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Corporate Magazine Photography

More Oil and Gas Corporate Annual Report Photography for ExxonMobil

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The cover image was taken from a helicopter off the coast of Angola.

I'm a little late in posting this, (the 2015 annual reports were actually released during April of 2016), but I wanted to share some of the published work from the last ExxonMobil annual report.

Although we shoot all kinds of things:  lab technicians, testing, construction sites, high-tech control rooms, etc., for some reason this particular year, they featured several aerial photos of maritime facilities and ships.  These are always challenging to shoot, and we go through a lot of safety training including HUET (Helicopter Underwater Egress Training) just to be able to work out of aircraft offshore.  Basically, if you've seen the old Richard Gere movie, “An Officer and a Gentleman”, it's very similar to that.  You're dunked several times in a mock helicopter fuselage in a large swimming pool upside down and you have to unbuckle and swim out through a window.  Fun stuff!

The cover image was shot of the coast of Angola, and the spreads are from shoots in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, Jubail, Saudi Arabia, Baton Rouge, USA, Qatar, and from the Gulf of Mexico.  We shoot thousands of photos in these various locations, and there are many rounds of editing, so it's gratifying when you finally get to see some of the work in print.  I'm thankful for wonderful clients, and cool opportunities to travel the world, and I can't wait to share some for he work from 2016 after it's released.

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An ExxonMobil engineer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

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A sunrise image of an LNG tanker in Qatar.

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A chemical plant in Saudi Arabia.

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A ship unloading at the Rotterdam refinery in The Netherlands.

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A tanker undergoing sea trials in The Gulf of Mexico.

Robert Seale featured in the December 2016 issue of Professional Photographer Magazine

The opening spread of the Robert Seale article in Professional Photographer Magazine.

The opening spread of the Robert Seale article in Professional Photographer Magazine.

Shameless self promotion alert:  I'm featured in a 9 page article in the new December 2016 issue of Professional Photographer Magazine.  Professional Photographer is the publication of the PPA (Professional Photographers of America) and is edited by Jane Gaboury.  The writer, (and fellow baseball fan) Eric Minton was a pleasure to talk to about my work and career path, and PPA art director Debbie Todd did an excellent and very classy job with the layout.  I'm honored to be featured, and I want to express my sincere thanks to all three of these folks for the cool opportunity.

Here's a link to their “anatomy of an image” sidebar feature.

Unfortunately, you have to log in to see the entire  digital version of the article.  Those of you that are PPA members can see it there.

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Photographing an Industrial Deep Sea Diver for Scuba Diving Magazine

Brian Lacey, an industrial deep sea saturation diver for Scuba Diving Magazine.

Brian Lacey, an industrial deep sea saturation diver for Scuba Diving Magazine.

We recently did an editorial shoot for Scuba Diving magazine for a special issue they put together on the “Dirtiest Jobs” in the SCUBA diving industry.  The photographs were commissioned in various parts of the country by different photographers: a salvage diver, a diver from a nuclear reactor facility, a police investigator, an underwater logger, a croc-wrangler, and our cool assignment: an “industrial deepwater saturation diver.”

Our diver was a nice gentleman named Brian Lacey, and he travels all over the world diving deep underwater for the oil and gas industry, repairing rigs, working on pipelines, etc.  He spends up to a month on the job, living like an astronaut in a small pressurized chamber.  He's been as far down as 900 feet, but on average works at around 300 feet below the surface.

I've taken many oil and gas portraits, but this was my first chance to photograph an industrial diver, and I was pretty stoked.

Photo assistant Michael Klein and I photographed Brian on a dock in Galveston with his super heavy deepwater dive gear.  We used two Profoto B-4's and one Profoto Acute 600B.  I scouted the location previously, and due to the recent downturn in oil prices, several offshore rigs were parked in port, which provided us with a great background normally not seen next to shore.  It worked perfectly for the story, and the photo gods blessed us with a wonderful colorful sunset to complete the assignment.

Brian Lacey, an industrial deep sea saturation diver.

Brian Lacey, an industrial deep sea saturation diver.

The double truck layout from Scuba Diving Magazine's "Dirtiest  Jobs" issue.

The double truck layout from Scuba Diving Magazine's “Dirtiest Jobs” issue.

Remembering Houston medical pioneer Dr. James H. “Red” Duke

Dr. Red Duke, on the Life Flight Helipad at Memorial Hermann - Texas Medical Center on June 2, 2008.  © 2008 Robert Seale. Robert Seale Photography www.robertseale.com 832-654-9572

Dr. Red Duke, on the Life Flight Helipad at Memorial Hermann. © 2008 Robert Seale.

Houston lost one of it’s most iconic characters this week. Dr. James H. “Red” Duke passed away at 86. Dr. Duke was a true medical pioneer, founding the Hermann Hospital (now Memorial Hermann) “Life Flight” air ambulance service during the 1970’s. He was one of the first faculty members of the UT Health Science Center at Houston (now known as UT Health), where he taught several generations of medical students the intricacies of trauma surgery.

