The dream of becoming a professional photographer is one filled with ideas of exciting clients, creative freedom and endless artistic possibilities. Rarely does that dream include laborious paperwork tasks, diligent contract negotiations with a client, tax filings or invoicing, yet that’s what a lot of photographers end up spending a majority of their time doing.
Just a few years ago studio photographers had to shell out hundreds or thousands of dollars for database developers who would create custom (or at least semi-custom) solutions to track their businesses operating tasks. Programs like FileMaker or Microsoft Access were used to track clients and jobs, despite the sometimes clumsy or tedious steps needed just to generate an invoice or follow up on an e-mail. If a studio’s database developer went out of business, they were often stuck without the ability to make changes to documents or fix the inevitable bugs that crop up.
Luckily the Internet has allowed specialized tools to be developed in markets that were otherwise too small for large software companies to focus their attention on, and a host of custom solutions are now offered with affordable (and scalable) pricing and support that’s always available. And with the data being generated by online apps living in the cloud, there’s less fear that a lost or stolen computer will mean the end of a studio’s ability to conduct business.
The following is a breakdown of our favorite studio-management tools available to photographers today.
StudioCloud is an interesting solution for photographers because it bridges the gap between desktop application and Web application. The entire suite runs in a cross-platform program called Adobe AIR, which is based on Adobe’s Flash technology.
Once an account is created, StudioCloud is run like any desktop application whether you’re on Mac or PC, but it spends its time communicating with the StudioCloud servers in order to pull real-time information about a photographer’s clients, calendars and jobs. The interface is clean, and though it’s not the slickest of the solutions in this roundup, it’s definitely designed to stay out of the way, which is something that the database-driven apps don’t do.
The most interesting aspect of StudioCloud is that it’s connected to the company’s add-on products, which handle bookkeeping, notifications, retouching, proofing and more. The solution is à la carte, so photographers can add only the components that are needed without having to pay for an entire range of services. Being Web-driven, it’s easy for the developers to add new features with a simple update to the desktop application since all the heavy lifting is performed on Adobe’s servers.
The StudioCloud Overview page includes links to the company’s blog and YouTube page as well as promotional links for free service on the add-on features.
A companion app for iOS and Android users provides full connectivity to the client and project features of StudioCloud, and syncs dynamically with the desktop version.
Best of all, StudioCloud is free (although the add-on features carry a price). For example, CloudProofing, the company’s online image browsing and image purchase tool is $9.95 a month for up to 1 GB of hosted images, with additional 1-GB chunks of storage for an additional $9.95.
Prices: Free; add-on features start at $9.95 per month
The StudioPlus line of tools for photographers is in the middle of a rebranding campaign and as such it is slightly confusing to sort through their offerings.
The tools offered by StudioPlus include the Spectra series of desktop apps; Stratus, the company’s Web-based tool; and InSpired, a collection of online image ordering and viewing tools.
StudioPlus Stratus makes the most sense for small studios as it allows for scheduling, event tracking, invoicing and online image storing without need of a client application—but the company has yet to make it live. The pricing for Stratus is the least comprehensive of the bunch, with a $30-per-month fee for a single user and $5 per month for additional users, without mention of additional branding or storage. The company’s Web site indicates that StudioPlus Stratus will be available “in 2012” so we expect additional pricing configurations when it officially launches.
Available now is StudioPlus Spectra (formerly just called StudioPlus), which is a stand-alone tool for managing the daily activities of a studio on one dedicated computer. The company offers five versions of Spectra, each one adding features to the package’s set.
Spectra Express is a free application designed for new photo studios. It allows client management, project tracking, scheduling, ordering and image presentations.
Spectra Standard adds mobile syncing, and invoicing and marketing tools so it’s really the first level of the software that’s fully featured enough for a studio. Standard, for example, allows for bulk e-mailing and includes a form-letter designer for customized communications.
