The Biz: Production
Lynn DelMastro has always been our studio manager. That description falls way short of actually who she is in our lives and in my life. We can let it go with studio manager. The number of hats that Lynn wears during an average day, on behalf of the studio, is many and varied. She does the bids, the estimates. She handles the phone calls. She does paper work. She creates mood boards. We'll talk about that. On the phone, she's the underpinnings of a certain level of client relationship, because if there's a production question that comes on, the phone, during a conference call, I'll bounce that over to her. And if I'm sort of running off at the mouth, which I have a tendency to do, she'd be like, "Yeah, Joe, "Let's just remember that "there's a defined amount of expectation, "money, time, et cetera on the table here "that we have to kind of think within "and manage those kinds of "hopes and wild dreams that you might have." But to her credit, she kind of like... If I go to her and I say,...
"Look, I really need this to happen. "This is important to me, "to my development as a photographer, "keeping my interest levels up as a photographer, "I really want this to happen." She resolutely goes forward, and that's an amazing and wonderful gift that she gives me on a regular basis. So, we have been an amazing and wonderful team for some 25 years. All stemming from a newspaper ad I put in a small local paper many years ago.
Many years ago.
20 hours a week.
That's when people looked for help in newspaper, the classified. There was no monster.com or any search engines, no LinkedIn, nothing. I was just having coffee reading the paper. Had been home with my kids for a little while when they were young, and it was time. I needed to kinda get back into the swing of things. I saw this ad, and it said magazine photographer looking for part-time studio help. And he was located three miles away. So I was like, "This could really work. "This could be great. "I could actually be like a stay at home mom, "but work while they're in school, "and this could really be fantastic. "And magazines, maybe National Geographic. "Oh, right, yeah, as if." And then we met for coffee, and I said, "So what magazines do you shoot for?" and he said National Graphic. I was like, "Oh my god. "This is the coolest thing ever." And the rest was you're hired, and I started immediately, and part-time. (laughs)
Part-time for a brief time.
For a week.
Became full-time very quickly.
And that was the beginnings of it. Obviously, we'll get into this. We have paper work and stuff that we'll show you, but the business has grown in exponentially different ways than we could've possibly imagine. Because when we first started to work, we didn't have a computer. No cellphones or anything like that. It was all done in a typewriter, phone work. And when I would go for the National Geographic, I would be gone. And Lynn had to basically man the ship on her own, and handle all of that. Obviously, the instantaneous nature of the communication we have now vastly different from what we could've even dreamed off.
So, in a nutshell though, Lynn's job, I've described in non-poetic terms as being a studio manager. In a nutshell it's in this phrase that she uttered to me many years ago. "You're a race horse. "My job is to keep you on the track."
Without the whip.
And that's really true, I'm the engine. To continue the analogy, she keeps the engine running. It's not completely constant, but it's pretty darn near constant. And she is responding a great deal to the equation, which I've already mentioned to you. "The unromantic part of photography "is that every morning I wake up "and think about how to turn my time "and pictures into money." Now some folks could say that's decidedly unpoetic. Okay. Guilty as charged. This is not fun and games for me. This is not a hobby, and I respect all of that. I mean enthusiast photographers who just love to shoot pictures. I'm also an enthusiast photographer. I love to shoot pictures, but I do have this corollary responsibility or nature of my duties, which cause me to shoot hard core for money. And I often time, maybe not often times, but I do shoot things I don't like, things that I need to shoot just to keep the lights on. That's a job. That's the job aspect of it. I think too maybe many young people perhaps get into this with dreamy ideas, first class air tickets, and locations on the French Riviera. It ain't that, and I'm sure you guys know that. So we don't even need to go into it, but I've had assistance come to us over the years, who would drop out very rapidly when they actually see how much work this is. 10-hour day, 12-hour day, 14-hour day, those are more than norm than the easy two or three-hour knockout. So, big differences when it was a simpler world years ago, okay, in the age of digital. For instance... (giggles) That was my smart phone back then. I use the Nikon Professional Services yearly calendar. That was my Bible. And God Almighty if I ever lost that. Oh my goodness, just horrible. Had everything in it, all my contacts, and you can see how I organize I was about your average couple of weeks. So, we had boxes of research. Lynn would fill these boxes, true enough, right?
That's my hand writing on there.
Clip test, film logs, all of that was the grist of our business, okay, for many, many years. Okay. The National Geographic caption book. It would be a duplicate book. You would tear the top of it off and send it in with your film, and you had your carbon copy here. It was a little spiral notebook that you would keep with you, and you would ship the top copy in with your rolls of Kodachrome. And all those rolls of Kodachrome would be numbered, corresponding to the numbers here, your camera. Your cameras would be numbered, okay, your rolls, everything. Because what would happen is they would run the stuff through a film review. And if you had a camera malfunctioning in the field, they would desperately try to get word back to you that camera three has a slow shutter. Camera three, something is happening, whatever it might be. All of this metadata stuff. At big events like conventions, I used to taka a file, and I would notch my gate, my 35 millimeter gate. I would put notches with a file, okay, and let the shutter transfer. And that way, when you had black and white negatives come out, at the edge of the black and white negative, there would be your notches. And so, if anybody said, I was standing right next to the guy from the Associated Press when a politician would go, "Hey!" And then somebody would say, "Well, that's my picture. "No, that's my picture. "No, that's my picture." I had notches in the edge of the frame. That was a crude form of metadata. (laughs) So, this had evolved, right? This has evolved dramatically. Polaroid has given way to the LCD, and clip test have given way to the instantaneous affirmation of whether the picture is well-exposed or not. These are all snips that we would run through the process, our lab, film process, E6, and then judge the density of it, and then process the rolls accordingly. Again, to be an unromantic about it, and to quote our long-time accountant, "Billing is our most important product." That's from his perspective. For me, good pictures is our most important product, but the linkage between producing those good pictures and actually getting paid for it is very, very necessary and very, very strong. And that is a voluminous bill, and this is again where Lynn will come in and just everything that we deliver to a client is organized to the nth degree, right?
Yeah, it depends on the client's request. Sometimes I have to substantiate every single expenditure with the receipts and copies of backup and everything they could possible need to prove that, that bottom line is what we actually spent. So, as far as Fred the accountant goes, he'll be like, "Alright, so I know it was like "a big job, and you took in a lot of money for it, "but how much did you actually earn? "How much of it was expenses? "How much of it was fee?" And it's all spelled out for the client purposes, how we do that.
Let's talk about that for a second if I may. It might be a tiny bit premature, but let's... Where we evolve to, Lynn basically reacts to clients in the billing sense or the bid and estimate and all that enumeration, budgetary kind of machinations, the need to go on there. There are client who come to us and says, "Here's your fee, "and give us a proposed budget." True?
Yes, I mean it really depends. Actually, it's a variety of all of those things. We have some clients who give us a lump sum and say, "This is what it is, "and you need to accomplish "these end result types of pictures." And so, in the end of it all, this is the budget you have to work with. So you have to figure out how much of that to allocate towards your expenses, how much of it you will actually determine is your fee. Typically in a case like that, what Joe and I will do is we'll sit down, and based on the licensing package, because that's... If someone says to me what's Joe's day rate, I'm like, "Well, what kind of licensing do you want?" It's not a day rate de facto this is what it is. Some photographers I realize have that business model where everything starts at $1,200, and then they build based on usage on top of that. Ours is more of the licensing, and that's where we start our basic business pricing. That would be determined to be his fee, and then based on the ideas that are needed for that shoot, to execute that, then we determine the expense portion, and that can be a variety of things. It would be models, casting, hair, makeup, wardrobe, location scouting, so many factors, props. Many, many things. For us it really varies. Then we will have other clients who will say, "Here's a shoot that we wanna get done. "We don't have a particular budget in mind, "that's why we're coming to you "to tell us what do we do. "This is a licensing, how much do you want for your fee, "how much would the expenses be?" My preferred type of client to work with, other than those who... A lump sum is great, but it also gives you not a whole lot of structure because you have to figure it out then yourself. So, a preferred way, if I had a choice, is to deal with art buyers or art producers and ad agencies is they get it. They understand that this is how much, we know that this type of license should probably cost. They understand licensing, usage, and rights, and rates. The terminologies is very familiar to them. So, we're speaking the same language. Often times with some clients, and I say, "Well, what type of license do you want?" and they'll say, "Well, I'm not sure what do you mean by that." and then I have to give them a whole licensing 101. And we're gonna actually talk about a certain situation that happen recently, not an unusual one particular, but one that did happen somewhat recently.
Lynn refers to those jobs where we get a lump sum. It's a bucket of money job. What's left in the bucket is your fee. And what she does for me at that point is keep me realistic, because we get this lumps sum of like, "Okay, cool, we can do a lot with that." And she's like... Okay.
