Starting over. Starting for the first time. Starting at all.

When you work as a commercial photographer you acquire tools the way the tops of picture frames acquire dust. Photography is a moving and fluid target. It's rare now that your response to the business of photography can be one of maintaining the status quo. If you don't take photos for money I'll assume that you do it for fun and that you can shoot whatever the hell you want with whatever camera you want. We (paid professionals, collectively) stopped having that luxury as the whole world of imaging changed around the changing primary delivery systems for images. Clients want good images, they want good web video and they want it all right away.

At the present we live in a bifurcated imaging universe, split between the last remnants of print culture and accelerating onslaught of web display. Yes, there are still magazines but they are thinner and the images in many are just rehashed stock pictures you've seen a thousand times. Yes, there is still point of purchase advertising; big posters in stores and stuff wrapped around bus stops and in train terminals but it's quickly being replaced by screens. The benefits to advertisers are just too great to ignore. The super large poster is expensive to print and expensive to install. And the messaging remains the same, day in and day out until the physical art is exchanged for another poster. Large, flat, efficient electronic screens can contain messages that move, type that  changes and messaging that can be customized for the kinds of customers specific to each period of the day.

In fact, with the ubiquity of smart phones which signal to stores who you are, and the power of internet information about you, your buying habits and your income; even what you bought last time you were in the store, retailers can customize the messages on the screens toward which you are walking just for you. And they can do that in real time.  How much more powerful is that than a static, printed sign?

In the last decade professional photographers have largely been buying cameras to solve problems that their businesses really didn't have anymore. As more and more clients rushed to embrace the electronic marketing wave, both on the web and on freestanding screens we could see that they needed fewer and fewer images that required enormous, perfect files. But photographers chased huge pixel counts and expensive, infinite sharpness like dogs chase cars. And in the end we used these enormously capable and expensive cameras to deliver files that mostly ended up, at the most, two megapixels big on a screen. Once we photographers caught our "cars" we were as much at a loss about what to do with them as the dogs.

I was thinking about this as I swam this morning. I've been using a couple of full frame Sony DSLR-derived cameras, the a99 and the a850, in my business for quite a while. And before that I was using the 24 megapixel a77's and before that the Canon 5Dmk2. I've been following the righteous herd of professional photographers and carefully shooting images as enormous raw files with pristine custom white balances. And as I've done so the typical requests I get from the kind of ad agencies and clients I do work for is, "can you delivery smaller files?" What they're looking for are images they can drop into web files. The classic "style guide" for web images from one of the big agencies we do work for is this:  Profile=sRGB. Size=960 pixels wide. Save as jpeg or png. We're pulling children's wagons with Clydesdales...

The other request for more and more of the lifestyle and food shoots that we do is for instant sharing. Not on the web, per se, but on the set. The advertising crews, almost to a person, would love it if we were continuously flowing our test images and our actual shoot images not to a big monitor in a dark corner of the room but onto everyone's phone or iPad, individually. Clients would love to sit in their chairs on the sets or in the studio and watch the feed as a full screen display as we shoot. We older photographers tend to resist this because what we did in the olden days was really much less collaborative. We were used to getting our approvals on the Polaroids and then having a license to interpret. 

Now there is a trend to tight collaboration. The photographer is no longer the defacto captain of the ship he has become part of the crew on a rich man's yacht. He still has the responsibility for making the ship work but its direction and destination is at the whim of the owner and the adventure succeeds with the ready application of team work. Younger artists have grown up with the overwhelming press of the idea that teamwork is a positive thing while older artists remember a time when individual control and individual achievement was in vogue.

Collaboration only works if everyone is sharing and sharing the images as they spring to life is now part of the process whether I like it or not. But beyond whether one is comfortable with getting along in a group, or not, the real elephant in the room, where imaging is concerned, is video. It's not a thing anymore that you can leave to everyone else while you specialize in that still thing that you want to do. Clients want, need and will get both stills and video. Whether they get it all from you or they get it all from someone else---they will. And most would love to get it from the same source. It cuts down on all those meetings by 50%. And the vision of work, between stills and motion, matches.

So what does all this mean when it comes to what we use these days? Do we need Leica S2's for our still work and Arriflex Alexa cameras for our video productions? Do we need a Nikon D800 as our foundational camera? Can we do our businesses with Olympus OMD's?  Well, yes. I guess it's yes to everything. But I'm having the queasy feeling that it's not such a great idea to rush out and buy anything expensive right now. That doesn't seem to be where the market is headed....

