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.

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Monetization of Photography in Spite of a Lousy Economy

I talk to a lot of photographers. I don’t define the word “photographer” by the type of camera he or she shoots with. Whether someone is shooting with a still camera, a traditional video camera, a motion picture film camera or a hybrid camera that shoots both stills and motion – a “photographer” these days is apt to embrace more than one of these tools.

Regardless of the tools you may use, I’ve come up with a few tips on how photographers can stay afloat and make money in this continued stagnant economy.

  • Think outside the box – don’t think of yourself as one who just shoots still images. Even your “still” clients will have a need for motion imagery these days.  It may not warrant the need for them to hire a big video production crew to make a broadcast spot.  But it could be one of your corporate clients needs a “talking head” for their website. Even if you don’t shoot motion or don’t want to – collaborate with someone who has these skills to fill your client’s needs instead of sending your clients  elsewhere.
  • You don’t need someone else to commission your services in order for you to make a living. When photographers take on personal projects, not only are they creating a buzz and getting noticed by potential clients, they are also creating their own “content” to monetize. It is possible now to get our content to market without the need of a middleman. Portals are open and plentiful to all.
  • Take advantage of what is “free”, rather than be put out of business by it. There are so many ways to build your brand and get noticed without spending a fortune. The costs of building and maintaining a website have dropped significantly because of advances in technology. And utilizing social media to create a buzz and get the word out about your company is virtually free with Facebook, Twitter,LinkedIn and YouTube. But be prepared to do the work and discipline yourself because this territory is ripe with distractions.
  • Re-purpose your content. If you’ve been blogging or have something useful to share – consider packaging your “knowledge” into ePubs, podcasts or “how to” webinars. One thing I’ve learned about making an ePub is that you can either do it yourself or hire a formatter so that it gets to market quickly – via Amazon, Barnes and Noble or the iTunes platform. Price it right – and offer more than one ePub at a time. (I’m working on my 2nd ePub now) In this market, if someone has just spent $3 or $4 to buy your ePub and they see you have another one for sale – it’s not a big stretch for them to buy that other book you offer at the same time.
  • Collaborate with others. Partner with others to put on webinars, podcasts, call in phone seminars etc. Use this opportunity to build your own brand. Don’t always feel that you have to be the only “act” offered. In fact many times, if you join forces with other creatives, it will get you further than if you are the only speaker in a half filled room. Get out there and get noticed and learn from your colleagues at the same time.
  • Be authentic. I cringe when I write that word because it has become a bit trite. I guess in a way I have always been authentic. In fact I just can’t help myself. If you are true to yourself, you will be ready, eager and able to work hard on your dreams. And hard work is exactly what is necessary to make it in this profession.  You’ve got to want it bad enough in order to do the work. If you are a clone of other photographers, you’re career will be short lived. I guarantee the photographers that you are emulating will be “moving on” because their passion is driving them to new things. So, what happens to the cloned versions then?
  • Don’t focus solely on the money. Easy to say and really hard to embrace when you can’t pay your mortgage. But look at any successful person – I don’t care which business you choose to look toward in terms of finding successful people – but you’ll see that most people who have “made it big” were not driven by the money. I’m not saying that money is not important, but if you are solely focused on the money and not on the act of creating – it will show.   Being too focused on the  money part of the equation, can sometimes push it away. People sense it. It’s human nature to want to be around a “winner” – not someone who is begging for a job to keep them afloat financially.
  • Be patient. Everything turns around. While the old days and ways of doing things won’t come back, better opportunities will replace them. Don’t be paralyzed by your own fears. Do what you can that won’t cost you a lot of money and there is plenty you can do. Work social media, learn new skills – audio, editing, writing etc., network with people, create new content for ePubs, webinars, and podcasts. Use your imagination, pursue what you are passionate about and when the economy turns around – you’ll be ready.

