First post pandemic lunch with a creative director. Of course we met at Maudie's Tex-Mex.

Window Collage.

It's been over a year since I have had a "business" lunch with my old friend, Greg. Before the pandemic we lunched about once a month and shared our experiences about advertising, child rearing, navigating Austin and much more. Since we're both careful and responsible we took a break over the last year. 

We met at Maudie's today, the one on Lake Austin Blvd., and it was packed. We sat in a booth in the back, separated from a neighboring booth by a wall of plexiglass. The food was just as I remembered it. Bountiful and ho hum. But sentimental attachment? Of course. Profound.

We talked about all the usual stuff and then there was a bit of the natural back and forth between photographer and creative director who've been doing projects together for well over 30 years. He was adamant that I revive my Instagram account because, he says, that's how he keeps track of what I'm up to. Since it was coming from one of my oldest friends (and client!) I complied and you can now see new work on the Instagram feed. Warning: I put whatever I want on Instagram, even if it's chancy for some tiny, tiny, part of my audience. 

We also discussed a project that might involve wine and travel and portraits and video and other stuff I can't think of right now. It's nice when lunch can bounce from family to politics to work projects and come full circle back to family. 

I took a Leica SL to lunch with me and Greg laughed and reminded me of my near obsession with the old film-eating Leica R8....back in the day. His final question: "Do these new, digital Leicas shoot 4K video?"

I laughed. 

Interesting things I've learned while blogging about photography.

At a certain point in time people were captivated by both the process and the results of photography. People couldn't seem to get enough information about cameras, lenses, techniques and even stories about how professional photographers worked. That's all over now. Gone. We've turned into a very, very passive culture in which people spend a lot of time reading about stuff that they already know. It's because we crave some sense of inclusion and community. I can write about the performance of a lens and everyone will nod their heads in agreement because they've read a dozen similar articles, share the same knowledge base and have probably bought the lens themselves, if they were do inclined. 

I was amazed recently when Sigma launched the revision to their 35mm Art lens. It's one lens. It's one focal length. It's one manufacturer. But the introduction went off like elite military maneuvers with one video commenter after another launching ten to twenty minutes of programming specifically about this one product. The dozens and dozens of simultaneous reviews were stunning in their homogeneity. And bulwarked by an additional frothy flurry of written reviews on test sites and blogs. And it showed me that the internet has succeeded in becoming one continuous advertisement disguised as "knowledge." 

I've heard over and over again that blogs are dead. And to a certain extent I believe that about general interest blogs intended to hype consumer products and generate affiliate payments. The worst blogs are the ones that basically re-phrase press releases and pass them off as reviews. There is never, ever anything controversial or off-putting being written. And the reviewers seem to love all but the worst products with equal fervor. 

I took some time this week to ask a young, smart, media expert from an advanced A.I. start-up, if companies outside the realm of consumer merchandizing still used blogs in any capacity. He shared a bunch of data  with me that showed blogs as effective sales tools for extremely niche fields. He suggested that small, quick whole sites that could be popped up around an innovation functioned more like traditional magazines in their structure but were direct ads to sales staffs by supplying supplemental information to their target audiences. That, he conjectured, is where blogs for business are heading.

The written, general interest blog, based loosely around a niche like wristwatches or cameras is, by far, less effective these days. And I can see that in the declining numbers across many photo oriented sites. I am friends with several bloggers who've been writing about photography for a long time and most have transitioned from hard core gear reviews to softer blends of lifestyle and personal experiences because, while fewer people are coming solely to read about the latest adventures of one, fixed focal length, Sigma lens, a lot of people are staying to take part in what they perceive to be a community of like-minded people who share a number of interests. In several critical ways the constituency of blogs we favor seems highly selective. Almost all readers of the blogs I read tend to have four year college degrees (or +) and have worked in managerial or professional occupations. Most are retired or, if not retired, still working out of engagement instead of need. 

In aggregate they are fairly well-off financially, having been compounding interest for a long, long time. They can afford to buy what they like but most seem to be frugal about expenditures, which also follows a trend of them having lived through many up and down cycles in the economy, over time. So, it's an aging, no longer working demographic that's used to having some control over life and calling the shots; and the blogs they read are provide a pleasant feeling of continuity they associate with "real life." A nostalgia play perhaps.

Blogs were started as a venue for individual marketing. Seth Godin's blog was the epitome of blogging in order to become famous about blogging. That was his goal but his content was all about teaching others how to market as well. His financial goals were to sell speaking appearances and to also sell books, which he couched as souvenirs of the talks...

When I first started this blog it was because I was working on my first book and I thought sharing my commercial expertise in photography would be a good draw for people who would be a market for a printed book about aspects of photographic lighting. I was right and the blog served to both front load sales of the first book and also extend the sales tail of the book by a generous amount. 

After five books I decided I didn't want to write any more books about the nuts and bolts of photography. And I note that my fall off of interest in producing traditional books seemed to match an overall sales trend (rapidly downward) for that industry. My former publisher has moved from publishing books aimed mostly at how to light or how to do a specific genre of commercial photography to mostly producing books aimed at "how to use your iPhone." 

Since I had nothing left to market I stopped marketing and tried to write sincere and interesting content, from my point of view. But it's harder to make a blog that needs both writing and photography. Harder than the writing alone. I generally don't write gushy, press release stuff about a camera or a lens. I rarely comment on new product launches from manufacturers whose products I don't use. But if I do write about a camera like the Fuji X100V I'm not satisfied with an "one and done" review, slammed out quickly with the intention of beating my competitors to the punch. No, I take my time and use the camera over and over and over again so I can see how comfortable it is to use. How the files look under a bunch of different shooting situations. How well I like it over time. 

