This article is going to be a mix, one part advice, one part love letter. You see, two years ago, I was just discovering Improve Photography. I was just moving forward with a family portrait business that I hoped would bolster my day-job income. I was also well-aware that I needed major photography education and guidance.
I was lying in bed one night, my mind racing with small business photography possibilities and worries. Everyone else was asleep as I scrolled through my phone, looking for inspiration and guidance. I opened my podcast app and saw “Improve Photography” ranked number one on the photography podcast list. After one episode, I was hooked. The positivity, the knowledge, the variety, I loved it all.
So did Erika Sneeringer, a Baltimore, Maryland, photographer. (Don’t confuse Erika with Erica Coffman, Improve Photography contributor and Portrait Session host.) Erika and I connected on a listener Facebook group shortly after Portrait Session began airing. Erika and I were both active in the group, and we quickly formed a photography friendship. (I was still living in Maryland at the time. We first connected when we noticed how close we lived to each other.)
Erika and I met for dinner in early December 2016 to talk about our shared journey in photography thanks in large part to Improve Photography. Here is our two year journey as photography friends, part advice, part love letter.
Gear and Technical Advice
After two years of photographing countless families, a few weddings, and plenty of personal projects, here is the advice Erika and I would give to photographers starting their journey with Improve Photography:
1. Don’t buy cheap glass. Both Erika and I have gone through our fair share of lenses. We’ve both bought the lens that’s financially in reach instead of either renting better glass or waiting to buy the good stuff. We’ve both been disappointed by cheap glass. Every time we use the good stuff, we just like our images more. If you’re ready to buy a new lens and you know what you’re doing with it, get the good stuff.
2. Good gear doesn’t mean good photos. I’ve written this before. The podcast hosts all talk about this. Any photographer worth talking to knows that having good gear doesn’t mean you’ll make amazing photos. Erika points to an experience where she showed up to an event with another photographer who had gobs of amazing gear. We’re talking top of the line stuff. Erika was a little intimidated and a little thankful–she figured that this photographer would get the job done well since the photographer had the good stuff. When Erika saw the other photographer’s images, she couldn’t believe it: exposure issues, poor focus technique, lack of creativity, terrible (and clearly purposeful) slanted horizons, and more. The experience reinforced for Erika that gear doesn’t make the photo, the photographer does.
3. Learn to shoot manual. Knowing how to control your camera in manual mode means you’ll be able to transfer your vision to the camera with much more control and frequency. Manual mode isn’t synonymous for “professional mode.” You can make good images with the automatic modes. But you can’t make your photo, the one you see in your head, without total control. Manual mode gives you that control.
4. Know how to use the light meter in the viewfinder. This goes hand-in-hand with knowing how to shoot manual. In fact, if you don’t use the light meter, then you don’t really get the benefits and the control of shooting manual. The light meter in the viewfinder allows you to keep your eye on the scene and change settings to adjust exposure. You won’t need to look at the images or the information displays nearly as often if you use the light meter. With manual mode, you get control. With the light meter, you add speed to that control.
5. Know your focal lengths. Erika and I have both seen images where we’ve said, “Why did he use that focal length? Why didn’t she use this focal length instead?” You should know how focal length changes perspective. You should know why you’re choosing a certain focal length. If you’re shooting a landscape, you should know why certain scenes would be better at 200mm instead of 16mm. If you’re shooting a portrait, how would a 35mm focal length differ from a 105mm focal length? You need to know how focal length changes your perspective so that you can be purposeful in your focal length choice.
6. Have a small gear bag for a few things. I learned this one from Erica Coffman (the podcast host and contributor, not the Erika of this article). Erica gave me the chance to be her second shooter at a wedding a few months ago. At the wedding, she had me carry a small messenger bag with a flash, another lens, and some flash modifiers. That way, we could walk the grounds and follow the bride and groom without lugging Erica’s entire suitcase of gear. The messenger bag gave Erica some flexibility in her shooting without being cumbersome. After that experience, I’ve done the same thing on portrait shoots. I don’t lug my entire gear bag with me; instead, I take a flash, another lens, and extra batteries. Consider your tendencies and your need for a little variety. When you don’t want to have your entire stock of gear with you, have a “shoot sack” for sessions on-the-move.
