10.09.2013

What role will instant access have in the working lives of photographers?


It's no secret that I've been playing with a camera that is nearly always connected to the web, if I want it to be. And it's forced me to start thinking like a 17 year old instead of a 57 year old. To wit, what will the next generation of cameras bring me when it comes to workflow, efficiency and value to my clients, if anything? I've more or less come to grips that it's really all about changing my mindset.  I think there are rewards for being in the forefront of new ways of delivering images. That's why I'm exploring them.

I grew up in the golden age of traditional photography and made a relatively quick and easy transition to digital in the late 1990's. The technology isn't an issue but the baggage of "how it's done" is almost a crushing burden. If you started out with black and white film in your hands and the print was your target then speed wasn't the real driver, just getting through the process correctly and with a good end product was the driver. We came to value craft and repetition as the secrets to making uniform products that we could sell, lease or license to our clients. We were creating artifacts. We were creating physical products. But that really isn't the world I live in today. Now we're making Virtual Consumables. And part of the consumable ethos is relentless freshness. We're now creating images to consume rather than images as permanent artifacts. At least commercially...

It's the same in parts of my photo business as it is in my blogging. If I don't provide timely new content for the blog the audience falls off in some sort of mathematically proscribed fashion until we hit single digit readership. The fresher and more relevant the content the more readers and the more growth the site enjoys. In making and disseminating images I'm finding that more and more clients are using the content on their sites they way I am using content on this blog. They are looking not for news but certainly for fresh. I'm not at the point yet where all my clients want everything right now buy we're getting closer and closer as our businesses get more intertwined and collaborative.

When I worked for Dell, Inc. at their Worldwide Conference last year there were parts of our shooting that required immediate turn around. When I photographed President Clinton with 60+ different people one morning part of the brief was that I would hand off a copy of the images to his public relations people before they left the building. And they were leaving the building about five minutes after the shoot. I brought along a computer and a couple of flash drives and we transferred as fast as I could. We made the deadline, but just by a nose hair.

As I worked with the new, wi-fi and cell enabled camera I've been tested it dawned on me that I could have set up a folder in DropBox and sent each image to the folder as I was shooting at the Dell Event. The client would have their copies in the cloud immediately. And in a format and "place" where everyone in their team could have nearly immediate access.

Then I started thinking about the basic format of shows and the need to send images to so many people. I would be shooting one part of an event and get an urgent call from someone in another department who had an immediate need for photography we'd taken a little earlier. If we were constantly streaming into a shared folder I could take myself out of the equation and let the PR people handle the access to the images internally.

When I started down that line of reasoning I immediately thought of our shoots for the theater. We end up shooting dress rehearsals the day before the first openings and the PR folks need images to send to websites and press first thing in the morning after the dress rehearsal. Our routine is to shoot, head home, download, back up, do a rough edit and then put all the images on a portable hard drive and either deliver them to the theatre or have them picked up by a harried marketing person from the theater.  Wouldn't it be much cooler and less agonizing to start uploading images to a shared folder from the very beginning of the show? Depending on the speed of the network the camera would inevitably get ahead of the upload but it would catch up during intermission and on the drive home. Maybe the final files would load from wherever I left the camera (in my own wi-fi or cell zone) when I went to bed.

The delivery is happening during the process. If time is of the essence a marketing person could be sitting in the office reviewing the images as they populate the folder and do a rough edit and cull. Once I hit the house I can head to bed. Later on I can go back to the shared folder and download all the images in order to back them up or I can go "old school" and back them up from my cards.

I have a client in California who hires me to shoot portraits of her company's executives here in central Texas. How great it will be to start sending test images as we set up and wait on make up and all the rest of the pre-production. I could get immediate approval or input on lighting design and the overall look.

But even thinking more traditionally, Wi-fi networks and NFC (near field communications) networks can be much quicker to use for virtual tethering than actual tethering or FTP based sharing systems. Make one shared folder and invite everyone to share via tablets or even phones and you can do a big production shoot with everyone collaborating and sharing.

