What are the biggest challenges facing photo studios in the next 12 months?
Higher quality, lower cost, faster turnaround… When you consider the challenges facing photo studios, some problems are reassuringly familiar. But what pressures does a global health crisis add to the mix? Industry experts share their thoughts.
Covid-19 continues to cast a long shadow. Even though photo studios have risen to the challenges posed by the global pandemic, the pressure resulting from the rapid shift to e-commerce, disrupted supply chains and socially distanced working is unlikely to be alleviated any time soon.
“Getting over Covid is the number one challenge for the industry over the next 12-18 months, says SpinMe CEO, David Brint. “It remains a huge obstacle to overcome. While most studios are back shooting, they’re only operating at perhaps 60-70% capacity because they have to keep photographers and sets farther apart. But at the same time, they’re looking to scale their operation in order to meet the demand for getting more products online more quickly.
“There are ways around it, of course. It all comes down to workflow. The more efficient you can make a studio and the more time you can have photographers taking pictures rather than dealing with mundane and methodical tasks, the better.”
While the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic has forced novel solutions for photo production to be developed almost overnight, there are some perennial problems that are all-too familiar. As Ali McLeod, AVP, Photo Studios at Saks Fifth Avenue suggests, finding the sweet spot of cost and quality is the big one.
“I think there is always the Venn diagram of you want it cheap, you want it fast and you want it good,” she says. “And there’s now an expectation that you have to hit all three, really. So, I think finding that balance is always the challenge in our industry.
“Covid has been a huge learning point as well, and we have to think differently about how we do things. We’ve had to really think about how we can help to educate a customer on a product. Maybe they’ve shifted to shopping more digitally than they did before, so what is missing from that in-store experience and how can we really fill that gap for them?
“Customers always want more images, they always want more views and, especially in this luxury space, they want a video so that they can see how an item moves. It’s really important to give them as much as we can.”
Not all photo studios have had to make sweeping changes to their working practices. Take 360° interactive product photography and data capture specialists PVS Studios, based in Jacksonville, Florida. “We’re fortunate in that where we’re based, we were classed as an essential business since day one,” explains Vice President of Operations, Perry Knotts. “So we’ve been able to service the image needs of people to help them make it through this period.
“The biggest challenge is just being able to move even more quickly. I believe that the time that people want their images returned is going to continue to get expedited, and in the near future I can see us being expected to deliver a one-day turnaround, where products arrive at the studio and they have to be online the same day.”
Time is money, after all. But information is money too, and, like Ali, Perry acknowledges that the volume and variety of content that needs to be generated for each product is only going to increase in order to satisfy customer demands.
“The days where having one picture on a website was acceptable have come and gone really fast,” he says. “Consumers are just demanding more information, because if they’re not going to the stores to shop then they need to be able to see all of the details and every side of an item.
“And then the other thing that’s going to be challenging, from our perspective and certainly from a client’s perspective, is what I would call the ‘truth’ of what you’re photographing or displaying. Some of these items that we photograph, you could essentially use one image to represent a variety of products because there may be very small differences between them. But I think people now want to see every subtle change in a part or component. It’s almost at the point where you have to have a one-to-one ratio, with every product needing its own set of pictures and no duplication of images across a series.”
So, what potential solutions does Perry see for increasing capacity to meet this demand? “It has a lot to do with building internal teams that are capable of doing this, and just being able to potentially photograph more and even stream the automation side of it a little bit more at the same time.
“In our situation we could potentially go to multiple shifts hypothetically. Right now we’re only open, say, Monday through Friday to 5pm, but we could start doing second shifts if necessary.”
Finding the right photographers
Investing in greater automation and a refined workflow can certainly pay off when scaling up. But you still need the photographic talent capable of delivering quality and consistency. Attracting the right people, says Jennifer Bakija, Senior Manager, Visual Rich Content at Grainger, remains a challenge for e-com photo studios.
“A lot of the college programs in our area are focused on artistic and creative photography, and not as much on commercial photography,” she says. “But in our industry, everyone wants things faster and cheaper, and it takes time to cultivate that skillset.
“Also, more and more studios are moving towards the distribution centres on the outskirts of cities. Everyone is out in the boonies and it’s hard to get talent to want to drive that far and stay there. My studio is in a distribution centre 60 miles away from Chicago, for example. I have two people who are putting 120 miles on their car four days a week, and that is a lot to ask for.
“So for me, the challenge is finding the right staff, people who understand that e-commerce is actually a good thing and not beneath them.” Jennifer suggests that colleges can help in this regard. “I think that they could be setting better expectations on what commercial photography is for those that want to go in there.
“You might think that having to shoot 30/60/100 images of e-commerce products a day isn’t creative, but what is creative about it is how you make it consistent, how you find patterns and themes. My photographers still do very creative work, it’s just outside of work. But the tools and the lighting techniques and all of these aspects that they’re learning in their jobs, they’re translating into their personal, more creative photography.”
Jennifer returns to a familiar problem when considering other challenges facing photo studios: “People just want more of everything. So, how do you create more images without sacrificing quality?
“I’ve had to tell my team that these images aren’t going to be a billboard. It’s not fashion, it’s a drill bit or a castor. There might be an imperfection in there that might bother you if the image was on display in a gallery, but for commercial photography? It’s all about finding that right balance.
“Of course, that doesn’t mean we sacrifice quality. Our ‘good enough’ is like anyone else’s 110%. We have very high standards. But at the end of the day we’re a production facility and we have to get this stuff done.”