Challenges Faced by Photographers: Part 4

By now, if you’ve stuck with reading my blog for the last three postings, you know the drill:  I strongly believe professional photographers are being clobbered by iPhones and photo booths.  Last post, I ranted about iPhones.  This post, I’m focused on photo booths.

What makes a great photo execution?  The camera?  The software?  The set?  The photographer?  All of the above?
First, let me say:  I do think there is a place for photo booths at today’s events.  I think they can be a lot of fun!  There’s something nostalgic about the mall style, vending machine booths where you stuck in a quarter and out popped a strip of photos.
No one really expected those photos to be good.  They were the first selfies, long before smart phones were ever invented.  
But, somehow, they’ve grown in popularity to rival a photo production.  Booths now don’t look like the one at the mall, but are these huge robot machines that have iPads, printers, flashes, umbrellas, background, sometimes green screen, and  — my favorite — a “photo technician”.  I even think these things are a lot of fun!  I’ve done them, they have a place.  I have no desire to do this type of photography, but that doesn’t mean I think they totally suck.
Vending machine photo booths are a niche.  And — you guessed it — at least in the short term, are easy to compete against.  At least, if you take a few minutes to educate your potential client — and have the skill to achieve better results than the robot.
Photo executions are usually launched by a client for two specific purposes: to increase brand awareness and to capture participant data.  That’s it.  That’s what’s important to them.  But how well represented is a brand if the photos they hand out suck?  How likely are you to post a photo to Twitter if it blows?
Recently,  I came across this HUGE ass vending machine photo booth.  It was staffed by TWO photo technicians.  In the back of the booth was a green screen.  In the front, an enormous touch monitor, easily 6′ long by 4′ high.  Built into the touch screen was a camera.  Next to the touch screen a dye sublimation printer.  
Intrigued, I approached the booth.
“Hi!  I’ll do one.”
The technician looked at me expectantly, waiting for me to tell him what I wanted.  “I’ll have Justin Bieber in with me.”
With that, he motioned to the “x” on the floor.  I stood there.  He rattled on about “photo bombing”, here’s Justin, let’s put him here, make his head bigger, there, all done.  Print.  He rattled so fast I wasn’t even sure the photo had been taken.  But it had.  Here’s what I got:
Honest.  I’m not sure what the torso is to the far right.  And, I’m not sure who the client was, I’m in front of their logo.  On the good side, I did get the email of the digital copy, just a few moments after I left the booth.  On the bad, it was full of how to book this photo company for your event.  This convention was for the American Bus Association, and not a convention to promote photo booths.
Here is what we did for another client exhibiting at that convention:
Now, with the goal in mind of increasing brand awareness, and capturing participant data by upload to social media, which photo do you think is more likely to be shared?  Who do you think my client was?
The answer may surprise you.  In this case, we had two clients:  the main client was the St. Louis Department of Tourism, the second was one of the booth’s sponsors, Vandalia Bus Lines.  Our job was to represent both.
AHHHH, you say, but the vending machine booth with the two technicians is CHEAPER.  
I actually asked their price, and they charged MORE than we do.  They took up more space than we did.  But they did have the Bieb before mug shot.
Other than that, I guess, we’re the same.
Last week, Matthew and I did another green screen photo execution, this one for Yamaha Outboards at the Bassmaster’s Classic.  Yamaha’s direct competitor, Mercury Outboards ALSO had a green screen photo execution.  
Here’s what we did for Yamaha:
and here’s what our set looked like:
I didn’t have the balls to photograph the photo execution at Mercury’s booth.  A little awkward, though: two photo executions for two rival companies going head to head across the convention floor.
I can’t say exactly what my client told me.  Suffice it to say they weren’t asking Mercury’s photographer for his card.
What was different?  The execution at Mercury’s booth was a pipe and drape style greenscreen, pulled tight with big metal clamps.  The photographer had his computer set up on a shipping container, and built into the shipping container was one light stand.  It came up, and for the first day and a half, he used the light straight on, without even an umbrella.  
Can you say flashy face?
Unfortunately, I have no idea what the photographer at Mercury was charging his cliet.  I’m guessing, however, about the same as yours truly.  There just isn’t that much variation on price for this sort of execution.  
I work a lot of events, and I see a lot of setups for photo executions.  I’ve seen green screens thumbtacked to walls.  I’ve seen photo booths where the photographer has no interaction with the participant, actually posting signs to direct.  “Look HERE!”  “Print comes out HERE!”  I’ve seen direct on camera flash, with near catastrophic photo results.  And, I’ve seen booths where they used no lighting, with people turning out orange and drunk looking.
Photo booths are here to stay, in some form or another.  Far more concerning (for the professional photographer) is the trend at large scale events to use iPad and tablet cameras to capture images, followed by direct export to participant social media.  Aps already exist to do traditional photos, and new green screen aps are popping up daily.  Theoretically, a booth could staff with temps, put the tablets in their hands, and have at it.  Cost?  The green screen ap is $4.99.
So…WTF do you do? First, remember one thing: produce a product that can’t be produced by a robot.  When technology changes, change your product.  When acceptable greenscreen is possible on an iPad, create an image that is more sophisticated.  Then, show the client the difference.
Here’s what we do for Progressive:
Right now, the technology doesn’t exist to do this in a photo booth.  So, for now, if Progressive wants an image like this — they have to hire a photo production company that can produce. (I can just hear one of my associates who bulds photo booths howling he can do this.  No.  I’ve seen the images.  Not quite there — yet.  But yours is better than most. )   And when the vending machines become capable of creating this image?  Use your creativity as a photographer / entrepreneur to come up with the next generation.
Without technology, today’s photography wouldn’t be possible.  But it’s a double edged sword, isn’t it?  That same technology can make you obsolete in the blink of an eye.  Just think “Walkman”.  Sony was so cocky when they owned the corner of the market on Walkmen.  My mom covered their convention right at their peak, and they had big, big plans on how to keep their dominate role.
Two years later, the Walkman was replaced by the iPod.  Do they still make Walkmen?
Thank you for sticking with my rant.  I know you’ll disagree with some of my thoughts, and maybe agree with others.  If you’d like to give me your take on the industry, and how we — as professional photographers — can stay competitive (and relavent), please comment, send me an email at mike@USeventPhotos.com, or Tweet me, @USeventPhotos.  I’d really like to hear your thoughts.  In a future blog post, I’ll pull the different opinions and offer a take from another perspective.
Just don’t tell me you did the Justin Bieber photo above.  I’m sorry, it’s just pitiful.