9.30.2016

The lure of the medium telephoto lens.


There was a period, in the 1990s, when the only lens I really shot with was the Hasselblad, Zeiss 180mm f4.0. It was an exquisite lens and I felt, through most of the early digital years, that I would never discover a lens I liked as much, in the smaller format. And, for the most part I have been right. There are a lot of lenses that come close but few that I can honestly say "make the grade."

Then along comes an inexpensive, manual focus lens that seems to give me the same feel on my full frame, digital camera. It's the Rokinon 100mm f2.8 Macro lens.

I originally bought it to use with the A7Rii on an assignment to shoot tiny glass ampoules for a chemical testing laboratory. It worked incredibly well in that application and so I've continued to press it into any situations where outrageous resolution, coupled with a mellow attitude, is the preferred look.

The lens, available in most popular lens mounts, including the Sony E mount, is a gem. It's big and rock solid and uses one aspheric element and one high refraction element in a fairly complex design. As I mentioned, it is manual focus and has no electronic communication with whatever body it's riding upon. It has the classic, 9 bladed aperture for smooth bokeh.

There isn't much more to say about it other than it is a happy, mellow and well behaved lens with the potential for snappy contrast and very high resolution.  I don't really care what system you put it on, I think it's a great lens at a very, very fair price. It makes me want to experiment with other Rokinon lenses....


The downtime. How to keep from losing your focus.

Sony A7Rii+ Contax 50mm f1.7

Every business seems to go through cycles. My business started the year off slowly then steamrolled through July with record breaking budgets before coming to a screeching halt in September. Now, before you start in, I know that photographers who blog are never supposed to talk about slow times, lack of billing, or any other chinks in our fictitious commercial armor but really, how honest would that be? We all go through the peaks and valleys of commerce. It's always been that way in the business, even though some of those valleys in this century were quite breathtaking....

The first few times the rug gets pulled out from under your feet can be panic inducing. If you've been growing your business year after year and suddenly you hit a dry spot where the e-mail is filled with spam but no missives from clients, and your phone only rings when your spouse calls to see if you can pick up some dog food on the way home from wherever you are, it seems the popular thing is to panic and expect the worst. If you react with panic you'll certainly not be able to enjoy the (unwanted) downtime that's been thrust upon you.

The logical thing to do (assuming your last five or six clients aren't suing you, didn't fire you from the project, or ask you to delete their names from your phone...) is to immediately catch up on all that marketing you thought you would never actually have to do. Send the cards and letters, create a well considered e-mail campaign and work hard on conjuring up some smart and effective content. That's the smart play. But once you've done that you need to consider whether the slow times are about your offerings (probably not if you have a consistent track record) or part of a bigger trend.

Right now we're in the middle of one of the most contentious and binary election cycles I have ever witnessed. Battle lines are drawn. Each side is anticipating some sort of apocalypse if their chosen candidate(s) lose. And my experience  in business over the years is that business hates ambiguity almost as much as it hates the unknown. In every situation I can remember, when something horrible and unexpected happens, the CFOs of most companies circle up the wagons, bury the gold in their own backyard and start paring away at external costs. The companies are waiting to see how everything is going to turn out. Will a new set of hands on the steering wheel cause a change in tax law? In international trade? In the making of war? How will those companies be affected? Who will win and who will lose financially?

With this in mind my gut tells me that big companies have taken their marbles off the table and are in a self-induced expenditure coma. Now, most people (those who have real jobs) will probably not feel any effect and whatever effect there is we can hope that it is short lived and will remediate itself after Nov. 8th. One way or another. But to the average art worker it means a bit of belt tightening as we are the first layer of the onion to be put on "hold" when sentiment turns fearful or confused.

I'm not particularly worried about the current slowdown.... yet. We've still got several big jobs slated for October and we'v still got some buffer from earlier. But I have learned that there's not a lot I can do to move people to buy when they are disposed to save. So, I try to remind myself to enjoy the downtime and not despair.

Here's my list of things I do, in no particular order, when I am becalmed on the seas of work:

Have lunch with all the friends I've missed having lunch with. Get more reading done. Walk the dog more. Finally memorize those dreaded Sony or Olympus menus. Visit the kid at college (I'm sure he'll love  that.....). Start visualizing your new career; complete with a regular paycheck. Work on your personal project. No personal project? Figure out what you really, really want to shoot.

