Meet San Fernando Valley Photographer/Pilot: Jim Brammer
This article was originally published October 29, 2016, in VoyageLA magazine.
Today we’d like to introduce you to Jim Brammer.
Jim, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
My fascination with photography started while I was growing up in Albuquerque, New Mexico. After graduating from high school I went to work for IBM in Cleveland, Ohio, where I got caught up in the left brain world while learning to repair, and later sell computers. IBM transferred me to Austin, Texas, where I found myself using a Polaroid camera to shoot detailed photographs of computer components while writing engineering and training manuals. After acquiring my first 35mm SLR camera, my left brain then set about merging computer knowledge with technical underpinnings of photography.
With my left-brain needs now satisfied, it was safe for my right brain to come out and play – and play it did! During my four years in Austin, I created slides and programmed computers that drove multi-media computer-animated slide shows utilizing 15 projectors on 3 screens.
As I climbed the career ladder at IBM, I was fortunate to travel the world several times over. With camera in hand, I would always try to set aside an extra day or so to explore each new city. Film gave way to digital photography and I acquired my first digital camera while on a business trip in Singapore.
After retiring from IBM in late 2007, I founded Interface Dimensions, Inc. and contracted with IBM to deliver sales and management training classes around the world. In mid-2008 I decided to abandon my IBM consulting contract and opened a photography studio under the moniker of State of the Art Images (stateoftheartimages.com). Over the next five years, I set about learning the art of photography, served two years as President of Professional Photographers of Los Angeles County, and established a boutique portrait studio in the San Fernando Valley while growing a list of corporate Clients for my commercial photography business. Never one to sit still, I decided in 2010 to venture into the fine art market (jimbrammer-fineart.com). As an emerging artist, I have been fortunate to exhibit my work in a number of solo and group shows across the country.
Out of curiosity, I purchased a quadcopter drone in early 2013 and quickly realized this was the future of photography. I taught myself to fly and founded Soaring Vistas Media (soaringvistasmedia.com), after which I shot my first aerial documentary of a vineyard harvest in Paso Robles, CA – you can view it here: https://vimeo.com/115486042. I was delighted when an edited version of footage from this project went on to become a finalist in the 2015 InterDrone Film Festival.
Encouraged by the success of my vineyard project, I decided to entertain my inner geek by building a drone from scratch. After some tuning and tweaking, much to my surprise and delight, it actually flew! My next major effort was the aerial documentation of a year-long construction project. During that time, the FAA clearly defined their regulatory posture on the commercial use of drones, after which I applied for an FAA 333 exemption, which was granted in March 2016.
To date, my aerial photography business has been primarily focused on cinematography, marketing and construction videography. I feel confident that the wealth of opportunity in this nascent market for drone-based photography data collection services will provide tremendous opportunity over the coming years, and I look forward to continuing to work on the leading edge of this exciting technology.
Has it been a smooth road?
Transitioning from ‘Intrapreneur’ to Entrepreneur
Transitioning from IBM corporate executive to small business owner was an eye-opening experience for me. The enterprise infrastructure that I took for granted in the corporate environment vanished, and I quickly realized the number of doors that were opened for me in the past by simply having the IBM logo on my business card. Cranking up my marketing engine took top priority and I was able to leverage the skills I acquired over the years with IBM in developing my sales and go-to-market strategies.
Defining and Selling Perceived Value in the Family Portraiture and Commercial Photography Market
In my studio work, one of my biggest challenges is convincing Clients that “good enough isn’t.” The quality of consumer- and prosumer-level digital cameras continues to improve, along with the amazing capability of smartphones to the degree that almost everyone has a camera in their pocket. In the family portraiture market, and to some degree in the commercial photography market as well, more and more people are content to use their digital cameras and smartphones to fulfill their photography needs. My challenge is convincing prospective Clients that there is more to it than “point and shoot.” The creativity, composition and lighting skills that I as a professional photographer bring to the table are often underappreciated. As such, I find myself competing not only with other professional photographers but, perhaps more so, with Clients who feel that their own photos are “good enough.” The bottom line is that I don’t take pictures of people. Rather, I make portraits of people. The most unfortunate part is that few, if any, of those digital shots my Clients take, will ever find their way into any form of print, instead they remain trapped on the phone or camera, rarely to be seen again.
Regulatory Compliance and Competing in the Aerial Photography Market
Similar challenges exist with Soaring Vistas Media, the aerial side of my business. Current FAA regulations specifically prohibit the use of drones for commercial purposes unless the company either obtains a “333 Exemption” and flies with “FAA Part 61 certificated pilots” or utilizes pilots having a “Part 107 Remote Pilot Certificate.” Soaring Vistas Media petitioned for and received our FAA 333 Exemption in March of this year, giving us the right to legally fly drones for commercial purposes. We comply fully with FAA regulations, fly only with FAA certificated pilots and I plan to obtain my Part 107 Remote Pilot Certificate over the coming weeks. Additionally, although not required by the FAA, aerial photography insurance is a must have for anyone who is serious about pursuing this business. All of these things – FAA compliance, contracting with certificated pilots and maintaining insurance, add to my cost of doing business. Unfortunately, there are a number of people offering drone services who are neither FAA 333 exempt, certified or carrying insurance, exposing not only themselves but their Clients to criminal prosecution and civil liability in the event of an unfortunate accident. Individuals and organizations, especially realtors, should request proof of FAA certification and insurance before hiring drone operators.
I wouldn’t call this a struggle but, rather, an opportunity. My wife, Marcia, and I believe strongly in giving back to the community and the fact that we are both now self-employed allows us the luxury of allocating our time as we see fit to give back to the community that we are so fortunate to live in. We are active members of the City of Hope Board of Governors and co-founders of 25 to 5, both of which are City of Hope fundraising chapters. We also speak at major fundraising events on behalf of both City of Hope and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. I am President Emeritus of Professional Photographers of Los Angeles County and Chair Emeritus and official photographer for the Valley Cultural Center in Woodland Hills. I also donate my time and photographic artistry to numerous other charities, including Spotlight the Arts Foundation, the Festival of New American Musicals and American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Do you feel luck has played a role in your life?
Early in my career, a colleague told me to “make your own luck” and that is largely how I have lived my life. I believe that, with a little bit of luck and a lot of perseverance, a person can “make their own luck” and accomplish whatever he or she sets their mind to.
In my photography career, this translates to not just “being” in the right place at the right time but taking the initiative of “putting myself” in the right place at the right time. In 2008 I attended a lighting workshop delivered by Amy Cantrell, a commercial photographer based in Los Angeles, and Judy Host, a portrait photographer now based in Atlanta. I knew at the time that I needed to learn about lighting in order to succeed as a photographer and Amy and Judy gave me the foundation and motivation to succeed. In the years that followed, I attended additional education sessions and workshops by the likes of Tim Meyer and Arthur Rainville, each highly accomplished in their own right.
Simply stated I believe that, if you want to succeed in whatever it is you choose to do, you need to make your own luck by getting outside of your box and taking the initiative to put yourself in the right place at the right time.
Is there a quality or characteristic that has played an outsized role in your success?
The key word here for me “style”. By that, I mean the way in which I conduct myself and my business. For me, that boils down to three key principles:
Tell us about your favorite and least favorites things about our city.
What I like best: Los Angeles is a beautiful city, full of cultural, artistic and entrepreneurial opportunity for anyone who chooses to pursue their passion. Oh, and the weather is great too!
What I like least: Traffic