Wednesday, July 1, 2009

A review of labs part 1: White House Custom Color

This will be a multi-part review of different professional labs in the US. Every review will use my own personal experience with the lab; every lab is a lab I have used professionally. I will also be signing up for a few new labs for my professional usage to help provide better coverage for my product line, and my findings for these labs will also be posted.

The first lab reviewed will be White House Custom Color (WHCC).


  • The customer service provided is top-notch. I have had them call me to check up on how a print was supposed to look like and verify that what they printed would work. (It was a "my bad" situation.)
  • "Free" two-day shipping with a minimum order of $12.
  • Discounted "proof" rates if an entire order is of one proof size (4x6, 5x5, 5x7). I use this a lot as a majority of my prints are 5x7. This alone saves me considerable money.
  • Standard "ROES" web-interface that remembers prior orders (for a few weeks).
  • Prints are shipped sorted by order (they will combine several orders in one shipping if they are shipped the same day) shrink-wrapped with a foam pad and thick oversized cardboard stiffner. The boxes (white with a big blue WHCC on the side) are fairly sturdy. I have never received a damaged print.


  • Their price lists are visible by anyone, regardless if they are a professional photographer or not. This, to me, is their biggest issue.
  • There is a $5 shipping charge for "Print Fulfillment" direct to customer (up to 11x14), or $7.50 shipping charge for other orders.
  • Color correction is non-standard and an additional charge.


WHCC is a top-notch lab that will continue to get my service especially due to the special proofing prices. While I'm not happy that their price list is easily available by my customers and that color correction is non-standard, they're still my first go-to lab. If you haven't used WHCC, I advise signing up and seeing what they can do to help you.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

A word on snobbery

It seems that the more I read forums, the more snobbery I see out there. There are many kinds of snobbery, from brand snobbery (Canon vs. Nikon, Elinchrome vs. Alien Bees), lighting snobbery (ambient vs. strobed), post-processing snobbery (heavy vs. light vs. none), or other assorted snobbery.

My advise: Be professional. Even if you feel snobby, don't show it. And we all "look down our noses" at someone or something from time to time--it's human nature--but let's keep it to ourselves. Never should we show our disdain for others in a public forum. It is not only rude (and very bad behavior), but can you imagine if a potential customer found your posting? Do you think it would help your cause to book the job?

I doubt it.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

CF Card Management System

CompactFlash (CF) cards are both cheap and extremely expensive. Cheap to purchase originally, but expensive to replace when photographs have been recorded upon them, and that copy is the only copy of the photograph! As such, keeping your CF cards organized is extremely important to prevent accidental erasure, formatting, loss or even theft. I'm going to share with you my "one-person" card organization technique as well as my multi-shooter technique. Please keep in mind, however, that my system is not the only system, and that there are many variations on a theme; that said, if you don't have a CF management system right now, start with something like mine and tweak it as needed to fit your needs.

A quick word about formatting

I am a firm believer that you should not "clear-up" a card by erasing the individual images either in camera or via your computer, but should ONLY erase a card by formatting the card in the camera and not in the computer.

Images are organized on a CF card (and most all digital storage) via something called a File Allocation Table (or similar, like NTFS). The FAT--as it's called--contains the information on the size of the file, the location of the start of the file, as well as other housekeeping information. When a CF card is formatted, the device doing the format basically creates a new, blank FAT and writes that to the card. Now, while FAT is standardized (FAT32 is the most commonly used version), there are even different "flavors" of each version that, while compatible, can cause issues when intermixed. Your computer (whether PC or Mac) uses it's specific flavor of FAT, while your camera most likely uses its own flavor. To help prevent these mixed-flavor issues, it's recommended that you format the card only in the camera, and not the computer. If you do format the card in the computer, make sure you format the card in the camera before using it.

While a formatted card allows the camera to start writing the files to the newly-open spaces in sequential order, if you erase individual images and continue to shoot, you can run into the situation where the camera needs those recently freed-up areas for writing. However, since no image file is the exact same size, you can run into the issue of needing all of one "erased spot" and part of another. This fragmentation can cause issues; not big issues, mind you, but issues non-the less. And while there's nothing wrong with "chimping" out some bad OOF shots and continuing to shoot, I wouldn't manually erase most of a CF card and refill it up. But that's just me.

Single shooter card management

When I'm the only photographer, my card management system is fairly simple and revolves around six basic concepts:

  1. Cards that aren't in a camera are in a Think Tank Photo Pixel Pocket Rocket (PPR)

  2. Cards in the PPR are organized by camera (two cameras, each gets a column, and I rarely shoot with more than two cameras)

  3. Cards in the PPR are known to be blank if the brand label is visible

  4. Cards in the PPR are known to contain images if the back-side with my contact info and card numbering labels are visible

  5. The PPR is connected to my person at all times via the strap and an optional small caribiner

  6. Cards do not get formatted until at least two other copies exist (generally the main hard drive and an external USB hard drive, if not two USB drives)

That's the "shooting" part of the card management system. I also have a step that lets me track which cards have been downloaded by turning them sideways in the PPR, but you could easily re-format the cards (in camera, of course!) after confirming two copies exist. However, I don't format a card until I absolutely know I need it again, giving me that extra copy of all the images.

