5 Year ANNIVERSARY of KGP | Then and Now

5 years ago, I shot my very first newborn session.  The session was for a friend of a friend, held in my front living room, and I think I charged $50 for the session with a CD of edited images.  I had been learning about newborn sessions in online forums and tutorials for a while and felt like I was ready to tackle it.  I think the session lasted 2-3 hours and it took me at least 10 hours to edit the pictures.  I was experimenting with actions, skin smoothing, cloning, etc.  I didn't have a backdrop stand, lights, props, or anything.  I used my couch to lay blankets on to pose the baby.  I was also using a Canon Xti and a 50mm 1.8 lens.  While I have come a LONG way from these images (in both technical skill and style) I still look back at these images with a bit of pride.  Are they perfect?  Not for my standards today. But I am proud that I worked hard and gave these families photos to treasure.

I dove into newborn photography head first - and worked HARD at posing, lighting, and composition in the years after.  Things have changed quite a bit since those first few sessions.  Here's a before/after of my second newborn session and one of my most recent newborns:

I learned some hard lessons that first year.  I had a client who was upset with me after family minisessions, demanded additional edits (and refused to pay extra for them), and who told me I was the "most expensive photographer in the area". He berated me on the phone and I was literally in tears.  Then, I had a hard drive failure - lost ALL of my photos - including a maternity session that I shot but had not yet delivered images to the client.  She had already delivered her baby, so there was no way to have a 'do-over'.  Not only was my reputation with that client ruined, but I learned a HARD lesson about having backups of my data.  And I had to buy a brand new computer, which I wasn't really charging enough to afford at the time.  I also learned that there was no way I could please everyone - my prices were going to be too high for some no matter how low I made them.  Unless it was free.  And how many free sessions could I really shoot?  My babies were 3 years old and 4 months old when I took my first paying client.  I was spending hours away from them - either at a session or sitting in front of my computer editing pictures and learning photoshop.  Was it really best for my family to charge next to nothing for something that took me away from my children?

It only took me about 3 newborn sessions and one round of family minisessions to realize that pricing for custom photography was a challenge.  I wanted to be 'affordable' for all families, but I struggled with the amount of time I was spending on each session.  As I raised my prices, I also started investing in props, equipment, and business stuff.  Getting a business license, insurance, as well as paying taxes started taking nearly HALF of my session fees.  Buying cute props for newborn and baby sessions took up more of my session fees.  And then when I started offering actual printed products, I realized just why all those 'snooty' pro photographers were always preaching about 'charging what you are worth' and 'pricing for profit'.

People said I would never keep clients if I raised my prices.  But that was not true.  I have quite a few families who have stuck with me through the years. They saw my work improve and knew it was worth the investment.  Did I keep them all?  Of course not!  But I have gained new families along the way and even the families who did not hire me back still respect me and my business.  And that is worth it to me!

My advice for new photographers:

1.  Treat it like a Business or Only do it as a Hobby

Get some type of tracking software for your income and expenses.  Log every purchase you make - know what your bottom line is!  It's easy to think "$150 for a 1 hour session doing what I love?  Easy money!"  But when you really look at what you are spending and the time it takes you per session, you realize it's not really $150/hour - it's more like $10/hour!  But the only way to truly know that is to have some type of money management system going. If you do this from the very beginning, you will learn so much!

Pay your taxes - you must charge state sales tax and claim the money as income on your family income taxes at the end of the year. Get basic insurance in case something goes wrong (especially if you are shooting newborns/babies, births or weddings - even just for a 'friend'!)

Have a contract, take money from each client as a deposit/retainer, and be 'legit' from the very beginning.  This helps with your credibility and it helps you to keep your things organized and flowing like a business.

If all that is too much, it's OKAY TO HAVE A HOBBY!  There is nothing wrong with being a hobbiest photographer - taking pictures for your family, friends, neighbors...even charging a little bit for friends of friends!  You don't have to have a license or pay taxes or anything like that.  But please don't have a website or FB page and put yourself out there as a professional photographer.  Say you are a hobbiest so that potential clients know why you are not charging much and the pros are.

