Welcome to our 7th series of posts where we share the results from our conversations held directly with community leaders about top of mind photo-industry issues. Community Table was formed from the collective efforts of Matt Nycz and Kate Chase of Brite Productions and Heather Elder and Lauranne Lospalluto of Heather Elder Represents with the idea that there is nothing more powerful in our industry than education.
This particular roundtable was a series of exciting firsts for The Community Table. It was the first time we invited photographers and it was the first time we included a partner. So, it is with excitement that The Community Table, along with our partner, The Workbook, welcome 11 photographers from our community to the table.
Suzanne Semnacher, the Worbook’s Director of Marketing, has interacted with countless photographers over the years and because of that has had such varied conversations with them all that she was the perfect person to write our introduction.
“As I listened to the discussion and the individual experiences of the participants I was reminded of what it really takes to be an entrepreneur in a demanding business that has seen such change over the last 20 years. This group of photographers has not only survived but continues to thrive doing something they clearly love, while at the same time, many were buying homes, having babies, sending children to college and living full and busy lives.
Having worked with literally thousands of photographers throughout my 34 years in this business, I have seen a lot of evidence that this is not as easy as it looks. It takes a fine balance of creative thinking, the soft skills required to manage people, and the business acumen to make a profit while doing it. I want to thank each of the photographers who participated in the Roundtable for sharing their unique experiences and perspectives.
There was a fair amount of discussion about the challenges of staying relevant in a career, which to outsiders might look easy. But the level of experience it takes to stay focused on the idea or a concept while managing a crew of assistants, digital tech, hair, makeup artist and stylist, location, props, wardrobe, and all the pre and post and make it all look authentic and effortless is no easy task.
It is our hope that the Photographer’s Roundtable will provide insight on what it takes to excel in the business as well as reinforce the power and the value of great photography.”
As a reminder, each Conversation Starter was directed to one person with a general discussion ensuing. Rather than sharing the entire conversation, we included the original question and then the quotes and notes that were most relevant. Please note, often times the person leading the conversation spoke most often.
Please note, there will be 5 posts shared over the next few weeks. Tune in every Tuesday and Thursday for the latest installments.
And with that, we welcome you back to the table.
How do you feel about treatments? What criteria do you use to determine if you will create one for a project? And, what would you like the people who receive them to know about what is involved in creating one?
Paul Aresu: I get requests for treatments on almost every job nowadays. It takes 3-4 hours. Pdf, mood board, stylistic board. It takes a long time to do these things.
Heather Elder/Agent: Do you think everyone on the team is seeing your treatments?
Paul Aresu: There have been so many times that the creative had not seen the treatment when I asked that I now send it to the art director directly. I knew this because I would ask them and they would say no. Maybe they got them and didn’t read them but when I started requesting sending it to them directly, it really made a difference.
If you reply and reach out to the creative director like equals, whatever the question is, that’s an important step.
Heather Elder/Agent: There is huge value with the treatment coming from the photographer (not the rep or the art producer) and then the follow up coming from the photographer. It opens up room for more conversation and creativity. It provided accountability between the two. Reaching out to each other as equals is an important step.
Paul Aresu: It makes the playing field slant in your favor because now you’re an equal player. Say you’re brought in as a third bid. You might be the best photographer but they’re looking at a photographer they’ve worked with before. So you do the treatment, spend a lot of hours, you are the right photographer and they never get to see that.
Do you have the feeling that agencies are asking for treatments just to add to the things they give to the client or does it seem like a valuable need?
Stewart Cohen: It’s 50/50. I learned about treatments when I started doing film. They were the bane of my existence. I was a visual guy, not a writer. It wasn’t being done at-all in the print world (early 2000’s). The first time I did one for print, I did it because I really wanted that job. But I knew that it would change my life forever. I don’t know how deep they need to go in print unless it’s a large production or post-production thing. It seems at times they really do not need the treatments – they can get all the information in a call.
Matt Nycz/Agent: I really think the creatives use the treatments to help sell their choice. A lot of clients are making a different choice than what the agency creatives recommend. The treatment helps them get what they want on the job.
Unattributed: Sometimes they’re being used in client meetings as the actual presentation. We’re doing their work for them in those cases.