Dr. Red Duke was instantly recognizable to millions of people through his television health reports, which were syndicated on stations all over the country in the 70’s and 80’s. He was known for his signature signoff, “I’m Doctor Red Duke,” delivered in a frontier Texas drawl that was more Texas cowboy than brilliant trauma surgeon.

Dr. Duke often masked his considerable intellect with folksy country humor, and a friendly bedside manner, which gave comfort to his trauma patients and their families during difficult times.

In addition to his many medical laurels, he also was an Eagle Scout, received a divinity degree, served as a tank commander in the US Army, was a yell leader at Texas A&M, rode horses, created western art, and grew up with Willie Nelson.

Dr. Red Duke, on the Life Flight Helipad at Memorial Hermann - Texas Medical Center on June 2, 2008.  © 2008 Robert Seale. Robert Seale Photography www.robertseale.com 832-654-9572

Dr. Red Duke, on the Life Flight Helipad at Memorial Hermann. © 2008 Robert Seale.

Early in his medical career, he was one of the emergency room doctors at Parkland Hospital in Dallas responding to the assassination of President Kennedy, and was widely credited with saving the life of then Texas Governor John Connally who was wounded while riding with the president.

I grew up watching Dr. Duke on TV, and in 2008, I was lucky enough to photograph him on the helipad at Memorial Hermann. We had no guarantees that there would be a helicopter for our background, as the aircraft were out and about, delivering critical patients to the hospital.  When the doctor arrived a little later than our optimal sunset time, he apologized: “Sorry – I was in surgery….had to fix up a guy up who decided to wrap his car around a pole.”(or something to that effect).

I think he was 79 at the time, and still working every day.

Building roofs are windy anyway, doubly so with helicopter rotor wash all over the place as you're trying to shoot photos.  I'm sure it was equally difficult for Dr. Duke but he was unfazed.  We had several volunteers helping out the assistants to keep the lights safe and secure.  My favorite moment with him came at the end of our photo shoot….he had been very patient with us, and as we were starting to pack up, two rather attractive young women from the hospital (who had been graciously helping us out), asked to have their photo taken with Dr. Duke.  As he stood in the middle and posed with his arms around both of them (in heels they were both quite taller than him…),  he looked down at me and said, “You can take as long as you want to now…”

Happy trails, Dr. Duke.

Dr. Red Duke, on the Life Flight Helipad at Memorial Hermann - Texas Medical Center on June 2, 2008.  © 2008 Robert Seale. Robert Seale Photography www.robertseale.com 832-654-9572

Dr. Red Duke, on the Life Flight Helipad at Memorial Hermann. © 2008 Robert Seale.

Dr. Red Duke, on the Life Flight Helipad at Memorial Hermann - Texas Medical Center on June 2, 2008.  © 2008 Robert Seale. Robert Seale Photography www.robertseale.com 832-654-9572

Here's a look at the photo shoot set.  The pilot thought I was nuts when I tried to mount strobes in his cockpit.  Photo by Eric Kayne.

Dr. Red Duke, on the Life Flight Helipad at Memorial Hermann - Texas Medical Center on June 2, 2008.  © 2008 Robert Seale. Robert Seale Photography www.robertseale.com 832-654-9572

We actually placed strobes around the perimeter of the helipad to amplify the existing landing lights.

Dr. Red Duke, on the Life Flight Helipad at Memorial Hermann - Texas Medical Center on June 2, 2008.  © 2008 Robert Seale. Robert Seale Photography www.robertseale.com 832-654-9572

Dr. Red Duke and me.  

 

 

 

Corporate Industrial Photography for ExxonMobil 2014 Annual Report

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Long exposure of Oil and Gas facility in the Middle East under a full moon glow.

Last year we had the awesome opportunity once again to create some really interesting oil and gas photography for ExxonMobil's corporate annual report.  I'm very proud to have worked with this incredible company for many years.  We usually have several assignments that take us around the world, and this year was no exception.  We photographed oil and gas facilities in Scotland, Belgium, The Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, and West Texas.  We also did a few days of offshore oil and gas photography in the Gulf of Mexico, shooting from helicopters and living aboard a state of the art offshore drilling platform and drill ship.

Portrait of a mechanic in Scotland.

Portrait of a mechanic in Scotland.

For the European portions of the assignment, assistant Travis Schiebel helped out and we had a lot of cool experiences, including being surrounded by sheep while shooting long evening exposures near a plant in Scotland.

After a morning sunrise shoot in Antwerp, we were having breakfast, enjoying our waffles (hey, you have to, right?),  in a sidewalk cafe, when suddenly a parade of elderly French Foreign Legion soldiers came marching through.  We were able to follow them and hear some great stories of battles in Algeria as they went on their annual barhopping jaunt through the city.  You haven't partied until you've partied with 85-year-old Legionnaires.

Saudi_fishDallas assistant John Sutton helped me out in Saudi Arabia, as we photographed in three different facilities there.  I had been there a couple of years before and it was great to see old friends again.  One of our friends there prepared a wonderful traditional meal of whole cooked fried fish, which we ate with our hands while sitting together on beautiful woven rugs.  The last time we were there, we enjoyed “mandi”, a lamb cooked in a tandoor oven ground pit and served over rice.  Both were fantastic.  I'm not normally a super adventurous eater, but I'm getting better about embracing and sampling the local cuisine wherever we go.  I felt honored that locals embraced us and were thoughtful enough to share their food and culture with us.

