I was at a networking event earlier this month sitting next to a man at a pretty cramped table. Naturally, we do the song and dance of questions everyone meeting for the first time asks but it was the last question the man asked that I was really bracing myself for: “What do you do?”

With 150% confidence and joy, I answer, “I am a portrait photographer based in Tokyo.” This answer usually elicits several responses ranging from dismissive to actively pondering if it’s time to update their images soon.

This man was dismissive to a fault but he did raise some very good questions connected to his skepticism like:

“How do you make a living when people have smartphones?”

“What’s to stop me from buying an AI headshot?”

“I’m sorry but why would people pay that?”

“Couldn’t I have my friend with a camera do it?”

With each question, I wondered how many people like him think similar thoughts and how I could address each of his concerns.

A happy father holding his happy son high in his hands on a street - family photography, lifestyle photography

Q1: How do you make a living when people have smartphones?

I think that’s an interesting thought of how much a smartphone user would seem to overlap a professional photographer: a phone that happens to have a camera vs a dedicated camera. Funnily some professional photographers and videographers earn their living using a smartphone! I could speak at length about how a camera is only as good as its photographer but let’s face it: for some people near enough is good enough.

What I told the man next to me is that based on this logic, mothers would rarely be included in the family memories they’ve captured. Who is going to make sure Mom, is a part of those memories and who is going to make sure their family will be photographed in the way they envisioned? Cue in the photographer!

Q2: What’s to stop me from buying an AI headshot?

Honestly, I’d tell people thinking about it to go for it. I’d want them to try it and see what they get. What is the end result? Is it you or what the internet thinks you should be? Smooth skin, clean jawlines, and FABULOUS clothes. This is a great idea for a vision board of who you might want to be, but it is not you at this moment and would be a misrepresentation to your audience on spaces like LinkedIn or your resume.

That’s just one issue. Another point of concern is that AI headshots do not give you the experience of having a headshot session with a great photographer who can help you transform yourself mentally. You’re able to learn tips on how to take great photos and gain confidence and clarity in yourself. This level of transformation creates an authentic message that YOU value YOU, no matter what stage of your life you are. You don’t need to look a touch younger or a touch thinner, you learn how to value yourself in a safe space provided by a professional photographer who can create that space for you!

Personally, I love the possibilities that AI is bringing to the table and it’s become an essential part of my retouching workflow.

A cute baby girl in a pink dress sitting in a limping position outdoors - family photography, lifestyle photography

Q3: Why would people pay that?

I’m always tickled by this question. Some of the people who ask it are the same people who purchased the latest iPhone on day 1 at full price. The answer is that they see value in it. Clients see value in hiring a person who not only will photograph them but also help them prepare mentally and strategically beforehand so that they know they will enjoy their time with us. I had one person describe my photo sessions as “a trip to Disneyland.” And Disneyland is not cheap.

The answer I shared with the man was that for me to give an amazing experience to my clients, there is an investment. Each client I work with gets an average of 10 hours of my time. I want them to have that time from consultation to delivering their images. Especially, when that time includes complimentary hair and makeup services, studio access, wardrobe access, guided posing, retouching, and optional complimentary museum-grade printing services.

I’m not everyone’s client. Trust me, I’ve tried and nearly burnt myself out doing everything, everywhere, for everyone. 

A passionate DJ at an event setting the music beats and having fun - Event photographer, Tokyo Event Photography

Q4: Couldn’t my friend with a camera do it?

I am going to stand up for the friend with a camera because there are a lot of issues regarding boundaries and expectations.

I have been that friend with a camera at the beginning of my career, I was excited at the opportunity to practice and build my portfolio. Over time, I started to notice I was ONLY invited to things because I was the friend with the camera. It was a bit hurtful when I would choose not to bring my camera only to have a friend or host disappointed I hadn’t brought it. It sullies the value of the relationship.

Personally, I don’t bring my camera with me to non-job related functions because, if the camera is in my hand, I’m no longer present with my friends or family. I am the photographer and will prioritize the event as such. Also, if guests see me with my camera in my hand, they too, are going to treat me as the photographer. I’m no longer the friend, cousin, or member, I’m the photographer. For every event where I’ve tried to be both a guest and a photographer, it rarely works in my favor as a guest and I divert to being the photographer, which can cheapen the studio’s brand.

It’s like when people in IT visit a friend’s home for a get-together only to be asked to fix an issue on the host’s computer. Let the friend be present at the occasion as others are.

Lastly, in most cases friends are not freelancers, they might not know what your needs are or if you have any must-have images in mind. Please make sure you and your friend have space to communicate boundaries and expectations on both sides before inviting them to shoot your event. Make sure they know they will be going as a friend OR as a photographer.

Black and white portrait of happy women at a party while drinking whine - Event photographer, Tokyo Event Photography

In the end, I can see how and why skeptics can be wary of making an investment toward having their photos taken. However, there is a serious missed opportunity for personal growth, solid branding and lasting legacies that can’t always be achieved nor guaranteed via the cheaper option. While there will be people who will always opt for the cheaper option, there are similar communities of those who value top-tier services with favorable and memorable experiences.

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