Landscape photographer and pro educator Varina Patel is one of those people we all aspire to be. From the mountains to the deserts, she travels around the globe chasing the light and enlightening photographers near and far. We’ve long been inspired by her incredibly varied and inspiring blog posts, eBooks and workshops, as well as her ability to keep her photo education company running smoothly and in sync with her husband, Jay Patel. We talked with Varina about how to keep your photo business blooming year after year. Here’s what she suggests.
By Varina Patel
Take your business seriously.
Jay and I may be a husband and wife team – but we are running a business together. It’s so easy to lose sight of the goal in the face of the day-to-day requirements of running a business… especially when you have lots of other responsibilities that require your attention. In order to keep things running smoothly, we have monthly meetings where we discuss our plans for the upcoming month. We decide which projects are worth extra time, and which ones need to be scaled back. We look at our sales and financial data and decide where we should focus our efforts. We make sure we are working towards the same goals – and that we are never working at cross-purposes.
Don’t be afraid to change your plans.
Of course, having a solid business plan is important… but plans should be fluid. Don’t be afraid to change your plans as your business opportunities shift. Jay and I are constantly re-establishing priorities as we navigate the ever-changing world of photography. Stock photography was a productive business for us at one time – but as the market became more and more saturated, we found that our efforts weren’t paying off as well as they had been. So, we tested new waters. We taught workshops, wrote eBooks, photographed events, submitted images to magazines… and as our business grew, we found out where we could make the most of our limited time. Right now, our focus is on eBooks and short workshops – and as times change, we will continue to refine our goals and shift our plans to meet the ever-changing needs of our business.
Know your own strengths – and your weaknesses.
I can’t emphasize this enough. It’s important to know what you are good at – but knowing your weaknesses is equally important. Heck – maybe it’s even more important. When you are aware of a weakness, you need to focus your attention on it. Nobody said running a business is easy. If you aren’t good at handling your finances, do some research, take a class, or hire someone to do it for you. If you want to write eBooks but your grammar and spelling is terrible – hire an editor. Need a good website, but you don’t know a thing about design or ecommerce? Call on the SmugMug Support Super Heroes. Ignoring the problem isn’t a solution… and it can cause all kinds of headaches in the future.
Use social media to build a relationship with your clients.
Social networks are incredible marketing tool that offer small businesses like ours an opportunity to be noticed among corporate giants with enormous budgets. We don’t have to spend a dime to connect with millions of people who are interested in what we are offering. Our foray into social media began with our blog. I spent more than a year writing regular blog posts before people really started to pay attention. There were lots of times when I thought maybe my efforts were wasted, but I knew that quitting was the surest way to fail… so I kept plugging along. Over time, more and more people began to comment and subscribe. During that time, I started posting on Facebook too. Pretty soon, I had a pretty solid collection of “fans” who would leave comments and share my photographs. When Google+ came along, I didn’t hesitate. This was a whole new experience. Suddenly, photographers were having in-depth discussions about everything from composition to marketing – and people were adding us to their circles at a fantastic rate. Best of all, we were really getting to know some of these people! They were becoming our friends. They were recommending our work to others, signing up for our workshops and webinars, and buying our eBooks! We met some of them in person, went shooting with them, and got to know them on a personal level. Those experiences took social networking beyond marketing. Now, we are a part of a dynamic community of photographers who exchange ideas and inspiration.
Look for ways to minimize content creation and maximize content consumption.
So yes. Social media is a great tool. But it can be your downfall, too. Don’t let it consume you! The trick is to find ways to minimize the amount of time you spend creating content for social media – while maximizing the consumption of that content. What does that mean?
Well – we only have a limited amount of time to spend writing blog posts, updating our websites, posting on Twitter or Facebook or Google+. And yet – we want to be sure that the content we create is seen by as many people as possible, right? So, if I write one blog post, I want to make sure everyone knows it’s out there. I need to get it to my followers on Facebook, my fans on Google+, my subscribers on Twitter – in short, I need to make sure it’s as visible as possible.
