By Gary Rabenko
Being a freelance photographer is far sweeter than being a studio owner these days. I was a freelancer for half my career and, in many ways, I envy today’s freelancers. Freelancers work for other photographers. It’s fun. Show up, do what you want, and you don’t even have to do any post-production work or keep backup files.
It used to be prestigious to have a studio. Today, it is not appreciated. Work is done on computers, which can be at home or a tropical island. Shoots are done on location. Gear is small and light and quite portable. What exactly is a studio today? It should be a group of larger and smaller talents working together under one director to meet the client’s needs, in an environment designed for control of lighting, backgrounds, and set building. But most studios now do very little work in-house. Everything is sent out. Armies of pixel pushers in different time zones across the seas are available to serve an individual photographer just as if he had a large staff.
And the public prefers this. They want to pay cut-rate prices, get turnaround that excludes any meaningful thought, and they value their requested customizations over more sophisticated design that they don’t take the time to understand or appreciate. They want what they want, which they saw a friend had, even though it makes little sense, looks foolish, and is not special. Today, it makes sense to have an office. And that is what the few non-freelancers are doing. An office means no walk-in traffic, no babysitting the shop, no regular hours.
Serious customers call to make an appointment. The Internet has made being local less meaningful. For every bride’s mom excited that I am local, there is a daughter, the bride, who has already begun shopping online. She feels mature making her own grownup decision, even though she has little experience evaluating art. The bride likes something because it is different. Yes. But it is not good, and it is not her!
A photographer today is considered more of an individual, both in spirit and as a business. Customers do not expect a formal brick-and-mortar business. In speaking to many customers, it is obvious they are happy dealing with someone on an individual basis. If the studio owner is the lead photographer, then many insist on him being at the event, while not expecting to pay more than for another studio that might send out ten photographers in a day. Customers do not understand that the very many steps from shoot to project completion benefit from personalization and thought. Album design and video editing mean something. But only if time for thought is budgeted will a design or an edit be purposeful.
Volume and quality don’t mix. Traditionally, freelancers mostly worked for other photographers who needed larger crews and had more work. The studio dealt with the client, trained and assembled crews, and then dealt with production later. Production at some studios consisted merely of sending work to a lab. Other studios went far deeper into the craft with image retouching, manipulation, and studio photo sessions. A handful of better studios had the more customized heavy post-production craftsmanship, with trained personnel.
Some of those developed a huge reputation by combining quality with volume. But most large studios did volume, without quality. The only way to have both is to have serious standards that involve training, motivating, coordinating, and team building. Because today’s freelancers get paid pretty much the same regardless of their skills or level, it is hard to have training sessions. That leaves a few old-time trained photographers, who do what they do, while most freelancers believe they know everything and do not want to learn they don’t.
Countless websites often owned by neophytes claim to teach professional techniques. But their definition of “professional” involves having shot a few events, not being highly skilled or trained for years by the masters who knew the science and art of imagery. I met with the lady I mentioned last week, who had called for photography instruction and had said that there are a lot of faux photographers out there. She was frustrated after spending some money on books that did not teach, or were conflicting.
I moved to Woodmere because I loved the light these large panes of glass provide. But clients usually prefer photos on location, in their homes, at the beach, or in their offices. Large groups are rare. People tell me they want to bring their whole family in, but cannot get them together and, for those who are lucky with scheduling, it seems to make sense to do it in the parents’ or grandparents’ homes.
Lately, I have been on a miniaturization kick and I love showing what I can do in a small space! Work gets done without interruptions from walk-ins asking if we do passport photos, or a longer visit regarding the wedding of a daughter, who in the end books someone she found online!
Customers are fine with photos that look marginally better than their own snapshots. So ignorance is bliss and both client and studio are happy until they evaluate their own photos. Skilled photographers can get great results with little gear in a small space. The public and pros often do not know how to judge. So why would they invest more in photography? And the best photographers have always been here to cater to a small group of selective clients.
The bottom line is, freelancers have all the fun being free spirits and getting paid well. But they don’t get the appreciation and satisfaction of an adoring public. For an artist, that is the real payment! v
Gary Rabenko can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Rabenko Photography & Video Artists is located at 1001 Broadway in Woodmere.