Settling in for a new year. The market continues to shift around.

Mint Julep for Liberty Tavern at the Hilton Hotel.

At heart I am a very optimistic cynic. I am watching the news about Dell, Inc. and the talk about a group of investors taking the company private. Their company lost 1/3 of its value last year and their shrinking piece of the PC pie, and the shrinking of the total PC market, has Dell looking for a new business focus. They are saying that by going private they'll be more nimble and less constrained by shareholder When I hear about going private I remember watching Freescale Semiconductor to the same thing. And for the last three years they have been operating with a $12 billion debt load while sales in the semiconductor industry have remained constant or shrunk.

The cynic in me tells me that the majority stockholders in any company going private are using this sort of transaction partially as a way to cash out at a temporary, artificially boosted stock price while saddling the new owners with the debt. The optimist in me sees that if you already own the stock and the rumors become truth you will see the typical spike up in the asking price of the stock which will at least get you back to parity. I wish the people at Dell very good luck because they have been a very good corporate citizen here in Austin.

But what this really shows me is that all markets are always in flux and even the best and the brightest have trouble predicting the future. What chance do we, as single person, freelance businesses, have?  Well, for one thing, if we've been frugal we don't have anywhere near the burn rate of a big company with the attendant need to always be feeding that cash flow monster. And, hopefully, if we don't let ourselves become constrained by aping what everyone else is doing, we have a shot at creating new niches and new ways forward to profit.

I'm like a broken record when it comes to talking about changing every parameter of the way we do business. From the cameras we use and the lights we bring to the jobs doing it the same way we've always done is kind of like driving while fixated on the rear view mirror. I hear from photographers who are locked in a print mentality. They still see the print as the gold standard. But from my point of view (at least as a commercial photographer) the print is long dead and it's now five years since I tried to fire up an expensive inkjet print and do any sort of printed product for a client. In advertising and corporate work it's all about the digital file. If a client needs a trade show graphic they'll have an in-house or agency procurement manager working with a high end output house in order to get what they need. Our responsibility ends at the point where we deliver the image. (No, it's not practical to become a middleman for this work---the files go through a design shop which is a subset of the ad agency or a design shop hired directly  by the company to do apply their branding to the images (type, logos, etc.) and they are just as specialized as we are).

I've finally come to grips with the idea that Dell, Freescale, IBM and any other big company out there is no longer going to be sending photographers around the world for weeks at a time to do annual reports and other high profile projects. That train has already sailed....

What it means to me as a small business owner is that I have to find new markets and new ways to deliver to the same markets and to the newer disruptive players in markets. You wanna know what one of my differentiators in my markets is? I'll tell you anyway:  I know how to light stuff. And light it well. That alone eliminates a large swath of my competitors. People have become so invested in the idea that their cameras do incredible, crazy high ISOs that they've forgotten that most of the reason to use lights is to create a lighting design that makes the image different and better than it would have been without additional lights. We use lights to create a direction in the light, to emphasize some things while diminishing the prominence of other things in a scene. We use light to create three dimensions in a two dimensional space. We use light as a retouching tool. 

Back when we competed against other well educated professional photographers we could never have sold lighting as a nearly exclusive feature but in the day and age when a speed light is considered a Cadillac coming in with multiple, specialized lighting tools and modifiers makes it seem like we're using the Aston Martins.

Traditional, healthy businesses have generally learned one set of lessons well and this is something everyone needs to revisit from time to time. The lessons are: Learn to serve your clients, not just take orders. Teach them how to leverage your product.  Under-promise and over-deliver.  Wow them with your creativity but be sure to also give them something they'll be comfortable using. Be honest when you fall short. Then fix it.

Finally, a differentiator missing from the younger market.....learn how to sincerely say, "Thank You" to your clients. Believe me, in their day-to-day lives they don't hear this enough.

Market changes? Going back and forth between stills and video demands new lighting skills and new lights for traditional photographers. Cameras with built-in EVFs also have an advantage when shooting video.   The days of many assistants flitting around the set now only exists on the set of Creative Live: Learn how to be self sufficient. Travel light but light well. Improve your cameras not by buying new cameras but by learning best camera practices: Use a tripod. Use your optimum ISO's (hint, even if your files have no noise at higher ISOs they lose dynamic range linearly every step up from their base ISO). Use the optimum aperture on your lens. Work on your focusing technique. Do more with less by doing it better. 

