Thoughts & Tips

Photographer tips and tricks. You don’t have to make the same mistakes I made….

Making Money in Photography

A recent thread on Instagram

Hey Neil, do you mind if ask you a couple of questions related to the business


Thank you. I've been offering packages sessions for 1 hour but I'm not booking clients with that number. Am I charging too much? I've providing the edits in that hour? Is that too few?

Have you worked directly for any agencies that send paying models your way? Seems like everyone just wants to "test".

So..... good questions

First off, I’m retired from business so am not trying to make a living off of photography. It does seem like a difficult field to get paid for.

It seems like if you want to make money you sort of have to go into more challenging areas such as events, e.g. weddings or take photos of little kids and their families

They are open to paying money

With models it does seem to be mostly trade

If you’re able to get yourself into the top circle of photographers then you may be able to get agencies, brands or publications to pay, but seems like there is less money in this than the last

My advice would be to find a service area like events or families to pay the bills and use the pretty girls to fill up your portfolio

That is if you want to make money. If you’re just after fame try to shoot with the best models you can

Hope that helps

I do know a few photographers who focus on tweenie girls. Their parents are open to paying real bucks to build their portfolios.

Thank you, this is some of the best advice I've ever received. do you know what are reasonable rates to charge people for events?

Events is what you can get away with. I’d recommend you look at others doing the same thing and serving the same area. If you go down the wedding path, you’ll want to get some images to show you can do it. Maybe a friend or discounted price.

In any case, your nice fashion shots will help you differentiate.

The downside of events is managing the customer. Are you a calm person?

Yes I am very calm under stressful situations, I was in the marine corps and I've been to Iraq a couple of times lol. Do event photographers just dump jpegs or do they present images to purchase individually

That’s part of the art form. Usually it’s a package price for X images. Then the customer can opt for more at Y rate per image.

Depending on the business and the customer you can try to get as much as possible upfront and/or try to monetize after the event

Hmmm I have to go research some pricing. Thank you so much for all the info, it is extremely useful

Oh another question, how many edited images do you think is fair for a one hour portrait session

I've checked out other photographers rates and what they provide but I believe they are giving away too many images

And I've calculated my codb and my current prices would keep me in the negative every week. I do get a lot of requests via my social media marketing but people aren't willing to pay

So.. the easy answer is you charge whatever you can sell

The more complicated answer is that it depends on branding and pitch

I took a workshop with John Russo, a celebrity photographer. He charges for his team $20k to $30k for a day of shooting

He has a brand and is well known in celebrity circles

Folks are going to pay for his brand and the type of product he creates

Ideally, you want to think about how to differentiate your services so that it’s not just about price. What can you offer that is unique or better than others?

Btw, there is one other category where one can make money - senior photos.

You’re not just selling pictures your selling emotion and experience

Hope that helps

It does, Thank you for taking your time to answer my questions. I will definitely put some of this new knowledge to good use.

Neil Bainton PhotoComment
Instagram = Gambling

Probably every serious photographer on the planet has his or her opinion about Instagram. It has become THE platform for photographers to display their work, get new ideas and find models to collaborate with. It has radically changed the whole ecosystem affecting modeling agencies and brands as well as those directly involved in creating content.

Recently I’ve come to the conclusion that trying to build your audience in Instagram is a lot like playing the slot machines at a casino. Each time you post the latest and greatest work of art that you’ve labored over, your hope is that this one is going to go viral. Finally my work will get recognized and I will go on to internet stardom.

The reality, however, seems a bit different. My experience is that no matter what I post there really doesn’t seem to be much difference in the outcome. I guess if I posted images of semi-naked women I might get a bit more uptake, but even with this I’m not sure. So why is this?

The hard work ethic that supports our world view when applied to Instagram would say create great content and the audience will come. The reality, unfortunately, is otherwise. The reality is that the algorithms that Instagram uses to decide when and how to display your content are the arbiters of your success. If, for some reason, Instagram deams your content worthy, it can be put in front of hundreds, thousands or even hundreds of thousands of eyeballs. But, you really have no control over how these algorithms work. Sure you can try to game them. You can try buying followers or likes or you can team up with your friends to create an Instagram support group. You can tag all sorts of famous people or things with the hope this will help your content rise up. My conclusion -- it doesn’t work. Just like in gambling, the house always wins. 

