Getting busy. Staying busy. Being happy.

I've got a lot of friends who are photographers and they seem to have a lot of time on their hands.  That's a bad thing.  People are happier when they are busy....even if they aren't making money.  I'll be very honest, 2009 was an incredibly slow year in my photography business.  Looking back I don't think we logged more than 39 jobs over the course of the year.  That's less than a third the number of projects we did in previous years.  That's very scary and fear is as good as curare at paralyzing people.  So, with the blow dart hanging off the back of my neck and cortisol rising I had to come to grips with several facts:   Very few people were returning phone calls and even fewer had anything they wanted to talk about with me that might have a check attached.

I'm sure I panicked as much as anyone out there but there were a few things that really helped take the edge off.  This blog may have been the most calming thing I did that year.  I was able to analyze, out loud, how I was feeling and what I thought was happening.  And you were my feedback loop.  And that helped.

I also (ironically) wrote and produced my Commercial Photography Handbook for Amherst Media that year.  Of the five books I've written so far that one has elicited the most "off the radar" direct e-mail response.  One person described it as a manual for working photographers who were missing the (previously available) low hanging fruit.  One local reader claimed to, A.  Follow the suggestions in the book about marketing to the letter, and, B.  Doubled his income in 2010.  The book is in use in several college photography programs and is being considered by several more.  I also started my book, Photographic Lighting Equipment that year.  And it's been a steady seller, which makes me and the publisher happy.

While I'm happy to have the royalties from the books, and I appreciate every single sale, I have to be straightforward and say that it was the continuity of the work experience that was the most valuable by-product of both books.  They added a frame to my working life and a reason to head into the studio and plink away at the keyboard and to shoot "proof of concept" photos with my cameras.  They kept my hands and my head busy and kept me off the ledge of panic.  At a time when people were burrowing down in their photo bunkers and buying dried food the books forced me to engage with models and assistants and clients.  They pushed me to be out in the world.  They were a mild antidote to the corrosive effects of random cortisol release.

Which brings me to right now.  My work this last quarter has started to climb back to the same levels we enjoyed, pre-bust.  But there are still the occasional dry spells.  Same for most of my friends.

I finished writing and producing photography for my LED book back in April and I'm warming up to my next book project but the thing that's occupying most of my time now (and the thing that keeps me from panicking about every little dip....and the recurring bad economic news) is my desire to master every facet of video.  From concept and scripting thru to mastering the intricacies of tweaking sound.  If I have a spare moment it's spent playing with sliders or shoulder mounts.  Or trying new effects.  I can feel a book coming on about the convergence of video and photography.  And that makes me happy because it shows me, like the beam from a lighthouse, that there are still swaths of the economy that are moving forward and adjusting to the new ways.

I met with a former CD from GSD&M this morning for coffee.  He sees the changes.  He sees big agencies who didn't adapt quickly enough playing out their own Darwinian dramas in real time.  He's jumped.  He's out.  Our shared vision of the future is more and more video content for the web.  More stories and narratives.  More eye candy backed up with content that moves the game forward for the clients who've also adapted and moved forward.  It's heady times if we can make the leap across the chasm that spans the space between a media mix from yesterday that was heavy on stills and print to  tomorrow's mix that combines video, writing and stills to make addictive and alluring selling messages for media that never existed before.

Crazy goals?  How about being the first creative person to make a full length, feature movie solely for smart phones?

I guess my message is that I'm surviving  thriving because I couldn't sit still and wait.  The pendulum may swing back to mostly print in the years to come.  I doubt it.  But now I'm diversified and continue to diversify.  I'm writing in three forms:  Books, Blogs and Advertising.  I'm shooting two media:  Still images and video.  I'm sharing knowledge in workshops.  I'm helping equipment manufacturers present their gear to eager users and students.

If your business is floundering.  If you do the same thing you always did and you just applied a glossy coat of varnish  (social media)  and new advertising and it still isn't taking flight the way it once did,  now is the time for re-invention.  And it sure doesn't have to be my schizophrenic model.  Teach more.  Tell more.  Become your own media outlet.  Be your own magazine.  Take yourself back to your own school by fleshing out the subjects you wish you had more depth in.  Do it organically.

Maybe you're a photographer who's already mastered the skill of motion picture camera man (with your Canon 5dmk2 or your Panasonic GH-2)  now it might be time to master sound.  Or start your own production company.  Maybe you are also a foodie.  Wouldn't it be weird to be a photographer who also owns a craft service company (food service for creative productions)  on the side?  If you still have a studio and the main thing you lack is a gaggle of traditional clients to fill it up couldn't you couple rentals to amateurs with a value added package of mentoring?

