Rick Paul: February 2009 Archives

Lighting 101

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I've received several inquires about lighting and how to get started taking better portraits. So I thought I'd spend this blog on how I started down the trail, and give a little "Lighting 101" tutorial. All the images shown here were taken with a single SB-800, and against a plain wall in my house, just to keep things simple. In all cases, the SB-800 was on TTL.

Most people just point their camera and flash at their subject and fire away. This shot was taken in just that manner, with an SB-800 mounted on the camera hot shoe facing forward:

You can see in this shot that the lighting is very flat and harsh. It looks like a flash picture taken with a point and shoot camera.

One of the simplest things to improve a picture is bounce the flash off of another surface, such as the ceiling or a wall. Keep in mind, if the ceiling or wall isn't white, it will cast the color of the surface! This shot was taken with the bare SB-800 pointed straight up at the ceiling:

This is a big improvement over the original image. The use of a diffuser over the flash can improve the image even further. One of my favorite's is the Gary Fong Lightspere. There is an excellent Nikonian's article on the Lightspere available that goes into more detail. This image was taken with the lightspere pointed straight up at the ceiling:

You'll notice slight differences between this and the previous image. The shadows in the lightsphere shot are a bit brighter and less harsh, since the lightsphere is throwing most of the light up, but some straight out, too.

The reason the bounce and lightspere images look better than straight flash is they are spreading the light over a larger surface. The larger and more diffuse the light source, the softer edges between light and shadow.

Another common lighting technique is the use of other modifiers, such as umbrellas or softboxes. This image was taken with an SB-800 bouncing the flash off of a 45-inch umbrella on a light stand:

There doesn't appear to be much difference between this image and the lightsphere image, but I wasn't trying to achieve a dramatic difference. The umbrella does offer greater control over the light, and does not require a white surface nearby to bounce the light off! This is a fairly inexpensive setup to put together:

This setup consists of an umbrella: ($14.95), an umbrella bracket($13.95)

And a basic lightstand ($19.95). All three pieces are less than $50.

In order to use a setup like this, you'll need the following equipment:

  • A Nikon Speedlight that can function as a Remote speedlight (SB-600, SB-800, or SB-900)
  • A device to act as the Master Commander on the camera. This can be:
    • A Nikon camera with a pop-up flash that supports the commander function (D70, D90, D200, D300, D700)
    • An SU-800 Commander
    • Another SB-800 or SB-900 acting as the Master
  • A basic understanding of the Nikon Creative Lighting System

For more information on the Nikon Creative Lighting System, see Mike Hagen's new book.

To learn more about portrait lighting, there are many good books on the subject. I would recommend as a starting point, The Master Lighting Guide by Christopher Grey. You can order these books thru the Nikonians website which will click through to Amazon.

Constant Journey

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Turning to any new profession or endevour requires education and research. But first, a little background on what started me down this path.

Becoming a professional protographer had been a life long dream of mine. I never pursued it until quite recently. The decision to pursue photography as more than a hobby can be traced back to a single event: The destruction of my N90 in 2005. In 2005 I was with my family at Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, when I slipped and fell. My N90 landed prism-down and was smashed quite severely.

This led me to the decision to replace the N90 with a Nikon F body. In researching whether I should get an F5 or F6, I found Nikonians. Over the course of the next year, I also purchased a Nikon D200 body and attended ANPAT6.

The ANPAT's have been a life changing experience, providing me with mentorship for many fine photographers, including Digital Darrell, our Nikonians Founders, Bo, and JRP, and the Image Doctors, Rick Walker and Jason Odell.

But I think everyone following this blog knows Nikonians is a fabulous resource to gain knowledge. Over the last couple years, I found a few other resources that have helped me learn and make important decisions.

When I officially opened my business, I also joined the Professional Photographers of America. As part of the PPA membership, you also receive their monthly magazine, Professional Photographer. This magazine, and the PPA website, are also a great learning resource, particularly for wedding and portrait photographers.

Learning more about lighting is one of the primary skills I have picked up in the last few years. From the Nikonian's forums I also learned about The Strobist. Digital photography allows for a very rapid curve when playing with multiple lights, umbrellas, lightboxes, and other light modifiers. Nikonians and Strobist gave many good ideas for experiments to try with my herd of Speedlights. There are lots of resources for learning more about lighting, including Mike Hagen's book on the Nikon Creative Lighting System, and Planet Neil's Advanced Flash Techniques.

