Cheap is Expensive - 5 Tips for Headshot Shoppers

Cheap is Expensive

We've all proven this a relevant point. Buying cheap shoes without calculating the per-wear price, or what we had to spend on chiropractic to counter the torque they gave our spine.

Trusting a "friend with a nice camera" to save a few thousand on wedding photos, all for photos that didn't appear or you wish they hadn't?

Ever burned three bucks in fuel just to drive to cheaper gas? All to save four bucks on the gas, while burning $20 worth of your time?

Not calculating the full cost of our savings can be penny wise and dollar foolish, so why do we still do it?

I've been asking myself this a great deal lately, as clients arrive to share their "cheap-is-expensive" stories that led them to my studio. It's not just my craft, and it's not just in my neighborhood.

I was in Kenya a few years ago to capture "appeal" images for a non-profit. The project engineer and I were observing some failed shower heads on a new facility I was there to photograph.

While we made our list of urgent tasks, I commented on our time/money to remove, time/money to catch a piki piki (motorcycle taxi) time/money to reinstall the new ones - by saying "You get what you pay for."

Eddy's reply - "We say cheap is expensive".

We both laughed, knowing that we discovered a universal problem, a problem that in my craft seems nearly impossible to eradicate.

I am in a service business that requires no certification to call yourself a photographer. You can buy "a nice camera", load up your Instagram page with sunsets and soccer photos, and people will risk hiring you to shoot their headshots.

Headshots are my specialty and yet the least expensive item on my portrait menu. That said, they can be the most costly corners to cut if you don't use that calculator app on your phone.

Our image-flicking thumbs are so busy scrolling images on our phones today, that without knowing it, we've put our subconscious mind into high gear.

That busy little amygdala (fight or flight) that once guarded us from sabertooth tigers appears to now work double-time as an authenticity barometer. "Real... Fake... Trust... Tense... Inexperienced... Relatable... Out-of-touch..."

As illustrated by Malcolm Gladwell's book "Blink", we are constantly thinking without thinking. In another of his books "Outliers", I learned about the 10,000 hour rule.

When we do something full-time (40hrs) for five years 10,000 hours, we attain a mastery that makes us appear to be a prodigy. We aren't counting how many shots that Michael Jordan missed, or how many fails the Wright brothers had before flight.

After 30,000+ hours of culling through sessions for the most true-to-nature expressions, my [BLINK] awareness for micro-expressions should be expected. Photographing sunrises is not what made me a portrait photographer.

By not seeing these same things, most of our clients (yours too) are only concerned about how much they will spend on the front end.

They are not thinking that a micro-expression of mistrust, a smirk, lifted brow, half-blinking eyes, might convey to their would-be client. "Would I trust this person with my money or kids?"

While my frame-of-reference is portraiture, I've had countless conversations in my cameraroom with attorneys, financial advisors and engineers that described the affects of this same behavior in their craft as well.

This list of questions may not help you with finances or legal advice but I do hope that it will help with how to find the best headshot photographer for you.

1 - Why should I choose *this* photographer?

If your answer is because they have nice camera gear, you're not alone. While portraits are not brain surgery, it is equally bewildering to me that we'd never choose a brain surgeon because they had a nice scalpal. YIKES!

Maybe you saw some great soccer photos. I've met some incredible sports photographers that have the most amazing gift of timing for action shots. The question to ask is, how is this relative? Did they make that soccer ball look trustworthy and approachable?

Did that scenic photographer make the sun beam with light, or did they just have a great tripod for dragging the shutter for amazing ambient at sunrise before post-processing a RAW file to HDR. (in other words, they took a better photo than I can, so they MUST be a good photographer - right?..)

2 - Look at samples of the TYPE of service you seek.

At first glance, an image will look great. Well exposed, great color, bokeh background (that can even be done on your phone), but personality is not sold at a camera store.

Real estate photos don't blink, and house-subjects don't have camera phobias for your photographer to guide you through. Easily 85% of my clients walk into the studio admitting to discomfort of some sort about what they're about to do.

THIS is my favorite experience to turn around. Is your photographer a people person?

How will you know?..

3 - Eyes v. Mouth.

The eyes never lie. Try this out while your flipping through LinkedIn looking at headshots that you like (or don't). Cover the mouth and look at the eyes. If you like the image, I guarantee that the eyes and mouth are in-sync.

Think this isn't important? The brain of your client will decide before they even know why. You will never meet the people that were put off by a bad expression. An expression that may not even be who you are, but in a split-second, in-between expression, conveyed something to them that they associated with a bad experience.

4 - How do they light?

For most of my years shooting high school senior portraits I used reflected light almost exclusively. I was pretty much anti-flash until the lessons of my mentor (and many commercial lighting clinics) taught me how to properly blend and color it with existing ambient light.

Here's the problem(s) - Natural light and reflectors won't light a group evenly, and good luck reflecting a sun that is masked by the thick NW Oregon clouds!

How can you tell?

Outdoor Samples:

Mentally remove the person from the photo. Is the scene well-lit, or does it distract (too bright) from the subject's face?

Is the sky white?

While some may like this, most Oregonians hear angelic harp music when we see BLUE! To have a well-lit face in front of a blue sky, it takes sufficient lighting power to bring the exposure of your subject up to the balance of bright ambient light.

What color are the subjects eyes?

This is usually the first obvious sign of substandard lighting. Why does it matter? Your eyes convey trust! [BLINK - client doesn't know to look for this, they just know that they don't know if they trust you - you know?..]

Studio Samples:

Shadows on the background are usually an indication that they're working in tight spaces, often portable, unable to pull the subject far enough away from the background. Been there, done that! I didn't get where I am by not making mistakes. The difference is, I would reshoot or digitally remove unwanted shadows because I knew better.

5 - Poses

If you look tense, guess what?.. Your client is probably not looking for a tense person to do business with.

What is the body language of the samples you are viewing? Relaxed, intimidating, confident?..

My conclusion is that most people will not read or consider these things until it is too late. Most of us have to make these expensive, money-saving mistakes for ourselves enough to appreciate the need to forecast the total cost and risks.

My conscious however, could not take another text from a frustrated client that decided to try a discount service that appeared to be cheaper. Please share this with a friend, and feel free to validate it with your own experience in your craft.

Best of success, and if you're in the Portland area, I'd love a chance to serve you with authentic and effective headshots!