Saturday, January 27, 2007

Lost (and found again)

So, I spent all week long without the charger for my camera. Friday before last, I completed an assignment, and we (and by we, I mean myself and the first and second assistants) were flying to pack up, and in our haste (well, frankly, their haste, packing was their responsibility) the charger for my camera batteries was left behind. I did not realize this until mid-week, when I needed the charger and could not find it. I spent (and by spent, I mean, I paid the two assistants to look) two hours scouring the office and re-opening all the lighting cases looking for the wayward charger. Alas, to no avail.

I then took the time to revisit the shoot location, which took me over an hour, round trip, to see if it had been left behind. Sure enough, there it was, set aside just for me.

Why am I telling you this? Because of the importance of having backups and redundancies. Had I not had a second charged battery, I'd have a problem. (A problem a colleague of mine ran into at the anti-war rally on Saturday). Had I not had a backup camera system, I'd have a problem. Further, it is important that not only does all your equipment have a label with your name and phone number on it, but that you do a sweep of the areas of operation to discern if you too have left something behind.

The biggest problem is not only in the hassle of hunting for it, but, if it ends up truly lost (as opposed to temporarily misplaced) the time involved in re-ordering the item, paying for it, and paying for the shipping (or having to go to the local store and get it yourself) is a significant expenditure of capital and time.

Instead, make a point of sweeping your location before your final departure. It will save you so much hassle down the line.

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I'm Presenting at the NPPA's Northern Short Course

This March (March 8th, 9th, and 10th) marks my sixth time presenting at the National Press Photographer's annual program with a regional name that has grown to reach a national audience, the Northern Short Course. This past fall, I participated in the Flying Short Course, and I continue to enjoy making these presentations.

This year the slate of presenters is exceptional, but the portfolio review that takes place during the three day gathering is one of the hidden gems of the whole event. Close to two dozen photo editors from around the country will sit down and review your portfolio (whether on a laptop, or printed) and give you advice on how to improve it. Think yours is all that it can be? If it actually is, and one of the PE's is looking for someone, this could be the first interview for that job that you didn't even know was happening.

Among the many presenters are Baltimore Sun photographer and Strobist blog operator David Hobby, who will be showing you amazing techniques to employ with compact light sources (i.e. speedlights and other small, easy to carry lights), and Bill Foster, who was recently appointed as the photographer to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Foster will take a break from that busy schedule to show you how he reached the top listings on Google for sacramento editorial photographer, as well as on MSN for the same sacramento editorial photographer, and, yes, on Yahoo also for sacramento editorial photographer. I will be presenting on, yes, Best Business Practices for Photographers. In the "the future is now" category, photographer Will Yurman will talk through how to use audio to integrate it with your still images.

You can visit the Northern Short Course website to download PDF's of the various program offerings, or visit Northern Short Course Registration to sign up. Southwest Airlines has flights right into Providence for $50 one way (from Baltimore, for example) and no car rental is needed to get to the hotel from the airport.

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Friday, January 26, 2007

The Proud Starving Artist

There is no honor in starving, unless you're Gandhi. There is no other profession where the phrase "starving..." is applied. Try "Starving accountant", "starving mechanic", or even "starving teacher" (well, ok, that one might apply, teachers are way underpaid, but even then, it's just not right.)

Don't live down to this label. Avoid the label like the plague....

Artist Ed Rath(above left) does a great job of illustrating the concept, and the term even annoys him.There's a great commercial running in many metro areas which talks about how to improve your odds of getting a date, and then goes on to talk about having a good credit score. "Say wha?" Yeah, it's damn true. Not having any money, bouncing checks, carrying a growing balance on your credit card statements...these things are not sexy. These things are not what attract a mate.

I can remember when I started out, I ate so much Top Ramen, that I began figuring out ways to make it taste better than it did. I had cupboards full of it, when I could buy it at 10 for $1. I did this however, not because I was just trying to get by on the $25 assignments, but because, as someone just starting out, I had just a few of the $125/hr 4 hr minimum assignments each month. Yet, when you do the math, would you rather do a single assignment for $500 maybe three times a month, or 60 for $25? I submit that with 60 assignments you should be an employee of that company. At $150 an assignment (which is what a few wire services pay and expect you to live on) you'd need 10, or 2.5 a week. Either of these scenarios means that, when the calls (albiet few and far between in the beginning) come in for the $500 assignment, you will be booked doing something else and unable to take the assignment. While I have long-since graduated from Top Ramen, every so often I will pick up a pack, and in an odd way, remember the "good" old days.