2.  Respect Yourself and Your Family

Log now much time you are spending.  Seriously!  Get a sticky note and start writing down every time you open your computer to do something related to your business.  You will be shocked, I promise, at how much time you are actually spending per client.  Is it 10 hours each?  Divide what you are charging by that (after taking out taxes and expenses!) and decide if it's worth it.  Is $6/hour worth leaving your children?  Do you have to pay childcare? Is it putting a stress on your marriage or making it hard for you to do things with your kids?  Are you constantly having to cancel plans with friends or arrange things around your schedule of sessions?  If so, be sure you are being compensated for your time.

3.  Respect the Industry

Doing it right from the very beginning not only helps you to grow faster, but it also gives you credibility with other professional photographers and other vendors in the industry.  When you are online, be respectful of other photographers. There is nothing worse than seeing someone posting personal rants on their business facebook page.  There is nothing more damaging than posting about other photographers - especially if you are discussing their pricing or offerings to make yours look better.

Take the advice of those who have been in business longer with grace.  Don't argue with them! Pros who are giving their time to reply to your questions on online forums are taking time away from THEIR business (their profitable business!) to try to help you.  They get nothing for it - so take a step back when you get your feelings hurt and try to see the situation more objectively. They have a similar story of starting out, most likely, and are just trying to help.  Don't hide behind the phrase, "We all have to start somewhere".  Yes, we do.  And we all start too cheap - the difference is that some of us learned faster than others that we were not profitable at those early stages.  :)  I know it seems like sometimes the pros are 'snotty', but many times they are trying to help you learn the lessons they learned the hard way!

4.  Learn, Learn, Learn

I am STILL learning!  I will ALWAYS be learning!  The wonderful, exciting (and sometimes frustrating!) part of photography is that you can never know it all.  There is always a new photoshop technique or business opportunity or session type or lighting pattern to learn.  I spend countless hours online and countless dollars at workshops to improve my craft.  I have gone to quite a few workshops and conferences to learn more about photography and the industry.  I HIGHLY recommend going to WPPI or ImagingUSA (photography conferences) or find a workshop specific to what you want to learn (newborns, posing, weddings, business coaching).  Many of them will be out of your area, so some travel is involved. And many of them are expensive.  I've spent anywhere between $300-$2000 on workshops.  Every one of them has taught me something and it is not only worth it for the knowledge, but also for the comraderie of hanging out with other people who love to do what you love!!  If you can't imagine affording to go to something like that, you need to raise your prices! Investing in yourself is key to growing yourself and your business.  Charge an extra $50 or $100 per session and put that money right in an account to save for workshops/conferences.  It is worth every penny!

So You Want to Hire a Birth Photographer | Questions to Ask | Norfolk Virginia Birth Photographer

This topic has been weighing on my mind recently as birth photography has gotten more popular and (dare I say?) 'mainstream'. A new crop of people advertising themselves as birth photographers are opening Facebook business pages and offering this service to expecting moms every day.  When I began the process of becoming a birth photographer in 2009, I had not seen or heard of anyone in the Hampton Roads, Virginia area offering to photograph births.  Now it seems as though it is something many new photographers want to 'break into' - especially if they enjoy photographing maternity, newborn, or families.As an expectant mother, how can you protect yourself and ensure that you are hiring the right person at the right price? Here are a few questions to ask yourself (and the person you are considering to hire as your birth photographer) and an explanation of each in depth below the photo.

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Does the photographer have a portfolio of good work?

Every professional photographer should have a portfolio of work they can share with you.  It is important to be sure that the person you invite to capture one of the most important days of your life (and the first moments of your baby’s life!) is a professional who has experience and can produce quality images for you.  Ask to see example photos of births she has documented.  Your photographer should be able to show you an entire gallery or slideshow of a single birth so that you can see how she captured the process.

Are the images clear and in focus?

Can you see the detail in each photo?  Are the images crisp and clear?  If they are too bright (overexposed), too dark (underexposed), or blurry; then the photographer is probably not experienced enough to take on birth photography.  Just because she can produce good family photos in daylight does not mean she can produce quality photos in the fast-paced birthing room.  A large majority of births occur in low light situations.  Night births obviously do not provide much ambient light, and most laboring women prefer to have the lights in the room turned down low during the daytime, as well.  Given these conditions, it is critical for a photographer to know how to use the settings on her professional camera to capture clear images.

Does the photographer use professional equipment?

