Voluntography: How Shooting For Free Made Me A Better Photographer

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A lot of what we learn as photographers comes directly from our own experiences. This is one experience that has benefited us so much that we want to share our story. It might not be typical, or it might be completely ordinary, but either way we hope it might encourage and inspire you!

Voluntography is a word I made up to describe volunteer photography. (I’m big on combo words.) We’ve been volunteering regularly for two seasons now, and have gained so much from the experience. Here’s how it happened.

In the winter of 2009/2010 we were chatting about our business goals, and agreed that we wanted to give back more. We had been full time photographers for 3 years, and had spent most of that time focusing on ourselves. It was time to focus on others.

But we didn’t really know how to start giving back. Luckily an opportunity fell into our lap, we jumped on it, and it’s been an incredible journey ever since!

In early spring of 2010 a photographer from another town sent us an email. She knew of a family that desperately needed family portraits, since their 5 year old son was critically ill and they didn’t know how long he’d be with them.

It sounded like an amazing opportunity to give something of tremendous value to people who really would appreciate it. We immediately agreed and set up a session. We weren’t sure what to expect, and whether shooting a sick child would be challenging. But we ended up having a wonderful time meeting the family, and capturing how truly happy they were to be photographed together.

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As luck would have it, this family was staying at the local Ronald McDonald House—a charitable organization that provides a welcoming place to stay for families with sick children undergoing hospital treatment.

The amazing team at Ronald McDonald House contacted us after our session, and asked if we wanted to check out the House. After a tour of the fantastic space, we got to talking about our shoot, and how we might be able to continue working with them. At that time we offered to photograph one family per month, and I’m happy to say we’ve kept up with it! We don’t shoot as many families in the winter, when it’s a bit tough to take sick kids out in the snow, but during the summer we’ve been shooting a family every month, and are still enjoying it as much as ever!

How It’s Made Me A Better Photographer

If you read this site regularly, you can probably guess at least one way it’s made me a better photographer…Practice. Yep, these sessions give us more and more practice as photographers. Sometimes the kids have unique challenges, which exposes us to new situations to learn how to accommodate.

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We’ve also done all our sessions really close to the House so it’s easier for the families (there’s a park and a school nearby which make for perfect shoot locations). Shooting repeatedly in the same spot helps us practice looking for new ways to use the same location. We have been able to create something different each time!

On a deeper level, these sessions have taught us a lot about the value of photography. When you shoot, knowing these might be the last images of a person ever created, you approach the task with a dramatically different mindset. Rather than only striving for the stereotypical posed, cheesy-smile image, you look to capture real emotion and relationships. Those are the photos that will truly mean something down the road, and doing these shoots made that really clear.

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You can capture so much genuine emotion in photos, but it takes a thoughtful and determined approach. We now go into all our sessions looking to do the very same thing, thanks to the lessons we learned with our voluntography.

The experience of meeting and getting to know these families has also made me a better portrait photographer because I’ve learned a lot about love and courage. I’ve seen just how much these parents treasure their children, and the amazing relationships they’ve formed. I’ve seen happiness and joy in the face of incredible challenges. And I’ve been constantly reminded of how precious the people you love are. These lessons might have nothing to do with aperture or composition, but they really have made me a better photographer, and a better person. I’m incredibly thankful for the opportunity to have learned them.

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The Benefits of Voluntography

Beyond becoming a better photographer, volunteering has many other benefits.

The most important is simply good will. Karma. Positive energy. However you like to look at it, giving freely to help someone else is a good thing. It feels good, and it makes others feel good. That rocks right? Well, there’s more…

It also shows that you, as an individual and as a business, are one of the good ones. You’ll show that you care about your community. As “local” becomes a bigger and bigger deal in our global society, making an effort to care about the other people in your city gives your brand more depth and puts some humanity into the often cold world of business.

Volunteering also helps you create new relationships. We connect with these families during our sessions. Every time we are at the house for a shoot we see at least one or two people that we’ve photographed, and get hugs and warm welcomes. The staff are all wonderful friends now, and have invited us in for lunch on multiple occasions!

