How Photography Connects Us to the World

A recent article on featured a handful of professionals describing ways to cultivate the trait of unselfishness. One in particular that caught my eye was from Monica Eaton-Cardone, a Florida entrepreneur. Her advice was simple: connect with other people. Truly connecting with others, she points out, requires us to step outside of ourselves.

That got me thinking. I don’t think anyone would argue that selfishness is running rampant in today’s world, perhaps more so than at any other time in history. Yet for all this focus on being ourselves and doing what we want to do, I’d venture to say that as a rule, people–particularly Americans–are sadder, lonelier, and more anxious than ever.

It has always struck me as ironic that we talk about being “connected” through the internet and social media, while the reality is that social isolation is killing us: increased individualism coupled with an ageing population accounts for more people than ever feeling isolated. That, in turn, leads to an increase in anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, and addiction–among other things–all of which contribute to early mortality.

So what does this have to do with photography?

It’s simple: photography is a great connector. It can connect us to the past, it can connect us to each other, and it can connect us to the world around us–urging us out of ourselves, as it were.

I’m not talking about instant, endless selfies; the most powerful photography captures more than a self-aware smile. In fact, one report pointed out that Instagram was dangerous for social well-being, associating the site with ” … high levels of anxiety, depression, bullying and FOMO, or the ‘fear of missing out.'”

That’s not something we need more of. At a time when so many are so anxious about how the political climate might affect their personal rights, safety, and happiness, it’s more important than ever to remember that we are not alone here.

Our default is to hide in our respective bubbles, whether it’s a career bubble, a family bubble, a region bubble, or what-have-you. But at the end of the day, like it or not, we’re all wide-eyed inhabitants of the same tiny planet. Sometimes we need to be reminded that despite our differences, we are very much the same.

Photography can do that.

Photography picks out the mundane details that we tend to overlook and gives them relevance simply by giving them permanence. The fact is, we don’t often alter the universe in big swoops; change more typically comes from the small actions in our everyday lives. That, in essence is what makes the concept of community so necessary … and the art of photography so powerful.

In a 2008 TED Talk, National Geographic photographer David Griffin points out that photographers need to know how to create a visual narrative. First and foremost, photographers are–or should be–storytellers: photography can serve as a positive agent for understanding the challenges and opportunities of our world, compelling us to confront a wide range of issues–even ones that are potentially distressing or controversial.

The world needs connecting. And photographers are in the perfect position to help make that happen.

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Pro Hacks for Handling Holiday Photo Sessions

Well, Halloween is over: time to break out the Christmas decorations. Kidding/not kidding.

While most people–including myself–like to complain about the so-called “Christmas creep,” the fact is the holidays are a busy time, where demand often overtakes supply. In my business, for example, lots of customers want holiday pictures–way more than I can reasonably do in the week before Christmas, which is when everyone seems to approach me. Obviously, it’s better for all involved if we start early.

There will, of course, always be procrastinators who wait until the last minute, and the rise of the internet and 2-Day Delivery has only made that worse: customers have come to expect convenience and  speed when shopping online, and expect any purchases to arrive in hours. This leads to its own set of risks–check out this article for tips on safer online shopping–and exacerbates the “I want it now” mindset.

For photographers, time is always a factor–and the holidays are worse: more people wanting to schedule sessions in a shorter span of time, compounded by additional deadlines that range from “We need to get our Christmas letter in the mail TODAY!” to “But Uncle Sid and Aunt Jan will only be in town this weekend!”

One of the ways I have developed for dealing with this is expanding the possibilities beyond the traditional studio settings. For example, more than one client over the years has postponed a holiday photo due to tinsel trouble: “I want the photos in front of our tree, but I’ve been so busy at work, the tree isn’t completely decorated yet!”

My response: turn the problem into an opportunity. Families don’t just come together on Christmas Eve: the decorating itself can provide memorable, fun-filled moments, ripe with photo ops. Trimming the tree itself is part of the magical the atmosphere of Christmas; most families have at least a few cherished of ornaments or traditions that are only experienced at this time of year.