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Conversation with Director/Editor Erik Freeland

I was extremely fortunate that Erik Freeland of Springhouse Films was the editor on our film Opening Our Eyes.  I learned a lot from Erik through our collaboration.  I thought I would share some of Erik’s insights about the art of editing.

What makes a good editor?

Knowing a little bit about everything. Art history, popular culture, physics, linguistics, music… it gives you more points of reference for understanding and presenting the story. Attention to detail is very important because in the end, nothing goes unnoticed by the audience. I guess I’d have to say patience is tremendously important –– even though computers do amazing things, editing is at its core a tedious process.

We all seem to wear more than one hat these days – do you? If so do those skill sets complement each other and how?

I started in this business as an editor but really wanted to have more control over the material I was editing. I’ve have been fortunate to be able to also have a career as a director. Understanding those two disciplines and knowing what is possible in each allows me to visualize the editing process more during the shoot.

I know from editing projects myself, it has made me a better shooter. For still photographers who may not want to edit their own projects – what tips can you give to them about shooting video and motion?

Don’t cut too soon. Be patient and let a shot evolve.

When shooting a scene or a moment in time, think of it as different framings: the wide establishing shot, a medium shot of the main action or subject and little details that can serve as cutaways to prolong the scene or intercut the other shots while masking breaks in continuity.

Plan your movement of the camera and commit to it. When you start a pan, resist the temptation to reframe the shot mid-move. Keep it moving for long enough to make the shot usable in the edit and cut only if it really falls apart.

Keep in mind how much footage you are shooting vis a vis what you will want to end up with. You don’t want to miss anything important but a lot of redundant footage can really be a liability in your edit.

What does a well-edited film mean to you?

Many things. I think first and foremost, it’s about clear storytelling. It shouldn’t be confusing and leave the viewer behind. The editing shouldn’t stylistically overpower the story. Secondly, the rhythm of the cutting should help move the film and should be sympathetic to its tone. Third, it should move you, surprise you, change your mind, do something… I suppose I could say the same things are equally important in directing a film.

As an editor, you can have a lot of influence over the meaning and arc of a story. How much influence should an editor have? Does it depend on the director?

An editor should exercise as much as they can… without upsetting the collaborative balance. Everyone involved in the film should influence it to the best of their ability. Otherwise, their contribution to the process is short-changed. Of course, every working relationship is different and some are less collaborative.

What makes a good director?

I think some of the same qualities that make a good editor are part of a being good director. Knowing a little bit about everything as a director for instance, allows you to tell many types of stories and immerse yourself in the subject matter. Attention to detail, multi-tasking capabilities, being able to verbally communicate about visuals are of course all important skills. There is also a balance between focus and objectivity. A good director is fused with the film –– totally absorbed in every detail. At the same time, they have to be able to look at it and all decisions objectively and from a distance, almost like the eventual viewer.

What makes a good story?

Characters you care about, conflict and location, location, location…

What’s more difficult – editing a 2 minute piece for the web or a feature length film?

Hmmm, that’s a hard one. Kind of like asking which is better night or day.

Does editing have trends? Maybe you can point out a couple of examples of style over the years.

OK, first I don’t profess to be a film historian but I try to keep up on things. I tend to watch the films I like the most over and over. Technology has certainly created trends in film editing and directing. Advancements in keying technologies, motion tracking and motion capture as well as realistic CGI environments are but some of the major trends that have changed the way films look and are edited. Probably the closest things to trends specific to editing have been related to timing and pacing. The time-lapse of “Koyaanisqatsi” in the early 80’s, the repetition and multiple outcomes of “Run Lola Run” and the quick cutting shorthand jump-cuts and time-compression in Guy Ritchie’s films like “Snatch” have all had a huge influence over the editing of their time.

