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Post-Production for Senior High School Portraiture: Where It All Comes Together

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Sal Cincotta shows you pairs of photos showing each shot’s Before and After image for you to use for inspiration and to get a sense of what’s possible with your imagery when you choose to take your images further than what you get at the time of capture.
This chapter is from the book

For most photographers, post-production is all too often an afterthought. However, if you’re looking to be successful, post-production has to be something you’re thinking about at all times.

In fact, when it comes to post-production, I’m often thinking about it during the shoot. We should be using all the tools made available to us to create the best possible photograph imaginable.

I run into a lot of purists who think that too much post-production work—or Photoshop work, as they refer to it—isn’t presenting the image the way it was captured. It’s embellishing it to a certain extent. Well, maybe they’re right, I don’t know. I say, if that’s your philosophy, then why use a digital camera? Why don’t we go back to the days of 20-minute exposures? Technology is here to stay, and it evolves and advances constantly. I’d want to embrace it and use it to enhance my art rather than limit what I can produce.

Can you imagine if we limited some of the great artists of our time to using certain materials to create their art? Reading what I’m writing, it sounds absolutely ridiculous! As it should be.

When we create an image using our camera, I am of the philosophy that that’s just the beginning. We need to use the tools available to us to finish this product all the way to the printed image. Post-production is an important step in the journey of your imagery.

Throughout this chapter, I have included pairs of photos showing each shot’s Before and After image for you to use for inspiration and to get a sense of what’s possible with your imagery when you choose to take your images further than what you get at the time of capture.

Out of Camera

No matter what kind of camera setup you’re using, your images out of camera are just not that good. This is the world of digital. Your images need to be processed in some form or fashion in order to polish them.

The key here is understanding that when you’re capturing and creating imagery, you have to start thinking about the next step in the process. How will you edit this image? Will you convert to black and white? Will you do beauty editing on it?

I’ve seen studios all over the country—mostly older studios—shoot 30–50 images for their high school senior clients and show them immediately on a screen while they are there, or bring them in days later only to look over unprocessed images as proofs. Not only that, they charge for different editing styles. Yep. You read that right. In my local market there are some older studios charging $5 to convert an image to black and white. I laugh every time I see this.

Seniors are a very finicky demographic. You’ll hear me talk about this over and over again. They want to look hip and cool! Looking at unprocessed images and having to visualize what it might or could look like—and then having to pay for it by the image—is utterly ridiculous!

Clients don’t have vision! That’s why they came to you. You’re the expert. You’re the artist. You should show them how this piece of art should look. It’s not an a la carte menu of editing. If you think it should be a sepia-toned image with heavy texture—show them that! Stop being lazy. That’s all it is. You realize that, right? It takes work to make these edits. And in the end you don’t know what they’ll buy. Very true. However, you know the saying, right? “You gotta show it to sell it.” Well...why would this be any different? You want a client to buy this large grandiose image, but they should first visualize how cool it will be?

Today, these kids want to see what they see in the magazines, online, on Instagram, on iPhone apps galore, and their own computer editing software. Today’s kids are tech savvy. You think you’re going to impress them with what comes out of your camera? Good luck with that.

At the end of the day, it’s lazy and it’s an incomplete product or service you’re presenting to your clients. You have to finish the job you started.

Your camera is a tool. It’s one tool in the overall process of creating a great image. Please don’t make it the last tool. Ensure that your mind is right and that you understand, at this stage of the process, that you should be focusing on proper exposure, impact, and composition. That is foundational to creating a great image.

The Value of Post-Production

Everyone is a photographer today! I mean everyone. So what’s the difference between you and everyone else? Oh wait, you have a better camera? Hold on, I almost choked on my food. Wake up, photographers around the world! Gear is no longer a barrier to entry! You can make a decent image with your iPhone today! They just introduced a 40-megapixel camera phone. That’s reality. Nothing you or I can do about it. You don’t have to be a nerd anymore to understand film, lighting ratios, or any of the other complexities you had to understand back in the day to be a photographer.

In fact, there used to be a time where there was no such thing as autofocus. You had to manually focus your camera. What? Is Sal crazy? Yeah, you even had to control your exposure manually...gasp!!

