3.14.2011

Coercing people to work for free and then calling it "crowdsourcing" doesn't make it moral or ethical or profitable.

I don't have a photo to go with this one but I do have a king sized rant.  Recently on Twitter a local photographer, who loves the idea of being an social networking guru, posted a link that pumps 99 Designs, a company that "crowdsources" design, logos and a lot of different graphic design work.  I think it's wrong to advocate "crowdsourcing" because it damages the fee base by which most designers earn a decent living.  It's a price grab that really only benefits  99 Designs.  The designers lose out on their normal income and security while the clients lose out on well thought out, custom designs from the real pros (who wouldn't touch this crap with a thousand foot pool).

So, what is this flavor of "crowdsourcing"?  The company mentioned invites you to throw a "design contest" (which they host and profit from)  and suggests that hundreds or thousands of designers around the world will slave away working on a design just for you.  Hey, logos start at $249!!!!  It's disingenuous to call this a contest.  It's speculative work.  It's a tiny carrot.  On a hundred sticks.

So thousands and thousands of man hours (and women hours) get thrown into creating a logo.  And you get to be the final arbiter.  And the capper is, if you don't like any of the hundreds of designs you get your money back!!!  How exciting.  The problem with all this is two fold:  First, it pushes people to work for free in a slow economy with the hope that something will pan out. And second, since the "design contest" initiator sets the price, even if you win it will be for a price that isn't enough to sustain a decent standard of living.  That means fewer dollars into the local school taxes, the city taxes and the state taxes.  More people marginalized.

But it also sends a message to every potential client who explores the market that there is some sort of fixed price for design and art.  That the creative process has become a commodity.  Sound familiar?

Oh yeah, stock photography!  Which led to "dollar stock" which led to the decline of the an industry.  Now the only people making money in stock photography are the stock photo companies themselves.  And even they are now victims of their every shrinking price/value bullshit.  They initiated a race to the bottom and now seem surprised that most of the value has been sucked from their companies.

So,  it takes a good, committed designer many hours to create a truly creative and valuable logo that provides ongoing value for a client.  Technology doesn't make the process of creative design any quicker than it was ten years ago and there's certainly no way an artist who licenses intellectual property can industrialize their process and earn additional revenues by increasing throughput.  There are no efficiencies of scale in real custom art.  All this new process is able to do is to deteriorate the perceived value of art in order to debase the pricing.  And the value of debased pricing works in only one direction.

This is a win/lose proposition.  It hurts even more when people who are ostensibly related to the art process side with the aggregators to push an idea that harms an entire industry.

Some will say that this process separates the wheat from the chaff but what it really does is separate highly trained, insightful and hard working people from their income stream.  It's a cold, callous and calculating business model that Goldman Sachs would love.  As long as they are on the other side of the equation from the artists.

The sad thing about self appointed experts with big microphones pointed back at the web is that they have an audience they didn't earn and their sole intention is to monetize their bully pulpit.  Sad days for real artists.  Thankfully, lots of clients can see thru this kind of horse shit and still hire professionals to design, create and help them market successfully.

I guess in a pure market driven economy the thought is that naked cannibalism is good and ordained by some god somewhere. At least some of the population will get fed.... When did the actual value of art exit the market?  When did it get replaced by a bunch of Ayn Rand clones bent on destroying all markets by reducing them to the equivalent of pork bellies?

This is not a question of being unable to compete on talent.  It is a moral question of who should benefit from true value.  There is an intrinsic value in all we do.   There used to be an understanding in marketplaces that you would sustain your providers and they would sustain you.  Now is it just every man or every business for themselves?

Thank goodness that this drivel on the web hasn't penetrated into the general public consciousness, yet.  Not all of us nor all of our clients have walked up to Jim Jone's table and drunk the Koolaide.  Not every author has given away their books to drive their corporate speaking engagements.  Not every photographer has walked away from their copyright to embrace a royalty free existence (and impoverishment).

If someone offered you a contest instead of a job would you take it?  If you were a freelance electrical engineer and someone came to you and said,  "Design the next great cellphone for us on spec (with 1,000 other engineers)   and if we decide to build the one you design we will pay you a wildly reduced fee?"  If you were a chef and someone came into your restaurant and said, "Make us your best entree.  We'll sample yours and those of all your competitors and then we'll pay the check at the restaurant whose food we liked best.    What a great opportunity for you to connect with diners!"  I hope you would have the gumption to throw them out of your restaurant or tell them to stick their cellphone contest someplace where only trained proctologists could recover it.  Because what they are basically saying is,  "Let me exploit you."  And we're supposed to pretend this is the new economy.....?