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You can gain fantastic perspective when you volunteer. Even if I’m having a grumpy morning, one of these shoots always touches my heart, and keeps me grounded. That kind of perspective can fill you with intense happiness and gratitude for every little thing you have. A benefit not to be overlooked.

By volunteering you will also inspire others to give back in their own ways. Your kids, friends, family and colleagues will see your efforts, and (hopefully) start to look for volunteer opportunities of their own! A few photographers have contacted us directly to let us know that our sessions with Ronald McDonald House inspired them to do some voluntography of their own, and we were so happy to hear it!

There are a couple great fringe benefits too. I call them “fringe” because I’ll make it clear that this is not *why* we volunteer. While I don’t have a ton of volunteer e
xperience, and can’t claim to be any sort of expert on the topic, I think that volunteering for these kinds of reasons is a bit hollow. You probably won’t get as full of an experience as if you were to do it for the reasons above.

But, these are still lovely benefits. For one, there’s tax credit for volunteer services. Working with Ronald McDonald House, an established charity, means that we can get tax credits, and that’s cool.

We have also received promotion of our business from Ronald McDonald House. They tweet about us, Facebook each of our sessions, send out our work in their e-newsletter, have used our photos (with credit) in charity events and magazine ads, and we even got our own donor “house” on their wall (that was a particularly proud day!). It’s quite incredible how much they’ve worked to help us, actually. We never asked for anything, and would continue to shoot if we didn’t have any of that, but it’s been a really wonderful side benefit!

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As I said, if you only volunteer for tax credit, or in the hopes that the charity promotes you, I fear that you might find the entire voluntography experience unsatisfying. But, if you’re looking to simply give back, without expecting anything in return, that’s when I think you’ll find it to be a rewarding pursuit.

Tips for Your Own Voluntography

Now, we really lucked out with Ronald McDonald House. They’ve taken amazing care of us, and we’re so grateful. As a result, we haven’t worked with many other organizations, and thus have relatively limited advice to give. But, from what we’ve learned, here are a few tips if you’re looking to do some voluntography of your own.

Pick Something That Fits With Your Work

We’re portrait photographers primarily, and so shooting family portraits as our voluntography made perfect sense. It plays to our strengths, and we genuinely enjoy doing it. That works out best for everyone involved. We have done some voluntography for events, but it wasn’t as good of a fit, and we didn’t continue to pursue it.

So think about what kind of photography you love to do, and see if you can find a way to volunteer with it. It might take some creative thinking, but there’s probably a perfect fit out there, waiting for you to find it!

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Try It Out

You don’t need to commit to a year right off the bat. Try something out, and see if it works for you. You’re better off testing the waters, rather than just jumping in. You might find that the organization just doesn’t quite mesh with your style, and you’re left trying to fulfill your commitment when you’re not stoked. That’s not a fun situation for anyone.

So be open to opportunities that come your way. Give it a shot. If you like it, then offer to do more. If you don’t like it, then just move on.

Make The Arrangement Clear

Before you agree to a voluntography gig, make the arrangement very clear. What are you going to provide? What assistance will they give? How can they use the images you create? What’s the timeline? The more you can spell things out, the less of a chance that there will be miscommunication, which breeds hurt feelings and awkward situations.

Expect Nothing

Don’t go into the situation expecting anything. In the end you’re volunteering for someone else, not for yourself (despite all the potential benefits). If you expect fanfare and showers of gratitude, you’re setting yourself up for potential disappointment. Volunteering is about removing ego. Sometimes we get thank you messages, and sometimes we don’t. We never take it personally, and we just keep on doing what we’re doing.

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Join An Organization Or Blaze Your Own Trail

There are some organizations already out there that connect photographers looking to volunteer with folks who need it. The ones I know of are:

Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep
Offers remembrance photography to parents suffering the loss of a baby with the free gift of professional portraiture.

The Tiny Light Foundation
Provides professional photography for children and families that have been faced with life altering diagnoses.

Help Portrait
A yearly event where photographers find someone in need, and provide them with a free portrait.

(If you know of others, feel free to leave them in comments as references for others looking to volunteer!)

Alternately, you can look for a way to do your own voluntography. It might take a bit more work to search out an organization or group that needs help, but you potentially can create a relationship that fits perfectly. Both Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep and The Tiny Light have a LOT of photographers already on board, and there are many many other ways to volunteer!