To learn more about printing, I took a prescription from the Image Doctors. They recommended an online video series available at Michael Reichmann's Luminous Landscape website. Michael, together with Jeff Schewe, have produced a complete and thorough video series, From Camera to Print. This video series provides an excellent tutorial of taking your images from the camera through the printing process, to obtain high quality, fine art prints. Thanks to this series, I can now produce prints equal or better in quality and consistency from my Epson 3800 than most labs.

So in order to reach my goal, I've been learning for years, and continue to look for new resources to improve my photography, and aid me in developing my business. It will be a constant journey.

What to charge?

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One of the most common questions in the Nikonian's Turning Pro forum is, "What should I charge for my services?"

I have spent a lot of time considering this question, and I'm still revising my pricing. I think I probably always will. Pricing has a lot of factors to consider, including the type of work you plan to do, the area you live, and the competition you have. Some of the factors I've had to consider:

Sitting Fees:

  • Per hour rate
  • Job rate
Print Fees:
  • Print in house
  • Outsource printing
Sitting fees for portraits, or the fee to charge for a wedding can be complex. You should probably consider your fee based on an hour rate expected for the job, but quote a fixed price for the job. Your rate should consider the time you spend in post-processing and delivering the final products to your customer.

Since I started last year, I have also been introduced to a new strategy, at least for family portraits: No sitting fee at all. The photographers I have met that use this strategy derive their profit through print sales. This strategy relies on being able to guide the customer to purchasing not just 1 family portrait, but a series of prints, albums, or other products (more on these marketing techniques in another blog!). I am going to start using this strategy for my family portrait sessions. I'll report back later this year on how well it's working.

For weddings, I've looked around at other wedding photographers, and found that most charge a high price that includes certain end products in a package. For example, they may charge $1,500 that includes final print album, a certain amount of prints, or perhaps a DVD slideshow. I've taken a pricing route for weddings that is more A la carte. I charge a low, basic fee to cover the wedding, and then work with the couple on the products they want. The products I'm offering vary so much in cost, it would be impossible to quote a single package cost that works for everyone. So far I'm finding my wedding clients like this approach.

Print pricing is a little trickier. Most photographers outsource their printing through a professional lab. Some of the labs I have found that cater to professionals include:

White House Custom Color

Millers

Burrell Colour Imaging

With these labs, you must consider the price they are charging you for the prints, plus shipping, handling, the time you spend preparing the files, plus a profit margin. I have taken a slightly different route. I have invested in a high quality professional printer, capable of producing fine art prints on virtually any paper of my choosing. This allows me several advantages:

  • Complete control over color and quality of final print
  • Control over the type paper used and the quality
  • Lower cost to print
  • Higher profit margin

Basically, the print allows me to produce an equal or superior product when compared to a lab, at a lower cost. I'm able to sell my prints to my customers at a price similar to lab retail prices, but with a much greater profit margin.

My printer can handle print sizes up to 17 inches by 22 inches. I've decided to offer prints from my printer for 8.5x11, 13x19, and 17x22. For prints smaller than that, and larger, I'm using a professional lab, and charging accordingly.

I've constructed a spreadsheet to calculate my print costs and pricing. I've found the spreadsheet very useful to looking at my pricing, and making sure I'm charging a fair price, and a price will get me a fair profit.

For printers, I would highly recommend the Professional series from our new Nikonian's partner, Epson.

For those who may not be too sure about printing themselves, and the quality they can achieve, I would highly recommend Michael Reichmann's web based video series, Camera to Print.

This video series explains the complete process of producing excellent prints from today's pigment based printers.

I'll be covering pricing, as well marketing techniques, more in future blogs.

The doors are open, but...

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Well, Saguaro Shadows Photography is open for business, but where are the knocks on the door? My first year in business, I really didn't expect much business.

But finding new clients has definitely become a priority in 2009. Certainly setting up a website and email address were a must, but without some work, no one is going to find you.

