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Evolving the Commercial Studio Work Force with Tim Dalal


Daniel is joined by Tim Dalal of Lifetime Brands. Tim is a longtime commercial photographer based in New York City. After an entire career running his own commercial studio, he took on a position as Adjunct Photography Instructor with LaGuardia Community College, along with a role as managing senior photographer with Lifetime Brands. Tim’s experience and observations on the industry make him uniquely suited to discuss with me what the future of the commercial photography labor force might look like.

Key Takeaways

  • With the current iteration of e-commerce creative production becoming a more mature industry, the need exists for some standards in terms of training, terminology, and compensation for experience.
  • This might look similar to cousin industries like film production, where there are distinct requirements to earn the title of the role you inhabit.
  • Imagine Senior Photographer is a standard role that means the person inhabiting that role has attained a certain level of experience as an e-commerce photographer.
  • Something like a governing body of e-commerce creative talent can pay dividends to both employers and employees for a variety of reasons.
  • Continued education for creative talent can also be a mission of this type of arrangement.

Links & Resources

Full episode transcript

Daniel Jester: From Creative Force, I'm Daniel Jester, and this is the E-commerce Content Creation Podcast. Today, I'm joined by Tim Dalal of Lifetime Brands. Tim is a longtime commercial photographer based in New York City. After an entire career running his own commercial studio, he took on a position as adjunct photography instructor with LaGuardia Community College along with a role as managing senior photographer with Lifetime Brands. Tim's experience and observations on the industry make him uniquely suited to discuss with me what the future of the commercial photography labor force might look like.

Tim Dalal: I see standardization in other types of industries that are cousins to ours if you will, in creative and performing arts. A lot of the roles are well defined with titles, with descriptions that a novice or someone getting into the business can navigate. They can navigate through that language and try to narrow down where they want to focus their energy and their abilities, and we don't seem to have that right now in what I would call the traditional approach to commercial photography.

Daniel Jester: Tim and I casually chat about what a certificate program in commercial photography might look like or a governing body that allows us to standardize training and terminology and recruiting practices for creative roles in e-commerce content creation studios. What this might mean for brands and retailers and their efforts to recruit creative team members, and how that could also help keep the workforce up to speed with rapidly changing technology. Let's dig in with Tim Dalal. This is the E-commerce Content Creation Podcast recently listed as Finland's 51st Best Business Management Podcast. Almost certainly thanks solely to Jeff Strauss listening from Helsinki. Hi, Jeff. Joining me on the episode today is Tim Dalal of Lifetime Brands. Tim, welcome to the show and how are you?

Tim Dalal: Daniel? I'm great. How are you? And thank you for having me. It's a pleasure.

Daniel Jester: It's hard to be anything other than great when you're Finland's 51st Best Business Podcast, but here we are living the dream.

Tim Dalal: I'm jealous.

Daniel Jester: Well, you're a guest now you're canonized. We'll see how your episode does specifically. I think they do episode specific rankings. Tim, we invited you to come on the podcast. You and I have had a couple of really interesting conversations, and first I want to say your background, I think really uniquely suits you to have a discussion about this. This is going to be another one of those episodes where we sort of not daydream, but we just think a little bit about what the future of our industry could look like, and we're specifically going to look at the creative talent and the labor force that drives content production for e-commerce and other types of creative studios as well.

We're going to spend a little bit of time thinking about what the future of that might look like, will we see standards? I've said on this podcast before, we may not be that far away from seeing a certification program at certain universities in specifically e-commerce creative production. And Tim, I wanted you to take a moment to share with our audience your background because frankly, you've seen it all over a career that has spanned a couple of different niches in our industry. So why don't you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself before we get into the conversation?

Tim Dalal: Yeah. Sure, Daniel, I'll be glad to. Well strangely enough, I started out right out of college more or less, working as a staff photographer for a department store company called Allied Stores. They owned department stores around the country. They were headquartered in New York, and I was tasked with photographing merchandise samples in this marketing headquarters. And from there, I launched my own business eventually after a couple of years of doing that, and I kept that business running, my own photo studio for about 25 years. And now I find myself back in a corporate environment, working on staff once again in a photo studio and working with various types of tabletop products, and so I've come full circle in a way. In that journey, I've also taught for about nine or 10 years at the college levels. I taught at a community college part of the City University of New York located in New York City. I have a well-rounded background I think, in terms of how commercial photography is created, how it's used and where it might be going.