3.13.2011

I find the most interesting people just walking thru life.

Amulya, sitting in my studio for a portrait.

It's fun to find new people willing to spend the time to come into the studio and sit for a portrait.  Just for fun.  Every semester I get invited to come to one of Dennis Darling's classes at the University of Texas college of Journalism to do a slide show and talk to students about the profession of being a "High Value Content" provider  .  I generally talk about what I like to shoot and why.  I always talk about how to "monetize" my passion, as well.  According to Dennis I am usually entertaining and never give the same speech twice.  The students seem to like the talks.  But sometimes Dennis and I don't communicate (it's probably me, I should listen better.....) and this was one of those times.  You see, I'd been doing little, intimate talks about the business of photography for Dennis' and Michael O'Brien's  graduate students.  Usually no more than ten or twelve people in a class.  We could grab a topic and throttle it and then move off to another topic that the students wanted to know about.

When I left my office I grabbed some self promotion pieces to show and the incredible book, Commercial Photography Handbook, (which is like a blue print for constructing a financially successful career in photography.......) and I put my favorite HD infested DSLR (Canon 60D) in my bag and I started free associating a speech-let about the "exciting" convergence of still photography and video.  But it was not to be.  Instead I was escorted into a big theater style lecture hall and I smiled and said "Hi!" to well over 100 students.  Now I know how a comedy club performer must feel when they walk into an unexpected audience.  You know, like Eddie Murphy walking in to entertain a church full of southern Baptist ladies...

Picassa online albums to the rescue.  I found a gallery I've uploaded in order to put photographs in my blog and there were over 900 fairly fun photographs, each with a funny story attached.  I was saved by the ubiquity of the web.

But at the end of the talk, after most people filed out of the room (still laughing?) I stood in front of a small group of people who wanted to ask me some questions.  Most of the questions were about how to get started.  Or how to make money.  Or how to get started making money.  But one young man (on a campus of nearly 50,000 students and a female/male ratio of 58/42%) actually asked me how I found people to photograph.  Really?  Ummm.  Look left or right?

So I turned to the cute and exotic young woman standing in the middle of the crowd and I said,  "You have a wonderful look.  Would you consider coming to my studio so I can do your portrait?"  She quasi blushed and then said, "Of course."  (Later she called to see if she could bring a friend along....which is always fine.  Especially if they are attractive as well.)  I turned back to the young man who asked me the question and he seem mesmerized that things could be so easy.  But there it is.  Life is as easy as you make it.  Finding people to photograph is a practice of playing the odds.  Ask enough people and you'll have enough models/subjects.

Today I finally made a web gallery for Amulya.  It's important to remember and keep your promises.  

The lighting was one giant Octabank with a Elinchrom flash head plugged into the lower output plug of a Ranger RX AS pack.  I used the Octabank as close as I could get it.  It's the Fotodiox bank  that's all of $65 I talked about in a blog about a month ago.  An amazingly great, cheap modifier.  I love the light.  It's groovy.  Used the Zeiss 85mm and an older Canon 1dmk2n.   Fun stuff.



3.11.2011

Industrial art meets the San Antonio streets. Film, of course.....


I'm working on an ad project where I need to drop an Italian street scene into the background of a photograph.  The client is wonderful and I wanted to make sure they had a range of options to choose from.  I've been to Italy a number of times on jobs and shooting for myself so I opened up the filing cabinet and started to go thru the thousands and thousands of slides and medium format transparencies I have accumulated over the years.

My eyes wandered over to a different part of the filing cabinet to a folder entitled, "Old Street Scenes."  I fumbled around in it and found this photograph.  That car, if I'm not mistaken, is an American Motors Corporation Gremlin.  The predecessor of the AMC Pacer, and other fine cars.

It was taken on the streets of San Antonio.  When I look at it I realize that it must have been taken about thirty years ago.  It was my pleasure to take dodge work, drive down to San Antonio in my old Volkswagen Beetle, and walk around in the streets taking photographs.  In those days the streets were teeming with air force recruits who would come to one of the three or four air force bases in the area for basic training.  Downtown was less savory then.  Tourism wasn't as vital.  Some streets were wall to wall tattoo parlors broken up by seedy bars and military surplus shops.  That made shooting in the streets a lot more fun.

I'm going to be this was taken with a Canon TX SLR camera and a 50mm lens.  Mostly because that's pretty much all I had back then.  Fun to see history.

3.10.2011

Sometimes rocks on a blue table are just rocks on a blue table.

     Rocks on a blue table.  Shot with a Lensbaby Composer and an Olympus EPL-1.


