I’ve made almost every mistake a photographer can make in running their own photography business from running up credit card debt to doing jobs without contracts.
The biggest leap I made was when I decided to stop acting like a freelancer giddy just to get an assignment and started being proactive thinking like a small business owner trying to build a brand sustainable for the future. I never worked in actual office so I got a late start but better late than never.
I’ve had the privilege through festivals, photography events, and workshops to meet a lot of young and old aspiring photographers and what I’ve found are missing from these workshops and festivals is an injection of reality and education about the business world of photography. So I’ve decided to inject, if you don’t want to be injected, stop reading (sorry that really sounded gross and I promise not to use the world inject for the rest of this blog).
Here are some pointers, some big and some small, that I’ve come up with for all of you who want to make a full-time living off of photography. No matter what genre of photography suits your fancy, this advice should apply to you. For any of you not in the photography world this is going to sound bizarre because you will think all of this is pretty damn obvious. I’m not claiming to reinvent the lens here (see what I did there) but sometimes we all need a reminder.
No matter how old you are start a retirement plan today!!! Open up an IRA, Roth IRA, or Self-Employment IRA account, it takes just a few minutes to sign up. I have a Self-Employment IRA through Vanguard, and the money automatically comes out of my bank account every month and is invested in a mutual fund. If you are in your 30’s ask your friends with corporate jobs how much is in their 401K retirement plan already, the number will astound you. It’s not too late; you will need this money one day I guarantee it, so sign up now.
This applies mostly to expats but if you live abroad you need something to cover your ass in case of an emergency. I used a broker in Hong Kong and got a plan from Allianz that works for me. One bad accident could bankrupt you.
Injuries, death in the family, emergencies, etc. you need to have money in case things go wrong. A lot of financial planners will tell you to have about 3 months worth of living expenses in liquid savings account as a bare minimum.
Stay on top of this, know what is acceptable to write off and keep good records either with a program like QuickBooks or hire an accountant.
For every job you do should have a contract signed before you do anything. Contracts are negotiable so remember that and don’t get bullied, unless of course you are working for in that case just sign the contract J. Templates are available online or hire a lawyer to draft you one. I hired a lawyer then made necessary adjustments. A good contract will save you and it will let your clients know you are serious about your work. Even with friends have a contract; it’s not about trust it’s about having something in writing signed so that you won’t have any confusion later on. I work with some of my closest friends and we have contracts that we mutually negotiated signed leaving no room for misinterpretations.
CREDIT CARDS DEBT
If you want to be more than an individual and build a brand, trademark your company. Your lawyer can do it for you and this will protect you from someone stealing your name and logo after you’ve built that successful recognizable brand.
Separate your business from personal bank accounts. I have a company credit card and bank account for my business and only those accounts are used for business transactions. Come tax time this will make things a lot easier and it will be easier just in terms of understanding your financials.
BE ON TIME
This might seem like an obvious one but I see it all the time. People like to make that joke about “I’m on (Insert Country Here) Time” or “I’m an artist” excuse, screw that. Be on time for all meetings, shoots, conference calls, and deadlines. Don’t forget photography is subjective so things like being professional and being likable can always help later on when it comes time for the client to approve your work or hire you again.
If you travel a lot get rewards programs for airlines, credit cards, hotels. Use them all time, they add up to great deals and will save you a lot of money. This dude has a website that offers advice on this, bookmark this.
GET A DEPOSIT
Don’t do any wedding or commercial work without an f’ing deposit. For editorial work it’s damn hard to do so because they are so last minute. For everything else don’t reserve your time, book airfare/hotels, and turn down other jobs until you get a deposit. We do a 50% non-refundable deposit, that at least covers expenses and more importantly covers our ass from a client cancelling last minute. Without a contract or a deposit it’s really easy for a client to be flaky but it’s amazing how much they respect your time when they’ve paid you a significant amount already. I’ve helped a friend or bended a few times and guess what, those are the times I got burned so just don’t do it. Make it company policy and make sure friends and good clients understand it’s not personal. Sometimes a company will plead with you saying they can’t get you the money in time, guess what, they can if they want you. They can pay their lease, pay their employees, etc. so they can pay you. Can’t and don’t feel like it are two different things. Be strict on this one, it’s a normal practice.
Don’t give up the goods until you see the $$$. It’s easy for client to say after they received the final high-resolution images to come up with excuses for a discount or delayed payments. We get our final 50% before we give any high-resolution images or video files. Again, we’ve made this mistake. We’ve had clients love the images and say so in an email only to delay 6 months to pay us or try to weasel a discount because image 27 wasn’t what they had in mind. Some will just make things up just to get a deal, not often but it happens. It’s a pretty fair and simple system we use. We set up a locked online (We use Photoshelter and love it) web resolution gallery of images for the client to review. Once they sign off and pay us the remaining balance we send them the high-resolution images or video within 24 hours of receiving the payment via online gallery. Don’t do anything until you see the actually money in your account, just be safe. It’s a fair system for you and your client and put these details in your contract and terms up front.