Pricing, Photographers & the Race to the Bottom

The bottom is getting crowded.

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.

 

 

 

Five Ways Shooting Motion Will Make You a Better Still Photographer

I’ve been shooting both mediums – video and still photographs – for over a decade. Some may say that I was an early adaptor of motionForty Deuce burlesque club, Las Vegas, Nevada, but that’s now how I look at it. In a way, I’ve been a motion shooter ever since I became a still photographer – not in the literal sense – but in how I approach the craft of photography.

I’m a storyteller; in fact that’s why I made photography a huge part of my life. I want to utilize my craft to tell the stories that I feel compelled to tell. I think in terms of paginations, like pages in a magazine or scenes in a film and I realize now that I have always approached still photography like a cinematographer.

Here are some tips I learned from shooting motion that will make you a better still photographer:

  • Cover it – Get comprehensive coverage – a variety of perspectives, focal lengths (wide, medium, tight and close-ups.) When shooting video, you always need plenty of b-roll to work with when editing a story. My still photography clients enjoy getting the variations that I shoot. It gives them an abundance of choice and I benefit by making more money.
  • Get sequences – Get mini stories of people interacting within the whole story. When I’m shooting, I think about how my shots will come together as part of the whole video. I approach still photography stories the same way – in paginations. How will I connect the still images to make the whole?
  • Get storytelling images – With still photography I need to make sure that my independent shots (or moments in time) will also be able to stand on their own and tell the story. They can’t just be “wowy zowy” images as Bob Gilka (former Director of Photography of the National Geographic) used to say when I showed him eye catching, colorful photos that didn’t say anything.
  • Action/motion – make the images feel. I started exploring motion because there were times when I found it difficult to convey the feeling of motion that I was trying to express in a still image. I find it is easier to convey the feeling of movement in a still image now because my eye is trained to look for the opportunities.
  • Give the images sound – (like a hammer hammering). Natural sound gives a video the element of reality. It’s almost like it gives the video a well-needed extra layer or dimension. When I’m shooting stills, I look for images that will illustrate the sound of the environment.

I usually incorporate both video and still components when working on personal projects. For my current project, Like A Woman, I’m shooting still environmental portraits and short 2-4 min. films. And when I travel, I’ll always take a digital audio recorder and microphone to capture good sound.

I’m headed to Vietnam tomorrow to shoot stills primarily, but I’ll be shooting with the eye of a hybrid.

10 Tips to Nowhere

I realized recently that I had succumbed to the prevailing trend in editorial writing – the “top ten” syndrome – the top ten places to see in a lifetime, 10 tips on how to be more productive, 10 tips for taking better photos, the 10 best towns to live in – you get the picture.

Train tracks, Mississippi
Train tracks, Mississippi

Seems like we want our info and we want it fast and easy to digest. The problem is we tend to lose sight of the things that aren’t on the top ten lists and lose focus on who we are.

I spent my summer redesigning our company’s website, editing a new motion reel and strategizing with my partner on marketing ideas. I am grateful for whatever outside forces motivated me creatively to have such a productive summer. I learned some of the pitfalls of following just the advice of “top ten” check lists when it came to editing our new motion reel. For example, these tips:

  • Pick music that sets the tone for your brand and footage.
  • Select only your best clips.
  • Cut on the action.
  • Cut to the music – to the beat
  • Have an opening that hooks the audience – gets their attention.
  • Include your company’s logo and/or info.
  • Pace it like a story with lows and peaks.

That’s not 10, I know, but that’s not the point. The point is that I had lost sight of the most important thing of all and that was I hadn’t shown our company’s vision. After months of work, I had picked the right music, culled through hours of footage and selected the very best clips, came up with an opening that I thought was intriguing and did my very best to cut to the beat of the music. I had shown what we have done, but I hadn’t shown who we are. So, I went back to the drawing board and re-edited the reel.

I realized that there are no short cuts to doing really good work. Good work comes from lots of trial and error and learning from our own experiences. It’s the journey that has its rewards.

By the way, we’re very close to launching the new site.  Stay tuned.

Staying “On Purpose” as a Creative

Have you ever felt like your hours and days are spent doing things that aren’t beneficial for you? I certainly have. I’m sure we all have. But, when I sort through and analyze how and where I spend my time, I realize that even the time I’ve spent on some mundane tasks or my self-inflicted distractions have had merit. Everything, in it’s own way plays a role in our lives. It’s up to us how we play that role.

