Jimmy Stephans Stories - Photographer Tales

The Custom Conundrum

Posted: 2018-06-01

Over the 12 years that I ran TrueTeenBabes as a subscription website I would receive dozens of emails from fans daily. Now and then an email would arrive asking for what was commonly called a "Custom Shoot".

A "Custom Shoot", or "Custom" for short, is a series of photos or a video (usually both) produced exclusively for that fan and to his or her specifications (within reason and budget).

I don't know much more about them because I've never even considered doing custom shoots, much less have actually done any.

So why in the fuck am I writing about them now? That's easy. They have come up a few times in discussions, email and my reading over the past few weeks. Out of nowhere - boom - there they are, dominating a few conversations and email discussions.

In March I got an email asking for custom shoots. The person didn't know that my sites are older and assumed those models are available and working now. We had a discussion back and forth by email.

In early April I was involved in an hour long discussion with a federal law enforcement official about an investigation going on back east and the topic of customs (that he called "private shoots") came up.

There is a legal case in Florida that came to a head in April when the defendant took a plea deal (sentencing due in July). One of the original issues being investigated was "customs" proposed to be done outside that person's normal business.

So why have I never, ever, done any custom shoots for fans? That is easy to explain; because it is the dumbest damn thing a photographer working with teen models could do.

Appearance is Everything

The main reason not to do custom shoots with teen models (13-16) is the appearance it provides to the general public and our friends in the law enforcement community. We must remember a few simple facts.

To most people teen glamour style modeling is a rare thing. Most people are not accustomed to it and a large majority look down on it. There are many in the general public that think it is illegal to have a model under age 18 in a tiny bikini, much less daring lingerie or other outfits. Many of those people report websites like TrueTeenBabes to law enforcement on a regular basis. We'll call this group the Public Detractors.

Law enforcement officials, in a general sense, also frown on daring teen model websites. Some don't fully understand the laws, others know they are perfectly legal but wish they would go away so they don't receive emails and calls complaining about them, and a small fraction don't care what the law is and wish to push teen model websites out of business just to satisfy their own beliefs. We'll call this group the Police Detractors.

De·trac·tor (noun)
A person who disparages someone or something. Synonyms: critic, disparager, denigrator, deprecator, belittler, attacker, fault-finder, backbiter.

The internet allows those that don't like a person or website to use anonymity in the form of fake email, Facebook, Twitter and other accounts, to try stopping what they, as detractors, see as improper. It doesn't matter if the website they hate is legal or not. With that in mind it might be better to call some persons in these detractor groups the attackers.

At·tack·er (noun)
A person or animal that attacks someone or something. Synonyms: assailant, assaulter, aggressor, attack dog.

Read that definition again and notice the terms "animal" and "attack dog". As you read on think of the most determined or aggressive persons in both the public and police groups as blood thirsty Pit Bulls.

TrueTeenBabes, and a couple of other websites like it back in the teen glamour model glory days, published photos and videos that took the models right to the legal limit. Sheer tops, thong bikini bottoms, lacy lingerie, tight here and push-up there, along with make-up and hair styles normally seen in Victoria's Secret catalogs and lingerie calendars that are usually produced with models age 18-26. But here we are doing it while featuring models that are 14 or 15.

It was common for all that, and more, to be included in a regular $25.00 monthly subscription. To sell those subscriptions a sampling of the most daring photos need to be in the free tour area of the website where teen model fans, potential customers, casual web surfers, teen model detractors and anonymous website attackers can all view them and form their own opinion of what the site features.

The sites often include thousands of cute, fun and daring photos of teen models that have been produced just inside the legal limit's for only $25 per a month. That fact is promoted in website graphics pushing "1000s of Photos" and "Beautiful Teen Models" and "Weekly Updates" and "Hot HD Videos".

Imagine the ammunition I would be giving the detractors and attackers if I added yet another graphic that said "Get Private Photos Here" or "Order Custom Poses Here". I might as well be saying "Come Investigate Me" or "Come Attack Me".

The truth is that most requests for custom photoshoots are not asking for anything that daring or anything beyond the legal line. A few I reviewed requested things as simple as the model in a cheerleader outfit of the same colors as the buyer's high school, or the model near a certain type of car, but that doesn't matter because the detractors and attackers don't see the emails containing the request.

The detractors and attackers only see what they imagine is being ordered or at least requested.

