I Don’t Make Baby Photos

My dad years ago said I was missing the boat when it comes to making money in photography. “Take baby photos,” was his advice. I was working as a photojournalist and still, he said, “Stop trying to reinvent the wheel, go where the money flows: Babies!” (Which always made me think of Rodney Dangerfield in that 80’s comedy, Easy Money!)

I suppose he was right. I still don’t make baby photos. I’ve worked for over 35 years as a commercial and editorial photographer and a bit of retail photography, too–senior portraits, wedding portraiture. But I’ve mostly lived in the realm of photography for publications or corporations.

I love my work and I never expect to retire. Why would you retire from what you most love to do? Look at Keith Richards. He’s not collecting a pension, ready to sit back and relax in a hammock somewhere. He’s got things to do, things to make. As do I.

But when it comes to marketing work to people, I’m not much of a marketer. Or one to photograph the way everyone else does, making the cliche or trendy photo of the day. Nope, not me.

No ‘mini-sessions’. What even is that? Are you making sloppy compositions because the pay isn’t for a full session? Shooting with one eye closed? Quitting before getting the shot if time’s up? I don’t get it. ‘Mini-session’ is just a nonsense word. And 50 photographers in a one-mile radius from my studio are offering them. My father would say, “Don’t fight them, join them.”

I make complimentary portraits of senior citizens aged 70 and over as part of The Wise Photo Project because I figure if I don’t, they simply won’t exist. The local seniors are not nor are their family members ever going to commission a high-end formal portrait. But I can do it on my own terms. And I do.

A friend of mine says to stop giving them a framed 11×14 and give them a small unframed 4×6 and a price list to order more. That doesn’t do it for me–I’m making these photographs for future generations to know how beautiful these distant relatives were, and a 4×6 print is not much to make a lasting impression. Would a small print even get hung on the wall, or kept in a series of moves? What if they never bother to frame it? That’s why I put it in a frame–to guarantee it’s ready to hang in a home, to become part of their world of treasured keepsakes.

A recent Wise Photo Project portrait, made on 4×5.Why Kenneth, why? Just shoot digital, it’s not so damn costly!

Of the hundreds of Wise portraits I’ve done, two have asked for extra prints. I obviously am not a master of the hard-sell. It’s ironic–I think that’s the word–one of my first part-time jobs as a kid was at a Sears portrait studio, where families would come in for the $9.99 special and it was my job to upsell them to an on-average $800 package. Which I never did and I didn’t last a week at that job. It wasn’t a photography job, it was a sales gig.

Just like baby photos. Which I don’t make.

For the last five years, because I believe in the value of high-quality formal family portraits, I’ve been offering a full portrait studio at wedding receptions, the idea being instead of spending on a silly photo machine/booth with pink boas and mustaches and a low-resolution instant photo, bring me in for the same price. I’ll get everyone digitals and prints, too. It’s called the Wedding Portrait Studio. Lots of advertising on Facebook and The Knot and other wedding sites and barely a peep. Many brides-to-be have told me they like the idea of an actual photographer at their reception, but their friend had a photo booth and they’re going to get one too.

“Just make baby photos!”

Give the people what they want. Get the instant printer, the silly nose and glasses, the props, the pirate hat, and start booking weddings! But I don’t want to. I’m not just after a buck, I am a photographer making photographs. It’s what I do.

I was at a wedding yesterday where a friend’s niece, whose mom is also a friend of mine, was getting married. She hired me to bring my portrait studio to their daughter’s wedding. (It was the second wedding I did for their family this summer.) I sent them the photographs today in a web gallery and will make a print order for them next.

When I was at her other daughter’s wedding a few months ago, I made a handful of photographs on black and white film with a Rolleiflex. I was hired to bring the Wedding Portrait Studio but wanted to gift a few extra photos. Made like a guest, not working every aspect of the wedding day–that was the wedding photographer’s gig. Mine were a bonus made just for them.

