2017 in the rearview
As we all turn towards the new year, in this case the 2018 year, its become a common theme to look at the past year and review it. I typically use my review of the past year to look at how my business did, how it was run, where can I improve/how to make it better? Am I still relevant? Am I on the "right" path? Hell, am I on any path? This year my reflection will be slightly different. I had an odd year as you will read. My personal life also conflicted with my professional life more than at any other time. Perhaps just a consequence of aging but it had a huge effect on my thoughts and business performance and it will moving forward.
I had great plans for my studio for 2017. I knew I needed to make changes before 2016 ended. My start on those plans had to wait for me to get back from a family oriented vacation to Costa Rica. Once back home though, towards the end of February, it was time to get to work. I had already decided to move my studio prior to the new year so most of my early part of the year concerned logistics, that is, staying open while planning, extending my brand to cover a new place and my existing business, and mostly - finding a new place! I knew I would have to change my business name since my existing business name, The Studio at 46 West, was tied to my location and that was changing. Stupid, dumb, stupid move in naming it that when I started my business. So I had to file for a name change for my DBA, print new cards, and brochures but first I had to figure out a name! Well, that was easier than I thought. I went with Wally Kilburg Photography for simplicity. I hoped to find a place and make the move within a month, so ideally I close up the studio, pack and be in my new digs in 30 or so days. In hindsight, just how naive could I be? I indeed closed up the studio, no easy task by itself, and packed it up into a trailer and truck. Packing was a MUCH bigger issue and task than I planned for. Where did I get all this stuff and where to put it while waiting for the new place? Storing equipment almost became a bigger issue than finding a new location. I thought I had found a great location too, but the building owner who was originally keen to have me in there suddenly found better prospects (a better offer; which fell through) so I was suddenly out. No matter, a few more places popped up but I learned that working with owners and developers for commercial leasing is a very cutthroat business and unfortunately, all but one developer that I worked with where liars and not trustworthy at all. A handshake or their word meant nothing. To them. So months of negotiations resulted in no place to land and my studio hung in limbo.
I'd be lying if I said this had no effect on my business. It played havoc with my mind. I still worked and actually expanded my skill set a bit taking on higher end real estate and interior design gigs besides typical portrait and product shoots. But I could only do work that did not require a studio. I was having doubts about everything. Oh, I had places I could shoot if needed but couldn't really bust out and advertise. Not just yet. Things did work out okay though. I sold some images for a book. I worked on a friends old, beat to crap images for his book, and as mentioned shot a few gigs of interiors. A bit of this and some of that, learning more along the way. All in all, it could be worse. In late 2016 I had also made a decision to move to a new camera system after the first of the year, using Fujifilm exclusively. No more Nikon after some 9+ years. I was really taken with the smaller Fujifilm mirrorless X system and the lens selection being offered now and for future development. I had been using the Fuji cameras in support of my Nikons for 2 years prior to the switch and had started depending on them more plus I am genuinely taken with the images they produce. When Fuji had announced a new "medium format" sensor camera system, very similar to the Pentax 645z I had coveted for years its was game over for Nikon. Same size sensor, but Fuji tech and design coupled with new lenses designed for it sold me. Pentax had a great camera but never quite had the lenses to make it a system, so I never went for it. Sight unseen, I decided to make the larger Fuji my heavyweight replacement. If you want to call it a gamble, then it was a good one. It paid off too. No regrets.