7. Magmod flash modifiers are awesome. Erika could not tout Magmod flash products more. She loves their portability, ease of use, quality of craftsmanship, and ability to help her shoot beyond the norm. Whether she’s using color or a grid or putting the flash in an unconventional location, Erika loves Magmod modifiers. (I’ve used them, too, but I don’t own them, sadly.) If you’re looking to upgrade your flash inventory or boost your flash creativity, go buy Magmod modifiers now.
People and Business Advice
Beyond gear and technical stuff, Erika and I both agree that running a successful photography business is all about people, both your clients and yourself. Here’s our continued list of advice:
8. Be the authority. Your clients look to you to know everything, so be poised and confident. Your clients will look to you for help with clothes or poses or whatever is happening at the moment; you need to have an answer. Even if something is going wrong or you’re not getting exactly what you want, don’t let the client know. Your mood will transfer directly to theirs, so put on a good show.
I was photographing a return client, a family I had photographed twice before, and at one point during the session the mom looked at me with a nervous smile and said, “I don’t know what to do with my arms. I’m so awkward.” This could be a make or break moment, right? Your answer, your facial expression, your tone, everything could affect the rest of the session.
I replied, “Nobody does. That’s why you pay me good money to tell you. Hold his hand with that hand and put the other one behind his back but don’t let it peek out the other side.” I started with a little humor (trust me, the first two sentences were funny in the moment) and ended with direct instructions. Be direct and confident–your clients will love you for it.
9. Families don't notice what you notice. I can’t tell you how many times Erika and I have shared images and said, “I love this photo from today’s session except for this little thing and this stupid part and this mistake.” Whether we’ve blown out the highlights in the sky, not noticed a flyaway hair, forgotten to fix a collar or a button, or not gotten the perfect smile from each family member (dogs included), Erika and I always find something to nitpick.
We are our own harshest critic, which is good because it means we’re never satisfied, we’re always trying to improve. However, the good news is that not a single family has ever noticed the “mistakes” that what we’ve noticed. In fact, we’ve both had times where we’ve pointed out something small and the client has said, “You know, I never would have noticed if you hadn’t told me.” While you should always be your harshest critic, know that the families you photograph won’t be.
10. Two types of sessions are always the hardest: freebies and people you know. For people you know, there’s an easy reason: you’re not a novelty, you’re not special. For a client you’re only just meeting because of photography, you’re “the photographer.” You’re a pro and you have a job to do. For your nephew, you’re “Aunt Erika.” For your co-worker, you’re “Aaron who teaches English 10 and used to like happy hour but is now too obsessed with photography.” There’s baggage with people you know, and that doesn’t always work to your advantage. Sure, a close connection might keep things comfortable, but Erika and I both know how tough it has been to photograph friends and family. We do it anyway because we love those people, but paying clients who want you for your photography are always better.
Speaking of money, Erika and I have definitely been frustrated by sessions we’ve done for free (or for very cheap). We’ve both found those clients to be the most picky, the most demanding. For whatever reason, someone who doesn’t pay usually wants as much as they can get. And they love to give criticism. Our advice (and the advice of many other IP contributors) is to charge what you’re worth. Clients will associate pricetag with skill and value. You are good enough to charge what you are worth.
One exception to the rule is a trade for services. Case in point: I photographed Erika’s family in exchange for her photographing my family. We did the sessions for free, but we both got photos out of it. I photographed a charity event for free in exchange for getting on the location’s “Preferred Vendor List.” I’m going to photograph another event soon for free because it’s a kick-off event for a new enterprise that will likely get a little press and social media action–my photos will get some exposure that I wouldn’t normally get. When you can reasonably expect to get something of value in return for free work, then we say go for it.
11. A “Get To Know You” client email is important for three reasons: 1. You get talking points for the session, 2. You can find a way to incorporate hobbies and interests into the session, and 3. You can have them write most of your blog post. If you get to a session and don’t have instant rapport (who does?), use the email to strike up conversation. Giving a client a chance to talk freely and personally can help lighten the mood and distract them into good photos.
