Friday, July 27, 2012

Do You Have SDS?

Do You Have SDS?
The hardest part of being in any business, large or small, is decision making.  Different people handle this differently - no real surprise there - but depending on your personality type, where decision making is concerned, you can be guilty of one of two bad practices.  You either make decisions too quickly and live to regret them later or you become paralyzed and live to regret it later.
I have SDS.  (Snap Decision Syndrome).  Apparently there are pharmaceutical (kind of proud of myself for spelling that right on the first try!) products that can help me. I don’t take them.   Anyone who has worked with me for any length of time knows this.  I know this about myself and for this reason I surround myself with people who are smart and confident enough to tell me I’m wrong, to rethink, to wait, etc.  In really tough situations these people have to be adept at locking me in a virtual box for a while.  John Zdanowski, who I had the distinct pleasure of working with while I was at Affinity, used to walk into my office and say, “you’re not allowed to answer this question until tomorrow morning,” and then he would go on with his idea.  (That “Z” is also afflicted with Snap Decision Syndrome is the root of the 24-hour-cooling-off-period practice that we instituted when we were working together.  Those were fun days.)
I’ve had SDS for long enough to have spent plenty of time thinking about it.  (Usually when I’m trying to figure out how to get myself out of some challenge that I wouldn’t be in if I didn’t have SDS in the first place - but I digress).  I know that I have SDS because my greatest fear in business is indecision.  Makes sense, right?  I’m so afraid of not making a decision that I will make decisions too fast in order to make sure that my teams can keep moving.  The idea that there is some smart person sitting on her hands awaiting a decision from my office can nearly drive me insane.  She knows what must be done.  She’s provided a recommendation.  For whatever reason it needs my approval.  Make the damn decision and let her get moving!
If you have SDS know you’re not alone.  If you’d like you can stand up and say the following out loud (I do not recommend doing this in a cubicle).  “My name is _______________ and I have SDS.”  You’ll feel better.  Despite the existence of various depressive drugs that might help, the only real way to slow yourself down if you have SDS is with the help of smart, trusted others.  (The ‘smart’ part is important because if you have dumb trusted others they’ll just always agree with you or they will disagree with you for dumb reasons and when this happens your SDS will actually get worse.)  Your Smart team will help you avoid the downside ramifications of your SDS.
Here is a simple, three step process that should keep you (and me) out of trouble.  When you are about to make a decision ask yourself if you’ve done the following.
  1. Review all of the available information about the reason for the decision so you have a thorough understanding.
  2. Take the time to think of the downside risks of the decision.  What bad things are going to happen because you are making this decision?
  3. Bring in the person who is most likely to disagree with the decision.  Tell them the decision.  Listen to their view.  (this is what you pay them for).  BTW - The benefits of this are too many to list but high among them is that it is really a form of torture for the person you are listening to.  They know that most of the time you’re going to go ahead and make the decision anyway.  However, they also know that every once in a while, due to some miracle, solar flare, etc. you might actually listen to them.  They don’t know which circumstance this will be until they’re done.  (or until your eyes glaze over and you fall backwards over your exercise ball - if you happen to sit on one as I do - and hit your head on the window sill).
There is no cure for SDS.  One can only mitigate its effects.  Mitigation is a good idea because many of your ideas are bad ideas.  Don’t let that depress you.  You’re only human.  Not everyone can be as smart as me.
(By the way.  To my knowledge, SDS doesn’t exist.  I made it up.  There are therefore no drugs for it.  If someone reads this and then makes up the syndrome and then makes money on curing it I want a piece of that.  Good luck selling me something though.  People with SDS are notoriously hard to sell.  We’ve decided the answer is no before you even walk into our offices).

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

My Clients are My Friends

“You talk about your clients like they’re your friends.”
It had been a while since I’d seen this friend and we were catching up on where we were and what we’re doing.  He’s way smarter than me, lives in the world of finance, makes more money, works less, etc.  He’d asked how things were going at work and I’d told him a series of fun stories.  The company’s doing fine.  Let me tell you about our members and some fun stuff they’ve been doing.
I told him about our member, Paul Morse, who so generously asked us to help deliver something very special to the wounded warriors who road in this year’s W100.  I told him about the chance we’d had to deliver some albums earlier this year, nearly overnight, so a newly married bride and groom could enjoy their wedding again on the night before he underwent life threatening cancer surgery.  I told him about our members who shoot for charities like Operation Love Reunited, Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep and so many others.  I told him we’re so deluged with amazingly beautiful imagery that the images that grace our walls, submitted by our members, are not their most beautiful, but their most meaningful.
I told him about the conferences I go to and the people I see there and the stories I hear.  He said, “you talk about your clients like they’re your friends.”  I thought about it for a minute and said, “more like family.”  
You see, the unique thing about Pictage is that more than any business I’ve ever run there is a symbiotic relationship between the company and its members.  Our success is tied together.  If you are failing it means we’re failing.  If you are succeeding we all celebrate together.  There are times when I get pretty frustrated with our clients.  There are times when I know they get pretty frustrated with me.  Some get fed up and quit.  I don’t blame them.  We’re far from perfect and we can’t serve everyone.
I get notes all the time from photographers who say they can’t believe that I stepped in myself to help to resolve a situation, make sure they’re taken care of, provide some general business help, etc.  I always tell them the same thing.  It’s my job.  It’s true.  It’s also my privilege. 
I may be the CEO of the company.  I may have a big desk and sometimes I feel like I have a big job.  None of that compares to the dedication that my clients have to have to their business.  If they don’t get up in the morning the work doesn’t get done.  Sometimes it feels like it’s all on my shoulders.  It IS all on their shoulders.  How could I not want to help someone who’s chasing that dream succeed?
My clients are my friends and I couldn’t be more honored to serve them.  I know many of them feel the same way about their clients.  I think that makes us all pretty lucky.  Even if we do bicker every once in a while.

