I know three successful still photographers working in the Midwest area of the country shooting and competing with one another for regional and national clients. They recently formed a separate production company and are shooting broadcast commercials for the national market. It has proven to be a smart move for them. They’ve expanded their businesses by offering video solutions that meet their clients’ needs and have collaborated with one another by bringing different skill sets to the video production team. I often think that we (photographers) miss out on collaborative opportunities due to our independent nature. But I’ve learned that when I work in a collaborate team and we each bring our own perspective and skills to the whole, it has made me raise my own bar. Partnering doesn’t solely pertain to video production. It works in any business that benefits from scaling up.
Shoot outside your niche. I’ve always been a commercial still photographer working primarily in the editorial and B2B markets. About 15 years ago my partner/husband and I started exploring the motion medium. We began by shooting stock motion footage on 35mm film, which was a very expensive proposition, but I fell in love with this medium. When digital video hit the scene, my passion for storytelling led me straight to it. Digital video enabled me to shoot in the motion genre with our small team and at an affordable cost.
Every family has a story to tell and I wanted to use my craft as a filmmaker to tell their stories for future generations. I’m finding that people desperately want to organize and preserve their family photos whether they are digital images or inherited analog snapshots. I didn’t want to just digitize their family photos and put them on DVD’s. I wanted to capture their family stories with on-camera interviews of their loved ones retelling them in their own voice while they are still here to tell them. It has been well received but it comes with a learning curve and getting to know the retail market.
Shoot what you want to shoot. Shoot something that you are passionate about not because you think it would make a good promotion piece or portfolio sample. It could be that you photograph something you are interested in and have access to. As a female photographer I’ve spent the better part of my career working in a male dominated profession. I decided to seek out other women who work in male dominated fields and create a series of short videos about them. Here are some of the amazing women I met; Natalie Jones a helicopter pilot, Simona deSilvestro a professional racecar driver and Patrice Banks and auto mechanic and engineer. Working on this series not only keeps my skill set sharp but has led to making some great connections.
Don’t think that you have to pursue an overwhelming topic or project. You may just want to explore with your phone. We live in an age that I used to dream about – an age where technology makes it possible and even easy to create the images that only exist in our mind’s eye. Technology has made communicating visually immediate and spontaneous. Think about the power and the opportunities that provides.
Be optimistic – I’m going to start with the hardest one of all, because it’s really difficult to be optimistic these days. But I find that if I can maintain a positive attitude and turn my thoughts to what is possible, I actually open myself up to more opportunities in my life, instead of creating more roadblocks.
Be open to possibilities. – Be more flexible in how you perceive things and who you are. Change is always happening, but it’s usually gradual. Most people don’t take notice until “change” forces their hand to act. It’s always better to be proactive than reactive so embrace “change” as an ever-present fact of life that creates opportunities for those who are open to seeing them.
Collaborate – Photographers are very independent creatures and collaboration is not part of their norm. As the “photography” business continues to change, photographers will find that collaborating with other artists will make their own businesses stronger. There is so much more to running a business than there used to be. While social media marketing has opened up numerous possibilities, it can also be overwhelming to a solo photographer. You can’t do it all. Work with people who can bring out each other’s strong suits.
Diversify – I’m not quite so sure why so many photographers are so rigid in how they define who they are and what they do. Having a “style” is great, but the trick is to not to be so narrowly defined by that style, so that when styles change, you don’t find yourself obsolete by your own design. It’s kind of like being type cast, where your audience or your clients can only see you in one way. Diversifying might be creating a whole new niche of your business. I recently created a business niche that is more geared toward the retail market. We create high end “Ken Burns” style family biography videos to preserve a family’s legacy with personal interviews with ones loved ones combined with old photos and home movies.
Concentrate on “the story”– I had the opportunity to speak with a lot of still photographers and filmmakers this past year and I began to notice a difference in the conversations I was having with each. Most times, filmmakers would be telling me a story, whereas still photographers would be telling me how they executed a photograph, or essentially telling me the “back story” of the creation of the image. It’s all interesting but “the story” is the bottom line – if that doesn’t come through to the viewer – the rest doesn’t matter – including how it was executed.
Be authentic – be true to yourself. That means that you have to trust your gut instead of second guessing it. This is hard, especially when things don’t always work out the way you had hoped. Step away from the “noise” and listen to the voice inside.
Fail more. – Rejection is a tough pill to swallow but it usually means that you are either pushing yourself to try new things, you are too far ahead of your time or it just wasn’t meant to be. If you look at successful people you’ll see that most have had failures and rejections in their lives but they stuck with it – instead of letting failure defeat them.