Recordable optical discs and other media

Now, some people like to use recordable CD and DVD as a back-up copy. Personally, I'm not convinced of the archival qualities of these discs. While I do use recordable CDs and DVDs as distribution of digital files to customers, I don't recommend long-term storage of the files on the discs. The two main causes for data degradation (also known as "bit rot") is heat and (sun)light, both of which are hard to avoid. And while there are "archival"-grade recordable DVDs and CDs out there, it's hard to beat the cost of external hard drives.

Multi-shooter card management

My multi-shooter card management is similar to the single shooter, but tailored for the specific needs of an event photography company with multiple photographers. First, a PPR isn't used; instead, each photographer is given the number of cards he or she needs for the event. Computing this number depends on the event itself. Gymnastics lends itself to fairly easily be able to judge not only the number of cards needed for each photographer, but the size of the cards as well. Cheerleading, however, requires a different approach.

Each photographer is also given specifically labeled envelopes into which they put the full card(s). These envelopes are picked up by the card runner and delivered to the dumping station. Each envelope contains information describing the location and timing of the card(s) within, such as apparatus or field, rotation or team, etc. This information varies depending on the event/sport.

The dumping station dumps each card to at least two locations, preferably three, one of which is offline most of the time (using two USB drives where only one is installed at any given time helps).

After dumping, the cards are put back in the envelopes until verification of the files has completed, at which time the cards can be erased. Again, I like to delay on erasing any card until I'm absolutely sure I can erase it, and then only if I need it.

A quick word about card sizes

Personally, I like smaller cards, 2GB or 4GB. (I even have several 1GB cards that I use for events, as I often rarely use up more than 1GB on a card until it's swapped for another, purely for organization.) Usage of smaller cards generally means less expensive cards (2GB and 4GB cards often go on sale at close to 50% off prices) as well as the added benefit of eliminating the "all the eggs in one basket" issue.

So, that's the basics of my CF card management system. There are other little things I do to help organize for my specific needs that wouldn't be appropriate for most readers, so I've left those out. As I said above, feel free to tweak this to meet your needs, or start with something completely different. However, make sure you have a CF card management system, or else you may be replacing a very, very expensive card one day!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Starting Off Part 5: The Product

Getting ready to wrap up the Starting Off series, I'd like to next focus on exactly what it is that you're going to sell: your products.

A quick side trip.

First, get rid of the notion that your product is tangible; you're not selling a print, album, or file: what you're really selling is your time, talent, and artistic vision, that is only being represented in a print, album, or file. Your real product is a form of intellectual property protected by the Copyright office of your country. Do not sell yourself short when performing a shoot or service, thinking that all you're really selling is a piece of paper with some ink on it: that's not the real product. And when (not if, but when) your customer claims that you're ripping him off as you're selling (for example) a 5"x7" print for $25 when he can get one printed at Sam's for $0.40. You need to have a game plan to defend yourself for this, but that's another story....

OK, you're really selling a service, but your customers really want to buy something they can hold in their hands (or view on a computer): a print, album, or file. Yes, I know I just said that this isn't what you're really selling, but to your customer, it is. So, that said, let's talk product.

Printing: Quality matters.

When it comes to prints, there really is a difference. If you have a print from a professional lab in one hand, and a print from a 1-hour corner store, you can tell the difference--and more importantly, so can your customers! It is true that if you hand one print to a customer from one source, and they don't have something physical in-hand to compare it to, they'll be hard-pressed to feel the difference. However, once they handle your prints, when they handle one from Target or *shiver* Walgreens, they'll feel a difference. But professional printing goes beyond the paper.

A lab does so much more than just print on professional paper. Color correction? Check. Increasing resolution ("up-rez" or "ripping")? Check. Drop-shipment with professional, high-quality packaging? Some do (but you will pay for it!).

Personally, I use only a few labs, and I can count on one hand the number of issues I've had with either. In fact, if I eliminate those issues that were caused by me (guilty as charged!), that number decreases to ZERO. In fact, my main lab will call me up if they even think there's an issue with either the file uploaded, the print, or the shipping. Case in point: I received a phone call yesterday from my lab on an order I was having drop-shipped to my customer. It seems they validated the address, and it came up invalid. Sure enough, I flubbed the street number when I entered it. Did they have to validate the address? Perhaps their software did it for them, but they could have chosen to ignore it and ship it anyway. Instead, they took the time to telephone and confirm.

