Providing Cover – Keeping Clients

still-life-4Finding someone to “cover” for you on a photography assignment can be tricky business. Not just for your client, but for you AND the person who you hire to do the shoot in your place.

Look, stuff happens. We all get sick or a relative passes away or there is emergency medical situations that make shooting the scheduled gig impossible. One sure thing we cannot do is to leave the client hanging. Simply not showing up is NOT an option.

The same thing can happen, to a lesser degree, when a long time client calls with an emergency shoot for a time period when you are not available. Simply saying, “nope… outta town dude” is not an option and it could cost you the client for future gigs.

So what do we do?

We find someone to cover for us. And that opens a can of worms filled with conundrums and highly charged with confusion, fear and paranoia.

Scenario One:

The client is in a rush and needs 25 photographs of the staff of a new company they had just acquired, and they need them shot next Tuesday at the official announcement meeting where all will be in attendance.

The timing sucks as it is the same day you are auditioning for “So You Think You Can Dance” and will be doing pirouettes and leaps on Tuesday.

You are unable to do the gig so you reach out to another photographer to ‘cover’ for you. I do hope you have made some good relationships with other photographers that allows that to happen… you have… right?

Right?

You cannot let this client down, they represent a good amount of fees over the course of a year, but you feel a bit reticent at sending over one of your ‘competitors’.

You know you have to service this client, so you tell them you are unable to do it, but have someone you will vouch for to cover it. Vouching for means you KNOW they will do a good job and a job that is up to yours and your client’s standards.

I have heard of photographers getting lesser qualified shooters to do a slightly less than excellent job to show the client how much better they are than other competitors. I will also say that usually ends up biting them in the ass… so don’t do it.

It is at this point that the paranoia part starts to wear down on you… what if the other guy ‘steals’ my client? What if the other guy does a better job than me? What if the client loves the other guy and wants to give him all the work… forever?

Get over it. Your professionalism is what counts.

You call your buddy, we’ll call him Tony, and give him the rundown. This is what the client wants, here are some of my lighting setups (you do photograph your setups so they can be replicated later, don’t you…), and the contact information for the client. You even let him know what to charge the client so that he doesn’t undercut your pricing or piss them off with a higher price.

“Call the client and get everything set up for the shoot, and let me know how it goes,” are the last words you say before hopping on the bus for LA and a chance at fame. Since you are actually incapable of dancing, you know you will be returning to the world of photography in a few days.

But hey, it was YOU who decided to make that bet… heh.

The above scenario is what happens – usually. And what else happens usually? The new photographer ends up with the client because they were there. THEY called and handled all the upfront logistics. They got the setup done and the people were thrilled and hey, he had such a great personality.

And to be fair, your buddy did not try to take your client. He didn’t hand out business cards or in any way try to solicit them. They just needed a few more shots done on Thursday, and called him direct.

Expecting him to turn down the client and send them back to you is not going to work – you are in the hospital with a badly mangled knee. Yes, hip hop IS that hard.

And that client is now your buddies client. It is quite awkward to expect that your buddy simply refuse the gig unless they offer it to you first… how does that work?

Ooops.

Scenario Two:

All transpires as above to the point of your call to the client. Yes, you have an associate who will cover the gig. Yes, they are right up to the level we need to do a great job. You get the “associate” on a three way call and introduce the “ASSOCIATE” to the client, go over logistics and make sure everyone is comfortable with the upcoming gig.

You send over the samples of the previous shots, lighting schema, and any personality quirks that the client perhaps displays from time to time… in other words you prepare them as you would an associate.

You go off to dance and your buddy takes care of the client. She calls to make last minute logistics, shows up and knocks everyone’s socks right off. She is pleasant and cool, and gets the images down just like you would have.

And then she delivers them… to you. You then send them on to the client.

And you bill the client, and pay the photographer. I am not going to get into percentages and all of that – ya’ll work that out on your own. Some do a cut and some negotiate a flat rate and some just pass it on through… whatever, it is plain as day to the client that the fill in photographer is under YOUR company banner.

When they need something on Thursday, they don’t call her, they call you and you call her. She is an associate of yours and working for you – not them.

Same outcome, but this time you keep the client and they love the fact that you can get the job done for them even when recovering from major dance injuries incurred while doing a hip-hop stunt on a whiskey keg… don’t ask. It wasn’t pretty.

Keeping our clients safe, happy and close is more important these days than ever. So be smart when finding someone to cover for you, and stay in control of the gig.

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PS: If you are the one being hired to fill in, do that. Don’t try to sneak in a portfolio review, or hand them your business card because you forgot what was happening. Don’t try to take that client away from your buddy who entrusted this shoot to you.