I would love to think that everything that squirts out of my camera is art with a capitol "A."  But I know better.  Sometimes I shoot things because I like the color and sometimes because I like the shape and almost always when there's a beautiful person involved.

Udi asked me to review the Lensbaby Composer for his site:  http://www.diyphotography.net  So I did.  He might not like the review.  I was amazingly honest.  And then, after dinner,  I came back out and looked at this photograph and wondered if I would have gotten it with any other lens.

Don't know why I like this so much.  I was out shooting test shots and I parked near a little crepe trailer a block off south Lamar.  I walked over to the table, picked up a few rocks and put them down, played with the lens and shot them.  Then I moved on.  It was only a few minutes ago that I really looked at the image in earnest and decided I liked it.  A lot.  Interested how a brain works.

Sometimes there's no meaning in what we photograph.  Just a juxtaposition of color and shape that seems to resonate with something deep down.  That's what I did for a few minutes this afternoon.

Don't forget to set your clocks back an hour on Saturday night, if you live in most areas of the U.S.A.  Are we the only nation that messes with time?

Did you happen to pick up one of the ring lights I talked about?

If not, I just checked and you can still get one with a set of lens adapter rings for less than $40 bucks.  It's a deal.  I now have two.....


I bought one when I first saw them on Amazon for around $35.  I didn't know what I'd do with it at the time but I thought, at that price, it was too good to pass up.  In the interim I've used it for lots of different lighting applications.  I used it above to add a bit of fill light to Noellia's face on a cold winter day.

I've used it as a work light on location.  I've used it as a direct fill on two video projects and I keep looking for clever ways to press it into service.  


The batteries for the unit are in the housing on top of the hot shoe.  It takes two double "A's" and they last for hours.  You have the option of turning on all 48 of the LEDs or turning on one side or the other.  The unit comes with an A/C adapter and a set of filter ring adapters for most common lenses up to 62mm.  It's small, light and cheap.  The white light is as good, colorwise, as that which I get from my bigger panels and, for the size and stingy battery use, it belts out a good amount of light.


When I shoot commercially in dark places I sometimes use one of the ringlights on the front of the lens to use as a focusing aid for my manual focus primes.  It also adds sparkle to people's eyes and stops their pupils down a bit so you see more of their irises.  It's a more natural look.  I'm amazed at how good and how cheap these things are.  That makes them one of my favorite devices in the LED space.

I also use it as a reading light.  But that's a whole other topic.  Get one at this link.

3.09.2011

A quick review of three new tools I love.


I love to mix it up around here.  I write copy,  I write blogs and I write scripts.  I shoot film, I shoot digital and I shoot video.  If I did the same thing every day, all day long, I might be damn good at it but I might be damn bored and damn boring.  We're humans.  We were made to roam.  To hunt and gather.  To invent and to constantly change gears.  Not to sit in front of the same electronic fire pit for eight or nine hours a day, watching the same lights flicker over and over again.

So, lately I've been more and more fascinated by video (or, for you elitists out there, "Motion").  And when you tumble into a new media you go thru the process of learning which tools work for you.  My current favorite video shooting DSLR is, without a doubt, the Canon 60D.  It's set up for video.  The audio set up is good, the noise performance is good and it's stingy with energy use.  The camera above is a Canon 5Dmk2 and it's the best portrait camera I've used.  And if you want out of focus backgrounds it rocks for that, too.  But when you need more than one thing to be in focus (90% of the time for me...) the extra DOF of the smaller sensor in the 60D actually works in your favor.  But this isn't a camera review.

The three things I want to quasi-review today are the Rode Stereo Mic, the 50mm Carl Zeiss lens and the Manfrotto 501 HDV video fluid head.

I'll start with the Rode Stereo MicRode SVM Stereo Condenser Microphone.  It works great for natural sound when you put it on top of the camera.  I used it, with the supplied windscreen, all afternoon in 20 to 30 mph wind gusts on Saturday on the end of a pole, close to our subjects, and we were able to get damn good sound.  Better than I would have thought possible.  When we used it in the quiet studio it's final output (what we heard in FCP) was very detailed and neutral.  The secret I've learned is to always be very close to the subject you're miking.  Like 12 inches away if you can swing it.  A boom pole is a necessity for any sort of real sound in your production.  That means that your video crew will usually have two people, minimum.  I'd buy another Rode Stereo Mic in a heartbeat.  I never worry about its performance and that leaves me mindspace to worry about other stuff.

