The five most difficult questions to answer in photography

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All questions lead to some sort of decision tree, chain of causality, whatever you want to call it: branching to many ends, some of them dead.

These questions may be technically difficult, contextually difficult, commercially difficult, diplomatically difficult or all four – but at some point, we’ve all had to face them. Some of us more than others. And the real challenge is that the answer always depends on who’s asking. Read on if you dare.

“Is it a good image? Does it work? What do you think?”
Firstly: photography is a subjective and selective interpretation of the world, which means that there are no absolutes. This in turn means that descriptors like ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are immaterial and personally biased: there is no such thing as a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ or ‘good’ or ‘bad’ photograph, perhaps with the exception of the image that claims it’s a catalog shot of a car but shows a horse instead (and no car). Or if the image is supposed to accompany an article about something but doesn’t carry any elements/subjects of the story in an obvious way. Fortunately, absolutes such as that are very, very few – I can think of several conceptual advertising situations in which you may well want to have pictures of horses instead of cars (e.g. a Ford Mustang ad, or perhaps an ad for the very first car with the tagline “someday, these won’t be pulling wagons”). What works for you may not work or me, and vice versa –

The problem with this question is that it’s a very loaded one: if the person asking is asking about their own work, there is a high chance that they want to hear an answer in the affirmative or positive. If they’re asking about a competitor, they probably want to hear in the negative and that their own work is better. If they’re your student, then they probably want an honest answer. And don’t get me started on the possible universe of motivations if it’s a client asking. With many attempts at honesty and diplomacy under my belt, the only thing I can say for sure is that there is no ‘right’ or ‘good’ answer here other than the one the questioner expects to hear.

“You’re a photographer. Would you mind taking a few pictures of X for me?”
The next logical question should be ‘do you have a budget’? The simple truth is that if you are doing this for a living, it should never be free. If you build cars or work in a restaurant you don’t expect free cars or meals. You might get a discretionary discount, but a friend of all people should know better than to expect this. I do my best to pay full or market price to friends I do business with unless they insist otherwise (and they usually will, because they can see you respect them). You might give a discretionary discount if you really like the person, or do it for free if you owe them a favour, but this should be used judiciously. The problem is, the discussion usually ends with the ‘do you have a budget?’ reply. I would never expect anybody to do anything for free, especially if it’s how they make their livelihood. Doing so says very clearly that you have no respect for that person nor do you value their skills – but if that’s the case, why are you asking at all?

“Can’t you fix that in photoshop?”
Actually, this is an easy question to answer: No. It’s the explanation that’s the difficult part. In the mind of the general public – and sadly most marketing and creative people on the client side (agencies are rubbing their hands at the prospect of extra DI billing), Photoshop is both a dirty word and a saviour of laziness: don’t bother polishing the car properly, you can take out the paint swirls afterwards in Photoshop. Err…no, you can’t. That would require re-rendering every single panel of the car. Similarly, please do not handle and play with every single watch with your bare hands before giving to to me to shoot. I have to clean a ‘factory fresh’ new piece for about 30 minutes to remove all visible dust before I shoot it, and even then, I still have to spend half a day retouching out dust you can’t see with your naked eye, but your camera can – and your magazines and billboards can, too. Adding fingerprint oil makes it a lot more difficult to remove small particles, contaminates cleaning cloths, and on top of that, sometimes things just aren’t fixable – like scratches from rings etc.

Then there’s cutting things out and putting them on other backgrounds. I honestly hate these kind of composites because it is physically impossible to match lighting of background and subject; even if you get direction and diffusion right, there’s no way to put back those little reflections and color changes that the eye picks up on subconsciously to signal ‘real’ or not. And it’s one thing to specify that this has to be done upfront before the shoot so we can use a green screen, but it’s quite another to ask us to take it out later – reflective objects show everything…

I suppose you could always say “yes, what’s your budget? There’s photography and then there’s digital illustration…”

“How much do you charge?” (See also: the pricing game)
I admit this is one step up from the second question. But not by much: pricing is an elaborate dance where you have to figure out how to meet your expectations and the client’s at the same time, or at least come very close. The problem is that they’re always wildly different: most of the time the client wants to pay perhaps 20% of what you want to charge, but there have been times when it was the other way around and I left kicking myself. Everybody expects a bit of variance before the opening negotiation dance, but if that variance is too great, it starts to lead to other questions such as “That’s all? Are you sure he’s good?” or “How much? I could buy the cameras and do it myself.” By all means, I say.

Again, after much consideration and getting it very wrong, the only conclusion I can come to is that the price has to be set by you, and is at a level you are happy with. At very least, you should have some idea of your own value. This should only ever increase with time as your experience and the quality of your work increases. Be confident enough to walk away from jobs where the expectations are too different: even if the client can pay, they’ll always be unhappy because they feel like they’ve paid too much, and you’ll always be unhappy because you feel like you were paid too little. I can guarantee you’re not going to feel creative under these conditions, they’ll probably go away and complain about the price tag, and you’ll go away feeling resentful and shortchanged: bad for everybody. In the long term, discounting only ever leads to the expectation of more discounting, which eventually leads to zero. That is clearly unsustainable. Charge what you think you should charge, and stick to your guns.