Spectra Professional is primarily for event, wedding and portrait shooters, and allows you to track the details for multi-person, multi-requirement shoots. This level also adds financial tracking (see who has paid you and who has not), marketing tools and more workflow features. This version of the software is really designed for the active studio, and it performs many tasks that online tools can’t even touch.
For example, users of Spectra Professional can integrate with cash drawers for the on-location studio that processes transactions at the moment of capture. There’s also integration with Photoshop for image retouching on the fly and for connections to other SQL server databases, so companies integrated into larger corporate environments or large retail chains can use the program to create a turnkey system that connects to existing databases.
Spectra Enterprise takes this idea a step further and adds features for large corporate offices, offering tools for remote-location shooters to transmit images directly back to the home office. This is great for real-estate chains, food-service franchises, newsgathering organizations and any other place where it’s necessary to coordinate the activities of multiple offices that report to a central creative department.
Each of these tools is available for either a monthly fee or for a lump-sum total, but users can upgrade at any point to the next version. That makes Spectra a powerful tool for the growing studio or corporation. Prices range from $84 a month for Spectra Standard single-user to a flat-fee of $5,095 for a ten-user setup of Spectra Enterprise, so it’s best to look at the pricing options on the company’s site to make purchasing decisions.
One caveat for the Mac-using studio: StudioPlus is a native Windows application, so it needs to run on a PC or a Mac using Windows-emulating tools like Parallels or VMware Fusion.
Prices: Stratus, plans start at $30 per month; Spectra Express, plans start at free; Spectra Standard, plans start at $83 per month; Spectra Professional, plans start at $142 per month; Spectra Enterprise, plans start at $3,695
Light Blue v3
Light Blue v3 may be the most stripped-down of the tools profiled here. The application, which runs on either a Mac or PC, is a runtime version of a FileMaker database. This means that the programmers are using FileMaker (the same database tool that countless photographers use to create custom tools) as the development environment, so it inherits the strengths and weaknesses of FileMaker.
While FileMaker is great at tracking bits of information, it’s not as pretty or as polished as a custom-made program. So Light Blue looks like a data entry system because, at heart, it is. The app includes the same tabbed interface that most of the other solutions use, but it doesn’t feel as smooth.
That’s not to say it’s not powerful; it offers all the same features of the majority of tools but without that extra step. Light Blue, for example, can record payments but can’t process them like most of the other tools can.
Light Blue only offers a single-user version to customers in the U.S. and the program costs 295 British pounds (around $470) so be sure to try it out before making the leap.
Price: Approximately $470
For photographers looking for lightweight contact and schedule management, especially on platforms like the iPad or iPhone, FileMaker offers Bento. Bento is a combination of tools powered by FileMaker’s database engine but with a streamlined interface. Bento won’t hook up with invoicing and lead-generation tools, but it will allow photographers to carry around basic info in the palms of their hands.
Prices: iPhone version, $4.99; iPad version, $9.99; Mac version, $49
While Táve 3.0 was in a pre-release state when we went to press, the company is taking new customers and clearly open for business, though some features are still displaying a “coming soon” notice.
The interface of Táve will be familiar to anyone who has worked with ShootQ as it sports the same three-pane interface and very similar tabs. Táve tracks open jobs and leads, proposals, tasks and contact details. The calendar tools allow for direct subscription to online calendars (so you can publish your calendar for your studio and have Táve automatically follow your events), which reduces duplication of data.
The tool also allows a good degree of customization: It’s possible to set up a studio’s workflow to include a client phone call after presentation but before delivery, for example, or to specify how long each phase of a client job should last so that you can receive notifications when the job is running too long.
Táve 3.0 lacks (at least as of this “Early Access” state) many of the integration points with other systems that ShootQ provides, but an API (advanced programming interface) for developers allows third-party customizations of lead generation. That means that a studio’s Web developer could easily integrate Táve into existing systems.
Pricing starts at $25 a month for a Solo Plan with a single brand and 500 MB of storage, and goes up to $60 a month for a Corporate Plan with up to 12 users, five brands and 8 GB of storage.
