3.22.2017

I'm speaking to a college class tomorrow evening. The topic is "The Business of Photography." What will I tell them?

The future of the business of photography is all about mixing media. 
My number one piece of business advice for photographers is to become a better writer. How? Practice every day. How about a blog?

BLOG WARNING: THE INTENDED AUDIENCE FOR THIS PARTICULAR BLOG IS THE GROUP OF STUDENTS I'LL BE SPEAKING TO. ESTABLISHED PROFESSIONALS SHOULD FIND THIS BORING.....

I have the lofty responsibility of talking to some advanced students who are near completion of their degrees in commercial photography. I have been asked to speak to them because of my hoary and enormously long tenure in the local photography market. And, probably, in no small part, because I am on the advisory board for their discipline at the college. I've done this every semester for as long as I can remember. Every semester I give a slightly ( or greatly ) different presentation. 

This year I'll be stressing the changing nature of what constitutes the photography industry. I maintain that we've left that traditional and narrow niche behind and that the key to success in the current economy is to embrace the role of "creative content creator" by learning a collections of inter-related skills, like film making, programming and marketing. These are skills that can be bundled for more potency and sold to a wide variety of end users. 

But mostly I'll talk about pure business. Supply and demand. Marketing. Positioning. Even branding. And the place I'll start my talk is about conservation of resources. I submit that most photographers who fail to thrive are victims of ignorance about money. The making of it; and more importantly, the conservation of it. 

The key to success in photography is to: (a) find clients who will pay you what you are worth. (b) do the job. (c) market the mutual success you shared with your client. (d) get paid by the client. (e) find the next client (or better yet, do more jobs for the original client). But the primary key for long term success isn't the photography part at all, it's what you do with the money you get for doing the work. 

I hear over and over again, from younger photographers mostly, that they are re-investing in their own businesses. From what I've distilled, based a life  spent in photography, this may be one of the worst investments you can make. 

Sure, you need to spend some money, regularly,  on marketing; and every once in a while it's probably a good idea to upgrade your camera gear, but the long game calls for a much more disciplined, and much less fun (in the short term) strategy. That strategy would call for putting money in investments that are totally outside  your business. Maybe even outside your industry. 

I have a partner/spouse/mentor who is much smarter than me about the big picture. It's because of her that, many years ago, I started an SEPP (single employee pension plan) and put a set amount of money into it every month. Rain or shine. If you look at the meager balance back in the early years and then look at today's balance you'd think I was a genius but it's just the power of compound interest. And discipline, combined with the knowledge that, as a freelance business owner, no one else is saving up to provide a pension for you. You have to do it yourself.

At the end of every year my freelance friends will tell me that their accountants have counseled them that they need to spend XXXX amount before the end of the fiscal year on equipment. In this way they'll be able to take an accelerated cost recovery (depreciation) and avoid paying taxes on this money. But the weak spot of this argument is that the gear they buy (especially in the digital age) begins a quick and somewhat sickening depreciation in resale value the minute they pull it out of the boxes and charge the batteries. 

My people have always told me that it's best to figure out how much "extra" money you have at the end of the year and to stick that into a tax advantaged retirement account, or to bite the tax bullet and put some of the money into an (after tax) Roth IRA account. After all, once the cameras grow old you can't sell them for much, or eat them, but the money you stick in an SEPP or traditional IRA is money that: A. You get to keep. B. That appreciates in value. and, C. Reduces your total income tax liability for the year in which you save it. OMG!!! You get to keep the money and, if you can keep your hands off of it then it also grows in value. 

My investments seem to follow the basics of investing. Nothing dramatic and nothing too risky. Most experts advise sticking to mutual funds (bundles of stocks) or, at worst, stocks in companies whose products and strategies you really, really understand. For instance, if you have been an Apple Computer user since 1984, and understand their products and their strategic value, then you might want to invest a modest percentage of your savings in that stock. Had you invested in Apple stock back in the late 1980's, say to the tune of about $10,000, you would not be reading this right now because you'd be trying to figure out how to spend the enormous amount of money you've accrued. Hint: It's millions and millions of dollars. What is your stock photography library worth just about now?