If I were starting out today as a young and sassy photographer how would I approach the idea of buying gear? Honestly, I'd put together a small, practical system that consists of (imagine your own brand's similar offerings....) say a Canon 5dmk3 body with a 24-105mm lens and a 70-200 mm lens and call it quits. Anything else I really needed I'd rent. But that's old school thinking on one point; the Canon 5Dmk3 and most other cameras on the market today are not paragons of instant sharing or file sending flexibility.

There are interesting things on the horizon for pros, if they are open to change... Especially those who value quick sharing and flexibility over muscle and traditionally enabled cameras. Samsung has already announced their NX Galaxy camera. The sensor is the same as the one I've used in the NX 300 and it's really good. But the real power in that camera comes from it's ability to quickly and easily share pretty much anywhere and all the time. With built-in wi-fi and built in cellular capabilities you can continually upload images to your cloud or a local network as you shoot. Basically that means everyone in the room with a smartphone or an iPad can follow along on collaborative shoots. It might be uncomfortable for some photographers (especially those who depend on backend processing to make their images marketable) but it might be more comfortable and soon, more expected, by all our younger clients. And our older clients who are control freaks.

I can imagine a scenario where I go on location with a communications enabled camera and get fast approvals from an art director who is back at her office. That's cool enough. Imagine the next step. Suppose you run Snapseed on your communications enabled "smart" camera and you have a five inch screen and a full operating system on the camera as well. You've just shot 36 images of Bob, head of marketing at the WizBang corporation and, instead of driving back to the studio or setting up your laptop and downloading stuff to make a gallery, you whip the camera screen up and you and Bob sort through the images on the big screen on the back of your camera. You find one you both like so you fix it up in Snapseed. Maybe it needs some retouching so you open a program that offers cloning and fix the offending reality.  Then you resize and save the image and send it along directly, to DropBox and notify your client. She's using the image on a website design before you even get back to your car. You are on to the next thing.

That camera will exist in the next month. It will be cheaper than a big Canon or Nikon. It will take great images. But it will do more. And it will once again lower some more barriers to entry in our field. But as soon as it launches the smart competitors will be in line with their versions. The smart ones will extend the features instead of just copying them.

We can be aloof and snobby and reject the new tech as gadgets or distractions. Or we can leverage it as part of our proactive response to a continually changing market. We can be the first adapters. We can show off the tech and make clients happy first. We've seen how the aloof thing works in the markets. I think I'm ready to try early adapter.

In the future I'll be looking for cameras that are more about flexibility than raw specs. I don't need sports cameras. I don't need massive amounts of resolution. I want good video (wow! the video in the GH3 is amazing!!!). I want good sharing capability (amazed about what I've heard concerning the Samsung camera). If the camera is going to become more and more the epicenter of our work I also want a lot of screen real estate on it.  Make sure it has a standard hot shoe and an input for external microphones and I'm there. All the specialty stuff becomes rental.

It's about to become a brave new world. Again.


Anonymous said...

The secret in ANY business is giving the customer what they want. The secret to failure in ANY business is trying to force the customer to buy what you want to sell. Simple as that.

About six (6) years ago I helped a friend to transition from being a still photographer who also shot video. Now he has a video production company that can also provides stills.

A Galaxy NX with f/1.4 85mm, f/2.8 60mm Macro and a f/2.4 16mm lenses would do everything I need. The upcoming Olympus OM-D E-M1 also looks good. The Panasonic GH3 is already turnin out pro quality work.

Kirk Tuck said...


Anonymous said...

An Olympus E-M1 video clip was up for a short time showing full wifi connectivity to an iPAD type computer. monitor, shoot, display, almost everything remotely except move the camera. Looks like more instant picture sharing and this is their "Pro" camera. Kirk's future looks more and more like now


Michael Matthews said...

Pick your clients well, or they will drive you barking mad.

Anonymous said...

Not really.

"A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them."

– Steve Jobs

Anonymous said...

@Michael Matthews, it's OK to fire clients.

Paul said...