Ten Things I Learned While Making a Movie With a DSLR

1. It will take twice as long as you think. This is especially true if you have a limited budget. With a limited budget comes a smaller crew and therefore you need to do a lot more of the work yourself – if you can.
2. It will take more money than you think. Everything adds up. There are a lot of costs in post-production – licensing music is a big one and a feature film needs lots of music – and having the sound professionally mixed, makes all the difference and is well worth the money – so anticipate that cost.
3. If you need to transcode files for your editing application – then make that the first thing you do. In fact, I used the Log and Transfer plug-in on Final Cut Pro to do a pre-edit on all my clips as well as add  metadata to the files.
4. Hire a professional editor. Smartest thing I did. I raised funds on Kickstarter so that I could hire a pro. I know how to edit – or at least I thought I did – till I worked with a professional editor. My editor crafted the story and cut it like a musical composition with beautiful timing and rhythm.
5. You will need twice the memory or drives than you thought you would. Even, when working with a professional editor – in fact because I was collaborating with an editor, we had duplicate projects and media on 3 – 2 terabyte drives each!
6. Stay focused on the story. Don’t even go into the editing room without a clear idea of what story you want to tell.
7. Define your target audience. Iit’s important, especially in terms of how you want to craft the story and the rhythm of the piece.
8. Plan ahead as far as screenings or putting content online. Many film festivals have strict guidelines about previous screenings, premiers etc. I wanted to show my film on a big screen, but I couldn’t have it open to the public or charge money, so I opted to have an “invitation only” event and called it a “sneak preview”. Test screenings are done all the time with studios. It gives you a chance to get feedback.
9. Utilize social media. Have a website for the film and a fan page on Facebook.
10. Don’t try to be what you’re not. And don’t try to be all things to all people in your film. Stay true to your vision. Push yourself to try new things. Go with your gut.

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The Making of a Movie with a DSLR

It’s been a wild ride since I first began this journey of making a feature film with a DSLR camera – in my case, the Canon Eos 5D Mark II. I had already completed three short documentaries to date – all made with traditional video cameras from my first Canon XL-1 to my current HD Sony EX-1. But this time I was heading out on a 99-day journey around the globe, with my 23 year old daughter in search of ordinary people on six continents, who were making a difference in the world, and we had to pack light.

We were “the crew” – the two of us. We had to work efficiently and with gear that would fit into two backpacks and would endure the adventure as we traveled to 17 different countries on 30 flights. I also wanted to shoot both still images and motion, so I opted for the DSLR solution. Of course, I was enchanted by the “big chip” and the cinematic look of these cameras, but I was also thinking of my gear in practical terms – how I was traveling – how I would be shooting – and of course the desired outcome.

You can read more about the gear I took here.

So with my daughter “running sound”, doing the interviews with our subjects, shooting still images, and navigating us through the subway systems in Moscow and Buenos Aires, and me taking care of all the logistics and  shooting both video and stills, we came back 99 days later with almost 3000 gigabytes of content – that’s approx. 150 hours of footage and 5000 still image captures!

I wasn’t mentally prepared for what came next and that was 2 intensive months on my part ingesting all the content into my editing system, transcoding and adding metadata to the files and culling through hours of interview soundbites until I had cut it down to three . It was grueling and my winter months were spent putting in 14 hour days – 7 days a week. I was overwhelmed, yet somehow driven by some force.  It was a lot of work, it was tedious and it was daunting – but yet it was my passion and somehow this inexplicable “force” got me through it.

I raised money along the way through crowd funding on Kickstarter and with that, I hired an editor. After I handed the project off to my editor, Erik Freeland of Springhouse Films, there was a huge sigh of relief on my part. I knew the post production had a long way to go but, I also knew that I had to let it go for a while and step back. Working with Erik has been amazing in itself and he has brought enormous value to this project and film. I have learned a lot from his insights and his talents in knowing how to” tell a story”, and we are finally coming to the completion of this film. Or at least in getting the “first cut” done for a sneak preview on July 17th, at the State Theater in Traverse City, Michigan. The screening is by invitation only and if you would like to attend, just drop me an email at gail@openingoureyes.net and tell me how many people would like to attend.