Saudi silhouette with   incredible twilight color.

Saudi silhouette with incredible twilight color.

Oil and Gas photo shoots usually involve a lot of long days, getting up super early for sunrise, and staying until late evening for sunsets, and these fun mid-day diversions make the assignments really fun.  By the way…..the light in Saudi was incredible – fantastic sunsets, and beautiful warm early light.  One night, we were lucky enough to photograph a new facility under the light of the full moon, which provided a wonderful backlit glow to the shiny new steel plant.

When the annual reports were recently released recently, we ended up with several well designed two page spreads.  Here are a few samples below.

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Annual Report Cover Photography for ExxonMobil

The cover of the ExxonMobil Annual Report, taken in Qatar by Houston photographer Robert Seale.

The cover of the ExxonMobil Annual Report, taken in Qatar by Houston photographer Robert Seale.

When I was growing up, my best friend was an overachiever who at age 9, was the Rupert Murdoch of the lawn mowing business in our home town. His empire stretched far and wide, and he spent his days in the summer and after school riding his hefty John Deere riding mower (which he bought with his own funds) around town.

My friend was a year older than me, but I often helped him with trimming, weed-eating, etc, and before long, I had talked my dad into letting me take his beloved John Deere riding mower, (which he was very protective of), into the neighborhood in search of elderly ladies who needed regular yard work.

Well the money started rolling in, you know….HUGE sums like 10, 15, even 20 dollars a week! I promptly blew through everything like a 10-year-old rapper with a new record contract, only my vice of choice was video games and candy – not hookers and Bentleys.  I loved banana Laffy Taffy, and I think I single-handedly kept that confectionary company afloat during the early 1980's.

My mother, who ran banks for most of her career, saw this silliness and decided that I needed a lesson in financial responsibility. She promptly set me up with a checking account, and taught me how to balance and reconcile a bank statement. I was to use the account when I needed money, like for lawn mower gas or oil – her reasoning was that if I had to stop and write a check that perhaps I might think twice about my impulsive spending habits. She also made me set aside 150 dollars, which seemed like all the money in the world at the time (and to me, it certainly was…), and buy shares of Exxon stock with my little nest egg.

Well, I was pissed. Do you know how good I could have become at Galaga or Defender with 150 dollars in quarters?

One of the interesting things about being a shareholder, even with a mere 5 shares at the time, was that I would receive mailings and publications from the company. We used to get Exxon’s quarterly magazine (called “The Lamp”), and a big hefty magazine full of interesting color pictures once a year….which, logically, was called the Annual Report. It was impressive, and the photographs were interesting – lots of brightly lit refineries at night, colorful chemistry labs, and portraits of rig workers in the North Sea.

Some companies do different versions of these. The Summary Annual Report is exactly what it says, a condensed version, usually with a cover and a few pictures inside. The larger, full-blown version of the Annual Report is called the F&O, for Financial and Operating Review, and features many more pages of photos. Although the 1980’s heyday of the over the top, multi-page annual reports has passed, and some companies just file their reports electronically as website pdf’s, some companies still produce great printed publications for their shareholders.

Later, when I was in college studying commercial photography, I really admired the guys who did corporate photography for these big companies….Exxon, Coca-cola, IBM, etc. I always thought one of the coolest challenges was to make big heavy industrial facilities look sexy. After all, anyone can make a bikini model or a pro athlete look great…but how are you with the inside production line in a paper mill? Can you light it or compose it in an interesting way to make a cool frame out of it?  My parents didn't understand how someone would make a living in photography, particularly in photojournalism, but when I pointed out the cool photography in these annual reports I think they realized that commercial photography could be a viable career.

Fast forward a few years, and after being “sidetracked” with a full time job that I loved at a sports magazine, I began to finally use some of those skills learned in college doing industrial photography for various oil and gas companies around Texas.  One of my goals was to shoot for ExxonMobil, the largest oil and gas company in the world, and eventually they became a client.

Although I’ve now worked for them for several years, and had several covers of The Lamp, and lots of published pictures big and small in various pubs, I am particularly proud to have made the cover of the BIG annual report (or F&O) for the company this year. The cover photo is an aerial photograph taken from a helicopter in Qatar, of a huge Q-Max LNG tanker leaving the port at sunset. It took quite a bit of logistical planning, support and effort to make, and I’m particularly proud of it.  It really is ironic and odd that I’m now shooting for the first corporate annual report publication I ever laid eyes on, as a 10-year-old.

Also amazing is that this particular frame was shot during our last pass around the harbor, handheld, wide open, on a Canon EOS-1DX at 2000 ISO during the last little flicker of available light.  A shot like this would have been impossible 4-5 years ago.  High ISO camera sensor technology has come a long way.

