10.06.2020

The role of social media influencers in the camera market.



I spent eight years working in an advertising agency that specialized in "retail marketing". Now we'd probably call that B-to-C; business-to-consumer advertising. When I was working directly in the industry, as opposed to my current indirect role, we didn't have anything resembling social media and the closest we had to social media "influencers" were the hoary celebrity endorsers. Usually well known sports figures or television personalities who would pitch products and services on TV and in print ads. The idea that someone whose only accomplishment was being alive and documenting their homogeneous existence on a free video channel on the internet would have been mostly unthinkable. But here we are. 

We now have a family of women who are famous they shop, apply make-up and workout, and they are becoming social media billionaires (the Kardashians). We have a desperately under-qualified, sociopathic, social media expert as the president of the wealthiest country on the planet (though seemingly, not for long), and we have a bunch of people in their twenties making seven figure incomes because they are good at telling their personal stories on YouTube; and also getting all gushy and drool-y about products that are sent to them to "review." There is even an elementary school boy who  pulls down millions each year reviewing toys for other children. 

But I have to think hard to understand whether or not social media influencers in the camera and photography space have done more harm than good for the industry; and for their audiences. 

Advertising strategies for camera companies were relatively easy before the web rolled around. There was a handful of national and international magazines devoted to photography and nearly every ardent photographer subscribed to one or more monthly publications (or read them on the newsstands). They ranged from a magazine that started out as a local trade publication for professionals in NYC (Photo District News -- raise you hand if you remember when they used to be tabloid sized and printed on newsprint!) to wide ranging, glossy, general interest publications like Modern Photography and Popular Photography. All more or less relegated to oblivion now by the ever-encroaching web.

If there is an apt analogy to the print age then Digital Photography Review's website is the working combination of Modern Photography and Popular Photography with a little bit of Darkroom Photography thrown in for good measure. The critical focus across each of these media is the reviewing of product, the advertising of the same product, and a conduit with which to link buyer and seller. Now it's the ubiquitous "link" while in the days of old it was the endless advertisements in the back pages of every issue. 

In the magazine age there were few alternatives for advertisers beyond printed ads in targeted publications with a flourish of trade show excitement thrown in for good measure. I suppose the influencers at the time were the top tier photographers of the age. Mostly the editorial ones whose credit lines graced widely published photo stories in large scale, prestigious magazines. But it was a different era and many photographers worked across two or three different camera systems at a time. Every assignment might be different. The tools changed with the job and the publication. This made it more difficult for anyone to commit to a single brand. Photographers as influencers were much more gear promiscuous. 

Now we have people who are called influencers, ambassadors, explorers of the light, and other silly titles. 

Instead of shooting for big magazines and then using the awesome quality of their real work as leverage for their camera company clients the new horde of influencers rarely shoot anything for real world clients and are proudly pursuing careers in.....testing and touting cameras. And lenses. And gadgets. And presets. And t-shirts. And baseball caps with logos. Tony and Chelsea strive to be the Kardashian family of photography. All of them got into their influencer niche not because they loved being out photographing but because, for a long while, it was easy money. 

Wouldn't it be super cool if every "influencer" in the camera space was judged by his or her actual work first? Imagine going to a YouTube channel and having the first thing you see be a giant gallery of the influencer's work. Imagine that the work turned out to be was soulless and vapid and not particularly well done. Would you still "highly value" their recommendation of the 25th or 26th camera they have reviewed this year? 

Imagine a reviewer whose whole life revolves around reviewing. Certainly they should be able to sharpen their reviewing stick and really nail well produced and entertaining reviews but... would the value be there for you as the viewer? As a dedicated camera user? Is it enough for you that they talk a good game? Can you trust someone to really judge the handling of a camera if all the handling is done at a sponsor's junket? Would you rather hear from someone who buys the camera with their own funds and uses it daily for months or years until its operation becomes second nature before they write about it or discuss it? Is it enough for their audiences to listen to a regurgitation of the press release and the owner's manual?