All this stuff is scary for me but it works. It's not scary for people who never shot film and who grew up interfacing with screens and menus all day long, all life long. And they are our competition going forward. I'm not sure I want to be left out just to be a champion for the "the way we've always done things." I don't want to be in that part of the graph with the people who were sure that color television would never catch on. And I don't want to be the last guy selling color prints to people whose wall space is a big monitor. I'm not willing to sacrifice my access to a new generation clients just to bolster and defend an anachronistic set of traditions.

I know that a lot of my readers have been perplexed by my decision to accept and embrace this learning experience, especially given my long history of being a curmudgeon and a person who pushed back on trends. But the bottom line is that this is a business where you learn, grow or fade away and take early retirement. My CFO counsels me that the last choice isn't an option for at least the next four years so I've made the conscious decision to swallow my pride and step up to look through the window and see what the future is delivering right now. And to find a use for it or even reject it totally. But even if I reject it I owe it to myself to understand it.

Who would have thought we'd be shooting digital video? Or sharing work and production in the cloud. In a few years most cameras will probably also be communication hubs and resources. I'd rather learn about it all in the front end and be able to pick and choose how I want to use the new technology. It was sad to watch the last hold outs of digital trudge through the well worn path so many had already passed by before them. Change is scary. Not changing can be even scarier.

Note that this particular blog is not about a specific camera. There are several companies doing wi-fi capable cameras. The whole point is finding the sweet spot of the technology and deciding where, if anywhere, it fits into your business instead of waiting and letting it blindside you.

If you do this for fun instead of as a capitalist enterprise you really needn't worry about the subject. But you might find it interesting. First thought my amateur brain had was "instant back up of travel images from anywhere in the world. No computer required." Just food for thought.


16 comments:

Old Gray Roy said...

Glad to be shooting for fun, not profit. However, even at my advanced age, instant communication of any kind is a fascinating thought. The only thing I own that is wi-fi capable is an iphone, and yet the idea of sending a visual of anything is worth investigating. Thanks for stirring the embers, there may yet be some fire in the coals.

Anonymous said...

I think the scary thing could actually turn out to "less-than-creatively-astute" clients micromanaging the creative process in real time.

Anonymous said...

You may find this radio segment on the Post-Photographic Age interesting... it's about a 10 minute segment towards the bottom of the page...

http://www.cbc.ca/spark/episodes/2013/10/03/227-tasting-data-smart-cities-craft-and-design-facts-on-fax/#6

Kirk Tuck said...

Gee. I thought we invented that with Polaroid. And perfected that with the little screens on the backs of our cameras. We prefer to call the process: collaboration. It feels better when we say it that way even though it accomplishes the same thing...

Dave said...

How do you deal with unflattering clunkers that the folks see... you're letting them see a lot behind the curtain unless you have the ability to edit on the fly

Michael Matthews said...

Uh oh. Streaming live to a shared folder implies getting it right in-camera. And exercising discretion in pushing the button. Oh, crap.

Anonymous said...

Good point...

Steve Gillette said...

Kirk, If I ever thought you seemed a little detached from the reality of the current state of (to use your term) capitalist enterprise, I don't after this article. Your candor regarding a reasonable retirement target for you as close as four years off is admirable. The likelihood is that you will be grappling with new process, potential (and pitfalls) every month (week?) during those four years. This highlights the enormity of the challenge that young people face, needing to build and maintain viability for the next 30 or 40 years. A tall mountain to climb! God bless 'em. Your assessment of workflow as it now stands seems spot on. Income-generating photography ("professional") is now a marathon, not a sprint. There is no real finish line, as in a tangible, printed deliverable, created with artisan pride, slipped lovingly into large envelope, and personally slapped on the client's desk. Ansel Adams' negative is no longer a "score" waiting for the "performance", a fine print. The performance now may be on a monitor, tablet, or even on a phone. And the "audience", as you suggest, includes collaborators, many of them born since the beginning of the PC era, with full empowerment to change the notes to suit their ears. So, it is now more like this: See. React. Record. Transmit. Repeat. Keep it coming. And posting. And fresh. (Hopefully, try not to move so fast that you don't learn something from your own work.) Meanwhile, make sure you have a little fun to keep the gears lubricated. Whew!

