3 Ways Photographers can Grow or Diversify

Partner with your competitors.

Chicago 1920's
Chicago 1920’s

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.

Kelly/Mooney is now a fully integrated still and video production business in the commercial market. We recently embarked into the retail niche offering high quality “Ken Burns” style family biography films (videos).

School children - 1930's
School children – 1930’s

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.

 

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“Try to have a little more control”

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately purging – getting rid of a lot of stuff I don’t need any longer. I came across a portfolio of architectural drawings that I had made during my days as an architectural student at Syracuse University. Stuck inside the portfolio were graded copies of the drawings with remarks from the professor. The comments were consistent and repeatedly pointed out Gail's college architural renderingsmy lack of “control”.

“Try to have a little more control!”

“Without control of lines and line quality, solution is lost!”

Back then I used a rapidograph (technical pen) for rendering these drawings. Unlike a lot of my fellow architectural students, I had very little training in the way of art classes before coming to Syracuse and my skills as an artist were terrible. Drawing fine straight lines with a rapidograph was my downfall. The ink would blotch or would seep under the ruler or triangle that I was using and my drawing would usually end up being a big mess.

I think my lack of “control” as an artist ultimately turned me away from pursuing architecture as a career. Instead, I changed my path and pursued a career in photography. Today, architectural students use CAD for their drawings and I would imagine that perfecting one’s skill with a rapidograph is no longer a requirement.

I wonder if things would have been different as far as the path I chose, if I had the tools available to me, that we have today? It’s an interesting question to ponder, but ultimately I don’t think I was well suited for a career in architecture and it went beyond the fact that I had poor drafting skills. I was a “big picture” thinker and not focused on the details.

Fundamentally, I haven’t changed. I’m still a big picture thinker. I am able to clearly visualize, my creation or project as a “whole” and know usually know what I need to do to achieve that end, but in determination to finish, I sometimes overlook the details. I’ve trained myself over the years, to not be in such a rush to complete something, that I compromise the quality. I’ve also accepted the person I am – what I’m good at and what I’m not so good at and found that I’ve produced my most gratifying work in collaboration with others.

I will always be a big picture thinker – the bigger the idea and the more possibilities – the more I love it. I have learned to have more control, but I still love to color outside the lines and push the boundaries.

Business Tips for Photographers in a Multi-Media World

In the blogging world of photography and motion, there is a lot written about gear and how to use it, red camerabut precious little written about “the 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 big 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.  The minus or downside is, if we don’t adapt our dated business models, in a business that has seen monumental changes, we will not be able to compete.

Commercial photographers 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 and editorial.  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.

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: “I don’t want anything to do with video” ? The problem with that answer is that most of your clients will probably have a need for 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 and hire or outsource your competition? 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 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 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, in your role as a producer, you 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.  You have to be authentic and true to yourself.

Check out more tips and information in my ePub, The Craft and Commerce of Video and Motion.

The Biggest Mistake Photographers Make in Video Post-Production

English: High end linear editing suite, 1999.
English: High end linear editing suite, 1999. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ll make it simple and provide a quick answer to the title statement  – “What is the biggest mistake photographers make in the post production process, when they are just starting out?  They think they need to do it all them selves.

Photographers are independent creatures by nature. Most are solo entrepreneurs who create visual content for a living. But when they enter into the business of video production, unless they have decided to work solely as a hired camera operator, they will have to deal with a lot of other creative needs and variables – producing, lighting, shooting, sound, editing, music, motion effects, sound mixing, and color grading to name a few.  Unless you are pursuing a career as a backpack journalist, which I have the utmost respect for; you can’t possibly do it all.  If you try, you will either go broke, or you will put limits on the quality of your product.

I know how to edit – meaning I know the editing software.  But that doesn’t make me an editor.  I realized early on, how the craft that a good editor brings to a project could greatly raise the bar on what I produce.  Generally, I try to look at all my shot footage and do a very rough first edit.  This not only familiarizes me with my material, it helps me keep costs down. I did that on my film, and with 150 hours of footage, it was a long and tedious process.  But it also made me intimate with what I had shot so I was helpful to my editor and it made the collaborative process very creative and focused on the story.