Kevin Arnold: And sometimes they use your vision as their vision.
Matt Nycz/Agent: Sometimes they will only want to show 5 images from you, rather than all that you have. There might be something irrelevant on your site so they want to curate those images. Sometimes the creative or client can easily get distracted if something isn’t exactly what they’re looking for.
Stewart Cohen: When we do treatments – we try to keep the images relatively small for that specific reason. If you have an image that’s large and it’s not where their head is, it kicks you out right there.
Paul Aresu: I’ve learned after hundreds of these treatments not to be that specific too. We keep it very general. They are too literal and it can burn you.
Lisa Adams: Which seems counterproductive to the whole treatment. By the time I put together the treatment, I have already heard what the art director’s looking for. I’m kind of regurgitating what he/she already told me. I’m putting information together about the production or stylist team then instead.
Heather Elder/Agent: I’ve had photographers say, why am I doing a treatment for this? We are triple bidding, how do I know they’re not going to take my specific ideas and have somebody else shoot them?
Heather Elder/Agent: If the project has very specific needs, like technical issues, it helps then to show the specific examples that help show that you can solve the issue. It is hard though to show how you’d do something without explaining how you’re going to do it too.
Stewart Cohen: I deal with a lot of directors. Directors don’t write their own treatments. They have professional writers that do these treatments for them.
Kevin Arnold: It’s always been about the description of our visual approach. I was a journalist so I write my own treatments and it works really well for me. It is really valuable for me to write it myself.
Kate Chase/Agent: Ultimately, it has to come from you, because it is your vision.
What is the most challenging aspect of being a photographer and what are you doing to help solve the issue?
Thomas Chadwick: I do think it is important to be able to wear multiple hats. You need to shoot new work, understand the technical side of the business, and be able to write treatments, retouch images, manage a crew, juggle emotions, and learn new technologies. It is very ADD.
How do you manage that for yourself?
Thomas Chadwick: I’ve been learning how to delegate. When I shoot jobs, I have a producer, crew, and a retoucher all working on the project and it flows. I’ve learned to have outside help on my personal work whenever I can. I’ve learned to let go of trying to do everything myself. This way, I can concentrate on the most important things, like the finer details of the creative. In the past I found that if I tried to do it all myself, it got overwhelming, my personal work stalled, or took a long time to be completed, or never got attempted. It was easier to let life get in the way. Having people to collaborate with makes me look forward to getting it done.
Shooting personal work runs a bit like a job for me now. I brainstorm on the idea, talk to a producer about the casting I am looking for, he handles getting me options for talent. I often have an idea of what location I want, it’s usually a place I know or it’s a studio shoot. I used to retouch my own images, but now I have a retoucher do all the post. With motion work, I work with a friend who is a sound engineer and we collaborate. We plan and work on the post sound over a beer. Having lots of people you enjoy working with and bouncing ideas off is key for me.
If film made resurgence would that interest you?
Vincent Dixon: I went digital in 2004. I don’t think film is going to come back. Would I like it if the internet didn’t exist? Maybe, maybe not. In the context of the way we work, it’s really reassuring to work on a big screen and see what we’re doing. I thought in 2003, shoot digital – well, I can. I thought it would be a slow transition. It happened like that (snaps fingers), as soon as people could oversee on a screen and see their layouts.
From a professional point, no, I don’t see the advantage of film coming back. Digital has evolved so quickly. I used to shoot only 4×5. Digital backs are amazing. With 4×5 we had 90 scans. That was an enormous expense. The expense of going back to film – the only place – there’s a few things film can do that doesn’t really exist. For our commercial work, unless it’s something that they want to make a point that it’s film – sometimes that can be more relevant than what we’re doing.
Heather Elder/Agent: Maybe the romance of film is more about the time you all had to create an image rather than the actual medium? Things just took longer so there was less urgency in the process and more time to create. At least that is the perception.
Hunter Freeman: But time hasn’t been lost. Just because we no longer have to process film, that doesn’t mean we have more time. With digital we have the same amount of time, we’re just being asked to fill it with other things. Art directors are doing 18 layouts, second round of responses. Their time is jammed. Time has always been the same. Work expands to fill the time.