Daniel Jester: Well-rounded background, Tim. I've got to give you a little bit more credit than you're giving yourself there. A long time running your own commercial studio in New York City. I managed production for a commercial studio for a little over a year and a half in LA, and I felt like in that time I experienced just about everything there is to experience from various customers and clients and freelance crew, but 20 years of running a studio in New York. And then for me, I love that you took on that role teaching at the college level. This is in another life, had I pursued advanced degrees. This is something that I would've been very, very interested in myself, and I think that gives you a unique perspective to have the conversation we are going to have today which is not only working with talent over the years, being part of that creative labor force out there, producing content for e-commerce and retail, but then also teaching the next generation of photographers and digit techs and maybe even stylists, some of whom come through class.

It's not uncommon for people to start off in photography or styling and go the other way because they finally have got a real passion for it. I think that makes you uniquely suited to have this conversation that we're going to have which is, what might this look like in the future, and where I want to start is an acknowledgement that today when you're out there looking at job posts, and let's look at it from the perspective of a freelance photographer or stylist. You get to know the landscape of your region, you get to know what studios are out there, what companies are out there, who's hiring freelancers.

You also get to know and you become acutely aware pretty quickly that there is a dramatic varied set of expectations from various employers. A huge variance in day rates offered from various employers, and I think that's a great place to start the conversation is that no two companies approach hiring creative talent for their e-commerce or retail business the same way. There's a lot of differences between how they think about the role, the responsibilities they assign to those roles and what they're willing to compensate for those roles.

Tim Dalal: I agree with that. I think it's a great observation, a good starting point for this discussion. And by the way, we're just referring to what you said in the opening remarks. We're not daydreaming. I would call this work shopping. I think what we're doing is a real thoughtful process and approach to trying to understand something better, and hopefully having some serendipitous moment where we say something or recognize something that we hear and a light bulb goes off, so I'm hoping that might happen within the audience listening to this podcast. My teaching background informs me quite a bit in the way I think now about commercial photography, and in one particular way, teaching happens to be about understanding how to break things down and put it into a simple language that can work for everybody.

And of course, there are ways to reach out and give individual attention where it's needed, but essentially you have to be able to break things down and make it understandable, make it easier for everybody to get. And I think that's the situation we may be facing right now with the employment picture for our industry of commercial photography, and to your point, the language that's used in job descriptions and in job titles leads, I think, to a lot of confusion and a lot of uncertainty about what employers are looking for and what it is that a person may feel their qualified to do.

And I would like to see that improved upon, and I think this points out one of the most important aspects of this approach is language, the terminology that we use, how things are recognized and addressed across the board. So we need standardization for that, and I see standardization in other types of industries that are cousins to ours if you will, in creative and performing arts. A lot of the roles are well defined with titles, with descriptions that a novice or someone getting into the business can navigate. They can navigate through that language and try to narrow down where they want to focus their energy and their abilities, and we don't seem to have that right now in what I would call the traditional approach to commercial photography.

Daniel Jester: I think it's important to point out that anybody who's going to get hired, anybody who's going out for a job whether it's a full-time role at a studio or an opening for a freelance photographer, stylist, whatever... And just to be clear, I feel like on this podcast sometimes I'm leaving out our friends in studio operations, samples teams and that kind of thing. I'm not excluding you guys. It's vitally important to how a studio's run all of those bits and pieces, but we're talking specifically in this episode, we're going to focus a little bit on photography and styling because that's one of the roles that a photographer and a stylist and people who come through those roles often spend a lot of their own time learning. It's a constant process of shooting and styling and practicing. You go to the studio and you work.

If you're full-time employee, you're working eight hours a day plus five days a week, whatever it is. And then I don't know if this was your experience, Tim, if it still is your experience and maybe when you were younger, but for me it was going home and it was shooting at home whatever I felt like shooting. Sometimes it was more art oriented and sometimes it was just trying to develop a skill, and so my point, my long winded point that I'm getting to here is that these are skilled trades that currently today aren't necessarily structured the same way that other trades out there are structured, and we do have cousins in creative and performing arts. The film industry is one where there are certification processes for some of the key roles in the film production, and what that means to the people putting together the crew for that film production is that person has achieved a level of technical skill and knowledge that you can be sure that you're getting.