In fact, there is even a book, The Starving Artist's Way, that promotes this as something to aspire to. According to the information on the book, the author "...a child of Starving Artists...grew up in the SoHo section of Manhattan when it was still an epicenter of bohemian life...", yet, today, living on SoHo costs practically an arm and a leg. SoHo, from it's stores to it's rent to it's "scene" has moved upscale. Wikipedia even defines Bohemian -- "In modern usage, the term "bohemian" can describe any person who lives an unconventional artistic life, where self-expression is the highest value — that art (acting, poetry, writing, singing, dancing, painting etc) is a serious and main focus of their life. "

Consider this conundrum, however. Is it better to exhibit your self-expressed creations for 6 months, or a few decades? Of course, if you wish to toss all thoughts of longevity aside, six months is great. However, you do yourself a disservice, and you deprive the world of your evolved expressions over time, if you only produce your creative works for just six months, before you are evicted, your artists tools stolen one night by another homeless bohemian who has finally sunk so low that they see the "newfound" tools as a way to right themselves and reaquire a desire for longevity. Ansel Adams found himself in Yosemite on a commercial assignment during the birth of his second child, home in San Francisco. In fact, this photograph shows Adams making a commercial portrait in December of 1966, (coincidentally, the month & year I was born). Yes, the beloved Adams saw himself as a commercial photographer, yet he funded his most striking works by charging as much as he could for the commercial work, so he could choose to create his own self-expressive works on his own time.

Take the time when you're not doing assignments which are under-paying, to prepare and send out material (either via e-mail or postcards) that gets your name out, To prepare a better portfolio, to update (or create for the first time) your website. If nothing else, you'll start to get a few responses, a recognition of consistent correspondence with prospective clients that might just result in an assignment.

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Anatomy of An Assignment: 3 Minutes and counting

So, this is the anatomy of an assignment. Specifically, it's about how it came together, and was executed, and how, when you're a professional, with the right tools, you can make it happen, despite countless challenges. On January 16, the phone rang. It was the Art Director for a publication group that was handling a regional publication that wanted a portrait of a Member of Congress. The interview was schedule for January 24th, and the Communications Director also wanted the photography to take place that day. We discussed the details -- small circulation regional trade magazine, cover and single image inside. When asked about their budget, their figures were slightly lower than where I felt comfortable being, by about 20%. A negotiation ensued, and the result raised the figure to 10% less than I had originally proposed, and I forwarded on a contract to that effect, which was signed and returned prior to the shoot taking place.

I then began a dialog with the Congressman's CD about timing and logistics. She proposed Thursday the 25th, and I agreed. Then she called back to say he would be out of town. No problem. How about the 24th. No, that wouldn't work, because it was the day after the State of the Union address, and he would be tired. No problem, how about the 26th. No, he would still be out of town. Then, she proposes 4pm on the 24th, and I am agreeable, and slot it into my schedule. About 30 minutes later, the phone rings, and it's the CD again. She indicates that he's getting on a flight at 4:59, so the 4pm slot won't work after all. She proposes 10am, again, the morning after a long night on Capitol Hill. I agree, and shift the schedule. (After my own coverage of the President's speech, I did not make it to sleep until 3am myself.)

We then discuss location. I propose the Cannon House Office Building terrace, right outside of the main door, and she has concerns about the cold. I suggest that it's a great angle, with nice dynamics, but I understand her concerns about the elements. I suggest the 3rd Floor balcony of the Cannon building, and she likes that idea better. I call to try to schedule a window area to accomplish the photograph in, as they are scheduled by the press gallery. I am told that CNN and Fox both have reserved the two window spaces for all morning, since they are doing reactions to the speech the night before, so I am SOL. I then ask about the inside spaces between the columns, and am told they're "first come, first served." No problem, I'll take that, since there are alternative backup locations nearby if they are all full.

I call back, and she now agrees that we can do the outside shot, weather permitting, and that the inside location is our backup location. We arrive at 9:15, to set up for what we believe will be a 10am shot. She indicates that he will be in between meetings, and that they only have enough time for one location, and when I indicate we'll be done with him in 5 or 10 minutes, maximum, she's nervous, suggesting that that much time is not available. We set up both the inside and the outside locations.

The inside location is lit with a single Hensel head, at about 1/8 power, and mixed with the ambient light from outside, giving me an exposure of f5.6 at 1/40th for ISO 500, with the camera set to the "flash" color temperature reading, a Plume 140 with the wafer in (and two stops of an ND filter inside), and a litedisc reflector. The trick was getting the head out beyond the balustrade so that the light was coming in towards the subject. Once complete, I am comfortable with all the light/f-stop settings for this look. (see wide image of the setup below).

The outside location is also a single Hensel head, but at 2/3 power, with the Chimera 5 softbox. We had to run power from about 80 feet away, and it started as an overcast day, so I put a Full CTO gel into the softbox and set the camera to the "tungsten" setting so that all the ambient would go blue, and further, I stopped down a bit so it would be a bit darker. At 100 ISO, I was at f10 at 1/200th. I very much like this look and feel, and it reinforces the fact that this was the right first choice for what I was going for. (see wide image of the setup below, with a different subject stand in, and my bundled up assistant who was still cold afterwards.)

At 10:02, we learn that one of the House committees has scheduled a meeting for 10am, and that the earliest he will be available will be 11am.

At 11am, we learn that it will be atleast another 30 minutes. And, at 11:45 he arrives, at the inside (secondary) location. I've chosen to wait for him inside, since, at that moment, I am in a secure area, having already been screened by security. My assistant, who helped set up, has been outside, for 2 hours, with the equipment, in a non-secure area. All the lighting has been tested and pre-set (of course), and I make the first image at 11:45:09 (see below).
After two dozen images, both vertical and horizontal, I say to the Congressman "we've got the second setup right outside the door, where my assistant is already waiting with the lights set up." We walk downstairs, and out the door, through security. Since we are leaving, there is no delay, however, if we had started outside, I would have had to pass through the metal detectors and my camera through the x-ray machine, but the Congressman would not have, nor would he have had to wait if there was a line, I would have. Tactically, it was best to go the other direction. We get outside, and the light is different from how it was 2 hours earlier, it's sunnier, and so I make a quick adjustment to the light power, and make a test frame. Then, I continue shooting outside. After about 30 seconds I ask him how he's doing comfort-wise because there were a few intermittent snow-flakes falling, and he said he was fine. After about another dozen frames, I stop and tell him "we're done sir, thank you for your time..." and he's off to his next meeting. The final frame and revealed metadata is below.

Yes, that's 3 minutes, 19 seconds. Two set ups, travel time between sets, everything. And, the client has dozens of images to choose from. In fact, with a wireless card and on-site laptop, I am able to deliver three or four low resolution selects to the client, who was a bit nervous about the shoot even coming-off at all, given all the changes to the schedule. Giving them piece of mind that not only did it happen, but we got two setups, and we are pleased with the images. Their response, via e-mail, prior to our completion of the breaking down of the equipment was "Got the e-mail and site link. i will forward over to {designer}. These are really good. well done." Yea. Happy client!

So, why do I share all of this? Because, when time mattered, when it really came down to it, the pre-setting, the pre-testing, and logistical reviews meant that the shots came off. Professional grade flash equipment, with fast recycle times and great light modifiers and stands meant that we could produce what we wanted, exactly how we wanted to. We weren't limited by a flash's power necessary to overcome the sun in an outdoor setting, especially with a 5' softbox. We had a full complement of ND filters, and CTO filters at our disposal to achieve the desired effect, since when we dialed down the inside flash pack, it was still 2 stops too bright, and required ND.

Moreover, this example reinforces the fact that we are not billing for our time, but for our expertise. For our ability to trouble shoot, see three steps ahead, and anticipate all eventualilties (or as many as possible) and plan for them. Our fees should be in direct opposition to the length of time we can work in. The faster we can accomplish a task, the more we should be paid. Yet, many clients look to determine what they will pay based upon the length of time you are working for them, as if you are a form of a day laborer, punching a clock. This incorrectly suggests that the beginning photographer, who might have taken hours to light it, and many many more minutes to make the images while the subject stands patiently by, would be paid more than someone who can accomplish the same goals within about 3 minutes. Helping a client to understand that you will deliver even when you are thrown a curve ball -- when -- literally, every second counts, means that the client is more likely to agree and pay you commensurate with that level of experience and set aside thoughts of a "half-day" or "day rate" approach. I see that conclusion as one with ensures clients see the value I bring to an assignment, beyond minutes, technical skill, and gear, and one which will ensure a long and beneficial relationship for us both.

