Watermarks. Social media. Branding. Post Processing. An insight into Flex’s brain.

03 Oct 2014

I was reading an article in a photography group the other night which started off with “I wish some photographers would spend more time on the quality of their photography than they do in designing their watermark”. This led me to have a think about how I present my content to the world, and from there, the brain ticked and I started digging deep into the ‘why’.

Why is it that I do what I do? I take photos. Pretty common knowledge. I’m not a pioneer or an entrepreneur. I just take photos. I try and make people who are a thousand times more talented than me look cool. But why do I go beyond that? Why do I spend time and put so much love in optimising a photo? Why do I stamp my identity to it? Why do I tweet and post things all over social media. Why do I call myself Flex?

I tried to dissect all of these things, somewhat successfully, but the one common denominator in all of this is that I do what I do because I love it. When you love something, you invest whatever you can into making it blossom and grow. That’s what I’ve done and will continue to do with my photography without hesitation or apology.

I started this gig 18 months ago. If we were in the later part of the 20th century, I would not be in the position I am in now. Fact. It would take me years, if not decades. We live in a time where the world pretty much relies upon, uses (and abuses) ‘digital everything’. It has its drawbacks, but if used to your advantage, it can help you – whether you’re a photographer, a musician, a painter, a writer – pretty much anyone who does anything deemed creative. It’s a platform for exposure that would not have been possible before people like Zuckerberg, Dorsey or Hurley decided to take over the world.

But it has its drawbacks. With any kind of exposure, you open yourself up to the rogues. It’s the nature of the beast. And if you don’t want a part of it, then don’t be a part of it. Like anything, you take a risk. The bigger the risk, the bigger the chance of big rewards. As a photographer, I could keep everything I do offline – fifteen years from now, I may get a call. No. I choose to showcase my work and grow my brand. In doing so, it’s not surprising that just the other night I find that over 100 of my photographs are being used online without authorisation. A couple of hours filing DMCA takedowns is doing the trick. At the same time, I’m travelling to Nashville twice a year to shoot the biggest names in the genre of music that I love. All in the space of less than two years. So okay, I expose myself to thieves – ignorant or otherwise – and it’s an inconvenience – but I am a part of something now that I may never have had the opportunity to be a part of if not for the methods I’d chosen.

The world is infinitely smaller than it’s ever been. You can thank social media for that. Often nowadays you hear crazed fans in orgasmic frenzies when their idols ‘retweet’ something they’ve said. There is one die hard fan that I know who is regularly pulled up on arena stages by her favourite artist. Rewind 10 – 20 years. Yeah right. But this is now considered normal and it’s only going to grow. If you ask me, I think it’s great. It creates a level of attainability and gives the chance for the vox pop to be heard by the people they idolise and care about. Translate this to my circumstances – peers whom I have the deepest respect for – Adam Elmakias, Todd Owyoung, Christie Goodwin – acknowledge what I do – they may even like me. Aside from Christie, I’ve not had the pleasure of meeting Adam or Todd – but in following their social movements, I feel like I know what they’re about and understand how they approach what they do. So that gives me the scope to learn and grow. The day you think you have nothing left to learn is the day you may as well pack it all in. Onto the other side of the spectrum – artists, musicians, managers, publicists, promoters, labels, online personalities – all of these are people you can not only draw from but – as I’ve found out on a number of occasions – contribute to. It’s a two way street this social media thing. For me to garner the respect and admiration from people that I hold in high esteem is made possible by the fact that being active on social media really is a positive – and it outweighs the negatives I mentioned earlier.

That brings me onto my next topic – and the one that kicked off all this crazy thinking (I don’t normally think much, I just take photos)… And that is the whole thing about watermarking your photos. I’m a creative by blood. I’ve been designing digitally for over fifteen years. I’ve grown with technology and I understand what is possible nowadays. For me it’s simple. If you don’t take the necessary steps to protect your photographs, you will make them a target for online theft. I don’t care how ugly a watermark makes your photo, for me it’s vital if you’re sharing stuff in an open forum. Don’t get me wrong – I know that a watermark is easily removed. But it’s a deterrent. Put two identical photos side by side – with and without a watermark – which one would be stolen? Put two cars side by side and one has a sticker on the window saying “Alarm” – whether it has an alarm or not – which one would be stolen? All you’re doing is taking one small step to protecting your photos in an online environment. Ultimately, if someone wants to steal your work badly enough, they will. Photoshop’s ‘content-aware’ tool now is good. It intuitively replaces content in an area you erase in a photo by sampling the tones/contrast/colours and pixel detail of the surrounding areas. It’s not perfect by any means, but what it does mean is if you stick a small watermark in the bottom corner of your photo, even if the background is textured and intricate, it can quite easily be removed and replaced without the thief having to crop the photo (which is a whole other story!).

