1.01.2017

What I'm expecting (as a working photographer) in the New Year (2017).

Author metering in Scottsdale, Az. 

With the near collapse of the middle of the camera market and the crazy fallout from the 2016 U.S. presidential elections the crystal ball of most photo-futurists is murky. We are good at predicting the past. The future? Not so much. But I thought I'd at least let you know what I'm planning on and hoping for in the year to come. Not as a politico or social commentator but as a guy in Austin, Texas who owns a very small business that makes creative visual content for regular businesses, big corporations, medical practices, associations, and advertising agencies. There's nothing earth shattering here because the direction that your business takes is more often driven by your clarity in marketing and outreach than external economic changes or short term social upheaval.

I am expecting more and more photographic jobs to come with shorter face-to-face client engagements. We'll see more one person portrait shoots and fewer daylong "cattle call" shoots. More "We need this particular image done in this particular way" rather than a daylong trawling for likable images that may be used sometime in some unknown future. There are advantages here. We move away from the tendency to bid things by day rate and start pricing by the value of the image to the client, along with the complexity of the shoot and the knowledge and talent that will need to be brought to bear.

I've already seen this in the business and while, at first, I had some concern that billings would drop I find that we end up making nearly the same money in fees but our time (both mine and the client's) becomes more flexible and manageable. If I don't need to be somewhere first thing in the morning and then need to hang there all day long it's easier for me to schedule in my morning swim practice, an afternoon walk or a delicious nap.

We'll still have reasons for doing daylong shoots, sometimes it's more efficient to just make a list and get stuff done, but we are moving away from commodity photography into a nicer realm where we are being engaged (hopefully all of us) for things that can't be easily done by the shipping clerk with a Canon Rebel. In turn, this adds to the (rightful) perception of value that makes it easier to ask for profitable fees.

Clients have been treated to lots and lots of bargain photography since the market declined back in 2008 and they've become keenly aware that poorly produced images have a net negative effect on their brands. Lately, my new clients are all concerned about one issue that I find interesting: They want to know if I can light, and if I have lights, and, if so, will I bring them along and use them on the job I'm potentially doing for them??? It seems that everyone everywhere who is in the position to hire outside photographers (and videographers) has been burned, and burned badly, by the available light expert.

2017 is the year that we acknowledge that we have great cameras (better than we need) and we understand how to use all the neat settings and whiz bang function buttons and that nobody gives a crap about what camera you own or what lenses you use. Now clients just care about results. What it all adds up to, in my mind, is that this is the year we ignored cameras and concentrated on learning to light and light well. If a new photographer is really adamant about "upping their game" my first recommendation is to thoroughly learn all the basics of lighting. The ISO dial on a camera is not a substitute for a brilliantly motivated key light or a subtle and elegant fill light. Clients are figuring that out too. It can be a differentiator for those not too lazy to learn some skills...

No curmudgeonly photo-luddite is going to want to read this paragraph but I look at it as a bit of tough love. We are no longer in the business of "making photographs." Clients don't want "a photographer" they want someone who is a creative problem solver who creates visual content. All kinds of visual content. Every year the percentage of our income from video grows. It's growing faster. Our second job out of the gate this year (in the first week of the new year) will be producing a 1:00 video for an international medical devices company. We'll have to know a bunch of different ways to move the cameras, how to light the interiors of practical locations, which shots we'll need to have on hand to make good edits in post, and how to handle audio; from interviews to voice over narration.

We'll be shooting video and photography on the same locations with the same model and clients and we'll need to deliver lifestyle photos as well as the video programming. But as you can plainly see this opens up 100% (or more) increased billing for us over just doing the photography alone. Not everyone wants to go out and produce video and it's not my intention to build a new army of photo-videographers. If you aren't comfortable with that end of the business you can also look at the other end; building websites and live sites and offering those kinds of services.

If you have no other talent or skill set beyond taking photographs you might want to consider heading back to a good community college to pick up a complementary skill set in addition to photography because I will tell you this, clients are looking for turnkey solutions. The worker bees of American Industry are already working too much and anything you can take off their plates (in terms of creative content creation) is a big relief for them. Do the photography for the website and then design and produce the website. Do the photography and then switch into video and do the video content.

