4.27.2011

I have an anxious personality and at any minute I expect the wheels to fly off any project I touch.


And today is no different.  I'm trying to sort out playing HD video/slideshows on a system that's totally composite.  The deadline is, of course, tomorrow.  We'll just have an audience of 400 we're supposed to impress.  I know a little about the production end and if all the TV monitors we're aiming at are interconnected thru a composite hub then we'll be showing programming at 480i.  The best we can hope for is the gentle buffer of viewing distance.

With a few thousand dollars and some more time we could re-wire everything to hub to HDMI or CAT-5 but it's not my system, it's embedded in a club/restaurant and reality checking tells me that part isn't going to change.  But it doesn't stop me from worrying about it.  Not at all.  You know, butterflies in the stomach and what not.

I'd love to run the programming off my laptop and that's what usually gets done at bigger corporate shows.  I just can't let it go.  I know I'll be up at 3 am researching all of this for the second or third time.  But the outcome won't change.

In an hour my friend and swim buddy, Rip, is coming by to be photographed.  He wrote a cookbook called, The Engine Two Diet, (wildly popular)  and we're doing some photography for a related project.  He's a vegan and will probably be arriving with an entourage and a couple hundred pounds of great looking fruits and vegetables from Whole Foods.  We don't have a comp or a brief or a layout so we're just going to wing it.  That also makes me nervous.  You see, I like to have everything nailed down before we start.  Lighting design in place, prop tables ready.  I've cleaned up and set up the lights I think we're going to use.  I've charged the camera batteries and tethered the camera to a laptop.  Not much more I can do on that one.

I don't know about you guys (speaking to fellow photographers of all stripes) but I get nervous the night before every shoot.  It dissipates when we pull up the first image on a screen and the art director goes, "Ahhhh."  But the feeling is there right up until that moment.  I'll tell you one thing though.....when you are nervous about every shoot you rarely leave stuff to chance.  I'll have three options ready to go for the presentation tomorrow and two back up laptops just in case.

I have extra power packs, modifiers and cameras standing by today.  Perhaps what makes us better professional photographers is the fear......

That's a sad thought.  But one that might be especially true nowadays when the prospect of losing a client or losing a project is fraught with a greater sense of calamity.  Perhaps when the economy straightens out it will be different.  But it never was before.

All this is a public rumination about why my personal work is so important to me.  It's unencumbered by this kind of stress.  No expectations.  No driving intentions.  Just the pleasure of looking and finding and snapping.  The anti-job.

I hope your job doesn't come with the same kind of endless deadlines, third party dependence and logistical trepidation.  If it does then I hope you are paid well.

It's the ambiguity and uncertainty that will kill you.

4.26.2011

I'm guessing that life is what happened while I was out getting a cup of coffee.



It's been an interesting experiment.  I took off the moderation for each comment to cut down on the tonnage of e-mail I was getting and I took a chance that everyone would be civil.  And for the most part they are.  I know that among photography enthusiasts there will be republicans and democrats and they will occupy their positions and defend against any perceived slights.  And that's kind of expected.  I know there will be a contingent who drank the "everything should be free/you need to radically change the entire way you do business" Kool-Aide and there will be the counterargument of "don't fix what ain't broke" contingent.  And I expect a lot of that.

But the last positions really do interest me because they are both flawed. And both true.  The stuff that's just opinion is no fun to talk about because, at our ages, our political and religious views are carved into the stone of our cerebellums and are, for all intents and purposes, unchangeable.

I'd like to start with the "explosive new paradigm (fill in the blank) will forever change everything forever."   I was around during the dot com boom in the late 1990's and early part of this century.  The marketplace was littered with companies that spent tens of millions of dollars trying to prove that shipping dog food all over the world via FedEx was a workable model.  I've watched wishful IT directors participate in three "fat server/thin client" revolutions.  And then Kodak weighed in with a new APS format film with an automated cartridge.  That took the world by storm.  I heard that Walmart is experimenting with internet sales and home deliver of groceries, which will be the third wave of grocery stories trying to leverage delivery services as a profitable value add for perishables.  The first two were abject failures. (People really do want to pick out their own apples, no matter what they say on surveys...)

The same group confuses "free samples" with endless "free stuff" and the idea that we'll make it up with some other product or offering.  Rarely happens well.  People love the free stuff and once it's in hand they are on their way to the next promotional handout.  And they forget that when Coke gives away a free sample it represents a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of their production.  Seems that the real secret of marketing anything is to create demand and deliver something with an enticing value proposition.