Right now, we create almost all of our new content on my blog or on Google+. Content from the blog on my website is automatically syndicated to Jay’s website and our other social media platforms. (Ideally, a single source of content would be preferable… but Google+ doesn’t provide means for automatic syndication yet. In order to share with our very large audience on Google+, we need to manually share a link or copy and paste content to our streams.) Automatic syndication lets us send out our content to twitter, facebook, and our RSS subscribers without an additional effort on our part. So we create the content once, and everyone knows it’s there. The process takes discipline and forethought – but you can make social networks work for you.
Know your target audience.
Take some time to decide who your customers are. Are you selling prints to art collectors? Writing eBooks for budding photographers? Teaching beginners to use their cameras? Look at your strengths, determine what you want to be doing – and then decide who you are targeting. Jay and I know that our primary audience is other photographers – people who want to learn how to use their camera. So, we target our posts to appeal to those people. We include brief tips in every blog posts. We speak in a variety of forums – sharing knowledge with large groups of people so they can get to know us and our teaching styles… and share our names with their friends. And we are always looking for ways to reach out to the photographic community – even this article is part of that effort.
Make sure you are valuable to your customers.
Maybe this is obvious, but it’s absolutely critical. If you purchase one of my eBooks, I want you to come back and purchase another, right? And the only way you are going to do that is if you really feel that the eBook was valuable to you. So, we work hard to make sure that we pack those books full of information. We regularly go back and review older books to make them better, and we are constantly looking for more knowledge so we can share it with others. Workshops are no different. We want our students to go home feeling like they are better photographers than they were before they arrived… and more importantly, we want them to be confident in their ability to repeat the techniques we’ve taught. As nice as it is to come away from a workshop with some amazing photographs – what we really want to do is teach people to take amazing photographs when they are on their own and we’re not around to help out. So, figure out what your customers want, and work to make sure that you are providing that. Doing so will translate to more clients, more sales, and more word-of-mouth advertising.
Act like a professional.
I think too many photographers forget how important it is to present themselves as professionals. I’m not talking about business suits and corporate accounts. It’s really not that difficult. Start with a well-designed website that works well. Design a simple logo and print up some business cards. Respond to emails and queries in a professional manner – it’s ok to be casual, but don’t be sloppy or rude! And perhaps most importantly, present only your very best work! Don’t just stick photos up there to fill gallery space. It’s better to have a small collection of really great shots than a huge collection of mediocre ones.
Learn More about Photography from Jay and Varina Patel
If you’re looking for more inspiration, photography tips, education and webinar workshops, visit Jay and Varina’s blog over at Photography by Varina. And use this exclusive discount code to get 10% off any eBook order over $20: SMUGMUG314
The Globalist: Promoting Cultural Understanding in Living Color
Name: Awais Yaqub
Name of Company: Awais Yaqub | Photographic
Location: Islamabad, Pakistan
Market: Fine Art, Landscape, Travel
Bragworthy Factoid: Winning CIO’s 2010 Best Photo Blog Award
SmugMugger Since: 2005
- Getting his first camera, a Sony Cybershot, in 2004
- Accepting his first pro assignments in 2007
- Seeing his work featured in galleries around the world
- Beautiful portfolio design
- Unlimited customization
- Ease of use
- European lab for printing
- One-click sharing to social media
- Community and customer support
- Photo display and full-screen viewing optimization
- Watermarks and print marks
He means business
Yaqub may be the most visually driven MBA on earth. Obsessed with beautiful magazine and book images from childhood, he eventually co-opted his father’s ancient SLR, using it even without film (he shares a laugh over the dead bug they were never able to remove from the viewfinder). While continuing his education in Islamabad, he formally began his photography career in 2004 with a small Sony Cybershot. “There were no photo communities or schools in my city where I could learn, so the Internet became my source,” he says. “My learning curve was steep as I never went to art school.” That didn’t stop this determined shutterbug, who began taking product photos professionally in 2007 with a DSLR. Finding the pro route and its adherence to client tastes repressive, he began choosing assignments selectively, focusing instead on building his gear arsenal and experience as an amateur. The move back to amateur status ensured that “photography remains my love,” he says.