So how has this changed my perspective? I still spend far too much time looking at content on Instagram. It helps me to get ideas and see who is who in my market. But I’ve stopped caring how many followers I have or how many likes I get for each post. Sure, I look. But I no longer harbor the illusion that any of my posts are ever going to go viral. And guess what, I feel much healthier for taking this perspective. 

Long ago I remember hearing that when it comes to social networks being an early adopter is key. For those photographers who got in early and became well known, kudos to you. For the rest of us, recognize that the rules are set against you and set your expectations accordingly.

Neil Bainton PhotoComment
How to find models to work with?

For every photographer this is probably the biggest question to getting started. If you’re lucky, you may have a friend or family member who qualifies. If you’re young and hip, i.e. a college student or recently graduated, you should be able to call on friends and fellow students to shoot.

For the rest of us it can be a slog to find models. It’s not that they don’t exist. It’s just that they want to use their time wisely and aren’t particularly interested in giving up their time to let you hone your craft.

One relatively easy option for finding models is to sign up for a workshop. Typically the workshop will provide several models with whom you can work. Generally this is cost effective and doesn’t require a lot of work on your part. The downside is that you usually will be shooting with a bunch of other photographers and you won’t have much/any opportunity to experiment.

Once you decide that you want to find real models, you’ll need to find a place to reach them. Historically in the US one of the most popular model/photography website is Model Mayhem. It’s easy to join and there are a lot of models listed in their system. A lot if not the majority of the models in Model Mayhem are looking to be paid for their time. Rates start around $30 per hour and max out at $100 to $150 per hour. Rates vary based on the experience of the model and style of the shoot. There is a pretty active group of art or traveling models. These are almost exclusively women who travel around the country and world to shoot and are paid for their time Many of these models are available for nude shoots. 

Over the years Model Mayhem’s reputation has been tarnished by controversy around scams and bad or even illegal behavior by some of the photographers. If you’re curious, feel free to google for more information. Also, the website really hasn’t kept up with the times, so new services are popping up in this place. Two to consider are: joinagent.com and swipecast.com. Both sites have a more rigorous application process and both assume you will be paying the models.

When you are getting started, you more than likely will need to pay for your models. Basically you are asking for their time so you can mess up and begin building your portfolio.

Once you do get a good portfolio, you can explore asking models to shoot for “trade” or TFP (Trade for Print). The idea here is that both of you are contributing your time to the shoot rather than money. This only works if both sides believe they are getting something that they can use for building their respective portfolios. If you do have a TFP shoot, you need to be sure to get your model good images she can use.


Neil Bainton PhotoComment
Where to Shoot?

In a lot of ways, this is sort of an obvious or dumb question. At the end of the day, shoot wherever you can. That said, there are some places that are better than others. And, if you’ve been paying attention lighting is everything. Even when everything else is great if the lighting is off, so will your images.

In New York City we are blessed with endless places to take photos. There are so many interesting backdrops. More importantly from my perspective is how the light plays between the buildings. If you look around you’ll notice that the light is bouncing between the high rises. What gets down to the street level is usually very diffuse and soft, perfect for portraits and such. That and there are all sorts of interesting passerbys that you can integrate into your shot.

The downsides of shooting outside are temperature and weather. I’ve found that when it comes to temperature I’m a bit of a goldilocks. I don’t like shooting when it’s cold outside. My hands get cold holding the camera and my model is also feeling the cold. Once it starts to get hot I melt. I’m not exactly sure at what temperature I start to melt, but it’s lower than I would have thought. If lots of walking or gear are involved the melting happens even faster.

The other fact is weather. If it’s overcast there is a risk that your images are going to be flat. Basically the clouds are acting as one massive modifier. So you do get super soft light. But it’s so soft that there are no shadows. Remember what I said about shadows making the image.

On the other side is bright mid-day sun. Unless you’re going for a super high-contrast look, bright sun is to be avoided at all cost and in particular if you want a beautiful image of your subject. You can of course use scrims (large fabrics walls) that you can hold/mount to block the direct sun on you subject. The real pros often use scrims, whether it’s on the street or at the beach. The downside to scrims is that they are super bulky and you’re going to need assistants to hold them.

