I'm guessing that life is what happened while I was out getting a cup of coffee.

It's been an interesting experiment.  I took off the moderation for each comment to cut down on the tonnage of e-mail I was getting and I took a chance that everyone would be civil.  And for the most part they are.  I know that among photography enthusiasts there will be republicans and democrats and they will occupy their positions and defend against any perceived slights.  And that's kind of expected.  I know there will be a contingent who drank the "everything should be free/you need to radically change the entire way you do business" Kool-Aide and there will be the counterargument of "don't fix what ain't broke" contingent.  And I expect a lot of that.

But the last positions really do interest me because they are both flawed. And both true.  The stuff that's just opinion is no fun to talk about because, at our ages, our political and religious views are carved into the stone of our cerebellums and are, for all intents and purposes, unchangeable.

I'd like to start with the "explosive new paradigm (fill in the blank) will forever change everything forever."   I was around during the dot com boom in the late 1990's and early part of this century.  The marketplace was littered with companies that spent tens of millions of dollars trying to prove that shipping dog food all over the world via FedEx was a workable model.  I've watched wishful IT directors participate in three "fat server/thin client" revolutions.  And then Kodak weighed in with a new APS format film with an automated cartridge.  That took the world by storm.  I heard that Walmart is experimenting with internet sales and home deliver of groceries, which will be the third wave of grocery stories trying to leverage delivery services as a profitable value add for perishables.  The first two were abject failures. (People really do want to pick out their own apples, no matter what they say on surveys...)

The same group confuses "free samples" with endless "free stuff" and the idea that we'll make it up with some other product or offering.  Rarely happens well.  People love the free stuff and once it's in hand they are on their way to the next promotional handout.  And they forget that when Coke gives away a free sample it represents a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of their production.  Seems that the real secret of marketing anything is to create demand and deliver something with an enticing value proposition.

The part that confuses the "ain't broke" crowd is that the "value proposition" is a moving target.  That's the part that makes marketing so hard.  It's nice to be good at selling the rev 1.0 widget but hardly a profitable niche if the world has moved onto widget 3.0.  I'm going to use video production as an example since their market is going thru what our photography market has been experiencing.

The David Hobby of DSLR video seems to be Phillip Bloom, who has the obligatory website filled with camera reviews and snippets of his projects.  Like David he is also a good artist with his chops well learned.  But he is bringing to the attention of everyone with a 5Dmk2 or a Panasonic GH-2 the idea that they hold in their hand the Aladdin's lamp of movie making.  I talk about this new mass interest in video to my friends who've been in the business for ten or fifteen years and I hear many of the same arguments that photo pro's use to bolster their hierarchical segmentation (all hope, little fact) of the photo market.

The video pros are dismissive of the new amateur because there's so much of the lexicon of production that the  amateur doesn't understand.  My fellow photographers who are sticking toes (and sometimes plunging in over their heads) believe that their ability to focus and compose a still image is all that matters to art directors and clients.  Video guys are quick to point out all of the complexity required to do "broadcast quality video".  But while we were out having coffee the need to even do broadcast quality video dissipated.  I'd conjecture that tons more video is destined to go to the web and only a tiny percentage ends up (from newbie projects) running out onto cable and floating into the broadcast ether.

What people are missing is the word, "Broadcast."  To cast broadly.  To shoot a shotgun of information in the general direction of the audience.  So "broadcast quality" is relative to the media used to disperse the programming.  The "broad" has changed in their industry from big screens at corporate shows (which does take great production value to look good) and programming sent over the waves to your big screen TV.  The ultimate "broadcasting" now is the casting of programming out onto the web.  And as much as my friends hate to admit it the technical barriers are minimal.  You can go out with a Flip video camera (not for much longer) and capture stuff that will work for some applications on the web.

We're moving media locations (and moving the cheese)  and no one on the pro side wants to talk about it.  Because it means that we have to move from selling tangible things and metrics of technical performance and revisit the conversation with clients that we're good at the more important things, like writing a good script and telling a good story.  Like directing people and helping them perform (in the acting sense of the word).  Having a big vision, an ability to writing good and sensible dialog and having the skills and timing to edit well are the critical attributes of success in the video world.  Big idea.  Big follow thru.  And  the web is somewhat agnostic about lots of the technical steps.  Easy to see when we look across the fence at video how much direction and writing and concepting have to do with the final product.  And yet, when we photo pros look at our side of the fence we seem to narrow down that vision and convince ourselves that our value lies in all the technical and craft skills we've honed over the years when in fact, perhaps, it's allowed us to go on cruise control.  Perhaps what's been killing our businesses is not remembering to sell the big idea, the direction, the emotional value add.

I drank some of the grape Kool-Aide and started working in video....again.  I'd done it in the "film only" days of the 1980's and again with Beta and Hi-8 and Super8 in the 1990's.  I knew all of the movie making techniques and lighting techniques I thought I needed to know.  And I presumed that the camera would, like a talisman of mystical power, make my video work charming.

