Want to Increase Market Share? Elevate Your Photography


Everything is being automated—including photography. In case you missed it, there’s a new innovation for product photography: the all-in-one photo machine.

All-in-one photo machines are designed to make product photography and cataloging more efficient. You simply prepare and style the product, place it on the machine’s surface, and let the machine do the rest. No photographers needed. No need to fuss over lighting.

The innovation is all about efficiency; it’s designed to reduce the time it takes to get product images into a digital storefront, where they can start generating orders. That efficiency, however, is only valuable if you’re willing to jeopardize what makes your brand special.

Automated photography may not be worth it in the long run, and we’re not just saying this because we run a photography and production studio. The problem is that efficiency isn’t what most product photography needs—differentiation is.

Too many products look and behave the same in the post-consumer, digital marketplace. Nearly every shirt, lamp, rug, faucet, floor tile, chair, bed, desk, electronic device, potion, and elixir looks pretty similar to its competitor. Buyers can’t tell the difference between one product and all the other me-too, knockoff, copycat versions.

Photography within traditional channels, such as print advertising, is just as repetitive. Browse any commercial publication and you’ll see the same thing: products within the same category looking the same. For the buyer, this monotony makes it hard to know which wall covering, countertop, lighting fixture, office chair, or flooring choice is best.

Photography is one of the first encounters your audience will have with a new product.  It shapes their perception and their experience. If establishes the look and feel of the product and what makes it special. If you underplay its value, you’re wasting a huge opportunity.

When your photography fails to convey a distinctive look and feel, four problems arise:

  1. Buyers can’t distinguish any real product advantage, so they base their decisions on price.
  2. When you can’t show, you have to tell. This is how product ads get littered with copy. Advertisers desperately try to sway their audiences with long lists of boring features, benefits, and technical specs, which lessens the emotional connection with the viewer.
  3. The images are uninteresting, predictable, and largely overlooked, which means they are a waste of money.
  4. The product experience is shallow; the buyer feels very little connection to the product or to the entity that’s selling it to them. Nothing piques their interests or emotions.

Many marketers view changes to their photography as a risky prospect—but in reality, there is greater risk in doing it exactly they way everyone else does it. Your photography is more than a visual representation of your product, it’s an opportunity to create a distinctive brand experience: one that’s immersive, memorable, and emotionally distinctive.

When you shift how you photograph your brand, and carefully curate the images associated with your company, you gain a competitive advantage. Stop thinking about selling products, or even solving problems, and start thinking about creating an experience around your brand.

5 Ways to Improve Experiences and Increase Market Share through Photography

  1. Determine the primary characteristic or quality you want to associate with your brand. Once you’ve defined that characteristic, let it lead your photography. Is that word performance, luxury, innovation, sustainability, convenience, or flexibility? Whatever it is, it should be the guiding theme of your product photography.
  2. Commit to both brand and product photography, and make sure your product photography incorporates the feeling of larger brand photography. Take a close look at some of the great iconic brands, the ones with a cult following, such as Patagonia. Their most powerful ads create a feeling for the overall brand, they don’t focus too closely on the product.
  3. Spend some time on the detail shots. Buyers can’t touch, feel, taste, or smell the product from a flat image, so you have to help stimulate those senses with detailed shots that evoke a broader range of sensory experience.
  4. Make sure that the props, scenery, and lighting tell a story; that they engage the viewer in a broader experience.
  5. Hire a photography and production partner that can help push your brand and differentiate it. You don’t want a vendor or a freelancer who executes your command—you want a team that can come up with new ideas and execute them flawlessly. Look for someone who believes photography is key to the customer experience, and essential to brand differentiation.

In spite of the fact that visual content is faster and easier to process, most brands are still playing it safe when it comes to photography, doing exactly what their competitors do in the most predictable way possible. It’s time to change that.

Success begins by shifting your relationship to photography and understanding its power as visual content. For help creating a photographic presence that impacts market share and drives revenues, contact us at robin@vellumatlanta.com or call 404-977-0162.