And from my perspective, as somebody who hired freelance talent for studios a lot over the last more so in the last five to seven years of my career than the entirety of my career, that could mean a lot to somebody who's building out a studio team. Because a huge part of my recruitment process at any of the studios where I was hiring somebody is I have to figure out what this person knows, what experience with what power packs do you have, what experience just in general, where is your skill level when it comes to photography and understanding how light interacts with things. I really do think of it as two different types of photographers, Tim, you and I are cut from the same cloth I think, in the sense that we're still life guys. We like spending time with a product and shooting it.

The photographer that's made a great career for themselves shooting on model, that's almost an entirely different set of skills. The photography baseline is the same, but there's all kinds of other soft skills that some of us curmudgeonly still life tabletop guys don't necessarily... I've spent a lot of time practicing. I'm not speaking for you, Tim. I could certainly shoot on model. I'm sure that you could shoot on model too. I'm sure that we're all nice enough guys that we can, but all joking aside the point being stylist and photographers spend a lot of their own time building up a skillset, building up their own knowledge, gaining the experience to deal with different types of situations that they might come across in their work.

And I think it's a net benefit to the industry that we begin to look at that and standardize the language around that. An apprentice photographer, a journeyman photographer, a journeyman maybe isn't a great word anymore. I'm not sure what the non-gendered alternative to that might be, but whatever it is you can go into it saying, "This person has achieved X number of hours, has a baseline of skill that earns them the title master photographer or whatever that might look like."

Tim Dalal: I think a certification program is something that comes to my mind when I hear you talking about these types of job titles and talent levels or skill levels that can be taught. It can be broken down and structured so they can be taught to people anywhere and with a high degree of conformity and consistency, and they can also be tested and assessed in the way that a certification represents. So this I think would make it so much easier for companies to address some of the thorny issues of hiring creative talent. I don't think, and this is just a guess on my part because there's a lot of very, very good people in HR, Lifetime Brands included, it can be very difficult for them to wrap their head around the nuances of what it is that they have to figure out in an interview.

So you and I with our backgrounds as photographers, we would intuitively know how to suss out the answers that someone gives or how to even structure our questions in the most meaningful way, so I don't think that we can expect that, just assume that's going to continue. I don't think it will. I think it's going to go more into the realm of the HR department, and I'm sure they would welcome some help or the structure that the standardization that we're talking about would offer them.

Daniel Jester: I mean, think about the conventional wisdom that you share with earlier career photographers that you've met, Tim. I would be shocked. I'd be willing to bet my paycheck that you've given this advice which is, show them the portfolio of the thing that they want you to shoot. Don't show them anything else because the person who's reviewing that portfolio first has no idea about photography, has no idea what it takes to achieve a shot. Don't send the company that needs you to shoot spark plugs a bunch of bikini models in front of cars because even if they're the best images of bikini models in front of cars, it's lost in translation. Sometimes you get lucky. Sometimes the first person to review your portfolio happens to have a photography background and can make that translation, and you just luck into an interview anyway because, "Okay. Yes, you sent me a portfolio that was wildly off topic, but I can clearly see the skill."

We can begin to develop that ability to see that skill in our cross functional partners at larger corporate organizations because of this idea of being able to standardize that. This HR person's coming into it with a baseline and understanding that, "Okay, this person is a certified XYZ photographer at this level and that means something, and so I can come into this being less sure if I'm looking at exactly the right portfolio, but based on the fact that I know that you've achieved the certification." The other thing I wanted to point out, you used earlier, Tim, in a conversation before we started recording is the idea of a governing body. When we talk about standards and certifications, that means that there has to be some organization that defines what these are for the industry itself, and that defacto creates this error of not even an error...

It actually creates legitimacy to these certifications that, I used this example when we were chatting before, an HVAC technician is a skilled trade that has special tools and technology that they need to use. If they're licensed by their governing body then you can go into that relationship knowing that they know what they're doing, at the very least they know what they're doing. There's a lot of other things to evaluate too. You still need to make sure that the person has the right personality to fit in your studio and on your team, but at least you know they're coming into the studio with... And one of the things that my mind goes to immediately is a benchmark of safety. I think an important part of any certification program like this, would be very safety oriented because we've talked a lot about safety on this podcast, and it's really important to me.