It's not that there will be less photography to do, in total, it's just that clients will expect vendors to be able to offer a wider range of associated skill sets that usually go hand-in-hand for corporate projects. You can bet that if there are photographs required for a new website that there will also be a video component for the same website. Still images for the annual meeting? Those stills will probably be produced, in part, to fit into the video that will also be produced. The reverse is also true. You might find yourself commissioned to do the video only to have your client ask, at the beginning, or halfway through the job, if you can also provide still photography.

If you are a good portrait photographer, with a good grasp of creating rapport and directing portrait subjects, you may also have a talent for producing interview footage or announcement footage with the same CEO you have in front of your camera for portraits. It's a nice and efficient use of time for the marcom people who are always, ALWAYS, frugal with their top executives' time.

The wonderful thing about this combining of disciplines is that there is an efficiency gained from mixing the tools and skills from each. My most current realization of that revolves around the use of small, field monitors in both areas. I find tethering to laptops, in the field and in the studio, to be a cumbersome waste of time that is a holdover from the early days of digital where multi-shot cameras required computers to drive them and to also capture each file directly. I suffered through the early days of lost cable connections and crashing software and I'm very aware that most computer screens are utter crap in full sun. I much prefer attaching an HDMI cable from the camera to a good 7 inch (or larger) field monitor that is originally designed for video work ---- especially when shooting photographs with an art director, client or combined entourage in tow.

We did a photography shoot in the studio right before Christmas which required shooting from an overhead viewpoint for all of the shots on our (extensive) list. Putting the camera up over the set was easily accomplished with a high rise C-stand and a solid arm. Controlling exposure and triggering the camera was straightforward with an IR trigger or an iPhone but seeing the review image could be problematic.

With a monitor attached we could see exactly what we were getting for each frame. And because the monitor is designed as a video tool it comes with focus peaking which came in very handy for getting our camera and lenses zero'd in, as well as false color  which let me see just how white I could get the background before blowing it out too far. We hung the monitor on a shorty C-Stand making it easy for me, the designer and the art director to all see, and to collaborate on the project. We also used the monitor to review shots on location for several annual reports this year, and, of course, we used it on our video projects.

I originally bought the previous set of LED lights with the idea of using them mostly for video only to find that, using them, I've evolved a new style (for me) of on location portraiture that is perfectly suited to the use of both LEDs and continuous lighting. Here is a sample:



The same is true of the diffusion panels and flags I bought to use for video productions, but which have been pressed into service in making portraits because they offer more control than just a typical softbox or umbrella modified flash. 

The mix of photography and video will continue to emerge as its own media. Magazines, which have morphed into websites, are already evolving the style of the mix and are voracious for content. 

No, the market for visual content is far from collapsing, abating or slowing down but it is morphing into a different thing than the heavily silo-ed constructs we've worked with for so long. I'd say that the classiest thing you could call yourself today; when dealing with agents from big enterprise, is a producer. It brings everything together. It's a job title that works for a new, layered and more complex, paradigm of imaging. And it seems to command higher rates and more creative control than clients are willing to invest in just a photographer...

I spent some time with Belinda this afternoon at the Elliott Erwitt exhibit at the Humanities Research Center on the UT campus. Today is the last day of the show and it was crowded. What I saw was what some might refer to as the Golden Age of Photography. Erwitt worked for multiple magazines and spent decades on assignments all over the world. His work ran across pages and pages of magazine paper and thrust his work into the spotlight for readers of what were once homogeneous touchstones of collective culture. These magazines were the places where we got our stories and saw the news.

They were usurped by television and later everything was usurped and divided by the endless selections of the web. While we are never going back to Erwitt's golden age we have to figure out ways to navigate and take advantage of what our golden age offers. This blog is an example (although a bit dated) of what the new paradigms and distributions of content and access look like, on a small scale.