A Firsthand Account of How to Turn An Idea into Reality

Vellum_9599 copy

In the Ted Talk Where Do Good Ideas Come From, Stephen Johnson explains that an idea isn’t a single thing or moment, it’s a process. An idea takes time to formulate—it depends on a network of things.

Johnson argues that the big breakthrough ideas don’t happen alone, in a vacuum, or even in the shower. They happen during the chaos of collaboration. The real breakthrough ideas originate in conversations and meetings that take place between several people. We might ascribe some “eureka” moment to the birth of an idea, but it’s really the synthesis of a lot of information and experience that leads to the breakthrough.

Like many design teams, we’re obsessed with ideas. We aren’t just interested in where ideas come from or what makes them unique, we’re also interested in how to bring them to life and why they matter to others. For us, design is about considering the whole idea process, including:

  • How to create a culture that repeatedly fosters good ideas
  • How to bring ideas out of the incubator and into the real world
  • How to adjust the idea, create the designs, and curate the resources needed to actualize the concepts
  • How to put the teams together that can turn the idea into a full-dimensional reality
  • How to ensure that the end result has the most positive impact on the greatest number of people

In our line of work, we often inherit the ideas and concepts of other agencies and designers. Clients come to us to because they want to bring an idea, concept, or design to life. As a result, we’ve gotten really good at looking at the process holistically and shifting our attention to how the design impacts resources, budgets, timelines, goals, brand perception, and audience engagement. Our experience has, in turn, sparked an idea within us.

What would it look like if we could make the design and idea process more fluid and more holistic? How could we help marketers and designers bring their ideas to light in a way that transforms audiences? How could we unite all the disparate ideas, thoughts, teams, and thinkers for the good of the customer, and the the good of the brand? These are the questions that started us thinking, talking, exploring, and—most importantly—acting.

Like you, we had an idea; and, being who we are, we had to see it through. We’re still working on some final touches, but within the next few weeks we’ll be ready to reveal where this idea led us. We’d love to share the end results with you. Follow us to find out how we took our ideas and made something out of them; something that will benefit marketers, makers, artists, and designers who want to bring new ideas to life.

Apple Sent Two Men to My House. No, They Weren’t Assassins.

“I hope something goes wrong tonight,” said Tom, as he met my eye. He’d just finished petting my dog, and he was on his way out the door.

“Well, not really, but you know what I mean,” he continued.
I did, indeed, know what he meant.

Tom, along with his boss Ezra, had just spent most of Saturday at my dining room table with me, trying to recreate a disaster like we were Netflix green-lighting Fuller House. So far, no luck.

In the days leading up to our face-to-face encounter, they’d earned more of my trust when they acknowledged that A), they’d read the phone transcripts, and although they maintained that she was mistaken, they did not dispute my account of what Amber had told me, and B), they, too, were convinced this was not user error. Before allowing them into my home, though, I’d laid out some conditions. Their research would be strictly limited to Apple Music, iTunes, and my iTunes library, and I would always be in the room to watch them work. Any information gleaned would be used solely for iTunes and Apple Music troubleshooting. If I had a document on my desktop called “Zapruder Film Unedited,” for example, they would still leave it alone. They agreed, both on the phone and in person, so we began.

Through an external drive connected to my laptop, we were now using a specialized version of iTunes in the hopes that the deletion would again occur; an idea that we knew may not pan out, since I’d had Apple Music for eight months before that first mass deletion. If something did go wrong, though, this version of iTunes would document what happened in more detail than the consumer version could.

As one of the first steps in our experiment, I signed back up for Apple Music under Tom and Ezra’s supervision. They conference called with several other engineers in California, talking through their actions and discussing next steps.

While we waited for one particularly long file transfer, we went out to lunch at a local bakery. Since they’d flown in from across the country, they were looking for authentic Southern food. Grits were involved. Full disclosure for those of you who think Apple has given me hush money: they did buy me a breakfast sandwich, and it was delicious.

After lunch, we spent hours troubleshooting, but the problem eluded us. This time, the files remained, which was just one of many confounding elements of my whole saga. The problem wasn’t cut-and-dry, therefore has proven difficult to replicate. For example, one of the many confusing things about the initial file loss was that only most of my music files had disappeared. Most, but not all. To further muddle the issue, the missing—and remaining—files had little in common; some were WAV, others Mp3, others protected AAC files that I’d purchased through iTunes between 2003 and 2009. Genre, size, and artist name varied greatly among the missing files, as did date added. There was no discernible pattern.



