Keeping one's head above water in a financially declining world power... A suggestion for self employed artists.

 There are three things I find that photographers, as a group, are really, really bad at. One is changing direction/styles/offerings quickly enough to prevent a backward slide in business. The time to learn about a new process or a new venture in content creation is pretty much the day you hear about new stuff. So many of my peers in my age demographic were felled by the shift from film photography to digital. They feared the "complexity", overestimated the appeal of their current approach/aesthetic and were too cheap to invest a bit of money to at least stick their feet into the "water" and experiment. Once they got left behind they found it too hard to catch up and exited the field. My smart peers, also my age, were buying $20K digital cameras in the 1990s, figuring out the good points and bad points of digital and then letting clients know that they could offer cutting edge technology and cutting edge content. They did well. Clients crave the new and innovative.

The first takeaway is that change is inevitable and will come for you. Just like compound interest change can be your best friend or your worst enemy. For relative newcomers to a market new innovations can be an opportunity to bypass traditional barriers to entry and make a mark more quickly than was possible before. But the big lesson is that you can ride the front of the wave in a new development and attract the attention of paying clients or you can hold back and wait ---  as your clients move away toward someone else's new acquired expertise and you plunge into irrelevance. 

In a similar vein I noticed a decade ago so much resistance from traditional photographers to incorporating video production into their business offerings. We started shooting video projects on and off back in the 1980s but it really just became widely practical with the introduction of cameras like the Canon 5D mk2 which allowed photographers to enter the realm of moving pictures inexpensively and with good results; if they had the foresight to learn the basics and practice them until they became successful (see Vincent LaForet). Many photographers who embraced digital video a decade ago moved on from still photography to full scale video production increasing their income and increasing the range of higher paying clients available to them.  In 2017 about half of my income came from video productions for medical practices and law practices. Clients I had already been supplying with still images for many years prior. We only had to show them that we were proficient to open up a new source of billing. 

Learning video basics also enabled a whole generation to make good money pontificating on YouTube and getting paid for it. A profit center than never existed before...

The bane of unchanging styles. I recently watched a video by a photography influencer who bemoaned the idea that clients are no longer interested in "production value" but instead are focused on "authenticity" in the images they want. Yes, styles change. We need to change along with them. I remember a video production team here in Austin who, way back in the early 1990s, decided to make a 180° move away from their competitors, all of whom were using Sony Beta SP cameras or something similar to do slick, overly lit, over-produced videos for clients. They started experimenting with grainy, "authentic" Super-8 film camera production, made a reel of it and showed it around to the cool ad agencies at the time. They walked away with enough work to keep them busy for a couple of years. When the style ran its course they were already experimenting with something totally different. Now, some 30 years later and dozens of course changes later, they are still working, winning Addy Awards, billing and thriving. Even though the two team members are twice the age of their best competitors. Styles change. Markets change. The photographers and videographers who fall by the wayside are the ones who refuse to experiment and change as well. 

People in general and photographers in particular wind up their careers in the red, financially, because they don't make good financial decisions. We all feel like we're bulletproof and riding a never-ending escalator up when we are in our 30's or 40's. When big jobs come through along with big fees there's always a tendency to overspend. To celebrate too hard. To over-reward one's self for a nice, but short blip of enhanced profit. In years past, when credit was easier to arrange, that might have meant upgrading to a bigger house, buying a much more expensive car, going on more exotic vacations and spending so much time at nicer restaurants that the restaurateurs started going on nicer vacations. 

Another offshoot of that was the old saw that "one should invest in one's own business." Which photographers always took to mean that they should buy much cooler cameras and much more expensive lenses and other gear. Or, that they should invest in a beautiful studio space. Ah, to have been a bankruptcy attorney during an economic downturn in which over-mortgaged photographers with recently acquired studio spaces "transitioned" out of business. Investing in the right stuff is fine but over-investing is more a sign of an inflamed ego than it is a good business strategy. 