I'm going to leave albums for another post (since I'm so late on this one as it is), but let me move on to files....

A Digital Revolution.

More and more of my customers are asking for digital files, and not just low-resolution web files, but full-resolution printable files. I hesitated for a while about this: selling a CD of photos means the printing is out of my control in both quality and quantity. No more should I expect to receive a reprint order, and who knows what the prints look like. Eventually, I gave in, and boy am I happy for it.

(Note: Selling digital files is not suitable for every photography business out there. I shoot mostly youth sporting events such as gymnastics meets, cheer-leading competitions, and field sports, where selling CDs are now the norm, and the parents expect it.)

At first, I sold only edited files on CD, cropped down to a 4x6 @ 300 dpi resolution, and touted it as a 4x6 CD. I noticed a few issues, though. First, I was spending way, WAY too much editing time, even if all I did was a noise-reduction, color correction, straighten, and crop. That just took too long. Second, 8x10 prints from these so-called 4x6 files were acceptable to my customers, so I wasn't limiting my print sales losses to 4x6 prints. Third, in order to justify the time, I had to charge more for the CD--and parents didn't like that.

So, I got rid of the edits (except for a batch noise-reduction for high-ISO shoots like gymnastics), burned full-resolution files to CD, and sold them for less. The results? Staggering. At a recent gymnastics meet, my CD sales represented over 80% of my on-site sales. I was able to convince parents (and rightly so!) who were going to spend $30 on a few prints to spend $50 for the CD. Not only did they get more photographs of their child, I spent less time editing and less on materials. I considered this a WIN-WIN for both of us. And the response? Very good would be an understatement.

However, don't think you can burn a CD with files and be done with it. I don't use those generic CD-R disks you can buy for $0.10 now-a-days. Instead, I purchase ink-jet printable CDs, and print on them with the photo information (in my case, the event, date, and location) as well as a photo print release right on the disk.

How the disk looks is part of the packaging of the products, which can be an entire post on its own.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Get a free bag from Think Tank Photo!

Think Tank Photo is one of the top manufacturer's of photography carrying equipment, meaning bags, roller bags, belt and carry systems, backpacks, you name it. And now, Think Tank Photo is giving away a free bag with any purchase over $50. How, you ask? Easy, click right on the icon below:

and then shop on their site. Your choices for the free bag include a Lens Changer 50, Lens Drop In, All The Other Stuff, or Bum Bag, all of which work with or without their belt system.

Personally, I own their Airport International v2.0, and absolutely love it, along with their Artificial Intelligence 15 notebook PC case that fits inside the International. I also own several of their "can't live without" Pixel Pocket Rockets to hold my CF cards and their Lightning Fast case. The build quality of these bags and cases are fabulous.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Useful Links #2

Another interruption of the Starting Off series before I start to wrap it up, and again, another Useful Links post. Here are some more links that I find very useful, and am sure you will, too.

First, I have Steven Frischling's (aka Fish) Flying with Fish blog. This blog is great for the photographer who's going to travel with her gear, even occasionally. This blog is great for non-photographers who travel frequently. Heck, this blog is great, period. This blog is on my RSS feed, so I catch every update. He's great at pointing out new space-saving or weight-saving gear, and has lots of insight on how you pack and carry your photography gear when traveling. Before I fly anywhere, I make sure I go back and read a few of his posts to familiarize myself with some great hints on how to survive airports.

Next, I'd like to present my favorite photography-based forum,, affectionately known as "FM" to its posters. It's very-much leaning more toward the professionals, semi-professionals, and advanced amateurs than "Suzy Soccermom" or "Steve Swimmingdad" who just got a dSLR and wants to know what gear to buy. Sure, there are the gear forums, but the specialty forums (such as Sports, Weddings, and People) are the best. And if you want to be blown away by some photos, take a look at the competitions. They have weekly and monthly competitions. And then there's the Review section and the Buy and Sell forums, which are also top-notch. If you read only one forum, I highly recommend

Lastly, we all need some humor in our lives, and What the Duck is the photographer's outlet. It's a great web-comic, and his t-shirts are pretty darn funny, too. You definitely need to check this out.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Starting Off Part 4: The Stuff

Niche: check!
Legal: check!
Brand: check!

You know what you're going to shoot, are legal to shoot, and know how you're going to brand your shooting. Now, you need to figure out what are you shooting with! I've noticed from all the myriad posts on the photography forums that many starting photographers have a hard time determining what gear they need to make great photos. I'll give my opinion on a few of the problems they have, and give you, once and for all, the actual, true list of what equipment you need for your shoots.

It's not the size of the boat....