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Dangerous Words

As Warren Buffett goes, so goes the investment community. Yet, many of the things Buffett does and says, have applications that reach beyond investing. Buffett's got a new book coming out in 2008, for which Bantam paid $7 million, but until then, we have two notable tomes: Warren Buffet's Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist as well as The Warren Buffett Way, Second Edition.

At the height of the scandals that plagued Enron and others, Buffett wrote a letter to his top managers, saying in part:

"The five most dangerous words in business may be 'Everybody else is doing it.' "
He was warning them against illegal or unethical business practices, yet it can be easily carried on to our business.

Just because you THINK everyone else is signing WMFH agreements, doesn't make it the right thing to do -- i.e. to transfer your copyright. Morover, as you stay in business longer, you realize that, in fact, everyone ISN'T signing these agreements, it's photo editors telling you this (to get you to sign), or it's other defeatist photographers just giving in and signing.

Last Thursday I was called by a publication that has a history of presenting their contract to photographers, which included egregeous terms, among them, WMFH. I sent along my standard contract, which included the standard "one time use" language. On Friday, while out on another assignment, I got a message from the client, and I was certain that they'd had an issue with my paperwork, yet, they didn't. They had a request for a few dollars lower for the photographers fee, an adjustment which was more than fair, and which I made, and the contract came back a few hours later, and I completed the assignment today.

I can honestly tell you that, on more than one occasion, I have heard that publications were WMFH, and they also may have made an effort to present their contract and terms, yet in the end, we worked out slight modifications to the terms of my contract, and both I and the client had amenable terms, that were "a meeting of the minds." Both parties were happy, and I have time and time again worked with these same publications.

The manner in which these negotiations took place was very matter of fact. I had a service to offer, and they wished to procure my services. I presented the terms, they made requested changes, I considered them, and made fair changes, and we agreed. There was no unpleasantness. There was no "take it or leave it", and while I am proud of the work I have done, I do not consider myself a Ritts, Liebovitz, or Avedon. I provide what I believe to be creative solutions to client needs for a variety of types of photography, so those of you reading this who say "well, you've been doing this along time, you can cut those kinds of deals, we aspiring photographers can't." This just isn't true. You can. Really. That's my point about "I'm no X, Y, or Z" famous photographer, I'm just me, and I get booked because of the quality of the work on my website and how I interact with the prospective client when the phone rings, and not really for any other reason.

It appears as if my publisher has opted to put Chapter 5 of my book online, so you can find there, on page 57, (which is page 17 within the PDF) a whole lot more information about WMFH, what it is, when it cannot legally apply, and so on.

I often hear colleagues say "well, I saw so-and-so's credit in the magazine, so they must be signing WMFH." Don't accept this as prima facie evidence of this. Don't think to yourself, as Warren counsels - "everybody else is doing it so it must be ok" (or words to that effect). Present your terms, and as you see the dialog going south, continue to engage as you'll never know when it falls in your direction, or, consider the conversation and negotiation an exercise, so that the next time around, you are better at it. Just don't fall into the trap of thinking that everyone else is doing it, because, oftentimes they're not, and when they are, that doesn't make it right. As my mom used to say "if everyone else was jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge, would you?" (I grew up on an island in the San Francisco Bay, so this question made sense then). To which I would, of course respond "no mom, I wouldn't." Thankfully, I didn't.
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Monday, January 22, 2007

The Upside of Down

The concept -- "The Upside of Down" is simply the concept of growing through loss or challenge, and how this idea seems to be mostly devoid from many photographers approaches to their existence. It must always be roses and caviar, no burdens or challenges to tax their minds. In other words, the path of least resistance (and that usually equates to the path with the lowest pay or most onerous rights demands) is the road most taken. One of the things that always amazes me is how people in general (and photographers are not immune from this) will hold in admiration a colleague who is far more advanced in their career than they are, and how they would seem to do just about anything to spend time with them, learn from them, or possibly be mentored by them. Sometimes they write and ask for advice, othertimes, they talk during the down times of a lengthly assignment, yet, when they see the first opportunity to leap in and "replace" that photographer who's objected, in principle, to taking an assignment for a really bad deal, how they see nothing wrong with it.

