Hitting a Nerve

English: camera Français : video
English: camera Français : video (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What an interesting week it has been. This past Friday (the day before a long holiday weekend), on impulse, and feeling a little lazy, I shared a link on Facebook to a blog that I had written 8 months ago, How Motion is Changing the Future of Photography.  I didn’t expect to get thousands of hits in 2 days time – it had barely gotten noticed when I posted it the first time, back in February, 2013.

What had happened was that Rob Haggart linked to it from his blog, APhotoEditor and it went viral after that – all around the world.  That’s what amazes me about the age we live in, that something someone says, or writes can be heard globally in record time.  It truly demonstrates the power of “one”.   It’s staggering and something I never would have imagined some 35 years ago when I began my career as a still photographer.  In fact, most of what is happening now in photography. I never could have imagined – not in my grandest dreams.

What surprised me most about the comments I received from that post, was that most folks just couldn’t begin to imagine the future that I was contemplating in my writings. With the convergence of cameras, in regards to stills and video, I imagined a future, where a still image might not be captured by a “still camera” or by a “still photographer” for that matter.  A still image may come from a “frame grab” captured by a video camera.  I struck a nerve for sure, and most people thought I was predicting the demise of still photographs – perhaps because of Ron’s headline, excerpted from my text “ I think we are at a tipping point as far as the future of the still photography business”.

To be clear, I do think the photography “business” is at a tipping point, but not just because of the convergence of still and video cameras, but because of the glut of imagery.  The iPhone has been the game changer in that sense. Everyone has become a photographer and has a camera on them at all times, taking, sending and sharing millions of still images globally every day.  What that means in terms of the still photography industry is that if you want to stay in business as a professional photographer, you will need to create something that is authentic and unique to only you AND more importantly, you will need to provide a product or service that a market is willing to pay for – and pay enough that will sustain you in an industry that requires a reinvestment in tech and gear every two years, minimally.

In my attempt to “get off easy”, by rerunning a blog that I had written and previously posted more than a half a year ago, I learned a couple of things:

  1. Timing is everything
  2. It’s all perspective.

That’s the one good thing about getting older; I have a lot more perspective.  I’ve learned that the future is not at all like I imagined it would be.  I never could have imagined half the things that are happening right now.  And I’m sure that if I’m still alive 20 years from now, it will be a future filled with things and ideas that I could never even begin to imagine.

I will be moderating a panel at PPE this year, sponsored by ASMP “How Motion is Changing the Future of Still Photography”.   Our panelists include, Vincent LaForet, Brian Storm and Chase Jarvis.  Join us, it will be a discussion you won’t want to miss.

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The Top 5 Mistakes the Chicago Sun-Times Made

There’s been quite a lot of talk over the last couple days about the Chicago Sun-Times ChicagoSunTimeslaying off their entire staff of photographers.  When media writer Robert Feder posted on his Facebook Page , he was flooded with nasty comments about what the paper was doing.

“Sun-Times reporters begin mandatory training today on “iPhone photography basics” following elimination of the paper’s entire photography staff. “In the coming days and weeks, we’ll be working with all editorial employees to train and outfit you as much as possible to produce the content we need,” managing editor Craig Newman tells staffers in a memo.”

There has been general outrage amongst professional photographers on listservs and social media channels adding to the extreme angst that already exists in this demographic.  I’ve been giving this a lot of thought, not only over the last couple of days but over the last decade as technology has thrust enormous change on my industry.  If I allow myself to look at the state of professional photography as an unsustainable profession because of these technological changes, than that’s what it will be – an unsustainable profession for me.  But if I turn the “problem” into an “opportunity” and realize that technology has brought me a lot more possibilities in how to monetize my craft, then I will have a profession that I will be able to sustain.

Biggest Mistakes that the Sun-Times Made when they got rid of their staff photographers:

  1. Cheated their readers.  Their readers will see the difference in the photographs that their paper is running.  A professional photojournalist doesn’t just take a picture – they capture a storytelling image.  They are visual communicators and they are good at it.  They make the viewer feel, empathize or connect with their images. I don’t think it will take a long time before their readers see that the paper’s photos aren’t any better than theirs or their friends and have no reason to get the story from the Sun-Times.
  2. Focused on the technology – the iphone.  How many times have I said “It’s not about the tool”?  Do I think that the iphone isn’t a viable tool for taking good photos?  No, in fact if it is the only “camera” you have on hand when a story is breaking – then it becomes the best camera for the job.  On the other hand, the same day the paper sent the memo out to their staff about the layoffs, their front page was covered with images that one wouldn’t have a chance of getting if all they had was an iphone.
  3. Burdened their writers with another job.  Let’s face it, something is going to suffer.  Just like when I try to shoot both video and still images on the same job myself, I always feel like I have the wrong camera for the wrong moment.  A lot of my writer friends can take pretty good photographs, and some merely make a “reference” shot of what’s happening, instead of an image that captures a story.  A writer’s workflow is different than that of a photographer.  Writers go out in the field and gather facts and write the story for the most part, back at the office.  A photographer does pretty much everything in the field.  Nowadays, many times that includes the edit.  Something will suffer, when one person sets out to do two totally different types of jobs.
  4. Made their “cuts” in the wrong place.  They undermined what a professional photojournalist brings to their paper.  You can’t find a more passionate, committed group than photojournalists.  They work long hours, under terrible conditions – many times dangerous ones, receive a lousy pay, but will go above and beyond to deliver “the story”.  Some say this was a “union busting” move and that after a decent amount of time, the paper will begin to hire photographers who will work for less and no benefits.  If that’s the case, then shame on them for cutting out health benefits for such a committed group of people. In the long run,  that is not a sustainable business model.
  5. They forgot that technology works both ways.  Let’s hope that photographers don’t forget that they can use technology to their advantage – that is if they can get past their fear.  Alex Garcia of the Chicago Tribune, writes in a blog post:  “Fear is the worst and greatest enemy of photographers. Why? Physiologically, fear triggers the fight or flight complex. You can’t think creatively, imaginatively and proactively when your entire body is pumping blood and adrenaline to the parts of your body necessary to fight barbarians at the gate. It pushes your body into a reactive-about-to-become-a-victim state of mind. The very creativity that is your unique selling proposition as a photographer is crippled. Your body become’s your mind’s worst enemy.

We no longer need a publisher to publish our images.  With technology we can create and publish with a variety of platforms and portals.  Just take a look at Issuu a portal for digital publishing. With a modest amount of effort, I put together a test for a new magazine called “The Back Story”.  Future issues will be composed of my image outtakes from the dozens of commissioned assignments that I’ve shot over the years.  Maybe, down the road it will include other photographers’ work and give the readers an opportunity to see the images that never ran and get “the back story.”

Fear not, my fellow professional photographers.  We are in a position of opportunity if we begin to realize that and make a conscious effort to change our mindset.  We don’t have  control over the choices that the Sun-Times or any other newspaper makes. We only have control over how we react to those changes. If we think and act smart and not from a position of fear, maybe one of the best business decisions we can make is to take control, and create and publish story telling images that the public will want to see.  And the public  won’t be finding those kinds of images in the Chicago Sun-Times.

 

What Still Photographers Need to Know About Convergence

We should not think in terms of how we can apply the newest tools of the trade to what how we are shooting today, but rather think about how these tools and future versions may be applied to what we will be doing in the years to come.  We also need to remember that it is not just creatives that are determining what we shoot with, how we shoot it and where the imagery will be used, it’s the top executives and money folks from the camera manufacturers, the advertising executives, broadcast networks, movie studios and magazine and newspaper publishers.  They set the stage and the content creators and receivers of the content or the “audience” react.

We as creatives have a choice of what tools to use – everything from an iPhone to a camera like the

English: Canon 5d Mark II set up for cinema st...
English: Canon 5d Mark II set up for cinema style shooting (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

RED, able to produce 5k resolution stills shooting at 96 frames a second at a 200th of a second.  We make our decisions when choosing which tools to use based on a number of factors – affordability  and determining which tool or camera is the best one for a particular job.  Many times, it’s the end use that is the deciding factor. We need to remember that not only our tools are changing, but so is the way the information or content is delivered as we rapidly move away from print to electronic delivery.  Simply put, mobile devices have dramatically changed the way consumers are receiving content and information.

Who could have imagined just a few years ago that a phone could take photographs that weren’t just “good enough” but really good in terms of resolution and delivery?  We need to keep in mind that the limitations of today will most likely not be there in the future.  Technology is changing our lives and our businesses in an exponential way and will continue to do so.  If we are smart and want to stay in business, we need to look forward and imagine what’s next, rather than look at what is or what was.

When I started my still photography business more than 30 years ago, a photographer needed certain technical skills.  We needed to be able to focus a camera and that was tough if you were shooting fast moving action subjects and we needed to know how to get an accurate exposure.  The cameras of today have pretty much eliminated those skills with auto focus and exposure.  Still photographers still need to know how to light but as software becomes more sophisticated will that be a necessary skill set of the future?

When I’m giving a seminar to still photographers who are thinking of moving into motion, I start out by explaining the differences of the two mediums.  Still images are moments in time and video is time in motion.  That explanation sounds simple but it’s quite profound when you think in terms of convergence.  While today’s cameras have pretty much eliminated the skill sets of knowing how to properly focus and expose an image, a photographer or camera operator still has to be able to capture the “decisive moment” – that is where the skill set comes to play.  But is that still true today and will it remain so in the future with motion cameras able to shoot at 96 frames a second at a fast shutter speed with 5K resolution? Why would a client need a photographer to shoot still images when they can pull frames from a motion shoot?  They wouldn’t, especially when most camera operators in the motion sector are working under “work for hire” contracts and they don’t hold the copyright to the footage and/or still images or frame grabs from that footage.  That’s a game changer for the still photography business and licensing of images.

