Refining process in a zany business. Now, how to refine the business model for scalability (as if....)?

You've seen this shot before but it's being re-featured because it's illustrated mechanics are a growing part of my tabletop workflow.

I've been writing a bit about tabletop projects lately, which may seem weird for someone who loves shooting portraits, but photographing products is nothing new for my business. It's something I've been doing since the earliest days of my career.  But the way I do it keeps changing as I try to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the process.  When I started out we shot almost every product using a 4x5 inch view camera. The film size delivered image quality while the rises and falls, tilts and swings, helped keep products square and in focus. But boy-oh-boy did we use a lot of Polaroid test material in the course of every assignment. 

For very demanding images of things like computer system with monitors the ability to distribute focus kept me using those only bellows monsters right up until client demands for turnaround and cost control pushed the studio to a total digital workflow starting around 1999. 

We've recently had a spate of tabletop assignments from medical products developer, Ottobock Healthcare, tech hardware maker, Razberi, the Bob Bullock/Texas History Museum and a private art collector who specializes in 3-D objects. In some cases we're asked to do a fairly large number of products over the course of a day. Sometimes we are tasked with making photographs on dark backgrounds but the overwhelming majority are done on white backgrounds even if they are destined for the clipping path treatment. I have shot several thousand projects on white backgrounds and, at this point in my career, I am finally becoming reasonable competent at it. 

In the past, when using early generation digital cameras, we relied on (slow) firewire or SCSI tethering to see images as we shot. Software was buggy and connections were often lost and images floated off into the ether after we shot them. Re-launching camera and computer software was an extremely annoying part of the mix. Tethering to a stationary computer was okay when we worked at a pace similar to the pace we worked at with film. A long tether to the workstation from the shooting area had us shooting a test shot and then leaving the camera and walking over to judge the resulting image on the monitor. Then back to the camera to make changes and do the process over again.

We were okay with the pace and the inconveniences of being tied to fixed locations because it was the only way we really had experienced. Laptops were underpowered at the time and I wasn't about to stick a full sized computer and a large monitor on an Ergo Cart and wheel it all around. Cable management could also be a nightmare. 

We stuck to the tethered method until the moment when the LCD screens on the rear of the cameras became practically usable and, to a certain extent, calibrate-able. At the time we were almost always using electronic flash as a primary lighting equipment and there was always a need to check exposure and light balance. I think the Nikon D2Xs was the first camera that had a review screen that I halfway trusted. But the small size and vagaries of mixing with ambient lighting still made the process problematic, especially when sharing the images with clients as part of our collaboration on set. 

I stumbled into a new way of shooting by accident.  A couple of years ago I was shooting video for three different clients and it became obvious that we needed a bigger monitor on our sets. We wanted something that could be calibrated for exposure, color and contrast and the ability to see focus peaking would be a big plus. I bought a seven inch Marshall monitor and used it to good effect with video. It takes two standard Nikon EN-EL something batteries so it can be used remotely. It was so good on our video shoots that I started bringing it along on still shoots. The process of using a monitor out of the HDMI port on my Sonys is so easy and transparent that I've gotten into the habit of bringing it along even if I'm 90% sure I'm never going to use it. 

I started using the monitor for studio shoots since it is adequate for both clients and I to look at simultaneously but at first I would stick it on a light stand near the camera and we'd do what we learned in the days of tethering to computers; we'd go back and forth from the camera to the monitor. A couple of months ago I started working with an art collector who needed lots and lots of images for a high quality coffee table book. We started with the monitor on a stand next to the camera but we hit a point where the camera was mounted above the shooting table and we were trying to carefully position dozens of objects in one shot. It would be great if we could observe the changes to our layout of objects as we moved them. We grabbed the monitor off the light stand and started handing it back and forth to each other as we made our changes. Being able to hold the monitor in one hand while reaching up to zoom the lens on the camera just a little bit, while watching the result on the screen, was so seamless and fluid. Sometimes my client would be bent of the table using tweezers to adjust a small object and I could lean in an hold the monitor in such a way that he could just glance away from his set-up and instantly confirm the change without moving out of position. 

Two sets of two batteries lasted us the entire day. It also extended the life of the batteries in the camera. One battery took us through to lunch time and the second camera battery got us all the way through the afternoon. Pretty cool when you consider that the cameras were on all the times. Not having to run the monitors, in camera, saves an enormous amount of power. 