Too many photographers stop them selves from getting into video because they think they have to learn how to edit and that it would be another huge software program to learn.  Don’t let that be a stumbling block.  You can delegate that task to someone who already knows how. More than likely you won’t be composing music for your videos or creating complex motion graphics. You don’t need to learn and do everything and in fact, working with an editor frees you up to start working on another job.  It’s a more profitable use of your time, especially when you are invoicing the post-production costs as part of the job.

There are times when I love to work in a solo style or with a very small crew.  I love the intimacy it brings to the production.  But when it comes to post-production, working in a collaborative way with other professionals is one of the things I love most about video production.  It has been a very powerful and creative force in my life and has challenged me in wonderful ways.

5 Tips for Filmmakers (and other artists) for Building an Audience

The good news for Indie filmmakers, musicians, photographers and new media artists is that technology enables us to take control and distribute our own work to the masses or a more targeted niche audience.  The bad news is that even though we are able to reach a global audience without giving the lion’s share of our profits to an agent or distributor – it’s a lot of hard work.

When I completed final production on my first feature documentary, Opening Our Eyes, I knew I was hardly finished with this film, not if I wanted people to see it. theater interioeIMG_0150Since most filmmakers make their movies to be seen, they need to decide how they want their movies distributed and marketed.  As a filmmaker, do you want to delegate this task to a distribution company or do it yourself?  Will you be one of the lucky 1% of filmmakers who get their films picked up for distribution?  If not, do you have a plan on how to do that?

1. Identify and build audience – Regardless if you decide to sign with a distributor or distribute your work yourself, the most important part of marketing and distributing a film is to identify and build your audience – and you should start building your audience before the film is finished.  As soon as I made a commitment to make a film, I started blogging about it.  I created a blog specifically about the film where my daughter and I talked about preparing for and taking a 99-day journey around the world. I also wrote about the making of the film on this blog where I talked about gearing up for it as well as the post-production process.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was building our niche audience.

2. Have a social media plan:

  • Decide on platforms – Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Google+, YouTube, Vimeo
  • Carve out the time to engage
  • Decide where the content will come from – behind the scenes photos or footage, blogs, podcasts?
  • Who and where is your audience? Find other Facebook groups or pages and followers who are interested in the same topic as yours.  Collaborate. Build your Twitter followers same way.

3. Finding true fans – Since most filmmakers will most likely NOT have a mega hit with huge profits, the best thing a filmmaker can do is build their “true fan” base.  First you should ask yourself how many “true fans” would you need to sustain yourself as a filmmaker? And by true fan, I mean people who are willing to buy whatever you are selling, be it a book, a DVD, a music download or a t-shirt.  The key to growing your core “true fans” is to engage them by sharing interesting content as opposed to just selling something.

4. Be consistent and stick with it – Like anything else, building an audience takes time.  Be prepared to constantly interact and engage your audience by sharing relevant and interesting content with them.  You’re building a tribe or a community.

5. Find likely partners – Making films is a collaborative effort.  Similarly, for filmmakers to be successful in marketing their films they need to find their core niche.  One great way to find your niche audience is to identify like minded groups and share links.  The non-profit my daughter works for partnered with us and we frequently share each other’s news with our followers.

I Don’t Want to be the Smartest One in the Room

My mom used to tell me, “You don’t want to buy the nicest house on the block.” She didn’t just say it when I was buying real estate, but used it as an analogy when she was dispensing other words of wisdom.  Maybe that’s why I grew up not wanting to be the “smartest person in room.”

When I was very young, I used to create characters that I wanted to hang out with. Hot air balloon floating overe Hunterdon County, NJ One was my imaginary friend Peteso who was a “newspaper boy” in China, doing dare devil stunts on his bicycle as he delivered his papers.  There were plenty of others, each one bringing something exciting to my more mundane life of a typical 5 year old child.

By the time I got out of college, I had traveled the world, building all sorts of relationships with people from many different cultures who had broadened my mind as to how I saw the world and myself.  I gravitated toward people who were NOT like me.

