Thoughts

State of the Business - 2018 in Review by Zack Wussow

2018 is behind us, which means it’s time to look back.

CATCHING MY BREATH

2017 was a crazy year - not only my busiest year professionally but also pretty crazy personally. I got married and bought a house. So I’m happy to say 2018 was all around more sedate. Fewer weddings, spread out more evenly through the year, and no giant changes in my life. One tiny change though…

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A NEW FURRY FAMILY MEMBER

Heather and I adopted a stray kitten named Peach. She was and continues to be a handful but is adorable and endlessly entertaining. If you feel like you didn’t get enough cat photos this year, we sequestered all of ours on a separate Instagram account.

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EXPANDING HORIZONS

While weddings were down, I did more maternity photo sessions than ever before, and my first newborn sessions! I was hoping to expand this branch of my business this year, so seeing this grow is really nice, and 2019 is looking promising too.

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THE NUMBERS

WEDDINGS: 21 (DOWN 5 FROM 2017)

Like I said, a quieter year! And even more than it seems, as two of those were second shooting gigs, which are substantially easier. And the change didn’t even hurt my bottom line too much, as rising average prices made up some of the difference. This is actually a return to baseline of sorts, as I did 19 weddings in each of 2014, ‘15, and ‘16. I think ideally I’d sit somewhere between 2017 and 2018, maybe with even a few more second shooting jobs in there as well.

ENGAGEMENTS: 4 (DOWN 4 FROM 2017)

This is somewhat a deceptive number - I actually sold more than 4 engagements, in the form of included ones with weddings, that for various reasons never happened. In 2019 I’ll be making up for it with those couples as well as new ones. Going forward I’d like to get every couple to have an engagement session, as it’s a great way to get to know my couples.

OTHER PORTRAITS: 12 (UP 6 FROM 2017)

Babies! Specifically breaking this down, it was 4 family photo shoots, 2 headshot sessions, 4 maternity sessions, and 2 newborn sessions. I love doing these for several reasons - they are smaller and more relaxed than weddings, more evenly distributed year round, and a great way to keep working with my wedding couples as they go on to the next steps in their lives!

CORPORATE GIGS: 4 (DOWN 2 FROM 2017)

As in years past, this category could really be called “UConn Events”. Mostly the same ones as years past, and only down because a couple events didn’t happen this year. Always fun to help out my Alma Mater, though.

COMING OF AGE/MISC. EVENTS: 3 (UP 1 FROM 2017)

One bridal shower, and two events with the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury, where a friend of mine works. The museum is a tough spot since flash isn’t allowed in most rooms, but they are fun events none-the-less and feels like a great cause!

TOTAL: 44 (DOWN 4 FROM 2017)

A quieter year to be sure, but I really needed that after 2017!

OTHER STUFF

The one area 2018 wasn’t so restive was travel - beyond a travel packed yearbook season, I also took three bigger trips. Heather and I went to Florida in January to visit family, in April we went on our belated honeymoon to Bar Harbor, and over the summer we went on a work-related trip to Provincetown and to visit a friend who lives on Cape Cod. All very fun trips!

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I also rediscovered the joy of going to my local library in a big way - I read 68 books this year! (Gotta do something while resting up, right?) Highlights for me: Brain on Fire by Susan Cahalan, Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, and A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. I’m also really glad I read Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow but won’t sugar coat it - it’s a slog. It took me all year, dipping in periodically, to finish it.

COMING UP

2019 is a bit more up in the air than I would like so far. Feel free to fix that by recommending me to your friends and family! I am very much looking forward to photographing three weddings of dear friends next year, including one that will mean a mostly free vacation.

I do expect to see even more portrait, maternity, and newborn sessions which I am excited about!

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HAPPY NEW YEAR

I hope you have had a wonderful year, and that 2019 is even better!

A Quick Note on Smugmug by Zack Wussow

Recently, a major online photo hosting site, Picturelife, went through some troubles and ultimately collapsed. 200 million photos, everything from trip snapshots to baby photos uploaded by their users and often not existing anywhere else, were at risk of disappearing forever. 

Smugmug, the company that hosts the online galleries I give out to all my clients, stepped up and, free of charge, rescued the entire catalog and made it available for Picturelife's customers to download.

Smugmug will probably get some new customers, but ultimately this is a losing proposition. They're just doing it because it's the right thing to do.

In a way, my Smugmug galleries are the same thing - I always lose money on them, because I don't force people to purchase prints there. But it's fine - it's a tiny cost, and I feel like in today's age having a private gallery is essential. So it makes me really happy to see that Smugmug is running their business the same way I try to run mine.

So happy, in fact, I want to do something nice for them. Good deeds should be rewarded, right? So I've made a coupon, good on all my client's galleries through October 15th, 2016, where you can get any print you want at cost. I wont make a cent, but Smugmug will. I think they deserve it.

Use coupon code "SMHero" to get the discount.

They also just added photo cases for iPhone and Samsung S7, which are pretty awesome. Hint hint.

Five Years by Zack Wussow

You know the cliched interview question, "Where do you see yourself in five years?" Well, when I walked into the Vernon Town Clerk's office and registered my Doing Business As name, and even if they had I could not have guessed.

