Portraiture in Unexpected Places by Mark Van Noy

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 There are opportunities for photography all around us.  Sure we all inherently understand this.  So why even write about it?  I hope to provide perhaps a tiny bit of inspiration by relating one of my finds.  There are lots of books and articles concerning composition and seeing things people do not normally notice then using photography to really pull out those details.  All of that advice is great and I strongly encourage everyone to play around with composition as it always pays dividends.  I however, enjoy taking pictures of people more than pictures of landscapes of abstract compositions of color, texture, lines, and so on.

 On a recent business trip to Boston that had nothing to do with photography I decided to bring some camera gear along and take a self guided tour of this historic city in the evenings after work.  I am not comfortable with street photography so people seemed to be an option I would not get on this trip.  I took some requisite shots of the Boston skyline, interesting buildings, and the water.  At Paul Revere’s home I saw the normal tourists taking snapshots of his home.  I, too, took a picture and almost immediately deleted it because his historic home is wedged in among modern architecture.  So I switched to taking pictures of the cobblestones making up the preserved road in front of his house as that was more interesting to me.

 I was mostly ready to just put the camera away and tour like a traditional tourist; since I was a tourist.  I then came across a sculpture near a subway entrance by my hotel and decided I needed to come back after dark.  With the yellow/orange glow of the streetlights, the sculpture of Polish underground fighters during World War II took on a much richer quality than it had during the day.  While most of the city was snug in their beds, I went out to the sculpture, tripod in hand, and started shooting long exposures.  I probably saw at least 200 people walk right past this sculpture during the day and not even glance at it; I found some very cooperative portrait models.

The Unexpected Photo Session by Mark Van Noy

A funny thing happened at a recent photoshoot.  Normally, I want to keep the number of people in the room to a minimum in order to prevent distractions.  Much like public speaking, having lots of people in the room can make individuals nervous and uncomfortable.  Feeling uncomfortable is really the antithesis of flattering pictures.

For this session, I had everyone that was participating as well as their families in the room at the same time.  Both child and adult dancers were being photographed so I was getting a bit worried about the amount of distractions.  I could not think of a polite way to have only the people being photographed and their family in the room at any given time so I just decided to roll with it.

Sure enough, I had multiple side conversations going on behind me, my directions I was trying to give were getting lost by way of competing instructions from other people in the room, and things generally devolved into barely controlled chaos.  If someone were describing this scenario to me, I would think it sounded horrible and ask if they mentally screamed, “Never again,” once the session was done.

Instead, I think this may have been the most fun I have had with a photo session.  While it was chaotic and still would not be my preferred way of managing a shoot, it was also extremely dynamic and lead to a good number of unplanned pictures that are fast becoming some of my favorite.  There was so much laughing, smiling, and just genuine emotion as everyone around me joked with each other.  I did not have to be the least bit concerned with getting a nice big smile from anyone.  Children that started the shoot looking like they had been dragged there by their parents were beaming by the end.

So, was this kind of environment more work for me?  Yes, yes it was.  Did I get the shots the customer was looking for?  Absolutely; every shot on the punch list was knocked out before I let the silliness get out of control.  Were the children the worst offenders?  Nope, some of the adults were the most distracting.  Did it work?  Yes, it worked out very well.  We got the shots that were needed and more.  I am glad that I let the session run in totally random directions once I had the requested shots because, ultimately, this was a really positive experience.

Cell Phone Cameras by Mark Van Noy

I am going to give the classic I.T. answer to the question of whether a cell phone camera or a DSLR is better: it depends.  What cameras can do is controlled by physics; though software can fake some effects and is getting better all the time.  The catch to software solutions is that the laws of physics refuse to be broken.  What that means is that the size of things will always matter.