Price: Plans start at $25 per month
Simply Studio System
For the photographer who’s familiar with dashboard-driven Web apps (think WordPress, Blogger, etc.), Simply Studio System will likely be the most comfortable solution. The Web app has a clean interface, is easy to configure, and includes the company’s image sales and payment tools, so clients can purchase images and that data is tied back into the tracking and management tools.
Simply Studio focuses more heavily on the online sales aspects of the studio process and so it is strongly biased toward lead generation, online presentation and online sales. It also provides safe storage for all images (not just shoot-related ones) so it’s a handy backup system as well.
One nice thing about Simply Studio is the attention to detail. The developers have clearly looked at the other tools and thought of little features that have a big impact. One such feature is the e-mail monitoring function, which can watch inbound e-mails and automatically notify a user when something comes in from a flagged potential client.
Another small-but-handy feature is the weather widget that’s integrated into a user’s dashboard. Since many studios do outside shoots, having a forecast tool inside a studio management application is a big time saver.
The company has also teamed up with a number of industry partners, including Nik Software, songfreedom and post-processing firms, in order to provide discounts and offers.
Pricing starts at $29 a month and goes to $79 a month depending on the number of users and features.
Price: Plans start at $29 per month
SuccessWare is a computer-based tool that provides all the same tracking and shoot management functions of popular studio management packages (including some of the high-end features like scheduling photographers and assistants) but also includes a pricing and profitability calculator, which is one of the reasons that the program seems to crop up on so many photographer blogs.
Using industry standard pricing models, the program can look at the bid price for a shoot and the expenses related to capturing that event, and calculate profitability and per-image and per-job pricing, something that’s handy to have at your fingertips.
The single-user version of SuccessWare starts at $49 per month (to lease it) and it’s possible to add more users.
Price: Plans start at $49 per month
ShootQ has a rather strong pedigree: It was launched by photographers Andrew Niesen and Rachel LaCour Niesen and is now a part of Pictage, the company that thousands of photographers use to deliver their images to clients. Pictage provides everything from booking to post-production editing and online image sales, but ShootQ (which can be integrated into a Pictage account) focuses more on a studio manager’s activities and is based around more of a task-manager interface than Pictage’s solutions.
With ShootQ, studios can easily enter contact information (and manage the relationship between new and existing clients), generate quotes for shoots, provide online price estimates and invoices (complete with studio branding), and allow for online payment. A task manager helps the individual photographer or studio keep on track for various jobs and the system will automatically follow up with a client after completion of a job to ensure payment is made.
One of ShootQ’s best features is its seamless integration with many popular business and social media tools. Send messages via a Twitter account and they show up in the task list. Allow clients to fill out a form on your studio’s Facebook page, liveBooks site, listing on The Knot or your blog, and the lead is automatically filled and tracked in ShootQ. The program also works with a number of payment systems and can export data in QuickBooks format, which will keep your accountant happy.
For iPhone users, there’s a companion app that supports push notifications to help you remember where you’re supposed to be, who you’re supposed to photograph and what you’re supposed to do when you’re done.
Plans begin at $39.95 a month for three users and a single studio branding, and go up to $79.95 a month for unlimited users and brands. The highest level of ShootQ service is free for Pictage Pro users.
Price: Plans start at $39.95 per month
Genbook takes an interesting approach to studio management, focusing solely on the job-booking aspect of a shoot. The app makes it easy to embed scheduling links on your Web site or social-media sites like Facebook. Of course, you’ll need some amount of traffic to get people to book with you in the first place, but once they do it’s possible for them to block out shoots online and check schedule availability.
Genbook also optimizes this online appointment book so that search engines can find it easily, making it more likely that your studio will show up in localized search results.
Genbook starts at $19.95 a month for a single-user version and is $39.95 a month for the unlimited version.
Price: Plans start at $19.95 per month