Review: David Ziser’s Digital Wakeup Call Tour

05 17 2009

This past week I attended David Ziser’s “Digital Wakeup Call Tour: A New Dawn” photography seminar.  The description sounded promising — for $59, get four hours of tips and tricks from one of the top wedding photographers in three broad areas — photography, software post-production, and building your business. I attended expecting lots of useful information.

So, you may ask, how was it? Overall, it was excellent, and I was very happy I went.

During the photography section, Mr. Ziser rapidly went over a flurry of tips on how to take high-quality, distinctive event photos. A few of the tips, like always taking indoor flash photos in M[anual] mode, I’d stumbled onto myself after lots of trial and error. Most, though, like manually zooming your flash when taking wide angle shots, were completely new to me, and will be very helpful the next time I’m in those situations. Mr. Ziser has a very different style from mine, and his photos are aimed for a different audience, one that prefers large prints over Facebook, so some of the tips didn’t apply. However, overall, I learned a lot, and I think the info from this section will do a lot to improve my photography.

The software section was where the tour sponsors became painfully evident. Given the relatively low admission price for such a high-quality seminar, it shouldn’t be surprising that most of the tour’s expenses were being paid for by corporate sponsors, and that those sponsors were promised advertising in exchange for their support. Mr. Ziser did seem genuinely enthusiastic about the products he talked about, and they all seemed helpful for most event photographers. They appeared to be less useful for me personally, for two reasons.

First, my style of cosplay photography is very high-volume — historically I’ve done more con coverage than selective photoshoots. That, coupled with the fact that cosplay photography pays, on average, $0/photo, means that I can’t spend that much time on each photo. In general, I try to spend no more than one minute editing each photo, including cropping, color, exposure, and contrast. Even with that goal, if I post 2000 photos from a convention, that’s 2000 minutes (or about 33 hours) of photo editing. If I tried some of the techniques described in the software section, it would take me six months to post all the photos. Though as I do more private photoshoots, I’ll probably start posting fewer photos, and have more time to edit each one.

Second, I do almost all of my photo editing today in Canon’s Digital Photo Professional (DPP) software. (The one major exception is noise reduction, where I use Noise Ninja.) DPP fits into my existing workflow very well, and I have no good reason right now to make changes. In the future I may move to Lightroom, but I haven’t felt I need its complexity or power quite yet.

After the software section, the seminar concluded with a section on growing a small service business. While the examples were, of course, all photography-oriented, they could easily be adapted for any small business. The most important tip, to me, was one that I still struggle with — Don’t undervalue your work. As a small business its easy to convince yourself you have to compete on price, that your business has to have the lowest prices, and has to win over every potential customer. A better approach is to charge a sustainable price, ignore unprofitable customers, and accept that you won’t be the best fit for everyone.

While in general the business tips were excellent, the technology-related tips did seem a bit behind the curve. Blogs were mentioned, but some other leading-edge techniques were ignored, including the importance of a good corporate web site and building awareness of your business on social networking sites.

I wasn’t very surprised by these omissions, because in general there was a very obvious gap between Mr. Ziser and today’s younger generation. Mr. Ziser has been very quick in adopting new photography technologies, including digital photography, the latest high-ISO techniques, IS/OS/VC lenses, and dSLRs with video recording. However, he doesn’t seem to have adapted as well to changes in how people view photography and paper prints.

For example, Mr. Ziser still believes looking through a physical wedding photo album is a better experience and is more romantic than looking at the same photos together on a computer screen, and he’s right, for most people down to the age of about 25-30. Younger than that, though, I believe the mystique of a physical wedding album is much less, and in many cases will never be preferred over looking at the same photos on the computer together.  In my experience people below the age of 25 very rarely want prints, regardless of the occasion, even when they cost $0.19 each; if you ask them to pay $10 or $50 a print they’re going to look at you like you’re trying to sell them the Brooklyn Bridge.  And, no, I don’t believe they all will regret the lack of a physical album in the future.

