Transitioning to a new way of thinking about the imaging business. Part of the process is letting go....

On a bright and sunny afternoon, recently, I was cleaning my little studio and office space when I came across two reminders of time past. One was a tax return from 1997, and the other was a box of 8x10 inch color transparencies; mostly still life work for customers like Dell, Power Computing and Domain Magazine. 

The numbers on the tax return were insane. While so much more money flowed through the business back then so much of it went back out to pay for film, processing, polaroid test materials, printing, huge studio rental and assistants. The overhead included a full darkroom, 3,000 square feet of downtown studio space and multiple sets of camera gear: Everything from 35mm (rangefinder and str) to an 8x10 inch view camera. Not included in the numbers was the insane learning curve investment (without the benefit of the internet) to master so many processes and so many ways of making images. 

The odd epiphany for me is that when we distilled down all the costs we were on set or on location working about 250 days a year to net about what we do in the current time period working 60-70 days a year. The present business model is so downsized by comparison. My current studio and office occupies about 650 square feet (which I own instead of leasing), I can currently fit all the cameras I own into one roller case. I still own way too many lights. There's no darkroom. There are orders of magnitude fewer assistants and professional services involved. We seem to have done a good job of shedding costs while increasing the core, fee based income. 

Those changes, from big space to small space, from lease to own, from many assistants to solitude, from huge investments in cameras to a meager (but smart) selection, happened gradually as we steered the business into digital imaging, starting around 1999. But what opened my eyes to the changing models was the diversification from "just" photography to writing books and articles about photography. One could make good, sustainable, renewable money with nothing more than a $1,000 laptop and the knowledge already gained. If that's all it took to add a significant amount of income to the business could we not also get rid of the hard costs and winnow down photography to its essentials and, in the process, spend less time to make the same final, net income? Seems like the answer is yes. As long as the changes you are making are in line with your market. 

My son, Ben, was fascinated when he saw the 8x10 inch color transparencies. I talked him through the whole process of shooting large format and he was amazed at the complexity and craft basis for the work we did in those formats. But we both agreed that those were different times and those times weren't coming back. That train of thought led me to believe that the business itself continuously makes opportunities to take advantage of those ever reductive changes, and that basing a business on the last century concept of "needed"  inventory, old school methodologies, and old school marketing would seem to be a financial dead end. Which led me to question why we, as a professional services industry, are in reality, very slow to change. 

I liken it to Wayne Gretzky's famous line about not skating to where the puck is but skating to where the puck will be. If the gravity of change forces you to change because you've become ensnared in its grip you have arrived where the puck used to be and not where the puck is now. And waiting until a new norm has been safely established and proven to be correct is now more financially dangerous than constantly pushing forward to learn the new ways. 
Now there are really only two things that imaging businesses must excel in; one is marketing and the other is creative creation. Nowhere in the equation is it any longer cost effective to horde an inventory of quickly depreciating equipment, nor is it an effective strategy to constantly overbuy. 

In the realm of cameras I can easily and quite convincingly make the case that the vast majority of professional work being done has, as its final target, placement on the web. That could include banner ads for client websites, images for social media, portraits for LinkedIn, Facebook, and company websites or photographic illustrations for web advertising. Of the remaining placements most will be print advertising at one page or smaller and direct mail at 6x9 inches and smaller. For editorial photographers (we always seem to hear about sports photographers...) the target is generally the magazine website and the printed magazine page. Most images are used one page or smaller but even if they were used as double trucks the magazine are printed on high speed web presses and on the cheapest (read: low ink saturation, low res) papers. The takeaway is that none of these uses would be the least bit taxing to a top line Micro Four Thirds system like the GH4 or the EM5.2 and would certainly represent horrible and wasteful overkill for medium format cameras and 50 megapixel cameras; unless they were being used for an aesthetic consideration like the degree of focus ramp available. 

I keep downsizing cameras and lenses here. We have three pairs of Sony cameras and a handful of lenses. When I pick a camera pair for a project I like to consider the parameters of the project and then match the system. The smallest format is the one inch sensor family of Sony RX10s. The middle format is the APS-C family of the a6300 and a6000. The big format cameras are the A7x bodies. It's rare that I mix and match. If resolution and sharpness are the only criteria I can select from any of the three families of cameras. If I'm shooting documentary video the RX10s get first crack. If I'm shooting classic portraits with lush, out of focus backgrounds then the A7xs get tossed into the camera bag. The process is pretty simple. 