Although the day offered no revelations, we weren’t yet finished. Before Tom and Ezra left on Saturday afternoon, we discussed my homework. I was to treat this as any other Saturday night:
-Buy some songs in the iTunes Store.
-Import some of my own mixes from Logic and/or Pro Tools.
-Mess with some playlists.
-Stream my personal library to the Apple TV in the living room while my wife and I drank beers and played Boggle. Hey, I never claimed my life was any more glamorous than yours.

Since our listening choices were being documented, and had a marginal chance of being scrutinized for the ages, I made sure to include several songs from the early Sugar Hill Records catalog–which I still think may ultimately lead to world peace. Besides “Rapper’s Delight,” can Bashar al-Assad even name one song by The Sugarhill Gang? See?

Tom returned alone on Sunday to collect the data logs, and to clear my laptop of any evidence he’d been there.* While we waited for files to transfer, we finally got to geek out a little, which was something I’d admittedly been looking forward to. Although friendly the day before, Tom was of course very focused, and he didn’t even mention the Missile Command pint glass in which I’d given him some water. On Sunday, however, he talked more freely. We discussed pets, and work, and horror movies, both agreeing that John Carpenter’s The Thing may be the finest ever made. Apple may be a huge corporation, and I’ll never see most of what’s behind the curtain—but this Senior Engineer, who sat petting my dog and discussing Breaking Bad, was just some guy doing his best. Maybe not exactly like me, but not very different, either. OK, probably wealthier.

I am aware that there are people who think Apple is Satan himself, and I’m not here to try to convince you otherwise. There are also Apple apologists who believe The Great Fruit can do no wrong. You, too, will most likely not be swayed, and I’m sure you have your reasons. Regardless of whether I’ll remain a lifelong Apple software user, I’m still glad to have a chance to help those who are.

One of the things on which Tom, Ezra, and I seemed to agree was that Apple is not off of the hook yet. Their software failed me in a spectacular, destructive way; and since I rang that bell, many people have come forward with similar stories. Some may be a result of user error, but I have a hard time believing all are. I think Apple does, too; which is why, as of this writing, they have stated they are currently working on an iTunes update with additional safeguards added. If they can’t yet isolate the bug, they can at least develop measures to combat it. Like in The Thing, when…well, never mind.

If you take nothing else away from this, please remember to back up your data. Redundantly. If you don’t like to manually click and drag, Retrospect has worked well for me in the past. If you’re an Apple user, Time Machine is pretty solid, but keep in mind that Time Machine overwrites its own, older backups when drive space diminishes. That means that, if you don’t catch a problem quickly enough, even those automatic backups may be missing the data in question. It’s worth taking the time to personally make sure you’re backing up what you believe you are.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to watch the first episode of Firefly. I’ve never seen it, but Tom told me it’s a great program, and I’m trying to keep an open mind. If it turns out to not work for me, I can always do something else with my time and money.

*Just to be safe, I wiped my drive completely and reinstalled everything from a backup I’d made moments before our spelunking commenced on Saturday.

Apple and James’ Excellent Adventure

Within hours of my blog post going viral, I received a phone call from John, an Apple representative. I cautiously heard him out.

John wanted to get to the bottom of the issue, and connected us both to Dave, one of Apple’s technicians. Despite what Amber had told me, Dave asserted that deletion of original files isn’t supposed to happen. This obviously put me in an awkward position, since I’d relied on Amber’s expertise while writing my original blog. Although I’m guarded, since Apple has given me two conflicting responses, I really hope that Dave is correct–because the alternative is Robocop 2-level bleak.

ET and Jimmy 1982

The Author, at the Exact Moment He First Developed Trust Issues.