I use the 50mm Carl Zeiss ZEZeiss 50mm f/1.4 Planar T* ZE Series Lens for Canon EOS Cameras lens when I want to be fairly close in to an interview subject but without any distortion of the subject's features.  I use the lens right at f2.8 which is the extreme sweet spot for this lens.  When I'm working inside of five feet the background goes mellow and out of focus but the sharpness on the subject is great.  I also love that it's not to crunchy but very detailed.  If I stop down to f4 the lens is almost too sharp for some subjects......  I bought mine to use on the 5Dmk2 but if I'm in the video mode it rarely comes off the 60D.... I liked this lens so much I went back and bought the 35mm f2 and the 85mm 1.4.  They are that good.  Not good in the hands of a beginner acculturated solely to AF, but great if you are comfortable hitting manual focus.  S screens for everyone!

Finally, the latest arrival, the Manfrotto 501 HDVManfrotto 501HDV Video Head - Replaces 501 fluid head for my video tripod.  This thing is big, heavy and works well.  I've used heads that are three and four times the price and they were great.  About 5 to 10% better than the Manfrotto.  But the Manfrotto is all I need right now.  When my hand skills and technique hit a wall with the 501 I'll look for something better but that might take a few years.  It's got a spring counterforce setting that compensates for the mass of a 5 pound camera set up (just about right for DSLR and lens....)  lots of adjustments and, most importantly, it stops and starts smoothly.  Every movement is adjustable.  For $189 it's an incredible value.

Ben used the head this weekend for a class project and he was amazed at what a difference the right tools made.  None of these are "break the bank" accessories and I bought them after struggling with other, less expensive options.  I have a project that starts next week that requires good techniques and good tools.  The cost of the three products = a day's fee.  If they make my work easier and better they're worth their weight in my camera bag.

Next week is SXSW.  I have to stay in town to work on a video project but I can guarantee that I'll be downtown a lot shooting the madness.  If you're coming to Austin shoot me an e-mail and we'll see about setting up a happy hour.

3.08.2011

It's Spring Break. Go somewhere fun. Do something fun. Really.



Man.  These are the biggest files I've loaded to the blog.  Click on em and see how big they get.  And that's the output from an Olympus EP-2.  Amazing to me.  But that's not what this is all about.

These are images I took last April when I did a fun roadtrip to west Texas.  These were done in Marathon at a funky, fun hotel in the middle of town in the middle of nowhere.

I didn't know what I expected to find but as usual I didn't find it I found something else.  And that's fine. That's the experience of trying something new.  You really don't know what you're going to end up finding.  So a  whole year has passed and it's time to go somewhere again.

When you are in a precarious job like photography there's always a temptation to make your vacation into something that can be monetized.  I started thinking up workshops so I could make the big bucks like Joe and David, without having to go thru the process of selling anything tangible to the ad agencies or the companies I work for.

I thought about a week long workshop for 10 people in Marfa, Texas.  We'd stay at the Paisano Hotel, have all kinds of desolate adventures and share war stories over great bottles of wine and rare steaks.  But then I remembered that the two deficits Marfa seemed to have last time I was there were good wine and supermodels.  And what's a workshop without good wine?

I've been doing a lot of video and I have something like twenty five years of experience doing TV commercials and stuff so I thought maybe I could throw together some sort of cool multi-media workshop teaching people how to make movies with their DSLR's.  But God, that's so time consuming and I'd come back from vacation with no finished work for me.

Then I decided to bag all the monetizing possibilities and challenge myself to shoot fun stuff for a week and plaster it all over this blog.  To do something for me.  To shoot stuff I liked instead of stuff I thought someone else might like and it all made sense to me.  I should just have fun.

Then I thought about all you guys out there and what I wanted to say to you.  Well, here it is:  "Life is short.  If you love to do art then get out of the office and out of the house and do some damn art that you like.  Don't follow a leader.  Don't take a workshop.  Fill the tank and ride.  Find your muse and squeeze it for every last drop.  Fall in love.  Take a different road.  Meet strangers and photograph them.  Share secrets with someone.  Sleep under the stars.  Eat something you've grilled over a campfire.  Stay one night in a five star hotel.  Drag your camera everywhere.  Write a poem.  Write a love letter.  Be silly.  Dive into Balmorhea Springs.  Listen to new music.  Stay up all night.  Kiss someone with passion.  Eat great food.  See the ocean.  But do something fun and new for Spring Break.  Life is random.  Take the prize while you are still alive."

And those are my thoughts about a good Spring Break vacation.  Do I have a metric to measure the success for any of this?  You gotta be kidding.

3.07.2011

The process of reinvention. Starbucks gets it.....