While some of my camera purchases can be construed as over the top the reality is that we (me and spouse) economized and saved money at every turn over the last 30-40 years. We bought a middle class home 25 years ago and never moved again. We converted a garage to a studio and stopped paying downtown studio rent. We eat most meals at home. Happily. But when it comes to "investing in the business" my partner and I both think that means maintaining the things that directly make money for the studio but it also means putting profits into financial investments over the long term, not buying more stuff, taking more cruises or showering our families with a bunch of expensive gifts and showy largess. Yes, we were the parent's whose child got his first smartphone when he graduated from high school and was heading to college. A College education which we also saved for. Instead of buying big, shiny new SUVs or sports cars or second homes or whatever else people feel compelled to spend money on. 

If you took good math courses in college or high school you can probably figure out the appeal of compound interest. We're not especially bright but we realized it was a winning concept. All small business owners should diversify outside their own businesses if for no other reason than to not have every single egg in one basket. A "basket" that depends on you showing up and performing every single day. 

If you can take your ego out of your financial strategy and just do straightforward, conservative investing then, over the long run, you might be shocked at the assets you can accrue. And how comforting it is to know that you won't have to worry about unexpected expenses... or how to fund retirement beyond Social Security.

The last thing that I'll suggest here is that photographers, graphic designers and even videographers are, as a group, terrible, terrible marketers. I have a bunch of friends who are or were working photographers who refuse(d) to believe that they need to do anything more than put up a website with their favorite photos on it and send out a few e-mail "blasts" every year to the clients they currently or historically worked for. Much is made of the overarching value of "word of mouth" advertising. 

The reality for many traditional photographers is that their clients have aged along with them and many are now exiting the market. The ones that are left have been marketed to by more savvy content creators who, over time, erode that original bond. A bond that most good advertisers know needs to be nurtured as often as possible. 

Most businesses know that they'll lose X percent of clients each year due to retirement, relocation, a singular unsatisfying experience, the perception that their current photographer or supplier isn't really interested in them as a client anymore. Why would they think that? Because they haven't seen new stuff or heard from the artist in way too long. 

We used to have a sign up in the ad agency I worked for in the 1980s. Its message was aimed squarely at our account executives; our sales team. It just said, "Lunch them or lose them." It spoke to the necessity, in that decade, of spending face time with clients. Especially the ones who had the power to sign checks or assign jobs. Preferably both. Marketing needs to include targeted social media, email campaigns, traditional direct mail but it can also include personal touches like "thank you" cards, sending flowers after a big project or just having casual lunches at which business is only tangentially discussed, if at all. 

Finally there is the "reverse momentum" that living through a long career seems to cripple small business owners. They remember what their rates were ten, twenty or thirty years ago and they fear that they'll lose clients if they raise their rates ---  even when inflation is taking a bigger and bigger bite out of everyone's spending power. The successful businesses that I know of and have worked with try to raise rates by ten percent every year in a quest to stay even. To maintain profit margins. To be able to reinvest in new technology which might drive new avenues of income. The suppliers that fail have the ingrained memory that Acme Gadgets is used to paying $X and they fear that Acme might leave them if they want/need to raise rates to X+10%. So each year, as costs rise, as prices all around them go up, the content creator who fears change makes less and less money at every turn. Even though the same clients pay more for groceries, gasoline, rents and charge more for their products, raising their own prices as needed. 

Being in business is tough. That's why the majority of people in higher income countries work for the state, or the corporations, or as someone else's small business employee. And it may be that the advantage of being an employee is the reduction of a number of stressors and uncertainties owning a business could put in their lives. But the disadvantage is this: A freelancer may have 50 clients who cycle through the business in a given time frame. If one client moves on there are still 49 clients left to work with. And, one hopes, that #50 will be replaced. If you work for one employer and their business fails or they decide to eliminate a business sector and subsequently let you go you may have no one waiting in the wings to break your fall and will have to spend time and money to find another job. Or worse yet, another career. 

There are logical things artists can do to at least give them their best chance at financial success. First is to find the clients who can and are willing to pay what you need and deserve. Second is to never stop innovating and offering new styles, points of view, products and services. 

Suppose you are mostly providing photography but you take classes about video, experiment with it in your free time, maybe start working on video projects in some capacity for someone who is very successful at making video, and eventually become able to also supply video services in addition to your photography. Now your photo clients can also provide an income stream as video clients and your video clients are an easy sell for your photographic services. 