Self-Initiate more projects. – I don’t like to call non-commissioned work, “personal projects”. That co notates that there is no monetary value, and these days just the opposite could be true. With more and more lopsided contracts being presented to photographers for commissioned work a photographer has a better chance to make more money and keep ownership of their work by creating self-initiated projects. But they need to be prepared to work hard. We’ve been working on a project entitled “Like A Woman” where we shoot environmental portraits and a short video about women who are working in traditionally male professions. It is a subject I know all too well after working in the career of photography and now filmmaking my entire adult life.
Forget about the past and learn from mistakes. – You can’t change the past but you can learn from it and then, move on. Look toward the future but make sure you take time to enjoy the “now”.
In the scheme of things, you’re just one small speck in the universe. – I think we all get way too stressed about things that really don’t matter and we let those things control our life. When we become more conscious of that, we really begin to live life.
In the blogging sphere of photography and video there is a lot written about gear and how to use it, but precious little written about business. Chances are, if you are photographer who has been in business for more than 10 years then you know that technology has not only changed our tools, it has changed the way we do business.
For starters we are doing business in a global economy and with that comes pluses and minuses.
One huge plus is that we are able to reach a much wider audience than ever before. That is if you have an understanding of how to do that and take advantage of the opportunities that are out there. One minus or downside is if we don’t adapt our dated business models in a business that has seen monumental changes we won’t be able to compete.
As commercial photographers we are in the visual communications business. We create imagery that delivers a message or tells a story for a variety of markets including; advertising, corporate, architectural, editorial and others. Each market has a need for visual content and these days that encompasses both still photography and video. In the last couple of years the lines dividing these two mediums have faded away at least in terms of how content is consumed in our culture. What’s next – VR (virtual reality)?
Here are a couple of tips to help photographers prosper in our multi-media world:
Decide what your company will offer. Will you only provide still imagery? Or will you expand your business and offer both still photography and video? Are you quick to answer the question with; “I don’t want anything to do with video” ? The problem with that answer is that most of your clients probably have a dual need for stills and video. Are you going to send them away to your competition? Or will you keep your clients in house and take care of their video needs by hiring or outsourcing? That’s a different way of thinking and has the potential to broaden your revenue stream.
Decide what role you will play if your company does offer video? Will you be the director and work with a camera operator? Or will you assume the role of a DP (Director of Photography) and direct as well as operate the camera?
What will you outsource and what will you keep in house? Maybe you want to expand your business by offering both still photography and motion but you’d prefer to just shoot the still photography and outsource the video. In that case you could assume the role of the producer and oversee or outsource the video production.
Reassess your insurance. Video productions have a lot more variables. They also usually have larger crews. More than likely you will need to upgrade your current insurance policy to accommodate and cover that.
Change your paperwork. Make sure that you go through your talent and property releases and modify the language for multi-media. Change any and all boilerplate contract language to include video (motion).
Licensing. Regardless, if you decide not to expand into video production you will have to contend with the fact that your still images won’t always be used in a stand-alone fashion. Many still images will be commissioned and/or licensed as part of multi-media projects and that has a dramatic effect on licensing. And if you do decide to expand into video production you too will be licensing other people’s work.
Understand new business models.Let’s face it things have changed in the business of photography. Photography has become ubiquitous and the competition is fierce. You are not only competing with professional photographers – you’re competing with semi-pros, amateurs AND video production companies. One thing is certain, it’s never been more important to have an understanding of multiple mediums and to be unique and stand out amongst the noise. There are no templates you should follow. Be authentic and true to yourself.
Keep an eye out for the next big thing. At this year’s NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) Virtual Reality had a big presence. I’m not quite sure if it’s for me but I will follow the trend and keep my options open.
I’ve had a long career with a lot of successes and failures. Here are 3 tips with examples of lessons I learned along the way.
Get rid of the resistance in your life – Long before I became a photographer, I was on a different path. I was studying architecture at Syracuse University. During the summer of my sophomore year my friend and I went on a hitchhiking journey to Canada. Along the way we stayed with people we met while on the road. I remember one such stay very well. It was pouring outside and we decided to just hang out rather than face the elements. There were quite a few other travelers sitting around the room smoking dope and talking about what everyone talked about those days – their disenchantment with the war (Vietnam) and everything else that was status quo.
One fellow erupted and said – “I’m sick and tired of hearing the same old complaints – why don’t you all do something about it.” Those words have stayed with me my entire life. To this day I try to get rid of the whiners in my life and be the one who does something. My proudest achievement to date has been making the documentary Opening Our Eyes, a film about individuals who are creating positive change.