This picture, currently on the "About Me" page, is from October 2012. I should probably post something more... recent.

This picture, currently on the "About Me" page, is from October 2012. I should probably post something more... recent.

In all honesty, I started Zack Wussow Media for two reasons - first, because the only other UConn Photography grads I knew actually using their degrees were doing weddings, and because you need to register your business to pay taxes. I wasn't sure if it was what I wanted to do long term. In fact, I probably would have said I intended to work a little and then go back to school.

Before grad school, though, I wanted to follow my professor's advice and "get some life". Boy have I.

In these five years I've also acquired more camera gear then I could have imagined needing, taught myself to be a serviceable accountant, advertiser, and salesperson, learned and forgot how to use a steadicam, built three ring lights, taken a million yearbook photos, and attended several lifetimes worth of weddings.

And assisted on one rap video.

And assisted on one rap video.

Just after ZWM's first anniversary, I met my fiance. A year and a half later we moved in together, into my first real apartment. Then, this past spring, I asked her to marry me. (No date set yet... We're procrastinators.)

I've gotten a tattoo, tried scuba and sky diving, taken at least three road trips, run in a Tough Mudder, and perhaps most incredibly of all, I've gotten Heather's cat Enzo to tolerate my existence (maybe even like me... sometimes).

So given all that, where do I see myself in another five years? My wedding, for sure. Probably owning my first home. Almost certainly still behind a camera.

But besides that? Your guess is as good as mine. I'm excited to find out, though.

"So, What Camera Should I Buy?" by Zack Wussow

This is a question I hear at least once per wedding from someone's date or Uncle Bob. Here's my answer.

Canon or Nikon?

It doesn't matter. 

That's a somewhat controversial opinion, but as far as I can tell Canon and Nikon are like Coke and Pepsi. Different, but basically interchangeable. I'll recommend a Canon because that's what I use, a Nikon user will suggest Nikon, and both will be perfectly good.

Whichever you pick, you'll stick with forever, because you'll have bought Canon lenses, flashes, etc. and it would cost too much to switch.

Ok, so what should I buy?

Get the newest Canon Rebel. It's their entry-level camera. It was my first DSLR, and I used it for five years, including the start of my professional career. It's a great camera, light, easy to use but has all the features you'd want in a DSLR. It's an affordable way to get started.

My old Rebel, about a decade old now, was my first "real" digital camera. Still works.

My old Rebel, about a decade old now, was my first "real" digital camera. Still works.

Then, if you feel like you haven't spent enough, invest in better lenses. You'll get the most bang for your buck from prime lenses (ones which don't zoom). You can get very affordable primes with good quality glass and wide apertures. 

Apertures?

The aperture is the hole that lets light in through your lens. It's described by the f-stop - the lower the number, the wider the hole. Low f-stop lenses are great - they let you shoot in darker situations, and give you the wonderful, blurry backgrounds that everyone loves.

The Canon 85mm f/1.8 prime is a great lens for portraits, for example.

And a Rebel will get me great photos?

No.

I mean, sure, they'll be better than your cell phone. But a better camera doesn't make you a great photographer. Practice does.

Which is why I'd suggest going a different route. Get the newest or second-newest Canon S-Series.

It's a point and shoot, small enough to fit in a pocket, which means it fits the old adage, "The best camera is the one you have with you." I carry my S110 with me every day. 

It's not just portable, either. The s-series is a powerful little camera, with tons of manual controls. it also shoots in RAW, the highest quality file format.

You can learn almost everything you would on a Rebel from the s-series, but it fits in your pocket, and it's cheap enough that if it gets lost, stolen, or broken (something I know nothing about...), it's not the end of the world. 

By far the best bang for your average photographers buck.


(Note: The links to specific recommendations are up-to-date as of the posting of this entry, but may be out of date in the future.)


Time to Breathe by Zack Wussow

Whew.

For the first time since about mid-August, my schedule has room in it. A lot of room, actually. Par for the photography course - summer and fall are extremely busy, spring and especially winter not so much.

Which is not to say I'm done for the year. This week is still busy (three yearbook shoots and a wedding), and there's still editing to catch up on, contracts to sign for next year, taxes to file, updates to the website to be done. 

But I can take a breath again. It's a time of year I really enjoy. I get to reflect on how the past year went (more on that to come) and plan for the pending year, and I get to pursue some personal projects that I wouldn't have time for otherwise.

It's a pretty awesome time of year.

(My girlfriend would like to remind me that a month from now I'll be suffering from severe cabin fever and hating this downtime... Well, maybe. But right now it feels great.)

Con Men by Zack Wussow

Ugh.

One of the downsides of running a business which is advertised online is that periodically someone will try to take advantage of you. Which sucks, but, you know, it comes with the territory. If you pay attention and have some limits/standards, you can avoid getting burned.

But it's still disappointing.

Who wakes up and decides to impersonate a deaf person (they also claimed to be in the ICU elsewhere) just to try to rip someone off? 

