Expense Accountability

Introduction | I: Presentation | II: Client Contact | III: Self-Promotion | IV: Estimating Fees | V: Estimating Expenses | VI: Coordination | VII: Execution | VIII: Expense Accountability | IX: Billing | IX: Billing

This is the Eighth in a series of articles on the nine steps necessary to complete a successful freelance photography job. In the first three articles we looked at what it takes to put together the best examples of your work, to seek out the type of clients who could best use your art, and we examined some ideas on how to market your work. Those three elements make up the Sales aspects of what I call The Lifecycle of a Freelance Photography Job.

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In the next three installments, Estimating Fees, Estimating Expenses, and Coordination (pre-production) we focused on the process of envisioning a photographic assignment, setting the costs that will allow you to execute the assignment to the best of your ability, and taking all the necessary steps to prepare for the job. And in the last installment, we considered some of the things you need to know while executing the job so you can keep true to the spirit of the assignment while actively interpreting the thoughts of your client. The topics of estimating (fees and expenses), coordinating, and executing the job comprise the Production segment of The Lifecycle of a Freelance Photography Job. Now, in this article we will consider the first of the final three elements that make up the Administration of your job which starts with having an appreciation of the importance of good record keeping during and after you have executed the job; the under appreciated yet extremely important aspect of every well run job which I call Expense Accountability.

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By its very name, Expense Accountability, most people (especially so-called right-brained people) want to run away. It sounds buttoned down, restrictive, desk bound, and generally antithetical to the free spirit of a creative person. To tell you the truth keeping track of your own and your crew’s time as well as the amount of money you spend on a shoot is something that most photographers I know wish they did not have to do, but they come to realize its importance when they become aware that their profit margin is largely controlled by good record keeping. And on top of that clients love it when you submit an invoice that shows the same attention to detail that you demonstrated before and during the shoot. So, towards the goal of offering some insights on how to complete a successful photo assignment, I am going to pass along a few thoughts and formats that will help you to focus on the paperwork, but I trust will not burden you in the long run and can actually help you make some money along the way. I admit that when you first read this installment you may feel that I am intent on cutting down a lot of trees, but I suggest you take a look at everything I mention and then you decide which of these items will selectively fit your needs the best. Over time you will probably take some of my suggestions and tailor them to your own specifications. That’s okay; whatever works best for you. The goal here is to help you be more efficient and to clear the way so you can get paid fairly and in a timely manner. The paperwork I am suggesting is the result of my own trial and error, and from conversations with seasoned professional photographers, studio managers, production coordinators, first assistants, and of course art buyers and clients who love you for making their jobs easier because of your excellent bookkeeping.

The first thing you will need is something I mentioned in the last article, namely a job jacket or envelope into which everything pertinent to the job can be placed and archived for future reference. That includes the paperwork I will recommend in the rest of this article.

The Job Log

Now, you remember that in the last article I mentioned the Job Jacket and that on the face of the Job Jacket I recommended you should write (across the top of the envelope) the name of the client, a short description of the job, and your own studio originated job number which you will use to track each job. But where does that job number come from? Well let me introduce you to what I call the Job Log.

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The Job Log is a humble little document that will be at the center of your job referencing. One version of a Job Log is a simple spread sheet, laid out horizontally, with the following headings: Studio Number, Client/Job Description, Date of Estimate, Date Job Started, Date Job Ended, Date Invoiced, Date Paid.

You can make this form in any database program and print it out in analog form (and place in a three ring binder), or you can input it into a folder on your computer, but make it accessible because it will be the first place you go to when needing any reference to a particular job. Now about the Studio Number, I only give a Studio Number to jobs that have been awarded, not to all the jobs that I have discussed or estimated since many potential jobs never come to fruition and I wish to track only the ones that result in an actual completed job. But where does the actual job number come from? Well that’s up to you. You could start your business with “000001” but many emerging professionals I know start with their street addresses and add a one to the final digit, or they use a combination of the date and pick an arbitrary number from which to start as in “061509-1.” Like I said the number is completely arbitrary, but it must allow you to not have to think too hard to find that job that answers your questions about suppliers, or prices, or general information.

The next column heading of Client/Job Description allows you to input the pertinent information about the person who called and inquired about your availability, and a short description about the shot(s) involved. By short I mean a concise description that gives you a mental picture of what the client wants shot. Make this as simple as possible just as long as it gives you a quick idea of the exact project. (For example: ABC Advertising/Regal Flyfishing, Inc./regional ad/Lake Woebegone.) If you are creating a spreadsheet on your computer you may want to make room for inserting a thumbnail image of the layout to make it even easier for you to locate since you are a visual person and a visual aid will be a more efficient way to recall a project than a text cue.