The licensing speaks to this piece of the bucket being your fee. So you actually only have this much to play with. Okay, alright. And that has been a very powerful thing that she's educated me about, because I'm sure you guys have been in the same boat. And please feedback during the course of this. By the way, this isn't, again, a lecture. This is like let's talk about it time. You might as well, because we will never all be here together again, just to put it, sort of a dooms day note on the whole thing. It's been an important thing for me to learn, because we all, as photographers, we are enthusiastic, and that's a mile description of it. We're crazy. We're passionate. We have this vision. We want to exercise our eyes and go after our imaginations in a powerful, powerful way, and that requires support, which relates to the idea of funding. And Lynn is very good about, "Look, I'm gonna do my best "to make sure that you accomplish what you want, "but realistically this is all we can do." So it means we can't fly a body painter to South America as much as you would like to paint the models so that they look like the desert. We can't do that, maybe in the future, something like that, along those lines.
My question is just, on average, in a year, how many jobs do you get booked for? How many of these times do you get in a budget and flying out and doing everything like that?
That's a good question, but tough to answer. I don't think there is an average that we could say really. It really varies. There is like every business, right? You have good ears, and you have not so good years. The good years you're thrilled, and the not so good years, it's like, "Okay, well, there's always next year." Taking in yearly increments as supposed to as a good month. You could do that too. So, it's kind of tough to say.
There's jobs and there's jobs, too. I mean increasingly and probably a lot of photographers would say the same thing. The bigger jobs are what's sustaining you. What has kind of receded a bit are those day-to-day magazine jobs that used to be a grist of a lot of our studio work. It wasn't much money. Editorial day rates, as you know, are not astronomical, but there was a bunch of them. Those have largely gone away. I kind of refer to as what we do now is we don't fish for fish, we fish for whales. And those big jobs are what sustain us. And as Lynn said, sometimes we get more than others. If I can average a big job, every month, that would be a lot. So yeah, I mean it varies. It'd be hard to say exactly. Also, there's big jobs and there's big jobs, and then they're in between them, and we'll get into this in a few images later on too. There's jobs where I'm spending my own money to get something started, and we'll talk about that as well, and that's where Lynn is marvelous, and Annie back in the studio, our social media director, is also very, very... They got a great deal of fortitude because I will come to them and say, "Look, I kinda need to do this." And Lynn is like, "Okay. "What's that gonna cost?"
I mean I don't he's getting it, because I'm very practical. So to me, I understand the need to do some test shooting in order to constantly entice a client, like this is what I can do, and this is what I would do for you. This would be my intention. And to Joe's credit, he... I mean you're just amazing with that. He's like "No, but I'm gonna do it." Okay, got the message. (laughs)
We're gonna go ahead here, okay. And that actually leads to our next slide where our long-time accountant, Fred, who is one of the sweetest most decent human beings on the face of the planet. He's been my accountant for 30 plus years, which leads me to, before I even pop this up, leads me to this premise or this notion that I would talk to you about, and that is develop a set of support around you you trust. We have the same insurance broker for 30 years. We have the same accountant. Lynn has bee with me for 25 years, okay. That kind of ground swell of support you need as a photographer. Find people you trust, find people who are good at what they do, and be good to them, be fair to them, and they will stick with you, and there's a familiarity there. I know photographers for a long time who used to change reps like underwear. It's like that's not good business model, man, because then you guys start all over again. It's hard. But Fred has occasionally looked to me and said, "Joe, this is really more of a hobby, isn't it?" at the end of a tough year. Yeah, yeah. As Lynn indicated, there's good years, and there's lean years. It is the nature of the business. Victoria, you look like you're about to ask something back there. I'm sorry, Kiyako. I didn't see you with the microphone there. We'll go from you to Kiyako.
