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We’re always on the look out for great used gear at great prices.  When you cashflow a business, you’re not in the habit of slapping down a credit card for the latest, greatest thing, so you have to get creative with sourcing gear.  Here are some tips and resources for finding good photography gear at great prices:

Ebay – Hands-down, our favorite place to find new and used gear.  Many Ebay retailers can offer new camera bodies and lenses at deep discounts since they don’t have the high overhead of brick and mortar stores.  Just make sure you’re buying from a reputable seller, and that your not buying grey market gear without a U.S. warranty.  If it’s used gear, warranties usually don’t matter as they aren’t transferable.  Ebay is also full of pros and hobby shooters unloading equipment at great prices, and we’ve never had a bad experience when we’ve done our proper homework.

Tip: Check the completed listings section for ended auction prices. This will tell you what the market will pay for your desired item and give you an idea of how high to bid.  Completed listings are also useful for setting competitive prices when selling your gear online.  We recently sold this 24mm prime lens, used for less than 40 frames on one shoot, for a $50 profit.

Canon 24mm f/2.8

Craigslist.org – Search your local listings for new and slightly used gear.  For more specialty items, expand your search to other metro areas and ask if the seller will ship the item.

Tip: Look on Ebay completed listings first to know how much your desired item is worth, then start negotiations with your local Craigslist contact at 75% of the Ebay price in cash.  They won’t have to worry about listing or shipping the item online or paying a percentage to the auction company or PayPal, and you get your item the same day for less than it would have cost you online.

Another tip:  Be patient and have cash reserves.  You never know when a good deal will come up on Craigslist.  If you’re sitting on cash, you’re in a position to get a great deal on some gear, while possibly helping someone else get out of some financial trouble.  Don’t be a vulture, but realize you’re in a position to wheel-and-deal if you have money and time on your side.

PropertyRoom.com – This auction site is full of photography gear (and other items) confiscated during police seizures and raids.  If it’s never claimed, it has to be auctioned and this is where a lot of gear ends up at great prices.  You probably won’t find your Canon 24mm TS-E tilt/shift lens or other specialty stuff here, but there are tons of consumer cameras, DV recorders, webcams, security cameras, memory cards and more.

ShopGoodwill.com – Goodwill stores on the corner are great places to find clothes, but their online auction site has some great camera gear too. Similar to police auction pickings, they have consumer cameras, lenses, printers and such.  The Goodwill site seems to have some interesting vintage stuff occasionally though, like Brownie cameras, old movie cameras, and vintage medium format combos.  If you collect bodies or like shooting film cameras, this may be a gold mine for you.

One last tip: Learn to set up auto-notifications in Ebay and RSS feeds in Craigslist.  You’ll be able to go on with your life and get emails when the items you’re looking for show up for sale.  This saves you a ton of search time and if you’re not in a hurry for that special piece of gear, you can rest assured that you’ll find the best deal possible when it lands in your lap.

Happy hunting!

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A custom 404 error page can inject some fun into your company website, should a client get lost while navigating your site.  It doesn’t take much time and it looks much better than your browser’s stock text-only 404 page.

We at Radiant Photography just finished our first custom 404 page, and plan on rotating out some more creative ideas in the future.  Here is a sample:

Radiantphotography.com 404 error page

Radiantphotography.com 404 error page

To make a page similar to ours, you can take a screen shot of your original homepage, play with it in Photoshop and saved it as a jpeg on a colored background in your favorite html editor.  You would give this html file a name like “custom404.html” or something similar, then uploaded the picture and the html file to your server.

After uploading, you need to figure out what type of server your files are on and pick an appropriate method of redirecting your 404 errors to your new page (list of server types and methods here).  In our case, we use an Apache server, so if you’re in the same boat, here’s how to redirect to your custom page:

There should be a file called .htaccess in your root directory of the server (usually where your “index.html” file is).  Us using a Windows-based platform (and being first timers at this), we couldn’t modify the .htaccess file, so we found a workaround.  Open WordPad or another text editor and enter your 404 error command in the following format on one line:

ErrorDocument 404 /errors/”your404filename.html” (in our case we named our custom page “custom404.html”)
Save the text file as ‘htaccess.txt’.  Open your FTP client and drop the file into your root folder.  After it uploads, delete the existing .htaccess file and rename your htaccess.txt file to .htaccess.
Test your modification by typing in a non-existing URL at your domain, like “http://www.yourdomainname.com/iloveporkchopmilkshakes.html”.  You should see your new custom 404 page!
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It’s no surprise that photographers and designers love Flash-based websites! Flash portfolios are dynamic, interactive, and offer a decent level of “right-click, save-as” image protection to keep people from stealing images. As of this posting, Radiant currently uses an XML based flash portfolio plugin for our portfolios, primarily for the protection aspect. The rest of the page is designed in CSS for accessibility across various platforms. But, like other photographers with Flash-based content we had to rethink our design when the iPhone came out. This topic has been covered before, but it’s worth a revisit, and we’re giving you the HTML code to solve the problem.