I’ve been reflecting on this of late, because I’ve been feeling a shift happening in my life right now. I feel a creative surge and energy, fueled by ideas and the technology available to bring them to life. I’ve gone through many creative surges as well as the times when I didn’t have a single creative thought or idea. I’ve learned not to try and buck those tides, but rather go with the flo and recognize it all serves your “purpose”. Here are some things I do to get back “on purpose”:

  • Connect with an old friend. They’ll remind you of who you are.
  • Get away from electronic devices and do something simple – sit by a fire or on a beach, look at the clouds, let my imagination take over.
  • Go with the creative energy when it is present. I have been working on a redesign of our company’s website and have been frustrated by it, excited and totally energized – stay tuned.
  • Have conversations with people. Nothing formal or forced. The best ideas and observations come up organically.
  • Find interesting stories. I love stories – whether I read one in a book, watch one play out in film or listen to one on the radio. A good story provokes thought and that leads to a million possibilities.
  • I don’t stop myself from making a decision because I’m afraid it won’t be the right decision.
  • I remind myself that I’ve made a lot of decisions that didn’t seem like the right ones at the time……but they led me to the right path.
  • I listen to music.
  • I pay attention to small things that most of the time I barely notice.
  • I remind myself, I’m not here long and to make the most of it.

10 Mistakes Photographers Make When Shooting Motion

1.  They forget about the story – it’s not your camera that tells the story – it’s the person using the camera. Pretty visuals, slapped into a motion timeline with music, doesn’t necessarily tell a story.  Video is a story telling medium – don’t forget that.

2.  They think they already know how to shoot – if you think because you are a professional photographer and all you need to do is get a camera with a “video mode” on it, you are mistaken. Shooting in motion is far different than shooting still images. An experienced motion shooter can spot a video shot by a still photographer with little know how, right away.

3.  Thinking audio isn’t important – audio is more important than the visual when producing video.  Hire a sound person to do it right, but don’t discount it.

4.  Thinking the DSLRcamera is all you need for video productions – this is a biggie.  How are you going to go after professional video jobs if this is the only tool in your kit?  Sure you can rent a RED – but make sure you are as proficient with this tool as your competition is before hanging out your “motion” shingle.

5.  Positioning themselves just as DP’s or Directors and thinking you’ll maintain ownership of your work. If you assume the role of a camera operator, DP or even a director – you will be in a work for hire position in most markets.  Position yourself as a producer – shoot if you want to – and direct – but realize that you’ll be just one rung on the “content ladder”.

6.  They don’t learn interview skills – this is what separates the pros from the still shooters who have DSLR cameras and think that’s all they need.  I’d say about  70% of my work includes on camera interviews.  Even though I ask the questions- I’m not on camera, my subject is.   I not only need to know how to ask the right questions and get great audio, but I need to produce a usable interview clip for an editor. That means knowing how to get great soundbites. This is one area I excel in – it’s all about rapport with your subject.

7.  They try to compete in “old business model” markets – Everyone wants to shoot broadcast spots and feature films (or short films) so they think that after shooting motion for only a few months – or even a year – they will be able to compete in the high end business of video production.  First, this market, like the still photography market,  has changed drastically, mostly marginalized by still photographers who are just starting to shoot motion,  shooting jobs for next to nothing because they have no understanding of this “business”.

8.  Learning the “how to’s” in terms of gear – but nothing about the business – this is also a biggie.  There are so many “how to shoot motion” workshops and roadshows out there but no one seems to be teaching the business end of things.  Still photographers think they already know “the business” but quickly realize that they don’t, and they put themselves out of business in this medium – before they’ve barely started.

9.  Teaching “how to” workshops in video with little or no experience – I can’t tell you how many photographers have called me for technical advice about some pretty basic stuff in terms of video,  and four months later they are teaching workshops. Please don’t become part of the problem and send more shooters out into this field without teaching them something about business. And if you are considering taking a workshop – do your homework and take the workshop from someone who is accomplished in this field and has done something.

10. They forget about the story – I know that’s #1 but it needs reinforcing.

 

“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.