SmugMug brings his world closer
Yaqub first joined SmugMug after mentors suggested it on Dgrin.com, both to showcase his work and provide safe back-up. Calling Dgrin “one of the best photography forums on the Internet,” Yaqub looks to the online community for passion and great customer support. “I can get any sort of photography advice, difficult technical info or SmugMug customization tips there,” he says. “SmugMug communities drive more traffic to my photo galleries and make it easy to find SmugMug photographers with similar interests.” Yaqub appreciates that he can now sell and ship to an international market with ease. Beyond that, he says becoming part of the community has helped him explore the business side of photography and improved his craft, educating him on print quality and online distribution issues. “Now I try to capture each frame with a printed end product in mind,” he says. “Dgrin is a platform of serious pros and learners, where I get instant technical help and inspiration.
Paying it forward in pictures
For Yaqub, photography is ultimately about sharing—sharing images, sharing views, sharing knowledge. SmugMug’s one-click sharing to social media sites like Facebook and Twitter helps him fulfill that mission. “For me, there is absolutely no reason to create a photograph and keep it in cold storage. What good it would do if it was not able to spread the message, inspire someone or help someone in their learning process?” he points out. “For instance, if you look at photos of historic events, they add another dimension to perspective.” In the future, Yaqub looks forward to traveling more, finding inspiring stories to document. He aims to focus on “spectacular natural and human wonders that really lift the spirit.” His partner for the journey? SmugMug. “Sharing these stories with the world requires a great platform with great security, display and printing.” (Yes, we’re excited, too.)
Beauty is as beauty does
SmugMug’s customizability has allowed Yaqub to bring the powerful esthetic seen in his work to his galleries. “SmugMug customization is this magical tool that transforms the basic look of a portfolio into something totally different, depending on the desired output,” he says. Along with SmugMug’s photo display and big, beautiful gallery styles, Yaqub endorses the “stretch” feature that lets galleries scale to available display size, optimizing the gallery for full-screen slideshows, which he terms “a breathtaking experience.” Other feature faves: the ability to retouch photos after orders are placed and creating effects with PicMonkey when he isn’t working in Photoshop. The tools SmugMug provides to safeguard his work are also important. “I can create as many watermarks as I want,” he says. “I have made quite a few for different purposes.” He also uses print marks to keep his work safe from alteration.
An eye for culture
Galleries in countries as diverse as Malaysia, India, the UK and the US have featured Yaqub’s work. International fans tell him they appreciate the glimpses he offers into the lives of typical Pakistanis. He has developed a singular perspective, using his camera to take viewers closer to spectacular human and natural wonders—or, as he calls them, “beautiful creatures that are impossible to see with the naked eye.” Yaqub points to his tendency to look at ordinary things differently as the reason his shots are memorable to admirers. “Culture is as diverse as nature,” he says. “It makes our world so beautiful and lively and charming to shoot.”
Love what you see? Check out our other incredible SmugMug Success Stories.
Patrick Smith is a world-renowned landscape photographer who specializes in gigapixel panoramic projects. We wanted something special for SmugMug HQ – a mind-bendingly tricky pano of San Francisco – and we thought he’d be up for the job. He pulled it off perfectly and lived to write up this guest post for us. You can see it here and cover your own walls with this amazing shot. Here’s how he did it.
It seemed like such a harmless idea at the time.
SmugMug’s Chris MacAskill wanted a print for the SmugMug headquarters that would be similar to a photo I had shown him earlier, only much bigger. He wanted a huge panoramic version of the classic view of the Golden Gate Bridge with the Transamerica building seen through the north tower. Chris was thinking of printing it somewhere in the range of 30-36 feet across at close to 240DPI. I thought it would be a decent amount of work but not a big problem – after all, multi-gigapixel photos are becoming more commonplace every day and stitching programs have improved a lot over the past few years. One recent image of London is made up of over 4,000 individual photos!