Now, you could argue that I can replicate this set up with wi-fi and an iPad but raw files tend to be problematic and I find that setting an iPad down for a while in order to re-set the objects we are shooting means that cameras time out and iPads time out and we end up going through the re-engagement dance again and again. I think it's still primitive times for using most digital cameras, along with wi-fi, in high volume, professional applications.

For exacting work we use dedicated macro lenses but lately I've tested and found that most of our f4.0 zoom lenses are more than adequate when they are stopped down to f11 or f16 in practical shoots. Our daylong shoot yesterday was done with a Sony a6300 camera and, for nearly all the images, an 18-105mm f4.0 G lens parked at f8.0. The combination of decent glass, a slow f-stop and in camera image correction results in perfectly sharp images with no discernible distortion. The lens seems to be a good match for the 24 megapixel sensor in the body and the combination rides well on the Gitzo sidearm I use on my tripod to get the camera directly over the top of sets. 

I have the camera set to electronic first curtain (nothing is moving so there is no rolling shutter effect) and the shutter speeds are in the 1/3rd second to 1/15th second range so there are no artifacts from fast shutter settings. I also use a 2 second or 5 second self-timer delay for the shutter actuation so the camera can settle. I added an electronic release lately so I'll probably forgo the delay next time; but old habits die hard. 

With a slap of velcro on the main tripod leg and a corresponding piece of velcro on the top edge of the monitor it's easy to set up a shot with the monitor in my hands, affix the monitor to the tripod and have my hands free to manipulate the camera controls. I can use a bigger monitor but as the size increases the mobility and intimacy of the monitor decreases. And then you are back to the situation you were in when tethered. 

The rest of the shooting modality is the same as always: We use high output SMD LED lights which don't change color balance and we always start out the shoot with a custom white balancing.  If we are shooting on hard white board (which is highly reflective) I take a spot meter reading for a representative area and put the exposure for that area at 95%. It's not quite white but the Sony sensors are made to be pushed up. Having white at 95% means I don't worry about losing highlight detail but I know the exposure will be high enough so that I rarely have to "lift" the shadows by more than a stop. At ISO 100 this is like changing the ISO to 200 in terms of overall image quality. Not a compromise at all. 

Along the same logic lines I chose the a6300 instead of the A7rii or A7ii because I pick up an extra measure of depth of field ( which can be critical for small object photography ) with no quality loss. Also, I like the 18-105mm f4.0 in this situation for it's well behaved nature and its zoom/framing flexibility. Testing in raw with camera and software corrections turned off shows me that the lens is at its very best between the focal length range of 28-90mm so, if possible, I try to stay in that sweet spot. If I need to go to the extremes I don't worry about it at f8.0 and I don't see a huge penalty in diffraction induced softness at f11-14. I'll go to f16 if needed, in order to keep everything in focus, but in those cases I know I'll need to pop the sharpness either in camera or in post. 

In almost every job in which we shoot against white the client needs a clipping path in a layered files so they can drop the object onto different backgrounds. We used to have to do all clipping paths by hand because automated solutions in PhotoShop, like the magic wand tool,  we not refined enough to do the job well. The edges could be too ragged. Even with the introduction of refine edge we ended up using a pen tool going point to point, along with careful Bezier curves. The latest selection tools are much, much better and, if we have hard, defined edges in the images we can use the automated selection tools much more often, which speeds up post production. 

Many have suggested that I look into using some of the companies from India (and here in the U.S.) who advertise low prices for doing clipping paths. I have tried four different companies now; two here in the U.S. and two in India, and in each case I have gotten the files back, been disappointed  and then spent long nights doing the paths myself under much higher deadlines. When your reputation is on the line "good enough" can come around and bite you the the ass. Really. 

Given the trajectory of the economy it's always good to figure out how to become more efficient and more effective. I just wish there was a way to scale what we do into greater quantities. The limitation of a one person business is that scaling generally means just working more hours. 

I love doing the Craftsy.com classes and having written a number of books. Those are both situations that are the epitome of scaling. Teach once/sell often. Write once/sell often. Too bad proprietary product shoots can't be sold over and over again to different sets of clients. Same with commissioned portraits. If someone out there has a unique way for photographers to effectively scale their businesses without damaging quality assurance I am fairly certain we'd all LOVE to hear about it. Give it your best shot in the comments! 