Imagine those detractors and attackers seeing the daring photos and videos available on the free tour area of a website, and reading the preview pages to discover that a simple $25 subscription features thousands of those daring photos and videos, along with weekly updates that include even more of those daring photos and videos. They are upset. They want to report this as illegal and they are fucking pissed off that they can't because it is legal.

Now go a step further and imagine them seeing an offer for "Private Photos Made to Order" or "Custom Shoots". To them it is obvious - we must be doing something really, really far over the legal line if we are getting $200 or $400 or any other prices above that monthly membership fee for it!

The detractors and attackers, as persons not fully understanding the dynamics of these websites or the fans, contemplate what could possibly be worth $200 or $400 above that monthly membership fee their thoughts naturally lean towards the illegal. From their point of view, when they see a website offers thousands of daring teen model photos for only $25, the only reason anything "private" or "custom" would be offered for eight times as much ($200) or 16 times as much ($400) is if it is illegal.

That right there - displaying content that was produced just an inch or two within the legal line in a normal price range, but offering something at a premium price that has the word "private" or "custom" attached to it, looks suspicious.

It doesn't matter what is really going on. What matters is what appears to the attacking mob is going on. Or, what they can claim is going on and use as ammunition to attack. Anonymous detractors are very fast to equate "private" or "custom" with illegal, and to make their point they will exaggerate and outright lie to make an example of whom they wish to attack.

Rarely are those attacks direct. These anonymous tough guys and gals do things like send unsigned letters or untraceable emails to local law enforcement, hosting companies, billing companies and more. Those receiving the letters and emails are obligated to follow-up, maybe investigate a little, and perform additional due diligence. That takes up much of their time, and much of what they do means contacting the website owner and taking up some of his or her time.

Yes, 99.99% of the time they'll discover that nothing illegal is going on, but eventually the hassle of dealing with the false anonymous reports becomes the problem on it's own and they decide to stop doing business with the website owner. Not because he is breaking the laws, or even violating the internal policies of the host or billing company, but simply because they don't wish the deal with the hassle.

When TrueTeenBabes started in 2001 the subscription billing was handled by CCBill, and the shopping cart by PayPal. Over the next 2 years those companies first imposed various policies on webmasters dealing with teen model content, before eventually cutting off teen model websites all together.

CCBill has acknowledged to me that they never stopped servicing a teen model website like TrueTeenBabes because it was caught violating the laws. They did it because the sites became too much hassle to monitor at the request of banking executives at Visa and MasterCard (who also got those complaint letters).

PayPal is different. They never stopped servicing an established site due the site violating the law, but because the sites became associated, in the general public and law enforcement view, with idiots that did violate the law and used PayPal to receive payment for illegal or controversial photos that would sort of fall into the "private" category. The classic examples are desperate guys with a camera that try opening a site, can't get it going, but do accept a side offer or two to get the model in topless photos. While topless photos of a teen model are not illegal, they do violate PayPal policies.

Both those billing companies, and the hosting companies, and others are popular businesses. They don't need the hassle of teen models websites to make a profit.

No $400 custom shoot can make-up for the hassle and labor costs of moving a server full of websites to a new hosting company. Not only is it labor intensive, it is also stressful. It's a hassle and only the most desperate of website owners would risk having to do it in an attempt to get a few extra dollars here and there producing private or custom shoots.

The promotion of, or even non-public acceptance of, "private" or "custom" shoots is an invitation for the public detractors and attackers to create a series of hassles that only the most desperate of webmasters would risk.

Maybe even more importantly is that having a site with daring photos that are near the legal limit, but also promoting "private" or "custom" shoots on the side, is an open invitation for both local and federal law enforcement to take a closer look.

A website graphic promoting "Get Private Photos Here" is translated by law enforcement to read "Come investigate my stupid ass, subpoena my bank records, talk to my neighbors and hassle my hosting company".

Only the most desperate webmaster would believe a $200 or $400 custom shoot is worth the risk of law enforcement knocking on the door wanting to look around and have a chit chat. The $400 doesn't mean jack-shit when you need to have your lawyer attend a discussion with law enforcement and the $2500 lawyer bill arrives.

When it comes to law enforcement we must remember two things.

First, we must understand that street level law enforcement investigators are not lawyers. They are not in courtrooms day to day, or in the office reading Appeals Court or Supreme Court precedents, to fully understand not only what the laws read, but how the laws can be applied within constitutional limits. The previous sentences are not a criticism of them. I simply know it is not their job to understand court decisions and they have enough to deal with on their own level within the legal system.

