Thursday, February 26, 2009

Starting Off Part 4: The Stuff

Niche: check!
Legal: check!
Brand: check!

You know what you're going to shoot, are legal to shoot, and know how you're going to brand your shooting. Now, you need to figure out what are you shooting with! I've noticed from all the myriad posts on the photography forums that many starting photographers have a hard time determining what gear they need to make great photos. I'll give my opinion on a few of the problems they have, and give you, once and for all, the actual, true list of what equipment you need for your shoots.

It's not the size of the boat....

First off, don't stress out over megapixels. In fact, I'm going to go out on a limb and say something that both Canon and Nikon don't want me to say: You don't need the newest camera body. In fact, the 4 megapixel (yes, four!) original Canon 1D produces some of the best images out there, and works well enough for 90% of the professionals.

Yes, 4 megapixels is enough. Surprised? The reason is, it's not the number of pixels that matters, it's the quality of the pixels that matters, and the quality of the light that hits those pixels. In fact, if you need to invest money, invest it in your glass (lenses), not bodies, unless there's some good reason to get a new one (and I'll get to those reasons later).

Also, remember that if you take the professional camera away from Anne Geddes and give her a Kodak point-and-shoot, you'll still get professional photos, and much better photos than if 99% of the population would shoot with her camera. So don't fret too much over your camera, and don't worry if you don't have the top-of-the-line camera, either. Until you are outshooting your current camera body, don't bother.

If it's worth having, it's worth having twice.

One key thing that most people starting fail to realize (and, in fact, several established professionals are also in this group) is that if you only have one of something, it's really like not having it at all. Or, as they say about real estate: backups, backups, backups!

Do you need two of everything? No, not everything, but you really need to have suitable replacements for every critical item. For example, in my niche of youth sports, my Canon 1D Mark II is my work-horse, and if it goes down and I don't have a replacement, I'm, well, screwed. Do I need to have another exact same body? No, but it's better if I do. For a year, I used a 20D as a suitable backup, and it worked; not nearly as good in autofocus, but it got the job done. Now, I have four camera bodies: two main bodies as I often supply a camera body to someone shooting for me, and two suitable backups. And one of those backups is the original Canon 1D (yes, the 4 megapixel marvel I mentioned above) and I'll grab that one before the 8.2 megapixel 20D 90% of the time, so even here, it's not about megapixels.

When it comes to lenses, you don't necessarily need exact backups, but you really need to have the focal lengths covered. If your main lens is the Canon 50mm f/1.2L lens, you don't need to splurge $1200+ to get an exact backup, but can consider the 50mm f/1.4 or even the 24-70 f/2.8
L as a suitable backup. If your main lens is the 24-70 f/2.8L lens, perhaps the Tamron 28-75 f/2.8 lens as a suitable backup. What you're aiming for here is the ability to reasonably be able to get the shot you want without the gear you generally use.

Why do you need backups? Perhaps I should introduce you to Murphy's Law, but I'm fairly sure you're already familiar with the concept. I've had a shutter break at an inopportune time, gear falls, strobe tubes blow, cables get tripped over and broken, flashes fail, let alone the issue of outright theft.

Now, realize that backups are requirements for some photographers (sports, wedding, PJ), but for others (wildlife, landscape), it may not make sense to get these backups. After all, it's hard to recapture a sporting event or a wedding, but that mountain isn't going to disappear overnight (although the shooting conditions will!). However, I always advise having a second camera body, if for nothing else, to have your second-most-used lens on it, ready for use without having to swap lenses in the field.

So, if you only have one camera body, then you DO need to buy a second one, maybe even a new one if you can justify it. Don't know if you really need it? Read on....

New, newer, newest.

Do not think you need the newest camera body because you need the megapixels. As stated above, the lowly 4 megapixel Canon 1D is still in my bag as a backup. Before you shell out hard-earned bucks for a top-of-the-line camera body, first answer the question:

What does my current camera body not do that I need?

Note this doesn't say "want", but "need." Do you really need higher ISO capability? Do you really need faster frame rates? Do you really need more megapixels? Do you really need a better autofocus? Once you've truthfully answered this question, you can determine what camera bodies would meet your needs, then make sure you get one of them. Not necessarily the newest, but what you need.

