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Getting ready to write your business plan…

Ok, quick recap: There are only three steps in my world domination startup plan to transition to full-time photographer:

  1. Preparing the Business Plan
  2. Preparing for Business
  3. Marketing the Business

The first step, the Business Plan, might be the most overlooked from what I’ve read online. All the administrivia of starting a business is in step 2, so it’s just plain boring (I know – I’ve already written the draft for it, and it needs serious help). Number 3 is a cakewalk, because apparently everyone is selling marketing and appears to be an expert in it. Besides, it’s fun and exciting, and you get to ‘write off’ all that cool stuff… right? (Answer: No, not so fast….)

This business plan is going to drive the thinking and the documents (think: contracts, usage rights, etc) in step 2,  so it’s important to know what your focus is going to be. Just knowing that you want to be a photographer isn’t enough. You need to know what kind of work you enjoy – or you risk being driven away from the very thing that got you started. Ultimately the business plan should show that what you are going to do has a good chance of succeeding, before going too much further in the other steps.

Example: Photography

I’ve been investigating different styles of photography, experimenting with each, to know which I’d enjoy doing, and what kinds of demands each would place on me in terms of time, investment, and effort for return. Your likes, market and decisions are going to be different than mine.

For example, I do free shoots with models on Fun, yes; but a full time paying gig? No; by definition, these ‘TFP’ (Time for Prints) are exchanges of time between participants. Without additional investment and a niche style to offer it’s not likely to turn into a revenue stream in the market where I live. Portrait and beauty photography is at best a component of the business, but in a limited fashion market I don’t see doing occasional runway and designers seasonal catalogs as full time work.

Food is totally different; I’ve even purchased special serving dishes that are modern and non-distracting. If I could make a decent living shooting nothing but olives and toast, I’d do it in a heartbeat. But the reality is that a few hundred dollars for an afternoon shooting plates as they come off the line of a local restaurant doesn’t happen frequently enough to be a sole source of income. Again, something I could do, but not something that is going to be 80% of the business.

Nature photography is something else I like, mainly because I get to hike in the mountains to do it. But the kinds of shots that sell are those requiring a significant investment of time and effort, and I consider a form of art photography, there may not be a client commissioning the work – so the return on the investment may not happen for some time.

Weddings and portraiture are a common bread and butter operation, but would I enjoy them? A local model connected me to a couple she knew that needed a free wedding shoot; they had blown their budget and hadn’t considered hiring anyone for their wedding photos. I’ve heard all the cautions about not shooting your first wedding solo, but after discussing this with the couple and showing them my portfolio of non-wedding shots, we decided to go for it. They agreed with me that it would be nothing if not fun, because the alternative would be to rely on the snapshots of family and friends only. I absorbed as much knowledge as I could in the month I had before the ceremony, and it looked like I wasn’t going to enjoy it at all…

But guess what? I did enjoy it! The shooting was fun and relaxed, as was the whole day. Now when I read of photographers that don’t enjoy weddings I wonder why…  Bridezillas? Challenging shooting locations? Tough schedules? Isn’t that part of the challenge? Anyway, I knew I could safely add wedding photography to my interests; I may or may not shoot them solo again (with a second shooter, or as a second shooter would be nice…) but it’s something I know I can do, and I know how much of a time commitment it is, too.

So I know what I can and can’t shoot and still keep my sanity; but could I still pay the bills?


Find out what others in your area charge for what you want to be doing. But don’t just price shop; seriously consider what you like and dislike about their style, their price structure, and where you think they sit in the market. Simply emulating someone who low-balls price because their spouse supports their ‘business’ with a full time office job salary is a formula for disaster!

I did this and found that the range is pretty broad; and I’m not talking about the $500 craigslist shooters, either. The low end is around $2000; and there are a few whose non-upgraded rates are double that; so assume triple once a few options are chosen.

Costs are another thing to gather… if you don’t know what you need to live on per month, then it’s time for a monthly budget. Because I’m already self-employed I’m careful to not overspend; getting to the end of the year and finding out that you still owe the taxman $15k is no fun at all.


We do the math!


Baby Steps

If you’ve strung together some of the posts here, or from my twitter ‘tweets’, you’ll know I’m working through the planning, opening, and marketing steps of my photography business. It’s a fun process; certainly challenging, sometimes confusing, and potentially overwhelming.

To cope with that I’m treating like any project I do (I’m a project manager in ‘real life’) which means it has the usual boundaries; a scope, a schedule, and a budget. In plain english this means I have a deadline to do things – and I plan to run out of things before I run out of money.

