Time to talk a bit about marketing. Yikes

Is it possible to be in the market for too long?  I'm not talking about the stock market.  We all know the answer to that one.  I'm talking about the photography market.  If you are forty or fifty years old and you've been a photographer for the last ten or twenty years you know that we've been through some gut-wrenching changes.  We've all devised some self-serving and optimistic ways of looking at the decline of our traditional markets.  Some people walk around telling anyone who will listen, "Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger!"  But they never mention the scar tissue...  Others say, "This too shall pass!" Implying that the pain we feel now is but a temporary sting that will give way to a rosy and prosperous tomorrow.  "If you can make it through this economy you can  make it through anything."  As though it isn't possible for the economy to get any worse.

I've been thinking a lot about this lately and I've come to some conclusions about our position as photographers in this new world and how things might work out.  I'll say up front that if you are twenty five and surrounded by marvelous designer friends in some cool and unaffected part of the economy then just don't even bother to read the rest.  Everyone's kilometerage will vary.

Let's start by going around the room and admitting we've got a lot of baggage.  I know I do.  It's hard not to.  If you were working in the booming 1990's you no doubt remember when one of the hardest things to come by was a day off.  Day rates were climbing and corporate clients were throwing out stacks of money to advertise new web based companies and services. Traditional agencies with long pedigrees understood the rationale of usage fees and were willing to negotiate based on these historical payment agreements.

We used real cameras that spit out physical products.  We lit stuff and the lighting looked good. Clients didn't (and still don't ) understand lighting and they were willing to pay well for people who did.  Checks came from local offices and agency people understood mark-up.

We remember all this and some part of our brains feels like that's the marker for what should be a normal photo market.  But that's our baggage.  Can we still feel the buzz and get all enthusiastic after the whole model irrevocably changes?  Can we get pumped to do amazing stuff for less money?  For much less profit?

The market has flattened and once clients have tasted nearly free stock, used it and waited for an apocalypse (loss of market share, damage to the brand) that never came we are confronted with their version of a genie that's been released from the bottle, a ship that's sailed, a horse that's already out of the barn.

The selling mantra against dollar stock was fear.  "What if all the businesses in your sector used the same stock image in their campaigns?  Wouldn't you be devasted??  Wouldn't you perceive the tremendous value of a commissioned shoot? You'll never get fired using a proven supplier!!!"  That's pretty much a paraphrase of an essay up on the ASMP site.  But here's the disconnect:  Many of the art buyers, art directors, creative directors and marketing directors who learned their trade in decades past have been swept into other areas and out of negotiation with photographers by two big, catastrophic economic downturns in the first nine years of this century.

They've been replaced in legions by much younger and cheaper people.  These people were raised with dollar stock use or limited rights managed stock as the norm.  That's their baseline. There is no nostalgia driving these people back to the traditional assignment model.  There never will be. They add their own value to the stock stuff with tons of manipulation.  To be clear, clothing catalogs and product catalogs will continue being shot.  CEO's will continue being  photographed.  Stuff will still be assigned.  But it will be the exception rather than the rule.  Only a tiny percentage of images will be assigned and only for specific, proprietary products.

Here's another critical driver:  Advertising clients have scaled back in all print media and have poured more resources into online advertising.  By some counts webvertising is up 20% this year over last.  Consumer magazine ad pages are down nearly 35% over last year.  What happens when the recession finally ends and clients find that web and cable satisfied their needs almost completely?  I think they will channel more and more dollars into the web and TV and less and less into print.  

Let's face it.  The web isn't challenging medium.  My medium format cameras are definitely overkill for most web uses.  For that matter my Canon G10 is overkill for most web use.  The subordinated quality of web versus traditional media is just another barrier to entry knocked down.  The challenge on the web is pushing people to the site but that seems to be the provence of social marketing and viral marketing.  

