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July & August Race Photos to be Archived!

It’s archive time again! Race photos from July & August are scheduled to be archived at midnight this Friday, November 2. That means a $5 increase per photo, so this is your heads-up to beat the increase! Races to be archived include:

If you’re local and want to save on shipping, you can always just email me letting me know what you want (race, filename, print or digital, size, quantity). I’ll then schedule a place and time to meet, such as an upcoming race.

Thanks and enjoy!

Dane Robison
517-290-3456
TimeFramePhoto | Facebook

May & June Race Photos to be Archived!

Hard to believe this summer has been so busy that it’s already archive time again and I haven’t even had time to post any fun stuff! Race photos from May and June are scheduled to be archived at midnight on Sunday, September 9. That means a $5 increase per photo, so this is your heads-up to beat the increase! Races scheduled to be archived include:

And if saving money isn’t enough, I’ll also sweeten the pot a bit and throw in a FREE Facebook-sized digital copy of any print ordered during this time…now through September 9! Deal?

If you’re local and want to save on shipping, you can always just email me letting me know what you want (race, filename, print or digital, size, quantity). I’ll then schedule a place and time to meet, such as an upcoming race.

April Race Photos to be Archived!

It’s that time again! April race photos were scheduled to be archived tonight at midnight, which means a $5 increase per photo. Since some of you didn’t receive my email I’m putting it off until midnight Sunday night to give you a bit more time to beat the increase! Races scheduled to be archived include:

 

If you’re local and want to save on shipping, feel free to just email me letting me know what you want (race, filename, print or digital, size, quantity). I’ll then schedule a place and time to meet, such as an upcoming race. Thanks!

What I do isn’t exactly rocket science…

…so why is it hard to find people who can do it well? Equipment, skill, judgement and passion, that’s why.

This is Part 3 of “Here’s why I tried to keep the original message brief.” I have a lot of thoughts about these issues bouncing around in my skull. If I had let them all out at once, nobody would’ve taken the time to read. It was long enough anyway, right? I’ve already expanded a bit on the topics of “localness” and bib number searches. Next up: quality race photos, and why they’re difficult to find.

What I do isn’t exactly rocket science. I already said that up there ^^^ but it’s worth repeating. What I do isn’t exactly rocket science. I’m basically self-taught (with a special tip of the hat to Wayne Pope) and I have no reason to think I’m a particularly great teacher. Well, then, if I can do it, why is it so hard to find good race photographers? Because even though it’s not the most difficult thing in the world, it’s substantially more involved than just aiming a camera and pushing a button over and over and over and over again. Quality race photography requires the right combination of equipment, skill, judgement and passion. It also helps to be somewhat self-abusive and willing to work for peanuts 😉

Let’s knock those down one at a time, starting with equipment. You’ve probably heard before — not as often as I have, but still — that it’s the photographer, not the gear, that matters. Partly true. Mostly true. Kinda true in certain cases. And while I don’t want to go too far off in this direction, I’d be a rich man if I had a dollar (ok, about $50,000) for every time someone said to me, “Whoa! That’s a big camera! You must get great pictures!” Um, yeah. My stock response is a quizzical look and, “my wife uses a crappy pencil but is a great writer…so what do you mean?” The right person with an eye for composition and lighting can take some pretty nice photos with a cell phone, while a good digital SLR camera — used haphazardly in AUTO mode — can render photos that look as if they were taken with a cell phone. But, still: the better the gear, the greater the potential for quality photos.

I hope you’re sitting down for this: good photography generally requires both a good photographer and good gear. This applies whether you’re talking about wedding photography, food photography, race photography, wildlife photography…pretty much any type of photography. I’m talking about race photography. The generalization I give my students when they begin to express interest in particular genres of photography is that sports and birds are the most expensive things to take pictures of. And I mostly mean it, although there are exceptions. The reason is that you’re shooting things that are relatively small, sometimes far away, and often under less-than-ideal lighting conditions. Add it up and you’re going to spend a lot of money on lenses. In my world, this is one of the reasons I’m able to keep one runner in focus while all the others are blurred. I won’t go into the technical explanation for it here (if you want to know, just ask!), but that’s something my customers tell me they want. It’s also part of the reason I can shoot in the rain or at dusk and still get photos people want to buy. If you don’t invest in decent gear, you can’t do these things as well, or maybe you won’t be able to quickly focus on someone rounding a corner toward you at full speed.

So good gear is a must. What about skill? I think it goes without saying that a certain level of skill is required to make a go of this, but that requirement steepens with the complexity of the job and the equipment. From a purely technical standpoint, the ability to work the camera and it’s various settings is probably the easiest trait to come by. It takes practice, which is nearly free in this age of digital photography. I don’t want to discount this aspect, but it’s become relatively common as the digital age has squished the learning curve.