Studios are a great option in that you have control over your environment. It does mean that you are going to need to figure out how to get access to strobes and modifiers. Another option is a studio with awesome windows. This can be the best of both worlds. You can get amazing natural light and maintain control over your temperature.

Big downside to studios are the cost and the logistics. Typically you’re going to be renting for a set time frame which means you’re going to have to move quickly with whatever you’re doing. Outside time isn’t an issue, just the lighting and weather are.

Neil Bainton PhotoComment
Ratios and Shadows

Ok. One more geeky post about photography. Sorry.

I must admit that most of my photography path has been trial and error. I am in awe of the folks who read books and watch youtube videos that explain everything you need to know about taking great images. Maybe someday I’ll come around to learning things the right way. BTW, youtube is a pretty amazing resource for researching specific questions.

Anyways, back to the point of this post. Ratios!!! I know. Simple word. But it pretty much defines everything you’re ever going to do in photography. In the studio with artificial lights it’s easier to get your head around the notion of ratios, but the same rules apply to natural light. Basically ratios is about the relative power/intensity of your light sources. 

When I first started out, I thought lighting a subject well meant lighting everything. I’d set up lights where the subjects face was “perfectly lit” from both sides. The results sucked. Why? Because it’s boring looking at a flat, light face. Believe it or not, the most important factor in our images besides having beautiful models is shadow. There are all sorts of descriptions for the types of shadows that you create with your lights. Ultimately the type of shadow and the amount of shadow is where the creative in you gets to shine. Do you want to create a moody images? If so, darkness and shadows are going to play a big part in setting the mood. Are you going for cheerful and “sunny”? Reducing shadows will get you there.

How are shadows and ratios related? If you shoot with one light you’re going to have shadows. You can put the light in front of your subject and that will reduce them, but they will still be in your image in other places. And, BTW, that’s fine. If you start using multiple lights, then you can manage your shadows. For example, you might have a main light. For me my 7’ umbrella placed at a 45 degree angle to the right or left of the subject. This will leave the other side of the subject’s face dark. You can use a v-flat or some kind of physical reflector to bounce back the light from the soft box. Another option is to set up a second light. And here the key is ratio. So if your main light is at “1”, then the fill light will probably be at “2” or “2.5”. This scale is where 1 is twice the power of 2. You can get super geeky and get into stops and such. For me the settings are a bit like recipes. I do measure what I put in, but I’m never super accurate. Anyways, once you have your main light in place, you put the second light also at 45 degree on the other side of the subject. Drop the power to 2 or 2 ½ times lower than the main light.

You may still want to add a hair light. To be honest, you can add as many lights as you like. Just keep in mind that each new light adds complexity and the chance that you’re going to screw things up. So unless you really need it, keep your lights to 2-3 per setup. The hair light is positioned behind the subject pointing at the back of the subjects head. It provides nice shine to the hair and accent.

Ok. I dropped a lot of information in this post. Hope it’s helpful.

Neil Bainton PhotoComment
Soft Boxes AKA Diffusers

Last post on equipment, I promise.

Once you get your strobe light you need to think about diffusers also known as modifiers. Basically what they are doing is altering the light created by the strobe light.

A few rules that I learned over time. The bigger the diffuser/modifier/soft box, the softer the light on the subject. It sort of makes sense. With a large soft box, the light is coming from several angles when it hits your subject. That means that those unwanted wrinkles and such are exposed with light and don’t show up as prominently. In contrast, if you go with a small modifier with just a grid or similar in front, the light will be hard. There are times when hard light is good. Usually if you’re consciously going for some kind of attitude. Personally, I am almost always looking for soft light. It makes for nice portraits and beauty shots.

These days, my go to modifier is a monster umbrella. It folds out with a 7’ circumference. It’s covered with white fabric. While big and somewhat unwieldy it does produce the best soft light next to natural light.

Also, the closer the light source is to your subject, the softer the image. So if you’re really looking for soft, you get a big modifier and place it close to your subject. Sometimes right next to them. And, if you want to maximize your softness you can use a local focal length, say 200 mm. This will provide compression around your subject focusing attention on what you want in focus. And finally you can also use aperture to “soften” your subject. You can knock down the power of your strobes and open up your aperture. This is where your more expensive lenses come in handy. Ideally you can get as low as 2.8f. 4.0f is still good and these lenses are a lot less expensive. What the low aperture setting does is open up the lense and limit the area of focus or depth of field to just those parts of the image on the same plane as your focus point. Everything in front of or behind the focus point will be blurred. The blurriness increases the further you get away from the focus point. This is also referred to as shallow depth of field.