I realised a while ago that chasing megapixels would be like Don Quixote charging at windmills and I have stuck at 12Mp, and guess what? No client has ever asked for anything bigger. I'm now looking at a new camera, but I'm expressly looking for is something small, high quality with great video capability. Over the last couple of years I've ben playing around with m4/3s and I'm now thinking it has got to the point where this will become my workhorse system, I'll keep the 5d and a couple of fast lenses for when I want to dance to that tune.

Robert Hudyma said...

I have been copying images simultaneously to my nearby Netbook computer with my Eye-Fi memory card.

It is an SD card with built-in WiFi. It was tricky to set up, but once done it works quite well.

So this device gives any SD device WiFi connectivity which is pretty cool. This means you don't need new equipment to have this feature.

After I make an image it is automatically transmitted to my Netbook about 20 seconds later.

Brian said...

Kirk, great post. I know this is off topic, but I always enjoy your thoughts on the business of photography,, would you consider writing a couple of posts on how you go after new commercial clients?

Ash Crill said...

This still counts as "giving the customer what they want", even if they don't yet know that they want it.

Ron Zack said...

I find it fascinating that the cameras companies that seem to really understand where photography is truly headed is Panasonic, Sony and Samsung: three electronic giants who have no 35mm film legacy what-so-ever.

That Panasonic GH3 has intrigued me since the day it launched, as being about as close to perfect a hybrid still/video camera as you could ask for. The fact that Panasonic is making those juicy little zooms & primes, like the 7-14-12-35, 35-100 doesn't hurt either. They really show a wonderful understanding of what it's going to take to be a successful camera company in the 21st century, and that GX7 is one sexy beast all on it's own. I think I could live a long, happy life with just those two cameras and a pile of Lumix lenses to play with.

Samsung is almost completely off the radar of the photo enthusiasts who haunt the interwebs, which is a shame, because they are are doing some amazing things. The camera I would love to have from them would be a mash-up of the NX300 and NX20, but such a beast does not yet exist. If some of those zooms on their old lens road-map become a reality, I could become a convert. I'm keeping a careful eye on them..

Sony....well, we all know what they've been up to. I do hope those rumors are about a truly mirrorless A-mount come true, that could be a huge game changer....especially with the Olympus 5-axis IS dropped in. They've been on quite a tear lately. Sadly, they need to get on the ball lens wise....or just buy out Zeiss.

But I have to say, that Canon 70D is also a very intriguing camera, turning the entire imaging sensor into a phase-detect focusing mechanism is just brilliant. Yeah, they didn't get the memo about EVF's, but still, having super reliable AF for movie making is just about unheard of, yet the camera seems entirely capable of it. Having the enormous catalog of EOS lenses to choose from doesn't hurt either. I think that camera is going to be super popular amongst a whole array of folks.

As for the rumored E-M1: it's an E-M5 with a grip glued on, and phase detect focusing for those 4/3 lenses that no one owns anymore. Yawn. I'd rather have the GH3 I think...it's just as "pro" as the E-M1, if not more so.

Your absolutely right about file sizes....24mp now-a-days is about as useful as a V-8 engine on a blender, and the Even More megapixel files just clogs up your hard drive. Unless you have your own data center, the Even More megapixel files creates more problems than it solves, some very expensive problems. The files those mega cameras create are truly beautiful, I'm thinking especially of the Nikon D800, but unless you need 1mm deep DoF all the time, you can easily live in the 16mp cropped frame realm, and still have megapixels to spare.

arg said...

Excellent and eye-opening article, Kirk, thanks.

I did get completely confused, however, when after all that way-of-the-future vision, you said the camera to buy, now, is a 5D MarkIII.

Maybe you didn't quite have the man-bits to say what you're REALLY thinking!

arg said...

Oh BTW, doing a shoot for a client who wants stills and video, aren't you going to get compromised results using one camera (i.e. one body) for both? So you need 2 cameras? So, why would you need a camera that does both? Can't you get the best of each type for your needs?

Frank Grygier said...

More evidence the sensor size is overrated.


Kirk Tuck said...

I'll answer both questions here. In the first question my suggestion is for pros to buy a small system that works for now. The 5D3 was used only as an example of something clients are comfy with now. Substitute Nikon D800, Panasonic GH3 or anything else that does good video and good stills. The wave of totally wi-fi and (important) cell enabled system cameras hasn't hit yet. I'm sure that's what I'll recommend going forward.

