Ah, the jet-set lifestyle…

Being the top-end commercial and corporate photographer that I am, you can imagine all the pampering I get.

My clients delight in sending me chauffeur-driven cars to take me to the heliport so I can be flown in style and at the greatest possible speed to my next assignment. The girls on-board the flight spoon feed me the finest caviar while massaging my temples so that I arrive relaxed and ready for anything.

If only…

Of course the reality is much more down-to-earth, but you know I wouldn’t enjoy knowing that my mode of transport was powered by liquidized baby Pandas while the inflight meal was the result of nine-year-old girls squeezing eggs out of fish for a penny a day (and that’s the middle-management wage for the fish-squeezing industry).

So I pootle along to my assignments in my trusty, and actually rather economical, diesel Ford Focus. Another Panda gets to live, a fish gets to lay its eggs where fish eggs should be laid, and the circle of life remains largely un-interrupted by my activities (until I hit a pheasant on a B road, which is always a bit distressing).

I’m the kind of person who is pathologically early to assignments. I’m either ten minutes early (rare) or, more commonly, an hour early. Well, it gives me time to find the last parking space in the universe and work out the mathematics of 20p for every 12 minutes at the parking meter, discover I need a small mortgage and a hundred weight in £1 coins to park the car long enough to cover the hour that I’m early, plus the 4 hours I need to do my job, at which point I discover the maximum stay is 3 hours with no return allowed before the next equinox at which point my head explodes and I start to daydream of helicopters, caviar and temple lobe massages.

chicken's arse

I’ve photographed some weird things, including a chicken’s bum for thechickenvet.co.uk

All this stress is more than made up for though by the joy of making pictures and pleasing my clients (aw). And even if most of my work seems routine when described in terms of portraits, people at work, processes and the like, believe me nothing is ever routine. It may not all be glamour and excitement, but receiving an enthusiastic response to my photos makes it all worth while. And sometimes I get to do some really fun stuff too. I get to see things not many people see. Some of which I would tell you about, but it’s top secret and it would take me too long to kill you all.

So next time you want to lavish me with helicopters or First Class travel, save your fish eggs, dancing girls and gift boxed Rolex. A parking space will do nicely.

I’ll be away next week, but will return refreshed and ready to blog again.

Take care, each and every one of you…

Crikey! Let’s save some money!

Many businesses are understandably looking to cut costs in these tricky times. Since the start of the credit crikey* one area where businesses have sought to cut those costs is in the photography they commission. They have looked to achieve this either through using more stock imagery (though that often ends up costing more than commissioned work) or by shooting the photos in-house, using whichever member of staff might be available and have a suitably “professional”-looking camera.

Of course I’ve watched as some of my own clients have gone through these motions, though I’m glad to say that for the most part they come back to me once they realise it’s not so easy to get the photos that help their business do better.

For many marketing managers though, the quest continues. The camera manufacturers keep putting out the hype about how their camera will help you shoot like a pro (didn’t the last camera they made promise that? and the one before it, and the one before that, and the one…) and off they go to the camera shop, or Amazon, with the company credit card in hand ready to splurge on the latest piece of Japanese jewelry, to the tune of a sum not dissimilar to a day’s fee for a properly-equipped professional who will have some things the Nikanon Powercool 1,000Ti won’t have; training, experience, an eye for what works and what doesn’t and a view of the design brief for the brochure or website into which the pictures need to sit.

barbary lion

Get closer with your iPhone. Go on, I want to see what happens…

So when I saw this headline “The iPhone Fashion Shoot” I thought “here we go again.” Or something along those lines. Because many will see such titles and think, well if the iPhone is good enough to shoot fashion photos then it’s good enough for the company headhots! To those people, I suggest reading the article first. It’s certainly interesting to see what is possible with a humble iPhone, several thousand pounds’ worth of lighting in a studio, with hair and makeup artists primping models to perfection, and after the shoot having all the shortcomings of the original shots taken out by a lab of Photoshop professionals.