But back to soft boxes and modifiers. You may notice that there are options to buy grids for your soft boxes. These are a nice added touch, but not critical if you’re on a tight budget. The advantage of the grids, usually made out of fabric and sometimes referred to as egg crates, is that they help to keep the light from bouncing all around. If you want the light to go in one direction and not to splash all over the studio, the grids can be helpful.

Another common modifier is the beauty dish. Typically these are made of metal and have a plate in front of the strobe which redirects the light to the outer edges of the dish. Normally you would put a cloth cover over the dish, that and/or grids to direct the light. Beauty dishes are often mounted about the head of you subject pointing down. If you like, you can put a bounce reflector below the subjects head to get some fill in the chin area. For many photographers, the beauty dish is a great place to start. You can get awesome looking photos without dropping a lot of money.

Finally, can’t say enough for v-flats to their equivalent. I’ve seen homemade versions that work great. Basically you’re getting a 8’x6’ foldable panel with white, silver or black finish. You can use this in place of an additional light bouncing the strobe light back to your subject. Or you can use the black to enhance shadows and separation of your subject.

Neil Bainton PhotoComment
Studio Lights AKA Strobes

One more post on photo equipment. 

Once you resolve to shoot in the studio, the big choice is in lights. A cheap and mostly viable option is to use simple speed lights with decent modifiers. The cost is low and you can actually do a ton with a speed light. The downside is that speed lights are battery powered and not too powerful. As you get into bigger modifiers, aka, soft boxes, you are going to want to throw off enough light to light your subject well.

In this case you’re going to want a strobe. Since moving to NYC, I’ve noticed that all the cool kids are using Profoto strobe lights. They seem to have a lot of bells and whistles, greater color consistency and quick refresh rates (time between flashes).

Someday I will make the plunge and buy Profoto, but I’m not there yet. Instead I continue to use products from the Alien Bees family. The company was founded by Paul C. Buff, who passed away in 2015, and is based in Nashville. Not sure how it happened, but the Alien Bee family of strobes is pretty popular in Atlanta. I’ve had the original Alien Bees, currently have some older Einsteins and also have a bunch of digibees. The digibees are their newest model. They are dirt cheap and pretty solid, if not super powerful. What I really like about the digibee is the modeling light. This is the constant light that allows the photographer to get an idea of the image before he or she triggers the flash of the strobe. With digibees you get a bright, LED-powered modeling light that in many cases is all you need to light your subject. The light color or Kelvin of the LED light is close to 6000 which means is combines well with natural light. 

I find the digibees are sort of throw-away lights in that they do burn out under regular use. But that’s ok because it’s not so expensive to get a new one. And if you’re not shooting that often they should be good for a long time.

Just as with lenses, the modifiers you use will have a mounting system. While there are converters so you can use an Alien Bee mount on a Profoto, I find the mount lock in is another barrier to making the shift.

In my next post I’ll talk about modifiers and which ones I like to use

Neil Bainton PhotoComment
Photography - DSLR

I promised to come back to the question of “professional” equipment. First I will repeat that equipment and tools do not make the photographer. They are nice to have and can make a difference, but you can also hack your way to the same solution at a much lower cost.

It’s my impression that the two dominant players in the camera space, Canon and Nikon, have converged in terms of feature sets. There is some debate about sensors, Canon makes their own and Nikon gets theirs from Sony, but generally they are both awesome cameras with tons of great lens options.

Way back when, my uncle gifted me a Nikkormat camera and lens. When I first got into digital cameras I followed the Nikon family expecting I could use some of my old lenses. In the end I found that I wanted all new lenses to take advantage of the auto-focus capabilities in the newer lenses and thus I am fully wedded to the Nikon brand. That said, as I look over my shoulder at my colleagues shooting Canon I feel like we are on an even playing field

The next wave of camera evolution is upon us - mirrorless cameras. Both Canon and Nikon now have solid offerings in this category but it seems like Sony got a good head start. Also if you want to go down the mirrorless path with Nikon you have to start over with your lenses - not a trivial investment.