The part that confuses the "ain't broke" crowd is that the "value proposition" is a moving target.  That's the part that makes marketing so hard.  It's nice to be good at selling the rev 1.0 widget but hardly a profitable niche if the world has moved onto widget 3.0.  I'm going to use video production as an example since their market is going thru what our photography market has been experiencing.

The David Hobby of DSLR video seems to be Phillip Bloom, who has the obligatory website filled with camera reviews and snippets of his projects.  Like David he is also a good artist with his chops well learned.  But he is bringing to the attention of everyone with a 5Dmk2 or a Panasonic GH-2 the idea that they hold in their hand the Aladdin's lamp of movie making.  I talk about this new mass interest in video to my friends who've been in the business for ten or fifteen years and I hear many of the same arguments that photo pro's use to bolster their hierarchical segmentation (all hope, little fact) of the photo market.

The video pros are dismissive of the new amateur because there's so much of the lexicon of production that the  amateur doesn't understand.  My fellow photographers who are sticking toes (and sometimes plunging in over their heads) believe that their ability to focus and compose a still image is all that matters to art directors and clients.  Video guys are quick to point out all of the complexity required to do "broadcast quality video".  But while we were out having coffee the need to even do broadcast quality video dissipated.  I'd conjecture that tons more video is destined to go to the web and only a tiny percentage ends up (from newbie projects) running out onto cable and floating into the broadcast ether.

What people are missing is the word, "Broadcast."  To cast broadly.  To shoot a shotgun of information in the general direction of the audience.  So "broadcast quality" is relative to the media used to disperse the programming.  The "broad" has changed in their industry from big screens at corporate shows (which does take great production value to look good) and programming sent over the waves to your big screen TV.  The ultimate "broadcasting" now is the casting of programming out onto the web.  And as much as my friends hate to admit it the technical barriers are minimal.  You can go out with a Flip video camera (not for much longer) and capture stuff that will work for some applications on the web.

We're moving media locations (and moving the cheese)  and no one on the pro side wants to talk about it.  Because it means that we have to move from selling tangible things and metrics of technical performance and revisit the conversation with clients that we're good at the more important things, like writing a good script and telling a good story.  Like directing people and helping them perform (in the acting sense of the word).  Having a big vision, an ability to writing good and sensible dialog and having the skills and timing to edit well are the critical attributes of success in the video world.  Big idea.  Big follow thru.  And  the web is somewhat agnostic about lots of the technical steps.  Easy to see when we look across the fence at video how much direction and writing and concepting have to do with the final product.  And yet, when we photo pros look at our side of the fence we seem to narrow down that vision and convince ourselves that our value lies in all the technical and craft skills we've honed over the years when in fact, perhaps, it's allowed us to go on cruise control.  Perhaps what's been killing our businesses is not remembering to sell the big idea, the direction, the emotional value add.

I drank some of the grape Kool-Aide and started working in video....again.  I'd done it in the "film only" days of the 1980's and again with Beta and Hi-8 and Super8 in the 1990's.  I knew all of the movie making techniques and lighting techniques I thought I needed to know.  And I presumed that the camera would, like a talisman of mystical power, make my video work charming.

I've done eight or ten projects in the last year, the last one being a five minute slide show with interspersed video interviews and I've found that there's so much I need to learn.  But it's not about handling the camera (although smooth pans need practice and become elusive in direct relation with the amount of coffee consumed) and it's not about sound and microphones (although it's easy to get sloppy and think that we'll fix stuff in post that just can't be fixed....).  No, it's right back where it's always been: What is the story you are trying to tell?  How does the story flow?  How do you motivate your transitions?  How do you make words that sound real come out of actors' mouths?

I can read books or surf the web to find out what microphone to use or how many frames per second I should set the camera to.  All the technical stuff is stuff that's commodity.  But the value add is the direction and the big idea.

So, how do I bring that around to photography?  We'll all agree the barriers are gone.  We should also agree that the plunge in the economy is skewing the intensity of the changes. Making things seem far worse than they might really be, long term.  But the clients are still there.  They still have millions of pages to fill and millions of hours to fill and millions of websites that vacuum up photographs daily.  While the commodity portion of the pie has grown Jan Klier reminds me (often :-) ) that the pie has also grown.