It’s wrong, and karma can be a real bitch sometimes.

Industrial Assignment: Project 52 Pros

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One of the most under-rated and least mentioned genre of commercial photography is Industrial/Corporate. It isn’t sexy, and models don’t flock to the studio after hours. The travel is usually not to some awesome resort or fancy hotel, but rather to out of the way places with gritty facilities and hard working men and women.

I like industry. I love when people make stuff… and then find people who want to buy that stuff.

We had some great work turned in on this very difficult assignment. In some cases the work is far better than competing work by those already in the business. I like tough assignments and this one the students really lit on.

Photographing Mundane Subjects

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I have always been a ‘commercial’ photographer. While that included some wonderful editorial and fashion along the way, the bulk of my income was from good old commercial photography. Photographs made for advertisements, brochures, product sheets, illustrative uses and corporate.

There is a growing difference between commercial photography and the world of editorial (which seems to be the focus of most blogs/sites/gurus) and that difference can make it a little difficult for many of you starting out.

Editorial, fashion, glamor portraiture and food are specialties whose niches have grown quite a bit in the last 20 years. Commercial has enveloped a lot of those niches as well, but it also has the genre of “stuff”.

We photograph ‘stuff’.

Mundane items like power strips and lamps and a cool new gizmo that keeps hard drives from overheating. Sometimes with a model, sometimes on a table top, and sometimes on location in a factory setting.

While not exactly a ‘jack of all trades’ a commercial photographer keeps their doors open by working the markets they have.

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NOTE: If you are living in San Francisco, LA, Chicago, Dallas, and New York, this may not apply to you. The markets are very big and one can specialize in shooting one thing, in one way. No problem… and those are great places to live.

The rest of us live in Winnipeg, and Cleveland, and Albuquerque and Missoula. We could get every single fashion shot in those cities and still not make even a small living.

So we keep our doors open shooting all kinds of things.

While we work on those specialties that can give us regional and national reach. Yes, you can be a niche “Editorial Portraitist” and work for magazines the world over while living in Portland, Oregon or Portland, Maine.

But that takes time. And money.

Commercial shooters work as photographers instead of barristas, or cable repair while they work toward those more lofty goals.

SHOOTING MUNDANE ITEMS

One of the things we all have to do as a commercial shooter is to make images of mundane, everyday items. It is part of our general workweek in many studios.

Shoes, tools, consumer products, industrial materials. All must be shot for product sheets, consumer and trade ads, brochures, catalogs and websites.

However the bar is being raised all the time and you may find, as a recent “Summer 2013” Project 52 students did, that shooting something as mundane as a power strip is much harder than it seems.

This is where technique, lighting, style, and deliberateness come into play.

Can we take a power strip and lay it on a white seamless and bang it with a big softbox? Of course. So can eleventy-hundred other shooters.

If your imagery is not better than the product managers iPhone shots (done in the bathroom at a trade conference and run through Snapseed for more dynamic range… heh) then there is absolutely no reason for them to hire you.

Product manager doesn’t get any more money for his iPhone shots, and you want a grand or two a day… plus usage!

This is where you must differentiate yourself from the pack.

Lighting, composition, style, dynamic sand concept. Make a shot of that power strip that knocks people’s socks off. A power strip shot that sets a new level of awesome for multi-plug devices retailing for under $12. Give that bad boy some visual juice!!

How do you do that?

You work your ass off. You work deliberately. Ask questions… does that corner read well against the background? Will the plug holes show the unique pattern? Does the base blend in with the shadow too much? Is there a highlight on the cord? Does the cord read well against the background? Is the background a distraction? What can we do to make the light more interesting on this 12” piece of cheap plastic?

Determination, skill, technique and a deliberate approach to making a photograph.

Below are some images that take everyday items and make them look amazing.

A shoe gets a fancy approach in this series by a popular shoe designer.

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A much more mundane pair of boots are made more interesting by texture and lighting. Photograph by Charles Ward.

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Grab some items from the kitchen and make something cool with them. My friend Rick Gayle does it all the time.

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Imagine getting an assignment to photograph notecards and small paper items. Annabelle Breakey makes it look amazing.

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A simple, everyday pill bottle represents a cancer treatment. Careful lighting, angle and presentation makes it look as important as the client believes it to be. Adam Voorhes always delivers.

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So the next time you hear yourself saying “there is nothing to photograph today” just run up to Home Depot or Bed, Bath and Beyond and grab something you need around the house anyway.

Then make some careful, deliberate, amazing shots of it before it goes into the drawer or closet.

Hint:
Vacuum cleaners… very tough.
Weed Whackers… harder than you think.
Blenders… wow, reflections!
Electronic items… can be boring or cool.
Kitchen or Garden Tools… Impressively difficult.