Young children–particularly toddlers who might not remember Christmas from the year before–are especially good subjects, but really, the possibilities are endless. There’s bound to be chaos, obviously, so think tight shots: try to get people’s faces as they open boxes of decorations, or shoot through the tree as a special ornament is hung. And here’s the best part: once everything is on the tree and the lights are plugged in, you’re ready for that family shot in front of the tree.

Another trick I have used–sparingly–is suggesting that group shots aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Holidays are a time to stress the importance of relationships, but it’s hard to focus on catching personalities when you have 20 people trying to say “Cheese!” through frozen smiles and clenched teeth.

Snapping people in groups of two or three as they are available can be a logistical nightmare, as you can imagine. But it does help accommodate a variety of schedules, and in almost every case where I’ve done this, the family has later told me it resulted in their favorite Christmas family pictures ever… and frankly, those were some of my favorites, as well.

The joy of the “giving season” comes through much clearer when your subjects are relaxed and comfortable, which also means they tend to be more expressive. Shoot fathers with daughters, mothers with grandbabies, brothers or sisters with younger siblings, nieces or nephews–work with the people who can make each session. Suggestions on how and where to stand or interact are also easier with smaller groups, expanding your ability to capture the bonds between your subjects.

When you’ve got pics of everyone (and don’t be afraid to overlap subjects), create a collage. If that shot of Grandpa and Joey didn’t work, well, you don’t have to call everyone back. And trust me: having one of two people blink is a lot easier to laugh off than having one set of closed eyes in an otherwise perfect setup of the entire extended family. (And don’t EVEN get me started on adding pets to the mix…)

So am I ready to start singing Christmas carols? Not really, no. But the holidays are prime time for photographs, so I am already telling my customers to start thinking about booking their seasonal sessions.

Of course, having said that, I HAVE already started on my Christmas list. A new Canon EF 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6L super-zoom lens would be nice … you listening, Santa?

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Should Photographers Accept Bitcoin?

If you’re running your own studio, you know: you are ALWAYS on the lookout for a way to monetize. Whether it’s lowering prices, trying out new technologies or methods, or bumping your advertising, it’s a constant challenge to make income exceed outgoing expenses. So it’s hard to just ignore it when some new idea comes down the pike that looks like a potential goldmine.

Like Bitcoin.

Most people don’t understand cryptocurrencies or how they work: they just know they hear and read it about people making millions on minimal investments, and it sounds too good to be true. There were certainly people who DID make a killing with their investments: if you had bought a couple thousand dollars’ worth of Bitcoin a decade ago, you’d likely be a billionaire right now.

Of course, you can’t win bets in retrospect … but that doesn’t mean cryptocurrency is out of the picture for small businesses. Many are saying that cryptocurrencies are the payment method of the future, and you’d be ahead of the game if you started accepting it now.

But is cryptocurrency a good bet for small businesses right now? There are several logistical things to consider before you jump into cryptocurrency; in this post we’ll take a look at some of them.

What Is Cryptocurrency?

Digital currencies are a way to cut the middleman out of a payment transaction. Rather than store your money with an organization like a bank for safekeeping, it exists only in the ether, accessible through an encryption only you have the key to. Cryptocurrency is decentralized by design: no central bank or government regulates or backs it. Buyers transfer funds directly to sellers, without any third party involved that processes the payments.

Everyday people can’t wrap their heads around the idea that the bitcoins themselves don’t physically exist and have no intrinsic value; the only reason cryptocurrency is worth anything is because the value belongs to you and you alone, according to the public ledger. Anyone can look at the ledger and validate this, and if anyone tries to use your cryptocurrency, pretty much everyone will know about it immediately.

Is This for Me?

There are a few benefits to accepting cryptocurrency that you should think about:

  • It’s cheaper. The lack of a middleman means reduced transaction fees. Accepting credit card payments means fees of 25 cents a swipe plus a percentage of the transaction total–with crypto, that’s not a thing.
  • You’re protected. Crypto’s transactions, like cash, are final. That means there are no fraudulent chargebacks, because no third party can reverse charges.
  • It’s global. If you’re not selling prints online, you should consider it. Cryptocurrencies can free you to sell to international buyers–without having to deal in currency conversions.
  • Customers. Accepting cryptocurrency offers means customers have an additional way to pay–one with an extra layer of data protection.