Then shoot it.

In the end, if you have done your marketing and the world doesn't collapse under the stress of the American democratic process, this slowing will resolve (like 90% of the stuff people visit their doctors for...) and we'll be back at work in no time. If you spent the downtime in the corner of a dark room, rocking back and for and shaking nervously you might want to rethink your "small financial disaster" strategy.

According to everything I've read these slow downs happen a lot during periods of change. The people steering the boats stop more frequently to make sure they are on course. A bit choppy in the short run, clear sailing ahead.

(Please, I know we are all passionate about our politics but this isn't the place to go all partisan in the comments. The election will come to an end. Ambiguity will subside. Life will go on. Now, if only those black helicopters filled with fluoride and vaccines would stop circling my neighborhood. It's crowded in that airspace since I am also certain aliens from Alpha Promixa are also floating around up there with the ghost of Elvis). 

One sage person told me that all anxiety is caused by three things: Ambiguity, Indecision and Loneliness. Make sure you know what you are doing and then do it with friends. 

9.28.2016

The season opener at Zach Theatre is hilarious and a visual color riot. I laughed and cried and thought about buying season tickets even though I get in for free. Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.


A VSL reader actually asked why he hadn't seen any dress rehearsal photos lately. I thought I would attempt to accommodate him. Late Summer is a slow season for live theater but by the end of September Zach Theatre is in full swing and we're back at work. I've been doing something different for the big, blockbuster opening play of our season this time around. I've been going almost weekly to the rehearsals of Priscilla, leading up to the dress rehearsal, to see what the evolution of a musical looks like. 

Seeing choreography rehearsals and blocking rehearsals means I'm not walking in cold on the night of the big shoot and hoping I'm smart enough to stay up with the flow of the show. My early involvement was strictly as a volunteer but it worked so well for me because I really got to know a lot of the cast members and they, in turn, had a palpable comfort level with me as we neared the big night. 

And the BIG NIGHT was last night. I knew Belinda would love the show so I asked her to come with me. We had a row of seats reserved so I could move around to shoot at various angles during the show. Even with a "friends and family" audience in the house. The row is right in middle of the house. Perfect for a big, wide show like this one. We had an early dinner in a local restaurant and then got back about 30 minutes before the doors opened to double check

Valuable tools for doing business as a photographer.

I'm a big believer in marketing. My years chained to a desk at an advertising agency taught me that you just can't talk to current and prospective clients often enough; and with as many methods as you'd like. One of my marketing goals is to reach out to my existing clients with some sort of message at least once a month. I don't always hit the goal, sometimes life gets in the way, but when I know I'm banking business for the future.

Many photographers and creative people make the mistake of trusting too much to e-mail blasts. I'm not sure if they know it but many people have their e-mails set up to NOT load images. Messages with photos are often a trigger for provider's spam filters as well. So, unless you are only e-mailing to people who already know and love you (Mom? Family? Your girlfriend) you may not be anywhere near hitting the targets you think you are with your messaging intact. The best method for e-mail might be making sure your written message and attendant graphics are compelling and then providing a link to see the actual images online. I like to provide links to tightly curated web galleries aimed at specific industries. But even with the best methodologies you'll still have to contend with many, many people who have not yet given you permission to send them advertising. People who could add profits to your business. And, at some point you need to confront the reality of having get your foot in their door (metaphorically).

My experiences in advertising and marketing, spending media money for clients, showed me that direct mail is an extremely powerful way to get in touch with new prospects. It can also be a crucial way to cut through the daily clutter and stay connected to people you've worked with in the past and want to work with again. There are several reasons I think direct (physical) mailers are effective. First, you will find that while people's e-mail boxes are crammed full of mostly unwanted messages about everything from high powered flash lights to penis enlargement. Few busy marketing professionals have the time to wade through unknown and unsolicited e-mails to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Friends who are on the art direction side of the desk tell me that they still receive between 50 and 100 spam e-mails per day. And if you are sending e-mails to a blind list you are basically spamming. Not a nice way to start a relationship. By contrast, most of my agency friends tell me that printed postcards or folded mailers, sent directly to them via U.S. post, have fallen off in numbers every year to the point where they may be receiving only one or two per week. That's a much less competitive and crowded "pond" in which to fish. Right?

