Sometimes it doesn’t take long for friends and colleagues to make the connection. They realize that “Hot Shoe Digital Photography” is me.
And when that happens, a question often comes next: “Will you take my picture?”
Substitute “my daughter’s” or “my dog’s” or “my band’s” and that just about covers the gamut. Once, it was a request to photograph a ferret.
An Awkward Dilemma
And then what? I love capturing people. I love making portraits.
But how do you quote a healthy rate to a family member, a neighbor or a co-worker? Especially if you want to stay friendly?
So, I recently came up with a novel pricing structure for family, friends and friends-of-friends.
Free of charge, that is. There is still compensation involved, but not to me. To others.
I ask some of my portrait subjects to “pay it forward.” It’s the most rewarding thing I’ve done with a camera.
A Non-Traditional Photo Company
I run a very non-traditional photo company. And by non-traditional, I mean one set up not to make money, not to shoot $50,000 weddings, not to fatten a retirement account.
That doesn’t mean I don’t want to do all that. Because eventually I do.
The truth is, I am a 20-year journalist who has worked the past dozen years as an investigative reporter for a Norfolk, Va. television station.
When I started in newspapers, I shot my own pictures and wrote my own stories. But one day at The Virginian-Pilot, they told me to cut it out. Put in photo requests, they said.
Still, I never put down the camera.
And a couple of years ago, during a rough patch at work, I decided to start my own photography business. I soft-launched “Hot Shoe Digital Photography.”
Researching the Market
It was the proverbial toe in the water. Since I was something of a public figure in my hometown, I didn’t attach my name to it. I wanted a little separation.
I didn’t hide that I had started a photography business, but I didn’t advertise it, either.
I researched the going rates for portrait work. It was eye-opening. I found highly talented photographers charging a grand for a portrait, and the results showed they were worth every penny.
But I also found photographers charging hundreds of dollars for hack work. Limbs oddly cropped off, trees growing from heads, blown-out backgrounds, soft and murky images poorly composed and devoid of contrast.
I found out what talented professional photographers already know: There are too many “semi-pros” out there who switch the dial to auto, click away, and still get paid.
It’s difficult to break through that clutter, for photographers and customers alike.
Paying It Forward
Ultimately, I stayed with my TV job, and I’m thankful for it. I decided to keep Hot Shoe going as a side gig, which enabled me to continue doing something I enjoy without the financial pressures.
Of course, that still left me with the dilemma over friends and family. And so I decided to launch the “Pay It Forward Photography Project.”
It’s as simple as it sounds. For friends and family, for starving college students, for people who need a headshot but can’t afford $200, I shoot them and require them to pay it forward. They reveal their good deed to me, and I post the details on my blog.
It’s just getting going, but so far the good deeds have included spending a day at an animal shelter (which the child model so enjoyed that he signed up as a regular volunteer), school-supply donations, and contributions to a charity for children with cancer.
What About You?
I understand I am lucky enough to have a day job that lets me do this on the side. I understand that many professional photographers are struggling to make ends meet today, particularly in the current economy.
But I also think the “pay it forward” concept is worth exploring, at least for those photographers who have the financial wherewithal to do so.
Could you do it once a year? Once a month? Once a week?
Maybe this year, during the holidays?
Lawyers take pro bono work. Doctors embark on medical missions. Corporations run philanthropic foundations. And tens of thousands of charity workers lend their talents to help others.
For me, hearing that a teenage boy wanted to turn his “pay it forward” day into a summer volunteer job — well, that was worth far more to me than I would’ve ever charged for the portrait.
What about you?