Event Photography Is Entertainment
(Or at Least It Should Be)
As a backdrop creator and manufacturer for the event photography world for more than 30 years, I’ve witnessed many changes in the industry, but none more so than in school dance photography. For those of you who’ve shared the same tenure, you will no doubt share a similar sentiment when I say that it has been a roller-coaster ride and, of late, some photographers have seen their bottom lines diminish due to various factors that I’d like to address.
First, let us take a look at what some might refer to as “the halcyon years”—those early years when all a photographer had to do was make a few calls to activity directors in the area to book a homecoming or prom. Said photographer typically had a studio in town with a solid reputation and the necessary equipment to show up and take pictures. If the prom committee members were enthused enough, they would handle the manufacture of the silver-glittered, cardboard-cutout staircase for the “Stairway to Heaven” themed event and the picture taker would supply the 9ft. x 9ft. seamless, blue-paper backdrop. The choice of packages ranged from $5 to $25—and the whole school attended. Students typically waited over a week to receive their packages but that was ok, that was expected.
As time progressed, the demands on the photographer grew. No longer was it enough to offer the bare minimum in set design. One shot per couple was a thing of the past and was trumped by two shots per couple—and then blasted out of the water by the tri-folder session where pictures were taken of the couple, the boy and then the girl. Gee, that made for a long night, but as long as clients were paying and there was film in the camera, you just kept shootin’. “Add-ons” to packages were also making their debut with items like extra wallets, key chains, posters, etc. Turnaround times for processing packages had to remain within a week or the competition would hold you to task and promise faster delivery.
Demographically, package prices varied quite dramatically across the country. Typically the Bay Area tended to be more lucrative by a significant margin compared to the Midwest. That said, it was very apparent that the photographer on the West Coast had to work harder to satisfy their clients by way of procuring elaborate sets—and lots of them. Plus, cash-back incentives to the schools, free packages to the dance committees and chaperones, glassware, tickets and advertising posters all became the norm. Although one could argue that, nationwide, each region’s school traditions and modus operandi played a part in the photographer’s profit and loss, the competition was generally stiffer in the densely populated (and thus more profitable) areas. The free market is, after all, a numbers game.
If I were to be brutally honest, I would have to say that it appeared at the time that the more pressure put upon the photographer [BY WHOM?], the better their business seemed to do. It also appeared that although photographers elsewhere were well aware of West Coast practices, they continued to do business as usual, making up excuses like, “We just don’t have the customer base” and “No kid in my part of the world is going to pay $60 per package.” Now, having firsthand knowledge of some of the backdrop sets these naysayers rolled out at every event, it wasn’t any wonder that a student wouldn’t spend more than $10.
And this leads me to the main gist of my argument. The well-worn adage “give and ye shall receive” held as true then as it does now. The current winners in today’s marketplace are seeing that the green screen revolution may have had its place and sparked interest, but it was hardly the panacea that it was proclaimed to be. Why?
Backdrops vs. Green Screens
Allow me to paint a scenario for you.
A couple attend the “Rumble in the Jungle” school dance venue together, and upon their arrival they ask where the pictures are to be taken. The reply is, “You have a choice of two setups: The physical set is through a room to the left and green screen is to the right.” “Let’s see what the room on the left is all about first,” the young lady suggests. They open the door and make their way along a dimly lit corridor, and as they near the end they begin to hear the sounds of the jungle. Chimpanzees chattering, parrots squawking and a spine-chilling roar of a lion set the stage. They’re apprehensive but they move on, when just then an assistant sporting a grass skirt and brandishing a bamboo staff approaches and welcomes them to the “Rumble”. They’re ushered over to a rattan table where they are to choose a picture package. A living, very talkative parrot is perched to the left of the cashier, demanding the couple purchase the most expensive package. A large, glass bowl filled with exotically scented tickets sits to the right side, and they are asked to pick a lucky ticket. Prizes range from free extra wallets to a free senior studio session. As the couple takes a moment to decide on a package, they’re distracted by the posing couple ahead of them laughing amidst the jungle scenery. The foreground floor is covered with moss and leaves, and vines climb up to the branches above, weaving through the huge, leafed canopy. The tropical birds of paradise accentuate the colors of the realistic backdrop, a sunset sky, which in turn sets the cascading waterfall ablaze in orange and azure. When the decision-making is over, the photographer greets them adorned in a safari suit with pith helmet atop. “Well, Tarzan and Jane, I see you dressed up for the occasion,” the photographer exclaims with delighted admiration. “Step this way, over this fallen tree trunk. Tarzan, I’ll have you stand right here, with one leg up on the log, holding Jane up in your arms as if you are rescuing her.” The photographer verbally adjusts the pose, steps back behind the camera and is about to coax a smile but finds it totally unnecessary. The two students are grinning from ear to ear, so the camera clicking commences. Tarzan is laughing so hard he almost let’s Jane go. “Wow! That was a blast!” cries Jane, followed by Tarzan’s traditional yell, accompanied by the obligatory beating of his chest as they both leave the set.