For now I’m happy to stick with my tank of a DSLR, the D5, in the studio and portraits and use my Sony mirrorless camera for travel photography.

Neil Bainton PhotoComment
Photography Equipment

I promise not to make all of my posts super geeky, but I thought I should talk about camera equipment.

First things first. The quality and the price tag of your gear in no way correlates to the quality of your images. The bottom end of DSLR cameras is so good that you can take good images with almost any camera on the market. Add to that the power of smart phones and we have a plethora of options for shooting.

On that score I am no longer a purist. I am more than happy to capture an image on my smartphone rather than drag along my heavy DSLR (travel shots that is).

I’m sure someone who has thought about this a lot more can comment, but it’s my impression in the Instagram age that the main differentiator in images is depth of field. DSLRs with manual controls and changeable lenses make it easy to exploit shallow depth of field or bokeh. Add to that telephoto lenses and you can really abstract the background focusing attention on your subject.

And now smartphones have their own artificial bokeh effect, auto-identifying the main subject and blurring out the background. Seems like phone makers have figured out that the camera in the phone is the best way to compete on features so we can expect ever cooler features here.

I recently got the Huawei P30 Pro. The lens captures images at up to 40 MP, putting it on par with the more traditional DSLRs and it fits nicely in my pocket so I can take it wherever I go.

I had planned to write more about my “professional” equipment, but realize this is already pretty long, so I’ll circle back in another post.

To summarize, use the tools you have and don’t fret about getting the biggest and best. Understanding lighting is far more important.

Neil Bainton PhotoComment
Random Cat Story

Our poor kitty. She’s mostly a maine coon with long, luxurious fur. We adopted her as an adult back when we were living in Atlanta about 2 years ago. For some reason, she’s never been able to clean herself properly and the result is that her fur gets matted. We’ve tried brushing. Truth be told perhaps if we were more proactive about the brushing we could keep her from getting the matts. But once the matts are present, there’s not much we can do but get her shaved. 

We decided to wait till it warmed up here in NYC before getting her clipped. The big day was Tuesday this week. She went from a large, furry creature to a thin oddly configured feline as you can see in this picture.

Her real name is Caramel. However, in a sign of my feelings towards the cats, she is mostly called K2 in our family. We also have K1 and get visits from our K9 (dog) who now lives with my daughter in Boston.

When we moved from Atlanta to NYC last August, we decided to use a service online which we referred to as “uber kitty”. The driver drove around picking up cats and dogs in the South and then dropping them off right at their new locations. Our two K’s were picked up on a Tuesday evening from our home in Atlanta. We were given a tracker to watch their movements. We could see them take a trip down to Florida where the driver was picking up more pets. At night they typically slept/parked in a Walmart parking lot where apparently it’s ok to park overnight.

Finally, I watched as the driver approached Manhattan. She took the Holland Tunnel from NJ and came right to our front door in Tribeca. The K’s where not happy. K1, the more resilient kitty, while greatly irritated, rebounded quickly upon arriving at her new home. K2, the maine coon, did not fare so well. She had had a really tough time in her cage and was a total mess when she arrived. I tried washing her, but that only make things much worse. Can you imagine the trauma of three days in a van with other cats and dogs only to be thrown into a bathtub…. In the end K2 spent the day huddled in the bathroom. Seemed like the best thing to just let her stew. Finally she emerged, not triumphantly, but at least alive. It took her several days/weeks to come around, but thankfully she has fully adjusted to her new home in NYC. As have we!

Neil Bainton PhotoComment
Photo Workshops, good or bad?

A little rant. When you first start out taking pictures for people and in particular models, the easiest way to get started is photo workshops. The organizers typically will provide the lighting, wardrobe, models, makeup and a good venue. It is definitely a great way to test your interest, but it does get old pretty quickly. For me it begins to feel like shooting fish in a barrel. More often than not, you’re not allowed to change much on the set, i.e. the lighting or where the model is placed. You can provide some posing instructions, but you do so with 2-5 other photographers looking over your shoulder. Not a great environment for experimenting. 

The other complaint is that for some running the workshops becomes more about how they can make money than it is about how new photographers can cut their teeth. All in all, I think workshops are a good thing, but encourage your to look around and do some research before dropping a lot of money.

Neil Bainton PhotoComment
Why Photography?