If I need anything else I will rent it. And in many cases, if I need something else I might also rent the operator that comes with it. If a client wants me to show up for a client interview and they have to see a prestige video camera on the set I'll hire an FS7 camera and its owner operator rather than try to get totally up to speed on yet another camera from yet another field. If  client demands medium format photography (right.....) then I'll rent the system I need and toss it back to the supplier the minute I am finished with it. Ownership, maintenance, mastery and depreciation are no longer worth it so renting gear we might only use once or twice a year is my strategy. 
Many years ago I read about a German fashion photographer who was at the very top of his game. I was stunned to read that he had no studio, no lights, no stands, no gewgaws and no car. I couldn't imagine it when I overlayed the demands of my studio at the time onto his approach. It seems that the only things he owned were: a camera body he had mastered. a favorite lens (that he shot with 90% of the time --- not a zoom). And a light meter he trusted. Everything else was rented for the project right in front of him. The wonderful things for him were the elimination of overhead and the lack of mental inertia that would have required him to use the equipment he owned instead of the new lights (or whatever) that he wanted to try. To, you know, push the limits of his current creative envelope. 

A couple of weeks ago I looked around my space and the clutter appalled me. My desk was covered with paperwork. Two hulking filing cabinets were constantly in my left side peripheral vision as I sat at my desk. Over against one wall were two rolling tool chests filled with either cameras or junk. Perhaps the two categories were so intertwined I couldn't see the differences. 

I finally just couldn't take the visual clutter anymore. I've totally cleared out one of the rolling tool chests. I found filters for old series 50 Hasselblad lenses, batteries for cameras that hadn't been made in years, a viperous nest of cable releases that I was certain I might need again one day, too many broken watches or watches with dead batteries. Old, battered cameras that had been given to me by some other suffering photo wretch in an attempt to declutter his own life; and way too many cables. Everything from SCSI connectors to VGA connectors. Stuff Mac users haven't needed in decades.

The process of paring down in arduous and not for the meek of resolve. Once I started in on the red tool chest I would not let myself stop. I filled trash cans. I sent stuff away to the next unlucky photographer bastards. And, in the glow of triumph, I hauled the tool chest off in the car to the local Goodwill. What a victory. Now I'm hard at work on distilling down flash equipment. I am equally overweight on things that flash. 

There is a certain logic in using flash but more and more I am finding that interior work gets done with LEDs and florescent lights and the use of flash is more or less relegated to fill flash in sunlight. But so much of our buying wisdom is predicated on what was essential ten or twenty years ago when everything was lit by flash and ISO 100 was de rigueur. Not so much now. Even less so when I'm shooting with one of the RX10 cameras that sync at over 1/1.000th of a second. In that situation just about any flash will do. So why do we have six or seven 400 watt second mono-lights, in their requisite cases, cluttering up the studio shelves? Am I pining for the days when we needed 4,000 watt seconds to get the depth of field we needed with our large format cameras? I am not. The flash gear seems ripe for thinning next. 

The new business model is to become the opposite of the old business model. Where before we came loaded for bear, with every possible (high dollar) solution to any imaging situation, it would be a lot more fun to turn down the stuff I never enjoyed doing anyway and then figuring out less burdensome ways of doing the stuff I do love to photograph. Smaller and lighter stuff along with creating a kind of imaging that looks simpler and more direct. A few pocket strobes instead of a cargo bay with a forest of C-Stands and Pelican cases of lights. A couple of RX10x cameras instead of a Think Tank roller full of big Nikon bodies and fat, fast lenses. A tripod and a new appreciation for less light rather than the ability to create a complete sunrise in a studio. 

Fully a third of a recent video project's profits were generated in concept and writing. Another third in editing. Only a third of the money generated from the project actually came from the shooting. As shooting engagements get shorter and easier it's incumbent upon us as business owners to see where we can add value outside the time spent shooting. Concepting and testing concepts are valid tasks that can be billed. Storyboarding and story creation are perhaps more valuable than the actual shooting. Wouldn't it be just as much fun to be paid for thinking about a photography project in addition to just being paid to spend a day with a camera in one's hands?
I want to work toward the day when my studio is four white, bare walls punctuated by a small camera on a tripod. One light aimed into the right modifier. Nothing more. But I would like to bill insanely well for the creative vision that we'll bring to each project. Billing for what we know and feel rather than just logging in the hours or the days. 