Studio work means using lights in a number of ways and my type of lighting has always been flash. I like to use speed lights, and I like to use AC/DC based studio pack and monolights and I like to use all of them together. I also like to take my lights with me on location so I need battery power. I don't always have outlets. Long ago I decided on Profoto lights, I mean after all it is a top selling, big name "pro" lighting system with a family of top modifiers and besides offering pack and monolights, they offered the SAME studio lighting powered by batteries! They were and are really expensive though. But they worked (well, mostly...) and they were what all the top pros used, so its a no brainer, right? I used Profoto for four years, I still have a couple AC monolights, but I did encounter a few problems. Lights do get knocked over from time to time. It just happens. Sometimes you replace a few bulbs and go, but with newer digital controlled flash, which is very sexy, those processor and power boards crack, so you may have to replace bulbs and boards. This happened to me. It's very expensive and you lose your light for a week minimum. The Profoto batteries, never quite lived up to their power levels either. I struggled to get 200 flashes on a fully charged battery. The super pricey controllers for TTL and manual use also failed to trigger often, and sometimes the one just went crazy and had to be powered off and batteries replaced - all in front of a client, on their time. If I used TTL ever, the Profotos were always off on the exposure. I started wondering about those reviews on the equipment and if those who wrote them shot in some magical way that eluded me. At this time I needed one trigger system to control my speed lights and one for the studio lights. Needlessly complex. Going all Fujifilm also meant no native flash support for my cameras since, at the time, Profoto did not offer anything to support Fuji and could not tell me if it was ever going to. So, I decided to switch lighting systems, going for more portability, better power, a system which supported ALL my lights and something that wouldn't cost like a small home mortgage. And it needed to support Fuji or planned to, in a big way. I went Godox. Yep, switched from Swedish to Chinese. I'm still more or less in transition but so far I really like Godox and its been another great gamble. Godox really stepped up and offers excellent support of Fuji products. One triggering system that crosses brands and types of lights. Again, no regrets.
So thats a lot of change. Two positives, Fuji and Godox, and one not so positive change, or is it? By summer time, I was fed up and dejected over the studio and trying to source a new one. I needed to step way from my search and do some soul searching. I had also discovered in the early spring of 2017 that I would not be able to run my studio and business as I had been for over three years. I had some things on my personal side that required attention at home and that severely cut into my ability to travel and my availability as a photographer. I knew of this possibility all through the spring and into summer while looking for a place but I hoped for some miracle I guess. It took the few months where I completely suspended my studio ambitions over summer, where I just sat back and thought about it, for these issues and conditions to really take hold. I suddenly knew I needed to make a change to my business model. I still wanted to work and could and I needed a studio but I needed help in making it all work. I could not go it alone. During this studio hiatus, I did more than consider how to keep my business running, I examined my work. What I had been doing, what I wanted to do and what to focus on moving forward. I shot a lot of pictures, some ok, some pretty good and lots of crappier ones, but it was all good because it really let me see where I was as a photographer. I experimented quite a lot. Being honest with yourself about your work can make an impact and it did. I quit cultivating and accepting work I didn't want and I no longer cut prices and rates to get work. I didn't get an ego, I just got smarter. Business got a little better.
So by mid-fall work is there, I have some stability on the issues at home, equipment sorted and thoughts of a studio were once more pushing forward...and a new contact at Invest Aurora calls me to introduce himself. Invest Aurora is a non-profit established within the city structure to help businesses growth through grants, business seminars, business coaching and matching prospective business owners with those that have vacant space for lease or sale. They are a wonderful group to work with. So Derek Conley from Invest talks about a space and knowing my problems with other owners and developers says this guy has a perfect resume and is highly preferred by the City of Aurora and the City would like to see me occupy this property. One quick word about Aurora, IL. Its had it's problems in the past and suffered a bad rep for certain parts of town but in the past 10 years that stuff is gone. Yes, there is a lot of vacant space but its all getting developed. Paramount Theatre, River Edge Park and Hollywood Casino are bringing in people from all over, plus a number of restaurants and eateries have opened and these are top names like Two Brothers Brewery, Ballydoyle, Gillerson's, Legends and Spartan House. With First Fridays pushing local music, downtown businesses and all manner of arts and with several new creative organizations like the under-development Paramount Performing Art's School and The Aurora Film Commission, Aurora is attracting major interest as a creative hotbed of activity. Its where I want to be plain and simple. I have been in Aurora for over three years and the city and its organizations have treated me well.
