Monday, November 30, 2009

Another Lens in the Bag!

I just added the Canon 10-22mm lens to my bag. It's a bit pricey, but I think I can do some really interesting shots with it.

One advantage of this ultra-wide lens is the distortion of perspective you get from close objects. For example, here are a couple of shots of my dog and some flowers to illustrate the effect.

I also shoot some pretty close stuff in dance studios, and this will let me do some interesting things there as well. And I can't wait to shoot some great landscapes!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Internet Ruined Everything

Newsweek recently published an online article by Daniel Lyons entitled How The Internet Ruined Everything. He describes how the emergence of new technology, namely the internet and the capabilities it provides, caused older, established businesses to weaken and fail.

He cites as examples Newspapers, TV, the music industry, movies and more. It's interesting reading, as it describes industry after industry failing to see the change coming and anticipating how it will impact them.

The internet is not the first technology to upset established industries. Many major technological changes caused industries to weaken or become irrelevant. The rise of the automobile punished the horse and buggy industries. Telephone impacted telegraph. Television impacted the radio industry. VCR's, Cassettes, CD's, Digital Cameras, you name it.

This is the reality: New inventions or technologies will destroy old business models. You can't change that. You can learn how to profit from it, though.

If you are a film photographer, digital probably messed with you. Faced with a choice, you could either adapt to the new tech, lose business to those that did, or stay old school and become a niche business. Either way, you had to make a choice.

Film or not, now we have the world of $700 dSLRs and $200 printers. Now anyone with $1000 can shoot and print. Maybe not at your quality level, but some customers won't know the difference. It may bug you that someone else can elbow their way into your niche with little investment or experience, but getting angry about it won't make it stop.

And the internet has made advertising and promotion inexpensive and quick. What used to involve yellow pages and print advertising can now be done through social networking, blogging and e-newsletters. If you are not leveraging these technologies, you are losing edge and exposure. Young people just don't look in the phone book. Their phone book is that little search box in the browser...or on their cell phone's browser. If you aren't served up in those search results, you are invisible to them.

Proofing used to involve contact sheets and books. Now it's online or done through projection. If you can't provide online or individualized proofing, other than printed 4x5's, you are losing edge and customers.

How many of your consults ask for a DVD of images? Last year I said a flat "no", then realized that they are going somewhere. I now get twice as many wins as last year, and I have two kinds of wedding clients - those who want a DVD and pay me more up front, and those who want prints and books and pay me later. My DVD clients require less total effort, so I can fit in more and generate volume through higher session counts. I still do a lot of print business. them resets, paradigm shifts or technological revolutions. They will continue to happen.

Each of the industries impacted by old technology had a choice: adapt or die. In Adapting, they had to broaden the focus of their mission.

Think of how today's shifts are changing our world. Are we makers of paper prints, or a creator of visual memories? How does the broadened scope allow us to break out of a shoot-proof-print mode and get into the consult-create-share/sell mode? Deliver images for someone's PDA, cell phone or Kindle? Mix video clips and stills for our clients? Become a teacher for digital photography so they can do what you do...but call you for the big stuff? Offer digital image archival and transfer for clients?

You have to define how far you can stretch and stay in your comfort zone. But remember, where you do not choose to go, new entrants to your space will be there, and so will some of your customers. I'm not saying you lower your standards for quality, profit or style. But you may need to expand your offerings and look outside your old business model to find growth or sustainability to yesterday's expectations.

What's out there on the horizon that might change our world tomorrow?

How about these:

- Hi-res video from dSLRs. Mini movies for your clients? Scouting sessions? Someone's doing it in your area today.
- Streaming video from the cell phone. A new product for your customers? Are you ready to deliver slide shows and movies in that format?
- Social networking images. Are you scared they will rip them off and post crappy scans? Give it to them instead, with branding and links to your page. Insist on friending.
- iPhone apps, and more like it.
- Augmented reality - point a phone at something and it shows you stuff about it.
- Cloud computing - no longer do you need a thick client (computer). Upload and allow your customers immediate access to images? A custom-branded photo edit and download site with your name?
- eBook readers - how can you leverage them for your photography? PDF books of your customers' images? Coffee table eBooks? Fund-raising calendar/books?
- Batteries that last forever and cards with immense storage - marathon/excessive shooting sessions?

The key takeaways are these:
- Resistance is Futile. The Borg (TM) were right.
- You survive by not only adapting but taking the new tech and making it a buisiness edge. Think iTunes, Flickr, mPix. How can you develop an edge with technology?
- Find out how to stay in your industry, but blow out one wall of your "building" and expand the concept to expand or redirect your business' direction instead of fighting the technology.

