Reinvention: Small-Market Video Opportunities

Posted on 9/2/2009 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

While the transition from still photographer to television commercial producer is difficult, David Scott Smith odyssey illustrates that an image creator and storyteller can find satisfaction in shooting and producing video.

In the 1990s, Smith was a still photographer working in Montana and Wyoming. He had some major industrial clients and earned a fair amount of his livelihood from stock. As digital cameras became easier to use, the industrial clients that had represented a major part of his income started buying cameras for their engineers and using Smith less frequently. He started looking for something else to do.

Prior to his still-photo career, Smith had been a TV reporter in Missoula, Montana. He decided to take another look at TV, but all his previous work had been shot on film, and everyone was now using digital video. He put together a promotional reel, but found that the news directors in Baltimore, Washington, D.C. and Lancaster, PA were all looking for people with experience, and he could not convince them that he could make the transition from shooting and editing film to the linear digital systems.

In late 2004, a producer job opened up in with Bresnan Communications in Billings, Montana. Bresnan operates cable TV systems in Montana and parts of Wyoming, Colorado and Utah. They needed someone to make commercials for the Billings, Bozeman, Cody and Sheridan, Wyoming markets.

Smith said, "I went into the job knowing practically nothing about non-linear editing. In this new job, I used a Sony DVCAM, which features intra-frame compression. The video quality is good, and the editing is uncomplicated enabling filmmakers to produce movies inexpensively. My boss, the production manager, provided roughly six hours of camera and Final Cut training on a Friday, and I began work the following Monday. I spent the next two years making commercials and learning how to shoot, edit and produce them. It was a lot like being back in school: lots of nights and weekends, and I wasn't making very much money at all."

He worked with three account executives in Billings, two in Bozeman and one covering the Sheridan and Cody markets. They approached customers and sold them on the idea of a television commercial. Then it was Smith's job to "produce" the ad. Bresnan used the word "producer" to describe a one-man band of writer, director, shooter, set designer, casting director, sound engineer, editor, duplicator, distributor and, more often than not, voiceover talent.

Bresnan had a $250 production charge for these ads, covering in theory one hour of shooting and two hours of editing. But there was no way the account executive was going to lose a sale over at $250 production charge, so the cost of Smith's work was frequently negotiated away. Of course, he always spent more than an hour shooting and two hours editing in order to produce a quality product.

In 2006, the company sent him to the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas, where he researched what it would take to set up a high-definition system in order to go out on his own. He purchased a new Mac system with Final Cut Studio and a Panasonic HVX 200 camera with a fixed lens that records directly onto P2 cards. He also purchased a shotgun microphone, a couple of wireless units and a carbon fiber tripod. The total cost was about $20,000. He does not have a tape machine, as all the work is distributed as QuickTime files or produced DVDs.

Smith said: "Digital shooting and editing definitely has a learning curve, but I enjoy it." He is currently trying to learn more about motion graphics and spending a lot of time with Apple Motion. At Bresnan, Smith used After Effects, but he feels Apple Motion is easier to use and accomplishes almost everything one can do with After Effects. He uses Ripple Training for tutorials on video production and spends a lot of time blogging on and to research particular problems or achieving certain effects. He also has several Final Cut books and uses several training DVDs to bring him up to speed on Apple Motion and Soundtrack Pro.

"Life would probably be simpler if I shot exclusively and let someone else edit," said Smith, "but understanding editing and going into a project knowing the edit plan makes the shooting more efficient. Since I come up with the idea and write the script, I spend a lot of time visualizing how everything will fit together, and the end result is better for it. Most people in this business do one thing: write, shoot, edit or direct. My clients hire me because I can do it all."

At Bresnan, Smith's goal was to learn enough to go back to freelancing. In September 2007, he did just that. He now works regularly with one Montana ad agency and, for the most part, finds his own clients.

While doing all this, Smith continued to take still assignments. In 2008, he spent $2,000 for a presence on and did not receive a single call. He acknowledged that Workbook may be a little over the top for the kind of work Montana clients need and said, "I am no longer pushing stills. I would not turn down a decent still job, but it took four or five months to get paid for the last couple magazine shoots I did. I'm still a member of ASMP, but I don't believe that organization has funneled any work to me in the last two or so years. I used to get a lot of out-of-town work just by virtue of being here, but that work had pretty much disappeared even before the economy went down the tubes. I had a good job last fall photographing nurses for local newspapers, a magazine, Web and in-house uses. Then I convinced the client to let me create a TV commercial from the stills."

Copyright © 2009 Jim Pickerell. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-461-7627, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz

Jim Pickerell is founder of, an online newsletter that publishes daily. He is also available for personal telephone consultations on pricing and other matters related to stock photography. He occasionally acts as an expert witness on matters related to stock photography. For his current curriculum vitae go to:  


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