Anyway, I’ve finally created a new tearsheets gallery on my main portfolio website to share some of this work in printed form. There are various examples of my photography in print for a variety of clients, from oil and gas companies, aviation portraits, to Sports Illustrated covers. Check it out, it really is an eclectic mix.

Now if I can just figure out how to get John Deere as a client.   Hmmmm….

The new tearsheets section of the Robert Seale Photography portfolio site.

The new tearsheets section of the Robert Seale Photography portfolio site.

The Definitive Guide to Starting a Successful Photography Business

Glamorous job?  Not really...most of my days are spent sitting in front of a computer, not frolicking in the pool shooting Miss USA.

Glamorous job? Not always…most of my days are spent sitting in front of a computer, not frolicking in the pool shooting Miss USA.

I get a call almost every week from various photographers:  old photojournalism colleagues leaving their newspaper staff jobs (sometimes voluntarily, sometimes not…), college students nearing graduation, assistants who are ready to strike out on their own, and sometimes, advanced amateurs in other careers who I’ve met at a workshop.  All of them want the same thing….”we want to do what you’re doing….you know, work full time as a commercial photographer.”

It happens often enough, and I’ve given the same advice so many times, that I thought it might be helpful to write it all down in one place, and along the way, dispel some misconceptions about what it’s really like to be a professional commercial photographer. I don’t mean for this to sound condescending in any way.  What follows is legitimate info for many who are just starting out, and if you find that any of it is below your experience or skill level, then feel free to move on.

Starting a photography business is tough.  When I’ve spoken with college students, I’ve told them not to pursue this if it’s only a passing interest, or something they think would be a cool job.  I tell them to pursue photography ONLY if you can’t imagine yourself doing anything else.  It sounds corny, but I often compare being a professional photographer to becoming an actor, or professional musician… LOTS of people want to do this, and only a handful make it in any successful way.

Ok, let’s assume the commitment level is there.  What is it really like to be a professional photographer in today’s world?

First, let’s dispel the notion that commercial photographers have a camera in their hands every day.  This will vary for individuals, and by season, but I would guess that I spend a good 75-80% of my working hours in front of a computer – not out shooting.  I consider that to be a pretty successful ratio.  No one starting out really thinks about it, but digital workflow, retouching, billing, marketing, pre-production, post-production, accounting, taxes, etc… and the plethora of general business paperwork takes up a ton of time.

Second, some basic economics about working for yourself in this business.  Let’s say you have a staff job at a newspaper, university, or company that pays you 65K a year, with company camera gear and computers, vacation time, insurance and 401K benefits.  You might want to seriously consider keeping that job.  You’ll need to more than double that figure in revenue to maintain that level of income for yourself.  Those with full time jobs who think this is just a fun, easy career often don’t consider all the various ways you’ll spend money as a commercial photographer.  It’s not just cameras and computers… you’ll need insurance (healthcare, liability insurance, and equipment insurance to name a few), retirement SEP contributions, accounting and legal fees, marketing expenses, website expenses, advertising expenses, digital storage expenses, office supplies, mobile and office phones, high speed internet, software upgrades (legitimate software… you can’t just steal it from the newspaper  or university anymore), really nice custom made portfolios, assistants, retouchers, sales tax, franchise tax, and enough reserve/cash flow to take jobs, pay everybody, and keep the place running while you wait around to get paid – sometimes for several months.

And, oh yeah, I’m not mentioning the fact that when working for yourself, you can kiss that 2-4 week paid vacation goodbye, and that you will spend every spare minute after hours, on your weekends, in your sleep, etc. obsessing about your business and thinking constantly about how to make it better.  A staffer can go home at 5 or on a weekend, disconnect, and enjoy their time off.  When you work for yourself – there is no time off… and every minute will be filled with worry.

Negative enough for you?  Sorry.  This stuff needs to be said… I’ll brighten up and get all cheery in a moment.

One of the biggest mistakes I see new freelancers making, particularly the former newspaper guys, is unrealistic gear purchases.  Many shooters, particularly those that spent a lot of time doing sports think they need to start their business with 3 of the fastest professional bodies (usually 6-7K a piece), a 400/2.8 (9-11K), a 300/2.8 (6-7K), all three zooms , 16-35/2.8, 24-70/2.8, and 70-200/2.8 (roughly 5K), and a new Mac laptop (3K).  After all, that’s what you used at the newspaper or university you worked for, right?  This is what the well-equipped photojournalist needs, right?

Ok, let’s think about this for a second.  That’s roughly 45,000 dollars – just for camera gear.  We haven’t even mentioned lighting, grip, cases, desktop computer, storage, printers, etc.  You haven’t designed a website yet, or paid for insurance, or any of the other previously mentioned things.  What kind of assignments will you do with said gear?  Shoot some football or basketball games?  For whom?

