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WATCH: Business Advice from Melissa Lyttle

If you’re a freelance photographer, running a successful small business is crucial. Just ask Melissa Lyttle, photojournalist and freelance photog...

If you’re a freelance photographer, running a successful small business is crucial. Just ask Melissa Lyttle, photojournalist and freelance photographer.

As the former president of NPPA and a full-time freelancer since 2014, Melissa has made it her mission to say yes; yes to stepping outside of her comfort zone creatively and to getting organized on the business side of things. She’s found value in surrounding herself with creative and professional people who have helped propel her forward. And now she’s helping you.

Hear about Melissa’s multiple income streams, stories of how one opportunity led to a big break and get insights into how you can avoid common photo business mistakes.

Watch the entire on-demand recording here and be sure to tweet any lingering questions to @photoshelter.

Watch to learn about:

  • How to get your finances in order
  • Copyright 101, including how to register images and her copyright workflow
  • Which business professionals you need on your team (hint: CPAs! They’re worth it.)
  • Why there’s no such thing as selling out when you’re a freelancer

On-Demand Webinar: Business Owner First, Photographer Second – Business Advice from Melissa Lyttle

Our Q&A with Melissa

Thank you to everyone for submitting questions for photojournalist and freelance photographer Melissa Lyttle. Have any additional questions? Tweet us @photoshelter and let us know!

This Q&A was edited for clarity and length.

Is it ok to copyright images after they have been delivered to the client? Is there a time limit on how far back you can go and copyright old images?

ML:  I’d refer you to the copyright attorney for the basics on those. I think it’s either 60 or 90 days to register copyright after it’s published in order to claim maximum damages and in order to maximize the amount of money that you can go after a client for.

If you have 10-year-old images that are sitting on your hard drive, absolutely register them, because you never know where they’re going to end up. You can still collect. It’s still a violation if it’s registered. But if you register within a very specific time period – and that’s why they have to do it quarterly, you can collect maximum damages by saying it was registered in the amount of time, 60 or 90 days after it ran.

Do you have any recommendations on how to get clients to let go of the work for hire idea?

ML: Yeah, it’s a slow process. Unfortunately, a lot of editors are on your side and they want to help, and they want to make this advantageous for you. But the truth is, they’ve got an HR team and some bean counters in a corporate office somewhere else that are the ones writing those contracts.

For me, it’s been trying to educate one by one and having those editors go back and fight that fight for me at their publications. To educate them, you simply say, “This isn’t good for photographers because… This is damaging to the industry because… You’re limiting the potential for me to make money off of this in the future or for me to even use these images in my portfolio or outside of the realm of your publication. And for the rates you’re paying, that’s not worth it for me.”

If you want to pay me what that image is worth for you to own it in perpetuity, to do whatever you want with it in the future, you need to pay for that. So we can go up in rate if you want to leave that work for hire clause in there. But if not, let’s talk about that clause. And is there anything that we can do to get around that? Can I say share copyright? Just start needling them with some language. Again, go back to John Harrington’s book. He’s got some great example contracts where he’s crossed things out, but it’s just having the courage and the confidence at some point to be able to talk to editors and just say, “This isn’t good because… This is damaging the industry because… I can’t work for things like this and I’m going to tell everyone else in my marketplace not to work for things like this.”

When I was in Los Angeles, one of the things we did was we had a secret Facebook group with all the freelancers there. And if I got a call from a client and it was just an awful, awful contract, if they were just trying to talk me into doing something for little money and really just wanting to own all the images outright and I felt they were treating me poorly, I would put it up there and just say, “Hey, some of you guys may get a call from x. If you can afford to say no to this, we’re all better for it.”

And it was our small way of unionizing on a very, very small scale. But it was trying to unite the photographers in that marketplace by saying, “If we all say no to this, they’re either going to find somebody who doesn’t know any better, somebody who doesn’t quite have the talent, somebody who’s not a professional to do this for them and they’re going to get what they pay for, or they’re going to change their terms if they want to hire a professional photographer and do this right.”

So those are some workarounds. It’s having a conversation with editors and then it’s getting the group, your community, your photo community around you to all to be on the same page about things and to know when you guys need to stand your ground.

