Beginner’s Luck

To be on the wire is life. the rest is waiting. -Bob Fosse

“This price is the Stretched Canvas Finish, this is with the Regular Canvas, and this is with the Smooth Matte finish.” I say as I lay out the prices for the portraits the Subject has decided to order. “It just depends on which Finish you like best.”

“Those prices are outrageous!” She says as she looks them over.  I do what all newbie salespeople do and quickly calculate a lower price.  She agrees to buy the portraits on the Basic, cheapest finish.

I’ve been taking portraits a long time and old habits die hard.  I love the work of Sue Bryce and Christopher Grey and George Hurrell, but I tend to fall pretty far from the mark when it comes to copying their style of photography.  I fall back on what I have always done-The Standard Set.  The reason for a Standard Set of portraits in the Assembly Line Portrait business is that few people actually come in planning on buying portraits.  So you give them a breakdown of poses that people have shown a willingness to buy in the past.  These are not necessarily the same shots-though they tend to be in my case.

The breakdown for a group of four would be-two for the book, two horizontal with a different background, two vertical with a different background, two of the parents, and two of the kids.  An expanded breakdown would include individual shots of everyone and a shot of Mom with the Kids and Dad with the Kids.  That’s the Photographer’s job, to get the pictures-and hopefully get good enough pictures that they will encourage the Subject to consider buying them.

The Passer’s job is to get people who don’t want to buy portraits to buy portraits.  This is done in part with a carefully crafted sales script that tells the Subject everything they need to know in order to make an informed decision-everything except the price-because that remains a mystery to everyone, even the Passer.

Wal-Mart has done an amazingly good job of training everyone under a certain income level to compare purchases based solely on price.  There’s a reason CPI, the Assembly Line Portrait Company that had the Sears and many Wal-Mart accounts, went out of business recently.  Too many cheap bastards were walking in, getting the Special, and walking out.  That’s a losing game.  Of course, that’s just my take on it, the odds are good that the Company was also run by idiots.

So any Shoot that is near a Wal-Mart has a much better chance of being a bad shoot.  People who really think the only difference between a Rolex and Timex is how they cost are not going to be impressed by low key lighting and contemporary poses-they have only one concern-that they can get as many sheets as possible for twenty dollars.  Let’s just say that none of these people are happy when they find out one 8×10 on canvas costs over $200.

It’s always completely discouraging to be at Shoot where no one is buying.  I tend to shoot a lot of Nonbuyers, but I also tend to have one or two big sales that make up for two or three of them.  When I don’t get the good sales, than I have really bad days.  The Program is not setup for the Wal-Mart crowd, it’s setup for the Whole Foods crowd.  When someones says they want to spend $50-there’s nothing for them to buy.  Nothing.  If they want to spend a couple of thousand dollars-then I can figure something out.

There are plenty of Assembly Line Portrait Companies that sell by the Sheet-which is to say 1 8×10=2 5x7s=4 3x4s=a set of proofs=8 wallets, etc.  Larger portraits are multiple Sheets-2 sheets=1 16×20, 6 sheets=1 30×40, and so on.  The Mall Studios tend to do this kind of pricing-once you know the price per sheet you can decide how much you want to spend and pick however many pictures fall within your price range.  That’s not how it works here.  We price everything individually-except for wallets. So, for example, if you’re used to paying $220 for 20 Sheets, the CD, and $5 each for additional sheets, it comes as a bit of a shock when I tell you that two 5x7s cost $220.

The people who do baby pictures in Malls and Big Box stores work a lot harder than I care to work for a lot less money than I care to make.  But to be fair, they have done an excellent job of training people to believe that a portrait has next to no value.  If someone can get a snapshot developed at Walgreens for fifty cents, why should they pay more than that for someone else to process it?  Telling Subjects with this mindset that I have taken a Portrait, not a Snapshot does no good-their minds have already been bent into a shape that will not be easily changed.

So I tend not to try too hard to change those minds.  I can’t compete with a cellphone and $1.99 Special.  I no longer have the patience to put up with undisciplined brats and their brain dead parents, either.

All of this is by way of saying that I don’t always have good weeks and it depresses the hell out of me.  So much of success depends on Location that I tend to forget that all the rest depends on me.  If the Subjects don’t see value in what I am selling, then I am not giving them portraits that they love.  I’m not telling them what they need to hear at the Pass Table to convince them that 2 5x7s with retouching and a lifetime guarantee are worth $220.

Sure, there are always going to be people who flatly refuse to even consider buying a portrait-they are there for the Freebies that is all their cheap bastard eyes can see.  But when Nonbuyer after Nonbuyer rolls in, it gets to me, and it’s hard to put on my game face and give it my best effort.

So I take a deep breath, look in the mirror and say-Ok, It’s Showtime!

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