A basic DSLR camera (or a ‘point-and-shoot’ or an iPhone) will not produce professional quality images.  A professional photographer will have the proper equipment to shoot in any situation - home, hospital, birth center, etc.  This means having at least two camera bodies (a main camera plus a backup camera in case something happens to the primary camera during the birth), along with multiple lenses, memory cards, and batteries.  Most professional birth photographers also have a flash that attaches to the camera - the on-camera flash is *never* used in professional photography.

Is the photographer available 24/7 in the weeks surrounding your due date?

Birth photography is generally considered ‘event photography’ since it is not a scheduled portrait session with a series of posed images.  However, it is very different from wedding photography or other custom photography events, since the exact timing cannot be set-up in advance (with the exception of scheduled cesareans - and even then, mom can go into labor early or unexpectedly before her scheduled date!).  Most professional birth photographers are on call, much like an obstetrician or doula, for two weeks before and two weeks after an expected due date.  This means that she is available round the clock to be called in for the event and stays throughout the process no matter how many hours it takes.  Be sure your photographer understands and is prepared for the ‘on call lifestyle’ - even if it is the middle of the night, on a holiday, etc.  Babies come when they choose - you can go into labor at any time and a professional birth photographer has to have a plan in place to attend your birth when she is on call in the weeks surrounding your due date.

Is the photographer familiar with birth?  Is she respectful of the rules and the process?

Birth photography isn’t just about ‘getting the shot’ - it’s about documenting the experience and focusing on the woman who is in labor. It is YOUR birth, not hers.  The photographer is a spectator who has been hired to capture an event - she is not there to tell you what to do or tell you all about her experiences.  Your birth photographer should never be in the way of the medical personnel or insert herself into conversations about your birth.  She should never give medical advice or present herself as an expert on the process.  But it is important that a birth photographer is knowledgeable about the process of birth, the stages, and the rules of the birth center or hospital so she knows what to expect and how to be sure she is not impeding in the process. The rule of thumb for birth photographers is to be seen and not heard by everyone in the room.  The approach should be more of ‘a fly on the wall’ rather than ‘essential personnel’.  Particularly if you are delivering in a hospital, your birth photographer should be professional at all times and be respectful of all rules and regulations.

Does the photographer have a naturally calm demeanor and positive energy?

This is especially important for women who are planning an unmedicated hospital birth or a home birth.  Midwives and doulas all serve to protect a birthing mother’s environment - and any negative energy can impact the birth journey. (Refer back to the ‘seen and not heard’ comment from above!)  A professional birth photographer knows to follow a laboring mother’s cues and respect her wishes - spoken or unspoken.  Even if your plan is to have an epidural at the hospital, the doctors and nurses should not feel that your birth photographer is anxious, stressed, or overbearing.  Also, in the event of an emergency or other complications, the photographer should be able to handle these situations professionally by remaining calm and reserved.

Will the photographer be respectful of your privacy?

Birth is an intimate and private event.  The choice to share your images should ultimately be up to you.  Some women choose not to share images from their birth anywhere - either online or in the photographer’s portfolio.  Your photographer should allow you to see all images before sharing them on Facebook or a website, and you should have final say as to where or even IF your images are used by the photographer.  Some photographers who are just starting out will run special deals for ‘building a portfolio’ - if you take advantage of these deals, know that you are agreeing to allow the photographer to share your images.  Sometimes the journey turns out differently than what you imagine or plan.  But having the process documented by a professional photographer can be healing when plans go awry. Be sure you discuss these details with your photographer before signing her contract.

Is the photographer running a legal business?

Speaking of contracts, you should always sign a contract with your birth photographer.  A professional photographer will have a business license, pay taxes, and have insurance for their equipment and their business.  Why should you care?  First, to protect yourself and your birth experience.  Hiring a professional photographer ensures that you get what you pay for - your photographer comes to your birth when you call her, and then delivers the images to you within a reasonable timeframe after the birth.  There have been stories of photographers who took a client’s money and then went out of business, never to be heard from again. Other stories have told of photographers who took months to deliver images to a client because she was ‘busy‘ and one who went on vacation the week of an expectant mother’s due date and was unavailable at the last minute to attend the birth.  You want to be sure that the person you choose to capture your baby’s entrance into the world is a true professional and delivers as promised!  Second, we hope that you will want to support a small business that is doing the right thing.  Owning a business is not an easy (nor cheap!) undertaking, especially one that takes a photographer away from her family and other clients for hours and hours at a time.  Supporting a true professional who is following all business rules and applicable laws is best for everyone!

