Being appointed as the official photographer for a large university's convocation is a very big thing. I'm in the midst of it all as an underpaid worker, but thats the price that all of us have to pay as employees. It basically means that you will be able to access a large amount of funds in a short period of time (one day at most, or even a whole week for some other universities). The more (and economically privileged) the graduates are , the higher are the fees and the total earnings that you will be able to acquire.
I came to work one day and was alerted to a small piece of news made available in the local papers about an unfortunate graduate that claimed a [prominent] photography shop 'overcharged' her for shoddy photos. I know this is not new news, and most Malaysian photography forums would have already been alerted to this.
Please allow me to explain this issue a little further.
"This studio is the official photographer appointed by the university for our convocation," she says.
Competition to obtain the permit to become to official photographer for their convocation is stiff. Showing off that you can do the job well just isn't enough. Sometimes you have to let the university management have a slice of the cake in the form of commissions, which may well be into the tens of thousands. (This happens in Malaysia a lot by the way. In China or Singapore, this sin is tantamount to capital punishment) Of course, this is only applicable for some universities; most are transparent and are more excited by the quality of work that you will be able to produce.
"One of their part-time staff told us the whole package for solo portrait in convocation attire and family portrait was RMxxx, inclusive of gold-coloured frame and logo attached on it. Those interested paid a RMxx deposit."
The studio needs a large amount of part time staff to entice the graduates about the graduation photography packages. They can't just depend on the full time staff to do so. The more sales, the better. Samples of the finished product together with their frames are proudly displayed. Of course, the subjects in the pictures are physically blessed with good looks - otherwise we wouldn't display that as our samples.
When she and family members posed for the portraitures, they realised the photographer was not professional.
Our studio employs photographers who have the relevant experience in posing the family, but other studios may achieve short cuts by just employing a (cheap) photographer for the day who has no (or very little) experience in posing the student (and their families), for the sake of cost reductions. On the other hand, even though the photographer is professional, they try to do the best that we can with the very limited amount of time available, hence perhaps the opinion of being 'unprofessional'.
"He just simply snapped the photos without asking us to concentrate and look at the lens before taking the shots. The photos taken by him which we then viewed on the small screen LCD were poorly taken.
An average studio booth during a large convocation has to go through at least 50 customers in a few hours as part of the process to complete the sales. That means that for an on location solo and family portrait, we can only spend an average of ten minutes for the entire process instead of a longer time that can be afforded if the customer visits the shop. Of course we can't just take our own sweet time - our boss would be barking orders at us to hurry up with the portraits because a lot of people are in line waiting. If time is short, an unexperienced photographer will tend just shoot if he feels that the family or graduate is roughly in position without posing the family properly.
The importance of posing can't be overlooked. We have to ask people with spectacles to look down, otherwise the reflection of the softboxes will ruin their perfect images. Crying babies have to be pacified. Rolled up sleeves have to be properly buttoned up. Those who are sitting down can't be allowed to slouch. And sometimes, even the best of us have to be told to keep our heads level instead of slanting to one side, unless lop sided heads are the intended effect.
And speaking about LCD screens, of course you can't judge the final image just by looking at the small LCD on the camera. Most Malaysian studios WON'T use a series of RM 6,000 full frame 5D mark II's or D700's with 3 inch 920k screens for graduation photos. If the job can be done with a camera that costs half as much albeit with a crappier LCD screen such as the D70 or the 30D, the cheaper option would be preferred. When a customer views the LCD, of course the pictures appear 'poorly taken' because most of the time, you can see the edges of the painted background in place, as well as the crappy chairs that we use for your family to sit down on. All your pimples, sweaty skin, crumpled shirts and unkept hair will be seen. The image is what it is, not what it is meant to be. In a way, we're just denying ourselves of the crappy reality that we're in, and for a split second in time, we're in a perfect world where everyone is smiling and pretending to be all happy and cheerful.
When we complained about the shoddy work, a staff promised us they would do the necessary touch-up on my father's face, but the way she attended to us was unfriendly.
In such a hectic situation, the priority of the staff is to make as much sales and to stuff as much money as possible into their purses. When a customer complains, they do their best to pacify them and to assure them that everything is alright. There is so much money to be earned on that day, and just attending to the needs of one disgruntled customer will not make any business sense at all. Yes, that's cruel, but thats the way it is. Forget about smiling or personalised customer service. If we try to be 'perfect', there's no point about being appointed as the official convocation photographer at all.
A few weeks later when ... went to the shop to collect her photos, she was upset when told she had to pay RMxx extra for the gold-coloured frame and UTAR logo, which means a total of RMxxx.
"The staff claimed the parttimer quoted the pricing incorrectly. When my friend who accompanied me scolded the staff, she offered to reduce it to RMxx, which means a total of RMxxx. To get them to complete the jobs, my friend, a fellow graduate, and I each paid RMxx extra," she says.
I'm not saying that part time staff are idiots - for the sake of making the sale, sometimes they can to genuinely misquote the price. When that happens, we as full time staff have to bear the brunt of it all and apologise to you and say that more funds are required to complete the transaction. Yes, its like demanding for money right it your face, but that's the rule of the game. Discounts are only generally given as a pacifier, but the bottom line is that more money is still added. The addition of very single ringgit counts.
"My friend and I couldn't help but believe the part-timer was told to give a lower quotation to get more graduates to sign up. And when I saw a developed print of my family portrait, I was disappointed they had not touched-up my father's face as promised and because of this I was told to wait another week or two to collect it."
Two weeks later, ... went to the shop and another disappointment awaited her.
"The staff provided the wrong type of frame and there was no logo."
Yes, its sad but true. At times, a lower quotation is given to entice the customer to purchase the package, but costs will exponentially increase with the optional add ons. The add ons don't cost that much too, in fact it is where the most costs to produce the final product are recouped with very little effort.
Regarding the touch up job, the staff can't read the customer's mind, and neither can we as photographers. If it is still unsatisfactory, we appreciate if we are informed about the error, and we would quickly attend to it with the best of our abilities.
A spokesman says: "We admit there was a discrepancy in our services due to our heavy volume of customers. In compliance with our ISO procedures, it has since been rectified in terms of procedures as well as with our customer..
"Once again, we thank the complainant for the constructive feedback for allowing us to improve our services."
Apologetic as it may seem, most graduation photography studios operate in this way, and screw ups happen more often than not, especially when there are lots of customers to attend to. Shortcuts are sadly inevitable for the sake of making more profits.
Being an employee of a photo shop myself, the repercussions of this report being reported in the local papers are severe. It has severely affected the image of the studio, and might hamper their efforts to secure more convocation jobs in the future.
I am sincerely sorry about the inconveniences you have gone through as a customer, but please understand that each photo studio has many mouths to feed. I hope that complaints through the papers will not occur so often, otherwise many studios will be out of business!