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SLC-2L-04: Thank You [BTS/360]

Today on Lighting Cookbook, something different: A BTS/360 look at a single photo.

Normally, we concentrate on the "how" part. But today we'll also be looking at the broader ecosystem— the why—and how a simple photo can serve as a catalyst to create value.

To consider a photo only as an end to itself is to drastically shortchange yourself as a photographer. To understand the value of a photo, you need to understand the value of what it can accomplish.

It took me 30 years as a photographer to fully realize that. Now when I shoot, I almost always first consider the value a that photo can create and work backwards from there.

For a photojournalist, that value is often going to be in changing the way people perceive and/or think about something. For a commercial photographer, that value is usually going to mean money. But either way, my process is much more effective and efficient when I start with the goal of creating value and work backwards.

The photo above was simple to create. I did it, stem to stern, in my living room in less than 30 minutes. But what is it worth?

Probably more than you think. Because it is designed to set in motion a chain of events that will increase the amount of business seen by a group of local pizzerias. It's a simple idea, and it starts from having a value creation goal and then understanding the ecosystem around that goal.

Building the Photo

The picture is going to be simple: a close-up of some dude using a cell phone. The idea is that it feels like a grab shot, done in available light. Just ... better.

To carry off the available light feel, I'm going to gel the fill light and drop it significantly. This will create what feels like a darkened environment.

I'll also shoot with a shallow depth of field. Because in that simulated low light level you would expect to get a shallow depth of field.

Here is the whole setup. It's pretty simple:

Since the shirt will be the background of the photo, our living room will suffice as a location. We are using two LP180 speedlights, bare, and bouncing them to soften the light.

The fill light will create the environment and add the right amount of legibility. Our key light is going to come from the cellphone itself.

The flashes both get full CTB gels. The ceiling is white, so that will return a blue light. But the carpet is very tan. So bouncing off of that will kill much of our blue color. That's why there is a newspaper spread on the ground in the bounce path of the light at camera left.

First try, I had both fill lights pointing up. But that left a big, black mass of shadows under his hands. (Because, duh. Think, David.) So I repositioned the second light to fill from the bottom.

Much better. So the fill light looks something like this:

Into that muted blue environment, we'll add our key: the light from the iPhone. There is not a lot of light, so we'll want to shoot wide open. Which is fine, because a closed-down aperture would give too much depth of field. And that would ruin the feel of this being an available light grab shot.

I knew this when setting the fill light, so I had already adjusted the flashes to hit an aperture of f0.95 (not a typo) at ISO 100. We'll control the brightness of the (continuous) key light from the phone by varying our shutter speed.

A shutter speed of 1/60 gave a nice result. If you turn off the fill lights, the key alone looks like this:

So, question: how is it that I am getting detail in the fingers (what the key is lighting) at the same time I am getting detail in the key light surface itself?

That's because of the beam spread of the front panel of the iPhone. It is designed to concentrate the light in the center of the beam, so it looks brighter to your eyes when the phone is pointed that way. This saves brightness, which in turn extends battery life.

So as a bonus, we'll actually get legibility on the screen in the photo, even though the screen is technically our key light. In the full-res image, you can easily see that the phone is displaying the Google Maps page of our pizzeria. More on that in a minute.

When we turn the flashes back on and combine the light sources, we get this:

Presto, one available light grab shot of a guy using his phone. It actually looked a little too clean at ISO 100, which is why we added in a little grain to muddy it up and make it look more realistic. So the photo is done.

Now, here is what the photo is designed to do, and how we expect it to increase the business at the pizza parlor.

Completing the Circle

This photo is designed to prompt people to leave a review of the pizza parlor on Google Maps, and to thank them for doing it. Reviews—especially good ones—on Google Maps are critical to the business stream of any restaurant.

Fortunately, this place is a great pizza joint. So more reviews is almost certainly going to mean more good reviews. And in the age of smartphones, a truckload of good reviews on Google Maps is probably the second-best asset a pizzeria can have. (The first, of course, being great pizza.)

So we are going to add some info to our photo:

First up is the thank you. This is a family-owned business and they are on a first-name basis with many of their regulars. So this fits very well.

Second is the "how you can help" part: the actual thing they hope to make happen.

Third is the physical-world-to-phone link: this QR code points to the link that is generated when you share the Google Maps listing for this pizzeria. It is a crucial link not just to the pizzeria, but also between the real and virtual worlds.

[Note: I have partially obscurred the QR code above to make sure the link does not propagate in this post. We are gathering data from this experiment, and we would like to keep the data clean.]