First off, don't stress out over megapixels. In fact, I'm going to go out on a limb and say something that both Canon and Nikon don't want me to say: You don't need the newest camera body. In fact, the 4 megapixel (yes, four!) original Canon 1D produces some of the best images out there, and works well enough for 90% of the professionals.

Yes, 4 megapixels is enough. Surprised? The reason is, it's not the number of pixels that matters, it's the quality of the pixels that matters, and the quality of the light that hits those pixels. In fact, if you need to invest money, invest it in your glass (lenses), not bodies, unless there's some good reason to get a new one (and I'll get to those reasons later).

Also, remember that if you take the professional camera away from Anne Geddes and give her a Kodak point-and-shoot, you'll still get professional photos, and much better photos than if 99% of the population would shoot with her camera. So don't fret too much over your camera, and don't worry if you don't have the top-of-the-line camera, either. Until you are outshooting your current camera body, don't bother.

If it's worth having, it's worth having twice.

One key thing that most people starting fail to realize (and, in fact, several established professionals are also in this group) is that if you only have one of something, it's really like not having it at all. Or, as they say about real estate: backups, backups, backups!

Do you need two of everything? No, not everything, but you really need to have suitable replacements for every critical item. For example, in my niche of youth sports, my Canon 1D Mark II is my work-horse, and if it goes down and I don't have a replacement, I'm, well, screwed. Do I need to have another exact same body? No, but it's better if I do. For a year, I used a 20D as a suitable backup, and it worked; not nearly as good in autofocus, but it got the job done. Now, I have four camera bodies: two main bodies as I often supply a camera body to someone shooting for me, and two suitable backups. And one of those backups is the original Canon 1D (yes, the 4 megapixel marvel I mentioned above) and I'll grab that one before the 8.2 megapixel 20D 90% of the time, so even here, it's not about megapixels.

When it comes to lenses, you don't necessarily need exact backups, but you really need to have the focal lengths covered. If your main lens is the Canon 50mm f/1.2L lens, you don't need to splurge $1200+ to get an exact backup, but can consider the 50mm f/1.4 or even the 24-70 f/2.8
L as a suitable backup. If your main lens is the 24-70 f/2.8L lens, perhaps the Tamron 28-75 f/2.8 lens as a suitable backup. What you're aiming for here is the ability to reasonably be able to get the shot you want without the gear you generally use.

Why do you need backups? Perhaps I should introduce you to Murphy's Law, but I'm fairly sure you're already familiar with the concept. I've had a shutter break at an inopportune time, gear falls, strobe tubes blow, cables get tripped over and broken, flashes fail, let alone the issue of outright theft.

Now, realize that backups are requirements for some photographers (sports, wedding, PJ), but for others (wildlife, landscape), it may not make sense to get these backups. After all, it's hard to recapture a sporting event or a wedding, but that mountain isn't going to disappear overnight (although the shooting conditions will!). However, I always advise having a second camera body, if for nothing else, to have your second-most-used lens on it, ready for use without having to swap lenses in the field.

So, if you only have one camera body, then you DO need to buy a second one, maybe even a new one if you can justify it. Don't know if you really need it? Read on....

New, newer, newest.

Do not think you need the newest camera body because you need the megapixels. As stated above, the lowly 4 megapixel Canon 1D is still in my bag as a backup. Before you shell out hard-earned bucks for a top-of-the-line camera body, first answer the question:

What does my current camera body not do that I need?

Note this doesn't say "want", but "need." Do you really need higher ISO capability? Do you really need faster frame rates? Do you really need more megapixels? Do you really need a better autofocus? Once you've truthfully answered this question, you can determine what camera bodies would meet your needs, then make sure you get one of them. Not necessarily the newest, but what you need.

Now, for lenses, look at your most commonly used focal lengths (and f/stop combinations), and see if you're well covered. Make sure you can cover any critical focal length at least twice; I prefer once with a prime and once with a zoom, but that's just me.

Equipment: the (semi-)definitive list.

I promised a list of what you need for your shoots, so here it is.
  • At least two camera bodies
  • All critical focal lengths, covered twice
  • If you use a flash, a backup flash
  • If you use off-camera flash, a backup radio transmitter and receiver (or transceiver) and cable-set
  • Your required "tools of the trade" such as tripods and filters for landscape photographers, tripod and gimble heads for wildlife photographers, reflectors, strobes, etc.
  • Three complete sets of camera batteries (including backups) and flash batteries
  • Twice as many CompactFlash cards as you'd use in a single shoot
  • If you shoot with strobes, a spare flash-tube
  • All required battery chargers and cables (a spare cable might not hurt)
  • Lens "cleaning" supplies such as a microfiber cloth or a "lens pen"
  • Your artistic eye
Given the above list, I know I can cover any shoot I am at. I may not have the luxury have having the more esoteric items, but I know I can accomplish my shoot given the above list.

What do you feel is a must for your shooting?