“I'll just work for my local paper or an agency or a wire service…”    Think carefully about it.  There are predators out there waiting to take advantage of people who just want to go to games, news events, and be in on the action.  Their business models are built around having an endless supply of newbies to provide free (or almost free) content that they can turn around and sell.  If you're one of the lucky ones, you’ll make 125.00 to 250.00 bucks for your effort (in many markets, there are people lining up to shoot games on spec/and/or for free).  When you do the math on how long a sporting event takes, getting there early, parking, shooting, editing, captioning and sending a ton of photos, leaving late, driving home, you’ll quickly see that the average fast food employee is pretty much kicking your ass. …and they didn’t have to invest 45K to buy their own French fry fryers, stoves, or spatulas.  They don’t have to wear a ridiculous fanny pack either.

Speaking of capital investment – that 45K in gear you bought can’t be amortized over 10-20 years like capital expenditures in some other business… it will need to all be replaced in 3-4 years, just like your computers… and as technology advances that cycle will continue for years to come.

This is tough for many former photojournalists to reconcile. Many have made their living this way forever, being at all the big news or sporting events, hanging out with their colleagues all carrying big giant lenses on monopods, credentials around their neck, etc.  To many, it becomes their identity, and it is difficult to reconcile that despite your years of experience, no one is going to pay you to go to the Super Bowl this year, or the Republican convention, or to the earthquake in Haiti.  It’s tough to tell someone who worked at a sports magazine, or a big metro newspaper that, yes, you can still make a good living in photography – it just may not be doing what you used to do.  Letting go of that identity is tough.  I know… it’s something I experienced myself.

The best piece of photo gear you'll ever buy.

The best piece of photo gear you'll ever buy.

There are a few prerequisites to starting a successful photo business:  You need great, original pictures with a consistent vision ;  You need some serious money, as it is very expensive to start a photography business; You need a healthy knowledge about how to run a photography business.

(A client or two would help, too, but we’ll get to that later.)

The Top 5 Photography Books That You MUST Own

I can’t help with the first two… You’re really on your own there, but I’ve read a lot of business books, and several specifically about the photography business, self promotion, marketing for photographers, etc.,  so I can make these recommendations comfortably.

I’ve sent this list around to various friends in transition, students, and former assistants, and I can promise you, if you read all of these cover to cover, you’ll have a firm grasp on how your photography business should work, and a really good introduction to usage-based pricing, which is the cornerstone of what we do. (If you click on the titles below I have linked them to Amazon for you.)

The Real Business of Photography1.  The Real Business of Photography, Richard Weisgrau ; Allworth Press

One of the best books about photography business I’ve ever read, and really should be the first thing you read if you’re thinking about doing this for a living.  Weisgrau is a former ASMP (American Society of Media Photographers) executive director and he speaks intelligently about licensing photography, doing estimates, managing finances, etc.  A really great book.

Best Business Practices for Photographers2.  Best Business Practices for Photographers, John Harrington ; Course Technology

John runs the Photo Business News and Forum blog (www.photobusinessforum.blogspot.com) and has been a respected voice and frequent speaker in our industry.  If you’ve ever watched him dissect an estimate, and show how he turns a simple 500.00 job into a multi-thousand dollar job just by asking the right questions, it’s truly a thing of beauty.  His book has lots of actual examples of job estimates and email trails that show his process.  Very valuable stuff that few people are willing to share with their peers.

ASMP Professional Business Practices in Photography3. ASMP Professional Business Practices in Photography, American Society of Media Photographers – edited by Susan Carr (Seventh Edition) ; Allworth Press

Edited by the late Susan Carr, who really did so many things to educate and help her fellow photographers, this is the latest edition of ASMP’s business bible.  There are chapters on licensing, copyright, releases, paperwork, marketing, you name it.  A good overview of the commercial photography business.  I believe you still get one of these included in your membership when you join ASMP.

The Photographer’s Guide to Negotiating4. The Photographer’s Guide to Negotiating, Richard Weisgrau ; Allworth Press

Another book by Weisgrau, and really my favorite.  (You still have to read ALL of these, though – no shortcuts!).  He talks about negotiating tactics, how to present offers and counter offers, psychology, dealing with contracts, negotiating strategy, and includes some interviews with real world professionals who have been in business for years.

The Photographer’s Survival Guide5.  The Photographer’s Survival Guide, Suzane Sease and Amanda Sosa Stone; Amphoto Books

I’ve read a lot of books about marketing and self promotion, but this is easily the best and most useful.  Sease and Sosa Stone are both former art buyers, reps, and now consultants, who provide a ton of real world expertise to photography marketing and brand building.  They also discuss presentation, portfolios, promos, and even include a handy disc in the book with essential business and estimating forms you can use.

I can’t emphasize how important it is to study these books.  It amazes me how many people will invest 100k in their business buying the latest cameras and computers, but won’t take the time to study up on how the business works.  Don’t be the dork out there charging by the hour and giving away your copyright on every assignment.  It’s not supposed to work that way, and you’ll be doing all your colleagues a disservice if you fly blind into our chosen field.

All together, these books cost maybe 130 bucks…they really might be the most important pieces of equipment you ever buy.

Without a smart roadmap, your photography business could end up as roadkill.  (Photo by Chip Litherland)

Without a smart roadmap, your photography business could end up as roadkill. (Photo by Chip Litherland)

I have a note on my desk that I wrote down at an ASMP business seminar several years ago.  Detroit photographer Blake Discher, a super savvy business guy, was our speaker, and he said something incredibly simple that I'll never forget.