In it’s stock form, the iPhone doesn’t allow flash content to be seen on the device. If an iPhone user jailbreaks the phone or uses a third party app, they can enable flash content, but many people don’t want to pay for this functionality or risk voiding their warranty. It’s really annoying that the iPhone doesn’t show Flash content out of the box. Furthermore, as of November 2010, the iPhone controls 28.6% of the smartphone market share (Nielsen chart). I’m comfortably guessing most photo buyers, art directors, and editors are Mac and Apple users, so they’re an important demographic to appeal to. Until the iPhone enables Flash content viewing, what’s a photographer or designer with a flash portfolio to do? You need an html version of your portfolio that can be seen on the iPhone.

We didn’t write the script below, but were given it by another photographer, who found it online as well. We’re no coding geniuses here, just sharing the wealth. Plop this script above the tag on whatever page you want to redirect to a mobile version, then make an alternate HTML-based portfolio to redirect to. In our case our WhiteProductPhotography.com “Portfolio” page has this code in it to redirect to a “/mobile.html” version upon sensing the viewing device is an iPhone (see our mobile portfolio here).

Code:

<script>
if(navigator.userAgent.indexOf(“iPhone”) != -1)
{window.location = “type your alternate html portfolio URL here”;}
</script>

Our iPhone version of WhiteProductPhotography.com’s portfolio has been online for just a few weeks and has already garnered just shy of 10% of the site’s total page views. The average visitor spends four minutes looking at the images and it has a 16% bounce rate. While that’s not bad at all, it prompted me to review the mobile page for usability and add two links, one to our FAQ and one to our Pricing/Contact page. That way users don’t have to back out of the mobile portfolio page get back to these features on regular home page. We should see even less bounce rate now that we’ve given clients some navigation options. (Edit: went down to 12.5% in next day after revisions)

If you’re using flash for your portfolios and you’re comfortable with some simple coding, put yourself ahead of your competition with an HTML mobile portfolio.

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Back in the days of the $0.24 stamp, I was starting a business aptly named Ryan Weber Photography. I was shoe-stringing it back then and marketing was my biggest concern and most costly recurring expense. At that time, there was no “social media”, very little focused online interaction, and we were still sending out promo pieces by mail.

Starting from meager beginnings did help me realize the power of a stamp though. I realized that for a nice shiny quarter, one stamp could possibly change my business and my life. If I just put the right words to paper and sent it to the right editor, art director, or buyer. It worked a few times, securing me assisting gigs and paid jobs. And while I’m spending much more on marketing now, I still realize the value of something small.

Case in point, this last holiday I had intended to send a thank you gift to all my clients. I receive them every year from my best vendors and I thought it’d be a nice gesture. But life got in the way and I had to settle on a New Years gift. Except that a big, last-minute estimate request popped up in my email and I never got around to constructing my gifts. I still have two bags of snowglobes sitting by my desk. So, come January 5th, I decided that I better take a few minutes to compose a year-in-review-and-thank-you email to send to clients. A simple “Thanks for being a rockin’ client” kind of composition, followed by a recap of where Radiant stands. We’ve done a couple things this year to add peace of mind for our clients, like remaining debt-free and sitting on cash reserves to weather the economy, securing higher liability insurance, and securing a worker’s comp plan to cover assistants and other contracted vendors on shoots. So far numerous clients have responded with appreciation for the gesture and confirmation that we’ll be doing more business in the coming year. It was a smaller effort than my original plans, but I think it made more of an impact. A kind Thank You and peace of mind beats out cookies or snowglobes, I guess.

Another example happened recently when I wrote a local architectural firm to simply thank them for their very photographic architecture and thoughtfulness of their designs in this desert environment. We share a client and I’ve been exposed to the firm’s work now on shoots for over a year working at this client’s location. The buildings have had plenty of time to soak in to my brain and I notice new details in the architecture every time I visit this facility to shoot. The most recent revelation was realizing that they’d designed waterfalls into the architecture for when we get desert rains. I got caught off-guard during a shoot and a storm rolled in, but it provided me a new glimpse into some amazing building design that very few people even get to see at this facility. So I wrote them a quick note to let them know their design elements were noted and appreciated. I never asked for work, or for them to view our website, just a thank you. I left it at that.

