The “democratization of photography” also means that the people who once paid for work by skilled professionals now think they can do it themselves — and thanks to easier and better cameras, often they can indeed produce “good enough” results. What the best strategy now for professional photographers? Top shooter Dave Stock takes stock of the situation. (Sorry Dave, couldn’t resist the awful obvious pun.) Dave’s company, Dallas-Fort Worth-based TeamDSP, serves public and private schools, youth leagues, club teams, and businesses.
The Digital Dilemma
By Dave Stock
Digital cameras: the best thing since sliced bread or a threat to our continued existence?
Ask the question and you get a wide range of answers. Our potential customers have jumped on the bandwagon and embraced the new advances, buying record numbers of cameras and smart phones…
What they are not buying in record numbers are prints and services provided by pro photographers!
Simply put, the new technologies are making it easier for our customers to take and print their own high quality images, reducing the likelihood they will buy from us, the working pros.
Remember when your competition was that relatively small group of names listed under “Photographers” in the Yellow Pages? I started working professionally back in the early 70’s, almost 20 years before the first digital cameras became available to the public. My first camera, a Konica Autoreflex, was unique in that it was the first SLR camera with auto-exposure capability. With any other camera, the user had to rely on feedback from a floating needle at the edge of the viewfinder to arrive at a combination of shutter and lens settings that would produce a well exposed image. It was left to the photographer to mentally sort through the full range of shutter speed/aperture pairings to select the combination that produced the desired result. What was most important for each subject, each situation? A fast shutter speed to freeze the action, or a small aperture to yield sharp focus from near to far?
The limited capabilities of those cameras required the shooter to do all the thinking: there was no on-board computer in a chip to help the process along. And exposure determination was just the beginning of the challenges. This was long before Nikon came out with the first autofocus camera in 1983. Ever tried manually follow-focusing a 600mm f4 lens on a running back hitting the hole? It’s a special skill that had to be developed over hundreds of hours spent squinting into an eyepiece. And how about color balance? To do it right, you needed a pricey color meter and large collection of gel filters, held in place in front of your lens with frames of varying thread diameters.
But even then, these “dumb” cameras lacking electronic brains could produce beautiful images when in the hands of the right operator, which is something that the popular consumer cameras from that era could not do.
If our customers had their own cameras back then, it was likely an Kodak Instamatic 104 or something similar. These cameras had one f-stop, one shutter speed (1/90th), and produced small 1-inch square images on grainy 126 cartridge films. Most of the pictures produced by these cameras were poor to abysmal and even the best fell well short of the quality coming out of the cameras used by pros at the time.
The net result is that if you owned pro equipment in the 70s you looked like a pro and your photos were going to be far better than those taken by amateur photographers, simply because of your choice of equipment.
Fast forward to 2012, and consider how technology has radically leveled the playing field. Can you tell the difference between a Canon 5D and a Digital Rebel from across a room? How about the difference in sharpness and color accuracy between 8×10 prints coming out of the two cameras? Probably not. Simply buying professional equipment no longer guarantees that you can produce significantly better photos than our customers can with their own equipment. Did you know that highly respected pro shooters are now offering three day workshops aimed at pros and serious amateurs using their iPhones for image capture? The iPhones of today produce far better images than the $20,000+ Kodak 520 DCS digital camera I leased for $450 a month back in 1999!
The first challenge for us as professional photographers is to acknowledge that this threat is real and it is already affecting our industry. This problem is not going away. If anything, it’s going to grow larger as cameras of all types, including smart phones, become more technologically advanced while their prices drop. Digital printers used by our customers will likely continue to improve as well, making better prints more quickly and more economically. Faster internet connections will make it easier for our customers to send their own images to labs or share their images with friends and relatives, completely bypassing the need to print the images altogether. What are the implications for us when our customers save money spent on prints by capturing images on their phones before posting them on Facebook to share with others? Why buy a 5×7 from us for $5 when they can take their own photo, have Costco make them a 37 cent 5×7, or simply save it in a digital album on their phone or iPad?
So what is the answer? Many in our field respond by lowering the prices on their order forms. Others focus on adding a wide range of novelty items to their offerings, highlighting whatever is the newest “hot item” offered by their lab or supplier. Both of these potential solutions represent serious risks to the bottom line, however. If you lower prices you must lower costs to preserve your profit margin. Do you achieve this by paying your workers less or reducing the size of your staff on the shoots? Do you cut corners back at the office, spending less time preparing and enhancing the images before submitting them to your lab? Novelty items may sell like crazy, but can leave you with less profit if the parent that budgeted $25 for soccer photos to buy three sheets of prints instead gets a single photo statue after seeing a sample at your photo shoot. Novelties are great if the parent makes an impulse buy, spending more than they initially planned to spend. If they buy novelties instead of straight prints, you lose because the standard mark up on portrait units greatly exceeds that of most novelty items (magnets, buttons, trading cards, etc.).