I've never met a law enforcement officer (or media person) that knew "child nudity, without more, is protected expression" (Sandra Day O'Connor in New York v. Ferber, meaning protected by the First Amendment). It just isn't their job.

I experienced it myself 16 years ago when local law enforcement tried to shut down TrueTeenBabes and a now retired sheriff proudly stood before TV cameras proclaiming he and his guys had just made the biggest child porn bust in history. Of course, that statement failed and there was nothing illegal within TrueTeenBabes. Months later a Denver area newspaper wrote these three paragraphs as part of a longer story.

In examining how this massive child-porn ring evaporated into thin air, one thing stands out: how little law-enforcement authorities understood the law. A review of court documents, as well as interviews with legal experts and participants in the case, shows that cops and prosecutors had far more than their share of misinterpretations, misunderstandings and flat-out mistakes. Some may have been intentional.

"They jumped in with both feet, without knowing what they were getting into," says Andrew Contiguglia, one of Grady's lawyers. "They didn't understand the law, and they didn't understand the facts."

When all was said and done, James Grady understood the law better than anyone... his web site is back up and running. And it's displaying the exact same photographs that landed him in jail and on the evening news.

The phrase in the first paragraph "Some may have been intentional" brings us to the second point we need to consider.

Not all law enforcement folks act perfectly within the laws, policies or rules. Some work very much from their own gut instincts that are often less than perfect. Others rely on information that came in from questionable sources, and still others are simply overambitious and want to see themselves as a hero on TV, even if it means breaking a few rules along the way.

Here in the United States, except in very extreme circumstances, law enforcement is required to get a search warrant before entering a home or business as part of a criminal investigation. To do so the police must persuade a judge that they have "probable cause" to believe that a crime has been committed and that they will find evidence of the criminal activity in the place to be searched. Police officers do this through an affidavit, which is a written statement made under oath.

What many don't know is that a search warrant that could include seizure of materials arguably protected by the First Amendment is a form of prior restraint that requires a more strict observance of the Fourth Amendment, and the standard for probable cause is higher than a search for drugs or guns. This means that the affidavit needs to be more convincing and allege more powerful "facts".

I feel that websites with daring photos right near the legal limit that are also promoting "Get Private Photos Here" are helping the law enforcement community meet that extra high standard.

I imagine an officer before a judge saying "Judge, look at these photos. He offers thousands of them for just $25, so it is reasonable to assume the stuff he charges $400 for is illegal and you need to sign this warrant right now to save the children".

If you think that example seems exaggerated stay tuned. Later this summer I'll be writing about how a law enforcement officer used creative phrasing to turn a normal Halloween costume photoshoot into justification for a search warrant and child porn investigation.

If you have a successful, and legal, website generating tens of thousands of dollars of income why would you risk losing it in law enforcement raid for a few extra dollars from a customer that wants something not already seen within that website? It doesn't matter if you win a legal case later - you will have spent tens of thousands of dollars doing so.

There are only two reasons a teen model webmaster would do it; (a) He or she is desperate for the money or (b) they have a personal desire to see in photos the same thing the customer is ordering (legal or not).

Point (a) means that the webmaster isn't successful. He may lie in forums and chats and emails claiming great successes, but as you'll see in the next section, no successful photographer / webmaster would take $400 private orders because his work would be (should be) much more valuable.

Point (b) is another item law enforcement would use to get in the door and destroy the business. It doesn't matter if the materials are legal or not, the hassle and cost of serious police raids and drawn out trials would wipe out the business because anybody doing private shoots for $400 certainly doesn't have the money to defend themselves.

The bottom line is that doing "private shoots" or "custom shoots" doesn't make any sense for a successful website or teen model photographer. They are not worth the appearance they present to the public and law enforcement detractors, the physical effort they require or the hassle the can bring to the business.

it's a Business, Dummy

The previous paragraph started with the phrase "The bottom line" which in business is defined often as "the line at the bottom of a financial report that shows the net profit or loss".

Teen model websites, along with websites such as YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and Amazon, are a business entity with the overall goal being to provide income to employees and make a profit for the owners, while having enough cash leftover to invest in future operations and expansion.

