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How to Do Income Taxes Better Next Time

Taxes suck. Let’s all say it together. I remember back before I owned my own business and how much I hated to do my income taxes. Then I realize I had no idea how bad it could get back then and I’d take back those days anytime. 1040EZ? Hello! That would be amazing! Now that I’m a business owner taxes get way more complex. I’m assuming if you’re reading this you are a business owner too, otherwise – you probably shouldn’t waste your time too much. This article is for those of you who somehow managed to get through this year and want to take next year by storm. Here’s a few tips to help you prepare better!

1. Organize Your Expense Categories

Don’t just save all those receipts and stuff them in a shoebox for taxes next year. This will quickly become your worst nightmare. Depending on how you file your taxes, which will depend on your business type, you will need to sort out your expenses a little bit more. I like to keep track of expenses by the month. This helps me break down the cost of doing my business and it’s convenient to know for all kinds of fun records like tracking your success. At the end of each month each expense sheet shows where and how I’ve spent money on my business. These would be nice and easy tracking sheets to hand over to my tax guy instead of him looking through receipts to figure it out. However, we can take this one step further and categorize our expenses. This is my preferred method of giving my expense information to my tax guy. Then it saves him some work and me a little bit of money. Your expense categories as a photographer can be broken down into a lot of different things. Decide where each expense is and list it.

  • Advertising Expenses – Business cards, signs, cost of expos, booth items for expos, samples and freebies to promote business, fliers, print or media ads (online or in print), anything related to advertising.
  • Car/Truck Expenses – Mileage for your Vehicle OR the expenses associated with gas, oil changes, repairs, tires, etc. – You can only pick to expense one or the other. I generally choose mileage because it adds up much quicker.
  • Commissions/Fees – Business license fees
  • Contract Labor – This is where you put your pay to second shooters
  • Insurance – Business and liability insurance. This is only for insurance related directly to your business.
  • Interest – Interest on loans used to finance your business
  • Legal/Professional Services – Legal fees, Accounting fees, tax preparation fees
  • Office Expenses – Office supplies like printer ink, paper, pens etc. as well as fees associated with a studio or office space you may pay for (cleanings, snow removal, lawn care, etc.)
  • Rent – This expense category on taxes is divided into two sections for rental equipment and another for renting or leasing an office/studio space
  • Repairs/Maintenance – Any fixes done on your computer or camera equipment, CPS or NPS (Canon or Nikon Professional Services)
  • Travel, Meals and Entertainment – Any workshops, conferences or other photography events you attend that require travel away from your business ‘home’ as well as any meals eaten during those times. With meals you only get to claim up to 50% of the total paid.
  • Utilities – If you have a home office you will be able to deduct a certain percentage depending on if you have a specific space set aside for your home office, how large that space is, and how much of your time spent using your utilities is directly related to business
  • Miscellaneous – Any other expenses are generally not listed separately when filing a Schedule C for your taxes. As I said, it depends on how you file and your business type. These kinds of miscellaneous expenses can be camera equipment, fees associated with accepting credit cards for payment, print orders, and more.

There are more categories for expenses than these listed above, however I’ve used these mostly as a business owner. Some may apply to you and others may not. I just listed the most used ones for photographers.

2. Save All Receipts

You can’t claim it if you don’t have proof you spent it. I mean, you could, but if you were to get audited that could get pretty messy. Always keep proof of what you do. Some receipts fade over time so it’s a good idea to take a photo of them and print out that photo later. I take time each week to print off any expenses (receipts emailed to me), expenses I have receipts for in person, as well as any invoices for profit I made. Afterward I divvy them up and file them by month. I list them on a basic tracking sheet, which stays in the file with the receipts.