To date, I've reached audiences all over the world. I've connected with some human beings nearly eighty million times (according to Google data) and I've delivered my thoughts and showed off images that I like to an audience I could never have imagined back in the days when print was king. 

Not everything is about monetizing the display and sharing of our art. Sometimes it's the sharing and dialog alone that are critical to artists. To that end the current paradigm is much richer for many, many more people. In earlier days very few people had a shot at a cover photo on Life Magazine. But currently everyone with a keyboard and access to the web can share their art and ideas to their heart's content. The only wall is the need for patience to build an audience. 

If we default to the current pop culture cliché what we are trying to do is to tell a story. The difference between now and then is that "then" we were basically putting our images on a sheet of paper and passing it around to our friends and family. We were lucky if the image made the rounds inside a space of ten square miles. Today we are using a giant delivery system buoyed up by satellites, acres of server farms, gigawatts of power and the potential to go viral and splash our work across millions of screens in places as far away as Mongolia or Aukland. As business people we have to acknowledge the change, not only in distribution but also taste, style and media preference. 

Going forward we have to keep our eyes on the reality that 60% of the stuff we put up online goes to cellphone screens and not 30 inch Retina monitors. Video goes vertical. Written content is relegated to so much "gray space." The change is irreversible but not so overwhelming that we can't figure out how to make it work for our work. That's our challenge in the 2017 and forward: Understand the new things that people want to see and understand just as well how they want to see them. And then figure out how to become a valued supplier of the new media. 

Hey, back in the early 1990's, for the vast majority of people, the web did not exist as media. Now it's the dominant target for nearly everyone. More people are making more money online than the superstars of the last century did across any combination of magazines. There's a generational divide right now but nothing that can't be understood and leveraged. You just have to have the will to do it. 

And, after online content and advertising matures (like TV did) there will be a new wave of innovation but I can't talk about it here because, as far as I know, it has yet to be invented. (No, VR isn't it. VR will be the next 3D TV. It's a filler format in between giant surprises). But when the new thing arrives a whole new generation will explore it, conquer it and profit from it. 

As far as cameras go we've hit the spot where 35mm cameras were just before the tipping point into digital. Mature products that produce flawless results; even in the hands of idiots. 

I do have one idea that I consider to be controversial and it has to do with business success. What I've found over the years is that all new technology tends to physically isolate people more and more but at the same time, with the encroaching isolation comes a desperate need to connect on a real human level. A face to face need that won't be conquered no matter who trots out metrics trying to debunk it. It's why Trump's rallies worked with his followers. It's why people pay enormous amounts to see their favorite musicians or comedians in person. It's why sales people for major corporations still get on airplanes, go see their prospective clients, sit with them over steaks or sushi and drinks, and close their deals with handshakes and bows. This is the way humans like to transact. Efficiency may try to kill it but someone will always pop up to show that this business intimacy works and works well. 

If we are smart we'll try to make everything we do deliver a business intimacy that no one can get from the web or from teleconferencing. It will continue to be the ultimate differentiator between a "metric driven approach to business" and a successful, longterm business. Amazon to the contrary.

So, for 2017, I'm looking for many more opportunities to create video and to also mix photography and video as new media. I'm planning on demonstrating to clients that having a more wide reaching approach to creative content creation makes the most sense for them and that having me produce it makes their jobs easier and more fun. 

In 2017 I'll be honing my lighting skills and trying to create looks and styles that help to brand me as an artist. I'll use the cameras that make pervasive media easier to produce instead of looking at the last century paradigm of trying to find the "ultimate" camera or the one with the most titanium in its build.

I'll look at visual cues from movies, graffiti walls, nightclubs, fashion shows and live theatre and take fewer visual cues from the anachronistic echo chamber of the web. 

But most of all I will continue to swim, walk, eat well, have coffee with friends, dinners with colleagues, and more frequent glasses of wine with clients and future clients. Through it all I'll try to find a balance between making my art the way I want to, spending enough time playing fetch with Studio Dog, and giving the most priority to spending quality time with my family. Life is too short for anything else. 