But Why Not?

There are a few reasons to wait on accepting cryptocurrencies, as well:

  • It’s technical. Accepting cryptocurrency is an information-dense process with a high learning curve. You’ll need to choose a processor and set up a digital wallet on an established digital currency exchange … if your eyes are already glazing over, you might need help with this part.
  • It’s still inconsistent. While we’re not seeing the massive value swings of a year ago, cryptocurrencies are still extremely volatile. You’ll need to transfer crypto into a more stable currency on a regular basis.
  • It’s safer-kinda. Cryptocurrency can help eliminate cyberthreats like stolen credit card numbers, but that doesn’t mean it’s totally secure. While companies are working to put more safeguards in place, as yet there is no way to completely stop cybercriminals–and unlike established currencies, cryptocurrencies are not backed or insured.

Like everything else, there are pros and cons with accepting cryptocurrencies. While crypto–and its underlying technology, blockchain–will almost certainly play an increasing role in our financial future, right now taking crypto payments could be more trouble than it’s worth. One suggestion: float the idea past your current customers. If you get excited responses at the prospect, go ahead and look deeper into it. If you’re only met with blank stares, however … maybe it would be better to hold off a year.

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How New GDPR Laws Affect Photographers

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) went into effect this year.

If you’re a freelancer or small local studio, there’s a good chance you have no idea what I’m talking about. Fair enough. GDPR is a new law regulating the way businesses collect, process, and use data from citizens in the European Union. “At its core,” states one source, “GDPR is designed to protect personally identifiable information by strengthening and unifying the standards for data storage.” The law covers any business with EU customers, no matter where or how big the business is: even tiny photography studios in St. Podunk, Kansas, can be affected.

Of course, if you are a freelancer or small shop, it’s unlikely that you have any customers in the EU … or have any real prospects of ever GETTING one. Nevertheless, I still say you need to think seriously about implementing the tenets of this new law.  Not only is basic concept–getting a tighter rein on how companies use customer’s personal data–a good idea, it is an idea I expect to spread: it wouldn’t surprise me to see the US adopt similar regulations soon–within the next five years, even. My advice is to start planning now.

A High-level View of GDPR

There are three primary areas where the GDRP will have the most dramatic effect. I won’t go into heavy detail (I’m not a lawyer and this isn’t a technical blog), but I’ll highlight the major points of impact.

1.       You Must Have a Lawful Basis

GDPR requires that merchants have a “valid lawful basis” for processing personal data. There are six lawful bases, and mostly they get down to whether the processing is necessary: in other words, if there’s some feasible way to accomplish the same goals without processing personal data, you probably won’t legally be allowed to  process it.

2.       You Must Have a Clear Privacy Policy

Having a privacy policy has always been a good idea; now, it’s mandatory. Said policy must thoroughly explain all the ways you’re planning to collect and use the personal data of EU citizens. It must be written in clear and simple language and provide information for who users should contact to review, change or delete any of their data.

3.       You Must Have a Data Processing Contract

If you take credit or debit cards and use a third-party data processor like PayPal, you need to have a written contract in place to ensure that “both parties understand their responsibilities and liabilities.” The GDPR lists what needs to be included in this contract, typically a Data Processing Agreement (DPA).


Are You Sure This Really Affects Me?

If you do absolutely no work with European citizens, there is a chance the GDPR doesn’t apply to you … yet. If you sell prints to someone in London over your website, though, or do any kind of email marketing that might go overseas … well, sorry, you’re in the loop: if you collect, process, or use personal data of any EU citizens, you are liable. Not complying to GDPR can result in fines–some of them fairly steep. EU regulators are allowed to fine US companies for GDPR violations; in some cases, US authorities may even help.