Don't be dumb. We don't shoot stills and videos simultaneously. We shoot them sequentially. We like to carry the least amount of gear and struggle with the fewest menus and camera quirks possible. And we like to NOT spend money when we don't need to. There is no "best" for everything. A Red One was a great video camera but big, heavy, bulky and crazy expensive compared to a 5dmk2 and many really good projects have been made with 5d2's at a fraction of the price. The Leica S2 or a Phase One 180 are the "best" cameras around, unless you have to carry them, shoot fast, shoot in low light, use a wide variety of lenses, process files quickly, keep enough money in your accounts to buy food, etc.

Every combination is a compromise. The pursuit of "best" is a good way to become insane. All I need is "really good for all the stuff I want to do."

Shoot the portrait THEN shoot the interview. Shoot the set up THEN shoot the b-roll. Think of the stills as rehearsal for the video. Obviously no one can monitor two cameras simultaneously. If you have to shoot an event simultaneously in still and video you not only need a second camera you also need a second operator and that's not what I'm selling.

Kirk Tuck said...

And yes, I always write what I'm REALLY thinking. But unlike the implication of your comment one doesn't always have to think with their genitalia.

Jerome T said...

Hi Kirk,
Thanks for your wonderful website and your insight on photography. I purchased my 5Dmk3 to replace my failing Canon 40D which was a camera I truly enjoyed using and plan to get it repaired a second time. (That Canon 70D is looking really good right now!) My only beef with my 5Dmk3 is that it is heavy. Other than that I really love this camera. Maybe in the future I'll purchase a M43s or another mirror-less system, but for now I really don't care about sharing pictures immediately. If I really wanted to or had a requirement to send a file I can convert and re-size my selected raw files to jpeg in camera and use an eye-fi to transfer to my phone to share.

Don't get me wrong. I really think these new camera systems are exciting and extremely capable. I believe you should use the system that helps you get your desired job done. Be it street, landscape, sports, fashion, family, vacation, etc... choose the camera system best for that purpose. That is what I have been telling my friends who ask me what camera to buy.

Thanks much,
Jerome T

MGO said...

Part true. when what you describe happens, this will make more room for niche work. I tend to disagree;)

Craig Yuill said...

Kirk, your comment about spending only as much as one needs to spend on equipment is one of the best pieces of advice you can give to photographers. My father, an accountant for approximately fifty years, said that two of the biggest mistakes a person running a business could do is start without enough funds to sustain the business for an extended period of time, and to overspend on items that were unnecessary. Your increased need for affordable equipment that covers multiple duties is understandable - you have clearly stated the whys and the hows of it in previous posts about jobs where you shot both stills and video. I wish you luck in your move to be on the leading edge of technology.

Given the rapid changes in equipment capabilities, types of content, and delivery methods clients need/want I am wondering if an updated version of your Commercial Photography Handbook might be in order. Is such an update likely? Or do you think you will go the Craftsy dot com route for such projects heading into the future?

arg said...

heh heh, thanks Kirk. What I thought you might be REALLY thinking is that a four thirds sensor will suffice for modern clients -- but didn't want the firestorm.

And what I meant by two cameras (I never said *simultaneously*, did I?), was maybe a Panasonic GH3 (incl wi-fi) with 12-35mm f2.8 for video that it is especially good at, and an Olympus E-P5 (incl wi-fi and VF-4 viewfinder) for stills with the 45mm f1.8 prime and its ability to take favourite legacy primes and stabilise them internally.

The quality will suit the modern client's needs, the cameras are especially suited to their roles, and the wi-fi is inbuilt for The New Way Of Working.

Chris Gibbons said...

Kirk, one of your most insightful posts yet - thank you.
Part of the (problem/question) is how to explain this to clients - such as one of mine who still does it the 'old-fashioned' way: at every event, a stills photographer, 2-person video crew and me to do the the words (I'm a journalist). But I keep hearing 'budget is tight' and ' we can't cover this', we 'can't cover that'. So we cut back - and I get complaints that 'we weren't there' or 'we don't have video so there's nothing for the website'....

And videographers don't do stills, our stills person is also the company's webmaster...and I'm just the wordsmith.

I can see that there's a vast amount of education looming. For all of us. But it has to start with the client, surely? Or are you suggesting that in the US, at least, the client is already leading the market?