3. Use a Ledger or Software

If you’re crazy like me, maybe you like to do your accounting by hand. There’s just something really hard for me when it comes to logging in, doing things in Excel or software like Quickbooks. However, there are other business owners who swear by it! Do whatever is right for you. I find accounting quicker and easier to manage doing it on a simple tracking sheet by hand since I have to file paper copies of those receipts anyway for tax records. I have one day a week (it’s usually Fridays) that I call “Print and File” day. On Print and File day I take the time to print out all my receipts, collect them up and file them away as well as mark them on my tracking sheets so my accounting is always current each week. This also helps me remember when I received cash or check as payment so I can be sure to add that into my income.

4. Turbo Tax

Do I recommend it? I can’t really say that it’s worked for me. This year our old tax guy was no longer available to us (sadly). I was nervous about finding a new one. You know how it is, once you find one you really like you don’t want to start the search all over again. What a pain. So, I figured I could try to do my taxes by myself. Turbo Tax is just plugging in the numbers right? Wrong. When you are a business owner taxes are so much more than plugging in the numbers. You may not be getting as much out of your taxes as you can when you do it with this method. I highly recommend hiring a tax professional to do your taxes for you. Remember you can claim that as an expense on next year’s taxes. It will save you time and so much stress. It may even save you thousands of dollars as well (I know it did for me).

5. Pay Estimated Taxes

For business owners that are self employed it can be a really huge deal at the end of the tax season to owe a large chunk of money to the IRS. There’s a great way to prevent this from happening by simply paying out estimated taxes quarterly. Based on your previous income you will pay your taxes that you owe every quarter. This way when you get to the end of the year and you file your annual taxes you may not owe anything, or something may be owed back to you because you overpaid on your estimated taxes. It helps you set aside how much you owe for taxes, but not have a huge bank account building for a year.

Estimated taxes if you are filing as an S-corp, sole proprietor, corporation, or partner are an option for you. If you will end up owing over $1000 or more this year or any year you file you will be asked to pay estimated taxes. If you are a corporation that amount drops to $500 or more. There are some easy forms you can fill out at tax time to let the IRS know you plan on filing estimated taxes for the next year.

6. Business Bank Account

If you want to make your accounting for taxes super easy to track, and if you want to really make your tax preparer happy you can use one simple business account or regular checking account to track your incoming profits and expenses. If you use one bank account you would need to have all of your business profits deposited there and all of your expenses coming out of that account. That way you can print off all your monthly statements and hand them over to your tax preparer. Unfortunately this method, while it sounds simple, isn’t for everyone. It’s okay if you are a sole proprietor to not do this and manage your finances however you like. If you are not a sole proprietor a business bank account may be required depending on the type of business you are as well as your licensing. This can also vary by state as well.

7. Utilize Paypal

What I love about using Paypal across the board and exclusively for business is the fact that it tallies up how much I make at the end of the year and sends me a 1099-K. This is like a W-2, but for self employed people. It makes you appear a little more trustworthy to the IRS heads who want to make sure that you’re not hiding cash under the table. I love the simplicity of being able to report almost all my income in this method and not having to worry about cash, check, or other payment types too much.

8. Claim Your Home

Recently the laws have changed about claiming a home office for small business owners. I think these new laws actually make it easier to claim. If you have a space dedicated to your business in your home you should claim it. It’s best to consult a tax preparer on this because there are still a lot of rules and regulations on how much you can claim and why. You definitely want to stick to these rules.

9. Log Your Mileage

Above where I listed the types of expenses you can claim for your business I talked about car expenses. You can chose to claim either your mileage or your other car expenses. You cannot claim both. Personally, mileage has always paid out better than car repairs, gas, etc. When you are logging your mileage it’s best to keep a log that has the date, location you were going to, the car you were driving, and how many total miles that took and what your odometer in your car read for mileage when you left and when you arrived. You can record mileage driving both to and from a location related to business. This means mileage when you go to and from photoshoots, weddings, client meetings, trips to Office Depot for business supplies, and any other business related travel.