I want to believe in a future that is less Ready Player One and more Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. So I talked with Dave about the details of what happened, answering his questions thoroughly. He’s looking into the issue, and I’ll be sure to post an update if or when we make any progress. In the days since then, I’ve received another call from Dave and some of his fellow engineers, but as of now they’ve told me of no new breakthroughs. At the moment, I’ve been using Swinsian as an iTunes alternative, and so far I’m really pleased with how smoothly and intuitively it operates. No, I’m not a shareholder. Yet.

My original blog post was a warning, aimed at helping others avoid a similar situation. But if Amber was incorrect, and Apple Music is not supposed to delete the users’ files, then I’m actually relieved. It means that all of us who’ve suffered through this fell victim to a bug rather than something more malicious.

We’ll see. Or maybe we’ll never know. In the meantime, as Abraham Lincoln said, be excellent to each other.

Apple Stole My Music. No, Seriously.

*See update 1 and update 2 for the conclusion of the below story.

“The software is functioning as intended,” said Amber.
“Wait,” I asked, “so it’s supposed to delete my personal files from my internal hard drive without asking my permission?”
“Yes,” she replied.

Angry man crashing laptop

Maybe I’m Not Pressing the Keys Hard Enough.

I had just explained to Amber that 122 GB of music files were missing from my laptop. I’d already visited the online forum, I said, and they were no help. Although several people had described problems similar to mine, they were all dismissed by condescending “gurus” who simply said that we had mislocated our files (I had the free drive space to prove that wasn’t the case) or that we must have accidentally deleted the files ourselves (we hadn’t). Amber explained that I should blow off these dismissive “solutions” offered online because Apple employees don’t officially use the forums—evidently, that honor is reserved for lost, frustrated people like me, and (at least in this case) know-it-alls who would rather believe we were incompetent, or lying, than face the ugly truth that Apple has vastly overstepped its boundaries.

What Amber explained was exactly what I’d feared: through the Apple Music subscription, which I had, Apple now deletes files from its users’ computers. When I signed up for Apple Music, iTunes evaluated my massive collection of Mp3s and WAV files, scanned Apple’s database for what it considered matches, then removed the original files from my internal hard drive. REMOVED them. Deleted. If Apple Music saw a file it didn’t recognize—which came up often, since I’m a freelance composer and have many music files that I created myself—it would then download it to Apple’s database, delete it from my hard drive, and serve it back to me when I wanted to listen, just like it would with my other music files it had deleted.

This led to four immediate problems:

1. If Apple serves me my music, that means that when I don’t have wifi access, I can’t listen to it. When I say “my music,” I don’t just mean the music that, over twenty years (since before iTunes existed), I painstakingly imported from thousands of CDs and saved to my computer’s internal hard drive. I also mean original music that I recorded and saved to my computer. Apple and wifi access now decide if I can hear it, and where, and when.

2. What Apple considers a “match” often isn’t. That rare, early version of Fountains of Wayne’s “I’ll Do The Driving,” labeled as such? Still had its same label, but was instead replaced by the later-released, more widely available version of the song. The piano demo of “Sister Jack” that I downloaded directly from Spoon’s website ten years ago? Replaced with the alternate, more common demo version of the song. What this means, then, is that Apple is engineering a future in which rare, or varying, mixes and versions of songs won’t exist unless Apple decides they do. Said alternate versions will be replaced by the most mainstream version, despite their original, at-one-time correct, titles, labels, and file contents.

3. Although I could click the little cloud icon next to each song title and “get it back” from Apple, their servers aren’t fast enough to make it an easy task. It would take around thirty hours to get my music back. And even then…

4. Should I choose to reclaim my songs via download, the files I would get back would not necessarily be the same as my original files. As a freelance composer, I save WAV files of my own compositions rather than Mp3s. WAV files have about ten times the number of samples, so they just sound better. Since Apple Music does not support WAV files, as they stole my compositions and stored them in their servers, they also converted them to Mp3s or AACs. So not only do I need to keep paying Apple Music just to access my own files, but I have to hear an inferior version of each recording instead of the one I created.

Of course, there are more issues than this. Apple has faced widespread complaints regarding Apple Music displaying incorrect album art, mangling file information, and Apple “geniuses” being ill-informed on the subject, thus unable to offer working solutions.