In the past I would market by calling on the five big companies in town and the ten or fifteen top advertising agencies in town.  And that would be enough.  But the market's changed.  The process of client acquisition has changed.  The story has changed.  I could despair that hitting these twenty entities and not getting the work I want is today's reality.  But the pragmatist that lurks inside tells me that there are XX,000 businesses within a fifty mile radius of my office and all of them require advertising.  All of them.

As I've moved away from my reliance on the "sure thing" clients of my youth I'm finding that medical practices have many needs and uses for images, and budgets as well.  So do start up manufacturing companies with new products and retailers of a certain size.  And restaurants and law firms and accounting firms and all other kinds of consultancies and professions.  Did I mention civil engineering firms?  And every newly minted, self employed entrepreneur is a sure thing for at least a head shot.

And in many instances their understanding of professional fee structures is much more advanced than small new agencies and their start up clients.....

So, until I've hit everyone in my market is it really the business that changed or the target for the business that's changed?

And here's what I've come to grips with.  In 1999 100% of my income was from assignment photography for five major companies and a handful of ad agencies.  In 2010 less than half of my income was from assignment photography.  A large minority came from book royalties (something I would not have dreamed of in 1999.....).  Another chunk came from ghost writing a book for another professional.  Some came from new paradigm (aimed solely at the web) video.  A chunk came from the creative direction and writing of presentations.  Of the assignment work, more and more is coming from local professional business.  Not as high a budget as the national advertising accounts but more loyal and steadier.  In fact the whole business feels steadier because of the diversification.

I was at a very large computer company facility recently and got into a conversation with a marketing person about the "terror" of freelancing in this market.  He was so glad to have a job.  And I think he brought it all up to better negotiate my fees down.  My rejoinder was this.....Well, it's true that the freelance lifestyle can be precarious but think of this,  you essentially have only one client, your employers.  If your company fires you then you're in serious trouble.  The job market is tight.  I've got 25 or 30 "employers" if one of them fires me I've still got 24 more...."  He winced.  And we got back to talking about the project at hand.

I guess what I'm really saying is that photography is alive and well.  It's just different now.  The guys who've really been affected are the big project/high profile guys.  Their stuff was aimed at print so exclusively.  I'm finding more and more clients who need day long projects, not week long projects.  I'm finding local businesses that need smaller rights packages but more frequent shoots. And it's smoothing out.

Anyone who believes that Seth Godin is outselling (and out earning) the top ten fiction authors is delirious.  He's a blip.  They are the business.  Anyone who thinks dollar stock is the path to riches is drinking something very special.  In the end both camps of the "Change. Don't change" argument are right.  The business has changed but the business has stayed the same.  People do seem to want to deal with professionals.  We just have to reach out to them in a broader way.  People do want quality but they do have to be taught the value proposition that comes with better work.  It will cost more.  And business do want some exclusivity to the images they use in their marketing and they really will pay for the right to keep it close for a while.

I'm not satisfied with being a photographer.  I want to be a high value content provider.  If you are smart you are selling the story not the binding.  You are selling the smile or the seduction, not the paper it's printed on.  Or the screen across which it flashes.

But selling the story is many centuries old.  It gets packaged in new ways.  From minstrels to books, to radio to television. Back to print in magazines and on to print on tablets.  Movies, television.  And amazingly enough......traditional live theater.  And why?  Because we love a good story.  We love a good tale.  We love a good painting.  We love a photograph that conveys an emotion that's useful to us.  Useful on a personal level: the resonance of love and memory.  Useful on a professional level:  The two dimensional representation of the best of a brand.  Useful on a selling level:  the seduction of the consumer with the image of desire.

What we'll find when the dust settles is that people still love stories and icons and interpretations and interplay.  And if it's something they value they'll pay for the privilege of using it.

The markets for the goods shifted.  The art doesn't need to change, just the way it's sold.

note:  This blog post took about twenty five minutes to write, don't let an argument about the ideas ruin hours of your life.  Everyone has opinions.  Let's express them nicely and then back away.  Hate to go all Zen on you but reading this stuff is intended to be interesting and fun, not a precursor for mortal combat.  Disagree with me please.  Don't rush to my defense.  I'm a big kid.  I can delete someone if they don't want to play nicely.

Everyone is wrong except me.  And I'm usually wrong too.




Learn the ropes.

4.25.2011

An industry lost at sea. An industry lost at see.

