5 Things You Should Not Do Yourself

by David Walker

Running a successful photography business requires a lot of expertise beyond lighting, composition, and other artistic tasks that draws most people to the profession in the first place. You can try to be a jack of all trades (and master of none). But a better strategy is to focus on your strengths, and hire experts to handle the rest. Of course, everyone has different strengths and budgets, but here are the five tasks you should hire out if you can possibly afford it.
Legal Matters

    That you should never try to be your own lawyer should go without saying, except that so many photographers take legal matters into their own hands anyway. It's maybe not quite as bad as doing your own heart surgery, but as the aphorism goes: Anyone who acts as their own attorney has a fool for a client.
    Among the good reasons for photographers to farm out the legal work is that  contracts and licenses are more complicated than they seem.  "Contract law has a lot of little details. If you don't know them, they can bite you later," says Leslie Burns, a photography consultant who recently became a lawyer.
    NPPA attorney Mickey Osterreicher, who used to be a photographer, warns against the temptation to draft your own agreements with clients (or suppliers) using sample contracts you find online. If you draft a contract and it ends up in dispute, he explains, "any ambiguity goes against the drafter." A good lawyer who knows how to write a contract without ambiguity can save you a lot of problems later.
    There is one exception to the don't-download-your-contracts rule: model releases. If you do "run of the mill lifestyle work," Burns says, you don't have to hire a lawyer to write model releases. But there are exceptions to that exception. If you shoot erotica, nudes, "or kids in any way, shape or form," consult a lawyer about your model releases "because there's a greater risk of getting sued," she says.
    Of course, there are many situations where clients write the contracts. Protect yourself by having a lawyer review the terms before you sign, Burns advises.  "License language looks deceptively simple but the ramifications can be significant," she says. For example, a grant of exclusivity--which might seem harmless on its face--could prevent you from using your own work in self-promotions, and it gives the licensee the right to sue if the work is used by someone else. "They don't have to involve or pay the photographer anything," Burns says.
        Copyright issues also demand a lawyer. A common scenario arises when a client uses an image beyond the limits of the license. Then there are non-clients who use your work with no license at all. Either way, it's a job for a lawyer, Burns says. The infringers are likely to ignore a letter from the photographer altogether, or quickly take your image down and consider the matter settled. "But it's not done. You're entitled to damages," and an attorney can get them for you, Burns says.
    When clients use an image beyond the license, photographers often ask them for an additional payment that's insufficient. If the client balks at paying, you've created a mess for your lawyer to clean up: The client will resist paying anything higher than the amount you initially asked for.
    Which brings up another good reason to hire a lawyer, rather than try to do your own legal work. "If your client is being a jerk, your attorney gets to be the bulldog, and you can keep your reputation as a nice artist. It's good cop, bad cop," Burns says.
    Finally, bear in mind that you should always hire a lawyer with the expertise you need. Don't ask your divorce lawyer to  handle your contracts and licenses, or the personal injury lawyer next door to handle a copyright problem.


    Software such as QuickBooks makes do-it-yourself accounting possible, and plenty of photographers take advantage of that. But there's more to accounting than plugging in the numbers, says New York-based accountant Robyn Cohn. It requires not only specialized knowledge, but judgment that comes with experience.  A good accountant can not only save you time, money and trouble at tax time, but help you troubleshoot your business, too.
    The most common mistake photographers make when doing their own taxes, Cohn explains, is to overlook deductions they're eligible for, so they end up paying more taxes than they should. But there's more: They often classify deductions incorrectly. They don't always know the options and strategies for writing off the costs of equipment purchases to their best advantage. They can't always recognize the difference between a low-profile tax return and one that could raise a red flag with IRS auditors.
    Accountants can help you avoid all those pitfalls. They keep up with the frequent changes in the tax laws, and they can use their knowledge, experience, and judgment to help you avoid taxes, without crossing the legal line to tax evasion. "Do what you're best at, and let experts do other things. If you're spending your time keeping up to date on tax laws, how can you pursue your passion?" Cohn says.
    Accountants can also use their expertise to help you strengthen your business. They can help you make rational (ie, fiscally sound) decisions about equipment purchases, staff, and other overhead costs, for instance. If you're not profitable, an accountant can analyze your business numbers to figure out why, and help devise corrective strategies. They can also help you figure out ways to make a profitable business even more so, not only by analyzing expenses, but by figuring out what jobs generate the most profit or, conversely, drag profits down. They can help you manage cash flow, so your business doesn't grind to a halt by running out of cash unexpectedly.
    In short, a good accountant will more than make up for their fee in the form of improvements to your bottom line. They'll also spare you the headaches of crunching numbers. And their services are a deductible business expense.