10. Know How You Filed Last Time

There are sometimes a few checkboxes, rules, and policies for business owners. The IRS likes to see you file in the same format each year so make sure you have a copy of last year’s taxes to take to your preparer or refer to for yourself if you want to do them on your own (I hope not).

Print Release

Here’s some free wording for you to use for your own print releases with clients!

To Whom it May Concern,

The bearer of this notice has purchased high-resolution digital files from his/her wedding and or/photography sessions with (photographer). The bearer is hereby granted permission by (photographer) to reproduce the images and make an unlimited number of prints, for personal use only. This permission applies worldwide.

Upon receiving this gallery the bearer agrees to not alter, ‘photoshop,’ or change the images in any way, shape or form. Changing an image will be considered a breach of this release and legal action will be taken.

The bearer agrees that he/she may not use any (photographer) images for commercial or editorial purposes, or to enter into any competition without the express written permission of (photographer).

By downloading these files the bearer is agreeing to this notice.

(Photographer Contact Information)

Owning a Photography Business Sucks

business_sucks_largeIt really does sometimes. It’s easy to start out with this photography dream. You have a nice camera, you take a couple nice photos, your friends and family tell you that you should start a business. At the time it seems like this glorious idea. You can quit that crappy low-paying job, make your own money, work your own schedule and do something you really love.

Well…there’s a reality to owning a photography business that I think people just don’t talk about. Sure, people say it’s not easy, but at the same time you see all these photographers out and about on social media bragging about how many weddings or sessions they have to edit, how many clients they have to photograph this weekend, the new equipment they just bought and more. Seeing those kinds of comments makes it easy to believe that running a business can’t be that hard, right? Or it may lead you to believe that success will come sooner in your business then it actually does.

I wanted to write this post because sometimes I feel there’s a contradiction in our industry. Photographers are always talking about how difficult this job is, but at the same time we see photographers who make things look easy. That alone gives us the impression that we aren’t booking enough clients or making enough money. You should never judge a book by its cover and I wanted to include some of the things I did in this post when I first ran my business that made it hard to get started.

Somehow the photography industry has set up these imaginary expectations that we should all be able to become awesome photographers at the drop of a hat and be running a profitable business in a year or less. I think there’s a lot of information floating around out there that adds to these illusions, because that’s what they are. Photographers don’t like to talk about or admit where their failures are, or where they started, or that they ever worked for free. Some photographers want others to believe they were always successful right from the start.

So here’s a few realities of my own that I learned the hard way. I am still always learning and making mistakes. I hope this gives you guys a look into what being a photographer is like the first few years and dispels the illusion that you can make a quick buck.

Reality #1 “Fake it ’til you make it”

Ever heard that line of advice? Some of those photographers posting and sharing about their busy schedules are well…lying. It’s a common business practice to make it seem you are more in-demand than you actually are. It helps other potential clients want to book you if you seem in-demand. Plus, no one wants to admit they’re a big crappy failure. Sure, there are a few photographers out there who are actually very busy. I’m just saying, don’t believe everything you see. You never know if what you are reading from other photographers is true or a marketing scheme. I’m not advocating using this as a marketing scheme nor am I putting down anyone who does. However, I wanted to point out that some of the things you see may not be true and you shouldn’t let them define how your business is doing by comparing your business to theirs.

Reality #2 Earning a Profit Takes Time

Here’s the reality. You aren’t going to make a profit for a very long time. Yep, I said it. A slow-grown business will more likely have success and last for years to come than a business that jumped in feet first without thinking twice. You know how people always say that loosing weight fast means it’ll just come back as soon as you’re done dieting compared to losing weight slow will help you keep it off? A business is sort of like that. Taking the time to really build your business will eventually pay off.

