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Flickr and You, Part 4: Case Study - John Dohrn

This is the last part of a four-part series, which begins here. In this final installment, we'll be taking a more expanded look at the possibilities for one of Strobist's readers who uses Flickr.

Not even old enough to vote yet, John Dohrn has already built an impressive collection of striking insect photos. Clearly he has both a good working knowledge of bugs and a talent for shooting them.

For the sake of this piece, we are going to go on the hypothetical assumption that John might be interested in developing a specialty in insect photography.

What are some of the things he could be doing now, as a teenager, to better position himself for that future? If you are an aspiring bug photographer, you'll probably be interested in this case study. But on the off chance that you are not, I hope you will find some of the lateral thinking useful in developing your own strengths as a photographer.

After all, we are in an era increasingly geared toward specialist photographers. Specialist anything, actually. In a world where you can easily find someone who is an expert in any niche of a niche, why would you hire a generalist?

So I am going to use John and bugs as an example.

One Possible Strategy

The first thing I would do would be to lose the arty signatures embedded within the photos. Very "Buck's County Arts and Crafts Show," IMO. You want to be aiming higher than that. If you feel you must stick your name into the image area, make it very small, in a bottom corner, with a "©" symbol (created with an option "g").

As we have discussed earlier, John obviously should be making use of Flickr's metadata (tags) to help people find his photos. This would probably be more helpful to him than even to Sara Lando, given the taxonomic nature of John's tiny subjects.

A series of tags that start with John's name and drill down with increasing specificity would be simple to construct for each of his bug shots:

"John Dohrn"
category, (i.e. fly, butterfly, ant, etc.)
genus and species
any ancillary info specific to the photo

John, by the way, is totally into bugs and is well-equipped to provide this information.

As with Lando, his profile should explain his capabilities and provide contact info, without being so overt as to upset the Flickr Gods.

Be a Thinking Photographer

But what are some of the things he could be doing as a photographer to build a library that could have significantly more commercial value in the future?

In the same way that I learned from the experiences of photographer Ken Jarecke on an AOL message board 15 years ago I want to take a look at John's work from another direction.

First, the biggest negative for John: He is young and very inexperienced as a photographer.

Now, the biggest positive: He is young and very inexperienced as a photographer.

A little flippant, maybe. But the important thing to realize is that young John, who is already making some killer photos, likely has more of the most precious commodity (time) than most any photographer reading this post. As a teenager, he already has a good knowledge of his subjects, some strong photographic skills and a passion for bugs.

Ten years from now, John could be parked at a computer screen in a nondescript office park evaluating insurance claim forms Or he could be sitting on a very valuable catalog of macro insect shots, and shooting new bug assignments all the time.

Thinking strategically at this point and planning for the long term could make a huge difference in John's future.

The very first thing I would do is to start to consider the commercial potential of various insects when deciding what I would shoot. Who uses bug photos? And for what purpose?

Putting aside for the moment that fact that insects are beautiful and amazing creatures and they will eventually dance on our graves, our primary focus (as a society) is to consider them as pests.

To that end, were I John I would begin to build a library of the usual suspects: Roaches, ants, mosquitos, etc.

Why? Because that's where the money is. And those insects would be popular search choices for people looking to buy (or assign) photos of bugs.

And given the current worrying trend of disappearing honeybees and the drastic effects this might have on our food supply, I would be making friends with a beekeeper, too. Maybe locusts, too, if they continue to ravage subsaharan Africa.

Sure, John would rather be shooting beautiful, more exotic insects. And there is no reason why he should not be doing that. But you have to think about the bread-and-butter of your genre, and consider picking the low-hanging fruit first.

I would consider a two-pronged strategy: Shoot the glamour bugs for show and the pests for dough. That is to say, wow people with your exotic shots so that will choose you for the bread-and-butter stuff.

In terms of logistics, John's area of expertise has a nice little benefit in that his subjects are very small and easy to ship. So he would want to have a good knowledge of any supply houses that can produce insects on demand for a given species. Obviously, he would have to be mindful of potential issues with invasive species when shipping the bugs, but it is possible to get around that sort of thing with the right permits and paperwork.

Better yet, John could use his photographic specialty to rationalize - and deduct the expenses for - travel to some wonderfully exotic destinations. Think of what two weeks in the cloud forests of Costa Rica could do for his portfolio.

Another advantage of John's age: No family commitments to preclude travel. And when he gets to college, he should buddy up to the bug-studying profs and grad students. This will start to integrate him into the insect-centric community.

And those guys travel all the time. John could be a valuable addition to an expedition. He should just make sure he keeps the resale rights to the photos.

Baaack, backbackback... Gone.

So, he builds a library with a nod to commercial and artistic value, develops relationships with suppliers and tries to position himself near bug-watchers. All of these things are hit-for-average approaches, and tend to increase his odds of success.

But what about the long ball? What would be John's equivalent of a walk-off home run?

I would submit that given John's early skill, subject familiarity and technical knowledge, he should always be working on discovering a totally new way to photograph bugs. Why? Because this is the kind of thing that can make a career and amp the value of his entire catalog at the same time.

If the technique is killer and visually distinctive enough, it could obsolete all of the gazillion pre-existing bug shots out there.

What would the technique be? Where would the idea come from?

Who knows.

But if I had to guess, I think it would most likely come from another "small-things" photography area that has nothing to do with bugs. So I would be studying macro photographers in other genres. Ditto video techniques, electron microscope photographic techniques, etc. And I would RSS the photo stream of every single hot-shot bug shooter on Flickr, too.

You are just looking for the one, little idea that sparks a big technical or creative discovery. Someone could stumble onto the partial idea that unlocks John's epiphany without even knowing it.

These kinds of paradigm-shifting events happen all of the time, and not just in photography, either. But they tend to happen to people who have a systematic approach to exploring all of the techniques that do not work until they hit on the one that does. People who work hard tend to get lucky.

I would love to discover a completely novel lighting look. Maybe I am weird, but I give that kind of thing some serious thought on a regular basis.

So John would want to be very creative in his approach to the technical side, all the while doing the hit-for-average stuff with respect to subject matter. So if he did stumble upon something groundbreaking, all of the other pieces of the puzzle woud already be in place.

Working toward a goal in a disciplined way like this can be the difference between having an interesting hobby to go with your boring, white-collar job or having an amazing, passion-based career that others only dream about.

And even if he never finds the techique that totally changes the world of insect photography, he will still create a far more interesting - and valuable - collection of photos than if he had just gone about his mission is a haphazard way. Which, honestly, is what the vast majority of people spend their lives doing.

Whatever you hope to accomplish with your photography or anything else, there will never be a better time to analyze your goals (and develop a comprehensive strategy to reach them) than right now. After all, what is going to be so different about you in five years?

Start now, and you could be five years closer to the things you most want to do by then. If you're not doing them already.

I hope you'll forgive the hard right-hand turn I took with this last article in the series. I had every intention of just continuing the pattern that was established earlier. But as I thought about John's potential, the ideas became less about Flickr and more about the lateral and upstream thinking process.

And I strongly believe that a systematic, integrated approach really ups your chances of success, no matter what you goal might be. To bring things full circle, leveraging these techniques with a conscious Flickr strategy could prove a powerful combination.

Obviously, I realize that very few of you have any interest in shooting bugs. But I hope that John's example might spark you to think about your own goals in a more expanded way. Be they photographic goals or something entirely different.


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