From Forbes Magazine:

A common business goal is to run a profitable operation, which typically means increasing revenue while limiting expenses. To reach this goal, objectives could consist of increasing annual sales by 10 percent. Expense objectives could involve finding a new operating facility that decreases your rent by $200 a month or cutting monthly utility bills by 15 percent.

With that in mind let us look at the costs of doing a custom shoot. For this example we'll assume that the custom shoot features 50 photos and a 10 minute video, and is sold for $400. That is the higher end of the emails I received over the years. Most offers are down around $250.

At the bare minimum that custom shoot will require at least one hour of time. At TrueTeenBabes normal models are paid $100 an hour, and if we assume that the model is already at the studio for a regular shoot, we know that the cost of the model working an extra hour is at least $100.

If she is at the studio we must also assume that the helpers are also at the studio and will need to be paid for that extra hour. A helper such as Danielle would be about $22 an hour in 2013 (year TrueTeenBabes closed), and any other helpers around would likely be in the range of $14 an hour.

Combined, our labor costs are now up to about $136. And we haven't paid the photographer what he is worth.

Next we must look into costs that are specific to the custom shoot. Is there a certain outfit that needs to be purchased and how much does it cost along with how much time is spent shopping for it? Is the purchaser asking for the photos and video to be produced in a certain location or with a certain type of background? Is there a costly prop involved?

I once received an email where a fan wanted the model in a bikini posing next to a Ford Mustang of a certain color to match a car he had recently purchased. He expected me to call around Florida to find a rental place with that exact car available, or to place advertisements for somebody that had the car and would bring it to the studio. And to do it all for $250 while ignoring the regular website photo and video shoots.

If we ignore the issues of how custom shoots appear to the detractors and attackers and only look at these numbers it would seem that the model and photographer would be profiting by producing custom shoots that require one extra hour at the end of a normal shoot day.

She gets to work an extra hour, thereby making an extra $100. The photographer spends some extra time with the cameras in hand and comes out with $114 after paying the model and helpers if it is a $250 custom shoot order or $264 if it is a $400 custom shoot order.

On it's face that $264 for the photographer sure sounds like a bunch of extra money for just one hour of work.

The truth is that the $264 is a tiny amount compared to the actual value of the content produced in that hour (50 photos and 10 minute video) and it is foolish, from a business point of view, to make that deal when the other option is so much more profitable.

Let me explain and do the math for you real quick.

I started keeping close records on TrueTeenBabes in early 2004 and continued to do so right up until it closed in 2013.

The website never had less than 1300 subscribers at any one time in 2004-2006, and then received a big batch of national media coverage and within days passed 3000 subscribers, before passing 4000 in September of 2009 and reaching a high of 4376 in 2011.

In 2004-2006 the website subscription was $24.95 per month and did not offer recurring discounts. With the exception of the 10th Anniversary Special in 2011, in later years the price was $34.95 first month and $29.95 recurring.

For this discussion I'm going to use the averages of 2500 subscribers at $27.50 a month (combining first month and recurring averages).

If we take 2500 subscribers paying $27.50 a month we come up with $68,750 of gross income in a month.

TrueTeenBabes updated weekly with 4 content items. I'm defining content items as 1 photo set or 1 video clip. We take 4 weeks in a month and multiply it by 4 content items and we know the website required a total of 16 content items to feed the site monthly and maintain those 2500 subscribers.

Now we'll take that $68,750 of gross income and divide it by those 16 content items, and we end up realizing that each of those content items effectively bring in $4296.88 during their very first month online.

Now let us go back to the custom shoot order that features 50 photos and 10 minute video and slap ourselves upside the head when we realize that the two content items in the custom shoot are actually worth $8593.76 if we use them for website updates.

Why the fuck would I get excited about keeping a model at the studio an extra hour to do a custom shoot (50 photos and 10 minute video) that brings in $400 before expenses, when that same amount of time and labor can be used to do a website shoot (50 photos and 10 minute video) that helps bring in $8593.76?

Many people have tried to express something like "but the $400 is on top of your normal income". No it isn't, and it never would be. One hour spent producing a custom shoot (50 photos and 10 minute video) is exactly the same amount of time as one hour spent producing a website shoot (50 photos and 10 minute video). To sell the product of that one hour for $400 rather than use it to generate over $8000 is not extra income, it is income lost. The math can be done another way to make the point.

