Mark Daughn's 50 Dollar Project

The Austin SMUG group held its May meeting on Thursday, May 24.  A little over 30 photographers attended the meeting at the Parish Hall of the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection in Austin.   This month we were treated to a presentation by Mark Daughn, a professional glamour and fashion photographer based out of Austin.  His work has been published in numerous magazines including Elle, Cosmopolitan, Vogue, and Mystique.   

Mark's photography takes him on location around the world, often to exotic locations with fairly high budget assignments.  Someone made a comment to Mark a while back , stating that it was easy to get gorgeous images of models when you have a high budget to work with.  Mark took that as a challenge and created the 50 Dollar Project.  The premise is simple.  This year Mark is doing one model photo shoot a week with a per shoot budget of $50.  This includes everything associated with the shoot: model, makeup, wardrobe, equipment rental, and location fees.  

Any existing equipment that Mark already owns is fair game to use for the project.  It might be tempting to dismiss the idea of pulling off a shoot with $50 when Mark already owns tons of pro camera and lighting gear.  However, he is keeping the lighting setups fairly simple and, more importantly, attainable by photographers with a modest amount of gear.  Most of his project shoots so far this year were lit with single or dual light setups with inexpensive modifiers like umbrellas or grids.  He also makes good use of natural light when possible.

A big priority for Mark is to keep the project fair.  He has had opportunity to bring professional models, locations, and resources into his personal project through his commercial resources.  True to the spirit of the project, he has not used any people or resources that he has not booked himself within the project guidelines.  Yes, Mark has to seek out models through sources like Model Mayhem like the rest of us!  

It would probably be enough for Mark to post some images from his weekly shoots to show what is achievable on a shoe string budget.  It gets a lot better than that.  Mark is running the project completely open-book.  Everything about the shoot is shared on his project website: contact sheets, a narrative description of the concept and process, commentary on what went right or wrong, lighting diagrams, and final edited images.  Visitors to his project site get to see everything from the polished final cuts to the epic fail rejects.  I've seen a lot of photographers share details on the creation of their images but Mark's openness on the entire process, whether successful or not, is rare and refreshing.

Mark talked about the obstacles he has encountered and how he pulled through when things went terribly wrong.  On a small budget with limited resources, it is easy for things to not go according to plan.  In one shoot, Mark discovered after 3 hours of frustration that he isn't very good at airbrushing body paint on a model and that using double sided tape to adhere jewelry to skin can produce unexpected consequences!  At least a couple of the project shoots proved to be lessons in overcoming adversity and still coming away with quality images.

So, is Mark able to stay under budget?  Yes.  As of this SMUG meeting he has done 15 weeks of shoots at a cost of just over $100.  He has had good success finding models to work with him on a trade basis and the majority of his expenses have been for things like snacks and cheap props or costume garb.  That is good news for those of us who don't normally get flown to exotic locations for location shoots with beautiful models, lots of equipment, and a gaggle of assistants.