Me? I can't wait until the 550 Megapixel ocular implant with wireless gigabit download and heads-up realtime editing is available. Plug me in, baby!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Tips from the Waiter

I get the New York Times news digests several times each day. This one highlighted 100 tips that this restaurant owner proposed for his new property soon to open:

It's painted as list of things his staff members should never do. But you can look at each point and turn it into a "thing to do" if you wanted to be positive. If you have ever worked food service, you'll quickly remember some of your serving days and some of these will ring true...unless you worked in a biker bar or dive.

The common themes come out of the 100 deliverables:
- Treat each customer the same
- Allow them the time, dignity and space to enjoy their meal
- Don't smother them or stroke them
- Make the environment perfect for their dining experience

You can adapt these to any business. The 100 rules would obviously not apply to your studio or home-based business in every case, but you could take your themes and derive your 100 rules if you wished.

In my case I may choose these themes:
- My customer needs to feel very comfortable with me as their photographer
- My customer should feel that I have unique things to offer that others don't
- My customer should not worry that I don't have a studio
- My customer needs to know that I'll be around for a long time
- My customer should have a clear understanding of what I offer

Let's take the first one and derive some do/dont's for my operating policy:
- My customer needs to feel very comfortable with me as their photographer

Here might be my policy steps to achieve this objective:

1. Answer the phone professionally and with a friendly tone
2. Get their name and use it as you discuss their needs...take notes if needed
3. Create a connection - community, etc.
4. Understand how they found you and use it to create a bridge
5. If they visit my residence, it should be comfortable and clean
6. My email, telephone and written etiquette should be correct but not stuffy
7. I should not over or under dress for the type of meeting/session
8. I should maintain good eye contact and tone of voice
9. I should not bring my other troubles into their world...focus only on them.

You can see that with a small handful of objectives, you can derive a great list of specific behaviors or actions that will be supportive to your organization's customer focus. Large or small businesses may have different objectives. Certainly different business types will have different objectives. If you hire or have employees, this list should be used in training and evaluation. If it's just you, then you should review this to make sure you can step out of the "photographer/technician" role and be the customer service professional that you need to be in order to run a small business. If you cant...then hire or prepare to be disappointed!

Thinking about your business from a new customer's viewpoint will help you to tailor your customer contact guidelines. Imagine a new mom with a newborn, a nervous young man just engaged, a senior or her mom cold calling from a google search, or a business trying to engage you for commercial work. How is your first call contact likely to be perceived by them? How often do you return calls? Do you keep good call records? Are you pleasant on the phone? Is your web contact/support information useful? Do you cater to the lunchtime web shopper - with price lists and other supporting information? Do you have the right images, testimonials and reviews to make your potential customers feel good about you? When and how do you meet with them? Are they happy or awkward/nervous when they leave the meeting?

I know the 100 do/don't list caused me to think about my customer service practices. Being a sole proprietor makes me waiter, cook and house manager. I need to make sure their interaction with me makes them feel good, comfortable and positive. It may not win the deal, but bad customer service will often lose it for you!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Don't tell me it's a "Down Economy!"

I regret not posting a lot on this blog over the busy summer. I had a ton of senior and wedding business, and it's just now slowing down to the point where I can reflect and post on it.

It's been a busy year for our part-time photography business. We exceeded our business goals for weddings and seniors, and have almost exceeded the 2009 business plan, and it's only November 1st. We have a strong backlog for next year already.The business has remained debt-free, we upgraded out equipment and have a good war chest for the winter and next year.

We have remained active in many of the charitable organizations that we support, and have donated several sessions for charity auctions.

And in the middle of all that, I had a heart attack.

So I'm slowing down a bit, and watching my physical exertion, as well as changing my diet. But I'm not backing off of the business. I'm blogging about my cardiac recovery at my Round 2 blog.

Our company is not feeling the "Down Economy." We have lots of inquiries and considerable bookings from them. Yes, some people are shopping based on price, but I don't mind losing some of my consults to someone who is cheaper. The customer will get exactly what they pay for. I'll be raising my prices this winter, and I'm confident we'll be getting more business, both from word-of-mouth, and from our web presence, which attracts now more than 50% of our calls.

I know we're not too expensive. we have many customers ordering the high-end packages, and we get very few comments about the pricing being too high. In fact, some of our customers and potentials tell me that we're quite affordable.

Don't let the media fool you into thinking you can't make money in this economy. I know we could easily double or triple our revenue if we were full time. There are market segments that we could tap into tomorrow that would greatly raise our business level. We are not pursuing them now because, as a part time business, I need to manage my workload to stay sane (and healthy).

If you are a new or potential photographer, get out there and generate awareness and business. It's not hard - but you will have to put the camera down and work on business and marketing plans and other "not so fun" stuff. But it's worth it. If you can run a business that goes head to head with the "big studios", and you can offer more value and more creative solutions then they offer, you will win some customers...probably enough for you to grow at a pace that is debt-free and comfortable for you.
And get a checkup!