Photo studio workflow technology: should you go in-house or outsource?
What are the pros and cons of developing your own automated photo studio workflow compared with procuring an external solution? SpinMe’s David Brint offers his insight, along with other industry professionals who have experience on ‘both sides of the fence’.
With the pressure to deliver more imagery of even more products in ever-decreasing timeframes, now may be the time to reassess your photo studio workflow.
But is it better to spend the time developing and resourcing in-house workflow technology, or invest in an external solution? It’s an age-old debate, but one that’s received fresh impetus as a result of the recent surge in online shopping.
The choice isn’t always a clear-cut one. “It’s not an easy question to answer, as there is not always an ideal solution,” suggests Stéphanie Moreau. The former Head of Digital Factory at a large French online fashion retailer was responsible for all of the digital content on the French retailer’s website, and her first project when she joined the retailer was to introduce more automation across the company’s photo studios.
“We used to have a mix of external software, including Looklet and SpinMe Studio, and we also developed our own tool internally to help automate production. In this type of situation, finding a way to co-ordinate all of these different solutions becomes a priority.
“If you want to do this in-house, you need to make sure that you have the skills to develop and to maintain this technology, and some companies may not be able to have people dedicated to the task. The end result could provide you with more flexibility though, because you are able to build it to your unique requirements.
“When you outsource the software you have something that is aligned to the market rather than the specific needs of the company. But at least you do not have to deal with all the development and you just have to ensure that it links in with your internal systems.”
“A couple of years ago, we decided to get rid of one of the pieces of in-house software and move forward with SpinMe Studio for the full studio production. That was the first step towards having an almost uniform, end-to-end solution, because it became easier to exchange information within the different Digital Factory studios. So, it was possible to shoot items in Paris and them add more images in Barcelona using the same tools.”
Outsourced workflow solution benefit: Global vision
Using a single, outsourced workflow rather than a string of different in-house solutions dedicated to each part of the business offers potentially greater efficiency gains. “But there is always a risk that the decision ends up being political rather than focusing on being more efficient,” says former Media Group Head of Projects at the same large French online fashion retailer, Pierre-Albert Didier.
“You might have developers in the business who say that they can create their own sample manager and make their own outsourcing interface, and so on,” he says. “And then you can end up with perhaps five or six different types of software for one task, when you could really only have one.”
Pierre-Albert points out that building a range of home-grown solutions can hinder scalability too. “When you want to be efficient in a studio, you need people to be prevalent in every aspect. But if a photographer doesn’t know how to use all of the different types of software, it can restrict your options.”
Similar to the French online fashion retailer, e-commerce product photography specialist PVS Studios originally developed their own workflow solutions. “They worked fine to begin with,” reveals Vice President of Operations, Perry Knotts, “but at the same time they have been a little like Band-Aid solutions. As the business has changed, we’ve had to try and adapt those internal systems that we’ve built, and sometimes there just isn’t the flexibility there.
“Having someone like SpinMe involved now is extremely beneficial because they have people who are much more experienced at workflow solutions than we are. We’re great at taking pictures, but being able to rely on the knowledge and expertise of external teams in different areas is huge. We’re even using help for the post-production aspects. So all of these things have really allowed us to become the managers of the photos, getting the products in, getting them shot and getting the images delivered.”
In-house workflow solution benefit: Shared goals
As Stéphanie highlighted earlier, one of the benefits of using an internally developed solution is that it’s put together by people who know what you’re doing as a business. SpinMe CEO, David Brint concurs: “Your goals are aligned and you want to achieve the same results. And the people who are working on the in-house solution are also on site or in regular communication with the site, depending on where the studio is.
“The internal solution has probably evolved over a period of time as well, sometimes being built up over three, four or five years,” adds David, “and it has taken into account the intricate knowledge of the production facility.
“But, more importantly, the developers understand the overriding IT philosophy and structure of the company, and they understand how to plug that solution into other IT solutions used within the business. So you may have an internal PIM or DAM solution that the workflow that you’ve developed internally plugs into. And they all work together.
David also points to the perception of potential costs-savings being a benefit of running with an internal solution. “I stress the word perception though,” he says, “because a lot of the costs are actually not accounted for. It’s a fixed overhead. You might have five developers whose salaries you have to pay, whether you give them the internal solution to work on or not.”
“Usually, the developers putting together the internal solution are not specialists in studio production techniques, they are broadscale IT people. They are probably only familiar with your business and they don’t see what else is out there. Also, being an internal resource means that they are completely project driven, so they never have time to sit down, review progress and consider other options. An external solution, on the other hand, is able to be garnered from global knowledge of industry best practice.”
Relying on internal talent also runs the risk of fixing a problem purely in the short term. “They deliver a solution, and then they’re onto the next project,” says David. “But a solution is only a solution today, and it could be out of date by tomorrow. You’ll find something else you’ll wish you had added, or a new way of working that you want to try out.
“Nearly all of the major retailers still have photographers shooting at home, for example. So, how do they get the images in? How do they know where the samples are? How do they manage that process? There’s also the switch to using more imagery supplied by vendors. How do you get that into a workflow without it being a hugely intensive manual task? You may have a solution that works on a server at the moment, but you may need a cloud-based solution in the not-too-distant future.
“All of these things require the need for evolution, which is where outsourced technology such as SpinMe Studio really has the advantage. Our product is never finished. It’s an evolving solution that changes all of the time.”