I often get the question why photography. My simple answer is that I like geeky things and working with a camera and strobes can be pretty geeky, at least at first. Once you start reducing your variables, it does get a lot easier, but in the beginning it’s a lot to take in.

I took my first photo class when I was in prep school in Andover, MA. I almost failed my first assignment and decided to get serious about photography. Back then I was shooting B&W (tri-x or plus-x) and developing the film and photos myself. Life happened and I took a long hiatus from taking “real” photos. Once my daughter started theater at her school in 9th grade, I gradually became the school’s theater photographer and videographer. Then, when my son started playing varsity baseball at the same school, I became the team photographer. Now both of my kids are long since out of high school so I needed someone else to shoot.

While I lived in Atlanta, I started going to Meetups at the Goat Farm. If you’ve ever lived in Atlanta, you’ve probably heard of the legendary Goat Farm. It’s a complex of old factories that has been used as an artist enclave on and off since the 60’s. Once I felt like I understood the basics I decided to branch out and get my own equipment and studio access. Shooting in photo workshops felt a bit like going to an amusement park. Waiting in line to take the roller coaster ride.

Since then I’ve tried to hone my craft and focus on natural light portraits.

Neil Bainton PhotoComment
Photography for Geeks

I sometimes refer to photography as my third career. Not sure it’s actually a “career” but I have put a lot of time and myself into this endeavor. I think I was drawn to it initially because it has a decent amount of geekiness involved with all of the camera gear and the lighting equipment. Trying to get all of it to work the way that I wanted has been a nice intellectual challenge.

Personality wise, I tend to find the most comfort in geeky things. I remember well the first personal computers (yes, I just seriously dated myself, I know). When I went to Wharton business school every student was required to get a PC. I got the AT&T 6300 with an 8086 intel processor, it was an ibm-compatible PC built by Olivetti running MS/DOS (which had a command line rather than a GUI). It had 20 Mb of hard drive memory and a 5 ¼” floppy drive with a monochrome green screen monitor. I was cutting edge back in the day connecting my computer to a modem to log into MCIMail and printing to a laser printer from HP with postscript fonts (from Adobe). It’s really amazing how much technology has moved forward since 1987.

Neil Bainton PhotoComment
Ukraine & Russia

Back in the day when I lived in Moscow I traveled extensively in what was the former Soviet Union. That included Ukraine. When I first started traveling to Ukraine it was like traveling within the United States going from New York to say Texas. No borders. You just took a train and ended up in Kiev which was considered the same country. 

My wife and I got to experience the end of the Soviet Union and the gradual separation of the Soviet republics into individual counties. The first former republic to break away was Estonia. I remember being pulled off the night train in the middle of the night because I had an American passport. They didn’t know exactly what to do with me and ultimately let me continue to Tallinn without problems. Several years later I had almost exactly the same experience crossing into Ukraine from Russia. I hadn’t been paying attention and apparently as an American I needed a Ukrainian visa to enter the country. My Russian friend and I were taken off the train in the middle of the night at the border crossing. The Russian military border guards rang their hands trying to decide what to do with us. Finally they decided to put us on the next train to Kiev with the agreement that I would get a visa once I got to Kiev. All worked out. 

The current tension between Russia and Ukraine is unfortunate. Culturally they are very close. Part of the challenge is that there are many, many ethnic Russians living in Ukraine and they don’t feel they are treated fairly — a legacy of the Soviet days. Hope that sober heads can reduce tensions going forward.

Neil Bainton PhotoComment
Using my Real Name for Photography

I decided to rename my Instagram account from A Shot in the Dark to @neilbaintonphoto. I recently attended a workshop held by @johnrussophoto. He had lots of good advice about photography and one thing he feels strongly about is that you should use your own name for your photography practice. It’s hard enough for folks to remember you and having some abstract name further complicates the issue. 

This is not the first time I’ve made this change. I had used my actual name back when I was shooting in Atlanta. When I moved to NYC this past September I resolved to start over and created a new account. Lately I feel like I’ve found my look and feel good about connecting this directly with me. 

Previously I have struggled with how to explain my interest in photography. My career up until now has been all about business. Photography is a bit of a departure and taking pictures of beautiful women as a mature man is a departure for many. As a result, I sort of tried to keep my photography under wraps. Probably not the best path. Now I feel a lot better about what I’m doing and want to share it.