That's all I have for now. I'm headed downtown to see how Formula One will affect us this year. Every year their footprint in our downtown has shrunken dramatically. It will be interesting to see, this year, if there is any presence at all. ... If there's not then I'll just take a nice walk. 


A story from the archives. Elton John, Andy Roddick and Rick Perry walk into a hotel....

I thought I'd break with our little tradition of mixing gear reviews and photo-philosophy by telling a little story from the archives. It was back in 2005 that I got a call from Andy Roddick's people. Andy's foundation was going to hold a fundraiser for the new Children's Hospital and they wondered if I would be available to photograph the event. The people asking were good friends and always well intentioned and so, of course, I said, "Yes." Then, having secured my engagement they let the other shoe drop; the guest of honor and entertainer would be Sir Elton John. I've always been a big fan to so I was incredibly excited to be on the team. 

Now, by way of a little back story, our Governor at the time in Texas was the redoubtable Rick Perry. The same guy who more or less stumbled his way through the primaries an ill-fated campaign for president this year. Back in 2005, in an attempt to curry favor with the more conservative factions in Texas (and just two weeks before Sir Elton John's visit) Perry decided to push an amendment to the state constitution basically banning gay marriage. The legislation was called "Proposition 2" and it was passed by Texas voters in November of that year. Now, I don't know if it was a coincidence or not but just one week before coming to Austin, Texas to do his part raising money for the kids, Sir Elton John very publicly announced his official marriage to his long time, same sex partner. Around Austin people were pretty sure that this was his way of answering Perry's Prop 2 (later struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court...). 

The day of the shoot finally arrived and I was excited (I was a fairly big Andy Roddick fan and a Yuuuuge Sir Elton John fan ---- a side fact, E.J. is a well known collector of photography and had, last I read, a world class collection of work. An eclectic collection...  but all top quality work...) to see them both in person. 

I packed the gear I was using at the time. It was a bit of a weird mix. I was getting into the Olympus system and brought along a couple of E-1 cameras (5 megapixels) with two zooms, and also a Nikon D-70 to use as my flash camera.

The venue for everything was the Four Seasons Hotel in the downtown area. We started out with a "press only" news conference with Andy Roddick. Later in the afternoon Elton John arrived and he met with Andy in one of the downstairs conference rooms. I was the only photographer in the private meeting and was called upon to take shots of Andy and Elton together as well as shots of them both arranged in various groups with members of Andy's family. It was very casual and laid back. I introduced myself to Elton John and he and I bantered back and forth for a bit about photography, Austin and Texas. 

A few hours later we headed next door to a larger conference room for a press event with people from various print news outlets and three TV stations. It was typical of social news event coverage. Lots of innocuous questions and an emphasis on continually mentioning the charity that would be supported.

We had a break after that and I wandered around with my cameras and talked to some of the other shooters in the foyer. 

Around 6pm the reception space outside the grand ballroom started filling up with people in fancy clothes, throw back suits, and well to do people clutching albums and CDs to get signed. Sir Elton John would be the guest of honor for a formal dinner and then would play a solo concert for a very lucky room of about 300 people. The doors to the dining room opened at 6:30 and people streamed in. Sir Elton John entered from a side door, shadowed by two of the most proficient looking body guards I have ever seen, and was quickly embraced by the crowd. He was gracious, signed autographs, stood for photographs from all comers (thankfully, this was before the selfie craze....) and was generally the magnetic attraction in the room. 

At some point before dinner Gov. Rick Perry entered via a side door followed by his Texas Ranger bodyguard. The Texas Ranger was wearing his gray, felt cowboy hat. Perry was dressed totally out of character in a black turtle neck pullover, no glasses. He started to make a beeline in the direction of Sir Elton John. After all, what politician would not want to stand next to the center of gravity? But he was intercepted by one of E.J.'s enormous body guards who leaned over to the Gov. and said something, quietly, that I couldn't quite catch. Whatever it was Perry stopped in his tracks and found someone else to talk to. A short time later he vanished out the door he'd come in through and did not return. The scenario with Perry and  EJ's bodyguard flew under most people's radar. But I was there to observe and document everything and it was from my overwatch position on the stage side of the tables that I had the vantage point to observe that instant.