The same thing applies to financing your kid's college education. Every other thing I read today is about the impending student loan crisis. But, if the average college educated and professionally employed parent of twenty one years ago started saving about $250 a month in a 529 college savings plan they would have an ample supply of money today to cover the cost of in-state tuition, as well as room and board, for their current college student. Add $100 more per month and you'd pretty much have the $65,000 per year you'll need to pay full pop at a prestigious, private, four year university. 

Sure, sure, this is long term, old guy advice. But what if you are planning to live fast and die young and leave behind a beautiful corpse? Why would you bother to save anything in that scenario? Good question. I'll answer it with another question: When is the last time you felt like you needed to settle for a lower fee and a crappy assignment because you had your back up against the wall to pay rent? How many annoying, low budget clients have you accrued along the way because you couldn't afford the risk of not having their (meager) check by the end of the month to pay bills that you knew were coming? How poorly have you leveraged your artistic freedom (and your free time) by having to service an ever growing debt in your business? 

That new medium format camera sounded like a good idea when you put it on that credit card but it really didn't increase your business much, did it? And you keep making payments on that credit card so you can eventually "own" the camera, and by then you may have paid a quarter to a third more than the original purchase price just in interest. On a depreciating asset which will probably be obsolete by the time you pay it off. Make the minimum payments on that credit card and you may NEVER pay off that camera completely---even long after it's gone. 

The over-riding plan? Earn money, save money, and make the money work for you. If you start early enough, and keep yourself debt free, at some point you'll be able turn down all "stinky" jobs and still sleep well at night because your investments will keep growing and (best case scenario) pay regular dividends that can either be reinvested or enjoyed. You'll get to pick and choose the projects you work on and the clients you work with. You get to set, and stand by, your rates.  By being a disciplined saver you buy back your own freedom and can give yourself the "bonus" of free time to work on your art. Or you can just lie on the couch and read novels. Being a good steward of your money is a smart business strategy. 

Freelance businesses are not for everyone. If I didn't have a smart, frugal and strategic partner I'd be a dead man by now. Or at least dead broke.  Yep, that's what I'm thinking about telling the class of college commercial photography students. 

Glad someone told me. 
Studio Dog can count the treats in the jar on the counter. When we're running low she comes by and scratches me on the leg. I refill the jar. Her investment strategy pays off. 

the lavish bokeh of a micro four thirds camera and a Leica 25mm Summilux lens. 
Expensive gear is meaningless and its value is fleeting. Learn to use good, inexpensive gear.... or rent. 

More good investment advice: If you smoke cigarettes give up the habit for two years and save enough to travel through Europe taking photographs with the proceeds. It's a win/win. 

Always marry someone who is much smarter than you are. 

Don't spend a fortune on a rented space. I was paying $1,800 a month for downtown studio space from 1988 to 1997 then I bought a house and built a studio on the property. My mortgage for the house and the studio space cost less than my previous studio alone. We've done about 2,000 jobs and five book projects out of this 675 square foot space since 1997. And the coffee machine is just through that red door and 12 steps into the house beyond it. 

A total non-sequitur. I just happen to love big scrims. 

It is possible to raise a child,  from infancy to college, with a freelancer's income. If you are disciplined, and not addicted to the unnecessary trappings of a complete consumer lifestyle. Cook at home more. Watch free TV. Always choose necessities over wants.



Surround yourself with people who value art, creativity and camaraderie over trendy, expensive stuff. 

choose wise friends. 

And finally, never go out without your camera.


Have I left anything important out? Chime in and let me know. Class is not until 6 pm, CST, Thursday night.


































3.21.2017

Best Article I've Read on DP Review in Years. A debunking of some MF mythology. A nod to current full frame camera tech.

https://www.dpreview.com/opinion/2341704755/thinking-about-buying-a-fujifilm-gfx-50s-read-this-first

I'm so used to seeing advertorial writing on DPReview that I was a bit amazed to see this reasonably well written article that calls into question whether the investment(?) in a (smaller than) medium format camera, such as the new Fuji, is really going to deliver the things you might think are exclusive to the larger format.

It would be nice to see more writing like this and less gushing about sponsored Canon topics. Give it a read and see if you agree.