The future moves, tells stories, has sound, gets spread around, and is unstoppable. You have to be like water in a stream, happy to change direction and go around any boulders that just happen to be in the way. 

Done right, we'll profit. By that I mean we'll make enough money to pursue happiness and enough happiness to make the pursuit of projects that pay that much more fun. And I'll understand that since I've been amply rewarded by life I should give back in ways that are meaningful to me. 

Happy New Year to everyone who reads VSL. Let's make the world look better. Let's be nicer to each other...





7 comments:

Michael said...

Happy New Year to you and your family Kirk. I intend in 2017 to take more photographs for myself and less for what I think will go down well on social media. I also intend to keep reading your insightful blog for as long as you keep writing!

billstormont said...

Here's my wish for your continuing success in business, and most importantly in your personal life, this year and always. This post is a wonderfully thoughtful read; when you look back a year from now, it may be the best one you did. Thanks for sharing your opinions with us.

Joseph Kashi said...

Happy New Year, Kirk, thanks for your excellent posts, and Greetings from Soldotna, located in somewhat rural Alaska about 150 road miles southwest of Anchorage.

Your New Year predictions are certainly well-written and thoughtful, and seem directly on point, not only for photographers but for every profession. Although I'm a practicing trial lawyer, I did casually study photography with Minor White for a while at MIT in the early 1970s, resuming serious photography about ten years ago after a 25 year hiatus. Your posts, and those of Mike Johnson at TOP, are the two photo-related sites that are daily must-reads for me, even though I do not depend upon photography to keep house and mortgage together.

Much of what you write today about the evolving mindset and skill set needed to succeed in the profession of photography is also becoming true of the legal profession. Over the past few years, the impact of technology upon the legal profession has been profound, even though many members of the bar struggle mightily to remain Luddites. Now, ethical requirements mandate that lawyers must be proficient with appropriate technology or face the disciplinary consequences. I also agree that professional success now requires additional skill sets beyond the basics of a profession. For example, litigators need to understand Newtonian physics when working with an accident reconstruction and to know best-practice construction techniques when defending engineers against malpractice claims.

Each year, I'm asked to contribute to new-year legal technology predictions similar to your post today. My 2017 legal technology predictions are both photo-related: professional quality photographic and videographic evidence will become far more important in court, yet at the same time definitely more controversial as the techniques of digital manipulation become commonplace and harder to detect. We are already seeing important court decisions turning upon whether proposed digital evidence is credible and admissible.

Russ Goddard said...

Beautiful message today, Kirk . . . practical, hopeful and inspiring.

Boris said...

Wonderful deep thinking on what an independent photographer's job is today.

The highly personal thought occurred: my business is words, words, word, just words; I make photos as illustration for the words.

Also, I exist in a broad, soul-connected community whose members include videographers, artists, designers (Web and print), musicians, singers, actors, and other photographers. This takes a lot of weight off my shoulders. When a company that paid me lots of money for my word-twiddling talents went bust in 2000, the head marketing guy formed a small collective and began selling something like the kind of services you're talking about. It was a very magnetic, positive endeavor in the face of a challenging economic time. Kudos to you if you can do it all, but for some of us perhaps a cooperative would be a wonderful option.

Meanwhile, I'm poised to shell out a lot of money for a wonderful portrait lens in hopes that it will make a very pleasant part of my job a little bit easier: yes, Kirk, I'm talking about learning how to use light.

pswann said...

Great message, Kirk. And strangely enough, I saw you today. On the pedestrian bridge by what used to be Garridos. I was out on shooting photos with my daughter when you walked by. I didn't put 2 and 2 together until well after you had passed. Wish I was a little quicker and had thought to say hi. Anyway, regular reader here who appreciates what you do.

Gary said...

Amen and Bravo! I wish you much success in the new year. We all need to tend our gardens, personally and professionally, with a view to what really matters. And, at the risk of injecting unwanted political content, we need to publicly tend to our democracy.

As an aside, I wonder if fellow lawyer Joseph Kashi could leave a link to his legal technology article.