Since the cameras in phones and tablets are inherently as small as possible, their sensors and lenses must also be as small as possible.  So if we had two equal quality sensors with the exact same number of megapixels with one sized for a phone and the other sized for the DSLR the DSLR image quality will always be higher quality with less noise because noise increases with pixel density.  Essentially, the smaller lens and the smaller sensor will gather fewer photons and the ones they do receive will strike a smaller surface area so each pixel is going to have less information about what is being photographed than a larger pixel receiving more photons.  There is also the problem of electrical noise in sensors which looks to be less impactful with each new generation as engineers find amazing new ways of dealing with the physics of electricity.  I am also intentionally skipping past how sensors work in order to keep this simple.  There is otherwise a lot of math and surprisingly complex physics involved.

Because everything is so compact in a phone that also means that more of an image will be in focus than a DSLR at the same equivalent field of view.  It is fairly rare to see a cell phone camera take an out of focus picture in good lighting.  This is a fantastic feature in many cases such as group photos of people, landscapes, and close-up photos.  It generally guarantees that whatever the subject of the photo it will be completely in focus.  However, the converse is also true: parts of a photo that are not important will also be in focus.  A DSLR has a more limited range of what is in focus which can be helpful for doing things like blurring out distracting backgrounds.  The latest iPhones can simulate the effect of blurring the background using software and the effect is awfully convincing.  To get more of an image in focus with a DSLR you have to take multiple pictures then use software to combine the pictures keeping only the parts of each picture that are in focus.

The last technical detail I want to talk about is the ability to zoom.  No current camera phone can zoom.  The closest to an actual zoom would be the phone designs that include two cameras with different focal lengths. Two be fair, two cameras effectively give zoom functionality comparable to owning two prime lenses on a DSLR.  What I really mean is that camera phones do not zoom; they crop.  They throw away all of the pixel data outside the area that would be zoomed which trades resolution for field of view.  A zoom lens or changing to a different length prime lens is also essentially a physical crop of the picture.  The difference is that changing the lens focal length maintains all of the resolution of the image sensor while the camera phone crop drops the resolution.  As long as the resolution stays at or above the intended presentation medium, like posting to Facebook or printing a photo, then the distinction of zooming vs. a digital crop is purely academic with no practical impact.

Which brings me back to the question of which is better.  In specific situations either type of camera can be better than the other because, physics.  If the goal is to take pictures in good light that will be used on Instagram, Facebook, or similar services then a cell phone camera is probably the best camera out there because it will be easy to use, give high quality repeatable results, and is virtually guaranteed to be carried with you.  For pictures that may one day be printed or for which more control over the aspects of capture of the image are desired, then the DSLR is going to be a better fit.


Note:  This got more complex than I had intended very fast.  I have intentionally left out any mention of mirrorless cameras, medium format cameras, range finders, sports/action photography, and low light photography among the many details I likely forgot to mention that I otherwise would have liked to talk about.  Different types of cameras have different physical properties that will always make them behave differently which makes the whole attempt at comparing the systems in terms of better or worse, with the idea that there is a single superior technology, rather futile.


Cost of Doing Business by Mark Van Noy

I know this is a controversial topic that no one is supposed to talk about: pricing.  That is silly.  Not talking about pricing just opens the door to misunderstandings.  No one wants to feel taken advantage of on either end of a financial transaction so we absolutely should talk about things like pricing and costs.


Most independent service industries are essentially in the same boat.  People who work in these industries have unique challenges because they are not paid a fixed salary.  They are also often independent contractors meaning that they are either self-employed or are effectively self-employed.  Some of the challenges of being a service based independent contractor are:


  1. Paid hourly
  2. Limited services qualify as billable hours
  3. Work must be done that takes considerable time that is not billable
  4. No benefits such as health insurance or employer matched retirement
  5. Equipment required to provide service is paid for by the individual providing that service


I am certain that I am missing some challenges.  This list just provides a broad outline of the considerations that go into determine a price to charge for services.  I would like to start with an example of a dance teacher before tying this discussion into how photographer’s need to set their prices.  