Now, for lenses, look at your most commonly used focal lengths (and f/stop combinations), and see if you're well covered. Make sure you can cover any critical focal length at least twice; I prefer once with a prime and once with a zoom, but that's just me.

Equipment: the (semi-)definitive list.

I promised a list of what you need for your shoots, so here it is.
  • At least two camera bodies
  • All critical focal lengths, covered twice
  • If you use a flash, a backup flash
  • If you use off-camera flash, a backup radio transmitter and receiver (or transceiver) and cable-set
  • Your required "tools of the trade" such as tripods and filters for landscape photographers, tripod and gimble heads for wildlife photographers, reflectors, strobes, etc.
  • Three complete sets of camera batteries (including backups) and flash batteries
  • Twice as many CompactFlash cards as you'd use in a single shoot
  • If you shoot with strobes, a spare flash-tube
  • All required battery chargers and cables (a spare cable might not hurt)
  • Lens "cleaning" supplies such as a microfiber cloth or a "lens pen"
  • Your artistic eye
Given the above list, I know I can cover any shoot I am at. I may not have the luxury have having the more esoteric items, but I know I can accomplish my shoot given the above list.

What do you feel is a must for your shooting?

Monday, February 23, 2009

Starting Off Part 3: Your Brand

In both Part 1 and Part 2, your company's name was mentioned. As stated, if you stick with using your name with a modifier, such as "Majel Barrett Photography" or "James Kirk Images," you'll have less paperwork than if you adopted a DBA like "Phaser Photography." Most solo photographers, such as wedding photographers, go this way, and it makes good sense for that.

Naming and future growth.

However, note the word "solo" above. If your business plan ever includes expanding and bringing in additional photographers (not assistants or post-processing crew), you might want to rethink that. After all, if your associate were to go to a shoot, there is a great chance that everyone there will the that he (or she) is you, the owner, as they're professing to be with "Jimmy Doohan Photography," so naturally people will think that this associate, is, in fact, Jimmy.

Herein lies the problem of using your name as the company's name: you may be hindering future growth of your fledgling enterprise. I'd highly advise keeping this in mind with you determine your company's name.

Oh, one other thing about naming your company after yourself: if you were to ever sell the business, your name would be associated with something that you, personally, would no longer have any say over. Just a thought.

Logos, colors, and brands: oh my!

After you've determined your company's name (or perhaps, once you've narrowed it down to a few qualified candidates), you need to think about the next step: branding. Branding consists of tying all the parts of the company (image, products, and the general "feel") together in one whole unit. Branding consists of a color scheme, logo, watermark, packaging, website, advertisements, fliers and handouts, postcards, or anything that you want to associate your company with, or associate with your company. And to do this properly, you need to work with professionals. And I don't mean you.

As a professional (or desiring professional) photographer, you most likely cringe when you see people and businesses doing their own photography at a mediocre level; I can't tell you how many times I've looked through local advertising magazines and could see the bad color, bad shadows, or other unprofessional looks to these ads, and I wonder if the company realizes that by saving money doing their own photography, they're most likely causing themselves to lose money. Just like that, I believe that logo and branding design shouldn't be done by one's self, but by a professional graphic designer. Find a local (or even remote) designer, and work with her to establish a logo and color scheme that you can integrate with your website, packaging, and other company presence. Let her know what your
niche is and tailor this brand to your company and its goals. Ask for a watermark for your online photos as well.

Working with a professional graphic designer to create your brand is something that will pay off much more dividends than it is likely to cost, so please: don't do it yourself.

A dirty word.

Both the graphic design world and the photography world share a common foe, something that has been gaining in popularity even though it does nothing but suck the life from both sources. This word is a dirty word in both circles. In fact, I hesitate to say it, but I must, in order to educate you better on this heinous issue:


There, I said it; please forgive me.

Spec is short for "speculative," which simply means working and creating a product with the hope of getting paid. Would you spend hours shooting something in the hopes that your customer would pay you, especially when there were other photographers doing the same thing, competing for the same customer? I didn't think so. So please, don't play the spec game at some of the graphic design "competitions" out there. For just a bit more money, you'll get to personally work with a graphic design who can work with you to develop your brand, as opposed to a fishing expedition. I mean, if you were spending your time competing with just a possibility of getting paid, how much time and effort would you put into it? Right, I thought so.