I’ve often said that to avoid the paralysis of planning a project, you should ‘just start’. I usually start with the most basic of plans – a skeleton plan – and I flesh it out as I go. If I’m having a good week I take some time, usually Friday mornings, and look at where I am, and what’s next. If I don’t think that there is enough detail, or if any individual step takes longer than an hour to do, I usually break it up into smaller steps. This lets me work on it as I have time – which is almost never in 8 hour chunks.

I’m starting this with only three BIG steps, so it doesn’t get much simpler. At the end of each step is a simple question: “Should I keep going?”. This lets me pause at the end of any step, limiting my investments of time, money, and commitments if the answer is “No.”, and figure out if I can make it a “Yes!”. Here they are:

  1. Preparing the Business Plan
  2. Preparing for Business
  3. Marketing the Business

How far have I gone with my efforts so far? Well, farther than I’ve written about in the past, but not as far as I’d like; I’m still not 100% done with the first step, and I’m about halfway through the second step, at a point where I need a complete business plan before I invest any cash. Of course the third step is where all the fun is, so I’ve dabbled in it, but committed very little.

At the end of the last step I should have a calendar full of paid work before me, a plan for the next couple of years, and pretty big grin from being so darn successful. I think it’s pretty important to be able to visualize yourself in the future, too. It may be a silly mind trick, but it works for me. Every time I repeatedly visualize some future, I somehow get there. (I’m still waiting on the hover-car, though…).

Next time I’ll put some meat on these bones, and describe each step a bit more.


Accidental Exposure

I have a series of photography business related posts that are gestating in draft mode that just aren’t getting the attention they deserve. Something is distracting me…

On the weekend I bought one of these; a Diana F+.

Why, oh why, would I buy another camera?

Something about the imperfections and unpredictability really appeals to me. It’s fast, off-the-cuff photography. Not the super-buttoned-down studio style that I sometimes do. And certainly not how I frame and compose most shots; square on, level, and … boring. I’d been looking at flickr images tagged with lomo, holga, etc, and the honesty and simplicity really grabbed me.

I was visiting family in Edmonton on the weekend, and as chance would have it I found a retailer that stocked the Holga, Diana, and a ton of Lomography stuff. So on Friday I become the proud owner of a plastic lens camera, and I started to see the world around me in cross-processed, light fogged colors. Ahhhh….

I got up early the next morning, thoughts of the Diana and it’s image style compartmentalized, a memory of yesterday, not part of my today yet. I was in Mr. Photographer mode, of course I was shooting with my Pentax K20D, 360 flash, and 50-135mm lens, which usually travel with me.

I wanted to take some stock shots of the gardens;  really shallow, even out-of-focus images, to make page backgrounds for wedding albums, and since summer here is so short, having stock images isn’t a bad idea.

Then something odd happened:

White balance? White balance? We dont need no stinkin white balance!

White balance? White balance? We don't need no stinkin' white balance!

Ack! A mistake! An error! Ewww!

I hadn’t had my morning coffee yet, so with bleary eyes I switched the white balance to daylight, and kept on shooting. I forgot all about it; we had brunch, drove home to Calgary, and got caught up with chores around the house.

Tonight I managed some free time to sort through the 150+ images I shot, and came back to this image.

Wow, it’s an unpredictable, improbable error! And it’s really cool! And it’s digital!

And it took buying a plastic camera with a plastic lens to make me see that happy accidents don’t always have to be on film.


Food for Thought…

Of all the kinds of photography there is, the easiest has to be food photography. I have no idea if I’m any good at it, but man-o-man do I like the subject matter!

A couple of nights ago we had deep fried zucchini flowers; tempura batter, some beer, a chilled bowl and hot oil in the wok. Wow.

Zuccini flowers... we saw them at the market and knew what to do!

Zucchini flowers... we saw them at the market and knew what to do!

Then tonight was a baked onion dish with bacon, cheese, and herbs in cream. A heartstopper. Just a few spoonfulls on a plate and you are done.

Onoins as main dish. Rosemary, bacon, cheese, and friends.

Onions as main dish. Rosemary, bacon, cheese, and friends.


More experiments with film; scanning and stereo!

Some time ago my Dad gave me a Kodak Stereo Camera as a novelty from one of his antique store forays. I’d wondered if it still worked, so I took it to the Lethbridge airshow. With lots of aircraft on static display, it would be a good place to try it out. It has some very limited settings for aperture and shutter speed, and focus is by guesswork, using a distance scale; the viewfinder is actually the square window between the lenses, just above the green bubble level.

Kodak Stereo Camera

Kodak Stereo Camera

Originally slide film would have been sent to Kodak and they would have cut and mounted the left and right images in cardboard to make them easy to use.  Keep this in mind if you have one of these cameras and would like to try it out… starting with slide film will save you a TON of time later on. All the unused film I have handy is 35mm for prints; not slides… had I known how much hassle I was about to cause myself I would have sprung for a roll of slide film for sure.

