4.30.2017

Finding our footing for the future in Imaging.


Two things kill formerly successful enterprises. The first is loving and holding on to the past too strongly. The second is not leveraging the lessons already learned. Seems contradictory on the surface but the argument is solid in both directions.

First, a simple observation from financial services experts: People are reticent to sell off a stock they've bought even when they are almost certain that the value is dropping, and will continue to drop. Why? because, irrationally, they are already emotionally invested in the stock and hope that it will rally. They are afraid they will lose what they've already invested if they bail out but might win by persevering. History tells us that a hasty retreat often prevents bleeding out entirely over time. People who take early action preserve the capital needed to try again.

An observation from business: Companies often spend enormous money in R&D to create a product which is then found to be unprofitable at the price points (and costs) at which the product should be sold. Most companies are slow to pull the plug on the product because they already have so much invested in the product. They can't bear to "lose" the initial investments. So they ride the product all the way down to bankruptcy. In our industry it now seems prescient that Samsung chose to quickly shut down their camera division in the face of compelling research about the overall sales declines anticipated, market wide.

If a real estate investor happens to get lucky by being in the right place at the right time, and happens to make a ton of money, they translate the "luck" into the idea that they are a superior investor, endowed with foresight, intuition, etc. Historically, most wind up losing their shirts on the next deals -- a result of relying on their subjective point of view about markets instead of hard fact. Witness Nikon's hamfisted entry (and now hamfisted exit) from the ILC mirrorless market. And the "Go Pro - Me Too!" market.

Often, as companies grow, they lose sight of their original mission; their core offerings and core cultures which brought them success in the first place. Kodak came to believe that their business was information technology and film sales. Their core business was really helping people to take better photographs and to help people simplify and enjoy the process of taking "pictures." By focusing on the nuts and bolts of manufacturing and distribution, and the enterprise markets, they missed the pivot to digital that was all to obvious to the bulk of their customers.

Apple Computer faltered when they decided that their market was a share of the commodity personal computer market. They rebounded and enjoy historic success after re-discovering that their real core value is to provide an easier way for people to communicate, work and play. A laser-like focus on the past, and their role as just computer makers, would have doomed them. The realization that they were offering beautifully designed, simple and powerful communication tools to individuals allowed them to look beyond computers to phones, music and entertainment.

I write this because I have been fascinated by the launch of the Sony A9 and the backlash against the A9 by traditional users. In one sense I think Sony is missing the big picture and the opportunity to do what Apple did and to create tightly integrated ecosystem for their imaging products. To optimize the software between camera and camera, and camera and phone and camera, phone and TV. I am amazed that there isn't a huge Sony channel on the internet that allows one to take "micro" courses about the best use of their products and mini-payment courses that help consumers to make better photographs and videos with all products (including Sony's) at their fingertips. Wouldn't it be wonderful if all their tools and menus were seamlessly integrated, and actually fun to interconnect?

On the other hand I am fascinated by the rejection of progress in deference to tradition that I see in the makers (and users) of traditional camera products. And even more amazed at how slowly the most expert and invested camera owners embrace future trends, styles and methods when compared to even the most mainstream users with simple devices like smartphones. The smartphone users have no long  term investment in the traditions of video and photography so they are not concerned that using new type of product to make a new kind of image or program will "rob" them of what they feel they have invested in over the years = mastery of traditional, technique driven methodologies. 

Traditional users continue to make photographs in traditional ways with traditional tools (and I am mostly speaking only about the commercial markets) because they are afraid to confront the implied loss of their knowledge investments. Their love for a reliably unchanged way of doing their processes also fosters the avoidance of new experimentation and hampers their ability to move beyond their current comfort zones; which is vital for keeping up with cultural evolution.  You see it most in traditional business like portrait photography. The advertising (and tradition) of portrait photography revolve around the mastery of studio lighting techniques and rote formulas for lighting and posing. Three point lighting. Softboxes. Monolights. Portrait focal lengths. Portrait Professional Software for skin detail obliteration. Vignetted edges. Sparkly catchlights. Muslin backgrounds.