“There are three steps to running a successful business:

  1. Create a unique value proposition.
  2. Ensure that you have a large enough addressable market.
  3. Make more money than you spend.”

Sounds simple right?  It is, but you would be shocked how many people don’t think about these simple steps.

Think about number one… What’s unique that separates you from all the other photographers in your market?  What skill or know-how do you have that’s totally you?  If you live in Denver, and you want to shoot outdoor/adventure sports, what makes you different?  There are 50 people already doing what you want to do in that market.  How will you stand out from the crowd?

Think about number two… Do you have a large enough addressable market to survive where you are?  I would love to shoot movie posters or fashion, but guess what – I live in Houston, and we don’t have any movie studios or fashion magazines here.  So that’s probably not a wise niche for me to choose.

You should really think about these first two, analyze your local market and competition, and consider your options carefully before hanging out your shingle.  Are you putting yourself in a realistic position to succeed?  If there’s a specific genre you want to shoot, and it doesn't exist where you are, you may want to consider moving.

Number three is pretty obvious.

Anyway….those are the really simple steps.  Now I’m going to write about the nuts and bolts of starting up a photo business.  A lot of this is common sense and has been covered before.  Some of these are no brainers, but I’m going to throw them in anyway, just to be thorough.The

21 Tips for Starting your Photo Business

DISCLAIMER:  It would we wise to consult with your attorney or financial advisor:  I’m definitely not a lawyer or CPA, and I can’t even claim I stayed in a Holiday Inn Express last night either.

1.  SAVE A BOATLOAD OF CASH – Super important.  At a previous photo seminar I attended, the speaker said that you should have at least 6 months salary reserved before embarking on your own.  I think that’s a good guide, but bear in mind that your money isn’t just to buy cameras, computers, etc…You’ll need operating cash to do jobs, run the business and pay assistants while you’re getting off the ground.

2.  SET UP AN LLC OR S-CORP – Talk to your accountant about what makes the most sense for you in your state, but you definitely should be incorporated as soon as possible.  This will help you liability wise, and although you’ll have more paperwork to deal with, you’ll likely get to keep more of the money you make versus being just a sole proprietor.

3.  ENLIST PROFESSIONALS TO HELP YOU – You should have a CPA, a financial advisor, and a lawyer.  You will likely have the CPA on speed dial, contacting them throughout the year to file quarterly reports, sales tax, and pay estimated taxes.  Don’t be cheap and try to do this yourself.

4.  GET A SALES TAX NUMBER – State laws vary, and not all photo jobs are subject to sales tax, but in many states, you’ll be dealing with this all the time.  Don’t be the loser who tries to fly under the radar on this.  Operate your business like a grown up.  You might get wacked 5 years from now and find you owe your state a couple hundred thousand dollars.  That would suck.

5.  SEPARATE PERSONAL AND BUSINESS FINANCES – The first step here, after your corporation is set up, is to run to the bank and set up a business checking account.  Don’t operate your business out of your personal funds….you’ll be confused, and so will the IRS.

6.  BUY INSURANCE – If you’re lucky, you’ll have a spouse with healthcare insurance.  If not, that should be your first step.  Next, you need insurance for your business.  Make sure the policy is by a company that is used to dealing with professional photographers and their unique needs.  It should cover cameras and gear, rental gear, computers, provide shoot insurance for reshoots on botched jobs, rental studio coverage, lost portfolio coverage, and liability coverage.  Many buildings won’t let you set foot inside to do a shoot without proof of liability coverage.  ASMP is a good resource for this type of insurance.

7.  GET A BUSINESS CREDIT CARD – Another part of separating your personal and business finances.  This makes it much easier at the end of the year to see what you spent on gear, hotels, airline tickets, etc.  I recommend a business Amex, as the Membership Rewards program gives you points you can use toward all sorts of things, but any card where you can get points toward future spending will work well.

8.  ONLY BUY GEAR THAT MAKES YOU MONEY –  I mentioned the gear hoarding syndrome that many of us have a couple of posts back.  This is one of the areas that really sinks many photographers starting out.  It might be great to have a 600mm/f4 and 12 bodies, but you could probably do 85% of your jobs with one body and a 24-105mm lens and a small lighting kit.  Think before you buy.  Rent if you can, and ask yourself this question before giving B&H your Amex number:  “Will this piece of gear make me more money?”

9.  WORK ON YOUR WORKFLOW – Think about your archive 1, 5, even 10-20 years down the road and start with good workflow habits.  Learn to properly use Lightroom or Aperture and the correct file naming, organization, and back up system to protect your work.  Have a good computer system in place, with plenty of backup drives, and be disciplined.  If you’re new to Lightroom, Seth Resnick’s D-65 workshop is excellent.

10.  CREATE A WEBSITE AND EDIT RUTHLESSLY – This applies particularly to students and veteran newspaper guys in transition.  What you learned about portfolios up till now doesn’t really apply anymore.  In most cases, no one cares about your spot news or your sports action photos.  Figure out what you’re going after in your market, and edit down to a couple of niches.  Be ruthless in your edit.  No excuses.  Hire a consultant if you have to.