No Time to Be Complacent

Feeling a bit overwhelmed by all this? While that’s understandable, it’s good to keep in mind that the end goal is relevant: the protection of personal data. We all want our customers to feel confident that their information is safe in our hands, so the laws make sense. Plus, as I mentioned, there’s a good chance a version of these regulations will make it over here to the States, so I recommend you go ahead and bite the bullet: start implementing the GDPR protocols into your business right now.


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The Basics of Freelance Photography

So you want to be a freelance photographer. It certainly sounds like a good idea: you control how much you work, what jobs you take, how much you get paid. Good work if you can get it.

Unfortunately, having everything in your control also means that suddenly, YOU have to handle all of the countless details involved in running a business–most of which have nothing to do with taking pictures. Let’s take a look at some of the factors involved in freelance photography that might not be a part of your dream.

What Does “Freelance” Even Mean?

What does it mean to be a freelance photographer? First off, it means you’re going to be self-employed–and that is a double-edged sword. As far as Uncle Sam is concerned little ol’ you will be a legally operating business entity. This could take the form of a sole proprietorship or LLC (Limited Liability Corporation), or you might decide to incorporate.

Before you decide, you’ll need to talk to an accountant or tax expert … or spend yours doing researching local, state, regional and national business and tax codes. You’ll normally have to get a federal tax ID and register with your county, township, or state. Don’t think you can operate “under the radar” here: not only do government agencies and local business organizations tend to frown on that, establishing an official business allows you to write off rent, equipment, and supplies as tax deductions.

This sounds like a hassle, and it sort of it: you’ll need to plan ahead, extremely organized, and learn to see the “big-picture” as you go. YOU function as your business around the clock, 24/7: as a freelance operative, you’ll be wearing many hats and trying to keep multiple plates spinning at any given time. Essentially, you have to consider yourself a business professional as much if not more than you consider yourself an artist. Most freelance creatives will tell you they’re lucky to have 30% to 40% of the workday actually taking pictures; the rest is marketing, sales, and bookkeeping.

Marketing? Sales?

Afraid so. Did you expect work to just walk in the door? If you get to the Annie Leibovitz-level, maybe … but in the first few years, marketing yourself could well be your main job. Thankfully, the internet offers a world of opportunity unheard of 20 years ago:

Stock Photos – these days, many freelance photographers either specialize in or simply supplement their income through stock photography sites like iStock which allow anyone to purchase licensed photographs for a wide variety of uses. Most advertising agencies, publishers, and graphic designers fall back on stock imagery for every project. It’s a great way to establish an ongoing market base.

Your Company Website – Having an attractive yet functional website allows you to post galleries of downloadable or printable available for purchase. A website is also a great way to promote your specialty, whether it’s sporting events, travel or local color, or the old stand-by, wedding photography.

Social Media – We live in the Age of the Tweet, so don’t be afraid to promote your work through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or any other social site. The fact that you can sell your work here without spending money makes social media one of the most financially viable ways to market yourself, especially in the beginning.

Start with Professionalism

This recent post outlined some of the main frustrations business leaders have with freelancers. They go on and on about how often professional freelancers aren’t … well, professionals. Don’t be that person.

Sure, you’re doing this because you’re passionate about photography; we get that. At the same time, you must always remember that you need to keep the lights on and the cupboard stocker, and sometimes that means going above-and-beyond: deliver what you promised, with quality that exceeds expectations; be respectful of client’s time and schedule; and never hesitate to give them what they need rather than simply a piece you’d love to have in your portfolio.

A Final Word

Never underestimate the value of realistic expectations. You’ll only ever accomplish your goals by approaching them realistically. Dream–dream big, even–but as you establish yourself and start to understand what’s really required of a freelancer, always strive to compare this to the reality of what you can actually get done.

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Creator or Maintainer? Why Entrepreneurs Leave the Businesses They Start

Entrepreneurs are puzzle solvers: they see a whole where others see pieces…they see opportunities where others see obstacles…they see gold where everyone else is just looking at hole in the ground.