Certainly it's the frothiness and the studied earnestness of the influencers that helps us come to think of our recently bought photo gear as quickly becoming obsolete, antiquated and less than capable. Surely it's their smug appreciation of that new menu item or seventh function button that drives us to want to buy and use a new camera just to have access to a control feature we never needed in any of our past photo adventures. 

In one sense the camera market, under constant pressure from the influencers, is becoming tribal and divided as never before. Even though camera sales are dropping like a bag of lead feathers every time a new model launches the appended comments on every vlog and website are strictly demarcated between ardent fans and hate filled detractors. One camp certain that this or that new camera will bring them closer to photo heaven while people in other camera tribes protest with loud conviction that the same camera is a tool of Satan and riddled with booby traps and  crippling failures that will bring nothing but sadness and rent cloth to the bewitched adopters. 

Why am I writing this now; today? Because I just saw a flurry of reviews for a Hasselblad product across nearly twenty YouTube channels by "reviewers" who rarely stray from talking about Canon/Nikon/Sony and who've never, as far as I can see, used or even flirted with medium format digital cameras before this bunched up flurry of reviews.  And I'm baffled. Or cynical.

It's enough to make me grudgingly believe that an old school review site like DPR has merit. Not enough depth but a lot more value than some dingus fussing around with brand after brand after brand, week after week. 

I understand that a unified marketing platform no longer exists on which a camera maker can place a year long buy of ad space and have any chance of hitting 50 or 60 % of all targeted buyers. But I wonder just how influential the social influencers are in moving brands that won't move at all by themselves. 

Or said another way, where are the Pentax influencers? Have the influencers saved Profoto? Do we need the shallow and transient information the vloggers are sharing or do we just visit their channels because we're bored. It's kind of sad.

Hold that thought. 

Circling back, let's have a zoom workshop. right....

Above somewhere in the post I wondered if the influencers do more harm than good for the industry. Think about this for a minute, in the stock market there used to be people who encouraged investors to buy and sell frequently. Jump on a hot tip. Sell in a moment of anxiety. In each sale or purchase the agent or broker made a bit of money. A monetization of their suspect advice. This was called "churn." Some brokers would work their audience (fans?) hard and in the end the investor would lose a good part of their net worth and either change their overall investment strategy or run out of money. 

A good Sony Vlogger works for Sony by churning Sony users (same with Nikon, Panasonic, Canon, etc.) and manipulates them to become dissatisfied with the very camera the influencers themselves recommended only a few months before. The audience capitulates to the sales pitch couched as informational/editorial content, sells their old camera at a loss and pays a premium for a new camera that may or may not be even fractionally better than the one it's replacing. Eventually the buyers catch on and stop buying altogether. Or they realize they've been "marks" who are systematically beggared by a relentless wringing of their financial sponges. And they remember that this is just a hobby and that everything they liked about the hobby seemed much more fun before the gear churn set in. They might decide that their phone is good enough and exit the hobby altogether. Sony (or other manufacturers) in concert with their influencers could have churned away what might have been a long term source of well paced income; if only the product cycles and the churn weren't so relentless. 

We're trained, I think, to regard those YouTube channels in the same way we do television channels. We know where the commercials begin and end on TV but we fail to understand that most photo/video blogs are one big commercial all the way through. And we trust our influencers because we mistake them for educational experts instead of understanding that they are just salespeople priming the overflowing pumps for the camera makers. It's an odd construct and one that leaves me cold.



A New Portrait. We did this one right before the initial pandemic shutdown. I just recently got the client's selections.

Vera.

Vera owns an advertising agency in Austin. I do work for them from time to time. She contacted me just before the holidays last year and asked if I could do a portrait in my favorite style of black and white photography. 