If you’re wondering why Apple hasn’t been sued yet, it’s because the iTunes Terms of Use vaguely warn of this issue, then later indemnify Apple and preclude any litigation from users who’ve been boned:

“iCloud Music Library is turned on automatically when you set up your Apple Music Subscription…When your Apple Music Subscription term ends…you will lose access to any songs stored in your iCloud Music Library.

Middle finger

Apple’s Terms of Use, Abridged.



I recovered my original music files only by using a backup I made weeks earlier. Many people don’t back up as often as they should, though, so this isn’t always an option. Amber relayed to me that she’s had to suffer through many calls from people who cancelled their Apple Music subscription after the free, three-month trial, only to discover that all of their own music files had been deleted and there was no way to get them back.

So my files were temporarily restored; but the only way to prevent this from happening over and over, according to Amber, was to cancel my subscription to Apple Music (which she herself doesn’t use due to the above-listed reasons) and to make sure my iCloud settings did not include storing any music backups.

Headphones on Laptop

The Scene of the Crime.

For about ten years, I’ve been warning people, “hang onto your media. One day, you won’t buy a movie. You’ll buy the right to watch a movie, and that movie will be served to you. If the companies serving the movie don’t want you to see it, or they want to change something, they will have the power to do so. They can alter history, and they can make you keep paying for things that you formerly could have bought. Information will be a utility rather than a possession. Even information that you yourself have created will require unending, recurring payments just to access.”

When giving the above warning, however, even in my most Orwellian paranoia I never could have dreamed that the content holders, like Apple, would also reach into your computer and take away what you already owned. If Taxi Driver is on Netflix, Netflix doesn’t come to your house and steal your Taxi Driver DVD. But that’s where we’re headed. When it comes to music, Apple is already there.

Audacious. Egregious. Crazy. These are just some of the adjectives I used in my conversation with Amber.  She actually asked me how I wanted to move forward, putting the onus of a solution back on me. I understand why, too: she’s just as powerless as I am. I would love for Apple to face public backlash and financial ramifications for having taken advantage of its customers in such a brazen and unethical way, but Apple seems beyond reproach at this point. It took three representatives before I could even speak to someone who comprehended what I was saying, and even when she admitted to Apple’s shady practice, she was able to offer no solution besides “don’t use the product.” When our data is finally a full-blown utility, however, “just don’t use the product” will cease to be an option. Apple will be in control, bringing their 1984 commercial full circle into a tragic, oppressive irony.

For an update on how Apple has denied what Amber asserted, as well as how James has been working with Apple to try to troubleshoot the software, click here.

For an update about how two Apple engineers visited James to troubleshoot, click here.


broken external hard drivesLike many electronics, external hard drives come with warranties. Most are for two or three years, but some are for five or even more. Rather than shelling out another two to three hundred dollars if your warrantied hard drive fails, then, you can simply have it replaced by using an RMA. RMA stands for “return material authorization” or “return merchandise authorization,” and it’s a code that tells the stingy warehouse trolls, “I compel you to send me a replacement product.”

When your hard drive fails, turn it upside-down and take a photo of its serial number. Then simply use a search engine to look for “(device manufacturer) RMA process.” Chances are, you’ll either just have to call a phone number, or even simply fill in some blanks online, and an RMA will be issued to you along with an address to which you can send back your broken product.

Print out the RMA, include the printout with the product, and also write the RMA prominently on the outside of the box. After the drive is received by the manufacturer, they’ll get another one to you straightway. If you still need to waste three hundred dollars, please just send it to my Paypal account; I promise I’ll spend it on whiskey and stickers.

External Hard Drives, Part 1: How to Reduce Breakage

Top view of female hand connecting external hard drive to laptop

Human hand not included. See retailer for details.

Many external hard drives fail due to excessive wear on the parts that see the most action: the connection ports. When you need to just check the contents, you plug in the drive, see what it lists in its file menu, then you disconnect it again. As a result, the power cable and the data cable (USB, Firewire, etc) are plugged and unplugged until the contact points break down.