Most gigapixel images are created during daylight hours or well after dark, conditions at which the light is consistent over dozens (or hundreds) of shots. However, I wanted the entire panorama to be done during the rapidly changing light that occurs just after sunset.
After a few quick calculations, I figured that I could get the resolution Chris wanted from about 30-40 portrait photos across and a few rows high with my Canon 5D MK II and about 25% overlap between photos. I decided to rent the Canon 800mm F5.6 lens for 10 days from BorrowLenses. They were very helpful and even had a drop-off point near my house in Walnut Creek. I thought that 10 days of shooting would be plenty of time if I could choose a window of opportunity where there would be plenty of clear days with good visibility. It was November, and the California rainy season was about to begin. But with no storms in sight and a warm spell in the offing, I rented it.
I wanted to create an image that would look like a single photo taken during those few moments about 20 minutes after sunset where the softening natural light is about equal to city lights. A photograph created at this time will not have blown-out highlights but still have the glowing atmosphere of a nocturnal view. Since I needed to shoot over 30 photos per row and at least 3 rows tall, I knew that it would take several favorable days to shoot them all. This is because there are only a few minutes with good light after sunset and each exposure would take around 7-12 seconds to shoot. Also, with the 800mm lens you have to be very precise about focus, and setting the focus using the Live View feature adds even more time to each shot.
I was excited to begin. The next 10 days looked clear and warm, so off I went. The first obstacle was how to stabilize this huge lens during 10-second plus exposures when it is perched on the side of a hill exposed to strong ocean wind. The Golden Gate is the easiest place for wind to pass through the California coastal mountain range so there is a lot of it passing through. The sturdiest tripod is no match for these breezes so I had to come up with another solution.
I headed over to Home Depot and bought a 1-inch thick rounded and sanded plywood wheel that is about 18 inches in diameter. It is about the size of a very large pizza. Also I bought a plastic bucket, a short 1×4 and some thin wood shims. The idea is to place the plywood onto the bucket and then put the lens on the plywood. Then it is easy to rotate the lens right and left. The bucket is low to the ground and very stable even in high winds with the big lens on it. Also, it is easy to level the entire thing using by moving it in the dirt until your line of sight across the wheel is level with the horizon. I cut the 1×4 to a length of about 6 inches and cut notch in the middle so that the end of the lens would rest in the notch. That stops the lens from rolling around. The thin wood shims are then used to raise and lower the camera side of the lens. With this setup, you can shoot an entire row, insert or remove some shims and then shoot another row.
For the first 10 days, visibility over the bridge was perfect but it was hot and the city lights twinkled. Twinkling when viewed through 800mm of lens makes the entire frame flicker back and forth as though you are looking into a swimming pool on a windy day! During daylight it is not too bad because you can have an exposure time of 1/100 or less and things may look a bit wavy but at least they are sharp. At night, an 11-second exposure with the heat shimmering will make the entire image soft in a similar way to what you might see on a long exposure of ocean waves. Even my morning shooting suffered from atmospheric distortion. After 10 days with that magnificent lens I had nothing to show for my efforts! Needless to say I was a bit discouraged. However, I am not one to give up easily, so I borrowed a friend’s 500mm F4 and a 1.4 extender for a total of 700mm of magnification. Fortunately, he was very patient because it took about 4 extra weeks to get the images I needed.
Eventually the weather cooled, the atmosphere stabilized and the twinkling was dramatically reduced. Next, my hope was to get some mist in the atmosphere over several days to get through the entire panorama with consistent light. I made a total of about 20 trips to my spot before I had all the images I needed. All of the images used to make the final pano were captured on five of those evenings.
There were other problems during shooting besides the atmospheric distortion. First, the focus. The city is far behind the bridge, so when I was shooting the towers in front of the city I had to stop down to about F29 and focus extra carefully and do an extra long exposure. On the left side of the panorama were some foreground hills, so I had to refocus there too as well as every few shots throughout the panorama because the focus ring might get moved just a little. Most images, however, were made at F11. This allowed me to get enough depth of field to keep everything sharp. The DOF at F8 (the optimum setting) is too shallow and would cause something in each frame to be out of focus. I kept the exposure time down to 11-seconds by using an ISO of 200. There was very little noise in the final images.