Next I have lined up the column headings Date of the Estimate, the Date the Job Started, and the Date the Job Ended so you can have an idea as to how that particular client operates. By comparing entries you will see a pattern emerge in which an individual client is always in a rush (short periods of time between their initial call and date ended), or is always indecisive (long periods of inactivity), or maybe is just using you to compare your estimate to other photographers so he/she can get a lower price. As I said earlier this humble little document will be very helpful in assisting you to interpret a potential client’s intention. One more thing, if you find that someone has called you a number of times but you never get work from them (as in they have a number of entries under “Date of Estimate” but no “Date Job Started” and “Date Job Ended”) it is within reason to ask them the next time they call if they are genuinely considering you for a job, or are they only calling you to get comparative numbers. You can ask nicely but by all means inform them that it takes time to pull an estimate or bid together and you would like to know what it will take to actually be awarded a job. If the topic is approached professionally you may find out there is something you could do to land the job (short of lowering your fees or profit margin).

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The Date Invoiced entry is very useful because it will let you know how long on average it takes you to get your bill out to the client. By using the procedures I am outlining in this article it should take you no more than a few days at most to get your invoice to the desk of your client’s Accounts Payable department. The key is to have everything ready to invoice as the receipts come in and to get that billing out as accurately and as soon as possible. (I will be taking a closer look at the topic of billing time optimization in the next article).

And of course it is very important to log in the Date Paid entry. That entry will give you a good indication as to how long that specific client takes to get a check to you. You will find that there are certain patterns in all business practices and if you find that the client is delinquent in paying once they will probably be that way again. There are ways to speed up the process which I will discuss in the next installment, but your Job Log will be helpful in knowing who pays on time, and who chronically drags their feet in getting a check to you for your services.

Another reason I appreciate the studio Job Log so much is that, before the Christmas Season begins I can take a quick look at the entries for the past year and decide who is going to get a card, and who is going to get something nicer from the studio.

The Independent Contractors Log

The next document which I find to be extremely handy is something I dreamt up called the Independent Contractors Log. The reason I made this form up for our studio was that I found that, once a job is completed, our suppliers are off to another job (hopefully) and it may take them three to five or more days to get back to me with an invoice. Without their confirmed hours on our job I cannot get our invoice out to our client so it is imperative that I have a tally of their time as quickly as possible to do my job expeditiously. After trying several different forms out I settled on this format and it has worked well.

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As you can see the essential information is placed at the top with the name, address, phone (especially cell phone number), Social Security Number (if they wish to give it at this time; it will be needed later for income tax purposes), and the Job Title for each Independent Contractor. Now the way this works is that, before a job I sit down with each freelancer and I go over the parameters of the job and this allows us to make sure they know how much they can expect to be paid and what specific duties they will have to perform. Then, at the end of each day they work for the studio they can log in their billable hours and submit them to me. That gives me the opportunity to start tabulating the hours for each supplier so I can have the accurate information immediately ready for invoicing as soon as the job wraps. We quickly go over the information before they leave the studio that day, and all the supplier has to do is send me their invoice after the job on their letterhead to complete the process. This simple little form allows me to shorten the time we can get our bill out, which helps us all to get paid more quickly.

The Petty Cash Envelope

Another very useful piece of studio stationery is the Petty Cash Envelope. Let’s say you are on a long and involved shoot and there are times when someone will run up to you and say, “We need $30.00 to go get some flowers for the background.” Later someone else hits you up for more money because the model needs a different color scarf and someone has to run out and purchase one. So you cough up the money because you are in the midst of working on the shot, and then, a few days later, you try to remember who it was that asked you for the money in each instance, how much was it that they asked for, where are the receipts, and the change. It could be that in their rush to get something that at the time was really important you handed them your credit card but you can’t remember who ran off with it. Yikes. This is where the Petty Cash Envelope comes in extremely handy.

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It is very simple to make your own petty cash envelope and have it easily accessible for every shoot. Layout a 6 inch x 9 inch envelope horizontally and create a grid with any of the following headings that would pertain to the type of jobs that you do at the top of the columns. For example your petty cash envelope could read: Amount, Date, Rental, Lab, Props, Fees, Entertainment, Maintenance, Supplies, Office, Draw, Miscellaneous (or any other topics unique to your type of work) and leave room for a short Description. You may take your original copy to a photocopy service center and have a few dozen made up and have them ready to go for your next shoot.

Now here is how the petty cash envelope works. Into the envelope you may place a specific amount of cash, say $100.00. One trusted person, for example your First Assistant, or Production Coordinator will be designated to be in charge of the petty cash envelope. Anytime someone needs to rush out and get an item for the job they will have to ask the person in charge of the petty cash, then the person in charge will note how much was taken and who requested the withdrawal, and upon return, the receipt and the change must be deposited into the envelope. At the end of the shoot there must be a total of cash and receipts equal to $100.00. If there is less than a balance of $100.00 it can be traced back fairly easily to the person who made the withdrawal. Now this may all seem petty (pun intended), but the fact of the matter is that I have heard of otherwise avoidable arguments arise out of minor accounting and they could have been sidestepped altogether if this, or some other similar simple method was in play.