The e-commerce studio, even the e-commerce studio where a lot of companies have it really buttoned up and dialed in. It's an inherently dangerous place to work. There's a lot of moving parts. There's a lot of things that can hurt you in pretty extreme ways, so I love the idea of defining these standards, creating the certification and there's this governing body that administer all of that, and we can use that to then segue into this next part of the conversation, Tim, which I think is very interesting from this perspective is, continuing education for those that are represented by this governing body.

Our industry is changing so incredibly rapidly that those of us who've been in it for 10 plus years, heads are spinning a little bit. We don't know what the next era of the internet's going to look like. I don't know if AR and VR and the metaverse are going to be, how much of an impact they're going to have on e-commerce and creative production, but there's going to be some impact, and a set of standards and a governing body that administer these standards and these certifications for creative talent in these studios can help ensure that workforce is getting the education they need to meet the next generation of e-commerce content and not getting potentially left behind.

Tim Dalal: Where should I begin? I [inaudible 00:18:34].

Daniel Jester: I threw a lot at you.

Tim Dalal: No, it's okay. I mean, I agree with the things you're putting forth, the notions you're putting forth, and my takeaway is that it certainly behooves businesses at large to work with industry standards for creative content creation. The way they could do that is by providing the support, the partnership if you will, for the growth and the expansion or the growth and development of the creative workforce, and developing-

Daniel Jester: Hold on, creative force. Don't just start throwing names around there, Tim. I'll have to talk to the powers that be if we're going to lend you that one.

Tim Dalal: ... okay. Well, I think it actually makes sense [inaudible 00:19:19]-

Daniel Jester: I think it does too. Go on, continue. I apologize.

Tim Dalal: ... no, that's okay. I'm glad you pointed it out. I knew it would cause the reaction, but I'm glad you caught it. I think we're a special subset, the workforce in general, and I like to call it the creative force because language is important as I said before, and how we view ourselves and how we represent ourselves will, I believe, directly affect how others view us and treat us. And going back to what companies could be doing, for us as far as our own industry concerns go, the industry of commercial photography, I think developing standards and best practices that can be codified is really what we're talking about. That'll just benefit all the practitioners of commercial photography and its various permutations and all consumers of commercial photography. I see it as a win-win for all the parties involved.

So the two year school, the two year college, the community college which is where I taught, I taught at LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City. And there are community colleges everywhere throughout the entire country, and I see them as a great access point for this type of exposure, this type of availability to anyone no matter where they live, to learn more about this industry and to seek out the actual certifications and training that will help them get their foot in the door and give them actually a step up on where they would've otherwise been without a real focused type of approach to their career.

Daniel Jester: A lot of great points there, Tim, and I don't want to make too much light of it, but I do want to say this, creative force definitely does sound a lot cooler than something like the International Cinematographers Guild Camera Local 600. I have no shade on our friends in the Cinematographer's Guild, but just putting out that creative force sounds like it comes with a uniform.

Tim Dalal: I like it with stripes and epaulets, I hope. We can use it as a colloquial term to just help us put our profile in perspective. We should be proud of what we do and the amount of training and perseverance it takes to achieve a certain level of proficiency, and we shouldn't be taking that lightly, and we are going to be directly responsible for ensuring the viability of this profession going forward. So this might be a great opportunity, a great point in time for us to start to have these conversations, to explore the partnerships that would be necessary to make all these things happen.

Daniel Jester: I think it is a great time to have that conversation because one of the things that we've learned over the last year and a half or so, a little over a year and a half of doing this podcast is that the studio used to very much be a considered a cost center amongst senior leadership of any organization. It was necessary to doing business. You needed to put money into equipment and the team, and you just let them go. And this is all evidenced by the lack of the early days, the lack of any standard tools and processes. There was defacto industry standard tools in the form of capture one and things, but it was very much every company was just, "I need a studio, somebody please figure it out." And we are now seeing a shift that the creative in this day and age with the internet, what we think the future is going to be in all of the various social media marketing channel, not just social media, but I use that as an example all the time because social media is no longer just one marketing channel.