If you find out that your client likes reading, have them bring a book for a pose or two. If your client likes to dance, ask them if they’d like to incorporate any dance into the session. Maybe your client likes the Washington Nationals–could they wear some baseball jerseys for a few shots?
Lastly, a good “Get To Know You” email should give you the bulk of your blog post about the session. This blog post from my website was largely taken from our initial email correspondence. Use your client emails to help you in as many ways as you can. By the way, don’t write your “Get To Know You” email from scratch each time: save your old emails so you can edit quickly and send them to other clients.
12. Don't give up and don't get discouraged. Don't let criticism set you back–stick to your guns and pursue a client base. Photography is competitive. That competitiveness can open the door to criticism, social media trolling, and unwanted scrutiny. Clients might not be as tactful or as understanding as you’d like them to be. Good photography is hard. Getting paid to create good photography is even harder, which leads Erika and me to one huge source of constant positivity and support…
Why We Love Improve Photography
Erika and I wouldn’t be able to give you the above advice without the amazing people at Improve Photography. Here is our love letter for the two years’ worth of amazing photography knowledge we’ve gotten thanks to Improve Photography.
13. We love the podcasts and Facebook groups. For one, Erika and I wouldn’t know each other otherwise. As I said at the beginning, we first met thanks to the Portrait Session Podcast Listeners Facebook group. The FB groups are an amazing and free resource for sharing images, getting feedback, asking questions, and helping others. The best part is the positivity in the groups: no one is there is to bash or complain. Conversations are light-hearted, thoughtful, and helpful. The FB groups follow in the tone and spirit of the podcasts themselves. The entire suite of Improve Photography podcasts has top-notch hosts with unending professional knowledge–and it’s all free! I count down the days between episodes of Portrait Session, my favorite of the bunch. (The love is shared by Erika, too.) Without the podcasts, Erika and I wouldn’t be the photographers we are today.
14. We love that Improve Photography taught us Off-Camera Flash. Without Jim Harmer’s passion and drive for OCF, Erika and I wouldn’t know how to do it ourselves. And we wouldn’t be doing it so cheaply, thanks also to Jim’s love for the Yongnuo 560 speedlight. While some name brand speedlights cost $250 or even $500, a Yongnuo 560 is only $70! With OCF you can get images that are sharp, creative, and powerful. With OCF, you don’t need to rely on something (or someone) else for light: you can create your own light. There’s nothing like being in control of your light. Without Improve Photography, we wouldn’t be in control.
15. We love “Lessons Learned.” Most of the podcasts have a regular portion about the lessons learned by each host since the last episode. They might share gear advice or personal struggles or client frustrations. Whatever they share, Erika and I love the willingness of the hosts to share their mistakes, to show that they are indeed mortal. You see, the hosts are amazingly confident and successful with portfolios full of envious photographs. With “Lessons Learned,” it’s nice to hear that the hosts are human, too. Plus, the lessons are always something Erika and I discuss and apply to our progress. Improve Photography podcast hosts: we love your “Lessons Learned.” Keep doing them!
16. We love the Jim Harmer Ethos. Jim Harmer’s attitude and model drive everything we love about Improve Photography. The man is the company, the company is the man. We love that Jim does not hold onto knowledge. He is giving, he is free with advice and opinion, he shares more than you’d ever expect. That ethos spreads to all of Improve Photography, the staff, the podcast hosts, the writers, and the entire community of followers. The open, community-oriented nature is what keeps Erika and me coming back and contributing. Above all, what I think we get from Jim’s lead is positivity and excitement. Jim loves photography and he loves people. Jim is excited about anything and everything photography. That love, positivity, and excitement make for an amazing community. Thank you, Jim, for being a great model for us all.
One Last Piece of Advice
17. Have a photography friend. Erika and I push each other to be better, complain to each other about clients, provide motivation, nerd-out on gear, refer clients, share triumphs, help through struggles, and everything inbetween. Our text messages are full of image critiques, lens discussions, and ideas and goals for our next steps. What’s great is that Erika and I are in a similar place, both with photography and business. When one of us learns something, the other shares. When one of us has a success, the other knows it’s possible. Everyone should have one photographer friend. I’m glad I have mine.