Now, I’m not an old bitter photographer. I just understand our history. Trust me, not a single part of my being wants to go back to the days of old. I love the way things are today, and I’m always looking toward the future. Technology is my friend. However, with innovation has come the nonexistent barrier to entry. So, now, everyone is a photographer. We have to take the good with the bad, I suppose.

That is where post-production comes into play. Although camera companies have made it easier to create a great image, you still have to process that image. Turn it into art. That’s the competitive advantage we all have. There’s no reason for you not to invest in this part of your business. You can do it yourself or outsource it. We’ll discuss more on this later; just keep in mind you have options.

Start thinking about post-production in terms of branding. The way you finish your images can and will define your brand. For us, people recognize our imagery through our editing techniques. As crazy as that sounds, the post-production is something that allows us to stand out from the crowd and it helps define our brand. We want to be fashion forward; this is very powerful. It allows our studio to set the tone of imagery in our area and it forces other studios to follow our lead. This can be huge for business. Are you a leader or a follower?

This also has some amazing positive side effects with clients. It’s difficult to charge more for your product or service if your clients don’t see any discernible difference in the product or service you’re offering. How many of you feel like your clients just see you as a guy or gal with a camera? That’s on you! This is our fault. It’s because we are not completing the job we started with our clients. We are, in essence, just a camera and if I haven’t bludgeoned you enough yet, we can’t compete on gear! Everyone has access to it.

So, what do we do? Post-production allows us to truly start differentiating ourselves in a meaningful way to our clients. They’re going to see the difference and value of a normal image compared to a polished image. They might not be able to articulate what the difference is, but they’ll feel differently and they’ll spend differently. I guarantee it.

Today, clients are numb to basic editing. They can do all this on their own in their fancy iPhones and Instagram-style apps. You’re not going to impress anyone if you don’t take it to the next level. One of the biggest challenges out there today are the clients who want nothing but digital images. We don’t get a whole lot of that. We don’t offer digital negatives to our senior clients at all. It’s not even an option. We own the process and the final product. We explain this to our clients. If you’re looking for a digital file, we’re probably not going to be a good fit for you. We spend too much time perfecting each image that leaves the studio, and we just can’t do that to every image and hand that over on a DVD. We wouldn’t be able to stay in business. Ninety-nine percent of our clients understand this and respect it. Bottom line, it’s true.

We color-correct each image along with beauty edits, skin softening, sky swaps, texture overlays, and so forth. These things take time and they aren’t easily reproducible. This gives us a distinct competitive advantage and separates us from every other person with a camera. My clients want artwork, and that’s what we show them and deliver to them.

Don’t underestimate the value that post-production can add to your brand and your financial bottom line.

Do It Yourself or Outsource It?

If you’re like most artists—and like myself, for that matter—you’re a control freak! No one can edit your images but you. I might not necessarily agree with you on that, but I will work through the pros and cons with you here to see if I can get you to think a little differently about this whole topic.

I’m a big advocate of working your images and understand that we all have a different definition of what an “edit” is. Don’t get caught up in the definition of what an edit is. Suffice it to say, it’s different for all of us and that’s okay.

As a business person, you have to think about where your time is best spent. You’re the most valuable and scarce resource your business has. That being said, I can’t stress the importance of this rarely realized or underappreciated fact. Sure, you can spend 10 minutes perfecting every single image from a job only to hand over a DVD to the client, or worse yet, post the images online for them to view, but when all those minutes add up how much more revenue will have been generated for your business? How many more shoots could you have done—a task, by the way, that will actually generate revenue? How much more time could you have had to be with your family? The list goes on and on.

But I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t talk about my own journey on this very subject.

When I first started out, I did all my editing. It seemed to make sense. First, I thoroughly enjoy editing. Second, I was the one on the shoot and I know my client and what they’ll like. Third, I know my style of editing—my brand, so to speak.

This approach worked in the beginning. It was great. I’d lie in bed editing until 2 a.m. I’d miss family events to ensure I was editing and keeping the business growing. See, my goal was to ensure a two-week turnaround time for all images. The one thing most photographers are notorious for is horrible turnaround time for their client’s images. We’ve heard horror story after horror story about clients not seeing their images for months on end. I didn’t want to be that guy.

It was good for a while. There are definitely benefits to processing your own work:

  • You control the look and feel.
  • You own the selection process.
  • You know your client and their tastes.
  • You can control the hard costs since you’re the one editing.