The average corporate customers (and most potential retail customers)  are currently looking for environmental portraits taken on location. Portraits that might need to be lit but should appear to be done with available light. Portraits that are authentic. They reject many of the traditional poses and lighting schemes in pursuit of a more current visual aesthetic. The slow to adapt portrait photographers are not trying to push their clients into the future, rather the clients seem to be dragging the photographers (kicking and screaming) along for the ride. The photographers fear their loss of the investment they have made in the traditional trappings of their field, long after those trappings have started to lose their cachet.

We really aren't in the business of creating physical photographs anymore. Most of the techniques in that past were aimed at shoehorning the wider dynamic range of film onto the smaller target range of a photographic print, or printed, 4 color reproduction. We are now in a more wide-ranging visual communications business. We create visual content for our clients that is almost uniformly ephemeral and electronic, and its acceptance tracks its use. If we accept that there has been a massive shift in consumer consumption of visual marketing from the printed page and printed photo to the (ever growing) cell phone screen we can understand why clients are looking for tighter and tighter composition (more graphic = more easily readable messaging on smaller screens) and why images with movement are so attractive to our clients as they pursue results in their advertising.

We humans are invested with millions of years of evolution and training as hunters and gatherers. We are hardwired to notice motion, both for our personal safety and, until very, very recently, for the pursuit of edible things. Our stereo vision allows us to see in depth and our eye/brain system is optimized for noting changing patterns and motion. But because motion picture production with film was costly and technical we were "allowed" to ignore it and pursue photography as a "separate" medium. Now the effect of technology is flattening everything; from the way we bank to the way we create and consume visual media, and the people slowest to understand and embrace an obvious technology shift and aesthetic shift are the people who would most likely benefit from its application for clients. It's now as cheap to produce video as it is to produce still images.

There is very little required to make video beyond a good camera and its lenses. A microphone or two and lights that can be used continuously. Other than that one can edit with free software and distribute with free sharing channels like YouTube and Vimeo. If our core business is creating visual content, and the cultural value proposition of visual content is shifting toward video, how does it make sense to ignore it? Why not preserve profitability through continued education, and the application thereof?

I thought about all these things in the context of the A9 launch. To my mind Sony took a marketing step backward with that camera. The succumbed to playing the traditionalist's game. They are out to prove that their camera is "as good" or "slightly better" at doing exactly what the traditional DSLRs already do, and do quite well; tracking fast motion, and shooting quickly in sports and fast moving wildlife situations. Areas that actually have less to do with most commercial photography than the 7/10th of the commercial content creation iceberg we don't read about on popular websites. In competing in exactly those parameters Sony is stepping backwards and actually re-affirming a priority status to those narrow attributes/ feature sets as being vital to the photographer's mission ---- when they are anything but.

Panasonic has the market differentiation much more wisely figured out in their newest cameras. They repudiate the notion of single image capture inefficiency altogether with their 6k capture feature. You are essentially shooting 6K (18 megapixel) video from which you can review and snag the perfect frame from a continuum. Set a high enough shutter speed and you will freeze action. If you shoot sports you could capture long bursts at 24 fps and have precise moments captured. Since you are shooting video frames there is no black out and no buffer consideration. And it's current in cameras that cost less than $2000. It's already a proven technology. But it's a side step instead of a head to head contest. It's almost a way of yawning and saying, "Fast fps still imaging? That's so last century."

Had Sony concentrated on making the A9 a much more video-forward camera, and incorporated something like 6K or 8K video, they may not have won over Nikon and Canon traditionalists who might be ready to move on but they would have solidified the idea that the very nature of shooting fast action is changing and that they (along with Panasonic) own the new paradigm of sports imaging for now and into the near future. But they dropped that ball when they compared what could have been a fuel injected camera against a box full of four barreled carburetor equipped cameras in one of the few contests in which the old guard still hold relevance.

If you are engaged in traditional photography with a traditional camera and you probably either persist in photography strictly for your own pleasure, or you have found a photographic niche that is immune to the progress of media as it relates to popular (commercial) culture. You have no reason to do any soul searching or, in fact, consider moving on from any camera/style/art you currently enjoy. You certainly don't need to embrace video production. In fact, it might even be counter productive for you. But if you are engaged with advertising agencies, large corporations (especially tech and product oriented ones) or even local businesses that have  services and products that can be demonstrated visually then you are already engaged in the battle to stay relevant and to offer a changing menu of content services to your clients, and the companies you would love to have as clients.