What does the photographer charge for her services?

Having a baby costs a lot of money!  You may be tempted to choose a birth photographer with ‘cheaper’ prices - but beware!  Most of the time, the inexpensive photographers are much less experienced, use inferior quality equipment, and do not provide products that will stand the test of time.  Some people may justify going with a less experienced and less expensive photographer by saying that SOME pictures are better than NO pictures.  In this case, you may want to consider having a friend or a family member come and take photos for you instead of hiring an inferior or unlicensed photographer.  Remember that your birth photographer is on-call for you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for the four weeks surrounding your due date.  She has to maintain a lifestyle that will support leaving her family at the drop of a hat for anywhere from 4 hours to 24 (or more!) hours at a time.  This includes missing school events, dance recitals, family dinners, and maybe even holidays like Thanksgiving or Christmas to serve you!  It takes thousands of dollars of equipment, hundreds of dollars of licensing and insurance fees, and countless other expenses to run a business.  Anyone who does not have those expenses (and does not charge appropriate session/package fees to cover them) is probably not a professional birth photographer and may or may not give you the images you deserve of this important event.  Most professional birth photographers also offer payment plans or baby registries, allowing you to spread the cost across several weeks or months rather struggling to make one large payment right before your new baby arrives.  While birth photography is a luxury and something not everyone can afford, families that value birth photography will receive the best images and the highest satisfaction by selecting a competent and experienced professional birth photographer.

Ask Me Anything! | Hampton Roads Maternity, Birth and Newborn Photographer

Today is the first of a series I hope to continue called, "Ask Me Anything".  I love to teach and sharing a little bit of insight into the world of custom portraiture is very rewarding to me.  There are the questions that were submitted.  Enjoy!

How did you get started in photography? Did you go to school for it or are you self taught?

I got started in photography after my daughter was born - like many new(er) photographers, the lure of digital photography was so great when I was wanting to capture those precious moments, but my camera didn’t seem to cooperate.  Babies and toddlers are FAST and I was constantly frustrated by only catching the back of her head or missing that flash of smile.

First, I made the classic mistake of asking a photographer I knew, “What kind of camera do you have - I want to take pictures like yours!”  Not knowing how rude it was to assume that the quality of her portraits was just the camera in her hand.  (eek!)  Now I realize it’s more than just the camera - and it’s not as easy as pressing the button on a fancy new camera!  ??I have a Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree in Early Childhood Education, but no formal photography training.  I do believe strongly that my foundation in child development helps me to have a successful business with babies and families, though.  Working with children, you must know the difference between the ages and stages - and when to employ a certain type of humor or have that extra minute of patience.  :)

Do you use natural light or studio strobes in your home studio?

Every shot you see from my studio is completely natural light.  I do use a speedlite during overnight, dark births but my portraits are all done either outside or in my home studio (which is a windowed-in sun porch attached to my home).

When it comes to simple image editing what do you recommend?

For simple image editing of family snapshots, I think iPhoto is very good.  You can crop, edit red-eye, change the brightness/contrast, etc.  If you are a budding photographer, investing in Photoshop Elements is a must.  It is a more basic version of the ‘big’ Photoshop program, but honestly has everything anyone would need to begin learning the program and learn how to edit photos more professionally.  If you are a student (or have a student in your home) you can get a student discount on Photoshop (any version!) and it’s a HUGE savings!

I’d love a great starter DSL what do you recommend and why?  If I could only purchase one lens.... ?

I recommend Canon or Nikon if you are going to invest in a starter DSLR.  They are the two most professionally recognized brands and you really do get what you pay for!  If you have never owned a DSLR before, the base model will absolutely be enough for you.  No need to spend hundreds of extra dollars on buttons and settings that you will most likely not use.  I started my business with a Canon Xti - but because I had learned how to shoot in manual and use all of its functions, it served me very well.  I upgraded when I NEEDED to - when I wanted to do more with the camera than it would allow.  Here is a really great article I recommend reading if you are considering the purchase of a DSLR:?http://katelynjamesblog.com/dslr-vs-the-point-and-shoot/

If you’ve decided to go for it and are committed to learning more about how to use your camera in manual mode (or aperture priority), the first lens to buy is the 50mm 1.8.  It is relatively inexpensive, but will help you to master that camera in no time!