So what do you do? I want to showcase my photo. If I’ve taken something that I’m proud of, I want to show people – the enjoyment they get out of it is up to them – if they like it because they like art or if it helps them relive a memory or if they’re just a fan of an artist – ultimately I want them to see my photo. Which is why I’m not a fan of the ’tiled’ watermarks that run all over a photo. I understand the need to do that, but I choose to do mine differently. I won’t put my watermark in the corner of an image. I used to. I look back over the past 18 months and see how my watermark has evolved and nowadays, I will avoid placing it in the corner if possible, but will always try and balance the image with the watermark whilst at the same time making it difficult for thieves to ‘content-aware’ my watermark out. Nobody wants to see a photo of Blake Shelton with 3 noses that have been mistakenly cloned by amateurs in their attempt to steal my work.

I like to highlight the artist I’m shooting along with my brand, the venue and the date of the photo. This helps my ageing mind remember when I shot it. it helps people who follow my work to be able to identify an artist’s performance and a moment in time. It also gives me the opportunity to offer a small contribution to the exposure of a lesser known artist. What it’s also gone a long way to helping is my own exposure. And that brings me onto branding.

I do exercise, but I don’t Flex. I am Flex. Sometimes I forget my own name – I even turn my head nowadays when someone greets me as Flex. It’s weird. No idea where the name Flex stemmed from, but for those that know my business over the past five years, they’ll know I created an identity for my brand – a small green tree frog – and christened him ‘Flex’. Just sounded right – Flex The Frog. Anyway, I was in the pit at the O2 in London earlier this year and I heard someone call out ‘Flex’ from the first few rows. As it turned out this guy followed me on Twitter and recognised me. Boy did I get flak from the other photographers for the next few days ha! But still, what it’s done is given me the opportunity to help grow my exposure in the community that I’m working with. Flex is a lot easier to remember than Anthony D’Angio. I was backstage taking a photo last year and one of the artists looked at me and asked “You’re the frog aren’t you?”… Surreal. But again, it shows how everything ties in together – social media engagement, visual identity (a logo) and building a brand really does help give your own cause a real push. In my opinion, the most talented live music photographer going around is Adam Elmakias. He takes epic photos, is a really cool and quirky guy, but if you ask me why concert-goers are covered in fake tattoos with his name, or brandishing banners with “WE LOVE ELMAKIAS” on them, it’s because he has successfully marketed himself. He’s created a very strong brand. He sells branded gear. What he does is complement his mega-artistic eye for photography with brilliant marketing know-how and that just completes the whole picture. He’s not a rockstar. Nor am I. I can’t even keep a basic 4/4 beat going. It’s just using the available tools to your advantage in a world where there are so so many talented people out there and it’s easy to get lost. I’ve always been a big believer in brand presence and growing the strength of the brand.

Now onto something that may seem a little unrelated in all this ‘marketing’ talk, but the premise of it encompasses everything I’ve said. Post-processing. You may have read an interview I did with gig-photographer earlier this year which went into the whole post-processing methodology I have, but ultimately my mantra is that post is there to enhance a photograph, not salvage it. You need a well-composed, good sharp shot to begin with or what you’ll end up doing is butchering the photo and rendering it completely unusable. I post-process to bring my photos to life. Aside from the subject, what gives a concert photo its epic feel? To me it’s the mood which is presented by the lighting. Whether in a massive stadium or in a dark smoky bar, lighting helps create a mood and that mood is what helps someone relive the moment when they look at the photo after the moment has passed. I try and bring out the best in the lighting using my design background and knowledge of the available tools. Dodging, burning, level and curve adjustment, some vignetting where appropriate and some pseudo-manual actions that help flavour the photo to how I remember the mood.

How does post-processing relate to what I’ve been talking about? As a metaphor, it’s essentially taking what you have and bringing it to life. Social media takes your work and gives it a presence. Watermarks and branding take your identity and gives it exposure. Post processing takes your photo and makes it the best it can possibly be. Taking what you know and pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone makes you grow. It’s a philosophy I’ve lived by since I started my own business five years ago. My digital agency’s name is “Kiss The Frog” and I get asked why that name? Quite simply, it relates back to the old fairytale – when you kiss a frog, it turns into a prince (as opposed to a toad where you get warts!). So it was my metaphor of “bring me your creative ideas and I’ll strive to give them life.” Same rules apply in my photography.

Thanks for reading – hope it’s helped you understand the crazy mind behind this crazy frog. Friday afternoon now and I’m done. Happy weekend y’all. :)

PS. The photo is a timer-self portrait at the Great Walk in Windsor taken on a bloody freezing morning around 5am a couple of years ago.

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