the “studio”? Would the photographer there really know how to shoot a reflective white costume on a white background? Or shoot through a clear plastic face shield so you can see the child’s eyes?
Both of these were used as gifts to the grandparents “just because” and they were thrilled to have professional shots to show off to their friends and display in their home. And since the client bought a block of time, it was cheaper in the end with me than going to the box store at 20 dollars each for only two prints that may or may not have come out. The client had at least five delivered images of each boy that she could then use as she wanted and where she wanted.
I’m not much different many professional photographers. I care about my clients and I work with them to get the best possible images I can with them. I’m flexible and when kids are having a bad day, we work it out. This same client came back for Christmas portraits this year and it took three tries to get all the kids in a good mood. A picture can be something tossed and forgotten or it can be a heirloom to be treasured and looked at fondly for years.
It is not always the price tag that makes a portrait a “good deal”. Many times it is the intangibles that make up the picture that have a much bigger impact than just the price.