Upload from October 12, 2011

Work Hard

The last thing I’ll suggest is that if the idea of voluntography appeals to you, work hard at it. Help Portrait, for instance, is a fantastic concept, but volunteering one day of the year is only a start.

We’ve been shooting these family portrait sessions every month, and are in the process of thinking of ways to increase our involvement. We put a lot of effort into each shoot—editing and retouching often over 100 images. It’s definitely a lot of work, but work that really means something. And we’re happy to get to do it.

I know this was a long post, and if you’re still with me then I sincerely thank you! This is a topic that is really close to my heart, and I’ve been thinking about how to share it for a long time. Our work with Ronald McDonald House has changed our photography, and our outlook on life, and we are so glad for the experience. I hope many more photographers can find ways to give back with their incredible talents!

Upload from October 12, 2011

Your Turn!

Have you volunteered with your photography? What did you learn from the experience?

Lauren Lim

Hey friend, I’m Lauren! I’m a photography ninja here at Photography Concentrate. I’m downright obsessed with photography, and love sharing it with super cool folks like yourself. When I’m not shooting, or writing, you can find me cooking (and eating!), traveling, and hanging out with wonderful people.


40 Comments // Leave a comment

  1. I'm primarily a family and ballet photographer.

    However, I volunteer twice monthly at our local animal shelter working with dogs and cats. I love shooting these animals for adoption sites.

    It is one of my favorite ways to use my camera. :) And now it's coming in handy as my family sessions are starting to incorporate more family's animals.

  2. i signed up to volunteer a few months ago at a local pregnancy resource center for free newborn photoshoots. I original signed up to be an office volunteer but my schedule was already packed so I offered my photography skills…one session every quarter by a drawing an the winner get portraits of there little one. The organization was stoked and me too!!!! Wish me luck

  3. I am a newbie to country (less than 2 years), who moved from the capital city of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to a very small town in Southeast Indiana. I have no friends nearby besides my husband and his family. So when I decided to change my career to photography, I started my website called Midwest Stories, where I take pictures of interesting individuals I see and feature them on the website. They get a print as well. Or two.

    The idea somewhat started off from Help Portrait, but I wanted it to be an on-going project for me and for those at my and nearby counties. And I get to practise my photography skills with real subjects.

    Well, it has been a fulfilling year. And here's what I've learnt:

    1) When I focus on others, it allowed me to grow as a better human being first and photographer second. Coz the connection started on a right footing – based on giving. The feel good factor is something money can't buy.

    2) These people cherish those pictures like gold. My best moment was when I gave a print to a 106 year old lady and she told me, "I never thought of myself as beautiful until I saw this picture. I feel like I want to go up to this person on the picture and shake her hands." It was then I knew I was heading on the right career path.

    3) By featuring their pictures and stories on my website, I think it made them see themselves in better, positive light. That some stranger would pay that much of attention to them, to tell their story.

    All in all, the feel good factor is something money can't buy. Sometimes you get more than you give. The blessings are just bountifully wonderful and I am glad I did it.

  4. I think voluntography is SO important! I agree with everything in this article – very, very well written. I've been doing it unofficially for a few years, but officially joined The Tiny Light Foundation this year and have met some incredible people through it. I think the main benefit for me is that there is no pressure. They are not a paying client so I'm free to do whatever I want during the session and that is when I'm most comfortable and really enjoy myself. Plus, you are providing someone with an invaluable gift. Win-win!

  5. You guys are so great! This is a perfect way to keep the "soul" in your photography. When I browse the web for local professional photographers they all seem to miss the passion for what they do. Maybe I should encourage them to give something back so they might rediscover their love for the profession.
    Keep up the great work guys.

  6. Last fall I decided to give away any shoot I could in November. Granted I was only able to advertise to my friends online, but it was still awesome. I got to see friends that I hadn't seen in a while and meet some new people. I was super glad when they were all done because there were some many photos I fell in love with. Since I do weddings, this was a way for me to really get some practice for family photos. I did not expect anything in return and that was the best part for me because they still gave me something….thanks.