Our imaginary dance teacher makes $30 an hour.  That sounds pretty good. $30 an hour times 40 hours in a week, times 52 weeks in a year, works out to an annual salary of $62,400.  That sounds pretty good; certainly above the poverty line.  The first hitch, however, is that it is near impossible for a dance teacher to work 40 hours in a week.  People work and go to school during the day.  If we decide to be quite optimistic and assume that this imaginary teacher can teach classes five days a week consistently from 4:00 PM to 9:00PM then their 40 billable hours a week drops down to 25 hours a week which is quite a pay cut right off the top.  Also, no dance program can actually run all 52 weeks in any given year.  Customers expect that dance schools follow the vacation schedules of public schools so there will need to be breaks for fall, winter, spring, and summer vacations as people do not want to pay for classes they already know they will not be around to take.  To account for vacation schedules we will subtract four weeks out of the year which drops out 52 weeks down to 48.  This already moves the base calculation down to $30 an hour times 25 hours in a week, times 48 weeks in a year, for a total annual pay of $36,000 or an immediate pay cut of $26,400 or about 42%.


Okay, so our imaginary dance teacher is making a whole lot less money than $30 an hour sounds.  That should be fine because they only actually work 25 hours a week, right?  No; they work a lot harder than that.  We can safely assume that this imaginary dance teacher is working at least another ten hours every week meeting with students before and after class, answer current student questions over e-mail or phone, taking phone calls or e-mail from prospective students, scheduling class times, working on student choreography, managing billing as well as tracking down late payments, possibly managing the student space, and a whole range of other things I either cannot think of or do not actually know about.  All of this time outside of teaching has an additional cost in that it prevents our imaginary dance teacher from being able to work another job to bring in any additional income.


There is also the problem of additional expenses.  If we pretend that a person can get health insurance for $300 that has to come off the top.  There is no employer matched retirement, but our dance teacher needs to factor in retirement some day so we will give them an 8% of gross income to a tax deferred IRA which keeps them well below the 15% they could get in a more conventional salaried job; or at least could have gotten at one time.  The dance teacher also needs to provide music, some sort of device to play that music on, appropriate dance shoes and clothing, and so forth.  So with all of our assumptions, which are admittedly very optimistic and unrealistic, our imaginary dance teacher brings in a gross income of $29,520 before taxes for an expected 35 hours of work a week which is probably closer to 45 or 50 hours of work a week.  This would currently be a bit less than three times the federal definition of poverty, but this teacher could probably do considerably better for themselves financially doing something else.


Which brings us back to photography.  Much like teaching dance, photographers have a lot of time outside of billable hours that goes into running the business.  To start, pressing the shutter button is the least time consuming thing we do.  We still have to sort through all the photos taken and select out the best ones which can take several times longer than it took to take the pictures, then we need to edit the photos that were sorted, and the final edited photos need to be distributed to our customers.  There are also the standard business activities such as marketing, collecting payment, writing blogs, working on new lighting or other concepts, communicating with customers, and so on.  There are also equipment expenses such as the camera, lenses, lights, light stands, backdrops, light modifiers, batteries, extension cords, gaffer’s tape, containers to hold all this stuff, and on and on.  Equipment wears out an must be replaced as well.  There is also either setup time that is unpaid if shooting on location or the cost of maintaining a studio.


I am not going through these examples to complain about how little money people make in the hourly service industry.  The knee jerk reaction when seeing these kinds of examples is to state, “That is just the cost of doing business.”  Absolutely.  No question about it, these are examples of the cost of doing business.  In order to stay in business, in order to be able to provide the services people want, those costs must, without exception, be built into the price of the service.  Back in the early 2000's I tried leaving corporate IT and running my own service to small business and residential customers.  While I loved the work, roughly a third of my customers openly complained that charging $70 an hour was way too expensive.  They were seeing me as someone who was making $145,600 a year and taking advantage of them.  The reality was that I was making around $9,000 a year.  I failed to appropriately build in all of my costs to my pricing and was charging too little.  Admittedly, I also really failed very badly at marketing and clearly did not understand my market either.  However, when cutting health insurance still did not keep me from imminently failing to pay the rent on my apartment I knew it was time to close shop and go back to corporate.  And so, it is my sincere hope that by openly talking about the cost of doing business everyone on both sides of a transaction can fully appreciate that they are getting an equitable deal.