They did their homework though. The email was passed up to a senior partner and he later emailed me to commend our imagery of their project. He also wanted to open a discussion about licensing some shots for their portfolio. Hopefully, Radiant will be shooting some of their past and future projects directly for the firm.

Never underestimate the power of a stamp. Never underestimate a sincere email.

Happy New Year to you all!
Ryan

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Recently we had the opportunity to estimate on a job for a single exterior shot for a national hotel chain with web and print rights, in perpetuity. Not knowing what the firm’s budget was, I could only do my best at pricing the job to my own standards. It was a very fair estimate, considering the liberal rights requested, however, we lost the job with an email that basically said our estimate was way off the client’s budget. And I smiled.

I smiled because the the last line of the email said they would keep my info handy for future projects. Maybe it’s a blow off, but more than likely, the firm’s rep probably realized the estimate was fair and actually does plan on bringing us in on future projects when other client budgets’ permit. That’s great, but the part that really makes me smile is that, despite losing this one job, I’ve now set a pricing standard that keeps me in the running for their higher-paying gigs. I’m sure they found someone else in the Vegas area to go shoot that job, but that person has traded a low-ball paycheck for being pigeonholed as a discount shooter. Ultimately, they’ll have to work many times harder for the same amount of revenue.

I don’t have an MBA, but I’ve managed to run a successful small photography business for years now, so I’ve learned a few things. I’ve taken guidance from professional organizations, peers, books, software, etc, but in the end it’s up to each business owner to run things the way they see fit. In this down economy, I’ve managed to pay off all business debts and cash-flow major equipment upgrades and such. 2009 saw a 13% increase in sales over 2008, and 2010 has already seen a 73% growth in revenue from this same time in 2009. I don’t say this to brag, but to show that there is money to be made, and it’s usually not in cutting prices.

So, here’s how you too can lose photo gigs and smile about it:

Know your bottom line
You can’t run a business without knowing what your expenditures are. If you don’t know how much you need to make to stay afloat, you have no way of knowing what you need to charge. Plenty of great artists will never be seen because they don’t know how to run a business. On the flip side, lots of hack photogs are making killings shooting mundane stuff because they know bookkeeping, marketing and client service. Set aside a couple days to calculate and then improve your bottom line. How much overhead do you have? Are there places to trim expenditures? How low can you go to secure that one really cool, but damn near free shoot every year without going broke? How long can you go without work if you stick to your pricing guns?

Pay off debt and start paying cash
In a previous post, I talked about Radiant paying off all it’s debts, which then landed us in a feature article in Entrepreneur Magazine. Paying off debts and using cash to pay for expenses has many benefits. First and foremost is the peace of mind and amazing night’s sleep you get from knowing that you don’t owe anybody anything. The second is that once a large percentage of your invoices aren’t predetermined to go to your credit card company, you start to build wealth quickly. After paying off our debt, it was just a couple gigs later that we had a couple months of operating expenses saved up. Talk about breathing easy. When you’ve got a real financial cushion built up, you can start to feel better about not winning every estimate that comes across your desk. You can also afford to shoot that long-overdue photography project, or start doing charity work. Broke companies that live hand-to-mouth can’t afford to donate time nor money, because they have little of either.

Don’t finance client projects
Refusing to finance most client projects has made a world of difference for being profitable. I started this business to be a photography provider, not a bank. If a client doesn’t have the budget to carry out their vision, I take great strides to offer solutions (e.g. – trimming total shots delivered, shooting without models, reducing licensing requirements). However, I know what my bottom line is, and that I don’t use credit anymore, so to finance production of someone’s project would require me to dip into savings and jeopardize Radiant’s financial health. The common solution is to require a retainer (not a deposit..those can be refunded if the client backs out). Oftentimes they can’t pony up a retainer, so I try to work with them there too. However, there are many times per year I have to let clients walk, simply because the numbers don’t add up.