The point is, it wouldn’t matter if the iPhone had the most incredible built-in camera in the world. The camera doesn’t take the picture, the photographer does, and the camera can’t even conceive a photo before it’s taken – again, that’s what the photographer does.

To the credit of the author of the iPhone piece, they admit the phone itself is just a tiny part of the process. In effect, they were just looking to see what was possible, regardless of the other requirements of the shoot, and to that extent it was an interesting experiment.

But if you have a company and an iPhone, or even a camera bag full of all sorts of expensive toys, I would suggest you think about the one piece missing from your Billingham bag of shiny things. The professional.

*A phrase I first saw used by the World’s greatest living wedding photographer.

What price a portrait?

corporate portrait of businessman in Bristol

A corporate portrait can be more than a mugshot.

I should start by explaining that this article isn’t talking about family portraits or photos for the mantelpiece. What I’m talking about here is the business portrait. The corporate headshot for the profile page of a commercial website, newsletter or chairman’s statement in the annual report.

Why is this distinction important? Mainly for licensing reasons. If you go to a high street photographic studio and have photos taken you will probably pay about £30 for a sitting, and £100 for a print to hang on the wall. And personal use is all you’ll be allowed of that photo. Commercial use would require payment of an extra fee, and I suspect most studios wouldn’t be happy handing over an original digital file for that use as you could then get your own reprints done, which would of course breach the photographer’s copyright.

When you have a photographer visit your offices to take portraits for the company website/brochure etc, you’re not paying for prints for personal use (though you can probably buy those if you want), instead you’re paying a licence fee to use the images for corporate use. This is a different kind of agreement with the photographer and the pricing structure is different.

Of course if you book a photographer and then just have a single headhsot done, it can work out relatively expensive. Perhaps £250 to get a small selection of images for use across various media. But if you line up a few headshots to be taken at the same time, the cost will rise but the individual price for each headshot will drop quite dramatically.

It’s often quite difficult to explain this concept to clients who will say “well it’s only some portraits, they shouldn’t take long.” The thing is, in commercial and corporate photography, it isn’t just the time taken to get the shots that you’re being charged for, but also the commercial (as opposed to domestic) value of the photos. Remember, these photos are part of your marketing, and hopefully will help your business make more money. They may not be used as prominently as your product shots, or general photos of your business operation, but they’re all part of the mix and to have any value to your business, they have to be good. Which requires skill, time and equipment to achieve.

In short, you need to give the humble head and shoulders photo some respect and also understand that what you’re paying for is a combination of the photographer’s skill, experience and time on the commission, as well as a fee for the commercial exploitation of the results.

And what is that worth? As I said earlier, if you hire a photographer to take just one headshot you could easily pay £250 for that, maybe more. Get a batch of portraits done in half a day and the rate might rise to around £500, but if 10 portraits are done, that works out at £50 per head. That’s less than you’d pay for a 10-inch print to hang on your wall at home, and your clients can’t even see that photo. Unless they’ve broken into your house.

Decisions, decisions…

Since the start of the recession, many businesses have had to adjust to a new reality. Everyone is in competition with everyone else and the only growth sector has been the printing of money as the Government bailed out banks to prevent a crisis in the luxury yacht industry.

For most of us though it comes down to hard decisions on what we invest in to help grow our businesses and what we cut back on to save the bottom line. Do you lay off the chauffeur and spend the money you save on a new website? Sell your children’s kidneys to fund an advertising campaign? All difficult decisions. Since my children don’t smoke or drink and can function perfectly well with only one of each vital organ, it’s been a bit of a no-brainer for me (which is handy since I sold my brain), but some of you may have tougher choices to make.

So when it comes to deciding on whether to refresh the photography on your website, or buy a new iPad or new leather-faced office chair, let’s think about which of those things will help your business the most.

The chair is lovely to sit on, meaning you’ll spend more time at your desk fielding crank calls from angry customers or playing solitaire on the PC while pretending to fill in the forecast spreadsheet for next year. What good is a forecast anyway? You predicted 18% growth for the last financial year, only to have to revise it last-minute by adding a “-” to that figure so forecasts are as useful as business plans or bets on the dogs.

