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My Biggest Competitor

John Paul

13 min read

Feb 15, 2022

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Originally Published on February 15, 2022


  Years ago, when I started out, professional photography was a trade, and a skill that took years to develop, along with a lot of time, and money, which has eroded quite a bit since then, thanks to modern technology. A professional photographer typically had their own B&W processing equipment and spent many hours honing their craft, as well as making prints for publishers, or whoever would buy our work. We shot transparency film / “slide film” for magazines, and typically color or B&W print film for newspapers, portraits, weddings/ events, and our film was something that art directors would judge us on because there was no “Photoshopping” our film. Hence the term “Get it in the negative”. We typically had more reverence for our lens collection than the camera body that pushed the film, unlike today, where people are asking. “What camera are you using?”.. instead of “What lens are you using?”.  


When digital cameras became more practical and affordable to use, all that time and money invested in learning our medium became less relevant for modern photography jobs. I used to make a decent living shooting events, showing up with my camera, and looking for small groups of people, in which I had to collect names, write my own slugs, and turn in a sheet of negatives for a magazine to go through and pick the images they want to publish, and I would get paid based on the number of images they ran. I also shot for newspapers, and magazines as a stringer if needed, in an area where they didn’t have a staff photographer and made good money doing that too. Also, back in those days, I was so busy with weddings, I would rather “shoot & scoot” than sell prints. I’d sell my film rolls after the event to the client, plus my booking fee, and I’d walk away with more money then, than I do now, 20 + years later, because of changes in technology and the market, including demand for professional photography.     


Fast forward to 2022, my biggest competitor by far, is not the top photographers in my area, but rather, the “I have a friend who has a nice camera”.. photographer…  We all started doing what we do now, as a beginner, yes, but we were dedicated to our fields of study. We went to school to learn how to do what we do, and dedicated time in our lives and money invested in learning our stock and trade because we are dedicated to our careers. My beginnings were similar. Instead of going to a trade school to learn photography, I became an assistant for local commercial photographers and worked in most cases for nothing, but I got to learn things that were never taught in a classroom setting. I managed part-time jobs in portrait studios, and even landed a staff position at CNI Newspapers, because my portfolio showed photos of people, action, portraits, sports, editorial, and products, rather than the typical things their editor saw on a daily basis from college-educated photographers, like train tracks, tree bark, their nude friends under a sheet, green peppers, eggs, family members smiling at the camera….. etc. I also had my own darkroom, owned fast lenses for my Canon system, and was given a 1-day ride-along training. The next day, I was hired, provided a PRESS Pass, and became a Photojournalist. I was also shooting weddings with professionals in the field as their assistant, and quickly took on the role of doing much of the shooting, and began taking on my own work via word of mouth, and officially launched my business in 1996.


So, I talk with a potential client who contacts me through my website, because their friend whose wedding, or portraits, etc.. looked nice to them, typically asks me how much do I charge, rather than what I can offer them, as their first question. Unfortunately, I pretty much know where the end of the conversation is heading, and that is usually the: “Oh…  yeah…  well… you do great work, and my sister loved the wedding photos you took for them…but your fee is just waaaaay too much for us with everything that we are paying for, on our (biggest, & most important) big day, that we will have to go with our friend who has a nice camera, who is starting out, and wants to learn how to shoot weddings. To which I say…  well… best of luck…(you’re going to need it!).  Bye. 


Horror Stories:


1. I am a member of a professional photography forum with a variety of members from beginners to legal professionals. One of the more recently common questions asked to the group is: “Does anyone know a good Hard Drive repair service?”  Why do they ask..? Well, because their laptop contained one or more.. perhaps several weddings, that got a little behind them, and have procrastinated in completing on time, are not accessible any longer, because their computer had some sort of major malfunction, and they never bothered backing up any of their images, not even to a thumb drive, or any other device, or external hard drives, and are now scrambling, trying to figure out how much it will cost to extract that data, IF it can be accessed, OR coming up with some sort of “I’m sorry but” story, to tell their wedding couples, who are eagerly waiting to see their memories from their Big, Emotional, Expensive, Day…but…instead, they get a text…explaining what went wrong…  Well… what are you going to do, squeeze blood from a turnip..? They don’t have indemnification insurance, nor are they worth anything, or have any tangible assets, and so now, you are totally screwed! (which was predictable)..    


2. I was about to meet with a Bride and her Mom to go over a contract signing, and deposit to lock in the date for their wedding. I was very familiar with the church, the reception area, and the parks/attractions in the area, but… just before I arrived, they had already made up their mind to go with Dad’s advice, who told them about this “guy from his job who owns a nice camera”..  Oh… well, if you change your mind, please let me know, hopefully before that date closes up for some other happy couple! (which it did) Good Luck..!     