  7. that's why i like you guys, you are amazing. the end.

  8. They're Amazographers.
    Or maybe Awesomographers.

  9. Michael Mannington says

    We operate in Australia and have take on a diverse range of 'clients' see http://www.volunteerphotography.org

  10. you guys this is an awesome post! I need and want to do something cool like this :) thanks for the inspiration & the images you have posted here were really touching..what a special gift!

    keep up the rad work R&L!

  11. Thank you!! What a great idea, I am getting onto it right now :)

  12. You guys are fabulous and I've loved reading about this. I try to support one big project every year, as well as smaller ones as and when they come up. Last year I was involved in the production of a calendar supporting breastfeeding as it's something people think they can't do, or isn't accepted here in the muslim world – the response was really fantastic. This year my family volunteered at an orphanage in Cambodia and I'm working hard on images to upgrade their website and hopefully bring in more funding. It's not only about giving back and the great feeling that brings, but the fact my kids now want to support charity projects themselves gives me a great buzz

  13. i do loads of time for… practice practice practice…

  14. *@Michelle:* What a wonderful way to give back! It must be so fun to meet all those animals! Extra cool that the practice has translated to your portrait business! Thanks for sharing!

    *@Susie:* Best of luck with your voluntography! That sounds like an absolutely fantastic way to use your photography skills to really benefit others! I'm sure you'll do a fantastic job :)

    *@Fong:* Wow, thank you so much for sharing so much! Your project sounds amazing. What a great way to meet new people, and get out and shoot! I totally agree that sometimes you definitely get much more than you give. Well done!

    *@Amy:* Thanks so much, so glad you enjoyed the article! I was so glad to see Tiny Light was really pushing to help lots of families. So happy to hear you've had great experiences with your shoots! You make a great point about the freedom that comes with shooting for free. You still feel motivated to do a great job, but can really explore and not be pressured by thoughts of sales. A great way to expand as a photographer!

    *@Christian:* Haha, thank you! Absolutely, it really does keep the soul in our work. We always remember *why* we are so drawn to photographing people.

    *@Ashley:* Super cool idea! Sounds like a fun time, and great practice too! Thanks so much for sharing!

    *@Jessica + Evan:* Haha, you guys are too funny!!!! Totally made me laugh. :)

    *@Michael:* Very cool! Great idea to have a dedicated website!

    *@Devon:* Thank you, so glad it was useful! Definitely get into it, it's been such a rewarding experience!

    *@Natalie:* You are very welcome. So happy that you're getting into it! Yay!

    *@Kirsty:* Thank you so much! And wow, the voluntography work you've done sounds incredible!! Very inspiring! And what a wonderful result, that your kids want to get involved too. So heartwarming. Thank you for sharing!! :)

    *@Chris:* Great practice indeed!! Thanks for commenting!

  15. I did a half-shift with Help-Portrait last year. I was coming from an all-day something else, and I was tired and very much not much in the spirit for anything at all.

    But I left SO PUMPED. I had a blast! It was kind of a rush doing a bunch of portraits of different people in a row, but really fun to see all the families, and help them loosen up so they look their best. So much fun! I was just thinking recently that it's kind of a bummer it only happens once a year.

    So thanks for the push to think about other ways and other organizations that do or need volunteer photographers!

  16. A fantastic story and a great gift to those less fortunate than ourselves. You have given me great inspiration to go out there and volunteer some time. We tend to forget when we are not sick or ill about the people who live with it day in and day out. Well done! and keep the good work up.

  17. The "Maple Leaf Mission" tries to hookup volunteer photographers with families dealing with illness or military reunions.


  18. Sasha holloway says

    I love it .. I am big into volunteering and Operation Love ReUnited (OpLove) is another good one for deployed soldiers and their families.

  19. I volunteer to photograph things for my son's public school. They need shots of all sorts of activities for their communications. I'm also making shots that will be used in an "end of the year" slideshow for the ones going off to middle school. The school is so appreciative!

  20. *@Julie:* Volunteering really gives you a ton of positive energy hey? It's incredible! I definitely don't think once a year is enough to really get the benefit out of volunteering. So glad you're thinking of doing more, hooray!

