6.26.2012

Pretty Pictures.














When you can no longer call yourself "a photographer."


For the last twenty-five years I've wanted to be called "a photographer."  My self image was that of a professional photographer who spent his time solving visual problems and taking my client's creative concepts and translating them into photographs. I've made a good living doing it. My idea of a great job was being asked to shoot a conference in Monte Carlo and then hopping a flight to Rome to shoot some portraits for a large corporation and then  dropping by London for some additional imaging on my way home.  And for a good long while I got to do just that.  Of course it was all mixed in with countless head shots in various studios and makeshift studio spaces, annual reports in wastewater treatment plants in the middle of nowhere and lots and lots of shots of products against white sweeps.  In the off hours I shot "art" for myself.

But when I woke up this morning the label just didn't fit anymore. This morning I'm packing and doing pre-production on a television commercial I'll be shooting this afternoon/evening.  I spend more time blogging than actually shooting with a camera in my hands and I've spent at least as much time writing books in the past three or four years as I have on location. I've earned as much money writing presentations as I have doing head shots.

Our profession is going through profound changes and it's never, ever going back to the way we used to do things. It can't. The simple bread and butter stuff we used to do to "fill in" financially around the edges is gone.  More and more agencies are pulling photographers in-house to do the day to day stuff and that leaves only the bright, brilliant creative work for the freelance people. And not all of us can be brilliant all the time. But in the agency world long term counts for nothing.  It's all about a great execution of the flavor of the day.  In a real way, the best and the brightest can only stay in place with constant re-invention and constant marketing.

I have friends who've been waiting for the market to "cycle back through..." but there's no cycle to the creative product, only destruction and re-creation.  And the re-creation has to be genuine to work.

I'm checking on the crew.  Calling the make-up and hair people for last minute confirmations.  We're shooting "green screen" so I've revisited what's worked and not worked in the past.  I'm a little, tiny bit nervous because we've never done a green screen project with the new LED lights. I worry that we won't get enough coverage or that we won't be able to control the spread but I know we can deal with it.

I'm shooting with the Sony a77's. I like the feature of the EVF.  Maybe not all still photographers have warmed up to the EVF's yet but for video it's pretty great. You can check your focus via focus peaking and get a good read on exposure and clipping. No need for Zacuto or Hoodman loupes.  For playback we'll run the HDMI out into a separate (and much larger) monitor.  We're splitting the audio signal at the mic mixer.  One feed will go into the camera and the other feed will go into a Tascam digital audio recorder. Ben will be monitoring and riding levels on the Tascam.  The camera will go AGC.

I think we'll be able to use the sound from the camera, even though it will go through the camera's auto gain control, because each take is three seconds or so.  Just long enough for a brief line from an actor.  Not enough time or space between words to make the AGC circuit "pump."  But if it does we'll have clean, sync-able back-up with the Tascam.

We need to be prepared to move quickly this afternoon.  We get the location from 3:30pm and we need to be out by 6:30pm.  We've got two actors and a list of shots to get. We're still waiting to hear from the editor about whether he's decided on 60fps or 24fps.  I like 24 but he'll be editing down for TV so it'll all end up at 30fps.

In the recent (pre-2008) past I'd probably be sending out some new mailers and cruising through the Summer. This time around I've got a novel that's begging to be put to bed, a new book about portraits that needs to get started and several other television projects.  Not sure I could even make a living doing what I used to do....solely as a still photographer and I'm not sure I want to experiment and see.  I'm sure there are still lots of profitable niches left but every time I talk to an art director they tell me about shooting an ad in pieces with Canon Rebels and iPhones and putting it together and massaging it for a week in PhotoShop.  These aren't little "mom and pop" shops, these are ad agencies with multinational clients.  They all have production departments. The usually have two or three employees who are avid photographers. The companies have budgets for whatever gear they want.  Let's face it, it's not that hard to get a usable photograph these days.

Something special? That might be harder but the reality is that ad agencies make their money by speaking the visual language of the masses. They shy aways from stuff that's too forward and too modern. They really do a lot of bread and butter.

I don't do kid's sports (other than a few shots for the swim club) but that's another area that was once quite profitable and it now going through a similar process. Photography is the world's biggest and fastest growing hobby and the last time I was at a soccer game in West Austin there were dozens of moms and dads sporting Nikon D3s cameras and big white or gray lenses. They'd rather photograph their own kids... And every dad or mom with a camera loves to share. Do I blame them? No, at Ben's cross country meets I'm one of the dads, front and center, white lens at the ready.  Would I buy a picture from a vendor?  If it was one I couldn't get. Maybe.

My take on all of this is grimly optimistic. Just as desktop publishing put professional typesetters out of business by turning all the rest of us into semi-professional typesetters photography, as a profession, is losing the really profitable ground quicker and quicker.  In a sense, we are the Kodak of industries.

I think there will be markets that throw off some money for the next five or so years but the smart guys have already left the industry to set themselves up as publishers, workshop leaders, DVD producers, workshop leaders, Creative Live presenters, workshop leaders, photo expedition leaders and workshop leaders.  What does this mean for you if you are a hobbyist? Not really a damn thing. More people to chat about photography with over coffee or beer.  More really fun gear to buy.  More teachers available to help you make better photographs.  More opportunities to do stuff for free that used to be valuable.

In my business we still advertise and pitch photography.  We've moved from black portfolio cases and glassine pages stuffed with prints to iPads with Retina screens.  We show stills but we also show motion.  We talk about whatever aspect of content creation our clients need.  I am just as ready to help a company with writing spec sheets or a conference presentation as I am photographing their widget or their new building.

Going forward we are entering the era of the creative content provider as opposed to the discrete, dedicated still photographer. It's an interesting way to make a living.  Now you have to be good at more things. A challenge is always good, especially if you can figure out how to rise to it....

So,what are we packing for the video adventure today? Five big LED panels. Two medium, battery powered panels, five small panels as accent lights. A muslin green screen.  10 light stands. Background stands, a whole assortment of Westcott FastFlags, stingers (extension cables), an assortment of shotgun microphones, a microphone boom, a fluid head tripod and a slider, two Sony a77 cameras with an assortment of lenses, a bunch of fast SD cards, a slate, "A" clamps, Two apple boxes, the digital audio recorder and a bunch of water.

Thankfully, all the shooting will be inside, in air conditioning. Only the load in and the load out will be done in the heat.  Once we get this wrapped up it's back to the laptop to finish the final edits on my first novel.  The one about the nervous but intrepid photographer caught up in a web of intrique on a shoot in another country.  It's good. Well, at least I think it is...

Off to pack.  Not bitter, not pessimistic.  Just reading the landscape.

edit: June 27th:  Looks like I am not alone: http://www.bythom.com/gettingbetter.htm