Finders keepers, from PMA magazine

To keep staff, hire only the right people, according to this article from PMA magazine.

Doh! Brilliant! Why didn’t we think of that before?

OK, that opening statement was patently oversimplified. Just how do you latch on to the part-timers, contract workers, or freelancers needed to help with the company shooting jobs? And once you’ve found ’em, how do you keep ’em?

We asked four successful sports photo companies these questions and came up with remarkably similar answers from all of them.

Murray Sielski’s the odd man out – only because he’s Canadian and doesn’t hire part-timers for his St. Albert, Alberta, company, SDI Digital Imaging. But what he has to say has a major bearing on the original question.

There certainly have been times when this growing company could have used some help; but he says with his company basing its sales on image quality, he’s never felt comfortable using anyone who hasn’t had extensive training. If he finds someone who’s really good, he finds a way to hire them full time.

The full-time photographers in his organization “really know what’s going on, and I just don’t feel we could ever get that from part-timers.”

He will hire assistants to work part time.

Keeping photographers has not been a problem, he insists, mainly because he keeps them busy. If they’re not shooting, they’re working on other projects designed “to move us ahead,” such as techniques and products.

“We’re always looking for new ideas, so we task our people to come up with creative solutions to issues, situations, problems, and opportunities.”

Because of the booming Alberta economy prior to the recession, Sielski did have some problems in the past getting photographers, so his solution is one that will pop up again: “We found by getting more involved in the place they’re trained, it helped us significantly.”

Sielski sits on the industry advisory committee for the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, where most of his photographers have been trained.

“I’m involved in practicum programs with them, so I get exposure to the new students. I speak to a couple of classes on a regular basis, and that exposes the students to my company.”

Eric Miller, Miller Foto, in Kenner, La., does hire part-timers. In fact, he notes, the majority of his shooters are part-timers.

He says the company selects employees only by references from family, friends, and the people they know.

Occasionally, a note has been added in with emails sent to parents when looking ahead to the next season of a big soccer league, indicating the company is looking for part-time assistants and photographers. The email tells what the hours are – usually in the 4:30 to 8:00 p.m. range for weekdays and 7:00 to 3:00 p.m. range for Saturdays.

“We pay them a very good wage,” he says, a common theme among the companies with which we talked. Depending on the photographer’s experience, Miller says they pay $20 to $40 an hour; so a shooter working an 8-hour day can “make a whole bunch of money.”

The key, he says, is the company wants complete control of the workflow.

“They have to do it our way.”

Miller says he doesn’t “give a [bleep] what they’re used to.”

The company does not hire wedding photographers, and it doesn’t hire portrait photographers. “First off, they’re too slow. They’re used to taking 5 to 10 minutes to pose a person. We don’t have that kind of time. I’m shooting 1,500 kids in one day. I don’t have time to spend 5 to 10 minutes with each one.”

When Miller does look at someone, he invites him or her to one of their photo days. “We’ll even pay them.” If they don’t “click,” says Miller, or if they don’t think it’s something they’re interested in, “we’ll pay them for the day.”

The people he hires have to be “kid-friendly,” something that’s hard to find at times.

One of the things he has heard from parents when taking over a league is the previous photographers “were old, grumpy, and not nice to the kids.”

Every one of Miller’s photographers shoots the same camera, same flash, same battery, and same memory card. “We have five kits all set up – all Canon 5Ds with Quantum Turbo flashes and batteries,” and all the photographers “know exactly what to do.

“We train them so they all know what the deal is.”

Miller says it takes about a year before an assistant and photographer can shoot something without supervision.

Whatever he’s doing, it’s working because he has “very little turnover.”

In Jacksonville, Fla., Jeff Gump, Gump’s Sports Photography, goes searching for part-timers on the craigslist website. “Craigslist has been very good for me.”

He says he’s looking for people he can teach – and he emphasizes that word. “I don’t want professional photographers.”

Gump notes he has relationships with three schools in the area. The photography class teachers “teach our system – how we take our pictures and how we use the cameras. He prepares them.”

Gump will visit for a couple of days and do mock shoots. Of 35 part-timers, 25 of them have come from the schools.

“They get credit for coming to the job. If we have problems with attendance or the quality of photography, we go back to the teacher and he spends more time with them to make sure we don’t have the same problems the next year.”

Gump says he has little turnover and part of that is in how he treats his part-timers.

“At the end of each job, we take our people out to lunch or dinner. We treat them well. We have enough people working on a job that we’re not working them to death. We know how important it is to have these people, especially with the amount of time it takes to train them. We don’t want them to leave at the end of the season.”

He adds the company puts on a get-together at the end of the season, renting cabins and going away for a couple of days.

“We take good care of our staff because we know how important they are.”

John Pittman, John Pittman Photography, Northampton, Pa., says he hires from several sources but is “reticent” to hire people who have formal training.

“We appreciate their knowledge and skill set; but there is an emphasis on speed and delivering a predictable product, so we need to standardize our process as much as possible.

“Sometimes those that come to you are highly educated, look at a situation, and figure there’s a different way, a better way, to create the beautiful Rembrandt lighting and deliver this portrait. In reality, we’re not selling $180 portraits; we’re selling $20 memories.”

Pittman says they do utilize some very highly skilled action photographers. “Unless you have looked through the end of a 400mm lens, you can’t appreciate how quickly the subject can move out of the frame.”

He notes the company has used former National Football League photographers and newspaper sports photographers, and “they’ve done a fine job for us, capturing really pro results even though only dealing with little flag football children.”

It’s 90 percent personality and 10 percent technical, he suggests, adding he’s always felt he can teach the technical part of it. What they want are people who are good with children.

“Our type of pictures competes with ma’s apple pie, hot dogs, and the American way,” he chuckles.

For the most part, “it’s people who have another job and augment their income by shooting for us.”

He says his company pays what he believes is “fair and adequate” compensation for their time. If someone is working a 40-hour week, then $11 an hour may be palatable; but if it’s only a couple of hours, “that’s hardly enough.” Pittman pays $20 to $25 an hour.

“This gives them the sense they are appreciated for what they do” – a sense of worth so they’re “going to try to do a good job for us season after season.”

He says they’re experiencing less churn now than in the past.

“We try to take care of our people. We provide all the equipment so they don’t have any personal expenses.”

It’s a growing company, notes Pittman, so they’re constantly adding photographers. Word of mouth is “the primary line of action,” asking their existing photographers if they know of anyone.

“We’ve also been successful in the use of craigslist, as well as attending college and university placement seminars.”

The latter has proven to be “a source of good, educated, motivated young people who enjoy photography on the side.”