Doing 8 of those $400 custom shoots (50 photos and 10 minute video) in a month would produce 16 content items and bring in $3200. Those same 16 content items would keep the website updated for a full month, and using the 2500 subscribers at $27.50 each averages, generate over $68,000.

Now we can do the math while we pretend that the custom shoot only involved a simple photo set (1 content item).

Doing just 8 of those $400 custom shoots (50 photos, no video) in a month would produce 8 content items and bring in $3200. Those same 8 content items would keep the website updated for a half a month, and using the 2500 subscribers at $27.50 each averages, generate over $34,000.

Now we can do the math while we pretend that the extra hour a custom shoot would require was actually spent creating content items for TrueTeenBabes during the last few years of the website.

In summer 2009 other website owners and I were able to slow down massive piracy that had been taking place over the previous 18 months. Over the next three months there was a substantial increase in subscribers that pushed the website past 4000. The average total of monthly subscribers from that point reaching 48 months forward into 2013 when the website closed was 3611. The average subscription price in that 48 month time frame was $31.15. The average gross income each of those 48 months from subscription sales was roughly $112,484.

If we take that $112,484 average of gross monthly income (September 2009 - August 2013) and divide it by those 16 content items, we end up realizing that each of those content items effectively bring in $7030 during their very first month online. The two items produced in a custom shoot that brings in $400 had an actual value in the last four years of TrueTeenBabes topping $14,000.

Now we can do the math while we pretend that the extra hour a custom shoot would require was actually spent creating something else.

Producing a DVD requires additional time after the model leaves the building to do some editing and menu creation, and later for packing, labeling and shipping. If we imagine a helper running the camcorder during one or two of the normal website shoots, then keeping the model that extra hour for a DVD exclusive scene or two, and a short interview, we could easily come up with enough material for a 45 minute DVD. During the more popular years of TrueTeenBabes we would sell around 400 copies of a DVD in the first 30-45 days after it was placed in the store. 400 copies at $24.95 would bring in $9980. While it would require a bit of additional work after the model leaves the building there is no getting around the fact that if a model is to stay in front of the cameras an extra hour on a shoot day it is much more profitable for the work to be done for a DVD compared to a custom shoot for one customer.

Clearly, every hour spent producing content is better spent producing it for the website or a retail DVD, not for a private customer. In most cases this also happens to be the case for the model in the shoot.

The truth is that if the model is a solo site model that $100 for shooting an extra hour is only about 12% of what her actual income could be if that extra hour was spent producing the same content (50 photos and 10 minute video) for the solo model website. Let me explain and do that math for you real quick.

Models on my solo-model websites are paid 50% of the profit her website generates each month. Some sites, such a Krissy, only maintained around 200 subscribers, while others such as Jaclynn and Libby had months over 800, with Kelsey and Tessa closer to 400. The early sites ran $19.95 a month and later sites ran $24.95.

Mixing all that together reveals that on average a solo-site model made about $3600 a month or roughly $900 a week. A solo model website is updated weekly with a photo set and a video, which happens to be the same content in the $400 custom shoot we've used as an example today. Those same 2 content items would update the site a week.

Simple put - rather than get excited about making that extra $100, or even the entire $400 custom shoot price, a girl with a solo-model website would be better off spending that extra shoot hour producing content for the solo-model website. That content (50 photos and 10 minute video) would keep the website updated a full week that pays her roughly $900 (on average). In the case of popular girls such as Jaclynn and Libby the number is much higher.

Think carefully about the first part of this blog and decide if you would do custom shoots of teen models with those detractors and attackers barking at your door, with the further knowledge that you would make much more money spending the exact same amount of time producing regular website content that is not at all suspicious.

I should be clear that all this reasoning and business math relates only to a professional photographer working with models in the age 13-16 range for a successful subscription website such as TrueTeenBabes. Everything changes if we are discussing a 19 year old webcam girl shooting a bit of video content at home. For her there are no detractors or attackers or law enforcement to worry about. For her there isn't a website with hundreds or thousands of paying subscribers to produce valuable updates for. For her it is just a bit of extra time in her bedroom with her webcam and the entire equation is vastly different.

Now you know why I never considered doing custom shoots of any type. It simply isn't worth it. It isn't worth the potential hassle from detractors and attackers. The money offered, even if as high as in the lower thousands, doesn't come close to matching the income of between $4200 and $14,000 to be made from the same studio time being spent on normal teen model website content.

Jimmy Stephans
June 1st, 2018
Avon, Colorado. USA.