The disconnection of this concept for most photographers might be the idea that we have to do our business encounters the same way we did in the past. In the advertising scenario we worked for the advertising agencies. They created the concepts. They sold the concepts to the clients who approved and paid for the production that made those concepts concrete. Our power was limited by our need to be invited into the game by intermediaries. But over the last ten years the industry has been unceasingly flattened. Now, in many cases, the clients are working as though they are at a buffet. They've been selecting "vendors"; people they are comfortable working with, outside of the traditional agency paradigm. Outside the agency tent. We might get integrated into a job well before an agency to create a public relations image that subsequently gets pushed into an advertising project. 

More and more often we're getting engaged to produce image catalogs for expanding uses. And these uses need curation, implementation and imagination. I think my days of waiting for oppressive purchase orders from advertising agencies are coming to a close, choosing instead to work more as part of a collaborative team instead of as a vendor brought in after the cake has been mixed and relegated to working the controls on the oven.

But everything requires a change of thought. A move from a business with an inventory of machines which stamp out "creative parts" and towards a consultancy that creates the ideas behind the creative parts and then produces them as an integrated part of a marketing process.

We should be licensing "looks" and "feels" and "styles" and "taste." Not just twiddling the controls on the machines. 

When your space is cluttered your mind is cluttered, and in a panic you attempt to do everything exactly the same way you did on the very last job that turned out very well. But--- that previous job was done in a previous time and the currents of culture and commerce morph and change. I have come to believe that decluttering the physical space gives my mind more freedom to plan and create rather than reactively accept the confinements provided by people proffering visions that are different than mine.

I was reminded by the tax return and the sheets of 8x10 film just how little time there is to think when fear convinces you that one must be always working. Always working to an exterior agent's specifications.

And that, in a nutshell is why we're engaged in the current minimalist purge of studio clutter.


Frank Field said...

Kirk -- A stunning post. So very interesting and captures just how much both business and photography have changed in less than two decades. Much of what you say I'm sure applies to all small businesses. (Frankly, the approach to even large businesses have changed in similar ways over the last two decades.) Thanks for taking the time to pull together such a reflective post. Frank

George said...

Oh yes simplicity can generate wonderful feelings. When I ran ultras I would go on 6- and 7-hour training runs carrying a big water bottle, a few electrolyte pills, and a single protein bar. When I lived in a yoga community in the foothills of the Sierra, I had two shirts and two pants. I would go into the shower with one pair, soap up, rinse, put on clean clothes and hang the wet duds on a fence to dry. My life is still vastly simplified compared to most. I sold my car and ride the bike everywhere. I remember my spiritual teacher telling the story of a Native American man in Arizona who had a good friend who was wealthy. One day, the friend offered him a larger piece of land. He explained how the man could grow more crops and make more money. But the Native American politely declined. He said, "If I had more land, when would I find time for singing?" Same with photography, I believe. When I bought a simple low-end Nikon D3300 I had a wonderful time and wonderful results. When I upgraded to the D7000 and bought expensive lenses I was always dissatisfied. The D3300 focused my mind on the pictures. (F* that pretentious word "images," BTW.) Same for the V1, to a certain extent. But if it weren't for a need to shoot silently I'm not so sure I wouldn't downgrade to the 3300.

Daniel Walker said...

I always read your post first because there is a high probability I am going to discover something to help me enjoy photography more. Certainly a minimalist approach could free up a lot of creative thought. You have encouraged me again. It is going to be tuff, really tuff to get read of all those camera and. Have to have lens. I should have learned that by now. Last year I went to France with one camera and a single lens and felt I left France with the best images I have taken over 40 years of travel and photography. Thanks again.

Phil Stiles said...

Wonderful post! In the hyper-hype of the photography-on-the-internet, you are grounded in reality. Thank you! Phil.

Craig S said...

Just wanted to let you know I really enjoyed this post, and appreciate & respect the wealth of (business) experience you are able to share with us - it's what gives your thoughts and opinions such weight.

ODL Designs said...

Posts like these speak deeply to me, inspire me and push me to think about what I am doing.

Great post Kirk, oh, and I am reading your book at the moment, will give some feedback via email when I am done :)

Mike Rosiak said...

I love it when you do a piece like this.

Dave Jenkins said...

"Not included in the numbers was the insane learning curve investment (without the benefit of the internet) to master so many processes and so many ways of making images."

True, but it sure did separate the men from the boys!

RayC said...

