As companies report depressed quarterly results and cash-flow problems hit your clients, keeping your accounts in order has become more important than ever.
If you don’t have any employees and live a simple photographic life with a small number of commissions paid as single larger fees, you may not need any kind of management software. A spreadsheet set up to enter your outgoings and income will cover everything the taxman or your accountant needs to know.
There have always been two approaches to computer accounting: spreadsheet or database. While using a spreadsheet most closely resembles ruled-page manual ledger entry, spreadsheets don’t normally lock the data in each column to the other columns and it’s very easy to get things out of line by accidentally deleting a single item.
A classic spreadsheet error, for example, is to use a Sort function. You have one entry per row and you would like to sort according to the first column. Indeed, you can sort that column but the remaining columns are not linked and remain unsorted so your data becomes hopelessly jumbled. This is why it’s not a brilliant idea to use Microsoft Excel or Apple Numbers for accounts.
Databases are not so very different under the hood, but they are built up from records, every one of which contains a full set of fields. A record might be a purchase, and the fields could include the basic cost, VAT, date orders, category, name of item, supplier or date paid. You can manipulate records without risking the sort of user-generated accidents a spreadsheet is prone to. All the fields within the record are permanently associated with it.
Advanced databases are relational, which goes a step further. Fields in one database file can be linked to information held in an entirely separate file. You can, for example, have a client list held on a smartphone that you update when travelling. Your office computer then uses the updated information. In the past, systems like this mostly worked over office networks; now they work in the cloud (distributed storage and processing, not just stuff stored on internet servers). Your worries about a studio PC being stolen or a fire destroying records are gone, because multiple duplicate copies exist thousands of miles away, securely protected from hacking.
Light Blue works especially well with mobile devices, and is geared towards American accounting and taxes.
Using a relational database means that basic accounting packages – which is all you are likely to need for sales and purchases – can be built into client contact and shooting diary-management programs.
The most popular database engine for photographic management programs is Filemaker Pro, originally a Mac program but for many years now a Mac/Windows dual-platform product. Two decades of development have refined what was always the easiest database to use and customise.
One of the first programs to use Filemaker as its engine was Chaim Bacon’s The Photographic Organiser. This is a full studio-management program (as is normal for Filemaker Pro apps) combining contact, diary, client records, orders, sales accounting and reports. It comes with a full copy of Filemaker Pro. With thousands of users starting in the 1990s, Bacon kept it up to date with in-house programming staff. Recently The Click Group, owned by Charles Kaufman, partnered TPO and took on the Productive IT development team. Over 700 UK studios are signed to Click’s marketing services. At the end of November 2011, Kaufman announced he was seeking investment to expand his £1.5m turnover group into the US, Asia and other international territories. This program is likely to continue to develop as a mainstream social studio-management system, including such features as importing Pro Select sales-viewing orders directly. TPO is not sold as a program with paid-for updates; instead you pay a monthly charge of £25 to £45 for a single workstation after an initial £100 fee, which includes all support and updates.
Foto SF includes a full copy of Filemaker Pro and also offers a data-hosting option.
Also aimed at the social photographer, but with considerable emphasis on a busy diary including staff and outside events, is SF Digital’s Foto SF. This Filemaker Pro-based program was first developed by Uzair Kharawala, familiar to many for his Nikon demonstrations and photography courses. He employed specialist programmers to build the workflow sequence he needed for his own events and social business, and soon found he had a product that could be sold to others. At £375, Foto SF includes a full copy of Filemaker Pro worth £219; this comes with access to thousands of small database applications you can customise and run alongside Foto SF. You can also buy a £60 +VAT Lite version with no separate program, ideal for those setting out. Kharawala’s experience in webinars and online support is a strong point for Foto SF. It’s also iPhone-friendly and offers a database-hosting option (your own server needs Filemaker Server or their service) so it can be used by travelling events photographers for extended tours. It’s over three years since this app won a major Filemaker Pro community award and Kharawala has not rested on these laurels.
The most recent Filemaker Pro-based photographic-management app is Light Blue, which started out almost entirely geared to the advertising, commercial and editorial assignment business. It does not include a standalone Filemaker Pro program, and is a runtime application. Early versions of Light Blue and demonstrations of the program assumed a type of business far removed from the wedding or portrait freelance.
The authors and publishers in Cambridge quickly changed tack after realising how much larger the GP market was, and Light Blue has developed fast to handle just about any needs, from a multi-bay catalogue studio to a village wedding specialist. At £295, Light Blue is stylish and clean to use, and very well integrated with mobile services. The name sounds a bit like something up there in the ‘cloud’, and the latest release, v3.3, works particularly well with Mac OSX 10.7.2 (Lion), iOS devices and iCloud functions. Light Blue has been refined with special attention to US accounting and tax requirements so it’s a good choice if you plan to move your base between countries.
I would recommend all three of these Filemaker Pro-based packages, because they are all now capable of basic accounting, VAT returns, and cross-platform shifting. If you opt for an everyday accounts package such as Sage, you’ll not only pay more for something only usable on a PC, but adding the studio-management functions would call for customising Sage Act!, its client and sales contact program.
The programs are packed with more features than can be described here but, in all three cases, their websites give detailed information and all three offer trial versions that are free to download and install. Terms vary, and so does the amount of time you may find yourself spending to study the functions of each.
If you are still intent on using a spreadsheet to store contacts or record your accounts – something I advise against unless you are an expert user already – there are open-source options for Windows and Mac users, Open Office (both, Linux and more) and Neo Office (Mac). These complete business suites, including word processing, don’t have to cost you anything, unless you choose to make a donation to the community of developers that has taken them out of the Unix environment where these projects started. They can be very useful in conjunction with whatever solution you adopt for management and accounting.
Most Popular Articles
Updating your subscription status
We have a vacancy for a Key Account Manager working on The British Journal of Photography
Magnet Harlequin, one of the UK's leading Creative Production Agencies is seeking a new Head of Photography.
We have opportunities for two experienced photographic, audio or video technicians.