Mr. Ziser was also a bit behind the curve on data archiving. 45GB of data still seems like a huge amount to him. With today’s 1.5TB drives around $120/each, it’s a trival amount to store. Except, of course, when you’re trying to burn the data onto DVDs. Wait, why DVDs? Well, apparently, Mr. Ziser believes that DVDs are better for data archiving because they have been certified to last 100 years. Putting aside the obvious question of how media can be certified to last 100 years without a time machine, will it even be possible to find a DVD reader in a 100 years? (Consider 5.25″ floppies, and how hard it is to read one of them less than 20 years after they were the #1 storage medium.) A better solution is to archive data to the largest available storage device today (1.5TB drives), and then recopy the data every few years to a newer, higher-capacity solution. For example, I originally archived my photos to 700MB CDROMs. When DVD burners came along, I consolidated my CDROM archives into a few DVDs, which were later consolidated onto 250GB hard drives, which recently were consolidated onto one big 1.5TB drive. Because digital media changes so fast, archives have to be constantly moved to newer media, so as long as your archival medium lasts 3-4 years, you’re set.

Mr. Ziser also all but admitted he doesn’t really understand social networking sites like Facebook. In general, his customers appear to be on the older and fairly-well-off side. That’s certainly an enviable position to be in, but one that limits how much exposure he has to today’s younger, middle-class photography customer. Because of differences in how a screen and a printer render a photo, a lot of his photos don’t look that great until you see them on paper, preferably 10×14 or larger (or on metallic paper). This is perfect for his client base, but is less desirable to other customer demographics who want photos that also look great on Facebook.

I felt the seminar was well worth $59 and four hours of my time, despite the sometimes heavy-handed sponsorship messages. I came away with lots of mental notes on things to try the next time I’m in the field, and am very happy I attended. I recommend this seminar for all event photographers who wish to improve their craft and their business.

Product Shortages and the Supply Chain

04 19 2009

Recently I decided to purchase a new camera, the Canon 5D Mark II. It has received excellent reviews from just about everyone who’s used it, and seemed like the appropriate upgrade from my Canon 40D. I quickly discovered that even though the camera has been out for over six months, it’s still very hard to find. Most major online sites list it on back-order, and doesn’t even sell it except through third-parties.

When there are shortages of consumer electronics product such as the 5DII or the Nintendo Wii for long periods of time, conspiracy theories are inevitable. Perhaps the manufacterer is deliberately keeping supplies low to maintain an image of popularity or exclusivity? Or perhaps there are quality control issues? While these are all possiblities, they’re not very likely. At Handspring and Palm, I saw first-hand how difficult it is to have the right amount of product available at all times, and some of the reasons why there can be long-lasting shortages of a consumer electronics product.

Before getting into specifics, it’s first important to note one thing: having too few of a product is much preferred over having too much. Of course, having exactly the right amount is ideal, but in the real world forecasts are always going to be slightly off, so it’s better to estimate low. Why? Because inventory is bad, especially in consumer electronics. Having a warehouse full of product that the company has already paid for but hasn’t sold is a drain on operating cash. It also puts pressure on the company to lower prices, reducing profits. Low inventory means stable pricing, solid margins, and strong cash flow. Shortages mean a company is making money, but could be making more. A glut can reduce prices to the point the company isn’t making any money.

So what would prevent a company from building enough of a product to meet demand? The obvious answer is of course  shortages of one or more parts. If your product has an LCD screen, and there’s a worldwide shortage of LCD controllers, you probably won’t be able to get enough LCD controllers to build the number of units your customers want. Worse, if you’re a small or medium company, the LCD controller manufacturers are likely going to favor their best (AKA biggest) customers, with any leftovers going to smaller companies. If you’re a big company, while the LCD controller manufacturers may be filling a larger percentage of your requests, because your orders are so big, a small percentage shortfall is still large in absolute numbers.

Some parts also have very long lead times, with six to nine month lead times not unheard of. Since Christmas stock is built in fall, by February or March you need to decide how much your customers will want in December. If you guess wrong, you’re either going to have a shortage or a glut. Manufacturing decisions that look dumb today may have been made 6 months ago, and may have seemed like a good idea at the time. Keep in mind that shortage is preferred over glut.

Even if with enough parts on hand, a manufacturer may be limited by their product assembly line capacity. It’s easy to say, “why don’t they just bring up another assembly line?”, but it’s not that simple. Bringing up an assembly line is a long-term investment that is very time consuming and expensive. If an assembly line is brought up and then idled a short time later, the company will lose a lot of money. Therefore, a company will need to be 100% sure demand will stay high enough to require the additional line. Again, shortage is preferred over glut.

Finally, an international company like Palm needs to decide where to send product after its been built. If every geographical region’s requests can’t be met due to a shortage, HQ needs to decide who gets priority. This decision can be made a variety of ways, including deciding which regions are most strategic, which regions are most profitable, or which retailers are screaming the loudest. In the case of the 5dII, the US dollar is pretty weak right now, leading me to speculate that Canon is allocating fewer units to the US because they are less profitable than units sold in Asia.