11.  CREATE A PHYSICAL PORTFOLIO – Depending on your market, showing up for a meeting with just an Ipad may not be enough.  There are ad agencies and design firms out there that are used to being blown away by incredible, expensive, custom made books.  We’re talking ink jet paper made from the saliva of free range fair trade South American wasps, and embossed leather from humpback whale foreskins.  Think about what your portfolio should look like, the market you’re after, and make sure it is consistent with the rest of your branding.  In short, it needs to be perfect.

12.  SETTLE ON YOUR BRANDING – Do you see IBM or Coca-Cola changing their logo every couple of weeks?  No.  You shouldn’t either.  Settle on a look, work with a good designer and make sure your branding is consistent across all platforms:  website, business cards, stationary, invoices, portfolios, promo cards, etc….and yes, you need all those things.

13.  NAME YOUR BUSINESS CORRECTLY –  My personal opinion –  but I think photographers should use their own name in the title of their business.  If you want to add “Photography” or “Images” or “Visuals”  or “Productions” to the official name, knock yourself out.  Know this though:  No client out there is going to remember “Hot-Shotz” or “Extreme Images” or “Ginger Snaps”  (I swear, this is not a joke….I met someone at a workshop who used that one – and you guessed it…..her name was Ginger).  They will remember you, Bob Smith, or whatever the hell your name is.  Then they’ll start googling you to look you up one day, because they’ve thrown all your promo cards in the trash without looking at them, and they won’t be able to find you.  Why?…..Because you named your business something generic.  Have you ever seen a coffee table book in the photo section of a bookstore with “Hot-Shotz” or something dorky like that?  No….you see Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Herb Ritts, Patrick Demarchelier, etc…see my point?

14. WORK ON YOUR EMAIL ETIQUETTE – Being able to write well is as important than being able to take great pictures.  As a professional photographer, email may be the primary way that you interact with your clients.  You should project a friendly, easygoing but professional personality.  You should address every email to the person you’re writing (Don’t just send one word responses), and sign every email with your name.  Think about how irritated you get when a potential client emails you with one line that says, “what do you charge?”….and then signs the email with their first name, and no contact info because they haven’t bothered to set up their email signature properly.  Be a professional.  Set up a complete email signature that goes on every email (even on your phone) with your name, business name, phone numbers, website, and your email address listed in type that someone can click on (not an image file).  If a client is in their car, and their contacts are inaccessible, and hey have to search old emails to find you, you want to have all your information easily available for them to click on.

15.  JOIN ASMP – The American Society of Media Photographers provides education, guidance, lobbying, and business resources for commercial photographers.  You owe it to yourself and your colleagues to join.  You can also be listed on the ASMP Find a Photographer website, which is helpful, and probably the cheapest listing website for photographers out there.  You might also consider APA.

16.  EDUCATE YOURSELF ABOUT USAGE AND LICENSING –  You CAN do copyright buyouts, burn discs of entire shoots and hand over all your raws to the client, and you might survive for a little while this way, but you WON’T be in business for long.  This is not how professional photographers conduct business.  Read the books I mentioned earlier.  They will give you a good overview of usage based licensing.  Join ASMP, go to seminars, study online resources for estimating jobs and writing licenses, learn about contracts, talk to colleagues.  Learn about licensing and how it works in the different fields of editorial, corporate, and advertising.  Learn the language and key terms.  Learn the right questions to ask your clients before giving them estimates.  Run your business the right way, the ethical way, and don’t give away the store and sell out your colleagues.

17.  SET UP A PHOTOSHELTER ACCOUNT – This isn’t just for archiving, although it’s great for off-site backup that you can access through the web anywhere.  I handle all my client deliveries through Photoshelter.  You can give download access to specific people, and track what they’ve downloaded.  It’s much safer than using ftp.  You can also set up stock licensing and print sales. If you want to get an account, this link will take you there.

18.  USE INVOICING/ACCOUNTING SOFTWARE – I use BlinkBid, but some people get by with Quickbooks.  Others use custom Filemaker or Excel solutions.

19.  CREATE SOME GREAT “LEAVE BEHINDS” – Starting out, you may not have the funds for a full color, 48 page booklet, but you can easily print up some small runs of well designed postcards.  After you’ve shown your book to a potential client, it’s good to hand them a “leave behind” card with one of your signature photos to remember you by.

20.  NETWORK WITH OTHER PHOTOGRAPHERS IN YOUR MARKET  – Don’t operate in a vacuum.  This is where the ASMP membership comes in handy.  Social gatherings of photo organizations, or events like workshops, or Photo Expo are a great way to meet colleagues, develop friendships, and ask questions.  You might find out about a deadbeat client to avoid, or you might get an estimating or pricing question answered.  Not everyone will be as candid, but personally, I would rather help someone than have them underprice a valuable job because they are new to the game and screw it up for everyone.  You should always keep growing and keep learning.