We choose not to lower prices, but to entice our prospective customers by offering them more for their money. A five-star restaurant can’t compete with McDonald’s prices, but they can offer a better experience. The highly acclaimed restaurant can’t sell an entrée, side and drink for only five bucks and make a profit. What they can do is create a superior product combined with exceptional customer service in a pleasant atmosphere that easily justifies menu prices that go well beyond the cost of the raw ingredients used to prepare the meals. Parents with cameras save tremendously by taking their own pictures and having Walmart make their prints. The challenge for us is to provide a level of quality, creativity and service that will both justify our higher prices and earn their business.
There’s another element in this dynamic that is hard to quantify, but is very powerful. For most of us, dining out at an expensive restaurant with a recognized chef is a special event. If you’re like me, you cringe when you see the tab, but you’re willing to pay the price because of the special feeling you have when you’re being pampered by the restaurant staff and you’re enjoying a meal prepared by a master. It’s this same feeling of being special that we try to give our customers by always striving to produce not only great images but a great customer experience.
Restaurant owners and photographers share the same goal: give customers what they want, do it better than anyone else and you have the foundation for a successful business. As a photographer specializing in youth sports, I need to understand what my customers want and why they sometimes feel that taking their own photos is their best available option.
Who are my customers and what do they want most from me? My customers include anyone either buying, using or benefitting from my products or services. Parents want great pictures that bring back special memories. They don’t want to stand in lines. They don’t want to call with a question or a problem and get an answering machine. They don’t want to pay for a poorly lit or sloppily composed photo that they could have taken themselves.
High school coaches don’t care as much about quality as they do about their precious practice time. They want fast, efficient photo shoots and quick delivery of images and prints to yearbook advisors, printers and parents. They don’t want to deal with problems of any kind: collecting late payments, fielding parent’s complaints, tracking down missing packages not picked up by kids on the day the photos were passed out. Youth league board members want the picture day schedule to run on time so that the game schedules are not disrupted. And like school coaches, they hate getting phone calls from unhappy parents. Don’t give parents any excuse to complain about any aspect of picture day.
Yearbook advisors, webmasters and program printers require fast delivery, accuracy, quality and organization. Make their job easier by getting them what they need quickly. Organize the images in folders, provide names linked to frame numbers, crop group photos loosely to allow designers maximum flexibility when planning page layouts.
In trying to please our customers, we focus on leveraging our people, experience and resources to outperform our competitors, whether they are professional photographers or our own customers. As an organization, we are obsessive about achieving quality in five key areas of our business:
1 – The quality of our products. Our goal is to produce studio quality on location, indoors or out. We typically use anywhere from two to four studio flash units modified by umbrellas, soft boxes or beauty dishes for each setup. All images are brought into Photoshop or Lightroom to be cropped and enhanced (sharpness, exposure, color balance, retouching when requested) prior to being submitted to Richmond Professional Lab for printing. We frequently use multiple 18×27’ tents, each with four lights, for league shoots so that we can control ambient light and work in adverse weather conditions.
2 – The quality of the experience. Our expectation is that our customers can quickly and easily navigate through the picture day experience without waiting in long lines, dealing with feelings of frustration or confusion, or ever feeling like we aren’t completely dedicated to the task of getting good photos of everyone posing for our photographers. Keys to accomplishing this goal include having adequate numbers of experienced workers on the shoots, taking multiple photos of each person posing for photos and using highly efficient work flows that best match each worker’s skills with their assigned tasks. Photographers shoot anywhere from two to four lines of individuals simultaneously, assisted by a team of posers and assistants recording image numbers.
3 – The quality of our staff. We hire exceptional people and pay them substantially more than what is considered customary in our industry. Our team members share a common vision, striving to work together and do whatever is necessary to provide an exceptional customer experience.
4 – The quality of our customer service. Customer service starts before the job is booked and never ends. We strive to respond to every email and every phone call within hours of receipt. We offer a “no-hassle” guarantee if a customer is unhappy for any reason: we will either reshoot, reprint or refund depending on the nature of the dissatisfaction. Our goal is to consistently go above and beyond what our customers expect and what most people consider reasonable.
5 – The quality of the opportunity offered our staff. We treasure our workers and endeavor to provide them with a work environment where they feel appreciated and supported. Paying them well is only a part of the puzzle. Maintaining a corporate culture where finger-pointing is forbidden and contributions are acknowledged and rewarded leads to great morale and higher production, not to mention fun times working together as a group to overcome challenges.
Evolving technology requires that we keep on our toes and look for new ways to serve our customers. While the digital revolution has put more powerful yet affordable cameras in the hands of our customers, it has also given us great tools that professionals can use to create unique products that parents will want to buy. Greenscreen technology, cameras with HD video capture, Internet storefronts, on-site proofing and printing systems and social media all represent but a few of the many new paths we can pursue to grow our businesses.
Beyond that, not losing sight of the basic values that transcend all technological evolution is essential. There is no substitute for working hard, working smart, continually striving to improve — and always treating people right.