I really enjoyed this post, not because I've got a clutter free life, but it did bring back to me the incredible process of "Big Studio Photography" I was engaged in 20+ years ago. Big loft studio in Chicago, Camera gear from 11x14 down to 35mm with every step in between and the peripheral equipment!

You make me wonder why I'm keeping those old portfolio books of mounted large format transparencies... Well the goal of my next vacation is to eBay and Craigslist all the remaining non-essentials.

Keep me thinking.

Gato said...

Another great post.

Technique is cheap these days: Anybody can buy a camera and push the button. Creativity, consistent creative excellence, is where the money is.

At least that is how it looks to me.

Ken said...

Great post. And I enjoyed everyone's comments too. Though I like the photos posted as well, they are frosting. The words, the concepts take center stage, and that's what I keep coming back for. Though, from a inconsequential, subjective, equipment point if view, I still think the A99 is a beautiful camera.

Michael Abell said...

Love this site it is the 1st place I go in the morning and the last place I go at night. I was recently diagnosed with a very rare cancer and decided to simplify my photographic life. I sold off all my cameras and lens except for a Sony A3000 (yes an A3000), and two Tokina lens. Everything back to manual day. Manual focus, shutter speed, f stop and ISO. I take a few less pictures now but their is more thought and fun in the process. We tend to burden ourselves with equipment/toys and in an effort to use them take the fun and excitement out of the hobby or job.
Keep up the great work, love the posts and the book was excellent - looking forward to the next one you publish.

amolitor said...

This was a great read, as always, Kirk, and I had a great talk with my wife about it this morning!

She's recently launched a financial planning practice of her own, and is connected with a bunch of people at the same stage in the same business. Many of them are taking a piece-work approach to getting their web sites and branding going, using various web sites for logo design, stock photography, and so on. You can get, if you splurge and spend $8 instead of $2, really excellent bits and pieces. It used to be that the $30 logo was crap, but that's just not true any more. There are people on the other side of the Pacific who are really talented and capable.

The trouble is that your web site, your branding, your whole marketing image, then looks assembled from parts. It looks pretty good, all the parts are perfectly nice, but it doesn't pull together.

My wife went for a designer to pull the whole thing together for her. They collaborated intensely for a while, pulling together a set of ideas for the feel to be projected, the target market, and so on. Together with my wife's personal tastes, that converted into a set of colors, fonts, and so on, and then flowed into the overall design of web site and logos. Then we hired a competent local photographer, I did some styling, and we got a set of nice looking photographs of my wife and the family, with the right color palette, to fill in the web site (family is a part of what my wife wants to project for her business).

All this cost a few thousand bucks. Not a big deal in the grand scheme of things and now we have a very very nice looking web site, that messages in the right way, and we have a set of branding concepts going forward so everything will continue to project both the corporate brand and the message that the brand is built on.

This flows neatly in to a discussion of how other areas of the world are changing. Increasingly the value-add is in the co-ordination, the management of the overall picture, as it were. Digital technology is increasingly making the actual tasks cheaper and easier. Cameras make photography much simpler. The internet makes globalization of many tasks trivial. Robotics make Building Stuff much cheaper and easier. 3D printing is heading toward making that happen all over again. Digital technology and the internet make creating, archiving, searching for, content of all kinds almost free. Vast archives can now be mined and remixed.

(financial planning, interesting, shows off some interesting parallels as well. Accounting, insurance, estate planning, investing, these are all increasingly being automated and otherwise made inexpensive by the same technologies, it's getting them all to play together to make a coherent financial life that still seems to require the human touch).

The value is, increasingly, in the mixing and matching, the creation of a coherent whole out of the parts.

Anonymous said...

Wow, what a great post!

"...how little time there is to think when fear convinces you that one must be always working." That is a job description lots of people will recognize, particularly since the 'fear' doesn't just come from a need to accumulate project fees.

Don said...

A fascinating post and one of the main reasons I enjoy reading your blog. I empathise with Daniel Walker's comment. Even as a rank amateur (with a bad case of G.A.S) there is something to learn from your approach to the profession. Thank you!


Anonymous said...

Over the years I've devised many seemingly compelling reasons for buying the stuff I bought. But ultimately, I guess 80% of it came and went without lasting impact, except to provide a brief bit of entertainment.

I still crave stuff, but I'm getting better at recognizing certain patterns in my thinking, and better at recognizing when something is likely to wind up on eBay sooner rather than later.

Jeff in Boulder Colorado