I've made a conscious choice to pursue integrating video into the services that I offer. But I am not interested in pursuing video in a traditional manner. I'm not interested in going backward into highly complex and very expensive cameras or methodologies of production that require large crews and large capital expenditures. Those methods are for people who want to make movies and who have access to millions of dollars of production budget. I am much more interested in offering "right-sized" productions that nearly every client can afford, and which bigger clients can afford more and more often.

It's easy to get swept up in the "no holds barred" narrative of big budget movie making and to believe, by extension, that you must compete in your market with the same tools or be perceived to un-professional, but this is an irrational way of approaching your engagement with the medium. The expenditures constitute part of a risk/reward ratio. Movie makers spend millions on production (mostly on salaries and only secondarily on technology) in order to potentially make billions in ROI. They must bring everything imaginable to the table. But most of our commercial clients won't see the same risk/reward ratios in their engagement with the kinds of video that will constitute the work most of us undertake. Our clients will be happy if their CEO looks good and sounds good and doesn't flub his lines. The tech company will be happy if the video you create to show how to install their part in another product is bright, clear and detailed and shows the correct angles, steps and explanatory close-ups at the right times. Our medical client will be happy if we show off their flagship products with real people engaged in Activities of their Daily Lives and we capture some real emotion/excitment/new confidence in their subsequent "testimonial" interviews.

Technology that allows us to do both still photography and video interchangeably is here. The push from the clients to supply kinetic content is here. And the nice thing for us is that it requires mostly continuing education and experience and not huge investments in gear. For the person starting their pathway through the combined media the best "hybrid" camera is probably the one they already own. Whether it's a Canon Rebel, a Nikon D7200 or one of many mirror-free cameras on the market it will probably do a great (or good) job of making 1080p HD video. The tripod you already own can usually be used with the addition of a cost effective fluid head. There are any number of "good enough" microphones on the market for less than $150 that can be used directly, plugged into your camera's microphone socket.

You will spend a few months and a lot of practice editing your video. You will find your still photographs from a typical assignment that calls for both media to be very useful as additional visual content in your finished video. Nothing seems to make a marketing director happier than the act of their "team"  shooting a good, corporate, "talking head" video and then watching their artist click a few controls and then make a beautiful, photographic portrait in the same location...with the same lighting. And the same camera.

All of this is within our reach. All of it will be increasingly in demand from our clients. All of it is profitable.

In a week and a day I'll head out of town to shoot my twelfth video/photo assignment of the year. I won't be shooting it with a $12,000 camera and a $5,000 lens. I won't have a crew of ten. I am sitting here today planning the right way to right size the project for the budget and the targeted results. The video will be used on a corporate share sites in close proximity with dozens of other similar videos of widely varying production value. It will be compressed. It will be seen by a small audience of people who have a keen interest in the subject matter.

I'll go with a crew of two. Myself and an assistant. If we need an additional set of hands, to hold a reflector, we'll have a collaborative client in tow who values good teamwork. We'll be shooting all of the content in 4K video. I'll shoot the interview with two cameras. One will, no doubt, be the redoubtable Sony RX10iii. The second will likely be either a Sony RX10ii or a Panasonic FZ2500. All are quite capable of good performance when used with good light. I'll bring along a Sony A7rii for photographs and I'll bring it with just three primes; the 28, 50, 85 (all inexpensive but capable f1.8 or f2.0 lenses).

I'll bring three or four LED lights, probably a mix of battery powered and plug in models. We'll bring a couple of shotgun microphones and a set of lavaliere microphones (just in case). My total investment in gear, to work on this location, will be less than $10,000. We'll get work done that makes the client happy and ensures we get paid.

When I look into the future of imaging I see a blending of photography and video. Some people will still play in separate and lofty niches. Production companies will favor mostly creating video because the budgets are nearly always bigger. Former stills-only photographers will mix between media with abandon. Everyone will be cognizant that the overall advertising market is changing with the larger share of money now being spent on moving images and a declining amount spent on pure, still photography. Figuring out where you want to be and how you want to get there is the challenge.

I think we're up for the challenge. Change is scary but learning and mastering new stuff is a wonderful motivator. And new mastery keeps us relevant.