 The current camera crush is for the Canon 1Dmk2N.  I love the way it handles, love the finder with the newly added split screen, love it in conjunction with the 85mm Zeiss 1.4.  Everything seems so beautiful.
When you shoot any of the 85's at 5.6 you're in for a sharpness treat that's unbeatable.  Nikon, Canon, Zeiss......at f5.6 it doesn't matter.

In the past the industry of photography seemed like a well trimmed fleet of battle cruisers brimming with the hot weapons of the day and moving forward with a certain amount of cohesion and fortitude.  Now the industry (from a photographer's perspective) looks like a bunch of inflatable boats and Sunfish sailboats and air mattresses, along with some rusting tugboats and a few party barges, bunched together precariously on the swells.  Moby Dick lurking just under the froth.  Menacing.  Sharks circling.

The chatter on the APA (Advertising Photographers of America) forum today is all about the article that ran in the Washington Post on Saturday talking about David Hobby's role in hastening the decimation of the commercial markets for photography by teaching the unwashed the carefully guarded (eye roll insertion) secrets of the brotherhood of high day rates.  There is much tearing of holy cloth and gnashing of angst riddled teeth.

I think David Hobby is a convenient target but the reality is that there were never secrets that couldn't be found in books over the last 50 years.  It's just that most people are too busy/dumb/lazy to read  and they finally found a group of savants that were patient enough (or financially desperate enough) to stand up and teach them, step by baby step, to use their cameras and lights.  And the little screens on the back of the cameras took away the fear of not knowing while the "free" files took away the economic sting of a learning curve.  Nearly every cogent topic covered by Hobby on his Strobist Blog,  was in Bob Krist's 1996 book: Secrets of Location Lighting.  Really.  It was right there for everyone to exploit.

I bought a copy and devoured it.  And then there was Jon Falk's book, Adventures in Location Lighting,  1992.  This was an incredible book.  The book covered triggers, external batteries, DIY modifiers, reflectors, working in mixed light.  Sound familiar?  That was nearly 20 years ago.....

My first book is just an updated riff on Falk and Krist's classics.  We added CLS or TTL flash control and dialed it into the digital market but the salient points came from way back when.  Off camera flash cords that maintained auto control of flash?  Pretty standard on the Vivitar 283 from the early 1970's.

No, David is a convenient target but the reality is that the smart amateurs of the days past and present knew that the market for paid photography was a tough one and counted themselves lucky to have "real" jobs.

Three things are really responsible for destroying the markets (and don't believe for a second that all the APA photographers are worthless hacks who "just need to up their games"):  1.  Accountants took budgeting decisions out of the hands of creative experts and started to treat all imaging as a commodity.  Hence the pushdown for the cheapest images possible at all times. 2.  In case no one noticed the economy has been free falling since late 2006.....and photography is hardly a life or death substance that bubbles up, by necessity,  to the top of every budget.  And, 3.  Now, with enough hand holding and step by step instruction all the people who were too dumb to master traditional photography could fling themselves into the flattening market with abandon.  And since they lacked, for the most part, any good education in business or accounting or aesthetics or art or history they had no idea that they were producing visual crap. Or that they aren't even covering their cost of doing business.  The cream might rise to the top but which buyer has time to sort thru hundreds of barrels of crap to find the magic cream?  And once they find the cream will the accountants let them buy it?  Not when there's a plentiful supply of "good enough" stock at hand.

Will it change?   Does the universe care?  No.

Eventually markets will recover and most people will realize that they've been subsidizing their clients and they will relent and go back to real jobs.  People don't really want freedom because, to quote Janis Joplin, "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose..."  And no one wants to be a loser....

We (old haggard photographers) will  stay in the profession as long as we can because we're addicted to the identity of being a photographer and the wonder of making art.  But it will all change.  And just like American students' math test scores;  not for the better.

So the APA members on the forum were talking about the final demise of the industry.  Our big battleship studios are long gone.  Our decided tactical advantage of "weaponry" has been degraded.  All we and they have left to offer is our vision and professionalism.  Now we have to find the clients who actually want vision and professionalism.  I suspect they are as rare as great white whales.  Or the budgets with which to hunt great white whales.....

Please note when you read this that I'm only discussing the markets for paid, professional photography.  I'm not trying to run down hobbyists who use David's techniques for their art and enjoyment.  I'm not saying learning is bad or that techniques should be protected like IP.  I am saying that stupid people ruin markets.  We should do a much better job educating our populace.  They might then value their time and expertise (however garnered) and not want to give it away for less than free.  That would help everyone.

Land ho.