Everything changed but nothing really changed.  It's a weird idea.

Final thought for the day:  I've been doing traditional head shots since we started in the business.  You know, line em up in front of some seamless paper or a nifty gray canvas and bang away with two or three lights and whatever your favorite style of lighting is.  But do people want that anymore?  Are we selling what clients want or just what we know how to do?  I'm changing that in my business.  I'm going to listen harder to hear what clients say they want.  I'm going to re-invent the headshot.  That's my newest goal.  Probably easier than the feature length movie for the iPhone.....WHAT'S YOUR NEW GOAL?  WHAT DO YOU NEED TO RE-INVENT?   WHAT DO YOUR CUSTOMERS REALLY WANT?  That's what we need to be asking....

And if you are really stressed then go out, fly a kite and enjoy the quiet moments.  


Mike Padua said...


I just discovered your blog a couple of weeks ago and I've been spending every spare moment (not many, between a growing business and a newborn kid) catching up and learning.

Thanks for this post. Lots of great information and makes me think hard about where my business is going.

Thank you. Really, seriously, I mean it: thank you.

Glenn Harris said...

Good post Kirk. I've found many families don't want a posed portrait in front of a static background these days. They want something like an urban background or park where they are doing something or look like they could be doing something. I prefer to call these lifestyle portraits and I think the same may applicable to headshots. I consider some of your more compelling headshots to be those where the environment provides a context for that person.

Anonymous said...

Yes, please write the book on video, especially with coverage of DSLR video. There's nothing in the market now, and based on your other books, you are the guy to write it.

As for surviving/thriving: I have had to reinvent myself a few times over my 40 year career (non-photographic). It hurts, but I never sat and contemplated my navel waiting for the next thing exactly in my line. What has this achieved: much more experience in more areas, the ability to change gears quickly, and the capacity to be a quick study of all the new stuff.

Roger said...

"Our shared vision of the future is more and more video content for the web"


Sound on a website is a big turn off because it forces my ears to focus and that's hard work! Add a movie and things get worse because my eyes have to focus and prevent me from browsing and scanning the page.

We've had movie advertising for sometime now, it's that annoying stuff between the interesting stuff on the TV.

I know I haven't dampened your spirit because i) you might stumble on the next big thing, and ii) if people with cash want movies you will be well placed to shovel it to them!

Alternatively, make one movie and make it well, get the crappiest lens you can find and stick it on your Canon D(whatever) and think "Blair Witch". Perhaps a local resident with a chain saw, but that's already been done.

Great blog entry once again, I love your posts, in particular this one. Someone many years ago told me that once you stop learning you are finished!


Don said...

We have talked about this on occasion.

Yes - reinvention and restatement is part of the reality these days.

I saw some faint handwriting on the wall back in 2002 when companies were being formed to make stuff that they would give away free. My agency would grill startups about their 'business model' and it seemed that it was all about 'we'll get millions of people to come to our site and then - THEN - we will figure out how to make money.

Sure. What could go wrong.

Television is losing eyeballs, newspapers are arranging deck chairs, and ad agencies are hiring teenyboppers who can update their statuses. (Can you believe they still have kids getting loans to go to 'journalism' schools? Talk about fraud....)

Things changed. Business changed. Methods changed with unexpected results.

It sometimes reminds me of those schools of fish that change direction in a split second... thousands of fish make a right turn... NOW.

That is what I think has happened to photography/advertising. A turn is in place and many are not listening.

I knew when I left the agency that I would never have a bigass company with employees again. I have met a lot of people who feel the same way.

Currently I am running a design/advertising agency with myself and a contract partner, shooting, writing my second book, teaching, and writing a blog that does OK, I guess.

Along with your set of books, I also recommend "The 4 Hour Work Week", "Crush It" and "The War of Art" to all my photo acquaintances.

I am actually having a blast. But, I know some who are really hurting. It is hard to understand what is happening when you are in the middle of the pack and everyone around you is in chaos.

And panic has never been a good life plan.

kirk tuck said...

discussing video programming today with a F500. Wasn't even in the plan two years ago. Started on book six. Pitching book seven. And I was serious about making a movie. Now I'll have everyone tell me why it can't be done......and then I'll do it.

The future is now.

Frank Grygier said...

Kirk, with your writing and media skills there is nothing standing in your way. You can be the next Robert Rodriguez. Austin is the right place to be. Start writing the script!