While it costs time and money to make and send good post cards there is a benefit to your investment.  Your clients probably do the same kind of marketing and understand the commitment you've made to reach them. They now understand that you have real "skin" in the game as opposed to the hordes of mouse clickers who have the mindset that they can blanket the landscape with electronic messages because, well, their messages are essentially free.

A third benefit is in the longevity of a printed card or mailer. The recipient of an e-mail might open an   e-mail and take cursory look. They might invest five seconds to quell their curiosity. Then the e-mail is closed, never to be seen again, and automatically gets tossed in the trash with all the other orphaned electrons. By contrast the mailer gets delivered to the client's desk, usually in a stack of correspondence and bills. Each piece is examined. They hold the card in their hands. They have a tactile sensation that creates a sense of the piece being more real. On some level the client understands that we've spent maybe one dollar in printing costs, per large card (we're printing these in small batches on an inkjet printer using premium Hahnemuhle card stock) and another half dollar in postage. We've made a material investment in order to reach them. It may be subliminal but it serves to separate  you from the pack.

Finally, if the content of the card is superior and resonates in some way with the recipient it might end up being pinned to the wall of a cubicle or to a cork board in an office. Now your work has real legs. And everyone who visits that office and sees the work also understands that the creative person they are visiting has curated the work and chosen it to be displayed. In a way, it has their stamp of approval. 

We could print a thousand cards at a time and realize a huge savings on printing and production and I've done that in the past but I've come to realize that my potential markets have become more and more specialized and granular. I'm now carefully choosing and sending out small batches of 10 to 20 cards with a particular image that is aimed directly at the niche the prospective client serves.

I have a list of 30-40 clients who are in healthcare. I send them images related to healthcare and patient experience. I have a couple dozen clients involved in the food service industry and they love to see food and food styling. Another group are large law practices and I faithfully send them my best portraits as cards, since their need is generally  for great portraits as content for their websites and other marketing.

Sending shots of cute, twenty-something models to forty year old marketing professionals who service industrial, construction or technology clients is worse than just a waste of money, it's a quick way to show that you have no idea of what these clients do and what they need from photographers.

My favorite lens might be a new G series 70-200mm for my full frame Sony. Great lens and it allows me to work quickly and with high quality results. It costs $1500. But it won't get me in a single door to bid on a job. Not like that $1.50, 5.8 by 8.4 inch, lustre surface postcard. While it's more fun for most of us to talk about the gear it's most fun to get those purchase orders from clients who were reminded about how much fun you are to work with by a succession of targeted, mailed cards that have come across their desks over the course of several months.

Just a few marketing thoughts to chew on. I sent out ten cards to law firms last week. I booked a day of work from one of the firms yesterday. Only a ten percent response (so far) but I'll take a day of billing from a $15 investment any time it's offered.

Next up we might want to consider just how important cumulative impressions are to making a marketing campaign work.


9.26.2016

OT: Another Austin Music Venue Bites the Dust.

This is all that's left of the Austin Music Hall. Future site of some soaring, anonymous residential tower for people desperate to live downtown.

The Austin Music Hall was originally built in 1995 and then almost completely re-built in a remodel in 2007. What they ended up with was a building with pretty miserable acoustics but a huge bar and a convenient venue for lots of downtown shows. A cheaper alternative to the ACL stage at the W Hotel. 

Now, less than ten years after the multi-million dollar remodel, the building is just a pile of twisted metal and semi-powdered cement. Another downtown half acre sold for enormous amounts of money and ready to host yet another too tall residence town. Kinda sad, kinda not. It was never a great venue  in which to actually "hear" music. The square main hall was an audio nightmare (as we found out early on when staging a musical there) and the parking in the area was/is pretty bad. But president Obama visited here last year and I can't count how many corporations used the venue, in conjunction with then popular, Lyle Lovett, for their celebrations of success in the late 1990's and again, more recently. Hapless photographer with ear plugs in tow...

Just noting the passing as part of yet another Austin transition: from tradition and music to just profit. 
Could be worse. We could be mired in a great depression. I guess we've got to count our lucky stars. 

Here is what the Austin Music Hall looked like just before it came tumbling down.