Photographing Fireworks this 4th of July


It’s that time of year again to practice your fireworks photography. I wrote a post last year with tips; you can read “how to photograph fireworks” here. I won’t rehash the topic, but I did want to add a few points.

First, if you have a point-and-shoot, you should have a “fireworks” setting. I can’t really vouch for it and I still wouldn’t trust it hand-held; but it’s worth a shot.

Secondly, I said that your lens should “go to infinity” on its own. If you don’t know what that means and you have your lens on auto focus, your lens may try to hunt for focus in low light conditions. If it can’t find an area of contrast, it won’t be able to lock focus. Bright fireworks against a dark sky should do the trick, but if your focusing distance is off, your results may not be as sharp as it could be. So here’s what you do. Look at your lens and you should see a focus window:

Lens focus window

The window tells you how much of your image will be in focus in meters and in feet. In the image above, for example, you can see the lens is set to infinity. That means anything from the lens to infinity will be in focus. If it had been at 3-meters; only anything up to 10-feet would be in focus. So the best bet is to set your lens to manual focus and set the focusing distance to infinity. Just don’t forget to switch it back to auto focus before your next shoot.

One last tip: Try to give your fireworks images some context. The shot at the top of this post and last year’s just show fireworks in the night sky. This year, I am going to try to show the fireworks in relation to the surroundings. If you can find some building or landmark to put in the foreground or bottom part of your image, it will help convey more information.

Good luck and Happy 4th of July!

[UPDATE: I just shot some fireworks this evening and my shutter speed was between 15-to-30 seconds. I think this is because I zoomed out to show some context. In the past I zoomed in on the fireworks like the image above so it didn’t matter if the sky goes black. As you can see in the image below, it was still twilight and I didn’t want the sky to go black.]

Baldwin Park Fireworks


Shoot the 2012 Supermoon…now with 15% more moony-ness!

The Super Moon

Super Moon on 3/19/11. (f/11, ISO200, 1/90th @ 200mm)

I checked my blog stats and noticed that searches and hits to a post I wrote last year about photographing the super moon were exploding. I couldn’t figure out why until I heard on the news tonight that the super moon is coming back this Saturday. This year’s super moon is supposed to be even bigger than last years! The news report said the moon will appear about 30% larger than normal. Last year it was 10%-to-15%. If you want to geek out on why that is, check out this science-y article.

In the meantime, feel free to re-visit last year’s post. The same principles apply.

Why Photographers Need Liability Insurance

Article in NY Daily News

In a recent post, I glossed over liability insurance. Well here’s a good example of why a photographer might need it. A photographer taking pictures of a client’s art work allegedly moved an ancient statue to take advantage of the light. It seems the statue was placed on uneven wood floor and toppled over. The piece was valued at $300,000 and the owner is suing. In this case the photographer was working for an art magazine which says they have no liability.

You can read more on the story HERE.

Now imagine you are a wedding photographer and at the reception you accidentally knock over a priceless piece of art or break a piece of furniture. Do you have thousands or tens-of-thousands of dollars to pay for it? I know some reception halls require photographers to carry liability insurance. Not all photographers need it; but if you shoot on location (weddings, events, corporate settings, commercial clients, etc.) then it’s something worth looking into.

Tax Tips for Photographers

IRS 1040 Tax Form Being Filled Out

The photography tax man cometh! Okay, there’s not really a photography tax…the same dude takes all our taxes. But the end is near! Well, you’re almost out of time to pay your taxes, anyway.

In a previous post, I touched on some tax considerations for photographers. Now I want to give you a working illustration and a quick and easy way to give Uncle Same his due.

As always, please remember I am not an accountant. I sought help from a certified public accountant and I suggest you do the same; especially if you’re just starting out.

So here’s my deal: I have enough coin to buy that shiny new 5D MKIII. Sweet, huh? Not so fast. I’ll have to work a little harder and wait a little longer. You see, I owe taxes on everything I’ve made this quarter. I add up all my profits, subtract my expenses and calculate 38.3% of that to come up with my estimated tax payment for the first quarter of 2012. Keep in mind that not all expenses can be taken at 100%. The IRS calculates depreciation for equipment. But that’s why it’s called an estimated payment. I may end up owing the government more money at the end of the year, or I might get money back. Read the previous post to find out why it’s 38.3% for me. Your mileage may vary.