Finally, when you have profits, extra cash, unexpected windfalls, etc. instead of patting yourself on the back with a new Porsche Caymen or a trip to Barbados consider putting the money into long term financial investments. Find a good certified financial planner.  At some point you'll get tired of chasing jobs but your money, well invested, will never get tired of working for you. It works all day and all night for as long as you have it invested. And many years later you will realize how smart it was to be less manic with your money. Because you'll still have some. 

We all make choices. Some work out.

Working Photographer. Living in a boom town. Yikes.

Is the Austin real estate boom a giant bubble just waiting for the right pin?

 I arrived in Austin, Texas in 1974. At that time it was a sleepy little college town with a big University, some state offices and not very many other employment opportunities. The flip side of the equation was that you could get everywhere (safely) on a bicycle, center city apartment rents were about $75 a month and everything (and I mean EVERYTHING) was cheap as dirt. Students mostly did not have cars back then. The University offered nearly free health insurance. Shiner Bock beers were $0.25 unless you were drinking at one of the three or four upscale hotel bars --- then you might pay a full buck for a cold one. 

We probably boasted more PHD degreed waiters and busboys, per capita, than any other city in the country because there were so few "real" jobs but the vibe was great and the cost of living was so low that no one wanted to leave after they graduated from UT. How could you blame us when you could see the Talking Heads and the B52s at the Armadillo Headquarters for $4? And then walk back home to your apartment. Safely.

It took time but it's all changed. We've grown from an MSA of a little over 125,000 people to well over 1.5 million and counting. What happened? Well, since UT had (and still has) a very good electrical engineering school and a great mechanical engineering school, and a great business school, tech companies and early high tech start-ups started to gravitate here and put down some real money. They hired and paid people salaries that matched those in more expensive parts of the country. And then layer after layer of peripheral and support companies moved in to take advantage of proximity. Followed by retailers and restaurant chains. Dry cleaners and yoga studios. And lots and lots of subdivision housing developments.

Now we have Dell, IBM, Samsung, Intel, AMD, NXP, Apple, Tesla, Google, and thousands of other companies clamoring for some real estate and a chunk of the talent here in central Texas. They came here because companies like Texas Instruments and Motorola had discovered that lower costs, better lifestyles and a highly educated workforce were cool secret weapons to use against their competitors. Now it's all a "virtuous" spiral. 

I graduated from UT, taught at UT, got recruited away to work in advertising (mostly for tech companies) before finally finding the courage to do what I'd always wanted to do --- pursue photography as both a passion and a business. And it was just the right time and place to do so. By the mid-1980s this place was growing so fast it was hard to keep up with the city's boundaries. We worked seven days a week all the way through the 1990's ---  and for good fees.

While local commercial/corporate photographers didn't demand rates as high as their counterparts in NYC and LA the trade off was a much less stressful existence and, still, much lower costs of living. 

I've always lived within a few miles of the city center. Mostly on the affluent west side of the city. I bought my first home in the Tarrytown neighborhood for the princely sum of $42,000. The current value on Zillow is just under $600,000. We moved from there into the Eanes School District in between the Westlake Hills and Rollingwood townships which exist just south of Lady Bird Lake and just west of the downtown area, opposite Zilker Park. We moved here a while back just for the schools which, at the time, had the best overall scores and reputations for academics in Texas. And then, starting in 2000 everything changed again. 

Austin's popularity went off the charts. And land and house prices rose to match the momentum. 

Here's what the local business journal says about the meteoric rise in property values in our neighborhood:

 2. West Lake Hills

  • Typical home value, March 2022: $2,546,281
  • One-year price increase: +48.0%
  • Five-year price increase: +106.6%
  • Price increase since Jan. 2000: +295.4%

1. Rollingwood

  • Typical home value, March 2022: $2,717,518
  • One-year price increase: +44.1%
  • Five-year price increase: +104.1%
  • Price increase since Jan. 2000: +285.0%
My house is in the Westlake Hills area while our swim club is in Rollingwood. These two neighborhoods have had the fastest property value growth in Texas. Together with Tarrytown they represent the areas in Austin with the highest per family net worth. Buying a house here 25 years ago has turned out to be like winning the lottery. 

But the flip side of it all is that we're a state with no income or corporate taxes so most of the revenue for....everything....comes from property taxes. We have some of the highest property tax rates around. When the appraised value of your house rises the amount subject to taxes rises in lockstep. 