I started my marketing efforts by letting everyone I could think of know that I was in business for family, portrait, and wedding photography. This included family, friends, and co-workers in my day job. In my office at my regular job, I hung nicely framed images of mine on the walls. This has driven quite a bit of conversation, and led to four clients through my work, including a wedding, a couple family portrait sessions, and a new baby session.

Next I looked into traditional print advertising. I found out a couple things quickly. Even "free" newspapers and magazines in my local area charge a lot for ads. None less than $500 for a single ad, and most much, much higher in price. Second, I found from talking to other pro's, that such ads are rarely effective. Most new business comes referrals.

But I did find an inexpensive print ad source. My daughter's elementary school newsletter! My business card has run in the newsletter every month this year, for a donation of only $25 for the whole year! So far no business from that yet, but it was cheap advertising, and may eventually provide some benefit through community name recognition.I could probably go to every school in the area and try this, but this is a start.

Next I decided I needed to drive some traffic to my website. The easiest way to do that appeared to be through Google's Adwords service. This costs money, depending on the number is hits per month, but you can control your monthly budget to keep the spending under control. I start this effort at $50 per month late in 2008, and have I had several inquires since I started using Google AdWords, so I consider this effort a success so far.

Next steps? There are several other web based technologies that can drive traffic to your website, and I'll be exploring them in the months to come. These include:

Social Networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace have been recommended to me as important to connecting with the younger generation for Senior Portrait work.

In the next few months, I'll be trying out each of these methods, and I'll report on how well they are helping my business.

The Web Decision

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The doors to Saguaro Shadows Photography were opened in January 2008. One of the first orders of business was to establish a presence on the web. I've got experience as a programmer, and even as an early web developer. But at this point in my life, I really did not want to spend the time to develop a polished website. So I began researching various web hosting options. I found 3 basic options: Do it yourself websites, Professionally designed and maintained websites, and Photographer specific website.

I liked the web companies that catered specifically to photographers. However, most of these companies wanted a lot of money upfront to get started (at the time, $1500 to $3000, althought prices have come down since the 2008 recession), and pretty stiff monthly fees to maintain. For a business just starting out, I felt these high-cost options were off the table for the moment.

What I finally settled on was a Smug Mug website. Smugmug provides site host for people who just want to share pictures, and professionals. For professionals, the site offers more customization and options. While still limited in the overall appearance and options on the site, it does give me a presence and a way for people to find me on the web. As soon as my business income picks up, I'll start looking again for a site than can provide me a more professional and unique looks. Some of the options I'm looking at in the future include:

ShowitFast

ImageQuix

Time Exposure's Web Gallery

Time Exposure's site allows you to sell your images to your client, but you maintain control. The orders are sent directly to you, rather than a printing service. This option is very appealing to me, as it allows me to stay very flexible in the products I provide my customers.

The Logo

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What is a business without a logo? A well designed logo can help present a professional and serious look for your business. With the internet bringing the world to our fingertips, getting a professional logo designed has never been so easy.

After doing some research on the web, and looking at several online design firms, I decided to go with the Logo Design Team. They provide several pricing options. After choosing and paying for a package, I was asked several questions about my business through a web form, including any colors or design elements I wanted to see in my logo. I provided some suggestions, but I was pretty open.

Within a couple days, they provided me with 7 very different options. There were all quite good, but I settled on two finalists. I asked them to merge the two designs together. I was quite pleased with the final logo.

In addition to the logo, most logo design sites can also design a business card layout, and stationary. Since getting my original logo, I have gone back to them several times for a few changes, such as a holiday version.

The Tax Man

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My next step in setting up my photography business, Saguaro Shadows, was understanding the tax system. This will vary from state to state, and often city to city. But I think the steps I had to go through will be similar in most areas of the U.S. Federal Income Tax was pretty straight forward. 

After talking to my accountant, he explained that my income drawn from photography could be reported on my normal income taxes, since at this point, photography was a side business, and not my primary income. I will not have to report estimate income tax on the photography business on a quarterly basis until it reaches a significant percentage of my regular income. He gave me a target figure to keep in mind. 