Can you make mundane shots of mundane things? Of course. Anyone can.

But not anyone can make a killer shot of a garden spade or a car vacuum cleaner. That is where you shine and it can be where you get work too.

“Money, Money, Money” A Difficult Subject

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The subject was money. And the assignment was for a brochure cover for a financial services company. Layout was included, but optional. The important thing was to not be totally cliche’ about the image, and also not to succumb to a boring shot.

This is a most difficult shot to do, and the photographers had to master the technique as well as come up with the creative. I think they did very well.

The students of Project 52 just keep on rolling. Two of them just got their first pro gigs, and others have been able to expand into markets they hadn’t been in before. Very exciting times at P52.

Are We Clear About What We Do as Photographers?

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Are We?

Two things recently formed today’s article. One was a note from a commercial shooter who was being setup to fail, and the other from a consumer shooter angry that the client kept wanting more and more retouching… and feeling trapped that it must be done.

To both I responded with one word: contract.

I know we all hate that contract crap… at least I know I do. It starts out a relationship saying “I trust you, but I really don’t so sign this.” Maybe I am being a little melodramatic, but it seems that way to me.

The commercial situation was this:

The photographer had submitted a bid for the job and the client said “Wonderful. We love the bid. It’s a go… with just a few minor changes. Of course.

1. We want every shot you take in RAW.
2. We want there to be very little Photoshopping on the images (how does that square with #1?)
3. We want the images to look like the images in your portfolio.
4. We want the images to look just like what we want them to look like although we can’t really tell you what that is until we see them.
5. We want 60 days to pay instead of 30.
6. We want the copyright to all the images forever.

He was concerned about these requests… as he should be.

Whether intentional or not, they were setting him up for a major fail. Conflicting expectations and demands that are clearly not in the normal way of working will always create confusion. And give the client something to use as leverage to bash your price down.

The photographer asked me to review his response which was lengthy and detailed with explanations of why he doesn’t feel good about giving the RAW files, and what copyright really means to him and how he wants to do a great job for them but is a little confused about some of the terms.

I simplified the response to only a few lines.

60 Days is acceptable (from billing date).
Backup RAW Files for the chosen 16 images.
Responsible client representative to art direct the imagery and/or provide a shot list.
Responsible client representative to approve images on set.
Copyright will be retained by the photographer, but client can have a buyout for chosen images for this much more money.

Done.

I always hear photographers talking about educating the client. Well, I am not one that believes the art department of a major corporation needs educating. They know this stuff, they are only playing politics.

By the way, they said yes to the revised bid with 5 paragraphs stating what the PHOTOGRAPHER was going to do.

If I sound jaded, I apologize only slightly. I have seen too damned much of it, and on occasion been on the receiving end. In my case it doesn’t last long because I have a contract and a clear method of working that prevents that.

I have a very simple contract that has the deliverables plainly stated. You get this. This way. By this date.

The client is responsible for the shot list, and someone with the responsibility to do so, must approve all images. Without client approval process, they get what they get. In writing this is.

The consumer shooter had a customer from hell… asking for more than 15 rounds of ‘editing’… from ‘fly away hair’ (shot in a breeze) to making a chin smaller and opening up the eye a bit.

The photographer was mad at the client for all these demands and that shouldn’t be the case. I am happy to make all the changes you want. At $90 per hour.

The contract should state what is included: Color Correcting, skin cleanup, some creative expression (hey, it’s consumer… gotta love them actions). Additional changes are happily made at $90 an hour (or whatever your charge is).

“While every attempt is made to provide a perfect photograph for you, changes in reality can be costly and time intensive. Digital liposuction/cosmetic alterations are supplied at a rate of $90 per hour and estimates must be approved before work commences.”

In the design/web business we call that “Change of Work Order”.

Since we were clear in what we are going to deliver, it is a change to that deliverable schedule when things are added. This also goes for the “Hey, you’re here with your camera already out… can you get a shot of the whole facility from that forklift?”

“Absodamnlutely I can. Hold on, that will require a change of work order… I have one right here. I can add the fee to it and we can get that shot.”

You will quickly find out if they want the shot that bad.

Or you can just go shoot it for them… I don’t care. Just don’t whine about being taken advantage of later. Gift the client that shot since you already had your camera out… or don’t. You have the ability to do either because you have a specific job to do.

Inherent in all of this is the comfort level you have for ‘walking away’. In Trump’s book, “The Art of the Deal” he makes a very important point several times; if you are not willing to walk away from the deal, you aren’t in the deal, you are taking an order. Desperation breeds a bad deal if you are the one that is desperate.

