Wednesday, 6 July 2011

EVS4 - Why I wrote my own Event Viewing System

There is a lot of debate amongst event photographers about the value of viewing systems. A viewing system is a system that allows potential purchasers to view images in which they feature before they purchase them. The simplest viewing system is a set of proof sheets tacked onto a board. This has some issues, a proof sheet has to be printed (time and cost considerations), a good gust of wind and your proof sheets are flying around the event and at a large event or an event with a large number of images they can take up a considerable amount of space.

For equestrian and dog event photographers viewing systems are essential. They can have many thousands of images and the participants expect to be able to find the images featuring their horse or dog reasonably quickly. If they cannot find them they leave the sales station and so do the pounds in their pockets. Photographers working larger 'black tie' events will hit the same wall. It is usually very inefficient to use the print station as a viewing station. The print station should be doing exactly that - churning out prints.

So, the solution is electronic viewing stations. Just display the images on a set of terminals and the user chooses the images they want to purchase and either pops them into an electronic basket or lets a sales assistant know the image numbers and the hard work of finding a clients images has been done by the client without tying up the print station.

There are numerous solutions but I found that for my use none actually did what I wanted in the way that I wanted so all I looked at were rejected. For myself, coming from a web development background, the obvious solution was to use a browser based solution and write the underlying code myself. A few refinements and about a year of use and further development and it is at version four. Hence EVS4, Event Viewing System Four.

This is currently being tried by a few selected users and will shortly be generally available to other photographers. Before you start thinking that this is very generous of me I should say that if you use it I want you to send me some money. Not a huge amount (you can if you want to send massive amounts of money) but enough to say thank you and that recognises the value the product has for your business. In the order of £15 (or the equivalent in Euros or Dollars) per viewing station would seem to be fair.

It is designed to be fast to update and easy to use both for clients and system operators. Web sized images and thumbnail images are dropped in a folder and the script automatically builds a page of these images. Just create a folder, drop in your images and select the folder from a list of galleries and view your images. Very fast to do, very easy to do and very easy to use.

What it does not do is create baskets and price lists. My experience is that sales are maximised by supervising viewing stations. Put a sales assistant with every three or four stations and not only do you add the personal touch but you also manage the sales process whilst ensuring people are moving on from the viewing stations to the print station.

The latest version is going out to selected users this week and I will have a link to the code/system available within the next week assuming all feedback is positive. To date the feedback from these users has been very positive so I think we can look forward to a release next week.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Sizing a job

I was recently asked to photograph 600+ subjects in groups. The job was open to interpretation and after some discussion it was decided that each group of 30 would be shot as smaller groups to build a composite image for the larger group image. Simple idea and would allow us a fair bit of freedom with posing which is difficult to achieve with large groups. It would also allow us to use a background that did not have to be the size of a stage set.

We now had a pretty good idea of what we wanted to do and just needed to ensure that we could do it in the time allocated for shooting. Basically we had 9.30am to 2.30pm and a half hour break in the middle to do the shooting. That gave us 4.5 hours to work within. Set up had to completed before 9.30am. Each group would be broken up into sub groups of 2 to 4 subjects and for each sub group we would shoot 4 images. Lets think about this now. Twenty groups of 30 subjects broken into an average sub group size of 3 subjects with 4 poses per sub group.

Twenty X 30/3 X 4 = 800 poses.
Four and half hours X 60 minutes = 270 minutes.
270 minutes X 60 seconds = 16200 seconds.
16200 seconds divided by 800 poses = 20.25 seconds per pose.

So, to achieve the above with one photographer we would have to shoot a new pose roughly every 20 seconds and this makes no allowance for sub group change over and group change over. If we allow 30 seconds to change a sub group and 2 minutes to change over a group then we lose 20 minutes in group change overs and 5 minutes per group in sub group change overs. In total we lose 120 minutes or 2 hours out of our 4.5 hours just in change overs. This being the case we need to shoot a new pose every 10 seconds to make up for change over times.