How learning about video improves your still photography story-telling. How good portrait lighting translates into more interesting video.


Every time I practice lighting portraits I end up porting that knowledge over into video lighting. After all, what is an interview but a nicely lit portrait that moves and has sound? By the same token, as I learn more about shooting video I learn that there's more than one angle and more than one visual point of view in a photo session. More options give me more choice. And, by being a better interviewer in the video world I've learned how to "lead" a portrait subject into a pose and expression that is more exactly what I am aiming for rather than being a session of endurance; predicated on random connections and fast reflexes.

It goes both ways. In doing both I find I am more prepared for each discipline. The more fluid I get with each practice the better my results get for each. Being able to blend the strengths of the two media is a fun exercise and a real plus. Try doing a great interview and following it quickly with a great portrait in the same set up. You'll already have the rapport on tap.....

3.20.2017

Accidentally passed a landmark. Also came to understand why people think camera preamplifiers are so noisy....

I should have noted that the Visual Science Lab blog hit (and passed) the 3200 post milestone. I did the math, that's millions and millions of words and thousands and thousands of photographs. How do you get to 3200+ posts? One post at a time.

On a different note you may have noticed that I'm diving deeper and deeper into the discipline of recording sound. Every good videography needs to know about audio. It may be the most important component of video and probably the hardest to get just right.

I have one little kernel of opinion that I want to pass on. I've been told for years now that still cameras which feature video capabilities all have very noisy and low quality preamplifiers in them and that the only way to record "professional" sound is to skip using the camera's input and start recording to an external audio recorder which, presumably, has cleaner preamplifier stages.

Hmmm. In theory I'm sure that the good digital audio recorders do have somewhat better circuitry and, perhaps, demonstrably better noise but I also think there is a prejudice floating around that has more to do with noisy headphone amplifiers than noisy camera preamps.

I've noticed for some time now that when I monitor the sound coming into my Sony cameras (including the RX10 series and the A7rii) with headphones I get some low level hiss and noise. It's there whether I've matched the microphone to the camera inputs or not. I always freak out when I hear it but I'm usually on a remote location and don't have another option.

The funny thing is that when I get back to the office, import the video files to my editing software and then listen to the output on my studio headphones I don't hear the same, obvious noise. What I hear is fairly clean and accurate audio. I have a short attention span so I hadn't tested my hypothesis until recently. My hypothesis is that the "dirty" audio is a result of crappy headphone amplifiers; not only in the consumer, all purpose cameras but even in most of the separate digital audio recorders I've worked with.

Recently I bought and received a new microphone. It was a well reviewed Aputure Diety shotgun microphone. I was anxious to test it out and wanted to give it every opportunity to excel. That would mitigate any post cognitive dissonance I might have had about spending yet another $360 on my always expensive occupation.

To that end I ran the microphone into the Zoom H5. It's a portable audio recorder that is well known to have low noise preamplifiers. The Zoom H5 supplied phantom power to the microphone and the recording I did was right in the optimum level area for voice (between minus 6 and minus 12 Db, as shown on the meters). There was no indication of overload and the levels were high enough not to be anywhere near a noise floor.

When I monitored via the headphone jack I heard a similar kind of noise that I often hear with signals coming from the camera headphone jacks. A high frequency hiss that's not terrible but not optimal. I was taken aback. All other owners/reviewers of the H5 were effusive in their praise of this model's low noise. Ditto concerning the noise profile of the microphone.

I moved the audio file to my computer, plugged in some Audio Technica headphones and took a listen to that set up. The noise I was hearing went away. It dawned on me that the real culprit in many cases might not be the camera but the camera's headphone circuitry. How could this be?

Well, I looked no further than to the car industry for an analogous comparison. Takata airbags were defective across a range of manufacturers and models, from Toyota and Honda to BMW and Ford. Seems like one airbag maker supplied a lot of different companies. By the same token the headphone amp is probably a feature on a small chip. Easier to spec a universally used microprocessor than to create a custom one for each camera line. And, an inexpensive product to make and sell.