I think that by the time this market recovers 80 to 90 % of the people we veteran photographers dealt with before the collapse will have moved on to other jobs and other industries.  More and more we'll be dealing with a brand new crowd.  None of them will know anything about your brand or your history in the market.  In fact, having a history in the market will mark you as a dinosaur.  Everything that we've learned over our careers, in terms of marketing, is going to be upside down.  New is the new good.  Fast is the new production value.  And coffee is the new martini.  The Canon G10 is the new Nikon D3x.  Just as Strobism is replacing studio flash equipment.

This is just my perception.  Everyone else's mileage may vary.  But the real question is what to do about it.  I think this year is going to be a wash out.  It's a great time to get personal projects done, it's strategically smart to stay in touch with as many clients and potential clients as you can.  It's important to build some new portfolios and some new self-promo and get the website ready.  But here's my "from out of left field"  "brain-stormed" (or lightning struck) idea for 2010.......

Shut your existing business down at the end of this year.  Shut down everything.  Close the doors.  Toss out all your preconceptions about how a photography business should be run.  Toss out your nostalgia and your mythology.  Everything.  Total purge.  Career colonic.

Then, on the first of the new year (or when your gut tells you we're heading back to a prosperous overall economy) emerge and totally re-invent yourself from the ground up.  New look.  New marketing.  New point of view and new ways of doing the business.  Because no matter what you do you will be participating in capitalism's biggest "hard reset" ever and it's pretty much and even bet that, except for premium brands like Coca Cola and Apple and IBM and Starbucks, everyone else will be sitting in on the same reset.  

Tired of buying endless gear? Maybe your new business model calls for rental of all lighting and grip gear.  Tired of getting tooled around for payment?  Maybe your new business model calls for nothing but credit card payment.  Tired of your old clients?  This is a time to reset.  Tired of that filing cabinet of legacy headshot files your clients will never need again?  You've gone out of that business, remember?  Toss the stuff you don't need and make room for the stuff that will make you money in the new paradigm.

I've been in Austin a long, long time.  My old clients will use me for  a long time to come.  The people who've been here as long as I have and haven't used me aren't about to start because they've already pigeon-holed me for one reason or another.  When new people move into existing jobs they bring their own people or they go out looking for those people.  By killing off our old business persona we get to be the people they bring in to replace us.

Let me repeat that:  By killing off our old business persona we get to be the people they bring in to replace us.

Being a new business gives us an excuse to get pumped up again.  To throw a big opening party. To invite people into our new process.  

I'm still thinking about all this and working the kinks out of it.  But it seems right to me on a number of intuitive levels.  Everything changes and everything evolves.  I don't want to wait around and be a miniature GM when I can be the next new thing.  I know there are many holes and pitfalls to this new idea.  And I'm not saying that I am rushing to implement but I do think it is interesting and we should discuss it.

I know it's not as sexy as talking about gear but that's the next thing I'm looking at.  Really.

Looking forward to the re-launch.  What form will it take for photographers?


Lighting instruments from another world.

I've been working on a book about lighting equipment and, after talking to many photographers, I am convinced that many are unaware there is a rich selection of alternatives out there to the usual battery-powered camera flashes, the monoblock electronic flashes and the various "pack and head" electronic flash systems.  The photograph on the right is of a Mole Richardson 10K fixture.  This thing puts out 10,000 watts of tungsten balanced light!  It's really amazing. Even more amazing are the 20K HMI lights.  That's 20,000 watts of daylight balanced light from one fixture.  

I bring this up because I think some photographers would really like to pursue a vision that's not based on using the same lights everyone else uses.  I was inspired to seek out these alternative light sources in part because of the work of Gregory Crewdson.  He does interesting fine art photos and relies almost exclusively on big movie lights for his work.  It seems to impart an entirely different feel to the work.

The same photographers who've sent me hate mail about my articles praising "radical" things like film and medium format cameras will no doubt rush to tell us that they can duplicate any lighting look with their White Lightning electronic flash gear or their $10,000 Broncolor gear but they will, as usual, miss the point.  And that point is this:  The tools and their attributes have profound influence in the creative process.  The feel of the camera, the heat and throw of a light.  The size of the fresnel in front of a light source.  It all influences our creative choices.  It influences the way a shoot flows.  And it definitely affects the outcome.