Matt Nycz/Agent: Even if they were to ask for it now, I can’t imagine an agency going backward. How can you tell an agency that they would see the image tomorrow? I can’t see clients going back to that.
How do you feel about the current usage model where clients license images for a certain usage and time frame? Do you think it should evolve? Do you think it still protects the photographer?
Hunter Freeman: The current usage model is based on copyright law. You own the copyright at the moment of its creation. You’re required to license it and allow other people to use it. That’s not going to change until it changes.
Is this working for advertising? For clients? For anybody other than the photographer ? It is but it’s kind of a buyer’s market at the moment. Unless your work is very specific or unique, the more specific and unique the more leverage you have. Your reputation and the work you’ve done increase the value of it.
This is a really good question to ask art buyers. They have things to be responsible for. To be sure they’ve asked for the right thing. It’s confusing sometimes for them. I’ve had art buyers say to me, I don’t know what it’s going to be used for. How can it be improved on or evolve?
Does it still protect the photographer? Yes, It does still protect the photographer. That’s the law. Should it evolve? Personally I don’t think so.
Stewart Cohen: I see it being slowly eroded. But, talent agencies help keep the model alive. They are just not caving. If you do a lifestyle shoot there’s no way you can buy out talent.
Vincent Dixon: Comparatively, in France it’s illegal to even provide a buyout. It’s a protection for creators. And, creator is the important word. We are all creators. It’s the same for musicians, artists, and writers.
I think it’s a really important model. We’ve suddenly become work for hire. There’s a tendency to try to put all the legal responsibilities on us. In the editorial world, all the legal responsibility is on me.
One thing I believe everyone needs to remember is how much our cost of doing business is. People imagine our margins are quite high. If you look at our margins after studios, marketing, equipment etc, we ultimately need that money. It’s an important model to defend. As soon as it goes, it’s gone. Once you lose it, it’s over.
Stewart Cohen: The merging of art buying with broadcast is interesting at agencies. Agencies own the broadcast rights totally, I never understood that. So, now that the agency broadcast producers are also print producers, they are wondering why they don’t own the print rights.
Vincent Dixon: The details of what it takes to run our business tend to get lost on people. If you take it all away, you’ll remove the opportunity for us all to be here in 10 years.
Lisa Adams: Usage affords us the opportunity to be here in the future. We all still want to be here.
Stewart Cohen: It comes back to all of our business acumen. If you want to still be here, we have to learn how to run our jobs more efficiently. Either you learn to adapt or you’re over.
Vincent Dixon: There’s an important place in our business now for a young nimble photographer just as there’s a place for the more experienced expensive photographer who does a different thing. If you go in one direction too quickly, that experience will go. You’ll lose a generation and a certain type of experience that might be relevant a couple of years down the road. Be mindful that the decisions made today might come back and bite you in 3 and 4 years. And circumstances will change again. I don’t think this is the new norm. I think it’s the new norm for today.
Lisa Adams: Since the economy tanked, the clients really grabbed the reins. Since 2008, everybody has been very fearful. It’s been a slow climb back to say to their clients, you hired us, let us do our job. Let us advise you. That budget you want to spend on this project, that’s completely insufficient. You have to change the project or the budget. The agency isn’t directing the clients like they used to do. That affects the whole usage thing. So, when a client asks for unlimited / unlimited agencies aren’t educating them that they don’t need all of that usage.
Suzanne Semnacher/Workbook: Are the mid-size agency really questioning their own relevancy?
Stewart Cohen: Totally. Agencies have had their margins slashed as well.
Heather Elder/Agent: They’re evolving to become more relevant too. They can no longer be the traditional agencies. They have to be motivated by different analytics. It’s becoming harder to have those educational conversations. We used to be more relevant in the traditional model, now we have to figure out how to be relevant in these new undefined models.
Thanks for reading. We hope this has been of value. Tune in on Tuesday, May 5th for our final installment where we’ll discuss how these photographers feel about negotiations + wrap it up with answers to our classic one-word that best describes our industry question.
And to see previous Community Tables posts from Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York City, Chicago and Minneapolis, go here: