6.15.2020

What is my "Photography Business Re-opening" strategy these days?

Exterior, environmental portraits fall into one of my lowest risk categories.

When the pandemic hit and people in the USA started taking it seriously the federal government (or what's left of it...) issued a decree for businesses to close down and for everyone who could to stay home. With regard to both science, instincts of self-preservation, and general ethics, I complied and stopped booking photographic jobs and even halted all but the most cursory business/marketing communications. I think this was all smart and collectively we probably prevented hundreds of thousands of new cases of Covid-19. 

But now everyone is grappling with the nuts and bolts of how (and when) to safely re-open businesses while protecting personal safety and without opening up our businesses to liability lawsuits that may arise from persons contracting the virus and singling out our businesses with what might be frivolous lawsuits. (A program note: Many companies are insisting that customers sign Covid-19 waivers to "protect" themselves from customers contracting the virus while visiting said company location or when using the company's services. There is a decent chance that most of the waivers will prove to be unenforceable and are, in some instances just ploys to discourage the filing of lawsuits. See your attorney to get the best guidance...). 

My business exists in a state that has been in a rush to get back to business. Restaurants, movie theaters, nail salons and most other kinds of businesses are being green-lighted for re-opening in concert with certain restrictions (most of which seem, from the customer point of view, to be voluntary). Texas is tossing the dice and betting that the economic recovery will outperform the effects of the death rate from the virus. The virus spread seemed to take a break when everyone was observing common sense restrictions (face masks and distancing) but the virus's spread is now accelerating again in lockstep with the enthusiastic re-opening. 

I'm not necessarily making a judgment about the calculus of business versus safety for anyone else but since I'm the head bottle washer over here I have an obligation to set policies, strategies and schedules that I think are in the best interests of everyone I work with. It would be sad to die for a portrait.

Some parts of the business are self-limiting. A lot of my profitable business, pre-Covid19, was event photography for corporations. Most events would last for 2.5 to 3 days and involve day long sessions with hundreds or even thousands of people seated side-by-side in row after row of closely packed chairs. While not vociferous like a political rally or a religious revival the spaces got quite crowded and it would not have been possible to maintain social distancing under those circumstances. Even less so in the evening hours when the entire cohort crammed into bars and restaurants to talk close and loud while drinking free adult beverages and listening to loud music. Wading through giant crowds like this, with or without a camera, seems the perfect recipe for a super-spreader event of magnificent proportions. 

Every business that we normally deal with on these kinds of events has shut down their schedule for the remainder of 2020. And, I expect that we'll see the shut down of large, corporate events continue until such a time as a vaccine becomes widely available and acceptable. That might be (optimistically) the third or fourth quarter of 2021. However it pans out I won't have to take the responsibility of giving a thumbs up or thumbs down on my participation because there won't be even a chance of any kind of large event resumption. 

Probably the area I have the least worry about and the most control over is corporate headshot work here in my own studio. I can control the frequency with which I schedule sessions. I can insist that sitters sanitize their hands when they come in the door and also wear a face covering until they are positioned and ready to be photographed. I control the sanitation of the space and I can mentally inventory the surfaces our customers touch and remediate them immediately after the customer leaves our space. 

We don't have physical contact with the customer as a barber or stylist might and our space is well ventilated and air conditioned with fresh air, not recycled air. 

My plan is to re-start portraits by appointment on the first of August unless there is bad news from the public health front. We'll start marketing in earnest in the last two weeks of July. 

Another subset of studio work that's even safer (but is a small part of our service mix) is still life photograph. We have a workflow to deal with unboxing deliveries and feel safe handling most non-organic products. If clients want to supervise the shoot we can do that by tethering the camera and sending images over the web for approval or changes. We could start the marketing for these services right away but will wait and market these alongside the studio portraits in the second half of July. 

In the past two years we've done an increasing number of corporate advertising shoots at exterior locations for clients deeply involved in infra-structure projects. Think of portraits of the CEO or a skilled worker in front of a dam project in a remote part of a state. Or at a job site where a large facility is being built. Since these are outdoor environments there is a lower risk of contagion and we can still control our use of masks, social distancing and the sanitizing of gear used. I think that's a safe bet for a re-start. 

The big caveat in environmental shoots done for our corporate clients is the necessary travel. I'm not at all certain that air travel will be a workable gamble until a rock solid and reliable treatment for Covid-19 is identified and tested. Traveling by commercial airline is very much a gamble at this point and I'd want some sort of treatment "guarantee" if I was to take that gamble. For the immediate future, barring such a treatment or, even better, a vaccine, I'm not planning on accepting jobs that require air travel. The exception would be for those few clients who might be disposed to sending along a private jet. We'd consider that sort of travel... I'll spring for the Chlorox Wipes.

With that caveat about air travel I would still consider undertaking big environmental advertising projects where I'm given enough time to travel by car to each destination. I grew up in Texas. We were trained to drive for hours at a time. We actually enjoy it, mostly. A benefit of driving myself to job sites is that I can bring along all the gear I'd ever want to use, with no weight limits! I can also bring along lots of food and refreshments. The only component of this kind of travel that worries me is staying in hotels and motels. 

Bring those wipes along and maybe your own sleeping bag and look for the motels what have individual window unit air conditioners and heaters. That's about as safe as you can make it. 

I envy my friends who are strictly architectural photographers. They seem to have worked with few impediments (at least locally) over the past few months. But the downside is that you'd have to spend your days photographing nothing but architecture...

I'm doing a test run for studio portrait shooting on Wednesday this week. In anticipation I'm pulling up all the foam floor tiles in the studio, washing the concrete floor with a good disinfectant, separately disinfecting the tiles and drying them in the sun. Wiping down all hard surfaces in the studio space and positioning hand sanitizer next to all doors and touch points. With a 135mm lens or the 70-200mm lens on a high resolution, full frame camera I'll be able to work outside the six foot circumference around the subject to keep both of us safe. 

The corporate headshot sessions require lots of set up before the clients arrive but by the time they walk in the door 80% of the work is done and we usually can do a great job in 15 to 20 minutes in front of the camera. That limits everyone's exposure to what I think are safe levels. I'll keep my mask on throughout but, of course, the sitter will need to be "face naked" for the duration of the shoot. 

I'm using disposable masks so when the client exits I'll put the mask in the trash, sanitize my hands and head into the bathroom to wash by hands and face. Then I'll grab a new mask and keep it handy for the next session. 

It's good to do a trial run before we presume a "full on" photography practice. I want to see where the stress points are and how to handle variations before we ramp back up and are working too quickly to see clearly how we might improve. 

Looking forward to seeing you in front of the camera on August 1st. Safe, happy and oh so photogenic.