Settling in for a new year. The market continues to shift around.

Mint Julep for Liberty Tavern at the Hilton Hotel.

At heart I am a very optimistic cynic. I am watching the news about Dell, Inc. and the talk about a group of investors taking the company private. Their company lost 1/3 of its value last year and their shrinking piece of the PC pie, and the shrinking of the total PC market, has Dell looking for a new business focus. They are saying that by going private they'll be more nimble and less constrained by shareholder When I hear about going private I remember watching Freescale Semiconductor to the same thing. And for the last three years they have been operating with a $12 billion debt load while sales in the semiconductor industry have remained constant or shrunk.

The cynic in me tells me that the majority stockholders in any company going private are using this sort of transaction partially as a way to cash out at a temporary, artificially boosted stock price while saddling the new owners with the debt. The optimist in me sees that if you already own the stock and the rumors become truth you will see the typical spike up in the asking price of the stock which will at least get you back to parity. I wish the people at Dell very good luck because they have been a very good corporate citizen here in Austin.

But what this really shows me is that all markets are always in flux and even the best and the brightest have trouble predicting the future. What chance do we, as single person, freelance businesses, have?  Well, for one thing, if we've been frugal we don't have anywhere near the burn rate of a big company with the attendant need to always be feeding that cash flow monster. And, hopefully, if we don't let ourselves become constrained by aping what everyone else is doing, we have a shot at creating new niches and new ways forward to profit.

I'm like a broken record when it comes to talking about changing every parameter of the way we do business. From the cameras we use and the lights we bring to the jobs doing it the same way we've always done is kind of like driving while fixated on the rear view mirror. I hear from photographers who are locked in a print mentality. They still see the print as the gold standard. But from my point of view (at least as a commercial photographer) the print is long dead and it's now five years since I tried to fire up an expensive inkjet print and do any sort of printed product for a client. In advertising and corporate work it's all about the digital file. If a client needs a trade show graphic they'll have an in-house or agency procurement manager working with a high end output house in order to get what they need. Our responsibility ends at the point where we deliver the image. (No, it's not practical to become a middleman for this work---the files go through a design shop which is a subset of the ad agency or a design shop hired directly  by the company to do apply their branding to the images (type, logos, etc.) and they are just as specialized as we are).

I've finally come to grips with the idea that Dell, Freescale, IBM and any other big company out there is no longer going to be sending photographers around the world for weeks at a time to do annual reports and other high profile projects. That train has already sailed....

What it means to me as a small business owner is that I have to find new markets and new ways to deliver to the same markets and to the newer disruptive players in markets. You wanna know what one of my differentiators in my markets is? I'll tell you anyway:  I know how to light stuff. And light it well. That alone eliminates a large swath of my competitors. People have become so invested in the idea that their cameras do incredible, crazy high ISOs that they've forgotten that most of the reason to use lights is to create a lighting design that makes the image different and better than it would have been without additional lights. We use lights to create a direction in the light, to emphasize some things while diminishing the prominence of other things in a scene. We use light to create three dimensions in a two dimensional space. We use light as a retouching tool. 

Back when we competed against other well educated professional photographers we could never have sold lighting as a nearly exclusive feature but in the day and age when a speed light is considered a Cadillac coming in with multiple, specialized lighting tools and modifiers makes it seem like we're using the Aston Martins.

Traditional, healthy businesses have generally learned one set of lessons well and this is something everyone needs to revisit from time to time. The lessons are: Learn to serve your clients, not just take orders. Teach them how to leverage your product.  Under-promise and over-deliver.  Wow them with your creativity but be sure to also give them something they'll be comfortable using. Be honest when you fall short. Then fix it.

Finally, a differentiator missing from the younger market.....learn how to sincerely say, "Thank You" to your clients. Believe me, in their day-to-day lives they don't hear this enough.

Market changes? Going back and forth between stills and video demands new lighting skills and new lights for traditional photographers. Cameras with built-in EVFs also have an advantage when shooting video.   The days of many assistants flitting around the set now only exists on the set of Creative Live: Learn how to be self sufficient. Travel light but light well. Improve your cameras not by buying new cameras but by learning best camera practices: Use a tripod. Use your optimum ISO's (hint, even if your files have no noise at higher ISOs they lose dynamic range linearly every step up from their base ISO). Use the optimum aperture on your lens. Work on your focusing technique. Do more with less by doing it better. 

Finally, what do all the major client's gyrations, shifts and paradigm changes hold for my business?  Growth. They need to re-brand and re-engage their customers along every step of the way. And we're here to serve them. Change is neither good nor bad. 

A quote I read recently:  When God closes a window a Navy Seal kicks open a new door.

Start kicking those doors open.