So, I found myself at an Austin shop called, GEAR.  They serve the movie industry, the television industry and a number of still photographers by renting everything from the stands and scrims to the enormous lights and the  trucks to haul them around in.  They have HMI lights (continuous daylight balanced instruments) ranging from 400 watts to 20,000 watts. They have all the most popular sizes of fresnel and open faced tungsten lights and they have stacks and stack of KinoFlo professional florescent lights.  

They have electrical generators you can put in the trunk of a Prius and also generators that come on the back of a really big truck.  And they have rolls of just about every filter gel you can possibly imagine.

I asked them for some pointers to pass along to still photographers who haven't worked on movie or television sets.  Any pitfall that might be avoided with a little forewarning.  Here is their short list:

1.  Lights over 1,000 will need their own electrical circuits.  Run a 2K tungsten on the same household circuit as the computer and you are asking for problems.

2.  Lights over 2,000 will require the services of an electrician to do something magical called a "tie-in" at the breaker box.  Alternately, you can rent a generator rated to handle the power requirements of these lights.

3.  Hot lights are hot.  You'll either need padded gloves to handle the fixtures or lots and lots of time to let them cool down before trying to move them.

4.  As above, the bigger lights put out an enormous amount of heat so don't plan on using your regular softboxes or umbrellas with them.  You'll need specially constructed softboxes or umbrellas that handle high temperatures.  Melting softboxes don't inspire confidence.....

5.  When you use a 12 foot by 12 foot silk scrim outside you need to understand that's about the same square footage as the sails that move boats across water at 20 knots or so.  You'll need more than a couple of 20 pound sandbags to anchor them!  Ask for guidance when you rent.

6.  HMI's have safety filters so that your don't tan or burn when using them.  Don't defeat the safety features!  You don't want a model suing you for the impromptu tanning booth episode.

7.  HMI's are expensive.  The bulbs start around $400.  Make sure your assistants know the score and make sure every light is secure.

Those are the big points that the rental guys deal with on an almost daily basis.  Even so you can get some really unique looks with some of these lights and the rentals on traditional tungsten lights are  reasonable.  Well worth trying out the next time you want to do something different.

I really enjoyed what I saw from the KinoFlo's.  There's something cool (literally and figuratively) about florescent lighting.  I'm pretty interested in how those differences might manifest themselves when shooting a portrait so when I saw an interesting fixture at Precision Camera I just had to get one.

Interfit makes cheap flashes and decent flashes and a bunch of other lighting stuff.  Just recently they came out with a light called the Cool Lite 9.  It's a fixture that takes nine compact florescent bulbs, comes with a large metal reflector and a heat resistant softbox attachment. All for $279. So far it's a lot of fun.  I need to be reminded from time to time how much fun it is to shoot with WYSIWYG continous lighting.

As you know if you've read much of my stuff I'm a real sucker for wide open apertures and short telephoto lenses.  They seem to converge to make magical portraits.  The Cool Lite 9 gives me enough light to keep the camera steady (1/125th or 1/250th of a second) at reasonable ISO's (200-400).  I'm working on a new series of portraits with this light.

I'm also shooting lots of examples for the book.  Should be interesting.  I keep learning about neat new stuff and relearning techniques that are mostly lost these days.  Hope the week ahead is profitable and fun.  Try some movie lighting if you get a chance.  But be sure to get the gloves........



Getting what you want with digital.

I've made no bones about my appreciation of film and film cameras but there is a certain reality that has to be interjected when we talk about the world of photography in 2009. For better or worse clients expect things to be done faster than a haircut and for little or no money.

There was even a goofy idea on the web that somehow we'd all get rich if we just gave everything away for free. But the guy who came up with that stupid idea starved to death a few 

weeks ago and his intellectual supporters have moved on to the thorny problem of how to "monetize" Twitter. (that means "make money" for all the gentle readers who haven't kept up with the frighteningly fast destruction of common language...).