Over those the summer soul searching months I decided I needed help, partners or collaborators, whatever you want to call them but I need a few like minded people to work with. I want help with new ideas and with running a studio because there are needs for a top flight photography and videography studio(s) in the area. I found a couple of people who miraculously jumped in. I didn't ask them, but I did bounce ideas around with them and they knew I needed help so they just offered! These are friends actually but very talented and very knowledgeable in the industry plus these guys think outside the box. I guess I remain the force behind the studio since I have a lot of contacts, equipment, reputation, etc., but no question, no studio is going to happen without these two.
Using Invest Aurora, I arranged a meeting with this prospective building's owner and I brought my cohorts, my team, along. We checked out the property. Actually it is a large complex or campus type of "L" shaped layout of three separate yet connected building spaces on the western fringe of downtown. Well they are physically connected by walls now and soon to connected by doors, stairways and halls. The space Derek wanted us to see first was not of interest, yes it would work but this time, I'm after a REAL studio, something that reeks of creativity, something that makes you want to call a team of models and stylists together and fill up memory cards with images. So just being suitable isn't enough, it needs to be a STUDIO. That day we visited four spaces the owner has defined for development. One space, the third we looked at, is more industrial like with glass block windows, concrete floors, and cinderblock and brick walls. Very high ceilings and supports. Its going to have a an overhead door soon leading to its own parking lot. Ooooh, this is of interest. The owner slyly tells us of an upstairs space still part of the building but just north of this place we are looking at. Same parking lot, just about a half block north. We check it out and this is it. The real deal. We all know it when we saw it but its pretty big, and we figure its expensive. Its got gobs of natural light, and fantastic old brick walls but it has a few different colors and patterns. It has a big skylight, maybe 4x6?, space for a restroom which is roughed in and changing room next to that. It has character. Like I said we love it. Afterwards the three of us meet and yeah we want that place so I talk to the owner. Well, it is second floor, it is a large space and the owner does not want to subdivide it. He wants to rent it as is, with next to no work. I laugh because we could start using it as it is! We don't want anything done either! Just some clean up. It has an equipment lift so getting equipment in and out won't be that hard. The stairway up from the entrance needs work but I negotiate a very good rate with the owner and we shake. No firm date so far for the move in and opening but its in February of 2018. Unless something happens to mess things up, again.
We all feel pretty positive though so in late 2017, as in right now, we have started looking at ways we can use the studio besides the obvious. We will rent it out daily. Rates will be by the hour with minimums and equipment rental will be extra. We will take on probably two full time monthly members at a all-inclusive price. We hope to offer several "hands on" classes complete with models and stylists attending, allowing us to shoot across multiple sets and we hope to offer "turn key" opportunities where everything you need is provided, including the camera. You pay a fee, shoot your products or subjects and take your pictures with you for post editing. We may branch this out to video as well and podcasting since it's been asked about. And of course, my business will be based from there as well as my partners businesses.
With 2017 coming to a close, things look much more positive than they did in let's say, summer of '17. I'm excited about the location, and about working with these guys to make this property sing. We hope to convince the owner to give us an option on the additional studio we liked once it's available in mid 2018. Having the other studio increases the type of work we can do almost exponentially. I don't know, possibly some office space? Where we can rent editing equipment too. This is all blue sky folks but there are possibilities and the owner wants this to be a creative hub for downtown. He likes us and wants to work with us. It's what we want too. So watch this space for more news. Also be looking for a new website. My goal there is to have a site up and functional by mid to late February too. 2017 brought about a lot of change and I think its for the better. Maybe its growth (evolution?) and not just "change". 2018 is on tap to continue this streak.
Yes, there were lots of disappointments in 2017. As it works out though, many of those became positives feeding 2018. Along with that I have a few very cool things planned which will enrich my professional side and my personal side. I hope to log some travel and take pictures. I'd like to document America more. Work in other areas for a few days at a time. I may look into an additional smaller website for selling stock photos. We will see what happens, but 2018 so far is looking damn good. Have a Happy New Year friends, and I wish you all nothing but the best for a safe and prosperous 2018 year. Give the kids, family and friends lots of hugs.
Dream it, think it. Make it happen. I'd love to see you all checking out the new place in 2018!