Finally, what do all the major client's gyrations, shifts and paradigm changes hold for my business?  Growth. They need to re-brand and re-engage their customers along every step of the way. And we're here to serve them. Change is neither good nor bad. 

A quote I read recently:  When God closes a window a Navy Seal kicks open a new door.

Start kicking those doors open.


Ray said...

You forgot to add the Smiley Face: "That train has already sailed...."

As always, nice article.

Anonymous said...

"Back when we competed against other well educated professional photographers we could never have sold lighting as a nearly exclusive feature but in the day and age when a speed light is considered a Cadillac coming in with multiple, specialized lighting tools and modifiers makes it seem like we're using the Aston Martins".

So, do the strobist and Joe what's his name know about this non speed light stuff? Are you telling me that Avedon and Penn couldn't have done their photos with a DSLR and a couple of Speed Lights? Blasphemy .. this can't be the case.


Kirk Tuck said...

Apologies. I should have credited Mike Meyer's amazing and riveting movie, Austin Powers. I won't watch the academy awards to this day because they slighted Meyers and did not give him the award for Best Picture when the movie came out. What the hell were they thinking?

Kirk Tuck said...

Joe knows to pull those Elinchroms out of the closet when there's $$$ at stake. And David spent some time last year tasting big light at the Profoto and Einstein buffets. When cash is on the line the big boy lights come out....

Libby said...

I think the Strobist knows his stuff. Not only can he shoot with the big lights, he can shoot with a Buzz Lightyear camera.


Anonymous said...

Hi Libby;

Big lights in my world begin at 2400 w/s and go up from there. Even in our new fangled digital photo world, serious light is often necessary. Most high quality digital images are made in the below 200 iso world. A Phase One back mated to a 4x5, factoring bellows extension and modifier loss demands some serious light. Big portrait sets often need a lot of light. Greg Heisler was an assistant to Arnold Newman. Heisler learned lighting from a lighting master. Even Dave the strobe guy has figured this out. In Minor League Base Ball, they call the Major League "The Show". There is some distance here I think. Just my take..



David Liang said...

From what I got out of Kirk's post is he's talking about the natural light or even one light guys. I don't recall if I've never seen a shot McNally shot with a scene with a single flashgun and no modifiers. What Joe McNally or David Hobby know about lighting and modifiers can translate to strobes, and that's what I believe as Kirk states will make the different in the current market.
Many new photographers my age are claiming they shoot natural light and it's not hard to see from their images, that isn't so because of a stylistic choice, it's so due to a lack of understanding of lighting and lighting tools. I've seen so many natural light shots all over the web there will be a blow back soon, the audience can be fickle and what once was liked will be seen as passe.
Then how do you stand out? Beautiful, form and texture shaping, emotionally charged lighting.

Kirk Tuck said...

Let's be clear. My point is that the market is undergoing incredible changes right now, not that Mr. Hobby or Mr. McNally don't know how to light with big lights. They both do. They've showcased their skills many times. I must be a poor writer because the gist of what I wanted to get across was that: If even huge, previously successful, companies are floundering what kind of take aways can we, as small business owners, take away as lessons when we watch their re-invention.

That, and the fact that we need to market skill sets that differentiate us.

Big lights are appropriate (and needed) for some stuff, small lights are good for other stuff. No turf wars here. I use both.

Ray said...

BTW: I just ordered "Light Science and Magic, Fourth Edition: An Introduction to Photographic Lighting", and it's all your fault. My wife accuses me of being deaf and she may well be right, but I think I'm also a little blind as I sometimes have a hard time seeing the effect of "lighting." I'm hoping a bit of proper education can at least partly cure my poor eyesight.

Dave said...

There is an epic shift that companies like Amazon, Apple & Google know very very well. I'd bet Walmwart fears Amazon more than anything else on the horizon and for good reason. There is a lot of tumult going on as the effects of consumers becoming gadget driven and craving real-time sugar hits to their consumer sweet tooth. As an example, I can drive down to a physical store and pay $35 for a macro HDMI cable or get free two day shipping on one from Amazon for $5. Hmmm....

For Dell the challenges are deeper. iPads have redefined home computing but maybe they missed the memo that Apple did that while they were a public company. I read into this that they will be making potentially radical moves after having analyzed their market position, current stock holder expectation and where they anticipate things going. There will likely be a deeper cash burn while they do that and potentially more commercial work as new initiatives and products emerge.

Sorry for the dime store analysis but I'd say the smart move is to get closer to contacts in Dell, but be ready for a radical shake up if this is truly a rework.