Monday, July 23, 2012

A Momentary Philosophical Diversion

Kind of a weird philosophical post today.  (and half my readers just ran for the hills - rightly so - don’t worry I’ll get back to my usual slightly acerbic self shortly so both of you will be ok.)
I think one of the things that happens to us as we get older is that more and more of who we are seems to be constructed of something hard, like girders and bricks or something, inside of us that can’t change.  When we’re younger it’s more flimsy.  The wind blows one way we bend that way.  When we’re older when the wind blows the ‘wrong’ way it’s just irritating.
A while ago, and I don’t know what drove it, I decided I didn’t really care about other people’s religious or political views.  I don’t care about their race, sexual preference or proclivity.  I don’t care if they’re tall and thin or short and fat.  (or tall and fat for that matter - short and thin is just creepy (-: ).  I really only care about one thing.  My internal barometer’s view of whether they’re authentically who they say they are.  People who are comfortable in their skin are people I like to be with.  People who are super insecure and people who are always trying to prove they’re somehow better tire me.
This doesn’t make me a great person.  Frankly, it’s an indication of how seriously flawed I really am.  I have my own views, my own political perspective, my own religious affiliations, etc.  I just don’t know that I’m right about anything and I guess the older I get the more I wonder about people who do know they’re right.  (this may freak out my pastor but honestly I think that’s a good thing every once in a while and it won’t be that big of a shock to him!).  I think sometimes people get so wrapped up in being right and trying to convince everyone else of their rightness that they forget the point.  I think that’s ironic.
This doesn’t mean that I’m some wishy washy soul who doesn’t have a view.  It means that I don’t care whether your view and mine are in alignment.  I’d prefer you didn’t either.  No matter how much you may belittle my view, insult people I admire, praise people I may or may not, espouse a social change program, etc., you’re unlikely to change the way I think.  You’re just the wind blowing in the wrong direction.  The harder you blow the more likely I am to decide you’re no longer worth my time.  Harsh?  Maybe.  True?  Absolutely.
I don’t think I’m a minority either.  Even though this more or less centrist view is rarely heard, I actually think there are a lot of folks like me.  These are people who tend to walk away when the shouting starts.  They tend to judge the judge as harshly as the judged.  I often wonder what makes people so great that they seem to believe they have a right to make others feel small.  Perhaps some are that great.  I dunno, the greatest people I’ve ever met don’t think of themselves as all that great.  They are the opposite of today’s social stars.  They are rarely famous for having sought fame.  They are famous for what they’ve accomplished.  Perhaps we should get back to that.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Professional Photography is Fun!

“Choosing to be a professional photographer because you think it will be fun is a little like choosing to be a plumber because you like to play with water.”

This quote from yesterday’s post is the root of a lot of the challenges faced by new photographers taking the “professional” step.  The idea that professional photography is all about fun is an easy one to come by.  It’s fun to take pictures.  It’s fun to share them on Facebook, see our friends use our images for profile pics and the like.  All of these things are fun.  And there is certainly fun to be had in the business of professional photography.  Even the crustiest pro (and there are some really crusty ones) will smile and glaze over a little when you ask them about their last great capture.
With that said it is important to remember that the business of professional photography is first and foremost, a business.  Success demands hard work, investment, frustration, disappointment, humility, and determination.  And once you have success, the business isn’t likely to be what it may look like from outside.

Let’s get down to basics:

How a pro spends their time.
On average, around 90% of the time a professional photographer will spend in their business is spent without a camera.  That’s right.  The process of actually taking pictures amounts to about 10% of the total time spent.  While this ratio will change over time and photographers with more business (or larger businesses) tend to get more time behind the viewfinder, the simple fact is that the basic requirements of the business demand time.
What are these demands?  Marketing, scheduling, invoicing, accounting.  Researching product and pricing.  Selling.  Note that these are all non-shoot related activities.  In the digital era, editing has become a huge time suck.  For time, read money.  You can hire outside firms to edit for you and some do a pretty good job, but it’s expensive.  The average photographer spends about 125% of the shoot time editing.  Many spend much longer.  In general, the better you are behind the viewfinder, the less time you will spend in front of your computer.  However, many photographers choose this path, preferring to create solid work on screen rather than in camera.  Each to his or her own.
Add to all of this the fact that most photographers are very gregarious.  In fact, one of the keys to success in wedding and portrait photography is the ability to instantly connect with new people.  But the business of photography is, for the most part, a pretty solitary pursuit.  You have to be ok with that.  Sometimes it’s downright lonely.  To be sure, in time you will make friends of other photographers and I can personally attest that they are among the world’s greatest people, but you will spend much of your time alone, in front of your computer, working.
This may come as a shock.  You may not love all of your clients.  They may not all be great looking (and there is no corollary between the two).  Heavy folks will expect you to make them look thinner.  Women with worry lines will want to look worry free. Every man and woman knows every one of their foibles and that’s the first thing they’ll look for when they get their pictures.  If you’re good their foibles are there but they’re not front and center.  Are you that good?  Sitting down to edit images for clients you love can be fun and very rewarding.  Sitting down to edit images for clients you never want to see again is a chore.  Both paid for your services.  Both paid for your professionalism.  Both will give you good or bad references - the life blood of this business.
Here’s the last thing.  Every year brings the same challenges all over again.  Every year requires hustle.  Just because you have a great year this year doesn’t mean you’ll have a great year next year.  The marketplace changes.  Tastes change.  You’re a sole proprietor.  A marketing department isn’t figuring out where you should go next.  That’s on you.  There is little nest egg, no business to sell, no pension.  You simply have to keep going.
Pretty depressing huh?  Here’s the thing.  To a certain extent I’m most certainly writing this to discourage you.  To be honest, I want you to go and do something else.  If you choose to do this I want it to be more than a whim - more than a decision you’re making because you think it might be fun.
I can point you to a thousand photographer’s blogs where they talk about the work.  Sweat pouring down their bodies as they lug equipment around outdoor receptions on hot summer days.   Clients with unreasonable expectations.  “What do you mean you can’t accomplish my 653 shot list in 45 minutes while we’re having cocktails?”  “Why CAN’T you get a picture of my kids looking peaceful and serene?  I yelled at them and told them that’s what I want and after all that’s what I’m paying you for!”  “My fiance hates taking pictures.  Please make him look like he’s having fun even though he would rather have his thumbnails extracted than spend five minutes with a photographer.”  All of these things tend to grate on one’s soul.  
If you want to do this after all of that.  If you really think about all of it and you want to do it.  If you have that kind of passion.  The passion that makes you say, “screw what Jim thinks, I’m going to do this anyway,” then you’re on your way.  It’s not going to be easy.  It’s going to be expensive.  It is a lot of hard work.  If you’re willing to do all of that and you’re ok with not being rich, then you may find that professional photography is among the most personally rewarding of careers.  And if that’s the case I’m happy to help.  In fact, it’s my job.  So long as you’re willing to do the work.

Monday, July 16, 2012

So You Want to Be a Professional Photographer!

Yet another friend called me.  So excited.  His son has decided that he has found his calling.  He is going to be a photographer.  Do I have some time to meet with him to talk to him about it?  He would so value my opinion.
I called my friend.  I asked him, “What do you think?  Are you happy about this?”  He said yes.  Their son graduated from college two years ago with a degree in social studies.  He hasn’t been able to find work as a teacher.  They were at a wedding and he watched the photographers and decided he could do it.  He found out what the couple had paid.  He decided that was his calling.  Dad wanted to talk to me about what gear they should buy.  Son wanted to talk about how to get clients, marketing, etc.  I’ve been putting off the conversation with them.  This is my answer.
Deciding you want to become a pro photographer because you think it will be fun is a little like deciding you want to become a plumber because you like to play with water.  Photography, the business of photography, whether you want to acknowledge it or not, is rooted in a skill. It is the skill of taking pictures.  I know you’ve taken a couple of pictures that you and your friends think are good.  I know your Facebook friends compliment your pictures.  Woo hoo.  Get the ribbon out and run around the pole.
You have no concept.  No skill.  No understanding of light.  No training.  None of these things matter when the pictures don’t matter.  They all matter the first time you get paid.  They matter even more the first time you get paid by someone you don’t know.  They aren’t paying you to take the pictures their friends can take.  They’re paying you to capture something special.
I’m intimately aware of this because I run Pictage.  Our rather quirky place in the universe is that we serve as a sales agent.  A marketing system that promotes images captured by pro photographers to their clients, takes their calls, etc.  When it works, we see the good and great side of this industry.  We hear from happy clients who want to know just the right size for their wall art, etc.  We see stunning, amazing, images that, with 30 years of looking through a view finder under my belt, I know there is no way I could take.
When it goes wrong the calls usually start with a question like this, “Do these images look good to you?”  There is no call our customer service team fears more.  Especially when the answer is an honest, no.  (They never say 'no' by the way.  We serve our clients whether their work is great or not.  We just know if it’s not they’re not going to be around for long).  
Want to be a professional photographer?  Start by learning everything you possibly can about taking great pictures of people in all situations.  This will take a year if you can work at it full time and are really willing to really put yourself out there.  Buy gear slowly, and only buy once you know why you’re buying what you’re buying.  Then worry about marketing, finding clients, etc.  (and know that that’s going to be at least as hard as learning to take pictures.)
Tomorrow I’m going to write a post about the other major misunderstanding in this young man’s mind...