I have to be honest that you are not going to make a profit right away. You are going to spend more money than you make, it’s going to cost you a pretty penny. I spent the first 18 months of my business building my portfolio and working for free. Sometimes I see photographers start charging after only a short period of time building a portfolio and then complaining they aren’t getting any clients. Clients want to know that if they pay you they trust you can get the job done. Maybe what I did was excessive and maybe there are photographers who could start making profit in less than a year, but they are not the norm. Take the time to build an extensive portfolio before charging. When clients finally start coming in and you’re ready to charge you have all the work you need to justify what you are ready to make and your clients will trust you more, be happier customers, and more likely to recommend you.

I’m just starting my sixth year of business. I’ll tell you that it took three years…yes THREE YEARS for me to make a profit. Part of this was due to the idiotic decisions on purchases I made at the beginning. I purchased Photoshop actions and all kinds of things I thought I needed and ended up not needing. I purchased the wrong lenses and equipment many times over. I feel I only just learned this lesson recently.

It’s also important to note that statistically it takes an average small business three to five years to start making a profit. Even the IRS in the United States knows and expects this. They don’t expect to see you show a profit on your taxes until after your third year of business. They expect to see you spending more money than you make.

The reality shows me that sometimes we expect too much upfront. We expect things to happen immediately and when they don’t it’s easy to get down on ourselves. If you aren’t making a profit yet, but you are dedicated to being a photographer know that it is going to take time, and expect it to take lots of time. Make a plan for the future for when you expect to be making a profit. This is what business plans are great for. 🙂

Reality #3 Getting Legit

Being a legit business sucks. Did I tell you I’m getting audited for my photography business sales taxes? Not because I did anything wrong, but because back in January when I was being all organized and on time I screwed up. I was getting ready to leave for China and I had to mail my annual sales taxes to the state and the city. I was even mailing them in early (how awesome am I, right?). In all the stress of leaving the country I accidentally put the checks in the wrong envelopes. Yep, the state’s check got sent to the city and vice versa. I can’t begin to tell you how much trouble this has caused me. I mailed those envelopes on January 7th, 2013 and it’s now September 11, 2013 and the problem is still not resolved. The city sent the state its proper check. So what did the state do? They cashed both checks and are auditing me because they’re confused about why I “overpaid.” Meanwhile the city wants its check too.

I could have easily avoided all this hassle over a $100 check if I decided to run my business under the table, but that’s just not the kind of business owner or person I ever want to be.

Being a legitimate and official business is probably the MOST IMPORTANT thing you can do for your business. Before you purchases lenses, camera bodies, and Photoshop actions you should be getting your licenses and all your official ducks in a row. It’s not fun and sometimes it’s a real pain in the behind; especially if you’re like me and you could have just mailed the checks to the right places in the first place. Doh! Don’t worry, it’s not that bad to clean up. It just involves a lot of bureaucratic phone calls – the best kind of phone calls there ever was.

The reality is, if you’re not running a legit business it’s going to catch up with you later and it’ll be a bigger mess to clean up than it would be to figure it out in the first place.

Reality #4 Behind the Business

I thought being a photographer would be super glamorous. Spending long days staring at my computer, doing my own accounting, and all kinds of other things I didn’t imagine also became part of the job. Now I needed to be good at social media. I needed to be amazing at online communications and making sure people understood the meaning I was trying to convey. I needed to get the fastest speed of internet available to upload photos at a decent rate. As a result I’m the one that causes the neighborhood’s internet to slow drastically during peak hours. I needed to become a writer so I could blog. I have to pay more taxes and I get no health benefits or vacation days. Buying my own health insurance sucks so much and is so expensive we can only afford for one of us to be insured. My husband is currently not insured although this is changing very soon (kinda excited).

I’ll tell you that behind the scenes it’s not so glamorous. The first few years we were barely scraping by and were lucky to have help from our parents. Things are more steady at this point and we can rely on my income to live off of.