For starters, the images from each lens are almost square, and quite small. They are interleaved 3:1 on the negative, and that was the first hurdle. The photo lab couldn’t print or scan them because of the non-standard size… the tech tried, but the spacing didn’t match the standard mask sizes.

That left me on my own; I could go to a pro lab and explain to them what I wanted, and it would have cost a fortune in labour… or I could buy my own film scanner – but still have the same problems with needing non-standard image masks and having to realign every frame. What I ended up doing – photographing the negatives – was far more work, but the end results are (almost) worth it. If you get close enough to the screen and let your eyes cross the images below should fuse to a single 3D image!

Final result: A left+right image pair. Click for a larger size.

Final result: A left+right image pair. Click for a larger size.

After some failed experiments simply photographing the negatives against window light, I mounted a flash on one end of a 4 foot long bit of wood, my trusty K20D with a Tamron 70-300mm macro on the other end. One thing I had read about photographing negatives is that the orange cast of the negative can be best dealt with by gelling the lightsource to blue/cyan. I picked a strong blue gel from my freebie pack of Lee filters, and my first guess was pretty good (I think it’s #200 – Double C.T. Blue). I also put four layers of a white plastic bag in front of the flash as diffuser.

I mounted the negative at roughly the minimum focus distance. I used a folding cardboard slide holder taped against the bottom of a shoebox, with an oversized hole cut in the box. The flash was a few inches back from this, firing into the box to limit light spill. The camera was set to ISO 100 and f/11. Because of the spacing of the flash and camera I used some cheap eBay triggers; to keep the sync right I set it to 1/30 second shutter. The hotshoe trigger also gave me a handy mount for the flash.

The steps of transforming the negative to positive required some trial and error. These links should help: (scroll down to Dave Martindale’s post)

A negative, lit from behind with a blue gelled flash.

Starting from the image above, here are my steps using the GIMP (Photoshop should work too):

1. Switch to the color picker, and choose an area of neutral orange (the sprocket holes, for example) or something known to be grey (like a cargo plane).

2. Add a new layer using this new foreground color

3. Invert the new layer from orange-pink to blueish. I ended up editing this blue tint to be Red: 0, Blue:255, Green:175, after experimentation. A different filter on the flash will mean these values will change!

4. Set the new layer to ‘Overlay’ mode. This should improve the color range, but it’s still a negative image.

5. Merge the new layer down (you should have only one layer now)

6. Invert the layer; it won’t be quite right yet, but it should be close

7. Edit the curves for red, green and blue individually; I just selected the midpoint and dragged it up or down very slightly. Also edit the brightness and contrast to taste.

Hope this helps anyone looking to scan or copy old negatives with their digital camera. For the money a good flatbed scanner, with masks for 35mm film is going to save you a lot of time.


Alberta International Airshow

Last weekend we snuck down to the city of Lethbridge, Alberta, for the ‘Alberta International Airshow’. It’s not as big an affair as the old airshows at the old base at Namao (Edmonton), but the more relaxed atmosphere meant lots of space up at the fence to get close to the action… not that you needed to be very close with a unexpected treat like this old girl:


B-52 (in black and white, for a vintage feel)

All of these shots were done with the Pentax K10D and K20D.  The K10D pretty much had the 16-45mm lens on it all day; the K20D had either a 50-135mm f/2.8 or Tamron 70-300mm (sometimes with a 2x TC on it). By having two bodies with different focal lengths I was able to switch quickly, and by pairing the K20D with the tele’s I could use higher ISO’s that the Tamron needs (f/8 for best sharpness) without sacrificing shutter speed. The day was pretty warm and hazy; I’ve color corrected the sky in these back to a better shade of blue, and in some cases have done additional color treatments to bring out some extra pop in the shots.

Easily the most photogenic aircraft was this silver P-51 Mustang; the nearly chrome finish really makes it stand out. Turning up the ‘Clarity’ slider in Lightroom also added a whole lot of punch. I wish I had selected a slightly longer exposure time to let the prop blur more; the plane was actually turning in front of the crowd so I’ll have to settle for this:



This shot was chosen from several frames for the pleasing clouds and clean ground under it. The other shots had ground antennas, trucks, and ground crew visible. Ick!



And who can resist a nice sharp shot with no distractions?



The Mustang also flew a bit with a Harvard trainer. They trotted out a number of older planes to celebrate 2009 as ‘100 Years of Flight’ in Canada. This particular shot is a tight crop to isolate the aircraft, but also leave in a nice cloud in the distance.