The rest of us are left with the task of bringing some sort of sanity back to the financial models of our industries. Here's a novel idea:  Let's charge money for what we do.  A cheerful amendment:  Let's charge additional money for using the images more than once!  A third idea:  Let's charge more than it actually costs us to make the image.  (That would include materials, cameras and our time!!!)

That was all non-sequitar.  What I really want to talk about is how to arm wrestle with the digital media to get the images you really like.

All three of the attached images were done for an advertising campaign for the Austin Lyric Opera.  In each shot I wanted to get the kind of soft, non detailed background we used to get when we shot portraits with a long lens on a view camera. In this case our non-profit client had a very "non-profity" budget so our choice was digital or.....digital.  And here's where it gets interesting.  As soulless as I make digital photography out to be I am sometimes (wife and friends snicker...) given to hyperbole.  I must grudgingly admit that a number of the digital cameras produced in the recent past are possessed with an intangible but very visible character that makes them wonderfully different from the run of the mill.

Top of my list is the Kodak family.  My regard for the DCS 760, six megapixel camera from 2002 is unabated.  I battle for dominance with my DCS SLR/n and on the times when I win and the camera grudgingly accepts my direction I am truly delighted with the files.   I sometimes sit on the back porch with a warm cup of coffee and a lone tear comes to my eye when I ponder the irony of Kodak inventing all the good stuff but no longer able to compete in the market......

In the Nikon family, the D700 is a great camera but it lacks personality.  The D2h is a so-s0 image producer but has the personality of a border collie.  The D300 and the D100 both exude soul like a box of Motown 45's.  The Sony R1 is an axe bumbling idiot with flashes of savant genius.  And so on.  But I digress.

When I started planning this campaign for the ALO I know I wanted shallow depth and a color palette that was different than the latest eagerly precise and clinically sterile cameras.  I choose the DCS 760  and decided to shoot at ISO 80.  To get the tiny depth of field I craved I looked through the lens drawer and, after long consideration, I pulled out my unreliable sleeper, the Nikon 105 f2 DC (defocus coupling) lens.  I say unreliable because no matter how often I use it I'm never able to really predict the outcome.  Perfect for a job like this.

And, of course you know that I had to choose a continuous light source to make the wide open aperture work the way I wanted it to.  I used a light that is no longer made.  A Profoto Protungsten.  A fan cooled fixture that mimics the ergonomics of the Profoto flash heads and takes all the same light modifiers.  I used a Magnum reflector with a wide spread and coaxed the light through two layers of white scrim material clinging to a six foot by six foot frame. This was suspended above and to the right of the subject just as close as I could place it without making it a co-star in the frame.

Here's the secret of making tungsten work with an old Kodak that was famous for it's noisy blue channel:  Gel the light with a 1/2 CTB.  That's a filter that gets you half way from tungsten color balance to daylight balance.  Essentially you are trying to keep the camera from compensating from the lack of blue in 3200K light by ramping up the amplification on the blue channel and flooding the image with noise.

I used a small Desisti 300 watt spotlight in its wide flood position for the background.  The only other trick is to try to position the bright spots and the shadows that appear in the background in the proper relationship to the subject.

I love shooting this way.  One part of me always longs for stuff like Leaf medium format digital cameras and Nikon D3x's but as soon as I've got them in hand I feel like a slave.  I'm always trying to show off their capabilities instead of mine.  Mine are all about design and rapport and posing and thinking.  They want me to show off sharpness and accuracy and other things that computers do so well.  It's a hell of a fight when you have to go mano a mano with the very tools that should be serving your vision instead of trying to create it.

Random Note:  Please check out my second book.  I think it's quite good and though you may be too advanced for it at this stage in your career I'm sure that your wives and mothers would love a copy for mother's day.......Minimalist Lighting:  etc. Studio