My question with that is as you're growing your team, do you... I mean you talked about budgeting for a project and how many people are gonna be involved. With your staff, are you paying them salary per year? And if it's a lean year, how do you balance that? Or does every one hurt with you? How are you, per project, paying your crew, or is it just salary and everyone just kind of--
Sure, I mean that's a good question we could certainly both answer. I'm happy to step within, then we could follow up. When I first started with Joe, he had no full-time anybody. He had a freelance for his assistant who would work on an as-need basis, which is fine because you can bill that person to your job, so that's not something that you have to have as overhead. I came in at an hourly wage, and it worked for me and it worked for Joe at that time. The budget was something that he was able to just, based on his receivables, paying certain bills. You have the overhead bills, and then you have one staff person to pay. And because it was part-time and hourly, and it was fair, he was very fair. So at the end of a particularly good quarter, he might give me a little bonus check, and then I was thrilled, and again, it was just all the way it evolved. Over the course of time, we built up our receivables, and we found that we were able... I'm saying we because I manage the book. So we were able to pay me more, and then that worked out well. Then we started taking on first assistance as in terns. So the interns would come and we'd pay them a nominal amount. As Fred would say, "We can't just hire them and not pay them "because that's slavery." So, we'll actually pay them and we were happy to. They would work for about three months on this intern wage. And then, again, pending business at that time, we were fortunate enough to have that internship then flip to a first assistant full-time staff job. But again, they were basically paid, for the most part, based on our receivable. So if we had shoots that were going on, and we're able to bill out an assistant for five days at an average assistant rate, the client is paying us, we're paying the assistant. That just all worked. Now when there wasn't any shooting going on, but that person was still full-time, it will come out of Joe's pocket. So that's just something you have to balance and see based on your business how much you're able to bring in. Joe and I have been consistent to the business for this long because it's just worked out for my life, it's worked out for Joe's life, our business model. Our assistants have come and gone, and we always hire new... We're fortunate and blessed to hire new wonderful people. But as they come and they stay, they tend to be young upcoming photographers and it's time for them to leave the nest. So they go out and spread their wings. We've had wonderful assistants who are now out there as very accomplished professional photographers, and we're very proud of them. So it really depends, but that's, in part, how you would do it. Start out slow and then build.
We're very fortunate. We intersected at a time of our lives where it worked for both of us. Lynn still had kids, they were still pretty young, so it wasn't like she was eager to get back into the New York mix of things at a 50-hour week job with a train commute every day. So this job was, quote unquote, "easy to interface with," and it worked out for her life, and now we find ourselves many years later. We are still together and we are still managing the business. And there have been tough years. When you do have salaries you're responsible for. That is, again, that question I wake up with every morning. Okay, I got responsibilities. I take those responsibilities very, very seriously, because people have devoted their time and effort and expertise to making my business happen, making my pictures better, supporting what we're trying to do collectively out there in the field. And my responsibility back to them is to be fair-minded and to be consistent. Yeah, do I wanna get up on a Sunday morning at 3:00 a.m. in February and get into a car, get on a 7:00 a.m. flight at JFK Airport? No. No. I tend not to wanna do that as much as used to, but the jobs are still out there. The interesting thing about my career is that I don't work in New York all that often.
I know, that's what's crazy. Someone will say, "Where is Joe's studio?" and I say the world. Seriously, that is always my response, because wherever the job is, is where our studio becomes. We just go to that location, and that's our studio. Our home base is out of Connecticut, and we are right outside of New York City. Oddly, we don't do that much shooting there.
I've never shot in New York all that much since my early days.
Kiyako you had a question.
Yes. This is question for both of You. So when you get assignment which is more of using your quote of feeding your soul type of assignment, and then but your budget is there, so you have to follow the budget. But at the same time, if you know, like, "Well, if I spend a little bit more, "I can make this amazing photograph." and that can generate other source of revenue come from different, like media or front page of your book or whatever, in the future. Would you do that or would you keep? To make this client happy, we need to keep this budget, and then go with it, and then you will recreate to feed your soul in a later, in the future.
My watchword has, generally speaking, been we spend a little more. And that will not come out if the client has announced budget. I can't transgress. It's a rare situation that the client is happy about or accepting of the fact you're going back and saying this is gonna cost more money than you wanted it to. And if I wanna push the ticket on my own, it comes out of my feet, it comes out of my pocket. And they are the beneficiaries of that, but they never know that, because that's never something you go back to a client and say, "Well, you paid us this, "but is cost us y. "Hey, why don't you do the right thing here? "You know what I'm saying." No, you don't do that. You don't do that. That was my decision. I am conscious of my responsibilities in that area. If I choose to spend the money, it is on me.
There are times that I think though that we've encountered as well. If the client is present at the shoot, and they see that something can be done differently, better, or there's actually maybe a weather issue, and something is happening, they will understand that we've gotta go an extra hour or stay another day, or pay the talent more, all of which is part of extending things. And if they agree to that, then it's all good, then we're gonna go for that extra time to create what Joe maybe, and even our director possibly weren't completely 100% satisfied with. And so, that's a different situation. So it can happen that way as well.
It can be very wonderful actually. Photographer say, "Oh god, the client is on the set. "Oh my god." We've been blessed of having really great clients over time. It's actually really wonderful, for most of our client's set, to have them along with us, because then they really see what's going on, and there's also that sign off that's right there. It's like, "Here's what we're doing. "You're seeing what we're doing." There's no second guessing with folks who are in New York who sent you out, and then like, "Well, you know. "I'm not sure." They're there. It's a collective effort, and that can be a really positive benefit of having the client on the set with you. As I say, we're blessed with having really tolerant and understanding clients, often times our friends.