What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
As the months tick by under the shadow of COVID-19, and schedules are still on hold, it’s easy to think our time as event professionals has ended. It’s hard to remain hopeful when you look at the news. Daily your bank account shrinks, and politicians either focus on their re-election, or worry about the postal service. A concern I understand on it’s face, but one that seems silly when families are lining up at food banks.
But there is hope. All things end, and there are glimmers a vaccine is just around the corner. So take a deep breath, sit back, and let me tell you a story about a time when I thought my days as an event photographer were done. This is the story about the single event that shaped how I work as a photographer. In fact, this nightmare changed how I think.
It was a time of upheaval in my life. Everything was changing, faster than I could adapt. It was exciting. Terrifying. I’d sold my first house, and had about $15,000 I could invest to grow my new fledgling photography business. I’d met Matthew, and we’d moved in together. I wanted to break away from photojournalism, and venture into the world of big money corporate photography. A world where the average sale was $3,000 instead of $300.
I was getting calls daily for event photography, mainly centered around green screen photo booths — or printing photos on the spot. I had been referring those calls to other photographers, until I realized how much money was in the corporate budgets. I’d happen to ask one caller how much they’d planned for the photo services. “Oh, I’d say $3,000 a day. Something like that.”
Gulp. I nearly dropped the phone. I’d never considered those types of budgets existed. The event she was working on was planned for three days. $9,000. NINE THOUSAND DOLLARS. Roughly a third of my gross sales, at that point, for any given year.
I promptly took the money I had in the bank, and invested in two high speed photo printers. They were top of the line and specifically built for event photographers. Cost? About $1,500 each. Plus materials. I decided I needed one to use, and one if it broke.
I vowed I’d be ready for the next job. The call came quickly.
And what a job! A meet and greet with Steve Madden, the shoe guy. He was a television personality at the time, a famous fashion designer. His marketing team was launching a series of meet and greets around the country to raise his profile even higher. They scheduled retail store visits. He’d sit at a table, a Fiji water facing him, along with three chocolate chip cookies, and have his photo taken with adoring fans. I’d print the photo. He’d promptly sign it. Total time for each participant? About 30 seconds. The events lasted about three hours.
The first meet and greet was scheduled for a Nordstroms store. A high end venue, the marketing team wanted everything buttoned down and crisp. Steve Madden was a bit of a handful, they acknowledged. A diva. He didn’t want any water but Fiji. He didn’t want two cookies, or four. He wanted three. And they had to be chocolate chip. No crumbs. From Starbucks. All three to be lined up on one folded crisp napkin.
I arrived to the shoot three hours early, and already the line was forming to meet the designer. I set up my system, tested it, re-tested it. Everything was fine. I was ready. Two hours to go.
Then in a blink, it was one hour to launch. One of the marketing team approached. “This cord needs to be longer, and taped down. I don’t like how it looks stretching to your computer.” Before I could respond, she walked off. Command given and received.
I was eager to make her happy. The cord was the USB that connected my camera to my computer, called a tether. I didn’t have a longer cord, so I tracked down an electronics store in the mall and purchased an extension. Taped it down. All looked good. I tested the system. Perfect.
15 minutes to go. I tested the system again. Good. And again. Not good.
The photo printed black.
Another photo. Black.
I did what I always do to solve technical problems: I rebooted. Tested. Good.
“In 10 minutes you’ll have your picture with STEVE MADDEN! JUST 10 MINUTES TO GO!” Shouted the MTV star personality hosting the event.
My heart was pounding. Palms sweated. Stomach churned. The line stretched completely around Nordstroms. I couldn’t see the end. The store was cavernous. It tilted a little in front of me.
Test again. Black.
That process became a maddening loop. I couldn’t figure it out. All I could hear was the MTV personality doing a countdown until “YOU WILL GET YOUR PICTURE WITH STEVE MADDEN! HOW EXCITING! AND A PRINT!”
Sweat trickled coldly down my back, collecting at the base of my belted chinos. I considered what would happen if I left. Abandoned all the equipment. Ditched the printer. The camera. Just walked away. Of course, I couldn’t. I didn’t. But I did think about it. Escape. Flight vs. fight. Flight was awfully appealing.
In the end, I couldn’t get the system to work. I had no idea why. Instead, I took the photo and handed out cards for the participant to download their image. I was embarrassed. I didn’t charge for the job. I ate about $1,000 in travel expenses. But I did hold onto the client. Somehow. Barely. I think they saw I was trying. And really upset. In short, they felt sorry for me. But only a little.
And I did figure out what happened. Too late for this shoot. On the way to the airport, sitting quietly, driving my rental. The problem was the cord. I’d extended it. I’d never done that. Maybe it couldn’t be that long and work? Why hadn’t I seen it? It was the only thing I’d done differently.
When I got home, I retested everything. First with the long cord, and sure enough, on the second photo, everything printed black. I shortened the cord to it’s normal length. The first photo was great. The second was normal. So was the thirtieth.
I’d let someone push me to make a change to my system. A seemingly simple, innocent request that brought on disaster. That was my major error. By complying, I’d doomed the shoot.
From that experience I learned a few things. First, never change something right before an event. Never shoot with new, untested equipment. And, most importantly, have two completely independent systems set up and ready to go. If one freezes up, simply pick up the camera for the second system and keep going. No one would ever know. When they ask how things are going? “Perfect.” Even if the sweat at the small of your back has made it down your leg to pool at your feet in a great lakes sized puddle.
And that is my rule to this day. It’s served me well. I’ve had computers die painful deaths in the middle of a shoot. I’ve had printers completely melt down — with smoke coming from the machine and almost catching the table on fire. I’ve dropped key lenses, shattering glass on concrete floors. I’ve had everything go wrong that can go wrong. At least once. But when you have two complete systems, you’re covered. One thing about once in a decade events: two computers don’t fry within moments of each other. Thank god.
And that’s what you have to remember with this pandemic. It’s a big, year long version of the printer spitting out black images. You don’t know how, or why. You feel helpless and impotent. But in the end, maybe months from now, a solution will present itself and we’ll all move on.
The key? The key is to preserve your current clients so when the storm ends, they are with you. The old cliche is true: it’s not how we handle success that drives us forward, but how we handle challenge. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.
By the end of this COVID challenge, we all should look like Arnold after winning Mr. Universe. In perfect form. Focused on what we love about our business of photography.
We will be reborn. We will be more successful as a result of lessons learned.