A few years later, I ran into that bride with her hubby, and we talked about their wedding, which they both told me over and over… “We wish we would have gone with you instead of listening to him.”.. (I’m thinking Hmmm…  I can only imagine)… They sent me the gallery of photos that they got from this guy who Dad thought was up to par with a pro shooter of many years, simply because of his “nice camera”.. who gladly accepted the job of shooting his daughter’s wedding, regardless of his total lack of experience in photographing people. He took some fairly nice photos of flowers… and birds.. well… some of them were ok… most of his photos from what I saw on his MySpace page were not even publishable for any sort of editorial work from what I have seen. The photos he took, well… He lacked basic knowledge of “good lighting”, and pretty much every picture was taken with a person, or group, looking right at the camera and smiling.. just what Dad wanted, after all, he was paying for the photography and didn’t want to spend a lot). The pop-up flash on his camera, which features a “red-eye pre-flash” burst of light, which is supposed to reduce the effect of “redeye”..actually makes most people blink instead…  and instead of correcting that, or taking multiple shots, just to have more selections to pick from, etc. He only had 1 photo of any particular shot and appeared to not even check for exposure, or quality after taking a photo. The “quality of lighting” was very harsh, at best, with the “better-exposed shots”. Nearly every single shot was either badly overexposed or badly underexposed, like what one would expect from a guy with a new camera, who has not conquered the concept of “good exposure” (or quality lighting) yet. He was also quite a good dancer from what I hear…  smh….However, he ran out of memory, so he couldn’t take any photos after the first dance, which was just the beginning of the party time. He missed the Father Daughter Dance…(Sorry Dad!) Mother Son Dance, bouquet toss, open dance floor, anniversary dance, party photos…  etc. But at least they got “something” back from this “Guy with a nice camera”…which were photos that make them cry when talking about their wedding day…  and not in a beautiful way…  Sadly, the couple’s relationship with  her Father has been strained, even though he went into this with the best intentions.. Paying for the photography, but recommending someone who has not been tested with photographing people, ever. I feel bad for everyone involved, with the exception of the photographer who they hired, because he should have known his limitations and should have declined if he had any integrity. 


3. I don’t know if this is true or not, but I’d say it is very plausible, given how some people are. I was told about a photographer in Chicago who hit a bar after his first wedding, and brought his flashy-looking camera along with him, which he wore with pride over his shoulder, and put it down on the bar to show some ladies his awesome pictures from the day. Somehow, perhaps with his consumption of alcohol, he got distracted and forgot where he placed his nifty camera and experienced a sobering moment when he realized that it was gone, along with the memory card, that contained all of those awesome photos that generated Oohs and Aahs from the cuties at the bar… I hear that he posted some sort of “If you come across wedding photos taken of (supplied photos from guests)..this couple, please just send me the memory card. You can keep my camera, I just want the photos” on various message boards. I hope that worked for them.       


4.  New photographer, new camera, no backup camera/ equipment. Guess what comes next? “Friend with a nice camera” shoots a wedding…  not their first, but they were pretty new to professional photography… which didn’t last much longer from what I heard. This friend had some sort of catastrophic camera malfunction, and rather than pulling out a 2nd body, or lens..  whichever, because they only had 1 camera with 1 lens, and 1 flash, she resorted to using her smartphone for the rest of the day/ night. Even when I started out, I always had a 2nd camera body, multiple lenses, flash equipment, etc.. because these electronics, no matter how cool they are, can fail. Just because something is “New”… doesn’t automatically make it full proof. 


   Things can go wrong, and they always do in the most unexpected moments. Camera equipment can get dropped, dunked in water, inadvertently slammed into by a guest, or some strange electronic/mechanical malfunction can occur. I recently had a DJ move my flash rig camera, without asking me, which broke an expensive off-camera flash cord that costs $129.00 locally. I just popped on a new cord that I kept as a spare, and within 45 seconds I was good to go. I’ve had flashes mounted to light stands that took to the wind and crashed…  awe shucks.. I just eat that cost if it is my fault… and put on a spare flash, and resume where I left, rather than making excuses, because I can't, I'm a professional.  I know better and I have a LOT of people depending on the performance of my equipment.  


5. Similar to Horror Story number 1, there are plenty of really heartbreaking testimonials from couples who hired some less than professional people out there…. who took their money, and maybe shot their wedding…(I have a cousin whose photographer never showed up to their wedding!)  and never delivered their pictures. (another reason why I use my Full Name as my Business Name) You often hear about these stories in the local news, after they do an ambush interview of this total reckless idiot, who took their money and their dreams, and never delivered. Unfortunately, in the Milwaukee area, we have an infamous local (former) photographer, who engaged in criminal conduct (extortion), who threatened couples with the destruction of their photos if they didn’t give him more money… much much more money… Yep, our local jerk with a camera, made the news alright! I happen to know the bride, whose husband is an attorney who brought the matter to the DA. That being said, I’m not sure a “friend” would do that to another friend, BUT… I do know of several (now former) friends who were hired over me, or another professional photographer, who ghosted their friend’s wedding, and either never bothered showing up, or never delivered their pictures. Besides, why put a friend on the spot like that.. Just hire someone who is a proven  business professional instead, and invite your friend to your wedding and allow them to have a great time, and let the professional do all the work!  :-) Hence what I’m paid to do…..  keeping your friends, your friends forever!  :-)  