So spend some time with a real graphic designer. Don't know any? Ask around at other local companies and other photographers. Get some references and perhaps contact one or two asking for samples. This is definitely one of those things that pays dividends, trust me.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Useful Links

I'm going to interrupt my Starting Off series with a quick post with some links to two very useful blogs.

  • John Harrington's excellent Photo Business News blog.
    One of the top blogs for running a successful photography business, geared more toward established pros than start-ups, but very applicable

  • Chase Jarvis' blog.
    Chase is the professional's professional. You will learn things from his blog, guaranteed.
Read them. Follow them. Grab the RSS feed and route it to your phone. You will learn from them.

OK, back to the Starting Off series.

Starting Off Part 2: Being Legal

You've made the choice to start your own photography-based company. You've determined which niche to set up in (see Part 1), so now it's time to hang out your sign and go shoot, right?


There are some very important steps to be taken before you press the shutter for the first time professionally--some very important legal steps.

Licenses, legalities, and other "L" words.

Do you know what it takes to start a legal business in your community? Just declaring yourself as a business does not a business make. First, your city and/or county will most likely require you to register with them. If you're using your name as your business like "John Smith Photography," there will probably be less paperwork. Using a business name that isn't your own name like "Small Time Shots" will require additional paperwork known as a DBA, or Doing Business As. Your city and/or county clerk will have the paperwork for you and can walk you through these very easily. Generally there is a small fee (possibly at both levels) for the paperwork; mine was only $5, plus the few dollars for the Notary Public, so it was relatively painless.

Have you ever seen those sections of "Legal Notices" in the newspaper and wondered what they were for? Most likely you're going to have to make your own listing in the newspaper as a good-faith attempt at making sure no one objects to your starting a business! I can already hear your astonishment: you mean random people can object? Yes, they can! They'll have to make a formal objection to the city or county about your business and offer proof of why it is objectionable. The good news is, it rarely happens. The bad news is, when it does, it's generally a neighbor who doesn't want a home-based business being next door. If you feel you might have one of those neighbors, it might be good to be upfront with them ahead of time and let them know what you're planning on doing. They'll probably be worried of deliveries or customers visiting your home, so make sure you assure them about the low impact before your file.

In addition to the city and/or county, you'll have to file with your state as well. Most likely this will be limited to just a Sales Tax license. My state required proof that I had a county license prior to a Sales Tax license, so make sure you file for the approvals in the correct order. Your city and/or county clerk may also be able to help you with this.

City, county, state. Next step is federal. While a sole-proprietorship can operate without a Federal Employer Identification Number (FEIN) and use their Social Security Number, I highly recommend getting a FEIN anyway, if for no other reason than to lessen the usage of your SSN. You can apply for a FEIN online here.

Protecting Yourself (and Others).

Now that you're legal, the next thing you need to do is protect yourself legally. No, not a lawyer (that will come later), but that other most hideous thing: insurance.

Insurance is not a luxury. Let me repeat that: Insurance is NOT a luxury.

Let's go back to the example in
Part 1 of being an outdoors child portraiture photographer. Sounds easy, right? You meet the parents and the child at some location and shoot away! But you need to have some fill light or key light (overpowering the sun), so you bring your strobe and battery system. It's all set up, and the shoot is progressing nicely. A gust comes from behind you, knocking down your strobe and sending it into your subject! Using sandbags could have prevented that, but you didn't think you'd need them for such a short shoot so you left them in the car (they're way heavy to carry too far). Now you have an injured child, and parents that aren't so happy with you anymore. You can definitely count on their insurance (if they have any) or them suing YOU to cover the costs. Can you afford the medical costs? I didn't think so.

Not only do you need liability insurance (as shown in the example above), but loss/theft of equipment must also be taken into consideration.

If you're a wedding photographer, you may need another type of insurance called Errors and Omissions (E&O) insurance, that pays to completely re-shoot a gig: renting the facility and wardrobe, travel for participants, etc. This would cover causes such as lost/stolen photos (your CF card wallet was stolen) and other reasons that would necessitate a do-over.

And I'm not even going to talk about health insurance!

There are several choices for business insurance, from dedicated photographer insurance companies to your big nation-wide insurance companies. Membership in some professional societies includes insurance coverage or the ability to join (for less money) a group policy.