Your choice. Are you an order taker or are you negotiating a position or compensation. Being willing to walk away gives the confidence to make your demands known, and feel as powerful making YOURS as they do making theirs.

I don’t usually do full RAW file transfers. It’s rare. 16BIT Tiffs… whatever. But RAW generally stays in my purview, just like my negatives and transparencies. And I don’t transfer copyright. Ever.

I can negotiate most other things and depending on the client and the gig, I can be pretty flexible. But core principals will not be swapped away, and I am totally fine with walking away. No gig is worth giving up my core values and deeply held beliefs.

Be smart, be clear and be deliberate. Eliminating those things that can go wrong upfront is the best way to make the ending a smoother, more enjoyable one.

PS: If your contract requires a Harvard Law Professor to make sense of it, then it’s wrong. Plain old speech is fine. Spell it out clearly with clearly understood words… it’ll hold up.

Basic Systems for Commercial Photographers

hunts-tombMy recent Lighting Essentials post on “Systems” (Don’t Be Afraid of Systems) was an overview of some simple checklists that I use to keep focused and create content in an overwhelmingly busy world. The amount of people, information, education, entertainment and sheer braincell killing stupidity that competes for our attention at nearly every turn makes it hard to stay on task.

I have a few larger systems that work for me, and of course they are constantly being challenged by the fact that day to day, my days are usually not the same.

Being a photographer and a designer means that there are all kinds of distractions, and a constantly changing landscape of what must be done that day.

A shoot day usually means no design gets done. A heavy design day means lots of ass sitting (and you know how I feel about that). A day on the road kills creation for both the photography and the design. Getting any design done while transferring planes and flyint through bumps is not gonna happen, and the constant shift of attention makes a 30 minute time frame better for reading than actually designing or editin images. Most of the time.

I do get a lot done while traveling, but most of that output is directed to writing, reading and catching up with correspondence. (Once in San Francisco I was so intently working on a page design that I missed the boarding call. At one point I looked up and there was nearly no one in the area. I had to wait another 2 hours for a flight… it was a crazy evening.)

So my system has to be big enough, flexible enough and ‘open’ enough to encompass those wild swings of priorities.

The post on Lighting Essentials talked about checklists and systems for packing/unpacking gear and how to focus time through the day.

But focusing through the kind of days that photographers have is more difficult than a cubicle gig.

I use a ‘system’ that allows for serendipity.

Part of this system is to be very, very careful on promising delivery. I build in time, double check my schedule and make sure I can deliver when I say I can. Editing and post takes time, and we can sometimes find it takes longer than we thought it would. Finding a design problem may lead to more complex changes than were expected, and I want to be able to make sure that I always under promise and over deliver.

It is so much better to tell a client you will get it to them in two weeks and deliver it in a week than it is to promise it in a week and deliver it in two.

Trust me.

None of us like it when the promised due date goes by without nary a word.

MY SYSTEM IS FLEXIBLE AND ONLY HAS FOUR STEPS

1. Handle all emergencies as they spring up… UNLESS they are not really emergencies. If they are truly an emergency, we take care of it RIGHT NOW. Putting off the challenges only lets them stack up. Make sure you have room in your schedule for the occasional burning house.

2. Keep clients apprised. Nobody likes surprises – especially delivery surprises. If it is going to take a bit longer to get those files edited, let the client know as soon as you realize it. Tell them why it is going to take a bit longer and then under promise / over deliver.

3. Be prepared for all contingencies. Just as it is necessary to have a backup camera or two, it is necessary to have backups to your planning/productivity. Do you have someone who can step in and take some of this work off of your desk and let you handle a higher level priority? I hope you do, otherwise long, sleepless (and not nearly as productive as you think they are) nights await you.

4. Stay on top of marketing. No matter how busy you are, there must be time set aside for your marketing work. Don’t let the week go by without that scheduled email to go out to local ad agencies. If you have scheduled it for that week, make it a priority to get it out. We can be very busy, but if we do not keep the marketing forefront, we can then have the roller coaster of no business / lots of business.

If we are not marketing while we are busy, then we end up getting slow, and then we market like crazed banshees amped up on Red Bull till we get busy again and stop marketing.

And that is nuts!

I would also recommend Steven Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” and David Allen’s “Getting Things Done”. Both are go-to’s on my shelves. And the great thing is you can adjust to fit.

Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (Amazon)

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change (25th Anniversary Edition) (Amazon)

The most important thing is to make sure you have some simple systems in place to handle the bigger issues of time management. No, don’t go all nuts with huge spread-sheets and such. Just work it out so you have a ‘typical’ way of dealing with the rigors of running a small creative business.