Don’t hide your vulnerabilities – It took me a long time before I could tell anyone one of my biggest embarrassments, but when I did it was liberating. I was working on an assignment about Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket for the National Geographic Traveler Magazine. I had made an appointment to photograph Walter Cronkite, who was a well-known figure on Martha’s Vineyard. The day before our scheduled appointment, I called Mr. Cronkite to confirm. This was way before cell phones and email and even before everyone had answering machines and his phone just rang and rang and rang. I kept calling throughout the day and the same thing happened. By evening, I was upset because I thought that Mr. Cronkite had stood me up. That night, I had a terrible feeling. I thought perhaps that when I had re-written my production notes and contact info for the job, I might have written down the wrong number for Cronkite. I had kept my old notes and discovered that I had been calling the wrong number all day. Imagine how horrified I was when I discovered that it was I who had stood up Walter Cronkite – not the other way around. I called the correct number, Walter answered and I was profusely apologetic as I explained the situation. He was kind and understanding and rescheduled and then he said, “Why didn’t you look me up in the phone book?” I replied that I assumed someone of his stature would not be listed. I learned never to make assumptions. It took me years before I could tell anyone this story. It’s really hard to admit mistakes but when you do, you gain trust.
Be who you are – not who you aren’t – I had just graduated from Brooks Institute and I wanted to pursue my passions. I wanted to be a photojournalist and use my craft to gain access to a world full of stories. Before I enrolled at Brooks, I had spent a year backpacking around the world. I had one camera and one lens and came back with my snapshots and a whole lot of desire. But it was a bad time for magazine photojournalism – Life Magazine had just folded (the second time) and everyone was telling me that if I wanted to make a living as a photographer, I needed to do commercial work. I bought into that and built a pretty good commercial photography portfolio. Then I went to see legendary NY photographer Jay Maisel, a man known for being blunt. He looked at my work, threw a print at me and told me it was “garbage”. Then he asked me if this was what I wanted to do. I told him no, that I wanted to be a photojournalist but that everyone had been telling me to pursue commercial work. He asked me how old I was and I replied “25” and then he looked me straight in the eye and said, “You’re 25 years old and you’re already making compromises”. It changed my life and I remind myself every day to be who I am and dream big, even though I may have to settle for less.
I read Seth Godin’s blog daily. He’s usually concise and right on target. His post entitled,”Clawing your way to the bottom” really hits the mark as far as what professional photographers and other visual creators are up against.
I used to make a lot of money shooting stock – that is before the consolidation of agencies and the commoditization of stock. While it’s understandable why that happened when the world went “digital”, the prices and value of images has dropped so far that an “average” stock shooter can no longer make a living shooting stock.
I’m grateful that I never relied solely on stock photography to make a living. However, commissioned photography has not escaped the race to the bottom as far as photographers pricing themselves out of business. There’s only so low one can go on their fees. It’s a short fix to nowhere.
The solution is there for anyone who is willing to do the work – that is, make the effort to stay at the top of your game. Focus on the big picture. Be curious. Don’t panic. Stay away from trends., Focus on the story – not on the gear. Tell them a story. Live life because if you don’t – your work will show it.
Most folks would write about what they would say to their 20-year-old self, but I chose to address myself a decade later when I’ve had some time to experience more of life.
You’ll be OK – How many of us have thought at times that things will never work out? I have survived a lot of experiences that I thought I would never get through. I’ve done some stupid things and made some dumb decisions. Some have taken their toll but I’m OK.
Don’t confuse “young” with “emerging” – It’s common in our culture to equate youth with fresh or emerging. Don’t tell yourself that this will be the only time in your life that you will “emerge”. I was young when I first started out but I am only now “emerging” in terms of my craft. I am creating from a lifetime of experience and my authentic self.
Business is personal – Relationships are what it’s all about. People will come and go in your life in both business and personal. Be mindful of the relationships that have value and keep those connections secure. As singer/songwriter Don Henley wrote, “you get the best light from a burning bridge”.
Don’t preach to the choir – Don’t just hang out with likeminded people. It’s boring and provincial. Broaden your perspective by connecting with people who are different ages, genders, races or religions. It will bring more understanding and tolerance in your life and others.
Don’t be a quitter – but know when to walk away – I tell folks, “I’m not a quitter. I don’t even walk out of a bad movie”. I’m tenacious and it has gotten me far in my life. At a film festival where I won best documentary, I told a filmmaker that I might have never started to make my movie if I knew that I would still be involved with it, 3 years later. He told me “that’s normal” and then said “you’ll know when it’s time to walk away”. I have found that to be true with all kinds of things – not just making movies.
Make each day count – I’m paraphrasing a bit,
but in the movie Titanic, Leonardo di Caprio’s character, Jack makes a remark about making each day count. I love that scene. Life goes by in a blink.