50mm Carl Zeiss 1.4 shot at 1.4 on Canon 1dmk2n.
50mm Carl Zeiss 1.4 shot at f8 on a Canon 1dmk2n.

Consumers and B to B clients are moving targets.  That's why it makes sense to focus on updating your "public face", your offerings and even the way you personally engage clients and potential clients.  Many people debated the intelligence of removing the type from the Starbuck's logo but it makes perfect sense if your plan is to move beyond coffee.  They've made the foray into ice cream and music, now watch them start serving wine in the afternoons and evening.  Their core market is adults and they own the morning for the middle to upscale part of the market (Sorry McDonald's....) but the problem with adults, even the most caffeine addicted adults, is that few of them can drink much coffee in the evenings and still sleep.

That means that Starbuck's sales  probably look like downhill skiing when you chart hour by hour sales.

If you can get adults back in by changing your product mix to match hour by hour sensibilities then you maximize your investment in rent and wages.  Wine and cheese makes perfect sense.  Happy Hour at Starbucks.  Please note that this is just my opinion about how they might go forward.......

As photographers we've got some psychological and process hurdles to get over too.  The days of print sales are wrapping up.  If you sell directly to consumers (weddings and portraits) you've got to re-invent your business so that pricing and fulfillment aren't 100% dependent on the physical print being your final product.  As demographics shift the draw of the print declines in lock step with the acceleration of electronic display.  You should probably be working to a sales model that delivers final images on an iPad.  With a slide show.  With video.  With other extensions.

In commercial (advertising and corporate) photography the print is as rare as a dodo.  We deliver high res tiff files to clients who are aiming toward magazine or direct mail or brochure print production.  We deliver profiled and optimized Jpegs to web designers and web marketers.  If you gave a print to our direct clients (such as medical practices and retailers) the first thing they would do is scan it into their system and the second thing they'd do is find another photographer.  

My graphic designer spouse reminds me that color preferences change in two to three years cycles and popular typestyles change quickly too.  Refreshing the look of our logos becomes a priority when daily presentation of a website is the lifeblood of commerce.  

Website design is now fashion.  And fashions change with the seasons (warning:  this is not a suggestion to use pumpkin graphics in the fall and beach balls in summer.....)  What's your Fall line look like?

Just like Starbucks we have seasonal shifts of demand and by broadening our offerings and pushing into new markets we can smooth out the curves so that the slow times are less........slow.  Think of the addition of video services as the introduction of Frappacinos.  That was a brilliant move on SB's part to build Summer traffic.  The coffee of our business is the photo assignment.  The copywriting is the hot chocolate.  

Now, along with refreshing my brand, I guess I need to come up with names for our different products.
Anyone up for a Venti Executive Portraitiano?

3.06.2011

Ennui. Success. Anxiety. Work. Throughput. Satisfaction.



I should be happy, satisfied and feeling relatively secure right now.  Business is booming, my fifth book is just about ready to ship off to the publisher,  I've got money in the bank and we didn't panic too much during the "People to Goldman Sachs" wealth transfer of 2008-2009.  In fact, we made money in both our savings and retirement accounts.  So why do I feel more like the bottom photo instead of the top photo?

It's the age-old conundrum:  Am I better off challenged and struggling or am I better off trying to maintain whatever little lead I've accrued.....knowing that it could all come tumbling down with the capricious whip of fate? Or the duplicitous hand of a new generation of investment bankers? Am I happier wishing optimistically for better things in the future or am I more depressed knowing that there's a long way to fall?

I've been living the frugal mentality for the last three years.  Only buying what I needed to stay competitive.  Only spending on stuff we needed for maintenance.  Eating peanut butter and jelly and staying out of expensive restaurants.  But last week I decided that we're either recovering (as a national economy) or we were all going to die.  And I decided that, if there will be bread lines and riots in the street,  I couldn't possibly face them without a new MacBook Pro,  a new fluid head for my video tripod and a full set of Carl Zeiss lenses for my Canon camera bodies.  Forget frugality.  It's time to have fun.

But seriously.  I think my anxiety is tied to all the mixed messages I get every day.  The internet tells me financial armageddon is nigh.  But my clients throw me good work consistently.  And my stocks keep rising in value.  The web tells me that my chosen profession is the latest minimum wage job category.  But my rates keep going up and people keep paying faster and faster.  The schools are kicking teachers out the doors and Texans are nonchalant about class room with 40 kids.  But my kid's school district is resisting all the madness.  It's amazing.  We all understood that it was fear that caused the market (and the economy) to finally collapse.  Why can't we understand that it will be blind optimism that will bring it back?

Oh well.  Back to work.