About this time last year, photographers were checking and re-checking their equipment, testing their systems as was well documented by Apple where Vincent Laforet was working wirelessly (and no doubt tirelessly) and meeting deadlines because of the groundbreaking system he employed. Back in March of 2006, David Burnett, co-founder of the legendary Contact Press Images, wrote on the Sportshooter website, a great article entitled "The Great Disconnect: Chapter 2006", and I excerpt David's comment:

"...Torino for me was one of those times. I came THAT close to working out a credential and shooting situation for the Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy. But in the end, the client wanted way too much of my flesh, in addition to the pictures, and I decided to be a grownup about it and just watch, read, and mouse around my own version of The Games like the other six billion unaccrediteds in this world. ...

The problem is, Someone DID take whatever bad deal David was offered. Someone sold out, continuing the downward spiral of photographers' rates and hold they maintain on their rights. More than likely, they did it for a cool assignment, one which David really wanted to cover, but he stood, on principle, and did not. Whomever took the assignment, by NO means REPLACED David, they were: 1) an also ran -- the client really wanted David, not them, and 2) produced what I am sure were "also ran" photos. Few photographers can cover the Olympics (or any event) as David has, and would have.

That "also ran" photographer more than likely has seen David's work, and, if they don't aspire to produce work as good as his, they aspire to produce work as good as David's peers, whom certainly hold David in high regard.

This has happened throughout the years with other photographers (P.F. Bentley comes to mind, as noted previously) who are well respected, yet those whom have that respect are so willing to step in and do the deal when those they respect have said no -- for respectable reasons. Why is it that that respect and regard does not extend to saying no to bad deals? I can't understand it.

It's like being friends with someone, until you can screw them, and then you do, and think nothing of it -- in fact, you think it's just fine. That is, until someone does it to you in a few years, and the downward spiral continues.

Perhaps no one has conveyed to David their appreciation for not giving up his flesh and giving in to unreasonable demands for rights that are his. I thank David, and appreciate his principled stand. Perhaps those who respect and hold him in high regard will refrain from becoming the "also ran", and stand on principle too, and not sell out.

So, the question becomes - how do you affect change? Make a difference? A noticeable difference? The truth is, I am seeing that fewer and fewer graduating photographers are willing to do freelance work under a WFH agreement, for example. While the non-photo-school graduates still are content to accept whatever scraps of assignment terms are thrown at them. And, for the photo school grads who are doing WFH, they atleast know they're doing something that's not so good.

We have a generation in place currently that did not have the "WFH is bad" mantra conveyed to them, and not it's pro forma acceptance of unfair terms. A continued dialog and outreach to up-and-coming photographers will help to be sure.

Of course, I have not reviewed David's contract, I do not know the exact details, yet there are a few things I can surmise. First things first -- all deals are relative. However, if someone you respect and hold in high regard says no to it, then the deal should either be equally unacceptable to you, OR, you should learn that that type of deal should be unacceptable, since the person whom you aspire to be a peer of holds it as such.

Above, I have referred to the photographer as an "also ran", which has a basis in fact, since Burnett was who they wanted, and only after he declined, did whomever did it then become a considered photographer.

So, David was close to doing the deal, right? Could there have been something of value to the assignment? Well, as is often said, close only counts in horse shoes and hand grenades. He came "that close" but it fell through. I'd wager that it was mainly a rights issue, and that for what they wanted, the compensation was not commensurate with the rights package. Surely positives were: A) going to the Olympics (again for David), B) expenses covered (this should always be a given), C) some form of a fee was paid per day, but perhaps not all the days, but David could make that up with other work once on location. Perhaps the deal was an "Olympic Official" pass which would give David access everywhere, and his expenses would be covered, yet no fees, and David felt that that was workable until the IOC then demanded non-exclusive all rights, diminishing the value for David to make up the lost assignment fees with stock sales. However, in the end, there was clearly a deal-breaker, and 90% of the time it's over excessive rights demands, or fees that are not in keeping with the rights packages.

So, what about the concept of "climbing the ladder", making lesser deals when you're starting out, and better, "elite" deals as you gain recognition? Surmising that the only way that you'll ever get the "good" deals is this way? Well, one might argue that only the "elite" photographers would have these "good" deals, and any work they did not have would be because of "bad" deals, and this just isn't the case. The "elite" photographers would have the same work they wanted, and when they were unavailable either because they were so booked, or there was a booking date conflict, or they were comfortable enough to limit the number of days they shot, then those assignments would be available to others. The terms would (should) remain the same.

So, since you're an inexperienced photographer, you should be more amenable to a bad deal? Bad deals are almost always about rights, and then secondarily about low pay. WMFH, low/no pay...that's the downside of down, and there is no upside. Look elsewhere. Walk away.

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