Next, I had to come to an understanding of the state and local sales taxes. The state of Arizona is unique from most other states in this regard. Rather than a strict "sales" tax, Arizona has a Transaction Privilege Tax (TPT). The easiest way to explain the difference between sales tax and TPT is to refer to the Wikipedia definition:

"Transaction privilege tax (TPT) refers to a gross receipts tax levied by the State of Arizona on certain persons for the privilege of conducting business in the state. TPT differs from the ?true? sales tax imposed by many other U.S. states as it is imposed upon the seller or lessor rather than the purchaser or lessee. The seller/lessor may pass the burden of the tax on to the purchaser/lessee, but the seller or lessor is the party that remains ultimately liable to Arizona for the tax."

Thus in Arizona, you have a choice. As an example, you can charge someone $100 for a service, and $8.20 in TPT. Or you charge them a straight $100, and then pay 8.2% of your $100 as TPT to the city and state, hiding the "sales tax" from your customer's bill. I also discovered that the city of Tucson and the State of Arizona collected the TPT income separately. This varies in Arizona depending on what city you live in, but it holds the same for most of the larger cities in Arizona. In addition to registering my business as an LLC with the state of Arizona, I also needed to register as a business with the State of Arizona, and the City of Tucson. For the city, I contacted the Business License office through their website for help. They responded by email and recommended I come down to their city hall offices for assistance. They were quite helpful in the process. After registering with the city, I now automatically receive a form every month in the mail that I fill out and return with a check for what I owe the city in TPT income. The State of Arizona was quite similar. Through the state's Department of Revenue website, I was able to register for a state business license. The state also sends me a form each month, but I can also pay online through their website. Before starting your own business, you should consider doing the following:

• Visit a tax accountant
• Contact your city's business license office for information.
• Contact your state government for information. 

Most cities and states have websites that can provide you with much of the required information. If you still have questions, the people in the government offices are generally very willing to help. After all, it's in their best interests to encourage new business and bring in more tax dollars!

The LLC Decision

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Before I could turn Saguaro Shadows into a business, I did a lot of research of what I was legally required to do in Arizona to become a business, and what was best to do to become a business. Following the advice of many, I quickly decided on forming an “LLC” - Limited Liability Company. The LLC provides my personal assets some degree of financial and legal protection from potential lawsuits brought against my business. There are other options for forming a business, such as Sole Proprietorship, Partnerships, and Corporations. For my purposes in Arizona, the LLC appeared to be the best option. Forming an LLC took a lot of research. The methods of forming an LLC are different from state to state, but there are similarities. There are many web-based companies that will form the LLC for you for a fee. Perform a web search with the keywords “LLC” and your state, and you can find many resources on forming an LLC. In the end, I decided to pursue a safer, but more expensive route by using a law firm that specializes in forming LLC’s in Arizona. The lawyer was very helpful in answering my questions, and continues to provide me with free legal advice, as long as I keep the questions short. This also provided me with a relationship with a lawyer, should I ever need his services again. The lawyer took care of all the LLC details, and provided with a nice notebook containing all the legal paperwork, and more information I would need on getting my business started. For me, using a lawyer removed much of the stress, and was worth the investment.

Going Pro

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Most photographers who get serious enough about their hobby, have visions of selling their work and turning “pro”. In this blog, I will be outlining the process and steps I took to turn my hobby into a business, and the lessons I have learned along the way. My company, Saguaro Shadows Photography, LLC , is based in Arizona. In my examples, I’ll be citing the steps I had to go through in Arizona. The steps are similar in most states, but there are differences you’ll need to investigate. The first step you should take is discuss your decision with an accountant, and possibly a lawyer who specializes in small business law. They can help answer most of your questions for your area, and point you in the right direction. After I spoke to my account, I took my first step: Establishing a company name. In Arizona, the Arizona Corporate Commission provides a web based service to check on company name availability. If you wish to name your company after yourself (“John Smith Photography, LLC”), you might or might not have good luck claiming that company name, depending on how common your name is! I choose to keep my company name anonymous, and look for a desert theme for the name. Most of the obvious choices like “Desert Light” were already taken. I finally settled upon Saguaro Shadows. I like this name because I also knew it would lend itself to many possibilities for a graphical design. In Arizona, I was allowed to reserve the name for $45 for 120 days. This gave me time to file the paperwork with state to register as a business in Arizona.

Welcome to Rick's Blog!

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Welcome to my blog! This is a just a quick entry to get things started.

About this Archive

This page is a archive of recent entries written by Rick Paul in February 2009.

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