It’s not just having a vision, although that’s certainly part of it. It’s more an innate need to create. coupled with the ability to pull various pieces together in a way that others often don’t understand, even after the fact. That’s painting the picture with a fairly broad stroke, of course, but it’s not something that would be argued by most people–up to and including entrepreneurs themselves.

But while entrepreneurs are fantastic creators, they often aren’t good maintainers. They may be able to build a successful company, but tend to be less skilled–or perhaps simply less interested–in actually running that company.

So why do so many entrepreneurs seem to lose interest with whatever it is they create? Part of it is based in the same qualities that makes them great entrepreneurs in the first place: that ability and drive to build something out of nothing. But creation itself is the reward: once that is accomplished, they often get bored and start itching for a new challenge.

Again, that is a generalization that doesn’t apply to everyone. Some entrepreneurs–Mark Zuckerberg comes to mind–run the company but continue to push the boundaries of innovation. But entrepreneurs as a rule don’t seem to be good at the day-to-day of treadmill of running a business. There are some fairly common reasons as to why this is–things that all entrepreneurs need to be aware of:

“Where do we grow from here?”

Starting a business and making it a success usually requires a perfect storm of conditions: opportunity, market timing, financing, and more all have to come together in order to make it work. Entrepreneurs are master of recognizing how these individual pieces can come together into something greater than the sum of the parts. The problem is, what next? The world at large is expecting another miracle, even bigger than the one before.

But it’s hard to keep capturing new lightning in the same bottle. Steve Jobs managed to do it, but it could be argued that his greatest successes–ipad, ipod, and such–weren’t his goals. They may’ve been significant leaps along the path to building a company now worth over a trillion dollars…but that was never really his end-game, either. He was ever looking beyond devices to how computers as a whole could seamlessly serve mankind. He never seemed to be trying to top his successes, because he hadn’t yet reached his ultimate goal.

Others have struggled trying to leapfrog their initial success. Amazon, for example, is America’s marketplace…so how does a company keep growing after that? The company’s most ambitious attempt has been Alexa. There are currently some 50 million Alexa-capable devices out there in the consumer market place–that sounds like a success story, right?

In terms of market saturation, yes; unfortunately, by most accounts, Amazon isn’t making much of a profit per device sold. And since it’s hard to image people trading in Echoes like they do smart phones every couple of years, Amazon considered the devices themselves a type of loss-leader to usher in the next new wave of retail: sales over voice-enabled devices.

According to a USA Today article a few months back, purchases made through Google Home, Amazon’s Echo, and the like are projected to leap from $2 billion to $40 billion by 2022.

To date, however, it’s been like a party where no one received their invitation: according to The Information–citing reliable accounts from Amazon insiders–only about 2% of the people with Amazon’s Alexa intelligent assistant have made a purchase with their voices so far in 2018. Of that 2%, roughly 90% didn’t try it again. That means that the percentage of owners who do any kind of ongoing voice shopping is considerably below 1% … statistically, it’s pretty much 0.

So in Round One, Jeff Bezos created a business that succeeded where no one saw a market; in Round Two, he saw a market that–as yet–doesn’t seem to exist. Oops.

“Don’t bother me with details!”

Entrepreneurs are drawn to doing that thing that others wouldn’t even consider: can we get the public to buy an electronic tablet even though so far it has no real application except playing solitaire? That’s the kind challenge entrepreneurs thrive on. It’s much more of a rush than dealing with the thousands of ongoing details that go into keeping a business going.

And that is just the normal stuff, when everything is going as planned. What about all the other “out of the blue” things that wreak havoc on a business? Things like natural disasters or new OSHA requirements or discovering your company is getting pounded by friendly fraud. For people who live for goal achievement, it’s like putting all your resources into treading water. Hard to see the appeal in that.

None of which is to say that entrepreneurs are right or wrong–only that there is a different mindset. This is something that all would-be business owners need to consider carefully before getting started: are you a creator or a maintainer? Either is fine, but being both is rare. Put your effort where your talent lies, and surround yourself with competent people for the rest.

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