    *@Noel:* Thank you so much for the comment. I'm so very happy that this inspired you!! We've had such an amazing experience, I really hope a lot of other photographers get to do the same!!

    *@Melvin:* I haven't heard of them, but checked it out and they look fantastic! And based out of the same city as us, too cool! Thanks so much for sharing!

    *@Sasha:* Thanks so much for sharing that organization! What a fantastic time to have photos created!

    *@Tracy:* What a wonderful way to get more involved with your son's school! I'm sure they would appreciate that so much! Great work!!

  21. Another possibility is Helping Hearts.
    I think they're based in Victoria, but they have close to a hundred photographers across the country signed up. It's similar to Tiny Light.

  22. Hey guys,

    How did you pick the families for your shoots?


  23. *@Jayme:* Good question! We actually leave that up to Ronald McDonald House. They figure out who is in the most need of portraits, and I believe do a drawing among the possible subjects. They really help us out a lot!

  24. Glenn Batson says

    Excellent! I ran across your site because I've had an idea about an volunteer approach and photography. I currently volunteer at an elementary school as a mentor. My idea is basically to offer free senior portraits to students who will volunteer x number of hours of their time at a local volunteer organization. The thought is to get other local photographers involved to create a large pool. The approach servers several needs. One it gives an opportunity for kids who would normally not be able to afford senior picture the chance to get them. Secondly it promotes volunteering amongst our youth. Finally local organizations should benefit from the participation and maybe have young men and women continue volunteering for them. It would be great to get any thoughts you may have on the idea. My problem is I'm an amateur photographer with no experience in portraits but would like to get started. One thought if I get more involved is the level/quality of the photographer volunteering will determine the number of hours the youth will need to volunteer. More hours means better photographer scheduled. One downside is it may conflict with photographers wanting to participate because that is when they are busy with their professional jobs of taking senior pictures. This is where I thought we may could tap into more amateur photographers such as myself. Yes the quality may not be as high but we have some excellent amateur photographers in our area (Southwest WA and Portland OR). Also I don't think this would take away from the professional market of senior photographers. Again would like your thoughts and great job on what you are doing.

  25. The Maple Leaf Mission. ….This organization was started by a very sick mama of the young age of 30 with 2 sick kids to boot. They have almost 500:photographers around the world. They do 3 types of sessions and for all ages, the terminal, the ill/genetic/post illness and caprure homecoming reunions. Ive never met a more giving organization. They partnered with make a wish and photograph wishes being granted, they send care packages to soldiers and also if a child goes in hospital they get a care package too.

  26. THIS! This is what prompted me and my husband to start our own photography business. We want to eventually become professionals who sees the art in photography as well as humanity. There are many people who deserve to have a snapshot moment to be cherished forever without resorting to their bank account.

    Thank you for a post like this. I don't think I've seen anyone else post it. :)

  27. What an amazing story..so glad you shared it!! Another idea (I don’t know if it was already mentioned) is the animal shelters. ALOT of animals only get interest by their photos online. After volunteering with our local SPCA for a few years I seen some wonderful dogs or cats not get adopted for a long time(we are a no kill shelter :) )just because they didn’t have an appealing photo. We run a foster based shelter which meant that we had foster homes through-out the county and we had to rely on the fosters to take the photos and get them to us. Whereas the shelters that were fortunate enough to get a photographer had beautiful,clear,vivid, photos of their adoptables. Just my two cents..but, there are so many small animal rescues that could benefit from someone willing to do something for them once in a while.

  28. This is my favourite post of yours by far (I am new to your blog and I think its saving my photographic life!)
    I am a people photographer and humanitarian work is my other love…but I hadn’t yet worked out how to put them together successfully…this post has given me lots of great ideas that I am going to run with.
    What wonderful people you are. Thankyou for the joy and happiness you put in my life every time I read your blog. I studied photography at University in AUS when I was 17 but l let fear get the better of me so went to do other things, but now at 35 I have realised photography has always been my one true love so now I am going for it and your blog is so timely and the right accompaniment along the way. Thankyou!