I set up the studio and we spent a quiet hour making portraits. I used the Lumix S1R and set the camera to shoot in a 1:1 (square) crop. The original files are in color and I did most of my post processing in Photoshop and then switched to Luminar 4.x to do the conversion to black and white. 

The lens was the Sigma 85mm Art lens for the L-mount. 

I'd love to hear your responses to the work. Thanks. 

10.05.2020

Gearing up for an interesting series of video assignments. I know what I'll be doing every Saturday evening from Oct. 17th through Nov. 7th.


Once you've got a really big project under your belt all the restraints come off and the work flows in. At least that's the way it feels today. 

We've got a couple of photographic assignments to take care of this month but I'm spending more time figuring out and telling ad agencies how we're going to do stuff safely than I am at figuring out the nuts and bolts of the jobs. A group contacted me last week to see about shooting some products on location, and a bit of b-roll of their client's offices, and I was okay with that. But after I agreed and we were in the scheduling phase they came back and casually dropped an unwelcome wrinkle into the mix. They added a request to do "headshots" of five or six individuals, possibly in the office.

My immediate response was, "No." Followed by, "If this is a requirement of the job then I'll have to pass on this one." Now we're in the, "What if we photography them outdoors?" stage of the negotiation. I'm sure we'll work out something but I can guarantee that it won't include me setting up a temporary studio in a small, interior conference room and interfacing with five or six unmasked people about whom I know absolutely nothing. The subject seems especially poignant given the current situation with the president. The agency is generally very rationale and straight-shooting so I imagine we'll figure out something that works well for both all parties. 

Added note: All good here. The client's intention was always to do exterior portraits, it just wasn't conveyed in the bid process. The actual labs and manufacturing that we're shooting are huge and lightly populated by strictly masked workers. I saw footage of the facility just after lunch and there's ample space and high ceilings. Not what I originally feared! I guess I'm just being jumpy after all the recent news. 

I have several other photography projects booked for October but all of the others are planned for exterior locations so it should be smooth sailing. Two are with groups of physicians so I'm guessing they'll be especially careful when it comes to personal safety. 

But what I really want to write about here today is the upcoming series of videos I mentioned in the title. 

Following up on the success of Zach Theatre's fundraising livestream (Sept. 26) we're embarking on a series of outdoor concerts which will take place in the plaza, just in front of the theater building. Each week will feature a different theme and different performers. One week will be "Motown Goove" another will be "On Broadway" the following week will be "70's Female Rockstars" and the final week will feature "Superstar Chanel" (who sang the Tina Turner songs on the livestream video I posted last week). Each genre will run from Thursday through Sunday starting on the 17th of October. Each show will feature one or two singers and a small group of musicians.

The series is being called, "Songs Under the Stars.

The Theater has ample outside space on their plaza to host a little over one hundred socially distanced people (in various pods) and since it's all outdoors it should be a safe experience. The concerts will start each night at 7:30 and run for approximately one hour. Our collective goal, beyond making the revenue from the live performances, and keeping peoples' interest in live productions, will be to record the Saturday concert for each genre in the series with an eye to streaming the video of the concerts behind a paywall on Vimeo. 

And that's where I come in. 

I'll be at each Saturday performance with three cameras. I'll need to stay stationary during the show so I won't be able to do any fancy gimbal work of the performers (although I would love to...) but I'll be working with two "show" cameras to get a static wide shot with one camera and then do "follow" work with the second camera. By follow work I mean using a much longer lens and getting medium and close up shots of the performers. 

I'm planning to use the S1H as the main/follow camera; coupled with the 70-200mm S-Pro lens. I hope to be close enough to the stage to use the S1H in its full frame configuration but I'm not at all hesitant to switch the camera to the APS-C/Super35 mode in order to get 50% more magnification, if I have to. 

The second camera will likely be the GH5 fitted with the 12mm Meike cinema lens for the wide, stage shots. That camera will be stationary and we'll depend on deep depth of field to maintain sharp focus throughout the show. 