After dinner Sir Elton John walked up to the stage, sat behind the grand piano and mesmerized the entire room with an hour long concert of our favorite hits from an arc of forty-some years. No one was allowed to photograph near the stage. I remember being the only photographer in the room.  I captured the concert on the Nikon D70 because I happened to have the old 80-200mm f2.8 lens in my bag and it was the longest lens I owned. I was positioned at the back corner of the room, near a door to the kitchens.  

Looking back at the files from the time leaves me with some mixed feelings. The images remind me of just how much fun it was to meet and hang out with someone whose music I had always enjoyed. A true celebrity in every sense of the word. It felt good to realize that my work allowed me to occasionally meet people who have changed the world. At the same time I look at the images and realize how primitive (relatively speaking) the cameras I was using at the time were, compared to current models.

How different the image quality might have been if I'd have had a longer lens, a bigger sensor, some in-camera stabilization, lower ISO noise, etc. But that's a silly way to feel. Looking back at the actual images I see that we got our part of the job done and that the content (as nearly always is the case) trumped the constraints of the technology of the time. 

I packed up and headed home as the concert wound down. I edited my photographs and sent along my selections to the Andy Roddick Foundation and then got back to work with my regular clients. But for a week or so I was a bit star struck and every other job seemed a bit mundane. In the end Elton John and Andy Roddick raised well over a million dollars for the charity. A job well done.

And two from the actual concert:


Walking around with the 18-105mm on an APS-C camera, just having fun.

Garlic in black and white.

Being clear about what you like.

Taking even a short vacation seems to be good for coming to some understanding about what it is you really, really like to photograph. To be clear, even though I took the routine landscape shots and the colorful shots of food at farmer's markets, there was really nothing I was excited to photograph on my trip. I thought I might make a few thoughtful portraits but since portrait work is collaborative everyone has to be in the mood, or at least unhurried enough to consider sharing some time. 

Family vacations are like punishment for photographers. You reflexively bring your camera and a nice lens but the opportunities to use them for the kinds of work you might enjoy making are neutralized by the scheduling and proclivities of the group. 

Ben is a fine portrait subject when he is here in Austin, between semesters. He's been working with me on projects when he's not in school and he seems to really enjoy the unhurried pace of an unstructured hiatus between the dual grinds of school and assisting. When he is engaged in the middle of a semester he is all business. He's on a schedule, burning the candle at both ends and keeping his grades up. But it precludes the kind of padded time intervals that would make slowing down and sitting in just the right spot difficult. 

But there is another reason that vacations are not an optimum time for me to practice my own portrait work. I've come to depend on being able to shape light to match the moods and context that I want to portray in a finished image. I want control over how soft the roll off of light is into the shadows and I want to control the direction of the light in relation not only to the subject but also in relation to the background elements. 

When I roll out to locations locally with the priority of making portraits for me I generally travel heavy. I drag along the Elinchrom Ranger flash system, a big soft box or umbrella, a C-stand or two. Some sand bags and a few extra diffusers. These are a godsend and a logistical encumbrance. And there was not way I wanted to drag them along on a weekend end vacation and even less of a chance that the other members of the family would be comfortable going along with this rather extreme program of creating family snapshots. 

I know myself well enough to know that I needed to defer my usual bent of work in order to fulfill the goals of the trip at hand: to see the boy, to see his new living quarters, to sample his academic life, to meet; and have dinner with, the parents of one of his new roommates, to make sure Belinda enjoyed the weekend and to see the sights and sounds of my kid's chosen environment. 

This was obviously not the time to drop into the role of producer/director. And knowing that is good. Not trying to interweave two diverse and conflicting agendas serves to mitigate or eliminate the frustration that would flow from presuming that one is always on. 

My favorite work comes at events where I am supposed to be photographing. Where I have license and access to photograph. I love this image of a young girl who had just finished her event at a swim meet. I was at the swim meet as the volunteer team photographer and it was my job, obligation and delight to be charged with getting great images of the swimmers to share on the club's website and with the kids and parents. I largely ignored my family (except when it was Ben's turn to swim) and the run of the meet and concentrated on making impromptu portraits and group shots of the kids. I was able to bring a focus to doing so that made the work seem like play. 