Set the bar comfortably
The client looked at your website and digs your work, but won’t share a budget with you. Don’t offend them by assuming it’s low, so price what you want to make on the job. Price right so you don’t get pigeon-holed as a discount contractor on all future gigs. Even if you lose the first gig, when they come back for future estimates, they know your price range already and will be ready to negotiate at your starting point. You WILL sticker-shock some potential clients. That’s fine. They know where you stand and if they really like your work, they’ll save up money to hire you next time. If they’re all about the cheapest vendor, then you probably don’t want them as a client anyway. Those types of clients will not recognize the true value you bring to the project, and will give you the boot as soon as they find a cheaper vendor*. This recently happened to us with an architectural firm who needed some shots of work they’d done on a large project in Vegas. Fifty to seventy-five shots with rights was the estimate criteria, due within two weeks. They wouldn’t share their budget. By not sharing a budget, it tied my hands to create an estimate based on standard licensing fees, researching the quality of previous photography jobs from that client’s website portfolio, and analyzing the shoot location to gauge how many days it would take to get 50 shots. They seemed to hire decent photogs before so they certainly should know that each shot takes a few hours to compose, capture and edit each shot, right? I certainly wasn’t going to offend them by assuming they had no money “in this economy”, and I wasn’t going to let them think we couldn’t get the job done right because we were priced scary low. Apparently, we were not on the same page. They allotted $1200 for the entire shoot, basically wanting professional images for snapshot prices. They didn’t realize the true amount of work, knowledge, and value that a professional photographer would bring to project. Let ’em walk. They will find someone to shoot at that price and probably be happy with the results. If not, we’ll hear from them again, but on our terms this time.

*Make ends meet disclosure: If you’re struggling to keep the lights on that week, by all means, get your power bill paid with a cheap shoot, but don’t expect to raise rates on that client later. We’ve all taken low paying gigs to pay the bills. However, afterward go back to step one and two and audit your business then pay off debt. Something isn’t working in your plan and you need to figure it out, or move on to greener pastures.

Happy shooting,
Ryan

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The barriers to enter the photography business are extremely low these days, mainly due to the transition to digital capture. For editorial photography, which needs to be around 300dpi, successful print resolution can be had with only an eight megapixel camera. Most consumer point and shoots are there already (although they lack many of the other features necessary to provide quality commercial/editorial images). The lower cost of very capable workstations, software, and the spread of industry knowledge through online forums make photography a pretty easy side job to get into. According to our keyword analysis, a decent percentage of visitors to our whiteproductphotography.com site are actually people looking for tutorials on how to shoot their products on white backgrounds.

Unfortunately, the ease of entry also deceives these hobby photogs that they can produce professional work with a point-and-shoot camera, pre-installed photo editing software, and a tripod. I see this frequently with smaller businesses, who decide to handle their photography needs in-house instead of hiring a professional photographer. Occasionally it works out, depending on the product or service being photographed. Most of the time, however, I see these images and can instantly figure out more effective imagery for selling the product or service. I’ve seen restauranteurs shoot interiors with an on-camera flash that reaches the first row of tables then fades to complete darkness. Most menu photography handled in-house leaves much to be desired and rarely does the pictorial menu look half as tasty as the dish does in-person. Shooting products or people under warehouse fluorescent or vapor lighting will usually have a strong color cast and little detail in the shadows. Furthermore, fluorescent lighting is a discontinuous light source, rapidly flickering too fast for the eye to see, which will turn out different color temperatures and intensities depending on the shutter speed used. On camera flash is daylight balanced, tungsten lights are around 2700 Kelvin (very yellowish), so unless the in-house photog can filter one or the other to correct the color casts, they’ll end up with substandard color rendering in the final images. Professionals know this stuff and can get it done right the first time.

That said, businesses should account for professional photography in their marketing budgets. It’s a cost of doing business that shouldn’t be ignored. I recently had a returning client ask about a discounted rate for some photography. I realize the economy is tight, but I’m also aware of my bottom line and what my knowledge and efficiency is worth. Also, doing the math, they would make back their money after ONE sale! This is a multi-national company who will probably recover their costs within minutes, and have no reason to sacrifice quality photography by taking things in-house with a white bed sheet and a point-and-shoot camera.

On the other hand, if a prospective client’s margins and volume are too low, I’d advise them that they may be better off shooting their product themselves because honestly their clients looking for a penny product probably don’t care much about quality imagery. But even then, having a solid image can only serve to improve their brand, and put them ahead of competitors by inspiring confidence in the product and the company that doesn’t cut corners. Most of the time, marketing material and photographs are the first points of contact with customers, and there are other places to cut budgets which the customer won’t immediately see.

When a picture speaks a thousand words, and you don’t have a second chance to make a first impression, the images of your product or service need to capture the customer’s attention immediately! Professional photographers are here to help other businesses capture their customer’s attention and their customer’s dollars.

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