Why bib number searching is overrated…

In my email to race directors (and an earlier post) I outlined three problems I have with bib number searching for race photos: it’s time consuming, expensive and imprecise. While I should mention that I do feel it has its place — namely, at VERY large races — I otherwise feel pretty strongly that it’s a bad idea. Although this topic isn’t directly related to the issue of out-of-state photography services, it is one of the “features” they tout as they make their sales pitch. I’ll take a few minutes now to explain why I disagree.

Bib number searching sounds cool. It seems somehow “high-tech” and gives a sense that “this race is BIG TIME!” It also seems, on the surface, to be a real time-saver for your busy customers. From the standpoint of the photographer, though, it’s almost all bad news. As I said: time consuming, expensive and imprecise.

Starting from the top, time consuming and expensive are really the same thing: time is money! If E=mc2, then maybe $=tc2 … or something like that. Because, for the small business owner, time spent on one task is time not spent on another. It’s time not spent with my family; not spent filling orders; not spent nurturing new clients…you get the picture. Einstein could prove his equation; all I can do is say mine looks pretty cool. But the bottom line is that preparing photos for a search is a very tedious manual process. Each and every photo needs to be individually viewed and inspected for bib numbers. Those numbers are then keyed into a metadata field and then you move along to the next photo and repeat. But wait! Now that I’m looking at photo #4823, I can see the number of the lady who was hidden in photos #4821 and #4822! Cool, but now I have to back up and add her bib number to those photos. Ok, where was I? Photo #4824, I think. That doesn’t happen quickly, folks, which means a delay before the photos can be posted, which means an increased risk that the photos will no longer feel as relevant to the runners. I also have to pay someone to do it, because my sanity is still worth something.

So it costs me time (which is money) and money (which is … money).

Who ends up paying for all this? Will the photographer just eat it? Nope, of course not. This gets passed along to the runners, which I don’t think is cool from a value standpoint. As an example, I’ll use a 2011 race from somewhere in Michigan (not Lansing, and I didn’t shoot it, but it’ll remain nameless). The least expensive thing available from that race is a $16 5×7. I sell 5x7s for $10 and offer two other options for less, but I can’t do that very easily if I’m spending extra time and money tagging photos. So assuming we start out with the same basic cost/price structure, it would be more or less fair to say that the search increased the cost of the photos by 60%. Yikers!

What about that third gripe I had, imprecision? As I said, the tagging is done manually. Probably by some high school kid who’s not really invested in the business beyond the few bucks the photographer is throwing his way. Besides, it’s also a little less interesting than watching paint dry, and guess what? People make mistakes. Another explanation has to do with software. Remember how one runner’s bib was hidden the first couple of times she appeared, and we had to back up to tag her? That stinks. So how about “solving” that problem (as well as reducing the risk of human error) by introducing a bit of fuzziness to the search logic? So when someone searches for bib number 549 and we find it, we display it in the search results along with a couple of photos before and a couple of photos after it. Easy peasy! But it sucks. Read on…

Going back to that unnamed race, my brother-in-law happened to be one of the runners, and I have his bib number. Searching for him gives a results page with 25 photos. With one exception they’re all from 3 different cameras at the finish line, and he’s not even in 12 of them. I’m trying really hard not to pick on the race or the photographer by keeping names out of it, because this is just the nature of the business when these searches are involved.

Ok, so we basically have a dozen finish line shots. What about photos taken at the start or somewhere along the course? I have to imagine they were shot (and confirmed that they were) but can’t find any way to look for them other than browsing the 800-odd photos in the “lost and found” bin. So we save these runners valuable time by letting them enter their number and having their photos magically displayed, but how much benefit is really rendered if half of the photos don’t show them and they still have to dig and poke around to find the rest?

I’ll grant you that I haven’t shot as many races as some of the big cookie-cutter outfits, and certainly not the humongous races they cover. But I’ve shot hundreds of races ranging from 38 (really!) to several thousand runners, and I have tons of customer feedback that says the way I do it works for them. The very best example I can cite is the Capital City River Run with around 2000 runners per year. I’m going on my sixth year with them. I have loads of communication with customers and the race committee makes every effort to poll the racers and improve each year. Every year I offer them the bib number search, and every year they decline saying everyone’s very happy with the way things are organized. If I had to take a stab at it, I’d say I’ve had roughly 8-10 complaints in five years about the lack of a search feature. I’d prefer zero, but that’s a really low number any way you look at it.

Rather than just throw punches at the search feature, I’ll wrap up by telling you how I prefer to approach “findability” in my photos. First, I break the photos from a given race into several galleries. At a minimum, these typically include “Start,” “Finish” and “Fun Stuff,” and each of them is presented in chronological order. Since the starting line photos don’t tend to have very many visible bib numbers, they’re not good candidates for searching anyway. “Fun Stuff” is an assortment of posed and candid shots from before and after a race, along with perhaps a few awards photos…there aren’t typically enough of them to warrant searching. That leaves the finish line shots, which, for the record, I may shoot at the finish line or just upstream to avoid crowding and congestion. This is where searching would seem to make the most sense. I usually try to get a couple shots of each runner here, so a race with 500 people can easily result in 1000 finish line shots.

For small to medium sized races, I lean toward simply presenting all of the finish line shots in one gallery, in order. With 40 thumbnails per page, that 1000 shots translates into 25 pages of finish line photos. While that may seem like a lot, it’s not too difficult to navigate. A big reason is that I shoot fairly “tight,” meaning I try to get photos of a single runner rather than groups at a time. Most people have a rough idea where they finished in the pack (which can narrow them down to a range of just a few pages to look at) and what they were wearing at the race. From there, a quick glance through the thumbnails is usually all it takes to find yourself. At larger races, I’ll further break the finish photos down into sub-galleries based on gun time, giving you a pretty small area to focus on. If, at that point, you still think a bib search is needed, you’re likely just the type of person who looks for things to complain about.

CCRR pacers

Finally, a tip of the hat to Capital City River Run. The costumed pacers in the half marathon carry flags representing the pace they’re running: 7:30, 8:00, 8:30, and so on. As I skim through the photos after the race, I simply create a new gallery each time a pacer runs past me. Those pacers aren’t just fun, they’re very helpful in narrowing the pool of photos a runner needs to look through. WIN-WIN!

I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusion, but mine is that the bib number search represents a false economy where nothing is really saved but prices go up. Everyone loses. Does it still sound cool?

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