I can't (won't) sit in my basement (which most Texas homes don't have; including mine) shooting test charts all day and then write about the results I've found by poring over test shots. I don't think photography really works that way and I find recitation of lab results pretty boring. But longer term reviews take time, energy, engagement and resources. And repetition. The cameras and lenses I write about are not "on loan" from the makers; I actually use my own financial resources to buy the products that interest me. So, time, energy and money to write about personal experiences of photography with specific gear. As I approach the 5,000th post (9 to go) I realize how much time I've dropped into a vehicle for, basically,  entertainment mostly enjoyed by older, wealthier men (sorry; demographic speaking loud and clear) for whom I have nothing to sell and no profit to make other than to be part of that community.

It's a lot of time. 

I think a number of readers believe that the blog somehow is useful for marketing to my mainline clients but again, nothing could be further from the truth. Most are not photographers, have no interest in the process and even less interest in the gear. They don't necessarily find stories about how we do projects at all enlightening since they have specific needs for imaging and only want to know if I can handle the needs and on what day am I available.

With all this written I do have advice for anyone who wants to write a blog: 

Figure out why you want to write a blog. Ego is, perhaps the worst reason. And the least profitable. 

Figure out who your target audience is and what you want from them. Be a little selfish. If you want them to click affiliate links then construct your blog and content to make it easy to hit those links. 

Strip your blog of anything controversial. No politics, no subjective appraisals of anything cultural or controversial. Walk in lock step with society or suffer its censure. 

Don't challenge your readers too much. Never imply they should step out of their comfort zones. Never suggest they should follow your diet or exercise regimens (unless you are actively selling or promoting diet products). Beware of any, even small, suggestions that there might be health benefits to being in shape or having a healthy body weight and constitution. 

No matter what your own financial situation try to write in such a way that you get across that you are "just like your readers." Never openly disregard the constraints of price but always suggest that all new gear is always bit of a financial  stretch for you. 

Never disparage camera equipment from companies whose products you don't use or like. People who've invested already in a product will take personal umbrage. It's like calling their children "ugly." 

Make friends with every blogger you can tolerate and share relentlessly. Steal ideas from each other. It doesn't seem to matter if it's all the same material. Toss in some personal stuff to show your vulnerability and you're golden. 

Final bit of advice. If your blog isn't profitable after the first year then yank the cord. It's never going to get better. If you start making money with your blog then consider moving everything to a Vlog. People are absolute suckers for video. Even really bad video. 

Community engagement is supposed to be good and comments are supposed to help with that. I disagree. Comments are of three kinds: The first is a compliment, like "great post on xxxxxx......" and we universally like these because they are a pat on the back for work already done. The second is the personal remembrance comment which is something like: "I too have a Nikon 105mm f2.5 ais and it was a life changing lens without which I would have never met and subsequently married by spouse of XX years. You see, she was working in a camera store and I came in to buy a lens. Not just any lens but a ......" and most bloggers like these comments as well. But by far the most frequent comments are meant to knock the blogger off the ladder, take someone to task because they disagree about an issue that is a pet love of theirs, or they have a cultural disagreement and are convinced they are absolutely right while you are absolutely wrong and evil because of it. These we don't like at all. 

My advice is to not get started with comments. As Michael Johnston shows, the proper handling of comments is a time suck and you'll never finish moderating them. The stinging rebukes from one disgruntled reader hurt more than the positive and uplifting pats on the back from 50 readers. That's just human nature. 

But my final advice is to bag the idea of writing a blog about photography because photography is largely dead as we knew it. We aren't going to shift gears and start producing TikTok content but nobody gives a flying fuck about landscapes, portraits, or street photography or birds or whatever it is that you personally like. The huge rush of interest in all things photographic didn't disappear but, like one ounce of Bourbon in a five million gallon shot glass filled with melting ice cubes the size of a house, each thing put on the web is so distilled, so watered down, so diffused that it becomes irrelevant. So you are chasing ephemerata. And other than hawking gear there's very little value left in showing or discussing actual photography. How can there be in an online situations that's measured in parts per hundred billion?

After this particular post we'll be about nine posts away from my goal of 5,000 published posts. I was on the fence about continuing and still am. But I was set back this morning when I read three comments about one image I posted, among a half dozen other photos, of a scene in which four overweight young women are about to enter a bar called the "Pig Pub." Reading the comments you might think I'd tossed biochemical weapons into the water supply of a small city. It let me know that readers have an overweening sense of entitlement which allows them to feel they have a right to control my content or at least try and shame me for posting it. And that's pretty much bullshit. The ones who are most exasperating are the ones who write about "giving the blog a break...." as some sort of thinly veiled threat. Will the blog ever exist without them? 

But, back to the blog. Human nature suggests that when we read stuff we like that we imagine that the writer shares with us all the same points of view. All the same prejudices and politics. Some here were shocked to find out that I'm a democrat and not a republican! That I'm totally agnostic and not a born again Christian.  That I don't think vaccines for Covid-19 were engineered to send radio signals filled with personal information back to our liberal overlords. 

I'll give this a rest for a while, turn back on some comment moderation and see how I feel in the morning.