The Book-Is It Really About The Book?

“We want to retake the one for the Book.” The snooty Mom says. “It’s not exactly the way I want it.”

“It will be small in the Book.” I say as I look at the image. “But we can take another couple if you want.”

“I just know what I want.” The Mom says as we march back to the Camera Room to take another couple of portraits, which she may or may not like better than the first set of portraits.

The basic model for Assembly Line Portraits has always been Volume=Sales.  In the past this meant Shoots where were The Photographer had to photographer a hundred families a day, each sitting consisting of about ten shots.  Sure some of these would not buy, but the bulk of them would buy and thus profit was achieved.  This was simple Quanity over Quality-and it worked for a very long time.

Over the last few years The Company has moved slowly away from this model and they are now focusing in Quality.  Which would be fine, except that they are focusing on the quality of the Book.

Image a Car Dealership whole entire business model is focused on creating the best pine tree shaped air freshener in the world.  All their efforts go into make these air fresheners, which they are giving away, just to get people onto the sales lot so that they might someday buy a car.  In order to get the air freshener, which everyone wants because it is the best, you have to take a test drive.

In the beginning, there was the Big Box Store.  You took five shots, usually of a small child, the FIRST shot was the Special.  So you took a pretty crappy, bare bones, as basic as possible, shot for the First Shot.  That is the one that cost $5 and you get a 150 copies of.  This is a throwaway shot on which you don’t make any money, so it doesn’t matter.  This used to be the standard in Assembly Line Portraits and there were some Companies who did the same thing with Directory Shoots-the first shot was the Freebie.  If you wanted a good portrait, you bought one of the other shots which used different backgrounds, lighting, and posing.  The first shot for the Book is nothing more than a ID shot for the Book.

The Company has been moving away from this model and expects the shot for the Book to be among the best taken.  You can now have any shot you want as the Freebie, and there are Shoots where you can have any shot you want for the Book.  The Photographer needs to know this going in, so he/she can take nothing but the standard ID shot pose for every shot.  If you just shoot everything you would normally shoot, it will not fit in the  template the Lab uses to create the pages of the Book.

The Book is the McGuffin that gets us in the door so we can sell our products and make a living.  Most of the people who come in for Portraits buy portraits.  It is the rare Shoot were The Company loses money, though that does happen from time to time.  Unless they are paying a lot of Travel Exspenses, The Company will break even after a few of hundred dollars.  I can count on one hand how many days I have had less than five hundred dollars in sales.  Even though The Company knows that our business is selling portraits, they want to keep this a closely gaurded secret.  They are still afraid that if our Clients find out we are in business to make money, they will not allow us in.

There are still a few old timers who remember the glory days when the Book Shot was the least important shot that we take.  The Book shot has to be gotten past in order to get to the shots that might actually sell and make you some money.  I remember how shocked I was when I first starting doing directory work and people actually bought the Book shot.

I,of course, thought my pictures were so good they even wanted the throwaways.  I have come to realize that a Good Shoot and a Good Passer trumps good Portraits every time.

The Company has a video that tells the Prospects how swell The Book is-and never mentions once during the five minutes that we take portraits.  I went to one of our Competitors sites and watched their five minute video-it was all about taking portraits and how happy the Subjects were to have their PORTRAITS taken.  This was also a kind of fantasy, few people are really that thrilled to have a portrait taken, but at least they got the message across that their business is taking portraits, not giving away Books.

My complain is not that The Company gives away directories, almost all Assembly Line Portrait Companies give away something, but that they act as if they are ashamed of the fact that we are selling portraits.

The usual complaint about the Book Shot is that is exactly like the last Book Shot and the one before that and so on and so forth.  This is a bit like complaining that your last drivers license picture is posed a lot of the old one.  Or that the year book photo of your youngest child looks a lot like the yearbook photo of your oldest child.  These are ID shots, not works of art.  The Book Shot calls for flat lighting and consist exposure so that the Book will, more or less, appear uniform when printed.

One of the recent problems The Company has faced is their odd mixture of Free For All and Traditional Portrait Styles.  Some Books can have any background or pose they want, some are stuck with the same background and pose we have used since the time of the dinosaurs.  All well and good, except they seldom have the same Photographer work the entire shoot, or they even have two photographers working the same shoot at the same time.  The result is two different backgrounds for the Book, as each Photographer will have a slightly different background or use different lighting or choose to mold the background differently by draping it instead of letting it hang flat.  The result is an odd looking book which is not uniform.  I personally don’t see what the problem is, as I don’t give a damn about the Book.

But The Company is All About The Book.  They want the Book to be perfect! And these damned Photographers are screwing them up!  Which is why the Book Pose has traditionally been one boring background lite the same boring way using the same boring pose through the ages.  Consistency doesn’t happen when the Photographers are told to be creative and do whatever the hell they want to do.  So they have reigned in the whole do what you want business and are now trying to make everyone nice and uniform again-sort of.  It’s not working out all that well.

A black background is not always solid black, a white background is not always white, and using colored gels with different power outputs makes for a broad range of color tones.  When the Lab tries to put together their perfect Book, it doesn’t look the way they want it to look.  They are a Lab, after all, so they COULD fit all these problems if they wanted to.  But that takes time and effort-and the people working at the Lab make real money and shouldn’t be wasting their time fixing problems Photographers in the field are creating.  You can guess how I feel about that-if The Company is so concerned with how the Book looks, then go back to the formula that worked for the past fifty years or so.  Or tell the Lab to get off it’s ass and do it’s job.

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