When I first began my career as a photographer, I had the great fortune of having  an incredible art director, Adrian Taylor as my mentor.  Adrian had a colorful career as an art director for magazines like Holiday (the original) and Travel & Leisure, which is how I connected with him.  Adrian took my partner Tom and I under his wing when we were first starting out.  He encouraged us by believing in us and he made me always want to put everything I had into an assignment and improve with each one.

We learned a lot from Adrian, but perhaps one of his greatest gifts was to include us in lunches, dinners and parties with some of the best photographers of that time – Arnold Newman, Slim Aarons, Pete Turner, Al Satterwhite, John Lewis Stage, Fred Maroon and countless others.  Being in the room or literally “at the table” with these legends and listening to their stories and advice was probably the best thing that could have happened to me. What I learned from these photographers is the kind of stuff you don’t learn at a photography school.  And it wasn’t necessarily things like business tips or photographic technique.  They talked about their passion and their ideas and it awakened me to the possibilities within myself.

I’ve been preparing a presentation that I’ll be doing for ASMP at the NAB Show (National Association of Broadcasters) next week. As much as I’m grateful to be able to share my knowledge at this prestigious conference, I have to remind myself that it’s only possible because I’ve lived my life, putting myself in situations and environments where there are people who are much smarter than me.  In fact, for me the best part of NAB is to sit in on some of the panel discussions with the movers and shakers of the industry and listen to what they’re talking about.

These days, when I fantasize, I no longer create make believe characters to hang out with.  Instead I imagine myself at a table, having a discussion with people who intrigue me on some level and expand my mind to a place it hasn’t gone before. And then I set out to make my fantasy come true.

Five Things Photographers Should Do if They Want a Future in Photogaphy

An RKO publicity still of Astaire and Rogers d...
An RKO publicity still of Astaire and Rogers dancing to “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” in Roberta (1935) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Understand there’s no such thing as “just do it”.  Nobody “just” does anything; even the folks that make it look that way. I used to watch old Fred Astaire movies and he always made dancing look effortless and easy. But he worked every day of his life on perfecting his skills. It takes a lot of hard work to make a life “your own”, rather than follow a more conventional path.  If you want to sustain yourself financially with a profession like photography, you have to be prepared and willing to do what it takes to make that happen.

Don’t just say no – come up with alternatives. About a decade ago, photographers started rallying together to stand up and say no to bad contracts.  It didn’t work and still doesn’t because there’s always going to be somebody that will say yes.  The problem with “just” saying no is that photographers are only focusing on the problem and not coming up with better options or solutions.  These days photographers have the benefit of technology that has made possible a variety of new options photographers can use to promote and market their work. If we all start focusing on what we can do, instead of just saying no to bad deals, we’d all be better off.

Collaborate/Partner with other creatives.  Photographers have always been fiercely independent creatures.  That has its benefits creatively but can be a real detriment in business.  These days it is a lot easier to connect and collaborate with others, even virtually, and in the process we become stronger as a team of creatives.  Think about teaming up with people who are good at skills you don’t possess, whether it is video or CGI or graphic design.

Walk the Walk – Don’t Just Talk the Talk.  If you have something to say, then by all means say it.  Don’t be a whiner or hang around other whiners and say, “somebody should do something”.  If you don’t like what is happening around you – then do something about it. I am on the board of directors of my trade association, ASMP (American Society of Media Photographers).  I feel that my role on the board is to share my knowledge and skills at this “table” so our members may benefit and the industry stays healthy.  I can only do that if I have something to share and that means I need to be walking the walk – not just talking the talk.  If you are an ASMP member and feel you have something to share with your colleagues, I encourage you to run for the board and become part of the solution. You can declare your candidacy up until December 31st.

Don’t aspire to be part of the status quo.  That just doesn’t work in photography.  You need to be better than the rest to stand out.  What does that mean and how does one do that?  There’s only one way – listen to the voice inside you – and shut out the “noise”.  If you can remember to be true to who you are, you’ll knock the socks off the status quo.