I've done eight or ten projects in the last year, the last one being a five minute slide show with interspersed video interviews and I've found that there's so much I need to learn.  But it's not about handling the camera (although smooth pans need practice and become elusive in direct relation with the amount of coffee consumed) and it's not about sound and microphones (although it's easy to get sloppy and think that we'll fix stuff in post that just can't be fixed....).  No, it's right back where it's always been: What is the story you are trying to tell?  How does the story flow?  How do you motivate your transitions?  How do you make words that sound real come out of actors' mouths?

I can read books or surf the web to find out what microphone to use or how many frames per second I should set the camera to.  All the technical stuff is stuff that's commodity.  But the value add is the direction and the big idea.

So, how do I bring that around to photography?  We'll all agree the barriers are gone.  We should also agree that the plunge in the economy is skewing the intensity of the changes. Making things seem far worse than they might really be, long term.  But the clients are still there.  They still have millions of pages to fill and millions of hours to fill and millions of websites that vacuum up photographs daily.  While the commodity portion of the pie has grown Jan Klier reminds me (often :-) ) that the pie has also grown.

In the past I would market by calling on the five big companies in town and the ten or fifteen top advertising agencies in town.  And that would be enough.  But the market's changed.  The process of client acquisition has changed.  The story has changed.  I could despair that hitting these twenty entities and not getting the work I want is today's reality.  But the pragmatist that lurks inside tells me that there are XX,000 businesses within a fifty mile radius of my office and all of them require advertising.  All of them.

As I've moved away from my reliance on the "sure thing" clients of my youth I'm finding that medical practices have many needs and uses for images, and budgets as well.  So do start up manufacturing companies with new products and retailers of a certain size.  And restaurants and law firms and accounting firms and all other kinds of consultancies and professions.  Did I mention civil engineering firms?  And every newly minted, self employed entrepreneur is a sure thing for at least a head shot.

And in many instances their understanding of professional fee structures is much more advanced than small new agencies and their start up clients.....

So, until I've hit everyone in my market is it really the business that changed or the target for the business that's changed?

And here's what I've come to grips with.  In 1999 100% of my income was from assignment photography for five major companies and a handful of ad agencies.  In 2010 less than half of my income was from assignment photography.  A large minority came from book royalties (something I would not have dreamed of in 1999.....).  Another chunk came from ghost writing a book for another professional.  Some came from new paradigm (aimed solely at the web) video.  A chunk came from the creative direction and writing of presentations.  Of the assignment work, more and more is coming from local professional business.  Not as high a budget as the national advertising accounts but more loyal and steadier.  In fact the whole business feels steadier because of the diversification.

I was at a very large computer company facility recently and got into a conversation with a marketing person about the "terror" of freelancing in this market.  He was so glad to have a job.  And I think he brought it all up to better negotiate my fees down.  My rejoinder was this.....Well, it's true that the freelance lifestyle can be precarious but think of this,  you essentially have only one client, your employers.  If your company fires you then you're in serious trouble.  The job market is tight.  I've got 25 or 30 "employers" if one of them fires me I've still got 24 more...."  He winced.  And we got back to talking about the project at hand.

I guess what I'm really saying is that photography is alive and well.  It's just different now.  The guys who've really been affected are the big project/high profile guys.  Their stuff was aimed at print so exclusively.  I'm finding more and more clients who need day long projects, not week long projects.  I'm finding local businesses that need smaller rights packages but more frequent shoots. And it's smoothing out.

Anyone who believes that Seth Godin is outselling (and out earning) the top ten fiction authors is delirious.  He's a blip.  They are the business.  Anyone who thinks dollar stock is the path to riches is drinking something very special.  In the end both camps of the "Change. Don't change" argument are right.  The business has changed but the business has stayed the same.  People do seem to want to deal with professionals.  We just have to reach out to them in a broader way.  People do want quality but they do have to be taught the value proposition that comes with better work.  It will cost more.  And business do want some exclusivity to the images they use in their marketing and they really will pay for the right to keep it close for a while.

I'm not satisfied with being a photographer.  I want to be a high value content provider.  If you are smart you are selling the story not the binding.  You are selling the smile or the seduction, not the paper it's printed on.  Or the screen across which it flashes.

But selling the story is many centuries old.  It gets packaged in new ways.  From minstrels to books, to radio to television. Back to print in magazines and on to print on tablets.  Movies, television.  And amazingly enough......traditional live theater.  And why?  Because we love a good story.  We love a good tale.  We love a good painting.  We love a photograph that conveys an emotion that's useful to us.  Useful on a personal level: the resonance of love and memory.  Useful on a professional level:  The two dimensional representation of the best of a brand.  Useful on a selling level:  the seduction of the consumer with the image of desire.

What we'll find when the dust settles is that people still love stories and icons and interpretations and interplay.  And if it's something they value they'll pay for the privilege of using it.

The markets for the goods shifted.  The art doesn't need to change, just the way it's sold.

note:  This blog post took about twenty five minutes to write, don't let an argument about the ideas ruin hours of your life.  Everyone has opinions.  Let's express them nicely and then back away.  Hate to go all Zen on you but reading this stuff is intended to be interesting and fun, not a precursor for mortal combat.  Disagree with me please.  Don't rush to my defense.  I'm a big kid.  I can delete someone if they don't want to play nicely.