6. Sometimes I take agency weddings (they book me to shoot a wedding, as a subcontractor, although I make less than what I normally would on my own, I still put in a full day of work into a wedding + processing, backing up the images, archiving them, uploading images, etc not to mention the consulting and plan discussion time I spend on the phone with the couple, etc..). Often they up-sell a 2nd shooter to the couple, which IMO, isn’t really needed.. I’ve shot hundreds of weddings without the need for a 2nd shooter..but that is their choice, that they made through the studio whose interest is making as much money as they can from their couples. Unfortunately, I have been paired with very unprofessional people, who are only interested in building their portfolios, at the expense of ruining MY shots (I’m the Lead Photographer, not them) in the process, or doing something… like inviting friends to weddings/ crashers…  or bringing a 2nd photographer of their own who I have stories about, which will be addressed in other topics, and or just break established professional industry ethics.     


I could go into more stories… but these are the common horror stories that repeat like a wash cycle. The last thing I mentioned is Ethics.. When I was a younger photographer, we dared not break ethical rules, or we might get sucker-punched. Rule #1 Do not block another shooter’s shot, even if they are shooting for a competitor while taking your shot. I’ve become close friends with many of my direct competitors because I respect them and they respect me. We have worked elbow-to-elbow in many small spaces designated for the media, but we didn’t block anyone intentionally, or get in their shot.. baring a situation where a VIP is surrounded by shooters and reporters, where it helps to be tall..  ;-)  Since the Digital camera affordability revolution, ethics have been either ignored or never taught. Heck, courses in photography spend very little time, if any, from what I hear, discussing photography ethics, when working around other photographers shooting the same thing for their clients/ or whoever is paying them, and it is darn near almost always the new guy who is new on the job..who claims ignorance of ethics that are basically common sense, after totally ruining our shots. I covered a ribbon-cutting for a school client of mine where a local, free newspaper's photographer jumped from our Press Line, right in front of all of us to take a close-up of the ribbon being cut.. with all of us yelling at her to get out of our way..!! I actually spoke to the editor, and learned that I was not the only one who called them about their “Friend with a camera”… So, it happens even out in the News-gathering world, not just at weddings..  However, it appears that most of these newcomers to photography are drawn to wedding photography, thinking they can hack it, but most who begin as wedding photographers quit after a short time, because wedding photography isn’t for everyone. It really is a test of one’s ability to adapt to change, in challenging situations, and delivering stunning results… So… buyer beware..!      My membership with the Professional Photographers Association, includes indemnification insurance, plus photo equipment insurance, plus they have their own commercial liability insurance, that covers me anywhere domestically or abroad. When I shoot an assignment, I back up all the images to two external “project” hard drives. I edit through all the images on one of them, with a full backup of the original images on another, just in case of a disk or software malfunction. When I am done, I upload the final selections to a high-resolution, privately listed website gallery for my clients. In addition, I upload those images to two external “Archive” hard drives for redundant backup, to ensure that I have my client’s images duly protected.


  As far as backup equipment goes, (See the last photos in my Wedding Photography portfolio to see my Backup Equipment) before I upgraded all my camera bodies to an awesome mirrorless system, I had my previous cameras, which I shot everything from photojournalism to video for 8 years, rebuilt with new shutter boxes, and thorough cleaning by Canon Professional Services, of which I am a Gold member of, and keep those handy along with my older lenses, flash equipment, etc, that I used to shoot the majority of the photos that you see in my galleries here, which can still do an amazing job in the event of a catastrophic failure.   In 2007, I had such an event when I was covering a golf tournament for a business publication when someone who was given the job of driving me around the course, apparently didn’t know that golf carts don’t float.. and drove us right into a pond. Within seconds, all of my gear was just as trashed as my flip phone, which included my most popular zoom lenses, 2 matching 1-series Pro camera bodies, 2 flash units. I had a wedding to shoot the following day and simply used my available, professional cameras, lenses, & flashes which I didn’t take with me for that job, and shot that wedding without any problems, while I sent my ruined gear in for evaluation. Perhaps some people are “Lucky”… but I don’t take chances with “Luck”..   I’ve had hard drives fail. I’ve had computers fail. I’ve had cameras that failed, while in the middle of an assignment, or just before, without any problems completing those once in a lifetime events, because I prepared for the worst. “Shit happens”. The longer you live, the more you know that is a true statement. I don’t want to be that guy, who is talked about for years to come, because they really screwed up with something that was easily and very affordably preventable. That security, and peace of mind, are included in my fee. I feel that having extra equipment is its own kind of equipment insurance. 


With that I ask:   


Who do you want to have shooting your wedding, your biggest day, or your big event..?  How much is it worth to take a chance, to have an inexperienced, ill-equipped, perhaps unethical, uninsured…(homeowner / rental policies don’t cover commercial jobs FYI, another topic) person who might have a nice camera..…but has no track record of delivering their product / your pictures, that are of high quality, and professional? When the results count the most, give a little thought to your decision. 


I hope this helped everyone reading it!  Cheers! 


 JP

John Paul

13 min read

Feb 15, 2022

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