To get the longest life out of a drive that you don’t frequently use, simply connect the drive and make a screen capture of its menu. Now, you have two options:
1. Label the screen capture “Drive 1 Contents” and write a “1” on the outside of the drive so that they correspond. This is a great choice if you aren’t passing the drive along to others, since you’ll have the list on your own computer.
2. Print out the screen capture and tape the printout to the outside of the drive (or the outside of the box in which you keep the drive). This option is best for when drives get passed around from one user to another.

When you actually use the drive and alter its contents, just repeat either of the above to keep your lists up-to-date. Doing so will greatly reduce unnecessary plugging and unplugging, thus extending the lifespan of your drive and its valuable contents.

Don’t Be Afraid To Let Go

woman scratching head, thinking with brain melting into lines question marks

Nuture your company’s culture without being taken advantage of.

I often see posts and articles that focus on how a company should take care of its employees; they are to be nurtured, encouraged, and trusted. This is an ideology that I completely support and practice. However, there are inevitably some employees who masterfully take advantage of their employers, and even co-workers. So how does a business recognize and manage employees, even the “best” employees, who manipulate a flexible work culture for only their own benefit?

Recognize the simple signs of being taken advantage of.

It usually begins with seemingly innocent and unrelated occurrences. In a reasonable work environment, it’s not a big deal to be a little late here and there. But when here and there turns into three days a week, which turns into every day, it’s time to intervene. The same thing applies to the end of the day. Understandably, we all have to leave early every now and again. But advance notice, and the simple, respectful act of asking first, should be expected from your employee. And again, if the employee’s need to leave early becomes habitual, have a frank conversation about the root cause.

This also applies to absence; the morning emails and texts. Someone is sick? Completely understandable. But is that same person sick every other week? Or perhaps it’s a lack of child care. It happens. But does it happen often? Does it seem to always happen after a long weekend? Be aware of emerging patterns. Communicate any concerns you have over what seem like excessive absences, or absences that seem to occur in repeating sequences. Gain an understanding of what’s causing the excuses for not showing up to work, or at least gain the ability to predict them based on past behavior. A bigger conversation may be warranted.

Be wary of requests made by employees with a history of habitual tardiness or absences.

A good employee typically works hard and has reasonable expectations from an employer. It’s reciprocal and benefits both parties. There are also, however, those high-maintenance employees who tend to push harder for what they want, regardless of what is best—or even just least detrimental—for the business. These employees typically produce above-average work; and, if so, they know it and they have no problem letting you know they know it. As a manager or business owner, you naturally want to hold on to your heavy hitters and work to accommodate their needs. But is the heavy hitter also a high-maintenance employee? Are they late for work often? Do they need to leave early more than other employees? Is there a history of excessive excuses for being absent? Consider these things when said employee wants to discuss alternate work arrangements. Said arrangements would likely benefit them but not the company. Before you approve any such arrangements, THINK IT THROUGH.

Example: you receive a request from an above-described employee to discuss the possibility of telecommuting. As opposed to a more productive day, it may very well result in delayed email responses, calls that go to voicemail, and work that doesn’t get turned in on time. Now the manager not only has to deal with an employee who is consistently tardy or absent, but in addition has to monitor and hound the employee to simply just do their job. What seems like a simple, reasonable compromise that you make as a manager may actually result in a more complicated situation. Is this employee really working, or are they just checking their work inbox in between personal errands? Who knows? But now it’s up to you to find out. Yet again, another conversation to be had.

Your other employees are your best barometer.

People talk. Listen. If having a candid conversation isn’t possible (co-workers of manipulative employees often hold back on speaking freely, especially when the employee in question is higher-ranking), keep your eyes open. People don’t always speak with their voices, but instead it’s “the look” or “the sigh.” No matter how valuable you may think your top-notch employee is to the company, they’re most likely not worth ruining a well-cultivated company culture. Nor are they worth losing other employees who also produce good work, but are grateful and respectful of the company’s policies and values.

Don’t be afraid to let go.

Protect your company’s culture. It succeeds when it works for both your employees AND for your business. Should you find yourself scratching your head, asking “am I being taken advantage of,” you probably are. High-maintenance employees, who manipulate the systems you have in place, also tend to be egotistical and believe that they are irreplaceable. They aren’t, so don’t be afraid to let go.