Everyone is wrong except me.  And I'm usually wrong too.

Learn the ropes.


Frank Grygier said...

Kirk, Thanks for laying down some ground rules. It did feel good to have your back though. My experience in broadcast television narrows my vision to the details. I have had the director screaming things at me I can't repeat regarding a wayward pan. Forgive my nit picking. I would hate to see you waiting in the lobby of my next prospective client

Don said...

Good post, man.

"This blog post took about twenty five minutes to write..."

Damn - I'd give anything to be able to type that fast.


Dr. Larry said...

Excellent tome, Kirk. One of your best yet.


mbka said...

What you're saying ironically is that now that the craft is knowable by many, it loses its power to make a difference. Now something else has to make the difference.

In terms of video I recently had a conversation with a professional filmmaker over at dpreview. I asked him, considering video is so much harder to get technically 'right' than photography - scripting, locations, scenes, editing etc - whether there is any area in his opinion where photography is harder than moving pictures. His answer: "You need to tell the story in a single shot". Kinda obvious after I read it ;-) ... and maybe one of the best descriptions of photography I've come across.

kirk tuck said...

We can all have craft. Can we all have vision?

Anonymous said...

Thanks again for a thoughtful post. I never feel I'm wasting my time reading your blog. Between you, Gordon Lewis @Shutterfinger, and Mike Johnston @ TOP I always have something interesting to ponder. Steve Willard

Jan Klier said...

Actually, I would be careful about the term craft - it's not just technical skill, it's a more refined command that takes time/effort to acquire.

Not that I consider wikipedia authorative but they do quote "Artisans employ creative thinking and manual dexterity to produce their goods." and "Artisans were divided into two distinct groups: those who operated their own business, and those who did not. Those who owned their businesses were called masters, while the latter were the journeymen and apprentices. [...] The most influential group among the artisans were the masters, the business owners. The owners enjoyed a higher social status in their communities."

I know it's tempting to find a new label to attach to the masses, if in the course of this debate the photographer no longer is en vogue.

Point is, while barriers to entry are lower and the market is more accessible, that does not make everyone a master. It gives everyone the opportunity to reach that destination, but that's about all.

In modern US business culture everyone can be a CEO. In fact if you start your own business, you can be a CEO and you can rightfully print your business card that way. However, that does not give you the same experience and qualifications as those who are CEO of a Fortune 500 company. And while in our business culture the barriers to entry are lower, and everyone has the opportunity to reach that destination, without lots of effort and time you won't reach it. As a result, a business card with the term VP/CEO has to be treated with a high degree of suspicion unless you also appeared on the cover of Fortune at some point in time.

However, I think popular culture always wants to attach a label to the masses in an effort to make them feel accomplished and democratize the field. It usually devalues the label to the non-discriminating consumer in the process. So wait for the next label to be trashed.

I think Kirk's excellent post made the point that for those who approached it as the mastery of a craft, there continues to be opportunity in business, and high respect. But it has not changed the bar you have to clear. But the circumstances around it are a moving target.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm. A long way around the mulberry bush, but, yes on the storytelling and "content provider."

Now the question is, "Can you tell my story better than I can?" Or, "Can I tell your story better than you can?" What occurs to you on the second question, I wonder?

Either way, there would have to be give and take. I don't see that happening with Jan Killer's CEO, but maybe ... (Reminder to me, put CEO on my business card.)

Bill F

meandmycanon said...

When you said "I guess what I'm really saying is that photography is alive and well. It's just different now." I'm not sure that's true. You used to be a photographer. Now you are a writer, and a very good one I might add, who takes pictures as well. So professional photography (as in 1999) is not well it's dead.
Any "Professional Photography" course should really be called "Photo/Communications/Marketing/Phycology " and should include instruction in all of these areas to qualify as a valid "Photography" course. I would let potential new students know the "photo" part of the program is the shortest and the easiest. And yes, it is different now.
I'm just interested Kirk, does the college where you teach include these facets in the program?

kirk tuck said...


I'm now on the advisory board for the college but I no longer teach. I taught at UT back when all you did need to learn was how to do the stuff and how to be nice to clients.

The college I work with is ACC and their photo program, run by Bill Woodhull does an excellent job scaring the shit out the students by way of making them sit thru speeches by working photographers. Not on artsy stuff but on accounting, contracts, writing, and marketing, marketing, marketing. A full semester of the two year program is business.

While they are a bit behind getting the video and still depts interlinked they do push the idea that photographers are morphing into high value content providers and have to be so much more than just lighting saavy button pushers.

Of all the programs I've visited (and I speak to five colleges and universities in the area) their program is head and shoulders above the rest. Really.

Nearly every class is taught by someone who was or is a working photographer. Not a case of hiring people straight out of grad schools.

But you can only teach young people so much. They all (like we did) think they are different and they are bullet proof.....