Since I first dreamed up this project in the final days of 2009, to the departure of our trip in the Spring of 2010, to where we are now, it has been a continual journey on every level imaginable. And I have had many angels working on my behalf – my husband Tom Kelly who has been the “wind beneath my wings” and without his support none of this would have been possible, my extended family who have been amused over the years with my schemes and dreams, my dear friends Angel Burns and Ally Raye who have believed in me and this project and have made incredibly exciting things happen for this film. (I’m not quite ready to divulge some of those exciting things publicly, just yet), Maria Grillo and Jason Harvey at The Grillo Group who have been so giving with their time and talents and created all the graphic design for the film’s release, and so many other “angels” who have helped me with foreign translations, been financial backers, helped me spread the word globally, and every person who was there for me when I needed support and encouragement. I am deeply grateful to have all these people in my life.

We live in an empowering time. When I began my career as a still photographer, over 30 years ago, I never would have imagined doing any of this. In fact just two years ago, none of this would have been possible. Our dreams are as big as we want them to be. I have seen this dream clearly from the start and each day I get closer and closer to seeing it become a reality.

Watch the Trailer

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Avoiding the Pitfalls When Working from Home

A lot of my photographer friends have closed their studios this year, due to a lousy economy and changes with the type of work they do. They’ve set up offices in their home and some have faired better than others. It seems like this transition is a lot harder for some of my male friends than my female friends.

Gail in her "home office" - cluttered but productive.

I think it’s kind of a “hunter/gatherer” type thing where some men feel the need to head off to a “place of work” and if they don’t have that – they feel less “legitimate”.

This past winter one of my friends was having a particularly tough time making this transition and he was ready to pack it all in and get a “real” job. He called me because he knew that I’ve always worked from home, and he wanted to know how I dealt with it and stayed productive. We had a long and very honest conversation and he thanked me.

I saw him at a party this weekend and he came up to me, thanked me again and told me things were looking up for him. Quite honestly, I had forgotten the conversation but he reminded me of some things I said to him and suggested that I blog about it. So here goes.

Some tips and some things to avoid:

  • Start off by calling it your “home office” – not “working from home”. Somehow it’s different psychologically.
  • Be prepared for well meaning family and friends to encourage you to get a “real job”. This happens a lot with people who have creative careers. It’s hard, but you need to explain to your loved ones that what you do IS a real job. Just because you’ve had to lower your overhead and work from a home office, doesn’t mean that you’ve failed. It does mean that you’ve had to make adjustments just like a lot of others have had to do these days to make ends meet.
  • Avoid falling into the trap of taking care of personal tasks during your business hours. My friend found himself spending a lot of time on errands that his spouse asked him to do – “since he was home”. That’s fine once in awhile, but if you find yourself spending half your day doing personal stuff – you are sabotaging yourself and your business. And personal stuff includes putting together Aunt Ann’s birthday bash photos in a fun presentation for all to see. Sure do that – but not during business hours because this is not your hobby – it’s your business.
  • Don’t get overly complacent as soon as you get rid of the expense of your studio. I’ve seen this happen a lot. The pressure to make that overhead is gone so you let your guard down and along with that your clients start to disappear. But it’s because you’ve disappeared – you’re not marketing yourself anymore – and you’re off your clients’ radar.
    • • Have a routine just like you would if you walked out the door to go to work.
    • • Get up at a set time and get dressed – sounds simple but it’s important
    • • Have set work hours
    • • Have a plan – just because you’re in your home doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a business plan with action items.
    • • Avoid distractions – tough one. If you find yourself doing something that a “boss” wouldn’t approve of – then stop yourself. You’re the boss so stop cheating yourself.
  • Network and connect with your peers and colleagues. This is important, especially in a creative business. You need to have people you can bounce things off of. I have a couple of friends in my life that I’m really grateful for because I know I can share my vulnerabilities and ideas with them without being judged. Friends can do that for you because they don’t have anything personally at stake and can look at things with unbiased eyes. These connections are critical when working from home. These days it’s easy to connect with others. If you can’t do a face-to-face – you’ve got hundreds of other options with social media, listservs or just pick up the phone.
  •  Remember on your darkest days when it seems like it’s hopeless and you’re ready to pack it in and get one of those “real jobs” – don’t totally abandon your dream just yet – leave the door cracked open at least. Maybe get a part time job to start. It will take some of the pressure off and if photography or music or writing or whatever – is your passion – then you’ll quickly find out that a “real job” may not be what makes you happy. The cynics may say that you shouldn’t expect happiness with a job and that the expectation of a job should be to just pay your bills. Maybe so, but do you want to spend most of your life being miserable or counting down the hours to your next vacation? Many times that part time job gives you the push you need to re-invigorate your business because you’ve had a taste of the alternative.
  • Don’t burn your bridges. If you’ve had even the slightest bit of success in the past, following your passions but are in a slump – don’t be so quick to announce to the world that you’re moving on to another career – unless you are thoroughly convinced that you will never have any regrets making that decision. You get the best light from a burning bridge – but it’s usually too late by then. If there’s one thing I’ve learned the hard way – it’s not to burn bridges – because life has a way of making you regret it.