Finances et al.

Another key part of getting ready legally is your finances. A good bank is a necessity; make sure you check out the small business accounts at both the large branches and your local, town banks. Most banks charge monthly maintenance fees for business accounts, but will waive them for certain reasons. Shopping around can save your fledgling business up to several hundred dollars a year, so don't just pick a bank randomly. Make sure you go in and talk to a business account manager and tell her what your business is about. She should be able to help you tailor your account to your needs. I always advise letting people know you're shopping around, as they're more likely to point out key features that their bank can offer; it helps me get a good feel for what the bank's strong and weak points are.

Lastly, you should look into an accountant. For my first two years, I handled the finances personally, including income and sales taxes. Now, as I prepare to file my federal income taxes once again, I'm dreading the required work. Here is one of those points where I should practice what I preach, and get myself an accountant. I highly recommend getting one as soon as you can; ask other small businesses in your local community who they use, and ask your banker as well. Good referrals go a long way in small business accounting, just as they go a long way in photography as well.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Starting Off Part 1: Finding Your Niche

Most photographers start their photography-based company shooting everything and anything they like to shoot. While admirable, they risk the chance to fall into the basic trap of starting off in an over-saturated market, which is almost guaranteed to fail unless they can unseat the established professionals already entrenched in the local market.

Instead, I recommend finding your niche: that specialty where no one else (or hardly anyone else) is, where you can excel and carve out your own market.

Picking your niche.

For example, if you enjoy taking portraits of children, look to see who in the local market is offering child portraiture, and what they're offering. If most everyone is offering in-studio photo shoots, offer on-site or outdoors portraiture. If the market seems to have mostly indoor portraits, perhaps environmental portraits could be your niche.

Now, a quick warning about going where other people haven't: there may be a reason you haven't seen. Offering outdoor portraiture in Minnesota means you're going to be doing most of your shooting between May through September due to the cold weather.

Another thing is that these other niches may require special equipment (often read as expensive special equipment) or perhaps special abilities. Safety is also paramount; shooting at a client's home may create personal safety issues that should make you think about bringing an assistant who, if nothing else, is able to watch out for you.

If you like to shoot landscapes, perhaps specializing in a theme (autumn colors, urban/rural juxtaposition, etc.) could be your niche.

Find your niche, but don't pigeon-hole yourself there immediately. For example, I started out shooting field sports (soccer, baseball, football), but have since changed my niche to gymnastics and cheer-leading for several reasons (which I will expound upon in a later article). Do I still shoot soccer? Yes, as it's still lucrative enough for me to pursue, but I concentrate on getting gymnastics and cheer meets more often.

Niche photographer yet generalist.

Should you just shoot within your niche? Heck no! As I stated above, niches can translate from one to another. Perhaps you start shooting outdoor child portraiture, but get an opportunity to shoot head shots for a law firm in your town. Provided you have the ability and equipment necessary to pull it off--and more especially the desire--I'd advise considering the chance to expand. After all, if this firm is asking you, the outdoor child portrait photographer, to provide commercial-usage photography, perhaps there is an opening in your local market for a photographer in this niche.

So, choose a niche, but don't be too attached to it. Things have a tendency to change when you're least expecting it.


Welcome to Photography Start-Up!

About the Blog.

This blog is about you, and how to start up your own photography company. One point I want to stress right now, in the beginning, is that this blog will point out how to do things the right way, not necessarily the easy way. Sometimes, the right way will
be the easy way, but more often than not, it won't. I will point out valuable resources, review books and DVDs dedicated to photography and the photography business, and be a sounding board for you, the reader, to post questions. I will comment about better ways to produce your product, using my own experience as background as well as leading industry members' own words.

This blog will not be about what gear to buy, but may review new products or mention specific items when discussing photography and/or the photography business. You will see links to great sources for things like batteries, bags, and other generic items, but you won't see a detailed review of the most recent Canon or Nikon camera or lens.

About the Author.

I have had my own photography business (a Chicago-area Youth Sports Photography company) now for over two years. In these past two years, I've learned quite a bit, more often than not the hard way. I've done shoots that I shouldn't have done, and passed up shoots that I should have pursued. I've also been a contract photographer for larger companies, and have learned that there are more than a few ways to get things done, but very few ways to get things done correctly and most importantly, profitably.