I think by now you probably have an idea of where I’m going with this. Being in the moment, having the capability of exciting all the senses, is just more fun. Fun, and, yes, more profitable. I would suggest that the tangible is more desirable than the promise. I could delve more into the comparisons and contrasts of conventional versus green screen photography, but suffice it to say, I think green screen most definitely has its limitations.
In today’s high-tech world of smart phones and the like, it has now become imperative for the professional event photographer to offer more than merely “picture taking.” To survive and flourish, you must have the mindset that your responsibility is to entertain as well as to capture the moment. Making the moment worth capturing is the function of the backdrop and props, not, as a lot of gadget-minded photographers might have you believe, the function of the latest and greatest, gazillion-megapixel camera on the market. In my experience as a photographer, I’ve never met a prom committee whose focus was more on the photographic equipment than the backdrop and props. Essentially, if you were to show up with a Kodak Brownie and an eye-catching set created by Disney, you would sweep the floor with the guy who showed up with a Canon 1D, a lot of green screen fabric and a “promise.”
Now, you might say that in order to adopt the realistic stage set approach, you would have to take out a second mortgage and rent an airplane hangar to store the props. But what I’m really saying is that maybe you should be questioning the way you’re currently appropriating your funds. Taking this business seriously demands commitment and resolve. Taking the “I have a camera, therefore I am” or “build it and they will come” approach will not win the hearts and minds of your clients. There’s just too much competition out there to be complacent and not mindful of what really matters. If you’re lazy and tend to cut corners it will show. All too often I hear the expressions “easy setup” and “quick tear-down” when referring to sets, as if these were of paramount importance to the overall success of the day’s shoot or even the bottom line. Amazing sets sometimes necessitate a little extra effort—get used to it! I also don’t necessarily believe that someone who gives away the farm in order to secure an event contract has the conclusive, winning approach. They may win the battle but not the war. Schools and event providers in general soon tire of companies who short-change them by delivering shoddy work and services. Photographers who practice low-balling will generally have to sacrifice good work and or service at some point, and it is your duty to point this fact out to your prospective clients as tactfully as you can, should the situation arise.
While I’m at it, I’d also like to add a comment about the acquisition of an event. Whatever the event, when calling on prospective clients, merely being armed to the teeth with price lists, brochures and award ribbons is only half the work. A salesperson with good looks, charm, a knowledge of pricing and visible prowess in taking pretty pictures may get over the doorstep, but when the time comes to actually sit down and design a backdrop set, they had also better have excellent qualifications in that department. It has been my observation that when a high-school prom committee asks a group of photographer candidates to present to them, the photographer who delivers the best backdrop set almost always wins the contract. Sure, there are other factors such as price list, package selection, adequate equipment, professional qualifications and more, but what really sets the deciding vote is the backdrop design. That is the commodity the students take back to the rest of the school for their approval—and if the set looks bad, they look bad. Now more than ever, the photographer with the most (in terms of backdrops, prop choices and set design talent), wins the day. Your customers all have access to cameras and smart phones. What they don’t have is the ability to transport themselves to a world of fantasy or majesty. Green screen will emulate to a degree but what about the other senses? They crave attention, too. You have tickets to either GreenScreenLand or Disneyland. Where would you go?
In conclusion, I want to applaud the many companies out there who do an excellent job of making event photography exciting and fun. They are why I still do what I do. To the photographers who only see the demise of the industry and repeatedly cry, “Prom photography is on the decline!” or “The numbers don’t make it profitable anymore!” I say, “The reasons may lie within.” I just don’t think we as an industry have given all we are capable of giving, or have used our creative talents to the best of our abilities and used resources readily available. It’s time to throw away the excuses and aspire to something much greater.