So while it’s possible a company is deliberately building too few devices, it’s much more likely that someone, somewhere in the supply chain, made a wrong decision based on available data a few months ago.

Competing Against “Free”

11 29 2008

When I mention to people I co-own a web & email hosting company, they usually ask how many customers we have. After I tell them, they are often surprised. “Why would someone pay for email?” they ask. Gmail, Yahoo Mail, MSN Mail, and many more offer it for free. Web hosting, too, is free. Want to post photos? Flickr is free. Want to blog? LiveJournal is one of many free options. Facebook and MySpace are free. With all these free options, how do paid hosting companies stay in business?

The answer is simple: Customers are willing to pay for perceived value. If a user accidentally deletes their email from Gmail, will Gmail restore it from backups? If a user is having problems setting up their iPhone to work with Yahoo Mail, can they get tech support from Yahoo?  These are all example of value provided by paid hosting companies; as long as paid hosting companies continue to provide value to the customer that the free sites don’t, they will continue to thrive. Of course, some customers do not assign much or any value to these items; they will stick with the free sites.

A good analogy is in restaurants. Outback charges $15 for a steak; how does Ruth’s Chris stay in business selling $50 steaks? The answer is obvious — Ruth’s Chris’s customers perceive at least $35 of extra value in the better quality of their steaks and better table service.

One of the hot topics in professional wedding photography is “shoot and burn” photographers. In a recent podcast, David Ziser from Digital Pro Talk discussed the challenges shoot and burn photographers pose to traditional wedding photographers. While shoot-and-burn photographers are not free, they typically charge about 80-90% less than a traditional wedding photographer. Of course, they do a lot less than a traditional photographer; unlike a traditional photographer, who would carefully retouch every image in Lightroom or Photoshop, go over proofs, put together a photo album, and order prints, a shoot and burn photographer typically dumps the photos directly from the camera onto a CD or DVD and lets the couple handle everything else. Also, shoot-and-burn photographers can afford to charge much less because they generally are not trying to make a living in photography; as long as they cover the cost of their (relatively minimal) equipment and make a few extra bucks on top of that they are happy. This undercuts professional photographers who often times can barely make a living at their current prices.

In my opinion, a large part of why shoot and burn photographers are doing well is because many traditional photographers do a lousy job of providing perceived value to their customers. Telling potential customers they should pay ten times as much because “I’ll provide you an album and prints” only works if customers value an album and prints. News flash — many don’t. In my experience, the younger generation views photos as something to share online (on sites like Flickr and Facebook); prints are mostly superfluous. Physical albums take up space, and can only be shared in person. Online albums can be viewed by anyone, anytime, from anywhere. You may say that they will regret not making prints in the future; whether that is or is not the case is irrelevant. Until time travel is invented, their future regrets will not affect their buying patterns today.

For a traditional wedding photographer to continue to be successful, I think they need to do several things:

  • They need to understand how the Internet has changed how people view photos. Prints and physical albums are nice, but most people want to share their photos on Facebook and view online albums. Despite the best efforts of Shutterfly and Snapfish, the Internet is not just an easy way to order prints.
  • They need to convey the value they provide in terms of image composition, image quality, retouching, and professionalism. A traditional photographer is not better because of the extra end products they produce, but because they produce better pictures. Remember that some people will never perceive any additional value in high-quality photos; they will always go with shoot and burn photographers (at best). They are not a traditional photographer’s target market.
  • Do what customers value; don’t bother doing what customers don’t value. If a customer only values digital files, sell a package that only provides digital files. If your customer perceives the value you provide in terms of image quality, they will be willing to pay more than they would to a shoot and burn photographer.
  • Accept that the proliferation of digital SLRs has permanently reduced the perceived value of photography. This is the natural progression of technology. Cell phone companies no longer can charge $2/minute for domestic calls, and domain registrars no longer can charge $100/yr per domain. Just because you could make a living as a pro photographer in the past does not mean this will remain a viable full-time occupation in the future. Complaining about technology, commoditization, or competition does not make it go away and just makes the transition harder.
  • When marketing themselves and their services, photographers should remember that positioning is important. Are you McDonald’s, Outback or Ruth’s Chris?

Of course, these tips are not limited to photographers. If you own any business, you should always ask yourself what your company’s value proposition is to your customers, and always make sure you charge customers for perceived value, and only for perceived value.