Because there are rich and poor school districts all around Texas the federal government implemented what has become known as "The Robin Hood Law" to even out per student investment in Texas.  Wealthier school district have to send percentage of what they collect in local taxes to the state to help fund the poorer school districts. Last year the Eanes School District sent over 100 million dollars to the state. These funds were paid by the local tax payers and then redistributed to other areas. 

If you were, say, a middle class photographer living in the district you might have seen your property values skyrocket but if your business income didn't also skyrocket in the same time frame you are now on the hook for lots and lots more property taxes and few other benefits. You could, of course, sell your property and benefit from the appreciation but then you would have to find some place else, more affordable, in Austin to move. Good luck with that. One might suggest moving out of central Texas but ..... really?

This also means that more and more middle class people are finding all of Austin unaffordable vis-a-vis housing costs and they are exiting day-by-day. At some point the property values will rise so high that Austin will have driven out all the people who don't make prodigious incomes which means that restaurant workers, grocery store workers, domestic workers, and a host of other median income workers (including many working photographers) will be forced to look for somewhere else to live and this will take away a whole huge layer of the workforce that currently supports the lifestyles for the higher income families. San Antonio is the current recipient of our "worker exodus" but costs are rising there too.

Example: We currently can't source enough lifeguards in the city of Austin to open most of the public city pools for the hot Summer months. And that's amazing to me because the city is offering prospective lifeguards about $20 per hour, a starting bonus of about $1250, and the pay package includes healthcare, paid vacations and even bus fare. And this is just one example of the ramifications of job constriction affecting life in the city. 

From my point of view as a working photographer there are a number of things that directly affect my business. I can no longer reliably source assistants. There are few people who can work as freelance assistants and piece together enough work to earn enough income to make the equation balance. Competition for assistants is strong. The current asking day rate for good assistants is between $500 and $800 a day. For still work. Higher for video. Same for talent. Same for hair and make-up people.

There is only one real photo lab left. The others succumbed to rising rents and employee costs. There are only one or two rental studios left and as recently as three years ago there were dozens. Parking is more expensive. And photographer's rates, along with most people's salaries, have not kept pace with inflation. Not in the least. 

It seems to be a problem without a solution. 

Markets tend to self-correct. I hope it's not too sudden a correction or a lot of people are going to get hurt. 

My solution is to keep pushing for increased fees for....everything. All the time. 

Expensive camera coupled to an "under $100 USD" lens. Can it work? Are there advantages? What was I thinking?


This photograph is amazingly sharp. Just out of the ballpark.
It was done with a sub-$100 lens on a Leica SL2 body.
No built in lens profiles, no stabilization, no AF. 
Just very nice glass in a well built tube...

I guess it's human nature to want to use the full potential of the tools we own. If you have a 47 megapixel, full frame camera it's assumed that you'll set it for raw file capture, put a zillion dollar lens on the front and shoot at its full resolution. But I would ask... if you buy a high performance car that can achieve 150+ mph does that mean that you always have to drive it all out? Does the tachometer always have to be pegged? Isn't most driving done "in town" on roads with 30 mph speed limits? Just a thought. 

I bought a TTartisan 23mm f1.4 lens a while back for the L mount. It's an APS-C lens. It definitely does NOT cover the full 24 x 36 mm frame of a full frame camera. But on an APS-C camera the angle of view corresponds to a popular 35mm focal length on a full frame camera. When I used the lens on a Leica TL2 or CL I was impressed by the sharpness, color and lack of vignetting at the f-stops I normally take advantage of; f4.0- f8.0.

It's a really good lens for the price and I plan on getting a lot of use out of it. But....

I really like the color science and the ergonomics of the Leica SL2 and I'd also like to shoot a 35mm style lens on that camera as well. I have a lens for it. It's the original Sigma 35mm f1.4 lens in the L mount. It's huge and weighs a ton. Sure, it's very sharp and well corrected but it can be a burden to tote around. And when I shoot with the SL2 and the full frame lens I reflexively shoot the full resolution of the camera. And often use the raw format. But there are times when I wished that I could use a lens that's smaller, lighter and easier to carry around. So yesterday I decided to do the usual walk but instead of using a full frame lens I grabbed the 23mm TTA and put it on the camera. 