Much more important — and much more rare — is good judgement. While I do most of my work myself, I have a handful of events that require a team of photographers. I’ve tried and tried but still haven’t found a team I’m completely satisfied with. Why? After all, I know most photographers in the area and I’m specifically choosing those I know to be accomplished and capable. And yet, at least once per year, I’m burned by one of my choices. It comes down to judgement, which I roughly define as the ability to think quickly on your feet and make good, sound decisions based on circumstances you encounter in the field. Some of the races I cover last 4, 5 or even 6 hours. It’s all well and good to have someone out there who knows what he’s doing, but conditions change over that much time. What happens when the sun blasts out from the clouds after hours of dark gray skies? What happens when runners aren’t quite following the path you expect? The ability to make an on-the-spot call in situations like that is priceless…and hard to come by.

Finally, a good shooter must have passion. A passion for photography in and of itself as well as a passion for a job well done. I’ve had jobs — and I suspect many of you have, as well — for which I was technically well-equipped but I just plain didn’t care about what I was doing. It didn’t matter much to me, or it didn’t “move” me. That won’t do: it shows, plain as day, in the final product. I need photographers who are competent, but also who care enough about what they’re doing to notice the little things that matter. Runners may disagree with me in the heat of a race, but you look better when running slightly uphill. So what do you do? Find a spot where you’re running slightly uphill! That doesn’t seem too hard, but it is if you don’t care and it never occurs to you. What about the timing of shots? Funny things happen to tissue — fat, muscle, skin, whatever — when the human body impacts the ground. If you don’t really care about what you’re doing, you’re probably not going to bother trying to time your shots accordingly. So however adept you may be with a camera, I also need you to care.

Now, let’s suppose for a minute that some out-of-state photographer is going to fly into Lansing to shoot a race. It’s conceivable that he may bring these four factors to the table. The problem is, he’s not flying here. News Flash: he’s not coming within hundreds of miles of your event. What he’s doing is placing local Craigslist ads for photographers he can pay a meager wage and send to your race. As I’ve said before, there are very few photographers in the area who can handle this sort of work — I can count them on my fingers — and they are certainly not hanging out on Craigslist looking for gigs that pay peanuts.

Given that sort of photographer sourcing mechanism, what’s the likelihood that the guy shooting your race has the right combination of these four factors? Predictably, slim and none…and you’ll be lucky to see slim. Lots of people have the basic technical skill, and quite a few these days have reasonably good equipment. But few have the ability to make judgement calls and adjust to changing conditions they encounter, and fewer still have anything resembling passion. I can even cite one horror story in which a race director here in Michigan hired some California-based outfit to shoot his race, only to learn ON RACE DAY that no suitable local photographers had been found…so literally nobody showed up to shoot his race. Ouch.

I don’t think it’s too immodest of me to say that I bring these four important factors to bear on your event. In the case of a large event requiring several shooters, I’m the first to admit that I’m still struggling to find the perfect mix, but I’ll come right back and argue that I’m in a better position to do so than some guy in Colorado!

There’s one last thing I’d like to mention here. As the cost of decent cameras and reasonably good lenses continues to fall, I see more and more people at races waiting to shoot their husband, girlfriend, child…whatever. And yet I don’t see a corresponding drop in sales. Why is that? I like to think it’s because I see those people as extra motivation to do the best job I can. If I want to continue selling photos, I’ve got to be able to deliver better photos than the spectators can take themselves, right? And the whole time, I’m keenly aware that the guy across the way has the odds stacked in his favor. He only has to get it right for one person, while I need to get her and the other 8 people she’s bunched up with…not to mention the hundreds ahead of and behind her. But close to 10 times out of 10, I’ll beat him, because this is what I do, and I’m good at it.

I don’t want my photos to look like amateurish snapshots, and I do everything in my power to ensure I have people working for me who feel the same way. Because quality matters to me. If it matters to you, please give me a call!

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?

Further thoughts on out-of-state race photographers…

This is just an attempt to flesh out some of my thoughts that I didn’t include in my email because I didn’t want it to turn into a book!

As I alluded to, these out-of-state outfits frustrate me because they don’t know you or your runners, they have no local relationships, and will likely never come within 100 miles of your event. And because they’re attempting to fill a need that doesn’t exist. Can’t blame them for trying, but whether you’re talking about photography, race planning, coordination of sponsorships or bib services, there are already excellent sources located right here in mid-Michigan. In that sense, they strike me as little more than poachers.

They don’t — and can’t — know your customers, but they’re perfectly capable of alienating them through email bombardment, which is likely what will happen. Why? Simply because they have no other way of engaging your customers, which they must do in order to sustain themselves. Whereas I have the ability to hang out and chat with area runners before and after races every weekend, they don’t — because they’re not here. They have no presence or investment in this community. They have no opportunity to bump into your customers at Playmakers, at MSU sporting events, at Potter Park Zoo, or anywhere else. But they have the same need I do to remain relevant to that market. So they send emails. Lots and lots of emails. I’ll share a brief anecdote, one that should sound familiar to you…

My wife was registered for a race in early 2009 that was photographed by one of these out-of-staters. She suffered an injury that prevented her from running, but nevertheless was on the email list alongside the thousands who did run. She received emails about her race photos on a roughly monthly basis for about two years. It’s mid-2012 and she just recently stopped receiving emails about photos from a 2009 race she didn’t run! Is that crazy? Is that something you want to subject your customers to? Not likely.