Mustang and Harvard

Mustang and Harvard

A nice young lady from Montreal gave us a wing-walking show; she starts off by lying in the criss-crossed cables between the wings for take-off, then clambers up to the top wing for the show.  The sun wasn’t at a perfect angle for shooting most of the action, so the best shots were of the aircraft from crowd-left. For most of the of the show the sun was directly across the runway from the crowd fence, making for pretty uninspired shots; when a plane did a dive and was lit pleasingly the shots have much better color.

Wing Walker

Wing Walker

A pleasant suprise was the show from the ‘MiG Fury Fighters’, which was entertaining. They had an old T2 trainer, and did a simulated dogfight with a MiG 15 and MiG 17. Nice. They also did several ‘beauty passes’, so I’m sure there are a lot of folks with shots like this one:

MiG Fury Fighteres: T2, MiG-15, MiG-17

MiG Fury Fighters: T2, MiG-15, MiG-17

Another suprise is that they could afford to take a CF-18 and paint it up in non-combat colors for the airshow circuit this year. I honestly didn’t think we had enough of them to spare… but I’m not complaining… flat grey fighters are pretty boring! For this shot I wanted the water vapour that get squeezed out of the air during high-G manouvers.



Not as clear, here is a similar effect from another angle:



I also shot several rounds at 22 frames per second (the K20D has a super-duper burst mode that nobody seems to talk about much) so I could capture the Snowbirds doing their close-pass manouvers. Here is a particularly interesting 4 plane cross… I’d love to have shot this from the second seat of one of these planes… they used to be trainers, so they sit two-abreast.



All in all a great show; I think this is one I’ll do again next summer, although I’ll bring more water and more ice next time. In total I shot about 20GB of images; what you see is just the fraction that I’ve looked at so far.

For memory cards I had a 16GB SDHC card in the K20D. It meant less changing cards, although I still used a Hyperdrive Space for making backups, and dumping the 2GB card in the K10D (my 4GB cards had disappeared in my bag for the day!). I can’t rave enough about the Hyperdrive; I upgraded the hard disk from 40GB to 250GB; plenty for vacations or extended shoot assignments. The built-in battery is enough for about 40GB worth of backups, and you can buy or build an external battery pack for cheap. It also charges from USB or AC, and I’ve noticed a lot of USB power in airliners, rental cars, and hotel business centers, so power is never an issue.


Splitting Atoms II

In a prior post I wrote a bit about possible changes that might take hold in the photographic imaging business, specifically in the world of content creation, and the effects of microstock image warehouses and photographers and models that shoot ‘for free’.

Some would argue that the availability of high quality equipment has made this possible; the rise of the inexpensive dSLR and the enthusiast shooter. Some might point to sites like Model Mayhem as the root of all evil for making trade shooting available to the public (and by ‘public’ I mean ‘aspiring models’, as opposed to ‘professional models’ that don’t flake out on shoots… but that’s another rant…). Some might point to the internet as the great ‘leveler of markets’, where price information gets confused with value information, and chaos ensues.

I would argue the inevitably of it all; in fact, I would argue we haven’t crested yet (or troughed, if you are a glass-half-empty type). I think we haven’t seen the bottom of the price curve.

The crest, at least as far as past experience in other industries has shown us so far, happens when we can outsource the content creation, but use the internet as the medium… no agency, no face-to-face meetings, and sadly, no client lunches to write off. I would see this as half way between stock shooting and a commissioned shoot; with the client requesting only the general parameters of the image content, and letting the ‘market’ deliver the service.

Note I said ‘service’, not ‘experience’. That’s a key point in Pine’s video from TED about the next split in industry as a whole. Of course it’s happening now, but it’s not pushed out to Jane & John business owner in a big way.

So what’s this have to do with splitting atoms?

In a previous life at IBM (yeah, about as far from creative photography as you can get… no wonder I quit!) I participated in the creation of services, and one important thing we did was to identify the value of our people and their roles within the processes we used to deliver our services to our customers.

The key activity was to split what was previously seen as an ‘atomic’ element – usually a person – into two parts; their innate expertise, and the humdrum stuff that we could stuff into a process that anyone – or any computer – could do.

This splitting of person from role is the important exercise. If you let the people focus on the creative stuff, and encapsulate all the supporting the processes into a web-accessible format, you could open the door to a new niche of industry; one where the client can get high quality content for a much lower price, and the creative team is much more focused on creating, rather than unprofitable administrivia.

There is also the flip-side to Pine and his notion of ‘the experience’; there is great value in delivering something special to the customer directly; this is evident in successful photographers that continue to command high prices and have a style with great market value.

A final thought; it’s not important which side you choose; or even to choose at all.

It is only important to know which side of the coin you are working on.

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