Product Review: Light Blue 3.x
JUNE 01, 2011
By Dan Havlik
Photography is often fun; running a photography business often isn’t. I feel the same way about software for managing your photo clients. While it may help you keep tabs on invoicing and schedules for your next shoot, it’s not exactly the first program you reach for when you have a little down time. (Angry Birds, FTW!)
Part of the problem is that most of the “photo” business software out there doesn’t seem to be made by photographers. For the most part, it’s just a small business database application that’s been refashioned to suit a particular niche.
Light Blue, a program created by a company based in England, is built around that database evergreen FileMaker Pro but is clearly designed by and for photographers. I recently tested the software with David DuPuy <www.daviddupuyphotography.com>, a photographer who runs a small studio in lower Manhattan. While neither us would describe Light Blue as “fun,” we admired how well thought out the digital workflow was; the impressive attention to detail; and the amount of support offered to help you get the most out of the program.
We both tested a 30-day trial version of the program—which is available for free on Light Blue’s Web site <www.lightbluesoftware.com>—and, largely, liked what we found. But was the program helpful enough to warrant a full investment? Read on to find out.
Light Blue was up to version 3 when we tried it out but jumped to 3.1 towards the end of our testing. We were able to get some limited time with the new features in 3.1 which include helpful additions such as a Task Manager that lets you organize and track items on your to-do list; a new Status field in your contact list to remind you how far you’ve gotten with a lead; and a quicker way to export data from Light Blue into a spread sheet.
Because it’s built around FileMaker Pro 11, Light Blue has more than a passing resemblance to that database app. That’s a good and a bad thing. Good in that the software is rock solid, has a logical file structure, and is easy to navigate and populate with info. On the other hand, the database-style interface is rather bland. Or as David quipped: “It looks like a London afternoon: kind of drab and overcast.”
All joking aside, it’s not that we had a big problem with Light Blue’s Spartan design. Software that’s highly functional and reliable is far more preferable than a program that looks pretty but doesn’t deliver.
We just wished Light Blue had a little more pizzazz to it. Heck, even a dash more of “light blue” color in the interface would’ve brightened things up. But like I said, that’s something of a minor quibble. The program is all business down to the choice of Helvetica as the default font and if you’re looking for something practical, you probably won’t care how it looks anyway.
The software’s English designers have also made some changes to appeal to American users. For one, there’s now an option for a 12-hour clock for scheduling appointments etc., so us Yanks won’t have to constantly subtract 12 to decipher “military time.” There are a few British spellings of words here and there, if that bothers you, but overall it’s a distraction-free program. As mentioned already, the app is about organizing your business and it firmly keeps its eyes on the prize.
At the same time, since the company that produces Light Blue is small, I get the impression that if you have particular issues with the program, you’ll probably be able to go right to the source and find a solution. One thing both David and I found a bit annoying is that to interact with entries in the program you need click the arrow symbol on the left of the listing rather than double clicking the full line to open it. Because double clicking has become such a way of life in the digital world, it’s hard to get used to Light Blue’s click-the-arrow-and-expand system.
David also experienced a bug where after opening entry boxes, he needed to stretch them out on his computer desktop to able to see the button to take an action. This issue seems more fixable than the arrow-based interface, which is inherent to this version of the program.
Overall though, these criticisms also fall into the “minor quibble” category. The program is generally very easy to interact with if not particularly exciting to use.
FUNCTION FOLLOWS FORM
So that’s what Light Blue looks like, but what does it do? The software’s primary function is to track a photo job from its inception to its completion while cataloging the important minutia along the way.
Light Blue’s main summary page will give you a breakdown of current shoots and meetings; inquiries from clients; to-dos; and an overall set of statistics for how many shoots you’ve done in the past few years, and which types of shoots brought you the most work. Thanks to its intricate FileMaker Pro database structure, massive amounts of info can be filled into each shoot entry, from basic dates and times of shoots to price lists, linked shoots, referrals, contacts etc. How much you enter is up to you. Control freak photographers, however, will get the most out of Light Blue since it gives you a good idea of not just day-to-day business operations but trends that make your company successful and strategies that may not be working for you.
Of course, there’s also a calendar to schedule all your appointments and we were happy to see it’s easy to sync it with Apple’s iCal, which is our go-to day planner. You can also publish the info to Google Calendar.
Light Blue gives you a way to personalize and automate your correspondence with clients either through mail merging letters or via e-mail. It also helps you organize your finances in its database so you can better track payments (incoming and outgoing), keep on top of debt, or give you a running tally of expenses. (Cut back on those pricey lattes!)
There are ways to manage your image files, watermark them, create Web galleries, and sell your photos online with a link to PayPal’s ever-popular shopping cart. You can also create you own custom invoices or newsletters (e-mail or paper) branded with your company’s logos.
Though all this functionality may sound overwhelming, Light Blue is relatively intuitive to use. If you get stumped, the company’s Web site has extensive video tutorials on all the program’s key functions. David’s struggled with some complicated competing studio management software that lacked tutorials so he really appreciated Light Blue’s online support.
We tested the standalone version ($455) of Light Blue but the company also offers hosting ($40 per month) so you can access the program on the road. The process, or at least how it was outlined in a video tutorial, seemed rather complicated though and requires you use a copy of FileMaker Pro 11 as a gateway for Light Blue.
We also found the method of accessing and using Light Blue on your iPhone or iPad to be extremely complex and we needed to watch the video tutorial several times to make sense of it. We hope there’s a way to go back to the drawing board and make Light Blue’s interaction with mobile devices more seamless since most photographers we know spend more time on their iPhones or iPads than behind the camera these days.
David also had a tough time getting Light Blue to sync his Outlook account and was forced to go through Google first as a workaround. And we were surprised we couldn’t find any functionality between Light Blue and social networks such as Facebook or Twitter. Yes, there are some who might argue that social networking is unnecessary for a business software program but we’d disagree. These days, if you aren’t extensively using social networks to promote your business, you’re missing out on a huge cache of potential customers.
THE BOTTOM LINE
There’s so much lousy photo business software out there it’s almost jarring when we find a program we not only like but could genuinely see integrating into our photography workflow. Light Blue is just such an application. Though we didn’t like everything about this FileMaker Pro-built database software such as its drab interface and some of the hoops you have to jump through to get it operational on mobile devices, we were impressed by how much time and care has gone into making Light Blue work for photographers. No, this not just some jury-rigged application that’s been retrofitted for photographers. Light Blue is clearly a program that been created by people who know what’s needed to run a photography business. And thanks to their attention to detail, using it should make running your own photo company a bit easier.
Light Blue 3.x
Pros: Comprehensive program to help organize and run a photography business; rock solid database build with ample space to enter important info; extensive online support including helpful video tutorials.
Cons: Dull interface; complicated process to use it on an iPhone or iPad; no social networking functionality.