At this point we can see that using one photographer is just not going to work. There is no allowance for multiple shots of the same pose, no breaks, no allowance for any slippage in change overs and no allowance for any technical issues and we have to direct, compose and shoot a new image every 10 seconds for each sub group. If it was a single fixed pose then it can be done. How do I know that? I've done it.

Creating the poses takes time. On this job we set up two identical set ups. Camera's, lights, backgrounds were set up identically. Two photographers worked up a sweat but we finished with time to spare.

Why bother posting this? Well, when you take on a job it helps to understand what you have taken on and to break it down into tasks and time. Identifying the bottle necks and working through the work flow will allow you to properly price the job and to complete the job on time.

Taking on a job like this demands that you think it through and plan it before you get there. You can't produce another photographer out of the back of the van so with a bit of planning he/she will be keeping you company for the drive there and back. Thank you Stuart.

Charging attendance fees or those were the days

Oh for the days when attendance fees were charged. In the good old days event photographers would get a deposit, a booking fee or an attendance fee before covering an event. As time moved on and competition amongst those with the kit and skills to cover events grew then clients started shopping on price. If the product and service was the same then something had to give and the first thing was giving part or all of the deposit or attendance fee back based on upon takings at the event. It was only a short step to no attendance fee and no deposit and then a little shuffle to the no deposit and we will give you a percentage of takings.

For an industry which required a large capital outlay for start ups the money up front was a very important part of staying solvent. Equipment usage had to be maximised and a cancellation or poor event cost the event photographer dearly without the cushion of at least some payment at the time of booking.

Where do we stand today? Equipment costs are generally lower. The cost of entry to this area of the market is within reach of the average photographer (and non photographer). A large number of people have entered the sector and with the minimum of equipment are competing for jobs. Nothing else can give so now they must compete on price of product. The dream is that once they are established they will be able to increase their prices to the point that they can actually live on this income. Two problems with this: the first is that their target market is those that buy on price and the second is that as soon as they increase their prices there is someone else ready to step into their shoes and supply their cost concious clients at a cheaper price.

An attendance fee would have avoided the waste of time I had at a recent event. The job came through another photographer who gave me some attendance numbers which made it worth my while to do the job. The contact for the job was an event promoter who gave me some different (lower) numbers but I still felt the job was probably worth while. An early Sunday morning start, a hour of equipment preparation, half a hour packing the van, half a hour travelling and get there and the event owner does not know we are coming! Get this sorted and myself and an assistant start to set up and then the bombshell. Expected attendance is a tenth of the numbers I had been given. I should have packed up there and then. If every person there had bought an image I would still lose money after costs. We could also only sell to the participants once the event was over. I don't like letting anybody down (I don't believe that I ever have) so I decided to stick it out and see how we would do. I called it a day when the event had overrun by a hour and there was no sign of an end in sight.

I don't believe I would have been anywhere near this event if an attendance or booking fee had been required. No-one would have put their hand in their pocket and I would not have gone. The only problem is that I cannot lead the industry and ask for booking fees or deposits whilst no-one else is doing it. It would be commercial suicide. The other option of putting prices up to cover these situations is a non-starter as well as this would have an immediate negative effect on the current sales levels which cling to a carefully balanced pricing structure. A bit of a Catch 22.

For some events I do ask for and get a deposit. In some cases this is based upon expected takings for the event. The event must generate this minimum or part of the deposit is retained to make up the difference. These events are generally different in that the print is included in the event entry price. This being the case my sales are totally dependent upon the organiser getting the people in front of me. If he is out on his figures then he takes the majority of the financial hit and not me. There is a caveat with this though, the print margins are very tight. Actually they are tighter than a ballerinas bow on a weight lifter. What is given with one hand is taken with the other.

Ideally, we would get all event organisers to put their money where their mouths are and have them stump up a deposit based upon expected revenues. At this point you might like to construct a sentence using the words 'might', 'and', 'fly' and 'pigs'.I think we would see a far more cautious approach from the organisers if we could get this. I can dream can't I? At the moment all the risk falls on the shoulders of the event photographer with no come back if the attendance figures or demographic of those attending is significantly different from those quoted when being asked to do the job.

As they used to say on Hill Street Blues, be careful out there.