I’ve also tried to tell myself as a reminder that it’s business. And it’s not personal. It’s a two way street.

Do you use model releases? What’s your process there? And in addition to that, do you ever exchange something with the person you’re photographing, like the man against the wall, for example?

ML: Yeah, to the latter, I don’t really exchange anything. He was just sort of a bonus. And we had a generic release at that point for Starbucks, and I thought it might be something that they would want to use in the future. So I had our translator ask him if he would sign it, explained to him in layman’s terms what it actually said and just that the company can use this to promote their products in various forms.

The easiest thing to do is there’s an app that I use a lot. It’s called Easy Release. You can drop your logo in there, customize it any way you want. It’s got really basic terms and contracts that it fills in for you. It collects all of their information just on the phone, just by them typing it in – your name, address, phone number, email address.

One of the best things it does is at the very end, it says, “Do you want to take a picture of this person?” So I pull up my iPhone camera, take a quick picture, and it attaches that to the release. That way I remember who that person is. And then it’s already got all of their information embedded. And it automatically sends them an email with that contract so they’ve got it. They’ve got my contact information in there as well. And then I’ve got it saved on the cloud or in the app and can go back to it at any point.

I didn’t always do this and I’m paying for that now… So it’s either keeping really good records and knowing how to get a hold of people or just taking a couple extra minutes on every shoot and opening up the app and saying, “Hey, just in case, I want to use this for anything else in the future, like, would you mind signing this?”

And my terms are not super rights-grabby. I may want to use this likeness for something else. I will pass it by you. If I do this, I will not be using it for products I don’t believe in and for causes that I don’t feel comfortable working for. But I will ask you ahead of time if I do want to use this, and then it’s sort of a win-win.

If you’re getting started and trying to work on your photography business and perhaps you’re trying a Year of Yes or you really want to take on more opportunities, how do you get over the fear of not knowing how to do something? How do you just go for it without having it freeze you up?

ML: Yeah, it’s tough. Imposter Syndrome is real, right? We all feel confident to a certain degree. And then there’s stuff that’s out of our realm that we don’t think we deserve or can attain.

The absolute best way to get around that is just by doing it. If you want to learn how to light stuff and make really cool portraits, pull your partner aside, pull your friends over, go grab your neighbors. Set up a little studio in your backyard and say, “Hey, free portraits this weekend for anybody that comes by between 5 and 7pm,” and send all of your neighbors an email or a text with the portrait that you shot of them. This gives you a chance to practice your skills and work with lights and coach people that are sitting in front of you. Otherwise, it’s just taking risks, taking that chance and believing in yourself.

I don’t want to offend anyone here, but it’s advice that I usually give to college classes that I look out at and are 99% female and I say, “The absolute best thing you can do for yourself in life is to have the confidence of a mediocre white male,” and I mean that. I’ve got friends who are incredible human beings that get jobs that are six figure photo jobs that just blow my mind. And I say, “How do you get that? Have you ever rigged up remotes before? Did you ever do this before?” And they say “No, I just said yes.” And, my God, the amount of confidence that you need to do that.

These friends have told me that they say yes, they take these jobs, they immediately get on Google and start learning how to do this thing or they hire the right people to do it for them. I’ll go back to the example of the friend hooking up remotes. He didn’t have remotes. He didn’t have a couple of pocket wizards laying around to do this shoot. He didn’t have all the gear necessary. And he said yes to this job. And he immediately put out on social media that he was looking for someone to do remote work for him. He paid that person handsomely. That person made a really good amount of money. And my friend basically just produced the shoot and told him where he wanted the remotes and what he wanted shot and it was a win-win for both of them.

The confidence to just be able to say yes and learn as you go will empower you and your business, because it’s the only way to really push yourself.

It’s the absolute best thing that you can do to show editors that you are willing to take on more, that you can do bigger things. And that you’re worth hiring, because one of the biggest skills you can have as a photographer is how to be a problem solver. So I think it all comes back to that. You say yes and you figure it out as you go or you figure out who you need to help you figure it out and you hire them on your crew and you pay them really well to do it. You keep learning and you keep growing.

If you’d like to see Melissa’s entire presentation, along with the questions asked here, watch the on-demand webinar above.

Cover image by Melissa Lyttle

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