I had hoped that using an APS-C lens and setting the camera for the APS-C format would trigger some internal logic which would compel the camera to write only the cropped raw file. I set the camera for raw+Jpg and went out for the walk. By setting the raw+jpeg in APS-C the camera did indeed show the cropped image across the full frame of the viewfinder. It was just as if I had the lens mounted on a cropped frame camera. The crop with the typical 1.5 X factor. 

I shot merrily as I walked. I tried to photograph tight shots, close-ups, distance shots and everything in between. I even photographed a few frames with the lens wide open. I really liked the handling and the performance of the lens. I laughed a bit since I read that so many people devote so much of their time and money chasing "ultimate" lens performance when I think that comfort in actual use is at least as important and, as TTArtisan seems to be proving (some hit and miss...) they can make highly competitive lenses at small fractions of other makers prices. 

There was no image stabilization. I could implement it only by cheating. I could chose a Leica M or R lens  profile from the in-camera list. A lens profile that at least matches the focal length of the manual "dumb" lens I wanted to use. That would trigger the ability to use IBIS. But....as I've discovered before each of the canned lens profiles also comes with adjustments to color shift, vignetting and distortion parameters that many times harm the image rather than help if I try to cheat a profile made for one particular lens to a different, third party lens. Other than that the camera and lens interfaced perfectly. 

When I got back home and looked at the files I realized that the raw files are always going to be presented in the full 35mm frame. In this case the raw files are shown as  nice photos inside a black circle because....the lens doesn't cover the frame. But the Jpegs were perfect. They were written as APS-C files so no cropping or corrections had to be done.

So, what are the advantages of pressing a small, light lens into service on a camera with so much full frame potential? Well for one thing the files sizes are smaller. I also gain about a stop of depth of field. The entire package of camera and lens is much reduced making it a happier street shooting package. Manual focus lenses can be fast and fun to work with when image peaking and smaller apertures are engaged. And...under $100 USD. Seems just right to me. 

What was I thinking? Not much. I just wanted to see how the lens would perform on a camera I really like. And still, at the crop format size, be able to have a high resolution file. If you are willing to work at your technique many of these inexpensive lenses can do admirable and professional work. At least I think I could get people to pay for images made with this combo. Of course you could spend thousands of dollars and get a Leica M mount 35mm Summicron lens and an M to L mount adapter and have the same size plus the "benefit" of the full resolution of the full frame camera. But where's the fun in that? Here are the samples. Decide for yourself. 

I'm a walking advertisement for REI. 
The pants, the shirt and the bucket hat.
You can't see my shoes but I got them at REI too. 
No affiliation. No links here. But boy...
am I stylin'

one foot away from reality.

Ah. A rich frame filed with color and tones. 

The camera and lens seem to "do" reds just fine.
A Veblen car. Mike would not be happy...

Sure. The added depth of field helped. 

OT: Swim practice was exhilarating this morning. The water chillers were working overnight and the water was nicely cool; brisk. We did a monster set that went:

19 x 75 yard sprints with descending intervals. The last five should be "touch and go." Followed by a 100 recovery swim.

19 x 50 yard sprints with descending intervals. The last five should be close to best times. Followed by a 100 recovery swim.

19 x25 yard sprints -- all out --  on an interval that allowed for maximum effort. Followed by a 100 recovery swim.

I never figured out why we were doing 19 of each distance....

Coaches are working in a lot of HIT workouts lately which stands for High Intensity Training. They are trying to get us out of the habit of finding comfortable workout paces and getting us to swim closer to our racing times to build an acceptance of pain in return for speed. It seemed to work that way this morning. 

If you are not exercising for at least an hour every day you are accelerating toward an endpoint you might not want. You don't have to train all out. An hour walk works almost as well. But everyone makes their own choices...

Speaking of choices...

Have you seen Michael Johnston's weekend post? He asks if the "Hobby of Photography" is getting priced out of reach of hobbyists? What do you think? 

I get the statistics of inequality but I also know that most of our readers are highly privileged, high earners (at least during their careers) and professionals with college degrees. Is what we're seeing in the photography gear world really a progression toward unaffordability or are people just trying to have it all? Big cars, big houses, big toys AND a full complement of the latest cameras? I'd be interested to see what my readers think.