It's a collection of sub marketing channels. You can't talk to your audience the same way on Facebook that you talk to them on TikTok or Instagram. In some cases you need bespoke content for each of those channels, and we see very much the companies that are getting ahead of the curve are viewing their creative teams as their competitive advantage, as their edge, as a strategic part of their business moving forward. And with that shift in thinking from some of these more forward thinking companies that are approaching it this way, and we've talked to many of them on this podcast, they are investing money in their teams, in their studios, in their processes because they realize it will be the creative that gives them the edge in their industry that buys them more market share of whatever it is that they're trying to sell.

It's the time to start to standardize the way that we staff those teams and to give them the support that they need and acknowledge the hard work that goes into creating this content and the just sheer brain power, and for lack of a better term, creativity that goes into making this stuff that helps engage with audiences. At the same time that we're seeing this shift from cost center to profit center slash strategic advantage, we're also seeing that it's getting harder and harder to really connect with your audience in some areas and in some ways, and it's the creative teams who are out there figuring out how to create engaging content, to connect with the audience and to keep some of these businesses nowadays that are a hundred percent e-commerce solely rely on their imagery and their assets to sell their product. There's no other way to do it.

Tim Dalal: There's something we can all agree upon here which is that, strong imagery drives sales. It's a very, very basic concept for anybody involved in business. And well, what do we need, of course, to create this strong imagery? We need creative talent to produce and refine this type of imagery, so therefore creative talent is and will continue to be important to the economy. That might seem like a little bit of a stretch, but it really makes sense if you think about it. Strong imagery drive sales. Creative talent creates strong imagery, and therefore, what do we do to protect this creative force, the people that create the imagery for commerce? I think that's the baseline for all of these conversations because we really are an integral part of what's going on in this tremendous explosion of the economic juggernaut that e-commerce has become, and I think as you say, we're at a good point in time to consider all these new ways of looking at things.

Daniel Jester: I think that's about the time we have for this. It feels like we were just scratching the surface of the conversation. I think we need to make a placeholder to come back and dig deep into some of the more... You know what? By the way, I appreciate you correcting me, daydreaming and brainstorming are akin, but dramatically different. When I daydream it can get a little weird, but brainstorming, I agree with that wholeheartedly, the characterization of the conversation. I think it is interesting, and I had a little bit of a mind blow moment on that last part when you were responding to my last point there that the creative is really what is driving a lot of the industry at this point, and especially with how many brands are e-commerce or digital first or digital native brands.

I don't know if that's the right term. I know digital native means something, but for other industries... I'm sorry if I'm misusing that term. But what I'm describing is companies that exist solely on the internet, and that's just how they present themselves, how they represent themselves, their brand, all of the creative that goes into that marketing, all of the adjacent creative operations teams. Those are arguably the most important teams in order to build trust with your customer, to get them to buy the thing you want them to buy, and I think that the team's doing the work... I'm obviously biased in this regard as a long time product photographer, but the teams doing the work deserve the support and deserve to be ushered into this next phase, this next level of maturity. If creative production for e-commerce is in a late adolescence, let's push this baby into adulthood, man. Let's push it squarely into adulthood. Let's get into our mid twenties and know some things, but still be young enough to get the job done.

Tim Dalal: Well, that's funny. No, the powers in our hands for sure, and I think we have to look at it that way and it's precious also, so we have to nurture it. We have to take care of it because it won't happen on its own. I really don't think it will. So it's been a pleasure, Daniel. Thank you for this opportunity to have this conversation, and I look forward to another time.

Daniel Jester: Yeah. The pleasure is on mine, Tim. Thank you so much.

Tim Dalal: Thank you.

Daniel Jester: That's it. For this episode of the podcast. We are definitely going to have Tim back to brainstorm more on this idea. There's a lot of interesting things, pros and benefits for both the creative teams and the companies that need to recruit these creative team members. Many thanks to our guest, Tim Dalal, and thanks to you, the listener for listening. The show is produced by Creative Force, edited by Calvin Lanz. A special thanks to Sean O'Meara. I'm your host, Daniel Jester. Until next time, my friends. Ian, I have not forgotten about you. Hello. I love you. This is not awkward.

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