Kirk Tuck said...

Exactly.

Wataru Maruyama said...

Really fantastic thoughts here Kirk. As someone mentioned before, this process demands getting as much right as possible in camera without editing. I truly believe this factor plays in your favor as someone who not only has the experience and the eye to get things looking right the first time, but also your bedside manners which make for more compelling portraits because of the easy interaction between you and the subjects. The smart clients would quickly realize that working with you yields a wealth of great shots to choose from while they might have to wade through a lot of junk to find keepers working with less able folks.

Chris Malcolm said...

That plan to retire in four years or so. I had a plan like that once. Then I visited the doc because I wasn't feeling well... Aging has a way of making things less reliable. Including plans. Best wishes. Just a cautionary note.

C. Kurt Holter said...

You are exactly on target with your thoughts and observations.

Within my own market, more and more often I am seeing some photographers getting assignments over others not so much on the basis of their style and talent, but because they can turn a job around so quickly and efficiently. This, frankly, accounts for a lot of the reason I'm still in business. I get this.

While professional photographers constantly lament the seeming (to some) de-emphasis on final image quality, the new reality is that the client who wants to get photos out in front of the public has a different priority. They want good pictures, but they want them right now.

To these clients, the world's greatest photographs are essentially worthless if they won't be delivered until days (or in some cases, even a single day) after they're shot.

Debate on this whole thing reminds me of conversations I had 10 or so years ago, when some other photographers I know asserted that they're never go digital, and that digital image quality would never approach that of film. Some of these guys ultimately shut down their businesses. Others finally jumped into digital photography as a survival measure, but did it so late in the game that they were and continue to be at a competitive disadvantage.

Although things are changing, I don't think the major DSLR camera makers really understand that the next generation of these tools need to have most of the image processing and delivery capabilities of smart phones. And, that this is at least as important as the image quality they'll deliver.

...which is why, for the time being, I am going to continue to get “scooped” by my clients' marketing person who is shooting the same corporate event I am with her iPhone, and posting photos on Facebook, with news releases, and elsewhere, minutes after they're taken.

Kirk Tuck said...

C. Kurt Holter, The new generation of connected cameras will allow you to send to Facebook as fast as a cellphone user. The only caution I can think of is to make sure the files are "right sized" for quick sending. We were always taught to use the biggest, highest quality files we could muster. Maybe now it's time to look at smaller jpegs with Raw files as our back up for later post processing....

Mike said...

Wow, this type of trend could actually bring serious craft back to photography. If clients can't take chances on things needing to be fixed in post, the value of those that can nail things straight up increases. This will also squeeze out a lot of people that don't have the in-camera technical skills to fix problems on the fly.

jason gold said...

I was born in a continent where time has little reference.
There was always tomorrow.
The sky is not falling down.
Where is all the time saving era getting everybody?
A world economy in ruins, billions without food or shelter..
Yet, in every facet a hurry.
i have happily retired.
i would have not moved with this insane angst.
i have worked to deadlines.
Yes! That days news was tomorrows bathroom tissue..
Quality is not seen by running with the herd.
There is no quality of images without thought, skill and a value of self.

Steve Gillette said...

Well said. A friend who worked at a newspaper called it "the daily fish wrap". So true! There is a saying that sounds so absolutely absurd in this frantic age: "Things of quality have no fear of time." Yet, it rings true. Your final line contains much to ponder...thanks for your insight!