“What [insert piece of equipment] should I buy? Is “x” good?”
There is this answer, and then there is the real reason why I hate these questions. It’s because the question itself is utterly meaningless: I have no idea what kind of images you make, what kind of images you want to make, how you shoot, how you see, where you live or what your budget is. On the face of it, this might seem arrogant and irrelevant – but think about it for a moment: how can you recommend a tool without knowing what the tool is going to be used for, and under what kind of environment? I wouldn’t recommend anything with small buttons for somebody living in the Arctic Circle, for instance.

Things like the size and shape of your hands matter, because what feels great ergonomically for me might be a disaster for you – and vice versa. The Df is a good example of that. Very small things might make more of a difference than you think: the strap lugs on most Olympus cameras drive me mad, for instance. And I’m constantly annoyed by how little resistance the dials on a Leica have; they’re far too easily reset. Yet there are other small things which might make or break a fairly unexceptional piece of hardware – the grip shape on the D750, for instance, is utterly magical to my hands. It might not be for you, though. There’s no point in me recommending something I like, either: I think the Pentax 645Z is a great all-round device for me, because I know my output demands high resolution to translate an idea effectively, but you may only ever want enough resolution to post to Facebook.

The thing is, even if you provide all of this information – and nobody ever does, thankfully – it would take me a long time to digest to a level where I can actually make a meaningful recommendation. I don’t even know what the ideal camera is for me, for crying out loud – this is why I have a number of options on hand – and I’m fairly certain about what I shoot and how I shoot it. It is an impossible question to answer without being clairvoyant. People seem to get annoyed when you can’t answer it, or won’t answer it, or explain why you can’t and won’t answer it. But then, I think things simplify dramatically: what they really want is a validation of their own choices to assuage their ego. And that is simple: the answer is buy whatever you want to buy and whatever makes you feel good. That must clearly be the right camera for you since the primary objective is not photography. MT


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  1. Lucy March says:

    Funny you should mention the proper camera for the high Arctic, Ming, as I am going there next month. Does this mean I get to buy a new camera? 🙂 Oh, right, what you actually said was, “living in the Arctic Circle”. Fingerless gloves it is then 🙂

  2. I love the tree image you posted here – it is so sharp, clear, and detailed. Beautiful!

    Love the article, too. I’m a freelance writer and a lot of it applies to what I do as well. My favorite answer of yours is the photoshop one, though. 🙂


    HTC embarrassed themselves globally but can take solace in the fact saved the costs of hiring a pro.

  4. You can make a drama of eny question .. or simply & honsetly answer: “No!” or “I do not know!”

  5. Pavel P. says:

    🙂 written with touch of humor

  6. I imagine pricing must be a nightmare – how do you cope with international differences in pricing? I work in IT consulting and I had a unpleasant conversation with an agent (in Malaysia, actually) regarding pricing. Unpleasant because she thought I was asking way too much, and I could understand her point but thought her “market rate” was unrealistic. Then she started complaining that it was hard to find people with the specialized skillset needed, whereas in other countries I actually felt embarrassed with the amount they were paying, it seemed far too high!…Do you calculate your fees the same way everywhere, or have a different “rate card” for each country you deal with?

    • Sadly, your experience in Malaysia is typical. The country is played by low quality and poor implementation because there is no money left to pay for skilled workers after the top levels have skimmed off their cut. I simply do almost no work in Malaysia because of this. It’s unsustainable, and unfair for my international clients.

  7. Simple Ming… Just print these questions on the back of your business card, with a prologue – “Do NOT ask me these questions!”

  8. winedemonium says:

    I tend to use my cameras in reverse order of image resolution potential – D810 and Otus least, Leica M next, then Ricoh GR, then iPhone 5. I shoot, therefore in order of convenience. I know no single camera will be Goldilocks. Why should it? A 1:1 macro Ultraprint capable camera isn’t likely to suit family snaps gathered for dinner. At least not for me anyway.

    In the very least, the camera no one should own (unless professionally compelled perhaps?) is the one that makes the photographer less motivated to shoot, and that answer – for me at least – is entirely purpose specific.

    • I’d actually argue that no camera that doesn’t motivate you to shoot for some reason – be it the experience or the output or both – really doesn’t deserve your money at all…

      Agreed on family snaps, by the way. They don’t require or merit ultraprints and I don’t think I’ve ever used anything other than the most convenient hardware for that…

  9. “How much do you charge?” Oh boy, this one resonates. I don’t charge for my photography, because I’m a teacher by profession and frankly my photography isn’t good enough to charge for, but today something happened which really made this point clear. I was asked by an acquaintance to proofread and correct a (quite difficult) text which had been translated from Japanese to English. I met this acquaintance to go over some of the finer points of the wording, and he asked me if I wanted paying for it. No, I said, I don’t do this kind of thing for a living, but I enjoy the challenge. No, no, no, he said, I insist on paying you. Fine. My hourly rate to teach is (x) and I reckon this should take me an hour or two to do properly, so how about that? He then said that he had conferred with the writer of the (Japanese) original, and he would be happy to pay (a LOT more than my “x”). Talk about a dance…we settled on somewhere in the middle.