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Change

Change Who likes change? Other than needing a change of scenery every now and then, change is usually tough to take. I grew up with change. My family moved 10 times before I got out of high school.

Kindergarten, Chicago, IL

I was always the “new kid”. (Hint: I’m in the second to last row. I was also the “tall kid” even in Kindergarten)

No, my dad wasn’t in the military and we weren’t on the lam – he was just climbing the corporate ladder. He’d get promoted or there would be a new sibling and we’d move to a bigger house or he’d get promoted and transferred and we’d move to a totally different place leaving our friends and familiarities behind.

I’m not complaining, nor saying that I feel slighted by having that constant change in my life. It was the life I knew and I suppose I always looked at it with open eyes and curiosity about what was next to come. Of course, if I thought about the friends and sometimes family that I was leaving behind, it made it much harder.

Perhaps growing up in a constant state of change made me more flexible in dealing with all the changes affecting my business these days. Both still photography and video production have been profoundly changed by a bad economy and technology. Kind of like a double whammy. At least with technology the sword cuts both ways and also provides opportunities. It’s usually during the tough times when the economy is bad when innovation happens. Sometimes people just have to be forced to make changes in their lives, even if what they have been doing hasn’t been working. I was asked to speak at Cal Poly on the theme The Role of Mass Communication and Media Technology in Today’s Global Economy: A Multidiscipline Approach. Specifically, they wanted me to talk about how I was using technology to communicate in a global market. I started thinking about how this past year I had vigorously embraced new tools and a new business model, integrated with the Internet and social media to create a mixed media project that will ultimately result in a feature film, a book, an e-book and maybe even an exhibition. I didn’t have a big team behind me, nor did I have a lot of money. We had a two-person crew- myself and my daughter, an editor and my husband working the PR, the social media and the back support. We raised some money on Kickstarter with the help of our backers and we’ve had musicians offer us their music and talents to our film. We are extremely grateful for all of the support worldwide and it could never have happened without advances in technology.

The fact is that we live in such an amazing time where something like this is even possible. It is a time of empowerment for the individual. Technology is democratizing and is leveling the playing field especially in terms of distribution. The locks are gone and the gates to distribution are open and affordable. Within a month of uploading the trailer to my film on Vimeo, it has been played in 95 countries – that’s almost ½ the countries in the world. What a staggering thought in terms of mass communication!

Going forward my ultimate plan at this point in time is to distribute the film through iTunes or Netflix and DVD’s through Amazon. More importantly, I would like to set up 100’s of screenings in communities all over America – maybe even all over the world – and use the film to move people to action. Kind of like a grass roots effort to motivate people to make a difference in their communities. Imagine what kind of an effect that would have if it spread virally through the world. Just Imagine.

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