by Siwe Thusi (@Siwe_Thusi) Photography is described by the OGs, the Latin, as the art of ‘painting with the light’. I think it’s more about a superhero quality of freezing time… but, hey, that’s just me.
I started pursuing photography seriously about 10 years ago when I noticed my BlackBerry wasn’t just a bomb phone (a clear clue that this was decades ago); it was something I could use to see the world in a monochrome and abstract way. From shooting Fashion Week to my late grandmother’s kitchen to a one-year-old’s first birthday party, you have to capture the abstract: that feeling of ‘what’s happening’, the storytelling. The desire to tell the story has spilled over into my professional photography life as an event photographer, too. For me, every event has a beginning, middle and end — much like the stories that also play themselves out in 60-second ads.
Shooting a dinner
The most-recent event calling for my ‘freeze-time’ skills was a seasoned marketer’s 40th birthday dinner. Now, night shoots seem to challenge most photographers. If there’s poor lighting at the location, and you didn’t bring adequate artificial light with you, it’s pretty much game over. As luck would have it that night, the lighting was terrible. Inside the venue it was dim and dull, outside total darkness. The brains had to think quick to avoid game over.
The accountant brain started panicking. Before getting to the shoot, a photographer has to calculate myriad things and set a price. There’s the obvious: your time; your investment in the equipment you use; the equipment and props you have to hire. The not-so-obvious? Putting a value on your skill. How do you put a value on your ability to find angles, play with split seconds and contort your body at times just to get that perfect shot? How do you account for the years of experience? Then, too, your editing style should be something that can’t be replicated, so it also contributes to the subjectivity of your pricing. Despite having an accountant brain, which I do, it can be hard.
So, I seek advice from a Whatsapp group I belong to called the Photographers Union, comprising really great black visual artists in Johannesburg such as Cedric Nzaka and Austin Malema. It’s a really great sounding board. But, for the 300 times someone has asked the group what price is right, there’ve been 301 answers.
Someone pointed out photographers will often take an underpriced job just to pay the rent that is due; this is a sad state of South African creative industry affairs. At the end of the day, the litmus test is simple… charge what you feel you are worth but you best be sure that the quality you deliver speaks more volumes.
As mentioned, the client celebrating her 40th comes from a marketing and operations field; she’s used to paying for good creative, and good service. I also had no problem charging a reasonable handful for ‘freezing time’. She was expecting magnificence and I wasn’t going to get it without better than adequate lighting.
That’s when my strategist’s brain kicked in. Getting to the location early and testing the lighting is the no 1 go-to strategy for photographers. Golden hour, the hour just before sunrise or sunset, is also a magical bonus. On that particular night, I had no golden hour… and I knew I had a problem. But, with an hour’s warning, I put go-to strategy no. 2 into play: making the night brighter by enlisting the help of the venue’s staff.
With a few well-chosen words, before I knew it, I had numerous willing assistants. Waiters helped carry out lamps to awkward spots in the garden; waitresses held up reflectors like eager interns. Add to that my speedlight. Magic!
And back to the abstract, the storytelling. My client’s guests were running late, so I had to gauge what was more important: stopping when the time she’d paid for was up or capturing the story. It’s a strategic predicament most photographers face: knowing how to position yourself so that your time is taken seriously. It means monitoring your time by the minute and telling your clients that they have gone into overtime. At most times, clients are gripped by loss aversion and would rather pay for overtime than lose the photographic story and sequence of events. Staying longer is never the problem but staying longer for free is.
Then there’s making guests (the subjects) feel comfortable, which has nothing much to do with either my accountant brain or my strategic brain… and everything to do with my EQ brain, or emotional intelligence. My client’s party was a sassy theme so, as a photographer, I had to bring out the sass. The ‘yaaaassss hunny’ uttered frame after frame went a long way, trust me.
Having the accountant brain set the right price, the strategist brain provide the knowhow to respond to an unforeseen situation and the EQ brain set the right tone for the guests worked exceptionally well. But the ultimate reward was the “OMG Siwe *heart face emoji* *heart face emoji*” that followed WeTransfer’s cordial report that my download was successfully sent and the images successfully downloaded.
“It’s my pleasure, I freeze time for a living. I hope the service you experienced was fun and professional.”
Siwelile Thusi (@Siwe_Thusi) is a qualified South African chartered-accountant-turned-creative-strategist at FCB Africa and a working photographer. Since mid-2015, she’s been in strategic planning, working on some of South Africa’s big brands in different categories and industries in the ATL space. She contributes the monthly column “An Accountant in Adland” — exploring where, when and how the two ‘disciplines’ overlap… and why they should! — to MarkLives.com.