Staying Flexible. Being successful.

Belinda sorting through Kodachrome Slides.

Life, work, gear, the economy, what you thought you knew...it changes all the time. Photographers have been living through some big changes since 2001 and it's been a painful transition for most of us who've been in the business the longest. Why? Because we got used to doing things in a certain way and the rate of change seemed nearly static for such a long time. Along with digitalization came accelerated change in three or four directions at once. Good clients who refused to learn web design and all things digital just kinda went away. For good. And that was sad because a lot of them really knew their way around print design and pure design. A lot of job categories like corporate event photography shifted more and more to video coverage or in-house documentation and away from a lucrative still photo assignment. A lot of corporate media buys went to the web and web only jobs don't always command the rates (or some of the skills) that print did.

But we've always had only a handful of choices when confronted with the oncoming locomotive of change. We could exit the market. We could try to "niche" the market or we can accept that things are going to constantly change and we have the choice of diving in and learning to glide along the new path. Or sit around on the old tracks and wait to get hit by the train.

There's power in flexibility. I know because my business has gone through an amazing gamut of change over the last ten years. I've gone from travelling several weeks out of the month, doing corporate events in crazy places, to doing more and more local work. I've written five books about photography. I've done a small share of the dreaded workshop circuit. I've changed my tools, my marketing, my attitude and my point of view and my expectations. And the one thing I'm certain of is that I'm not certain about much.

Swimmers can be as wonky about factoids as the palest IT guy can be wonky about software systems. We talk a lot about technique and we read about trends. One big trend in swimming is to put more time and effort into optimizing your kick in freestyle and butterfly.  And there are two kinds of kickers: Good kickers and bad, inefficient kickers.

The thing that separates the two types? Ankle flexibility, lower back flexibility and overall flexibility.  A swimmer with flexible ankles gets power from both his downkick and his upkick.  A less flexible swimmer uses more energy and more oxygen to go a lot slower.  The slow swimmer/kicker is fighting his own inflexibility.  And you could see it in the underwater shots at the Olympics.  Those amazing dolphin kicks of the walls. You could see Michael Phelp's shoulder flexibility as he stretched out his arms on the starting blocks.  The new mantra for aging swimmers? More yoga.

Lately I've been stressing to my audience, here at the VSL, that we get a lot of misinformation from the photo forums scattered across the web, especially when it comes to the profession of photography. People tend to parrot the wisdom they've heard from a generation of stars who made their names and their careers in the days before digital. The days of slow change. But it's old information. It's based on a time before so many twists and turns. It's a map from the days before we built the new roads.  And it makes me angry to read pronouncements about "the way" professionals do just about anything. As though there is a "best practices" manual for creativity...

Here's my advice for the kinderdigi who read the forums to learn what they can. Read the technical stuff, the nuts and bolts of actually shooting and then try it out for yourself. Prove the concept before you blindly accept it.  But understand that a lot of old pros have tons of great technical information about lighting, etc. that will be very, very valuable for you. You'll have to adapt it to your vision and your way of seeing the world in front of your camera.  But stop short of blindly taking advice about how we (used to) bill, buy gear, market, value work, etc. unless you carefully vet the information and test it in your own markets.

Just because someone coasted into the middle of the decade on pure momentum doesn't mean that they have the magic sauce going forward.  No one really knows.  We know that you have to market but we're not sure how.  We know that you need to keep growing your style but unless you're busy inventing one you have no idea what will be next.

I remember sitting at a professional association meeting just six years ago. I suggested that commercial and advertising (not retail) photographers accept credit cards (the second hardest thing in professional photography is to get paid in a reasonable amount of time) and the old guard snickered and told the crowd that real professionals would never do that and real clients would never pay that way. I had been demanding payment from Dell and Motorola via credit card since the late 1990's....  Now it's becoming common practice.  Had I listened to advice like that in the 1990's I would have spent another decade waiting those 30, 60, 90 days for payment from Fortune 100 companies and then hearing, "You'll have to start the billing process over again, we lost your paperwork..."

It's up to every generation of photographers to create their own path. I can only suggest that you start with our best practices and build on them because we can't see things from the same point of view that your generation has. Use the stuff that works for you but be ready to re-invent new pathways to success. It's really all about staying flexible. Now, if only there was Yoga for Photo Businesses....

Here are the rules: There are no rules.

My advice to my generation and other who've started to become inflexible. Stretch like hell.  Take risks. Try new stuff. Don't rely on old wisdom. And never give up. If you're not having fun you need to make it fun or find something you like doing better.

Make the process of re-invention your mantra and never say, "the traditional way to...."


Frank Grygier said...

Wisdom for any profession. Write a book soon.

Gregg Mack said...

Great advice, Kirk. Applies just as much to my profession as an Electrical Engineer. Very well presented, too!

Daniel Christ said...
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Jay Fleece said...

i am out of the race! retired. my advice though is do just what Kirk said/says. i see friends who are battling all the time. They are locked into a certain mode! It is working with a certain camera system, one that once was the pinnacle of usage by a "few" photojournalists.When i had my studio, it was a real quick transition to Medium Format, in order, to work and receive Fashion work. This in turn led to Commercial, Publicity and finally Advertising. i really learnt to swim! Every style.
It all started so innocently! i had some free film from Ilford, to do few tests. A pal was doing a shoot at a "Model Agency". He was doing movies of the catwalk. i knew NOTHING about models, shoots, having just finished high school and college.
The School/agency asked for the contact sheets. i handed them over. A few days later, i received them back, with markings for small prints and many 8 x 10.i said a price and it was a go.
The Agency asked if i had a studio? Sure said i. i quickly built one...bought lights..used newspapers for background paper, having seen some pix a few hours earlier, in the local magazine store. Vogue. Irving Penn showed the sides of his paper roll. i had no idea where such things were bought..A career was launched.
The same with digital. i had new clients who ONLY worked with the internet. "do you have digital facilities?" of course, sure! Went digital.

atmtx said...

I agree with Frank and Gregg. Wonderful words of wisdom for any career and life itself. Perhaps my flexibility has increased too because I started Yoga about 3 years ago.... Yoga, it's not just for swimming.