We'll be shooting 4K in both cameras with an eye to being able to crop in for tighter shots where it's needed. Since we'll be editing on a 1080p timeline we shouldn't lose any sharpness with the crop. 

I'll set up the GH5 with no microphone and the built-in mic/audio set to ALC. We need only to get a "scratch track" out of that camera and we'll leave the heavy-lifting for audio to the S1H. The scratch track from the wide will only be used to sync up the audio we record in the S1H to the video streams from both cameras. It's so easy now to sync audio to video in either Adobe Premiere or Final Cut Pro. 

Each camera will be on a tripod equipped with a fluid video head. It's critical for the primary/close up camera since I'll need to follow action, albeit in a limited range. It's better to do it smoothly. It makes the captured video much more watchable. 

I'm putting external monitors on each camera rig and the running cables from the output of the monitors to a monitor for the show director. With the two monitors in front of him he'll be able to call out directions like: "Can you zoom in closer to Bob?" or "Can you catch more of Chanel and less of the band?" Etc. 

If we had more budget it would be great to put wireless transmitters on both of the camera monitor HDMI outputs and then run the received signals into a single workstation so we don't have to run cable or come up with four total monitors. At the current time I own three of the Atomos monitor/recorders and I may just borrow a fourth from one of my fellow, local videographers. Either that or forgo the director monitor dedicated to the wide camera...

Since we're putting a monitor into the director's hands it just makes sense that we'll both be wearing communications gear. A headset for each with an attached microphone and wireless transmitters and receivers. This way we can be socially distanced and still be on the same directoral page. 

The stage area will be well lit with theatrical spots which is a good thing since the show's start time of 7:30 will be post-sunset by the show dates. With good lighting on the stage I don't think we'll need to go over ISO 800 for either camera. A cakewalk for the S1H and well within the range of "good" for the GH5. Added to the mix is the fact that all the footage will be downsampled in the final rendering to 1080p which should minimize any noise that does show up.

As far as audio goes the S1H is an obvious choice for recording it. The camera has a wide range of input sensitivity and, when using the audio interface accessory I am able to accept long XLR runs from the sound engineer's mixing board and match the camera to the line input. We'll monitor the audio carefully at the sound check and get a good sense for the loudest parts of the show. I don't expect to have to do much with the audio levels once we set a "show" level but I'll have a earphone plugged into one ear and I'll be spot checking the meters all the way through. I can send the signal to both channels and set one of them 6DB lower than the other as a means of having a lower level back-up channel in case we hit some unwanted clipping. I'll call that a safety channel. 

As a final safety we'll have the sound engineer record the feed off the mixing board onto a digital audio recorder. That way, if I totally screw up the sound we can replace it with a clean track. 

While it seems obvious why I would select the S1H as my primary camera you might wonder about my choice of the GH5 for the second, wide camera. 

Colorwise it matches up well with the S1H. It has, by far the longest battery life while running, and using it as the wide/close camera takes advantage of its deeper depth of field. With dual card slots it's able to run well past our one hour run time estimate even in 10 bit 4K, and it's rock solid. 

I also want to bring along a third camera, probably the G9 set up on a gimbal, so I can shoot a bunch of b-roll of the pre-show sound checks, the guest arrivals, some wide, establishing shots of the venue and maybe even some "footage" of people enjoying/applauding the shows. The G9 makes sense because I am comfortable with it as a gimbal superstar. And that would leave an extra S1 or two as back-ups for all the other cameras. 

Since this stuff won't be live-streamed it's a lot less anxiety provoking for me. I'm looking forward to four beautiful nights under the Texas stars, listening to live music and making little movies. 

Lots to look forward to and I'm sure I see many familiar faces in the audience and among the crew. It feels good to work on scheduled productions again. Every day I shoot video I get more practice and get more comfortable with it. I should mention that these concert videos are not pro bono. I will be paid.

The video projects are starting to stack up and that's just what I wanted for this Fall. 

More to come....