Where is the best place to order images on canvas? And why?

The best place to order your image as a gallery wrapped canvas is from your professional photographer.  Seriously, I’m not just saying that!  Canvases have become very popular recently with the Groupon deals.  But what most people don’t realize is that when you add a gallery wrap to an image, the company takes 2 inches off EACH SIDE of your picture to wrap around the edges.  That means that if there are heads or hands or limbs anywhere near the edge of a photograph, they are going to end up wrapped around the top, bottom, or sides of your canvas.  Sometimes, this is not a big deal - sometimes, the picture ends up looking very odd or choppy!  There have been very few times where I have not had to adjust an image in my editing software to make it look right on canvas - by adding space or background or even going back to my original shot and cropping the file differently so that it gives the company enough room to wrap the edges.  Also, some canvas companies will color correct your image - which means they could add a layer or contrast or sharpening or color to the file before printing it on canvas.  Some canvases end up darker than the image looks on the screen because of their printing process or the quality of materials they are using.  Printing through your photographer (who took the image and painstakingly edited it) will ensure that it looks on canvas exactly the way it should!  ??Now, I cannot speak to the quality of all consumer canvas companies.  Canvas on Demand often runs Groupon deals which are SUPER cheap. $45 for a 16x20 gallery wrapped canvas is almost obscene.  :)  If you’ve never had a canvas and want to try them out to see if you like that look, I say try it out with them at that price - you can’t beat it.  But if it comes down to a showpiece in your home, trust your photographer.  It’s worth the extra cost!

Best Tips for photographing the constantly moving toddler??

First tip:  Lower your Expectations!  If I am photographing a toddler between the ages of 15 months (or whenever they start walking really well) up to about 3 years old, I mostly follow them around and capture what they are doing, interacting with them and getting their attention every once in a while.  You very rarely can pose a toddler - so expecting them to sit in a certain spot and smile for the camera is asking for a bit much.  Some toddlers are more active than others - depending on your child’s personality, you can attempt things.  I usually allow them to explore their environment or give them little activities to do (sit with a bucket and shovel on the beach, smell the flowers at the park, sing a song, blow bubbles, etc.) and then use squeaker toys or shakers to get their attention and have them look up momentarily!  Remember that toddlers have the attention span of.....well, they really don’t have one - so you have to be constantly changing your approach and bring lots of energy and positivity with you!  ??A side note:  I hire other photographers (yes, actually pay them their going rate!) to photograph my children.  They don’t listen to me - they know all my tricks, and I get frustrated WAY too easily with them.  It’s much easier to be patient with someone else’s children.  So, if you want those beautiful portraits of your children, invest in a custom photography session at least once a year! I do!  :)

Do your clients come to you mostly by word of mouth or is it a mix of word-of-mouth and advertising?  Have you ever advertised in a local magazine, if so - did it work?

Nearly all of my clients have come to me by word of mouth or finding my website on Google.  I have not yet paid for advertising.  Thankfully, I have clients who are wonderful and pass my name on to others.  I’m always amazed at what a small world it is.  I was recently showing a sample product to a new client who said, “Hey - I work with that guy!”  Plus, Facebook is an amazing resource.  When people share my photos on their Wall, 300 of their friends and family members see them instantly!  I love that!

Do you use any actions or lightroom presets? If so, would you share which ones?

I do not use any particular actions or presets on a regular basis.  Depending on the ‘mood’ of the photo or the lighting in the photo, I will run an action and adjust it to my tastes.  The best set of actions I ever invested in is a set from MCP Actions called “The Quickie Collection”.  They include quick actions to warm up, cool down, brighten or sharpen.  Just little boosts to help the process.  As for newborn portraiture, I have made my own special action including some from the Quickie Collection.  But on the whole, I like to process each photo individually.  I don’t think there is one ‘right’ action for very photo in a session. Also, when using actions PLEASE learn layers and masking.  Texture and actions almost always need to be erased from the skin (especially on babies!!) or you risk having a very odd looking person in your photos.  If you don’t know how to use layers or masks in Photoshop, google it or go to youtube and find some tutorials.  Most Important Photoshop Lesson Ever!  

Hope you enjoyed these Q&A's - if you have a question for our next Ask Me Anything post, feel free to send it to me at kimberlin.gray@gmail.com!