    The whole “charging” thing could also be heavily influenced by culture. The Japanese are, by and large, an honourable people, and they’re generally not into the idea of asking someone to do something without offering something in return. Heck, you could write an entire research paper on the complexities of social exchange in Japan. Whereas other cultures are more than happy to try and pressure someone into doing something for nothing.

    Without divulging specifics, do you consider your prices to be a) lower than, b) competitive with, or c) higher than, the competition? I ask because you’re so damn good at what you do that I would expect your rates to be comparatively high. This is also an interesting part of the psyche in Japan: people often assume that if you charge a lot, you are good; indeed I’ve heard it said that the Japanese are more comforted by a high price than a low one, as it implies expertise…

    • I’m generally lower because I also have to work against the expectation of being Asian and therefore cheap…as sad as it sounds. I have seen some very amateur ‘photographers’ charging (and getting away with) a fortune here because they’re western…and then doing silly things like attempting lighting with nothing but the auto pop up flash. They even get paid for it. The mind boggles…

  10. The “what camera should I buy” and “what’s the BEST camera” questions come from two different directions for me. One is friends asking, and there are times when I know how they want to pursue photography, so I can narrow some choices for them. The other, which is annoying, is questions like that from business owners, because you know they think they can do it themselves. To those people, I simply state “the camera with me behind it.” While that may sound arrogant to some, a business owner asking this really has no interest in commissioning a photographer.

    • You’d be surprised. I’ve even gotten that question from people who are photographers attempting to bid for the same jobs…

      • As bad as it sounds, that was one way to figure out pricing. The biggest roadblock in front of many beginning photographers is knowing what to charge. I’ve usually been open about bid ranges, and I’ve helped some photographer friends of mine write bids. Unfortunately there are some old guys who are either protective or fearful of such information. Protective, when they don’t want competition. Fearful because ASMP was sued by some ad agencies three decades ago. Meanwhile designers and illustration professionals enjoy the Handbook of Pricing and Ethical Guidelines, which actually helps in writing bids in those professions. This lack of price transparency, or even a range of guidelines, is one of the things that I strongly feel is killing the photography profession.

        • True. But how do you adjust for quality/ subjectivity/ preference and personal bias? It isn’t the same as say, surgical services, which are a lot more outcome-based.

          It also doesn’t help that no two jobs are the same, and I’m sure every experienced photographer has some sort of internal algorithm to figure out price by shot vs time (I always think of it like a taxi meter’s distance v time calculation). The truth is unless I sit down and work out exactly what has to be done and any additional costs that will be incurred, I can’t actually tell you what it’d cost with that much accuracy.

          • I started out doing illustration, and the Graphic Artist’s Guild Handbook was a great help. Prices were based upon surveys of similar work. A range of price levels was listed. In some cases, the size of the company/publication/project was shown on expanded tables with price ranges. Sample guideline contracts were included, which were free to use and modify (I recommend getting an attorney to review contracts). Certainly none of this was simple, and illustration is tough due to the wide range of styles and approaches. The Graphic Artist’s Guild Handbook includes tables for graphic design too.

            Granted it would take quite a bit of time an effort to create a similar Handbook for photographers. I think some survey data is out there. A Photo Editor does share some of the higher end projects on his website, though it’s not always easy to scale those projects towards other work. All this makes many photographers want to go back to dayrates, since those were easy for clients to understand. The problem is that dayrates are not appropriate on ad campaigns and large corporate projects. I’ve lost a few jobs years ago from bidding too low, and I’m thankful that art directors gave me a call in those instances telling me why I was too low, and how I missed getting those projects.

            One thing I do quite often is charge 5% of ad spend (from their budget), plus expenses, for ad campaign projects. When the client knows how images will be published, for how long, and how many places, then 5% doesn’t look too bad to them. Obviously on really low budget projects, the 5% would be too low for me to take on a project. On very large projects, where ad spend is ongoing and tougher to determine, then I ask for the top three publishing choices, and base the 5% off those page rates. Quite often this does not work on corporate projects, unless many impressions are to be printed.

            • I’ve tried asking for that in the past, but was told they didn’t want to disclose their budgets!

              • I’ve run into that a few times. Some art buyers use that as a negotiating tactic. About the only thing I can do to work around it is to where the images will be published, and for what length of time. After that I need to look up what page rates, or billboard rates, those publications charge, and figure out the ad spend. These are the types of things that take a day to write a proposal. Big pain in the ass. I probably come in too high on most of these. This is definitely the part of this business that sucks. If the art directors and agencies understood the value of experience in producing images, they would treat us better. Some of them do, but too often the newer people in the industry just try to slam everyone. Ever look at the job description for an Art Buyer? 😦

                • I don’t think any of them looked at the job description for ‘creative director’, either – in Malaysia, they’re not creative and can’t direct most of the time!

      • I think that is different than trying to poach a bid from someone. I never hand out information on projects I bid on, while they are still in the decision process. There are photographers in the US who do this too, though thankfully they are the exception.

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