Party Pic! More Lessons I’ve Learned From Work


The all mechanical Nikon FM2 is still one of the most reliable cameras ever made.

The all mechanical Nikon FM2 is still one of the most reliable cameras ever made.

I used to get paid good money to go to parties. In fact I made it my business to never miss the biggest and best parties at the University of Missouri. Of course I wasn’t there solely to have fun, I was paid to be there as a Party Pic photographer.

Back before digital point & shoots and cell phones put cameras in everybody’s pockets – if you were a college student and wanted pictures at an event or party you yelled out “Party Pic!” and the designated photographer would come over and take a picture. Groups would pay a small flat fee to have a party pic photographer come to an event to take pictures. Party Pic photographers, or their equivalents, can still be seen on cruise ships, at ski resorts and even at Disney World. Back before the web, proofs would get printed and delivered to the organization days later and people would order prints,  paying $5 or more per picture.

It was a fun job and one that wasn’t easy to get. The ad in the paper drew over 50 applicants, ultimately I was hired because I was a photojournalism student comfortable with taking pictures and I was a fairly social guy. I was part of a staff of about 40 Party Pic photographers in Columbia Mo. The pay was pretty simple. You got $4 per roll of film shot (each roll was roughly 36 exposures), $.10 a mile in mileage and a per roll bonus based on the average number of people in each picture on your rolls. This per roll bonus varied between $1 per roll if you averaged one person per picture up to $4 per roll if you averaged 4 people per pictures. Oh yeah only in-focus properly exposed pictures counted.

Now before you jump too far ahead,  the maximum # of people per picture that counted towards your bonus was 4 – so 10 people in a picture only added 4 people to your average. And repeat pictures of the same people or group didn’t count towards the number at all. This was all in an effort to maximize sales of pictures. The company had found that an average of 4 people per picture was the number that maximized print sales after the party was over.

They kept ongoing statistics on each photographer and as long as you kept your average above 2 people per picture you were golden, I averaged a little over 3.5 people per picture. I quickly learned that pulling two couples together or 4 young women together was the secret to maximizing potential sales and reminding people there was party pic photog in the room. My goal at every event was to average between 3 and 4 people per roll of film and for everyone to enjoy having the party pic guy there.

The Metz Mecablitz 45 CL-4 was a beast of a flash guaranteed to light up the darkest of caves.

The Metz Mecablitz 45 CL-4 was a beast of a flash guaranteed to light up the darkest of caves or party venues.

The standard photo equipment package I used was a Nikon FM2, a Nikon 50 1.4 AIs lens and a Metz 45 CL4 flash – aka the Potato Masher or the Hammerhead. Exposures followed Weegee’saxiom of “F8 and be there”. Most parties were fairly dark so the F8 aperture with a 50mm lens meant most pictures would be in focus, even if it was too dark to see your hand in front of your face much less try to focus.

No job is all gravy, and this one was no different. The parties were frequently loud and you got to hear certain songs over and over again – If I never hear Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Achy Breaky Heart” or Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up” again, it’ll be too soon. You learned to tell the difference between the fun happy call of “Party Pic!” and the over-served, drawn out “Parrrtyyyy Pic!”. 

But you learned to be positive and full of energy for the 3-4 hours you were at a party because if you were having a good time, the pictures you took usually reflected it. As you might imagine most of the parties served a variety of adult beverages, but I usually just sipped the occasional soda because its pretty hard to take pictures while holding a drink in your hand. If had an especially good time I would occasionally stick around after my shift and have a libation and socialize with my new friends.

I took pictures of everyone – cruising the room making sure to get the couples on the dance floor and making sure that people holding up the walls were also in the pictures. It was this effort on my part which started generating requests for me by certain groups – something that wasn’t very common and was mildly flattering. But I was really just trying to do my job well and make sure everyone at the event was in at least a few pictures.

Cartier-Bresson's 1952 book was titled The Decisive Moment in the US edition.

Cartier-Bresson's 1952 book was titled The Decisive Moment in the US edition.

Although I was a photojournalist trained to look for “The Decisive Moment“, the best way to do the job was to always focus on getting your numbers and not trying to make great art. It was simple math. If I was there for 4 hours, plus 30 minutes of driving each way and I shot 10 rolls of film – with an average of 3 people per picture I would get paid about $70 for my pictures and about $5.00 in mileage. As a full-time college student getting paid $10-15 an hour for 5 hours of work and getting to practice focusing a camera while attending a party made it an ideal part-time job.

Looking back on this job from a management point of view, it’s yet another confirmation about the power of incentive-based compensation plans. And also about the importance of knowing what to measure and knowing what drives both sales and profits. The company I worked for knew how they made their money so they devised a very simple compensation plan that rewarded results. This not only helped make them the most money possible but also helped the photographer make the most money. This compensation plan was also designed to serve clients. Instead of getting back proofs with multiple pictures of the usual suspects (you know those people who are in every picture at a wedding), they got to see everyone who attended the event and got lots of memorable pictures.  It was truly a win-win-win – the company was happy, I was happy and clients were happy. I kept working at this job for several years while working my way through school at the University of Missouri. Eventually I outgrew the position, but it was a fun job for a time.

Ultimately I learned both practical photography skills and other less tangible skills. I learned practical skills like how to focus fast and in the dark. You quickly learned how to get the picture in just one shot. This skill is one I continue to use in my wedding photography even with today’s autofocus digital cameras. I also learned less tangible skills. It helped refine my people skills in a variety of situations. Typically I wanted to accomplish one thing and some of the party-goes wanted to accomplish something else.  As you can imagine trying to negotiate with some of those party-goers was a challenge, but a fun one to try an solve like this common scenario – “No you can’t take my picture – can I take yours instead? Great!”. I also learned to focusing on goals and working towards them every single day through-out the day.

And the most important lesson I learned is the importance and power of practice and repetition in refining a skill. Like most things, the more often your work at something the better you get. This is true no matter what do or what sport or instrument you play. Practice matters.  So did you ever buy a Party Pic or were you ever a Party Pic photographer? Let me know your stories about Party Pics. -t

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