Taxes are due April 15, June 15, September 15 and January 15. This year April 15 falls on a Sunday, so we get an extra day. The fastest way to pre-pay your estimated tax is to go to  Click the “enrollment” link and follow the registration instructions. Basically, you enter some personal info (social security, address, etc.)  and link a bank account. You then request a PIN which comes to you in the mail within 7 days. Use that PIN to complete the registration and you’re all set.

Why pre-pay my taxes every quarter? ‘Cause I don’t want to get hit with a big tax bill at the end of the year. I would rather pay it in chunks throughout the year. I know it’s not fun, but I don’t imagine getting audited is fun either! And hey, maybe next quarter I’ll be able to deduct that 5D MKIII!

Starting Your Own Photography Business

Charts and Money

So you want to be a professional photographer? You’ve got a camera, a website with some galleries and you’ve even earned a few bucks on the side for your work. You have the passion, now you have a taste for the business. So it’s time to quit the 9-to-5, right? Not so fast. There’s a lot you need to think about first. Sure you can take money under the table, but if you want to be legit, if you want people to take you seriously as a professional then you have to take certain steps.

The first question a lot of beginning photographers struggle with is, how much to charge. There are quite a few sources to turn to for help with this question, but I’m going to save that for a later post.

Before you start charging people, you need to set up your business. The example I am about to provide is for my specific case in my state (Florida). I am not an accountant or attorney, so use this as a guide.

First, you have to decide if you want to operate as a sole proprietor or a corporation. Don’t tell Mitt Romney, but corporations are not people (more on that in a moment). As a sole proprietor you just run your business and pay taxes. A Limited Liability Corporation, as the name implies, gives you protection against debt and lawsuits. If you are a sole proprietor and the business goes bust or you get sued, your personal assets are at stake. Do you really want to lose your car, house and life savings because your photography business didn’t make it? As an LLC, debts and lawsuits are limited to the corporation and not your personal assets. In Florida, it costs $125 to register an LLC and $140 a year to file annual reports.

Speaking of lawsuits, you can buy commercial liability insurance and “errors and omissions” insurance. The first, protects you if someone gets hurt or property is damaged while you’re on a shoot. The latter is bridezilla insurance. Or in the case of one New York studio, a divorced man who wants tens-of-thousands of dollars to re-create his wedding. You can learn more about insurance for photographers from the PPA and ASMP. I got a quote from a company offering a 1-million dollar liability policy, $15,000 in equipment insurance and $25,000 errors and omission protection. The quote was for $625 a year.

Next, you have to get an Employer Identification Number (EIN) from the IRS. This is just a number the IRS uses to identify a business. If you get a W-2 from your employer, you should see the EIN number on the form.

IRS 1040 Tax Form Being Filled Out

Now you’re ready to pay taxes quarterly! Yay! Depending on how much you made and spent on business expenses, you have to estimate how much taxes you owe and send a payment every quarter. Since you work for yourself, you owe self employment tax. The current rate is 13.3% 15.3%.  [UPDATE: Remember the fiscal cliff deal at the end of 2012? Well the 2% holiday on social security deductions went away. So as of Jan. 2013, the rate goes back to 15.3%]

Just like your wages are deducted for social security and medicare, the SE tax deducts 10.4% for social security [now 12.4%] and 2.9% for medicare.  Then there’s income tax. Whatever your tax bracket is gets added to the self employment tax. So in my case, I’m paying 38.3% in tax: 13.3% for self-employment and 25% for income tax. [now 40.3% in tax]

There are, of course, deductions you can take. I pay for my own health insurance, so I can deduct that. If you bought a new lens or camera, that’s a deduction. You can even claim mileage at 55-and-half cents a mile.

[UPDATE 2/7/11]: Check out this post on special tax advice for photographers.

Let’s add it up so far: $125 for the LLC, $625 for insurance and 40% of everything I earn (after legitimate deductions) goes to taxes. Still think you can charge $100 for a photo shoot?

I’ll get more into pricing in the next post. For now I want to leave you with some resources. Check out Photoshelter’s Vimeo page for great videos with the “Tax Ninja” on taxes for photographers and three good videos with John Harrington. Harrington, of course, is the author of “Best Business Practices for Photographers” and the Photo Business blog. I’ll leave you with a video on the “7 Common Tax Mistakes Made by Photographers”.

