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Professional photographers stay focused in Instagram era in McHenry County

LAKE IN THE HILLS – When it matters, and thousands of people can see it, most people go pro.

Even at a time when most Americans carry and use sophisticated smartphone cameras on a daily basis, experts say there’s no substitute for hiring a professional photographer.

The professional photo industry has been battered in recent years as newspapers and magazines have laid off staff, cut pages or been shuttered and amateurs with fancy gadgets have undercut traditional pricing models. But the flood of poor photography on social media sites and blogs has sharpened demand for quality in everything from real estate to family portraits.

Real estate broker Liz Mundy won’t list a client’s house without first getting professional photographs.

“It’s the first impression people get of a home when they’re searching online,” the Barrington-based Baird & Warner agent said. “If they don’t see good photos, they are just going to click on to the next one.”

For her listings, Mundy uses VHT Studios, a company that provides visual marketing services for the real estate industry.

“Everything is so visual now,” VHT Studios CEO and co-founder Brian Balduf said. “The bar has been raised. Now that everyone has photos, you have to have better photos.”

Social media sites such as Pinterest and Facebook have helped draw attention to the need for high-quality photos, videos and 3-D models, said Balduf, of Algonquin. VHT Studios has 50 employees at its corporate office in Rosemont and 175 photographers nationwide, including some of the industry’s top talent, he said.

In 2012, Wall Street Journal readers selected a Riverwoods home photographed by VHT as “House of the Year” from a selection of more than 200 “House of the Day” features on WSJ.com. Balduf said the top 20 percent of real estate agents use professionals for listing photos.

“Sellers expect it,” he said. “So do buyers. If the photos don’t jump out and grab them, they’re not going to take action.”

Before listing her house with Mundy in September, Lake in the Hills resident Julie Herlihy had already seen scores of unappealing real estate photos while house hunting online for a home in Arizona.

“It gives you a bad impression,” she said. “I’ve passed over houses because of the photos.”

The desire for top-notch photos stretches far beyond real estate. The New York Times published an article this summer about a California success coach who paid $5,000 for professional photos for her Facebook and Twitter profiles. The Associated Press reported in May on growing competition for professional pet photographers. Families are even hiring professionals to take vacation snapshots for them.

In McHenry County, photographers see social media and the Internet reshaping what they do in other ways. Local pros report taking photos for businesses and nonprofits to use on social media and for singles to use on dating websites. These shoots come along with more traditional family portraits, weddings, maternity and newborn photos and other special events.

Michelle LaVigne, a former Chicago Sun-Times photographer who opened Photo Moxie Studios, said many of her family portrait sessions end with a parent requesting a head shot for use on Facebook or Twitter. She’s happy to oblige.

“I have a huge issue with poorly taken selfies. Facebook has allowed us to see what everyone’s bathroom looks like,” LaVigne said. “Everyone thinks they can take a picture now, but they are finding out that there is more to it.”

That’s a good thing for professionals in the industry with a pay range starting at about $17,770 on the low end and $66,360 at the high end. The median annual pay for photographers in the U.S. in 2012 was $28,490, or $13.70 an hour, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. By comparison, the median annual wage for all workers was $34,750. There were 136,300 jobs for photographers in 2012. Demand for photographers is expected to increase 4 percent from 2012 to 2022. The average growth rate for all occupations over the same period is 11 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While the job market isn’t growing as quickly as other occupations, photographers are hardly a dying breed soon to be replaced by amateurs or new technology.

“Because of our ability to see things differently than other people, I don’t think professional photographers will ever be replaced,” said Ruthie Hauge, owner of Ruthie Hauge Photography.

After nearly 10 years in business, Hauge’s photographs can be seen all over McHenry County, northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin in homes, businesses, restaurants and other places.

Hauge charges clients $250 an hour for marketing and commercial work. Her 2015 wedding packages start at $3,225, according to her website, www.ruthiehauge.com.

Like Hauge, the work of Robin Pendergrast, owner of Crystal Lake-based Robin F. Pendergrast Photography, is well-known throughout the area. His daily rate is $1,200 and includes a long range of services and printing options. Pendergrast sees social media as both a revenue stream and way to show his work to more people.

“If you use social media correctly, the exposure is terrific,” he said.

The Raue Center for the Arts in Crystal Lake continues to rely on Pendergrast and other professional photographers because while “everyone has a camera, not everyone has the eye,” Executive Director Richard Kuranda said.

About 90 percent of lifestyle photographer Erin Nisi’s clients request digital images — not only for printing photos and creating albums, but to share on social media sites. Nisi, who runs Erin Nisi Photography from a studio in Barrington, said clients often want her to capture the milestones in their lives such as maternity, a child’s first year and family life. Nisi specializes in shooting candid, spontaneous family moments — the kind of images that are impossible to get with a smartphone selfie.

“You can’t capture your own emotion on your own,” Nisi said.

People are willing to pay to get higher-quality photos taken with professional-grade equipment and a professional’s eye for composition, subject matter and lighting in part because they plan to share the results with family, friends and thousands of others via social media networks, Nisi said.

“People are investing more in professional photos because they see the value,” she said. “When they are going to update their social media pages, they want to do it with high-quality images.”

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