21.  READ NUMBER 1 ON THIS LIST AGAIN.

If you are thinking of starting a successful photography business, know that it's a tough road filled with long days of hard work and you'll be up against ridiculously good competition.  Remember what I said earlier, only tackle this if you really can't imagine yourself doing anything else.   I probably can't change the way you see things, or change the work you produce, but if you have the goods, do your homework, and put these steps into place, you'll be in a good position for your business to succeed.

Robert Seale photographs Leading Medicine Magazine for The Methodist Hospital System

Houston Commercial Photographer Robert Seale - Methodist HospitalI recently completed a cool corporate photography project for The Methodist Hospital System’s Leading Medicine publication.  Methodist is the official health care provider for several of the sports teams in the Houston area, among them, the Houston Astros, The Houston Texans, The Houston Dynamo MLS team, Rice University, and The Houston Ballet.

The project was coordinated by the creative team at Methodist, working with the help of an outside agency, Adcetera, here in Houston.

Among the stories we photographed for the issue, were a story on Houston Texans running back Arian Foster’s vegan diet (I think he has since recanted…), and a story on NFL quarterbacks dealing with concussions, featuring then Texans quarterback Matt Schaub.

Houston Commercial Photographer Robert Seale - Methodist Hospital

We had a lot of fun with Arian Foster and his vegan diet story.

Houston Commercial Photographer Robert Seale - Houston Texans Matt Schaub

The photo of Matt Schaub for the NFL quarterback concussion story. We used an LCD projector to project a brain image on the side of Schaub's head.

Houston Commercial Photographer Robert Seale - Houston Texans Matt Schaub

Another view of Schaub, using the projector to generate a background of brain synapses.

For the Schaub story, we ended up trying two photos in addition to his cover shot setup:  in the first “concussion story” shot, we used an LCD projector to project an image of a brain on the side of Schaub’s head.  To make the head stand out and keep the “brain area” in mostly shadow, we used a Profoto strobe with a small softbox (a Plume Wafer 75)  on a backdrop in the background (to silhouette the head with a graduated falloff), and then another Profoto Acute 1200 from 90 degrees camera right with a 3 degree grid on a Profoto grid reflector.  This gave us a nice tight light on the face, but with a quick falloff to black so that the brain image would show well on the side of the head.   The second concussion shot was more simple, as we just projected an out of focus image of brain synapses in the background, with the same keylight on Schaub.

In addition to the inside stories we shot for the magazine, one of the ideas was to create a giant fold-out cover, reminiscent of the Vanity Fair “Hollywood issue” covers with a representative from each team/organization featured on the piece.

The tricky part was, these were eight (count em – 8!) separate photo shoots!  Planning was crucial, and just to hedge our bets, we actually created two lighting schemes that we used on each and every shoot:

-A large, soft, one light setup with a big Plume Hexoval 180 camera right – very close to the subject.

-a three light setup, with two gridded rimlit softboxes and a Plume Hexoval 140 boomed into the middle.

(Both of these lighting scenarios are shown in diagram form on a previous post about a San Antonio Spurs SI cover shoot here.)

With the help of assistant Nathan Lindstrom, we created a template on seamless during the first shoot with exact locations and measurements for all the lights.  The strobe settings, angle, and height of the lights were matched exactly on each shoot, along with focal length and camera position.  We unfolded this giant diagram at every shoot to place everything in the proper locations.

Houston Commercial Photographer Robert Seale - Methodist Hospital

The inside tri-fold cover with the 3 light setup. (L to R): Texans running back Arian Foster, Rice basketball player Jessica Goswitz, Houston Dynamo soccer player Brad Davis, Texans QB Matt Schaub, Houston Ballet's Lauren Anderson, Olympic gymnast Chris Brooks, HS soccer star Lindsey Biggart, and Houston Astros pitcher Bud Norris.

Houston Commercial Photographer Robert Seale - Methodist Hospital Houston

The outer tri-fold cover with a one light setup. Background is a heavily retouched image provided by the ad agency.

The project went on for almost three months, due to the crazy schedules of the athlete participants.  Once the final work was completed, the Methodist team and the Adcetera team produced a marvelous, incredibly printed publication – and ended up using BOTH lighting setups – one as the outside cover foldout, and one on the inside.  The final retouching and composites were put together by the agency.

Among the really fun moments… having longtime Houston Ballet prima ballerina Lauren Anderson teach me the proper way to stretch on a ballet bar rail.  (There are photos, but hopefully, I will take them to my grave… you really DON’T want to see what that looked like!).

Behind the scenes with Houston advertising photographer Robert Seale

Crew photo at the end of the Houston Ballet/Lauren Anderson shoot: From left – Nathan Lindstrom, makeup artist Wendy Martin, Arick Chikiamco, Lauren Anderson, me, Sheshe Giddens, Melanie Fritzsche, and Hugo Perez.

Behind the scenes with Houston advertising photographer Robert Seale: Lauren's idea:  It's not every day you get to hold a world class Prima Ballerina on your shoulders.

Lauren's idea: It's not every day you get to hold a world class Prima Ballerina on your shoulders.