I read an interview once with Vincent LaForet and he was telling a story about having a discussion with a DP at a Red event shortly after the Red One came out.  He asked, “Who in the world would want to shoot a still image with this huge Red camera with a Cine lens?  It’s insane. Why wouldn’t I go out with my 5D Mark II that shoots RAW?”  The DP answered “We want to take your still jobs away from you, just like you want to take our video jobs away from us with your HD SLR’s.”

That was a few years ago.  Now I know a lot of high end still photographers who are shooting with smaller, more affordable and high-resolution motion cameras to shoot still photography jobs and so are DP’s.  That’s convergence and who knows what the future may bring, but one thing is for sure – it’s best to be knowledgeable in both.

The Difference Between TV and New Media

It’s been a tough 3 weeks teaching video to journalists in China – perhaps the toughest thing I’ve ever had to do.  It’s not the teaching part that’s hard – it’s knowing if what I am saying is being correctly translated to my students, it’s being away from friends and family and just being away for so long that makes it tough. I have one more week to go and will take a good long rest when I return to the US.

Last week was especially difficult but yet my amazing students got me through it.  They simply amazed me in how quickly they learned.  They learned in 4 days what it takes most photographers to learn in 4 weeks or months.

Every week I have a new group of students and each week there are always one or two students that I know really “get it”.  There was one student who I coined a nickname for “Mr. Question” because he asked more questions than most.  His questions weren’t just about what settings to use on his camera or how to do something in Adobe Premiere, but more about the “big picture”.  His questions always showed me he was thinking.

One question, this particular student asked me this week, really caught my attention.  He asked me “How are we (new media producers) different than TV?

Stephen-Lee-TV-News-Presenter SMALL
Stephen-Lee-TV-News-Presenter SMALL (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I had just read an article online that addressed this very question and it talked about how newspaper video journalists are now winning more Emmys than TV news journalists.

I responded to my student by telling him:

  • TV news makes the reporter part of the story – sometimes even the “star”
  • New media tells the story through the voice of the subjects – making them the “stars”
  • TV news is delivered to us on the network channels – 3 times a day.
  • Online news is 24/7 and on demand.  We get the news online when we want it and wherever we want it – on our desktop computers, on our iPhones or on our iPads. We also can share the news and interact with others.  We become part of the delivery chain.
  • TV news journalists rush back to the studio to get the story on air by 5 o’clock. The stories are generally very short – limited to their broadcast slot.
  • As new media producers we have the luxury of working longer on feature stories and delivering them online to a global audience.  While print newspapers and magazines are folding – there has been a rebirth of the long documentary story that can now be delivered online.  We are communicating to a wider audience around the world, no longer being restricted by time and space.

In the 1960’s newspaper executives were lamenting about the good old days and predicting that TV would kill them.  I find it ironic that the shoe seems to be on the other foot now.  I teach “motion” and “video journalism” to a lot of still photographers.  There are some who buy their DSLR’s and aspire to make broadcast spots for TV.  There are some who aspire to make feature length films for Hollywood.  And then there are some who tell me that there is nothing new about video and that field is already glutted with videographers and cinematographers. Those are the old business models for video and motion.

The ones who “get it” are the hybrid creatures that recognize that there is a shift in the way we communicate.  They understand that video is really just another medium in which to tell their stories – not a business model, nor a niche market.

My student in China who asked me this question- he “gets it”.  He understands that he is part of the future of how Chinese journalists and others around the world, will deliver the news. That’s why they call it – new media.

And Me Without My Camera

I flew out to LA on Friday and had a free afternoon before giving a seminar the next day. I had packed light.  I was only in town for a short stay and most of it devoted to my presentation. So I left my cameras at home.

I was staying in Santa Monica so when I got into LA that Friday afternoon  I headed to the Santa Monica Pier. It was the quintessential California day – weather wise bringing back a lot of memories from when I used to live in Santa Barbara. For anyone who has ever been to the pier you’ll understand when I say it was like a circus of vibrant visuals.  Within a matter of minutes I was regretting the fact that I didn’t have a camera. And then a funny thing happened – I started recording the visuals in my head and using words instead.

  • Colorful bumper cars against a bright green wall that vibrated in the late afternoon light.
  • Two men crossing paths each recording their own observations with their mobile devices silhouetted against the glare of the sun on the water.
  • Garry King  “on the scene” the street musician doing his own thing pumping out smooth sounds that drifted off in the wind.
  • A man who looked like Santa Claus and sounded like Cat Stevens singing the House of the Rising Sun, quickly followed by I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.
  • A fisherman  weathered and alone.
  • A 400 lb mime painted silver and pulling his pedestal down the pier behind him.

Today as I headed to the airport in my rented hybrid car an old flatbed pick up, era 1920’s pulled up beside me at the light. For an instant I locked eyes with the old Mexican gentlemen who gave me a quick smile and I thought to myself – and me without a camera.

Maybe it’s time for me to get an iPhone.  If only the phone part was better.

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