    Liz Miller-Gershfeld, senior art producer at Energy BBDO in Chicago and the mother of two children, has said she has the same high regard for a good producer on the set of an ad shoot as for the doctor who administered her epidurals. "When a producer is talented at what they do, it just makes things go very well for me," she says. "There is a level of facilitation that makes everyone work together more confidently." Translation: Jobs go better when you hire a producer, so clients are more relaxed.  
    Miller-Gershfeld acknowledges that ad budgets don't always allow photographers to hire a producer. But the more complex the job, in terms of locations scouting, talent, wardrobe, make-up and other "moving parts," she says, the more essential it is for photographers to hire a producer rather than handle the production themselves.
    "A producer is a bit of a conductor, watching everything from a production perspective. They have a spreadsheet in mind. When a client say, 'Can we do this extra shot?' or 'Can we get this propped?' the producer can respond quantitatively," Miller-Gershfeld explains. "A photographer shouldn't have to think in those terms, because it interrupts the creative flow. If a photographer is filling both of those roles [production and shooting] neither role is being done as well. So you walk away from the job wondering: What could have been if I didn't have to stop the photographer to talk about production questions they shouldn't be thinking about?"
    Detroit photographer Joe Vaughn says his work and business suffered before he hired a full-time producer. "I was trying to be two people at once," he explains. "There wasn't enough time to think creatively." Vaughn says photographers have to wear multiple hats--and handle their own production--when they're first starting out. That's what Vaughn did, but it wasn't long before he realized it was costing him. "I would be so immersed in a job that I wasn't returning calls for the next job. I was losing work and relationships because I wasn't paying attention." Now, Vaughn says, he's able to focus on the conceptualizing the job at hand, while his producer, Matt Prested, takes handles all the estimates, budgeting, scheduling, crew, logistics, talent and client hand-holding for upcoming jobs, "so I don't have to do all that," Vaughn says. Prested adds, "I'm working on the future, while Joe is working on the present."
Portfolio Editing

    Print and web portfolios are a photographer's most important promotional tools.  Obviously, it's important to highlight your best work, but photographers who are their own best editors are the exception, not the rule. Most benefit from letting someone else edit their work.
    "Emotional attachment to your own work is the number one reason not to edit yourself," says creative consultant Amanda Sosa Stone. "Photographers have so much emotional attachment to the experience of a shoot that it blinds them to seeing what the viability of a particular image is. They can't distinguish between a good image and a good moment.
    "The second reason not to edit your own work is that photographers tend to throw everything but the kitchen sink into their portfolios in order to attract clients. But when you throw in too many looks and styles, it makes clients nervous because they can't be confident about what they're going to get if they hire you.
    "The third things is, photographers often can't explain verbally what their about, so they over-think the edit," Sosa Stone says. "They get locked in analysis paralysis."
    Moreover, most photographers don't know how to sequence their images so a portfolio flows from one image to the next without jarring segues, she adds. "They want to put all the best images up front, [but] it has to be a really great experience from front to back."
    That rule applies primarily to printed portfolios. Web portfolios have to be front-loaded with the best images "because you have two to five clicks to get someone's attention, or they're gone," Sosa Stone explains.
    Photography consultants typically charge $500 to $1,000 for a portfolio edit, but there are less expensive options. "Any photo editor or art director friend you trust can help," Sosa Stone says. But she warns photographers against letting other photographers edit your work. "Even if the photographer is a friend, there's always that underlying competition and jealousy," and an editor with those feelings might not edit with your best interests at heart, she explains.
    Of course, everyone you ask for help with your editing is going to have a different opinion. It's ultimately your portfolio, and you have to decide what editing advice to take. Sosa Stone says that after she edits a portfolio, she advises the photographer not to spend more than one hour making changes, lest they get stuck back in the analysis-paralysis loop. So find someone you trust to help with the edit, "and leave it alone," she advises. Then stick all the other images you believe in on an iPad, and haul it out at a portfolio review if an art buyer or photo editor asks to see more.    


    Photographers often fall into the trap of thinking that because they have an artistic eye, they're qualified to design their web site and promotions without help from a designer. But turn that logic on its head: What's your reaction when a designer says, "Photography? I can just do that myself."?
    Design requires a different creative mindset and different tools from photography. It isn't intuitive, any more than good photography is, and just because you recognize good design doesn't mean you can produce it. It isn't DIY work, even though it is another visual art form. So do your own design work at your peril.
    "Clients will judge you immediately by your design and presentation," Sosa Stone says. "If you do it yourself, you're going to look like you're arriving in a minivan. Which is fine if that's what you want to convey, but not if you want to look like you're arriving in a Land Rover."
    Creative consultant Mary Virginia Swanson says that photographers have to bring the same level of creativity to their web site and printed materials that they bring to a shoot for clients. Designers help you do that by creating a consistent look and feel to your printed and digital promotional materials that reflects your brand identity.
    "Great pictures are lost to bad design, and you have only one chance to make a good impression," Swanson says. (To impress upon her clients and seminar audiences how different design is from photography, she recommends a book called Thinking with Type by Ellen Lupton.)
    Good design, like good photography, is expensive. The cost can be out of reach for photographers just starting out. For those photographers, online services such as MagCloud, LiveBooks and Blurb Books  provide pre-designed templates for portfolio web sites and printed books that would be otherwise unaffordable. While those resources can save you from really bad design, they have their limitations.
    "I think the template revolution is extraordinary," Swanson says. "But I see photographers going only so far as plugging things into a template. I worry about the use of templates stunting people's creativity."  The risk of relying on those DIY templates instead of hiring a designer is that  your presentation and brand end up looking indistinguishable from so many others, she explains.
    "Photographers have less and less time to impress [clients]," Swanson says. "By investing in a designer, you can give yourself a brand identity across all of your marketing components."


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