The next problem is that I had to come back on successive days and pick up where I left off. So I had to arrive well before sunset to set up and practice what I was about to do. It is easy to not be perfectly aligned with a row from the day before. If you are not perfect all the way across then you don’t get enough overlap for stitching.
The other big problem is that the light was changing quickly and was different from the far left side to the far right side. This is a very wide-angle image so this is to be expected. So if you attempt a gigapixel image at dusk, study the direction of how the light fades and start shooting from the darkest areas and move towards the lightest. By the time you get to the lighter areas, they will be closer in brightness to the darker side. This way, the overall image will be more evenly lit.
I brought the images into Capture One, a RAW processing program. It has lots of settings which allow you to gain a little extra dynamic range and still have the image look natural. I collected the best images from all the shoots into one folder and carefully adjusted them for brightness and color. This went fairly smoothly, though there were a few images where I had to dig deeper. The idea is to have all the images be the same brightness.
I saved each one as a JPG because I knew the final file would be huge and I don’t have a super powerful computer! Also, I didn’t touch the JPGs until I had created a PSB file after stitching. TIFF files can only be 4gb in size and a 16-bit file would be 5gb. I ended up creating an 8-bit file but I kept it in PSB format, anyway. I did not lose any information as would be the case if I edited the JPGs directly. And JPG files have a 30,000 pixel width limit.
Originally I planned on using the highly rated Autopano stitching software. It did a great job until it reached areas where the bridge cables were in front of the bay water. As you can see in the small portion below, one cable or a bridge section looks like the next. The stitching software became confused no matter how I adjusted the settings. I auto-stitched as much as I could and then I stitched the remainder of the image (about 50%) manually in Photoshop. Fortunately there was plenty of overlap and after about 80 hours of work, the image was completely stitched.
After stitching, I went over the TIFF image carefully while viewing it at 100% magnification. I cleaned up any bad pixels or stitching errors. There was a bit of noise in some of the darker areas so I used the Photoshop noise reduction and that worked fine. Then I looked at the entire image to make sure that the entire scene looked evenly lit. A few places needed to be brightened or darkened but the adjustments were small because I was careful when creating the first set of files from the RAW files..
The combination of the 500L lens and the 1.4 II teleconverter along with close attention to focus created a final image that was very sharp. Most of the image needed no sharpening, though some areas were sharpened a bit just to get things as close to perfect as possible.
The total amount of time I spent doing recon, 20 trips to the location, and post processing was around 160 hours. Was it worth it? Yes!
If you have any any questions you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Details about the entire panorama:
- 112 11-second exposures (they were all 11-seconds to keep the city lights constant)
- All shots were taken between 20 and 27 minutes after sunset on several nights over a 6-week period.
- The final size is (13,423h x 80,540w, 1×6 ratio)
- AutoPano stitching software to start, but 50% was hand-stitched
- Canon 5D mark II with live view set to 10x magnification to help with precise focusing
- Canon 500L F4 lens with 1.4 extender
- 3 rows of portrait oriented shots with about 35-40 on each row
- 25% overlap on each shot
- Refocus every 3rd shot with extra care on the towers and hillside to the left
- Refocus on Bridge towers to make sure that every bolt can be seen clearly
- No grad filters
- No polarizer.
- No HDR
- ISO 200 (to reduce the exposure time a bit but not too much to induce noise)
- RAW files processed with Capture One by Phase One
- TIFF files processed with Photoshop
- Tripod – 1 home depot bucket with a circular 1-inch thick plywood board rotated on top to create panoramas.
A hidden gem like his homeland, photographer Simon Butterworth is a customer who fell into our Support Heroes’ laps and we instantly admired. His gorgeous captures of the light and weather in Scotland break all the preconceived notions of how the country should appear.
There’s lots more to see, so check out his site!