Imaging USA 2009 Recap: Finding the Upside in a Down Economy

Keeping pace with digital changes is not good enough to remain viable in an economically challenged market. Thus the theme for the international convention of the Professional Photographers of America, Imaging USA 2009, held this past week in Phoenix. “Finding the upside in a down economy.”

I expected the theme presaged an industry overview of sales figure expectations, trends, tips for opening new markets and creative ways to find and secure new clients. Rather than explore gloomy times and external outreach measures, however,

PPA’s benchmark business survey centered more on the internal matters of controlling costs, studio vs. home-bases business, pricing and accounting for profit, handling employees and improving camera and postproduction skills.

While seminar offerings were nothing explosively new, speakers detailed a variety of inspiring personal approaches entrenched in the best of coordinated marketing, presentation and technical skills with a breathtaking intensity that started at 7AM each morning. Much was made of the “boutique” photographer model, the smaller, high priced custom studio.

One could say that individual photographers all have some characteristics of the boutique in common. In fact, however, there are many secrets of the one-on-one artisanal approach. This is the very model I have been writing about for a year in my 2008 monthly column for Professional Photographer. (Here’s the link to read the articles: http://www.ppmag.com/cgi-bin/mt/mt-search.fcgi?IncludeBlogs=1&search=sara+frances )

Other than the Canon 5D Mark II, one of the real-life equipment innovations is the one that secured us the commission to do all the pr photography for the convention. The Ultimate Light Box flash modifier makes possible soft, yet directional on-camera lighting that turns dull to dynamic when you’re shooting speakers and handshakers.

Balance was the message I came away with from this convention. First rate skills and countered with an incomparable buying experience. Interaction is the name of the game. With a nod to the numbers of young photographers entering  business, classic lighting and posing with contemporary equipment were taught in small, hands-on workshops by some perennial industry greats: Carol Andrews, Doug Box, Don Dickson, Don MacGregor, Susan Michal, Ron Nichols, Sandy Puc’, Ralph Romaguera, Louis Tonsmeire, Tim Walden. Was there anyone over 30 in the audience?

Camera skills were balanced by numerous seminars about good business sense: branding, image, pricing, presentation, dealing with the public, as well as insurance, contracts and business planning. Convention speakers were captivating, making even these usually dry subjects sexy and intriguing. Everywhere I heard comments that participants were so inspired, they couldn’t wait to get home and try out all the ideas presented. Enthusiasm rode high, in spite of what we all know of clients’ meager or even non-existent photographic budgets.

Crisp and clean, the Phoenix convention center was a great venue, along with the brand new Sheraton Downtown where many smaller classes were held. Nary a slot machine in sight. What a welcome calm for conversation and in-depth learning. We enjoyed the breakfast buffet at the Sheraton, and lunch at Sam’s Cafe in the open air water garden across the street in the Arizona Center.

Symphony Hall! What a treat in this gracious venue to attend Canon-sponsored veteran Hanson Fong’s wedding posing demo, complete with dramatic club lighting and fog machines.

World Famous Australian photographer Anne Geddes, sponsored by Epson, was the celebrity of the convention, presenting her fascinating personal history of “flower-pot baby” portraiture that grew into worldwide publication of art books, cards and calendars – and now a hefty charitable foundation and Disney affiliate. We loved hearing for this simple and self-effacing lady how she and husband Kel sold her first calendar door to door from the back of their car. Being up close and personal with first rate artisans like Anne is one of the perks of being the convention pr photo team.

Symphony Hall was again the venue for the final night award ceremony at which more than 150 members received Master of Photography, Photographic Craftsman and other meritorious awards. A parade of flags pointed to international connections, as did the formal announcement of PPA’s PhotoAsia, the first convention and trade show in Jinan, Shandong, China. Emotionally charged addresses from outgoing president Dennis Craft, incoming president Ron Nichols and Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Anne Geddes made quite clear the depth of personal commitment to art and education over long careers that exemplifies our profession. The litany of “We are PPA!” rang from every VIP’s lips, enumerating the benefits of our 128 year old member-owned association.

The well-attended night life blossomed Saturday at Alice Cooperstown club where appropriately face-painted donors to PPA charities raised a glass to the silent auction and rocked to the tunes of 60º North, Raun Alosi’s first rate local band personally sponsored by Kay Eskridge. Canon hosted the Sunday night welcome party, with backdrops of red desert rock formations. By Tuesday you would think people were partied out, but Kodak’s post awards all-convention party swelled the Sheraton ball room to the point that people were having trouble getting in the door. Everyone I overheard was making contacts and sharing ideas and experiences. Eats and drinks were liberal. No skimping at any of these parties!

Everybody craves trade shows. Although some notable companies were absent, exhibitors emphasized the convention theme with products, presentation and pixel techniques that will set any pro apart. Even the painter background looked different. Full time studios need to recognize that their competitors are no longer just the “weekend warriors”. We’re all head to head with other luxury goods like vacations, cars and furniture. And the low end of the market is being swallowed by ordinary moms and dads who can now buy the same cameras we have. They think they can do “good enough” snaps, which often wins out over the superior posing, special effects, creative products and experience the fine photographer can provide. Sure keeps you on your toes when you know customers are having to choose between doing it themselves and paying nothing for so-so images or committing slim discretionary funds to a sizable bill for a really great portrait for which they may not have the foresight to value for now or future enjoyment.

Bless PPA for going where other associations fear to tread by insisting we arty members strive to do business the way it ought to be done. And incidentally becoming more profitable to take care of our families and staff for a lifetime.

Sara Frances, M.Photog.CR.

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