You’re not sure why, but in your heart you know the iPad will help grow your business. Ok, in your heart of hearts (the one that isn’t real so can’t be sold on the black market) you know you just “want” it because you do, but you’re desperate to justify the silly cost on what is essentially half a laptop with a solitaire app built in. Now you can pretend to fill in spreadsheets while on the move. Amazing.

yellow ice lolly

Whatever you sell, it needs to look ent”ice”ing.

This is the bit where I say tah-dah! and announce that what you really need is some top-notch photography because that is what will help your business in a very positive way, and right now your business needs all the help it can get.

So there I’ve said it. Get some decent corporate photography. It sounds self-serving for me to say it, and not as fun as a new executive chair or an iPad, but if you look back to the start of this piece I said that everyone is in competition with everyone else. If one truth can be truer than another, this one is: You’re not just in competition with other businesses in your sector. You’re in competition with every other business out there since most people only have a finite amount of money to spend, and more often than not they’ll spend it on the shiny things. Every business is in competition with every other business, and nowhere more so than on the web.

How can photography help? By using professional photography, in a professionally-designed website or brochure with well-written copy, properly set up for search engines, you can make your product or service more findable and desirable than not only your direct competitors offerings, but also all the indirect ones competing for the same pot of money.

After all, what was it made you desire the iPad and the shiny office chair? Was it the rubbish photography and the cheap-looking ad campaign and website?

How big is the ideal chip?

Which do you prefer? Big, fat, crunchy chips, or crispy, delicate, skinny fries? Personally I go for either, so long as they’re cooked well and not dry and mealy.

Of course this is a clunky metaphor for the chips in digital cameras, a subject I’ve covered before, but this time I’m going to demonstrate the difference between a large chip on the Canon 5D (identical in size to a 35mm film negative) and the smaller chip in the Canon G11 compact camera and how this relates to depth of field in photography (how far behind and in front of the point of focus is also sharp). Now bear in mind I’m not talking about the pixel count, but the physical size of the chip.

Also, this isn’t a camera review. You can read dozens of those on sites such as dpreview.com which do a grand job of organising all the geeky info, doing bench tests and what-have-yous. I merely want to show the difference that chip size has on how pictures look.

So to continue the foodie theme, let’s get to the meat of the issue. Here you see two very similar photos. One taken with the Canon 5D (a full-frame SLR) and the other with the G11 compact camera.

commercial photo of electric scooter in sicily

Canon 5D background is softer.

Electric scooter in Sicily

G11: Background is clearer.

What you’ll notice is that the background in the shot taken with the 5D is much more out of focus than the shot taken with the G11. Factors which affect this depth of field are aperture, lens focal length and chip size.

The focal lengths aren’t massively dissimilar; 135mm on the 5D, 115mm on the G11, and the apertures are f5.6 and f4.5 respectively. But the biggest influence on making the bike “pop” out of the background is the effect of the chip size on depth of field, and this is where the D5 has more control. Not necessarily a bad thing that the G11 will always have a deeper depth of field. It means more of the bike can stay sharp, while the lens can use a larger aperture and gather more light to gain the same exposure.

Photographers will use a fine depth of field to emphasise certain elements of an image, but other tricks can be used when you have less control of depth of field, such as switching to a more dramatic lens angle and simplifying the background, which is what you see in the photo below.

electric scooter in sicily

G11: Change of angle + darker background = more drama.

I said this isn’t a camera review, but I have to say I was very impressed with the G11 once I’d learned how to squeeze every ounce of quality out of its tiny chip. It’s not as quick as an SLR, but if you can anticipate well it’ll give you results you’d find surprising. I love that I can trigger my portable studio lighting using wireless triggers on the G11’s hotshoe, and that I can fire flash at higher shutter speeds than are available in normal flash modes on the D5. The only downside is that pulling the image up to 100% on screen shows the quality difference between the G11 with its tightly packed 10 million pixels, and the D5 with 12.8 million with more room to breathe on a bigger chip, but for web images it’s stunning.