The engineering/marketing rationale for using a noisy preamplifier chip is probably that, historically, so few people who purchased "hybrid" video/still cameras ever ended up shooting video, and the ones that did probably didn't use external microphones. Few would complain about the sound and, if they did complain then customer service could tell them that while it may affect monitoring it would not have an effect on the sound being recorded. Everyone saves money, no sound quality on the video files gets sabotaged.

But, of course, the product manufacturers omit any caveats about monitoring performance and so the urban legends are born and spread. And the legend in our industry is how awful the audio is on our cameras.

My experience reminds me to test, test, test and not to rely on urban legends.

I'll tell you right now that the audio I get from the Zoom H5 or the Tascam DR60ii is better than the audio I get from the RX10iii but in the same breath we are talking about 88 versus 85 and not 95 versus 42. You can do good work with the built in audio circuits of most current Sony and Panasonic cameras. I had good luck, audio-wise, with my Nikons as well. It's more a question of maximizing every step of technique than it is searching for the one "magic" solution.

Do your own tests. Listen to the output of a good system. Listen to the way it sounds through a set of monitor speakers, or through good headphones plugged into a high quality playback source. Don't blame your camera right off the bat.

3.19.2017

Sunday. Walk with a Camera. Good exercise. Nice antidote for sitting around staring at a screen for most of the week.


I finally had some free time this weekend to get out and try the fz2500 in some freeform shooting. I made the same rookie mistakes many people make with a new camera. I lost a good shot because my nose touched my touchscreen and moved the AF cursor over to one side. Couldn't figure out for a few seconds why the nice young lady directly in front of my camera would not come into focus. I put the camera in "A" priority and shot, blithely unaware, for the better part of an hour never checking the shutter speed the camera was setting. Ooops! All of the moving/action/street scenes were recorded at 1/80th of a second. Too bad good image stabilization can't save photographers who don't pay attention to subject motion blur.... And then I started processing some of the images shot later in the evening and, of course, I was having so much fun shooting and weaving in and out of the enormous SXSW crowds on Sixth St. that I never bothered to check the ISO, and I have to confess; this camera gets a bit noisy at ISO 800. More so at 1600. 

Of course the noise reduction kicked in and I had the factory preset engaged. Hello water color detail at 100%. Of course I know better. I should have been in control of the ISO. I should have set a faster shutter speed. I should have fine tuned the noise reduction for the Jpeg setting. But in reality I didn't  care. I was out walking on a beautiful day and I had a camera in my hand. The stuff I was watching right in from of my face was a hell of a lot better than anything I see on Netflix or Network. In addition to endless action, drama and comedy you get a couple more dimensions of sensory candy that no (current) screen gives you. The smell of cigarettes and perfume, and sausages sizzling over a butane flame; all mixed in with the smell of the disinfectant the bars use to clean. The yeasty smell of spilled beer and the glorious aroma of pizzas cooking all over the place.

You also get multi-layered sound. Dialogue. Chanting. Rapping. Flirting. Clapping. Sirens. More flirting. Verbal posturing. Different music blasting through portable speakers every ten feet or so. A guy playing an old, upright piano at the corner of Congress and 4th. More sirens. 

You walk in and out of shadows. You keep one eye peeled on the screaming homeless person wrapped in blankets like a Caesar's toga even though it's 85 degrees outside. 

The camera gave me a tertiary reason to be there but my real goal was just to sample.....the multitude. To see what was making this little corner of Austin tick on this particular day. To slip into the crowd and walk with the flow.  And then, like a hungry homing pigeon, disengaging and "flying" toward  my car, parked two miles away. And then home to the quiet and serenity of affluent suburbia. And a decent restaurant. Cameras are fun. But they are largely meaningless if you don't have something interesting to put in front of them...






Is all social exchange about the smartphone now?




I met a student. I think his name was Justin. He was shooting a project with this 4x5 field camera. He was smart and engaging. He knew all about Richard Avedon. His camera was on a rickety tripod. If he remembers to get in touch with me I have an extra Benro tripod that I'd be happy to pass along to him. It would be better than the skinny Manfrotto the school loaned him....




Google took a beautiful and iconic building downtown and did everything in their power to make it fucking boring. Not swearing, really, it's a technical, architectural term.

At the W Hotel.