At the end of a swim meet I look back and realize that being in a certain zone made the day seem to pass in five minutes and that distraction is what happens when you aren't having fun.

I enjoyed spending time away from Austin but I also enjoyed letting go of the photographer label for the duration and enjoying the time away as a civilian. In that capacity the images I took were ones that just presented themselves, didn't require art direction or posing, could be made without revving up a light and could be walked away from in order to conform to the vagaries of the schedule. 

I realized in the moment that I sometimes take my role as an image maker far too seriously. That the camera isn't the centerpiece of every social gathering. That fussing with dials and menus is not an appropriate task while sitting in the dining room of a nice restaurant having conversations with new (or old) friends. 

So, what do I like? I find myself re-enlisted in pursuit of a few things that have been leitmotifs throughout my life with cameras. I love the look of wide ranging tones of luxurious black and white photographs. We can argue all day long about whether or not it has to do with suppressing extraneous and confusing color cues or if it's really just about nostalgia but, to my mind, done right, black and white images focus my seeing of the final print more acutely. I'm less and less interested in landscapes and even street images than I have been in the past. I want to work with one person in my frame and I want to have the whole experience be confined to a two person collaboration with no outside intervention or suggestions. And, more and more, I want to control the lighting. 

I don't always have a specific lighting design in mind when I get ready to engage with subjects but I am always aware that there is a style and a consistency of qualities that I like more than others. I'm not a fan of light that's spectacular or trendy. I don't often light hard light (unless I intend to create the final image using the equivalent of diffusion or soft focus) or highly angular light. But I know as I work through a session, or even just an encounter, that I want more and more control over how the light works with the face in front of my medium-to-long telephoto lens.

In social situations this just isn't in the cards. Nor should it be. But it's a life long lesson to re-learn and re-learn. 

I am constantly reminded that I like scenes that are rich with texture and even decay or disorder.

I labor with the idea that the work I like and finish all the way out is destined to be matted and framed and shared with a small circle of people. At times all the lights, stands and cameras in the studio are put away and the matt cutter comes out to play. It's been years since I hung a show but my re-entry into my regular routine this time has convinced me that I'm overdue and need to start thinking in terms of a small show of black and white portraits. 

Finally, I spend time thinking about things outside photography that I like. Family goes without saying. And the same with my noble Studio Dog (currently just a bit conflicted; she is pissed that she had to spend three long nights alone but happy that we hired her absolute favorite dog sitter to come over four times a day while we were gone). But I also cherish my routines. I think we all do. My Sunday walk through downtown. Coffee with friends. The way an afternoon nap feels on my couch with the sun pouring through the French doors to the back garden. Early morning swim practice. Noon swim practice when I am either too lazy to get up in time for the early one, or motivated enough to do two in one day. I like the conceit of control that I've tried to construct in my Austin existence but lately have come to understand that comfort and control are also part of the nefarious impediments of resistance that keep me from focusing on doing my work. 

With that said I think I'll wrap this up and convince Studio Dog to head back into the studio for some pre-production on an approaching job. Being part terrier she revels in keeping me focused on the task at hand so I can spend more down time tossing the tennis ball decorated as a mouse....

No matter what business you are in it makes good sense to step away and think, and to try and remember exactly what is was about the business that put you on your current path. More importantly, have you been true to your own satisfaction in executing on those delightful details that make what we do fun? 

 The camera is so much less important that what your real intentions for your photography might be. Being clear on the mission usually uncovers the reality that any camera will do, but not every approach will satisfy.

Another early morning. Another milestone. VSL hits 22,000,000 direct page views.

From "Priscilla" at Zach Theatre.

While Google tells me that 87,000,000 page views have occurred that's a cumulative measure of all links and blinks and RSSs and stuff. The total number of "I went to the actual site and took a look..." numbers is, this morning, 22,000,000. It's fun to think about the sheer number of eyeballs that have read what I've splashed out over the last eight years. 

If you've enjoyed the ride consider dropping a comment into the queue to help celebrate another milestone. The "quick hello" is one of the fun things I get from filling this site with content and images (lots of images. thousands of images.)

I'm back at work but wishing I was still on vacation. I bet the same is true for you...