The Production Sheet

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The other item you should have in your Job Jacket is the Production Sheet. The purpose of the Production Sheet is to write down what really happened on the shoot, again for the purpose of assisting you in getting the billing out quickly and accurately, and for having a reference after the job is completed as to who worked on the job, and which suppliers and supplies you used on the job. The Production Sheet differs from the Estimate of Expenses we discussed in Article #5 in that the estimate was formulated before the job and was your best guess of what was going to transpire, while the Production Sheet is an on the spot accounting of what actually happened on the job. The Production Sheet is kept in the Job Jacket and every time a roll of seamless, or lunch is purchased (that was not noted on the Petty Cash envelope) it can be noted here. Also unexpected purchases, client approved additional shots (or other involvements), and overtime can be logged on to the Production Sheet. And any notes that will be helpful for future jobs with this client or similar jobs can be easily entered here. I have not included a sample copy of a Production Sheet I use at our studio here because I believe it will be in your best interests to create your own depending on the types of jobs you normally execute and the issues you usually encounter. However, below I have created a short list that a mythological studio that uses models and works on location may have generated for a typical job. I suggest you create your own Production Sheet by synthesizing your original estimate for a job you typically shoot. For example you might begin by listing the categories that pertained to a common job (leaving out the topics you wouldn’t need—for example you normally wouldn’t need a studio or set building during a location shoot) and then add room for any contingencies (extra purchases, etc.) and try to keep it all contained to a page or two. Here is the example:

Job Description:________________________________________
– Date:_________________________________________
– Client:________________________________________
– Product:_______________________________________
– Shots accomplished:_____________________________
Personnel:
– Assistants:_____________________________________
– Stylists:________________________________________
Film:___________________________________________________
Digital Media:____________________________________________
Prints:__________________________________________________
Background materials:_____________________________________
Props/Wardrobe:_________________________________________
Set Construction:_________________________________________
Talent:
– Models:_________________________________________
– Casting fees:_____________________________________
Catering and Meals:________________________________________
Location costs:____________________________________________
Travel:___________________________________________________
Equipment Rental:__________________________________________
Messenger/Deliveries:______________________________________
Insurance:________________________________________________
Miscellaneous:____________________________________________
Client approved additional shots:______________________________
Client approved overtime:____________________________________
Comments:_______________________________________________

As you can see the Production Sheet reduces the job to its essential components and lets you get a pretty good picture on how a job with a specific client evolved.
It is important that you make sure the production Sheet does not circulate during the shoot; it should just be used to note what is pertinent to the billing for this shoot and to give you insights for future assignments.

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Back in the day we used to keep a Polaroid book as a visual reference for all our shoots. It was a spiral bound notebook which contained a sample Polaroid taped to a page with the studio Job Number and any notes written on it that would help us recreate a shot should the situation arise. Nowadays you can do the same by printing out a sheet with a representative shot of the job inserted and pasted with the Studio Job Number. Again since it is a visual indicator, and you are a visual person, this kind of reference will be extremely useful in locating a shot from the past.

As noted earlier in this article you may take any or all of these suggested items and tailor them to your own individual studio needs. The important thing is that you create a work flow that will optimize your work habits and keep you from being burdened by administrative details. The administrative issues are a fact of life but they don’t have to be an ordeal. By knowing how you work and how to work more efficiently will help you to be a better professional photographer, with more time to spend directly on your creative assignment.

Over the past articles we have examined how to define and promote your work to the clients you want to attract the most. Then we looked at how to estimate, coordinate and approach a job from a business point of view. And then in this article we dealt with optimizing your paperwork so you can ease the burden of being an administrator. In the next article I will address the sometimes mysterious issue of billing. I say sometimes mysterious issue because it is not uncommon for me to get frantic calls from photographers who can’t understand why it takes them so long to get paid, and how to deal with clients who wanted them so desperately in the beginning of a job and then seem to ignore them when it is time to pay up. There are ways to not only create a dialogue with your client but also to help you get compensated in a more timely manner and those will be the subject of our next exciting adventure in the life of a freelance creative entrepreneur.

More

Lifecycle of a Freelance Photography Job

Other Articles by Tony Luna

About the Photographer

Jonas Lara is a recent graduate from Art Center College of Design. He primarily works in photography but he also draws, paints and creates collages. His work tends to lean more towards abstraction because he is drawn to dynamic shapes, movements and qualities of light. For those reasons architecture is his favorite subject giving him the ability to create something new out of existing forms.

Tony Luna—the President of Tony Luna Creative Services, a Creative Consultancy founded in 1971, and Artist Representative/Executive Producer with Wolfe and Company Films. Mr. Luna is an Adjunct Professor at the Art Center College of Design. He has been an Instructor there since 1985 where he teaches “Career Perspectives: How the World Works” in the Photography and Imaging department, and “Crafting a Meaningful Career” and “Living the Dream” in Art Center’s Public Programs. He is the author of, How to Grow as a Photographer: Reinventing Your Career (Allworth Press): an informational and inspirational guide to career evolution for creative entrepreneurs. Tony presented a lecture titled “Taking Your Career to the Next Level” at PDN PhotoPlus Expo in October 2008. He has helped well over a thousand artist-entrepreneurs begin, sustain and enhance their careers, and hundreds of companies to grow and prosper.

Text ©2009 Tony Luna. Photos © Jonas Lara.

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