Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A photographer in Chico; product photography, or photography as product.

This would be an example of product photography. I shot this here in Chico, but I've been shooting bottles of Mama Love perfume in Santa Cruz, Arizona, and probably anywhere else we've found ourselves. I think I discovered my liking for product photography about seven years ago. It's simple and clean and generally doesn't take long. It's quiet and kind of meditative. I rarely think to advertise myself as a product photographer because perhaps, it's too easy. I mean, maybe it's a little harder than it looks. And if you want to finesse it somewhat it can get a lot harder, but maybe when you like it as much as I do it just doesn't feel like work. And yet, you still have to be a competent photographer at least to pull it off at all and it is a sub-specialty genre wherein some photographers shoot nothing but product shots and make a whole living at it.

 I've seen a lot of other photographers in and around Chico but not anyone so far specializing in product photography but that does not mean they aren't here. So. . .  I was pretty surprised to see another photographer based in Ashland, Oregon advertising right next to me. He's been doing exactly the same routine for months now. I have pretty good website tracking, so I know that this guy first looks at my ad ( which usually says something like "portraiture" or "The Art of the Portrait" ) then he goes to my website and looks around a little, and then he posts his ad right above mine: "Product Photography." If you visit his website he claims to shoot anything and everything, not just product shots. I don't see how being a couple hundred miles away is any advantage for him. Is the economy really that bad? I don't think so. If anything, it seems to be looking up. There's little manufacturing in Chico, but maybe things are worse in Ashland? Hope not. I like Ashland a lot and seriously considered moving there. Maybe I should advertise up there. It would be like a cultural exchange. What the hell, maybe a merchant will invite me up for the weekend, I'll bring some big pieces of white paper and my strobes and I'm in there. It's way cooler up there and we've been hitting triple digits. Of course, there might already be photographers up in Ashland, even specialist product photographers, they might live there and wish to make a living where they live.

 I think everybody looks around to see what other people are doing in their field but this one is a bit off. I expect to see the other locals advertising around, and no doubt we all look at each others ads. My issues with some of those ads are usually one of two: charging so little for the service that it makes no sense and undercuts/sabotages the whole industry of pro photography, or, charging too much and having no idea how to execute your craft. In other words, some local photographers are so bad they don't even know just how bad they are, and yet they expect get paid for it. I'm a little embarrassed for the latter, but really the former is a bigger problem: once one schmo charges less than the gas money associated with a photo shoot, another ( desperate ) schmo might try to compete with that. Worse yet, a potential client looking around to get an idea what it costs for a pro photo shoot, including editing, goes "Oh hey, ten bucks!"  Ten bucks? I don't think so. Better to say you're an amateur or a student and you just want to get some experience--- charge them for gas money, a nominal fee for prints or a CD and that's all well and good but please, leave out the "I'm a professional" part. Any professional has some overhead, some skill, some education and experience, and hopefully some self-respect. Unless. . .

The whole industry is going down the tubes? This has been speculated on and written about elsewhere to be sure. By the way, my "ten bucks" "pro" is not a facetious example. This is a guy who claimed a week ago to be into photography "just for the art of it" and he got quite insulting about the motives of other photographers, including, specifically, me. Nice. Can't imagine what he'll do next. he's a loose cannon, or should I say "a loose Canon"?

Honestly, there is no substitute for a skilled, educated and experienced photographer. And while it's not about the equipment, the equipment is getting cheaper and more affordable year after year. This means that more and more people are buying it. This is digital, so there's no outlay for film once the camera, flash memory, computer and software have been purchased, and let's face it, most people who'd buy a digital camera already own a computer and can pick up some basic editing software cheap or free. It's then quite possible to use a pro or semi-pro camera as a point and shoot. I know a "pro photographer" who did this. I'll call her "Jane".

Jane bought an entry level DSLR and immediately hung out a shingle as a pro. She had pretty close to zero experience, training, skill, or even talent. She got a website and greatly exaggerated her background with some cleverly worded copy. She also proceeded to undercut local photographers on price to a stunning degree, deliberately insulting her competition in print for charging too much. Over the years she'd raise her prices gradually until they matched the very price she'd insulted others for--- even though to my perception her skills didn't really improve. On her shoots she'd set the camera on full auto and snap away. Wedding shoots, I kid you not. The funny thing is, she got away with it, for years. Her "secret" I guess, was a lot of post processing. Namely, pushing brightness and saturation to an almost unbelievable degree. Only now is she considering scaling back the operation away from weddings and more towards family/child portraits. She was purportedly working 60 hour work weeks post-processing, and only making about 15 grand a year: making her hourly wage sub-minimum wage. I don't know all the reasons behind it, but the main one I heard was that post-processing the thousands of images associated with a full wedding shoot was pretty much killing her in time consumption. I half expect to see her quit altogether. From time to time I saw her touting the difference between a pro photographer and an amateur as the ability to push a couple of sliders in software, long after all the photos have been shot. Therefore, to my knowledge, she never let a client see an unprocessed image. How could she? Her unprocessed product was of poor quality. The whole arc of her career was indicative of an unregulated industry spiraling out of control. And I say "was" because I fully expect her to quit, having learned little or nothing, driven other, better photographers out of business by low-balling and finally throwing in the towel when her own, sorry but I have to say it, stupidity, drives her out of business.

Now, she's not actually the worst photographer that I know, but the very best photographers I know have spent years of sweat, study and experience learning to put the best image in camera as they possibly can. They do use post processing, but post is the icing, not the cake. And, there's been a long standing saying in several technical industries that I've been involved in: "Crap in, crap out." If that's not obvious enough, it has to do with quality control from start to finish. That's one part of this particular industry which may be in some degree of peril, and it bothers me. I may write more about this later, but I think anyone can see that for one thing, a flood of poorly skilled practitioners representing themselves as professionals competing with each other ( and with "real" professionals too ) partly by low-balling the price structure can bring down the whole profession.

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