Must Have Apps for Photographers

There is no shortage of apps for photographers. While most of them focus on actually taking pictures, editing or adding effects with your phone I want to point out a few that are more utilitarian.

sunseeker app

In a previous blog post, I told you about the LightTrac app. I’ve since discovered a similar app that allows you to track the direction and angle of the sun. It’s called Sun Seeker (the lite version is free).  It works similar to the compass on the Iphone. Just hold it up in the direction you want to shoot and you’ll see where the sun is going to be. Now, I don’t like it as much as LightTrac, because just like the compass tool, it’s prone to interference and you’re prompted to wave your phone in a figure eight pattern. Granted, this has happened before with LightTrac, but  it’s more often with Sun Seeker and I also don’t trust the compass 100%; I’ve found the direction can change depending on how I’m holding the phone. The one cool thing about the full version ($4.99) of Sun Seeker is the “augmented reality” feature. Using your phone’s camera, you get a display of the sun’s path.

Sun Seeker augmented reality

Contract Maker Elite is a little pricey at $19.99; but if you’re an on-the-go photographer, you can create and edit contracts right from your phone or tablet. You can then have a client sign it on your device and email it to them as a .pdf, JPEG or both. The app comes with starter templates, including a sales receipt.

Contract Maker Elite App

Easy Release is another time and paper saving app for the on-the-go photographer. If you need a model or property release, this $9.99 app lets you collect all the information you need on your device. You can even take a snapshot of your client and add embed it into the release.  Like Contract Maker, you can also email a .pdf or JPEG of the release.

Easy Release App

Do you know of any other useful apps for photographers? Let me know…

A Lesson in White Balancing

I shot the annual Vacation Rental Managers Association (VRMA) conference at the Hilton Bonnet Creek Resort in Orlando last week and it was a white balancing nightmare! Truth be told, I shoot in RAW so I can always change the white balance in post, but I like to get an accurate representation of the image at the time of capture. It’s just a comfort thing, not to mention trying to get as much right in camera to begin with. Take a look at this image: (NOTE: for the images in this post, try not to focus on the content, but rather the color. These examples are pretty much out of camera with little or no editing)

VRMA Conference. Orlando 2011.

You can see how “orange” or “warm” it looks. That’s pretty much right out of camera. The warmth is due to the tungsten (incandescent for you Nikonians) lights overhead. So I switched from “auto” white balance to “tungsten” and while the result was better, I knew I’d run into trouble if I wanted or needed to use flash.

The 2011 VRMA Conference in Orlando

In the image above I used fill flash with a 1/2 cut of Color Temperature Orange (CTO) gel. Putting an orange gel on your flash essentially turns it into a tungsten light. So if you set your white balance to tungsten (incandescent) then the two light sources will balance. If you look carefully, however, you’ll notice that the waiter’s face still looks a little “cool” or “blue” in comparison to the room. So I added another 1/2 cut of CTO which equals one full cut and that did the trick.

The next day, I turned to using custom white balances for each room and that really made a difference.

The 2011 VRMA Conference in Orlando

Compare the color of the walls in the image above to the very first image in this post. Actually, if you see that white board on the right side of the frame; that’s what I used to get a custom white balance.

I learned about custom white balancing as a news videographer right out of college. Back then, those big cameras didn’t have handy white balance settings and you couldn’t tweak it in post. You either set the kelvin temperature or you took a custom white balance every time you moved from indoors to outside and back.

In case you don’t know, when you take a custom white balance, you’re basically telling the camera what “white” is so it can set all the corresponding colors accordingly. Camera models vary, but to take a custom white balance, take a picture of something white that is getting hit by the light source in the room. If, for example, you have a mix of tungsten and daylight, take something white and put it where it’s getting hit by both sources. You might need to switch to manual focus because your camera may not find focus in something with no contrast. Next, go to your menu function for custom white balance and select the image you want to use. Then, change your white balance to “custom”. Don’t forget to switch back to auto focus.

The 2011 VRMA Conference in Orlando

The classrooms (pictured above) were the worst! They really did have this weird orange color that seemed warmer to me than regular rooms lit by incandescent lamps. Not to mention, I was expecting fluorescent lights at hotel conference rooms. Switching from “auto” to “tungsten” didn’t help at all. So I just shot the white door at every room to get a custom white balance.

The 2011 VRMA Conference in Orlando

Getting the right white balance is crucial if you shoot JPEG because you don’t have as much latitude in post processing to tweak it. It’s less important if you shoot RAW, unless you’re like me and want to see an accurate picture when you shoot it.