Here’s one of the parents, the friends of mine who I made this for.

My father would say, “You just gave it to them? How’re you going to make money like that? You’re too nice.”

When I arrived at yesterday’s wedding, my friend asked if I brought my film camera and would I make some black and whites? I said, enthusiastically, “Yes!” I had brought the Rolleiflex with a couple rolls of Ilford HP5 and a Leica M5 with another pair of rolls of HP5–obviously my go-to film. I had planned to make photos, to create a little photo story of the wedding for them this time.

David Lynch always watches over my drying film.

And I did and it was so much fun. I wasn’t under pressure like the wedding photographer to “get everything” from setup to departure. I had no list of photos I needed to make. I was working the portrait studio intermittently throughout the reception so I couldn’t be everywhere, which was fine with me. No pressure.

Shoot what you want. Photograph what you see, what strikes you. Like every documentary photographer does. Like a photojournalist working on a story.

I didn’t get the cake cutting.

Also, didn’t get the garter toss. (Don’t even know if there was one.)

And no, I didn’t get photos of the guests at their tables, the best man’s toast, or any other wedding games.

But I did get these. And once printed, they’ll make up a nice little album of photographs.

I’ve mentioned on wedding vendor forums that I don’t photograph weddings. For one thing, I believe wedding photography is a two-person job if you want to do it right. So, book your main photographer team. That’s the best approach.

But then, as a bonus, I can bring a bit of film photography to your wedding, too. Not full coverage, that’s for your wedding photographer, more like an extra photographer, a photojournalist in the family who will be flitting around, making a handful of photos. Again, with no set list of required photos. I call it a Wedding Day Film Photojournalist.

All on film. Black and white Ilford HP5. With the quiet Leica, the near silent Rolleiflex. Not a lot. No spray and pray. After all, there are only 36 frames in the Leica and 12 in the Rolleiflex. Yesterday with the two 4×5 sheets of the bride and groom I used in the portrait studio, I exposed 98 frames total.

Wedding photographers have told me there’s no way having an “extra” photographer shooting film wouldn’t invalidate their contract, that it would be completely against the wedding photographers’ business to have a photographer like me doing that. Which makes me ask, “Why?” They’re still getting the gig. My work is completely different and doesn’t compete with what they’re shooting digitally.

They’re covering all the wedding events. Bride and groom getting ready. The still lifes. All the standard fare. They’re getting first dibs on places to stand. They’re doing the group shots, the works.

In the last year, while I’ve had pushback from photographers, I’ve had some brides give it a thumbs up. Still, no bookings. It’s not inexpensive, but for the right couple that wouldn’t be an obstacle. No one has yet inquired about price.

“Just make baby photos!”

Or course, I won’t. I’ll concentrate on commercial and editorial work, business headshots. And make my Wise senior photos when my schedule permits. Because even without print orders, I can’t not!

But, I wish there were a market for the kind of work I make. It’s not like everyone else, it’s true. It’s strong documentary and portrait photography.

And it’s what I love to make, and when it comes down to it, that’s all we can do–create work that makes us excited to get started in the morning. Which for me, this certainly is.

Not baby photographs.

3 thoughts on “I Don’t Make Baby Photos

Add yours

  1. Hi Kenneth,

    To date, no one has ever hired me to shoot at a wedding, and if I’ve got anything to do with it, no one ever will – it’s just not my sort of work/far too stressful.

    But I always take a camera & film when I’m invited to a wedding – usually Portra 800 – shot at 200 – for the ceremony and TriX for the reception.

    I love your wedding portrait studio idea, and I’ll be offering it to my niece for her upcoming wedding.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very right words. especially “Shoot what you want. Photograph what you see, what strikes you. Like every documentary photographer does. Like a photojournalist working on a story.”
    Dont agree to photograph babies and cakes – there are tons of others doing this.

    Liked by 1 person

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