This week’s Questions with a Pro features, Randal Crow.
We asked: Please provide a brief background of yourself.
Randal said: Starting out in 1989 as a photographer’s 1st assistant in a busy commercial studio, I polished my skills in a wide variety of areas. We were shooting tabletop products, fashion, executive portraits, groups, architecture, industrial locations, and in all formats up to 4×5. My B&W skills were further refined as I processed and printed a great deal of work shot on B&W film. This environment provided a substantial education into not just being a technician, but also working with clients and marketing photography services.
Joining ASMP during this time was also essential in providing me with the practical tools and knowledge for running a photography business. So armed with an ASMP education and practical studio experience, I ventured out on my own in 1992.
ASMP provided so much value to me during those years in starting my own business, that I felt it important to give back. So from around 1995 to 2000 I was pleased to serve on the board and as treasurer of the Atlanta/SE chapter.
Birmingham is a smaller market so it was necessary for me to be more of a generalist than a specialist. I marketed to and worked directly for corporate communication departments, I developed large format architectural photography as a specialty, I provided stills for a variety of editorial outlets, and I shot for catalogues. In those days when asked: “What do you shoot?”, my response was simply “people, products and architecture”. I enjoyed variety and still do now.
Many experts recommend that a photographer specialize in a niche and become known for that one specialty. That does work for a lot of people and in a lot of markets. But I have chosen a diversified approach and can testify that it works for me.
We asked: What drew you to advertising and e-commerce? Did the relatively recent digital shift take part in you landing on this specialty?
Randal said: From the beginning, my interests were centered on creating stills for clients selling products or services. The draw to advertising work was for its challenges in fulfilling a client’s vision and providing a solution to a specific need. It meant that every element of creating an image was under my control, and that appealed to me. But in a small market, I saw the need to diversify into other areas including corporate and architectural work, along with editorial print.
As the industry moved into the digital world, (wow, that was an interesting transition), I found that more and more of my work was going on-line. Eventually the primary or only purpose for my assignments was to provide images for on-line use.
Shooting for e-commerce clients is a small part of my business which has come about through the evolution of how products are marketed. Creating stills for on-line use rather than for print just means the platform is different. The tenet of meeting a client’s need and solving their problem continues to be the goal.
We asked: What differs between say your e-commerce work and your editorial work? Do you have to change your strategy at all when moving between those two realms?
Randal said: My e-commerce work differs from my editorial work depending on the type of project. If I am shooting product stills for e-commerce, it often does not differ from a typical advertising or catalogue project. If I am shooting motion for e-commerce or content marketing, it will have more of an editorial/documentary look and structure. I will explain how this has evolved by adding a little background in my response to the next question.
We asked: When and how did you start to incorporate motion into your work? How has this incorporation affected your business?
Randal said: I have always had a fascination with the cinema and filmmaking. So, around 2003 Panasonic came out with a small hand-held digital video camera that produced a very film-like picture. And at about $3500 it was an affordable investment into what became a new specialty to me. That was my entry into motion and the beginning of my learning curve into all aspects of creating short video content. This predated DSLR’s with motion capabilities as we now know them, and I became one of the first still photographers in the area to get up to speed on producing motion. To me, It was a natural transition from shooting stills, with just a few more things to think about.
Directing, shooting, and editing video content is now at least half of my annual business. It has allowed me to further diversify in a smaller market and in a very competitive environment. Because video content has become more and more of a necessary medium for most companies, many of my clients hire me to produce both still and video projects.
When strategizing years ago on how to position myself in the video content market, I decided to develop more of a documentary style and approach to my storytelling. This meant not going for TV commercials at ad agencies, but to be more targeted towards corporate needs, including recruiting and promotional videos
Because I so much enjoyed working with people on camera in shooting stills, I became a specialist at shooting/conducting interviews for video. My editorial, documentary approach to video storytelling has coincidentally been perfect for producing “content marketing” type videos. Telling a story with only vague references to a sponsoring product or service is really quite fun.
Being very proficient at conducting on-camera interviews has also allowed me to produce some purely editorial pieces for on-line news and editorial sites.
I cannot boast that in 2003 I predicted video production was going to be the enormous industry it is today. It was just an opportune move. Being a filmmaker happened to be a very strong desire I had at the time, and it continues to be the most interesting part of my business. It has its own set of challenges though, and is definitely not for everyone.
We asked: What aspects of the photography business do you find most challenging? Why?
Randal said: Not only have continued refinements in technology greatly affected the business, but there was a relatively sudden shift in how to conduct business after the financial meltdown of 2008-2009. Us freelancers surviving that recession intact found that our old business model required substantial updating. Figuring out what it should be back then was not easy. Part of the solution for me was to continue improving my skills in producing motion content, so that I could provide clients with a wider range of services and more value. This strategy seemed essential for survival in a small market.
While there are a number of challenging aspects of the media industry today, how to market yourself and your services to potential clients is probably the biggest challenge. Marketing is not so simple anymore due to the number of options out there and the fragmentation of just how to reach potential clients. A busy photographer has only so many hours in the day to update a website, a blog, a Twitter feed, an Instagram page, a LinkedIn page, a Facebook page, a Vimeo site, a YouTube channel, on-line listings, and I could go on. There many new ways to establish your brand in addition to the traditional methods that are still relevant. A photographer has to be very savvy in making choices.
There is one remaining constant though, and that is there is no substitute for developing personal face-to-face relationships with clients and potential clients.
We asked: How do you stay current in the changing photography industry? Do you find yourself devoting a lot of time and energy to this task?
Randal said: Because my business is divided between creating stills and motion, I spend a great deal of time remaining current with quickly changing technologies, especially related to digital video. While video cameras and post production software are now incredibly powerful, they have also become very complex. Keeping up with constantly evolving hardware and applications requires a great deal of time and money. There is also currently a colossal shift underway to LED lighting technology and remotely controllable instruments.
To stay up with the times, there are fortunately many on-line publications and you tubers reporting on new developments. All of this information is out there and access is free. It just requires lots of time to filter through and glean what is relevant.