However, as my business grew, the downside quickly reared its ugly head:

  • You own everything.
  • You’re now the bottleneck.
  • You’re a limited resource.
  • You’re neglecting other aspects of your business to do this low-level task.
  • You’re neglecting work/life balance.

Here was the realization for me. I was sitting there editing in the month of October about four years ago. We had photographed about 10 weddings that month. I was trying to keep my head above water and still deliver on the two-week turnaround time. The average wedding takes about 10–12 hours for me to process. That’s everything—culling, white balance, special edits, and so forth. Do the math on that. That’s about 120 hours of editing. If I sat at my computer and didn’t move to take a bathroom break and had food fed to me at my desk, that’s three straight 40-hour workweeks of editing! Not gonna happen! That’s the moment I knew I needed to find a solution. I could either hire an editor and train them, or I could outsource. Something had to change and fast.

Here was my thought process—and by the way, all I can advise you on is to be sure you go through your own thought process. Actually think about it. Give it the time and energy it needs and don’t just write off outsourcing as something that’s not for you.

My first thought was that I should hire someone. Initially, this made perfect sense. I could own the process, control what they were working on, control the look and feel. And then I started asking some basic questions and having a few realizations:

  • How would this person scale? What happens the next time I have 10 weddings plus seniors in a month? There’s no way a single person could handle that workload.
  • What happens when they call in sick?
  • What happens when they quit and go work for a competitor? How long will it take me to find and train a new person? What will I do in the interim? Post-production doesn’t take a vacation.
  • And finally, I have to pay this person year-round no matter how busy or slow we are. Payroll taxes, health insurance, and the list goes on and on.

These are all reasonable concerns. This quickly led me to the realization that I needed to seriously look at outsourcing.

Outsourcing immediately addressed several major issues:

  • Scalability. Not my problem. The outsourcing company would have to be able to add and remove editors as my business grew. I would have to ensure that whatever company I chose to partner with had the ability to scale with my business. If I have a 10-wedding month, each of those weddings will come back to me in two weeks or less. If I shoot 20 seniors in a week, those too would all come back in two weeks or less.
  • Call in sick? Quit? No problem. This is still part of scalability. This all becomes transparent to my business. This is something the outsourcing company deals with on a daily basis. They’ve built their business on the ability to handle this ebb and flow.
  • Yearly wages? There are none. This was what sealed the deal for me. I only pay for the jobs they complete. I don’t have to worry about an employee not being productive or playing on the Internet all day. The cost is on a per-job basis. So, when December rolls around and I’m not busy, I don’t have to pay anyone.

Now, I know the objection you’re about to have. I’ve heard them all too often. “But if you outsource it, how do you ensure that the images match your brand, your style, your fill in the blank?”

These are professional editors. They know what they’re doing. There’s nothing magical about color correction or selecting images. Anyone can do it. What is 10 hours of your time worth? Hell, 5 hours of your time? I’d rather be out shooting and making more money.

Any outsourcing company that knows what it’s doing will be able to figure this out. Here’s the kicker: Who cares if they aren’t perfect? I’d rather them be 90 percent of the way there. That frees up my time significantly to focus on the business and on more shooting. Then when the images come back it’s easy. I scan them to make sure they didn’t miss anything. If they did, I just add it back into the selection. Instead of spending hours, I’m spending minutes on a job. And after each job, I give my editor feedback to ensure they get closer and closer to my style. And eventually we get in sync and it’s like having my own editor without all the downside. And even as they have to scale, because they know my style and keep notes—the other editors are right on the mark.

If you’ve never tried outsourcing, I suggest giving it a try. It’s truly one of the most liberating things I’ve ever done for my personal life and my business.

Here’s what ended up happening once I decided to let go. I had more time to spend on the business. I spent more time marketing and advertising. I had more time to devote to shooting. So, my calendar opened up and we booked more shoots, thus generating more revenue for the studio. I can honestly say that my studio would not be where it is today had I not let go of the post-production. Yes, I know how this all started, with me saying I do love editing. However, I love a lot of things. Editing was a giant time suck and it was robbing me and my business of valuable time.

Yes, there’s cost tied to outsourcing. But one-quarter of the sale from a shooting session will more than cover the cost of outsourcing. So, if I add one extra shoot with that time I now have, it’s more than worth it.

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