And why do they do that? Couple of reasons. For one thing, they need to make money. I do, too, of course — don’t we all? — but this is a bit different. If I shoot a race and fail to sell as much as I hoped, that may be construed as time poorly spent. Time is money, sure, but it’s different when you’ve contracted with one or more photographers and have to pay them. In that case, sub-par sales can mean the loss of cold, hard cash. That won’t do, so they email your customers to death until they’re satisfied with sales. Another reason, as bad as it sounds, is: why not? The multitude of emails essentially represent benefit without risk. Their reputation isn’t on the line with your customers, yours is.

By contrast, I couldn’t afford to alienate these people even if I wanted to. I’m as invested in the community as you are. Beyond being born, raised and based in mid-Michigan, I rarely leave the area to cover an event. When I do, there’s always some local connection at the heart of the decision, such as Playmakers involvement or an earnest request from customers who’ve traveled to Lansing for a race and been impressed by what I offer. Working at races weekend after weekend — and interacting with customers week after week — I build a LOT of relationships with local runners. These people are both my customers and yours, and it’s important to me that those relationships be as strong and as positive as possible. These are the people who wind up eventually contacting me to photograph their families, their kids in youth sports, their son who’s about to graduate or their daughter who’s about to be married. That means a lot to me and is worth cultivating, which is why I typically send 1-2 emails about a given race. The first lets them know the photos are ready, and the second warns them before the photos are moved to archival storage (a move that comes with a price increase). Less irritation and annoyance for your customer means less risk for you.

And there you have it: a thumbnail sketch of my views on “localness” and relationships from the perspective of a race photographer. As always, I’m happy to discuss further if you’re interested!

Some thoughts on race photography…

(Yikes! Getting dusty again! The following is taken from an email I sent to mid-Michigan race directors in response to recent solicitations from out-of-state race photography companies. I’ll go into more detail about each item in future posts.)

I’m writing today after learning that many of you are being contacted by race photography services from places as far-flung as California, Georgia and Colorado. Options are a good thing in any marketplace, but as a local guy who’s covered hundreds of area races these past few years, I hope you’ll take a few minutes to consider the concerns I’m about to outline. I’ll spare you the detailed thoughts and just give you the broad strokes here in the interest of keeping it from getting way too long.

First up is the “buy local” concept. These out-of-state groups don’t know you or your customers, have no local relationships, and are attempting to fill a need that doesn’t exist. They’ll likely alienate your customers by bombarding them with emails, because they have no other means of connecting with them. TimeFrame Photography, on the other hand, is hyperlocal. Born, raised and based right here in mid-Michigan, I rarely even leave the area to cover events without good reason. I hang out and talk with my customers — our customers — on a weekly basis before and after races. I send one or two emails per race (maybe, very rarely, three) and I focus on building strong positive relationships with them. I’m very happy to call many of them my friends.

Product quality is another concern. I can guarantee your satisfaction with TimeFramePhoto.com purchases because I do virtually all of the work myself. It’s my company and my reputation on the line. Are these out-of-staters going to fly here to shoot your race? No, they’ll run craigslist ads looking for photographers in the area who’ll work for peanuts. Guess how much those folks care about product quality. I speak from experience when I tell you there are very few photographers in this area with the right combination of equipment, skills and judgement for this sort of work … and they’re not looking for low-paying gigs on craigslist.

Thirdly, I’ll touch on bib number searching, which most of these out-of-staters promote. I offer it but I think it’s vastly overrated. Why? Briefly, it’s time consuming, expensive and imprecise. Preparing photos for a search is a very manual process. The time and expense involved either mean higher prices or your customers are going to keep receiving emails until they buy enough photos to satisfy the vendor. Neither of those is a good thing in my view. As for imprecision, (I’ll go into more detail in a future post, but) for now I’ll just say some photos that should be included in the search aren’t, while others that shouldn’t be are. Bottom line: bib searching sounds cool, but it’s really a false economy in which little to nothing is gained but prices go up. Lose-lose.

Finally — and I hope you’re still with me here — these vendors offer many different options in terms of what you pay them and what you get. I typically operate under one of two basic approaches. The first: I shoot what I can, post the photos and hope for sales. The second: you pay me a modest per-head fee, usually as low as $1. I then do everything the same but also make Facebook-sized digital photos (which I normally sell for $8 each) available to your runners for free. It’s a tremendous value-add for a very small investment. Still, it may not be for everyone. So I’d like to take this opportunity to say: I’m flexible! If you come up with a different arrangement that might work better for you, please take a moment to bounce it off me. The worst I can do is say no, but I’m much more inclined to try to work things out.

Whatever the arrangement, I’ll pledge to work my tail off to make your event a success from a photo perspective. And I’ll never stop striving to offer tremendous value and responsiveness to our mutual customers. Thanks for taking the time to read this. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you’d like to discuss any of this further!