Printing Costs

Here they are, on the tables.

Obviously, they only need a couple dozen of these to go in their table-top card holders. So it does not make sense to do a full printing press run. Fortunately you can do small runs very cheaply now. We chose to print it as Costco holiday card: 5x7 output, great repro, $25 for 25.

So our total hard costs for this shoot was $25.

But What is it Worth?

Good question. Probably much more than you would expect.

But that is the beauty of thinking in terms of the value you create with your photos. If you start there, it is easy to build a business proposition around that number, and create a win-win for your clients.

To arrive at a value, let's set some parameters. First off, does it work?

The early data says yes. Since we placed the cards, Google Maps reviews have been coming in at a significantly increased pace. And thanks to Carlo's delcious pizza, the reviews are all good.

I have for several years been a Google Maps local explorer. I add pictures and reviews of many of the places I visit. And Google shows view count stats to local explorers, which is a pretty good way to increase the output of local explorers.

So far, I can see that my photos have been viewed over 6,000,000 times. That's a lot of views. Many, many pics have views in the tens of thousands. And several have views in the hundreds of thousands.

The point: a lot of people use Google Maps. Especially when looking for a place to eat. If you are under 80, you probably already knew that.

But that is a lever that a photographer can use to create value. Think about it: not only can I create photos for people to see, I can create photos that will create more reviews.

The reviews give people confidence to take a gamble on lunch. And I am convinced (although I do not know this for a fact) that a large number of good reviews on Google Maps is probably a pretty strong signal in the results on a local search page that a company gets relative to its competitors. Ditto for Maps listings.

I can see from my image view totals in the local explorer program that tens of thousands of people a year view this restaurant in Google Maps. And that listing is clearly one of the main engines that specifically drives new cutsomers.

So we can create a photo that drives reviews, and having a nice big pile of good reviews is obviously going to be a strong catalyst for adding new business. But what is that worth?

For the sake of argument, let's say that having a nice chunk of good reviews will add $100 to the bottom line of a restaurant over the course of a year. Does that sound low to you? Yeah. Because it's, like, crazy stupid low. The real number is almost certainly safely into the thousands. But let's just say $100.

Now, let's apply a capitalization rate to that number. That's just a biz-talk way of estimating how much money it would take, in today's interest rate environment, to safely earn $100. And, just like our estimate of $100, using a cap rate of 5% is very conservative. Banks pay, like, 1.5%.

But even at 5%, you'd need $2,000 to earn $100 per year. So, using very safe numbers (and silly safe for the $100, IMO) that photo has a conservative value of $2,000 to a pizzeria. Because it can easily produce the income that $2,000 could produce.

How Could You Use That?

Are you going to get $2,000 to make just that photo? Probably not. But it is pretty safely worth that much, and that's a great place to start. Because understanding that worth is key to understanding the value of what you can create as a photographer.

In fact, if I were a young photographer looking to create new business, I would absolutely be using Google Maps as the main lead generator to find new clients. There are tons of small businesses that use Google Maps poorly. Some don't even know they a) have a listing and b) can claim ownership of it. For others, a listing for them does not yet even exist.

And some small business owners are still writing big annual checks to the yellow pages. Because that is the way they have always done it. Dear lord.

The beauty is, you could use Google Maps to help you to easily find the businesses in your geographic area and photo niche that are using Google Maps poorly.

I would be looking to integrate my photos into a larger project of helping businesses better understand and leverage Google Maps, which is almost certainly one of the best free assets they have. A lot of people can help them set up and exploit the usefulness of Maps. But not many people who can do that can also create the photos that are the crucial element.

Most common case: some non-photographer would figure out the business case for building the Google Maps environment, then hire a photographer for a paltry sum to shoot the photos.

As an integrated photographer, I could provide the photos for Maps, help you build your listing, aggregate your reviews, etc. You can even load my pictures onto your listing yourself, so you can track the view count. I could also grant you the rights to use those photos on your website, and on Facebook, etc. It's a much more compelling value case than, 'What's your day rate?'

When you learn to view the value chain in a more integrated way, you evolve from being a commodity photographer to being in a position of having very little competition. You are providing a fully developed product and service.

When we understand and leverage our value, we tend to work much closer to the top of the value chain. When we don't, we get the crumbs. If we are lucky.

So try not to think of your photography as an end to itself. Learn to think of it as a catalyst for other things. Think of it as your superpower that separates you from the others.

FROM: Strobist Lighting Cookbook, Two or More Lights


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