  29. I really didn’t start wanting to do any kind of portraits. Landscapes and nature because it doesn’t yell at you or know-it-all/nothing is right/photoshop ALL moles, freckles etc to sneaking a photo of a couple walking by or sitting etc.. I’d snap, if it was nice, I’d walk over and offer the shot for free by email.
    It costs me nothing, but my soul loves giving. Yet, it’s selfish! My friends say they can tell by a glow I get. Now I can take it to another level and find opportunity in our town.

    Thank you

  30. Thanks for the ideas for volunteering opportunities. I will check them out when I get back to the states.

  31. Greetings from Ohio, and thank you so much for your blog about voluntography. I have had several photography jobs for 9 years now, and I will soon be branching out on my own. I, too, want to find a way to give back to the community and I think working with an established organization like Ronald McDonald House will be the perfect outlet. I will keep you posted! Thanks for the inspiration!

  32. Hi there

    Im wondering if anyine can help im in desperate need for a photographer for my charity event this Saturday. It is a music event giving opportuinities to Unsigned artists/poets from across the UK. The aim of the event is to raise funds & awareness for the African Caribbean Leukaemia Trust.

    I have been running htese events in Leicester for since April 2013 and have my first show at Vibe Bar Brick lane this Sat 22nd March from 7-1am. I would like the photographer to capture the artists and the audience. You can have a look at the photos on the fb page that my photographer takes here, I would like to keep the momentum going with the London shows but im finding it difficult because I dont have many links in London.

    I will need someone to cover the night up until Midnight if possible. Food and refreshments will be provided and if I get a good turn out I will offer a small payment also.

    I have a website being built as we speak so I have put my fb page so you can see what we have been up.

    Please get in touch if this is something anyone is interested in. I guarantee you will enjoy the night and the amazong talent we are featuring.

    Ive gor my fingers & legs crossed :)

  33. Oh my gosh this article was both amazing and moving! I love photography but I love to give back and help leave a little light where I can and I love this idea! How do you do this without getting teary eyed or completely crying buckets?! It’s an amazing idea but so sad at the same time!

  34. And just like that. I sent out an email to 1 animal shelter and applied to photogunteer (not my best) at 3 other places. Thank you and keep it up! :D

  35. I’m newer to photography- but always enjoyed it. We lost our son at birth 3 years ago and Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep came and did his photos. I will tell you, it changed our life. You are so upset and can’t even start to grieve- let alone take a few pictures… We treasure his photos. He was beautiful, gorgeous and just perfect. Now we will have photos not just memories of the few hours we had with him. My dream is to learn more and volunteer for this AMAZING organization. They change lives!! Thanks for this great post!! It gave us some more great ideas :-)

  36. We were one of those lucky and blessed families to have gotten family portraits. This was such a special gift to receive. Thanks for volunteering your time and talent to the Ronald MacDonald house.

  37. New to this site, but love this article. My heart is in Relay for Life because I have battled cancer, have lost a brother and sister to cancer, have three other siblings that have also had cancer as well as two brother-in-laws. The past two years I have done a photo booth at a Bark for Life event in my community. People give a donation and get portraits of their dogs (several poses via a download). It is so much fun and it benefits a cause close to my heart.

  38. Gilbert Aldous says

    I am currently looking for some kind of volunteering opportunity for myself, in order to help others, as well as trying to improve as a photographer. It’s funny, having just signed up to your site only last week, that yours is the first site I found about volunteering! So maybe it was meant to be? I must just comment though on your very apt sentence above: “It was time to focus on others”. I thought that was what photographers had to do anyway!? But thank you for this very inspiring post. My nearest Ronald McDonald house is over 120 miles away! (Nobody thinks that any people actually live in Norfolk, UK, so would never consider putting one here as we are so far away from anything else!), although we have many good hospitals with some great children’s departments. I will just have to keep searching…

  39. Christine says


    I have a wedding on August 23 (Friday) all day and would ask for volunteer as photographer to shoot at
    beaurtiful Golf resort by Springbank, Calgary. The site is very natural with beautiful view and the inside venue where guests arrive will be breathtakinng. Please help me with your experience as Im so tight with budget and would like to find a good reliable photographer to share the experience with us. I can be reached by email [email protected]
    your comments also welcome if know any suggestions

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