Today's post comes from the book Professional Techniques for Photographing Bar and Bat Mitzvahs by Stan Turkel. Here we look at a few of the questions he poses about shooting a bar or bat mitvah. This book is available from Amazon.com and other fine retailers.
The dos and don’ts for mitzvah photography can cause photographers new to the genre to wonder and worry—and that trepidation can result in missed photo opportunities and stifled creativity. So what’s a photographer to do? The questions in this chapter should help you feel at ease and create your best work—in the most relaxed manner possible.
What do typical mitzvah photo packages sell for?
I thought this would be a good question to start with, as many photographers have very little point of reference for comparison. Just as in wedding photography, there are many considerations that determine the price of a mitzvah photo package, such as location, hours, style of photography, types of album designs, etc.
On average, a complete package that includes a finished album will sell in the range of $2000 to $4500. The higher-priced packages usually feature graphically designed albums. These are average prices, and there are definitely photographers selling packages well over the $5000 mark, based on talent and client base.
How much time is needed to photograph a mitzvah?
This is another great question. Mitzvah photography is broken down into two segments: The synagogue portrait session usually takes place midweek—on a Wednesday or Thursday afternoon—the week before the Saturday mitzvah service. The reception typically takes place Saturday afternoon or evening the day of the service.
The portraits at the synagogue mid-week take about two hours, and then the party on Saturday afternoon or evening will be around four hours. For a busy photographer, two mitzvahs on a Saturday back to back (afternoon and then evening) is common. When you compare this to most weddings, you can see why photographing mitzvahs can be very lucrative for some photographers.
How many mitzvahs are there each year in the United States?
This is a tough question. While there is much published data on the wedding industry, this is not the case for mitzvahs. In conducting research for this book, I was amazed at how little information is available about the size of the market. You have to keep in mind that Orthodox Jewish families are a very small percentage of the mitzvah market, as they generally do not have bat mitzvah ceremonies and the bar mitzvah is more of a religious event with a much smaller celebration. With this said, it should be noted that Modern Orthodox families have grown in number and should be included in the mix with Reform and Conservative Jewish families, which make up 95 percent of the mitzvah market. The best way to come up with a guesstimate is to look at the following breakdown of synagogues in the United States.
The total estimated number of synagogues in the United States is 3900, based on a census made by the American Jewish Committee. Of these synagogues, 40 percent are Orthodox, 26 percent are Reform, and 23 percent are Conservative.
Using an educated guess, it is expected that at least 55 percent of the total synagogues have families that will have mitzvahs in any given year. Now comes the hard part. Each synagogue has a different membership size, and the age of the members also factors in when estimating how many mitzvahs will take place in the synagogue.
Assuming that there are approximately 2100 synagogues with mitzvah families, and each will have about fifty mitzvahs a year (a big guess that is probably on the low side), then we end up with 105,000 mitzvahs a year. No wonder this has become a large industry, worth millions of dollars!
What are the seasons for mitzvahs?
Mitzvahs take place throughout the year, but there is a slow season during the summer months of July and August. The reason for this is that most kids are out of school and are away at summer camps. The party following the mitzvah service is a big part of the scheduling and planning, so many families tend to wait until children are back from their summer vacations. Keep in mind that winter weather and Jewish holidays also affect the planning of dates, so don’t expect to see as many mitzvahs during the winter snow season and during Passover in the spring.
Are all mitzvahs held in synagogues?
There are many components to the religious aspect of the mitzvah, and reading from the Torah is a key item. There are many families that are not affiliated (members of a synagogue) but want to have their children participate in this rite of passage. They end up hiring a tutor to prepare the child way in advance, and they hold the service in a hotel or resort venue and have the child read or perform part of the service. This can be in the morning with a reception following or during the twilight hours with an evening reception.
Many rabbis disagree with this practice, but I have seen firsthand some beautiful and meaningful services with children who otherwise may not have had any religious orientation at this stage in their lives.
Is it okay to take photos during an actual service that is held on the Saturday of the mitzvah?
Generally, the answer is no. If the service is taking place in a synagogue, then the custom is not to have photography of any type. With that said, Reform synagogues are more relaxed about this sort of thing and allow photos and video, provided no flash is used and the photographer stands off to the side, so as not to cause a disturbance. This is why much of the formal photography is done at the synagogue midweek, when no religious service is being held.
Is it okay to use the Torah in photographs? I thought this was a very religious item and could not be touched or may only be touched by Jewish people. What is acceptable?
Reading from the Torah during the mitzvah ceremony is a key role taken on by the mitzvah child. It makes sense that the family would want pictures of the Torah and the child. Some of these will be images holding the Torah, while others will be actually reading from the Torah.
Here is where it gets tricky. The guidelines for what can be done with the Torah differ from synagogue to synagogue. Many synagogues will set aside a Torah that is not kosher (i.e., is damaged or has imperfections) and remove some of the parchment, producing a much lighter, “mock” Torah that is used only as a prop for photographs.
Other synagogues will allow you to photograph a “real” (kosher) Torah but mandate that it be handled only by a rabbi or cantor. There are also congregations that do not permit photographing the Torah, as they feel it is disrespectful.
As you can see, you will need to check with the congregation’s executive director well before the date of the session to know what is allowed. Every congregation will have an executive director that oversees the operation of the congregation. He or she will have a support staff that works with vendors, congregants, etc. These are the people the photographer will be interfacing with.
Once you work with a given synagogue, keep a set of notes that outlines what was allowed in terms of photography. Note that all synagogues prohibit you from moving equipment or tables around. Photographers have been restricted from working in certain synagogues for this reason alone.
Is there a difference in photographing a bar mitzvah boy versus a bat mitzvah girl?
There may be some differences depending on the affiliation of the family and the type of service the child has. For example, Modern Orthodox girls do not read from the Torah, so pictures of her reading from the Torah are obviously not expected; in the Conservative synagogue, however, the bat mitzvah girl does indeed read from the Torah, and photos representing this are expected. Be sure to ask the family whether their daughter will be reading from the Torah so you will know what to expect.
What’s special about photographing the party/reception for a mitzvah? Isn’t it like photographing a wedding reception?
From a photographic equipment point of view, this is correct. There are the same large venues, dim lights, DJs or bands, etc. On the other hand, there will be special rituals such as the kiddush and motzi that you will be sure to stay alert for. In this book, you can find all of the common rituals, customs, and special moments you will need to be sure to capture for the mitzvah family.
How many pictures will I need to capture?
On average, I shoot and deliver three hundred to five hundred images. In general, about one hundred to one hundred and fifty images are taken at the synagogue, and the rest of the images are captured at the party. If there is a candle-lighting ceremony, the photo count will be on the higher end of the estimate. You will find that the number of images you capture will also vary depending on the type of venue, whether it is an afternoon or evening event, etc.
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