Anyway, two things to take from this:

  • If you find or sell work online, be careful. If something seems off or weird, trust your gut and ask lots of questions. In this case, the person didn't seem to really be reading my texts, and of course the actual scam, wanting me to funnel money for them. (For anyone who hasn't seen this before: they want to send a check or credit card payment which takes a few days to clear, but you have to send someone a money order immediately. By the time their payment comes back as fraudulent, your cash is gone.)
  • If you are one of my clients who found me online, without the benefit of a friend's referral, thank you so much for your trust. I'm very aware that hiring a photographer is always a huge act of trust (that they will carry through with their promises, that their product will be of the promised quality). Giving that trust online is an even bigger leap of faith. It means the world to me, and nothing is more important to me than delivering on that trust.

I won't say something like "this ruins my faith in people", because it doesn't. Almost everyone who reaches out to me is not only who they claim to be, but wonderful people that are a pleasure to work with.

Y'all are great.

A Very Expensive Paperweight by Zack Wussow

A few days ago, I had a major equipment drop, the first of my career.

It wasn't a great day.

I was photographing machines for a client (the same folks from All Hail Our Machine Overlords), with my camera on a tripod and lots of lighting gear and backdrops set up. It is, in theory, an exceptionally safe working environment. No moving people, the machines are infinitely patient, the camera is on a tripod. Despite all of that, while I was moving my tripod and adjusting the camera, the camera fell, tumbling forward off the tripod, falling about five feet, and smashed on the floor.

All told, my camera rig is worth about $4,000.

My initial assessment was really bad. The battery grip was in pieces. The body wouldn't turn on. The lens focus and telephoto were stuck. Worst of all (from a certain perspective), I hadn't brought a backup body or lens, so I had to tell my customer, "Sorry, but that's it for the day." (Disclaimer: I only left the backups at home because I thought, surely, nothing can go wrong at such a straightforward shoot. I always have backups for one-shot-only events like weddings.)

When I got home, I was able to revive my camera body. Whew. The lens and battery grip are dead, though, one an expensive paperweight and the other a pile of parts.

Some advice, for anyone who's prone to finding themselves in a similar situation, starting with the most general:

Have a backup plan. 

Thankfully, past me did a good job preparing for exactly such a situation. I have insurance on my equipment, and savings set aside for exactly this kind of emergency. If all of that fails, I have credit and family to fall back on. If I needed to replace the equipment immediately, I have a list of local places at which I could buy, rent, or borrow equipment.

So, business wise, I'm okay. Knowing that was a huge comfort while literally picking up pieces of my camera.

Even if you don't own a business, it's a good idea to take some time and think about where you are most vulnerable to an accident, and figure out how you can mitigate that risk. 

Don't ignore that bad feeling in your gut.

My tripod hadn't felt right all morning. I don't use my tripod often, though, and it seemed to be working, so I carried on. I've since worked out that a key spring in the tripod head had come lose. It's an easy fix, but a critical failure.

First of all, if your tripod feels weird, you should have a hand on your camera constantly until you figure out the problem, and should not use the tripod until it is working correctly.

But more broadly, when something feels wrong, you should always stop and try to assess that feeling. 

The image we did get.

The image we did get.

Going forward, I'm in good shape. I was able to return and finish the photos a few days later, and I have a new lens on the way. I've been looking to add an additional backup body and lens to the ones I already have for a while - and while the cost of replacing this equipment makes that a little more challenging, I still think I may speed up that process. I'm going to see, as well, if Canon can fix my broken lens or not.

In short: It was bad, but it could've been worse.

FODSLR Macro Extension Tubes by Zack Wussow

This is a bit of a product review (unpaid and unsolicited), which is not something I typically do here, but some photo friends of mine have found informal versions of this on Facebook useful. So if you're just here for beautiful wedding photos, feel free to skip it. No hard feelings.

...

Still here? Cool. Let me tell you about FODSLR Macro Extension Tubes.

Macro extension tubes turn a regular lens into a macro lens. They are a lot cheaper than a dedicated lens, but also have some small technical trade-offs that I won't go into here. They come in "smart" and "dumb" versions, depending on whether they let your camera talk to the lens (to change your aperture and auto-focus) or not. These FODSLR (a brand name, apparently?) tubes are smart. (Dumb ones are a waste of time and better avoided.)

These are also remarkably cheap. I picked them up on sale for $25 - since the price has gone up and down, but I've never seen it above $40 (half the "list price" of $79.99). $80-$120 is a more common price for this sort of thing.

That said, there are some quality-consistency issues. My first set, two of the tubes would not come apart. A friend who bought these on my recommendation has also found his a bit "sticky". I returned mine (yay free shipping and free returns with Prime!), and the second set they sent are perfect. Take from that what you will.

I like them. A lot.

Of course, these tubes don't work in a vacuum - they're just one tool to add to your toolbox. The nice thing about extension tubes is they have no glass in them, so they are as good as the camera and lens you put them between. (The above photo also benefits from a professional speedlite, the DJ's up-lighting, and whoever lit about a hundred candles on the table.)

That said, these are straightforward to use. I'd recommend using lots of light so you can stop-down your aperture a lot.

Then just play around and have fun!