Reality #5 Facebook Makes Me Hate Business

Oh Facebook, how I loathe you! I do get about half my clients from referrals just by simply existing on Facebook. Now, I’m not complaining about Facebook’s rules (see last week’s post). I think their policies are their own and they can do what they like. What I don’t like about Facebook is how much harder it makes running a business. Here’s why:
– Sometimes I spend hours on Facebook that I could use working. It makes me less productive.
– I compare my work to other people and think I’ll never be good enough.
– I see other photographers posting about how busy and awesome their clients are and wonder what the heck is wrong with me when I am not busy with tons of clients.
– I join photography groups on Facebook in attempt to try to network and find a community of like-minded people only to get shut down by an industry bully.
– Photographers post mean stuff about each other and it makes me nervous to even be part of Facebook.
– Photographers pass around these memes that in some ways mock clients’ naive questions when they hire a photographer. I don’t like these. Since when did it become an us vs. them mentality? We need these people to want to hire us, right?
– Photographers are always complaining about how hard it is, but are making it look easy.
– Nobody will answer me when I have a photography question because people want to keep their business secrets private.

In other words, sometimes Facebook makes photography seem like a hopeless business to venture into. I have struggled with all of these things on this list at some point or another. Often times I dread checking in on Facebook because it’s not a positive place where I feel that as a person I can grow. I feel like it’s a place where I have to approach wearing full-on knight’s armor to defend myself.

Facebook makes me hate being a photographer. Here’s my reality… I had a photography Facebook page for about 2 years before I realized that everyone else did too. I was in my own little naive bubble. I was friends with the people I knew on Facebook, added clients as they came in, but I had no idea there were photography blogs, other photographers, photography groups, or photography pages of any kind. I feel lucky that I was naive to others when I started my business and that I could start without their judgement or making myself feel bad every time I made a mistake or wasn’t as good as someone else.

The reality of Facebook is that it can help you grow your business, but it can also be detrimental to your emotional health. My advice? Turn off and unlike, leave, or delete things on there that you don’t like. Make it a positive community for yourself by not engaging in situations or places on Facebook that cause you to question yourself or make you feel bad.

If you need a good Facebook photography group, feel free to join the Photography Awesomesauce one >here<

Reality #6 – Booking Clients

Part of this overall theme is about how we see what other photographers are doing and are comparing our own businesses. You see other photographers booking lots of clients and don’t book any on your own.

Here’s the reality about booking clients. It takes a LOT of time to get clients inquiring regularly about your services. I have to be very honest that when I started my business I didn’t book a lot of clients and the main problem wasn’t the price or me, it was that I wasn’t very experienced and my photographs were not that good. Nobody wanted to pay for something that didn’t look as awesome as Photographer XYZ down the street. I don’t blame them. Alas, sometimes consumers actually have good taste! 😉 That was probably the number one reason I didn’t book a lot right away. In order to book more clients I needed to improve my skills. That’s why I did a lot of portfolio building sessions. If I didn’t have clients coming in the door, I’d find someone to do a session with for free so I could continually practice. As my skills improved so did the demand for my services. It takes time for your skills to improve and a lot of practice. If you want to be booking more clients the best thing you can do is find people to photograph so you can practice and improve.

Set a goal for yourself to find someone or something to photograph at least once a week. If you’re not booking sessions make sure you are getting out there with your camera and sharing those photos on your website and Facebook. Make it your own personal goal to have a portfolio that is so full of experience no one will be able to deny your services in the future. Spend time educating yourself on better business and taking better photos. There is always something new to learn. Practice these newfound techniques!

As far as booking my own clients goes…as I said before I’m just beginning my 6th year of business. I’m very proud. I would say that it’s only been the last 2 years where I had to spend less time chasing down clients and they were coming to me on their own wanting what I had to offer. The first several years of business I would fight for clients and do just about anything to book them. My goal for the first two years of business wasn’t to have a session every week it was to have one photo “experience” a month with a client, be it free or paid. I didn’t care, I just wanted the experience. Make your client goals small, so they’re easier for you to reach. Sometimes it’s easy to say “I want to book at least 1 or 2 sessions a week” and then when that doesn’t happen you get frustrated. Realize that most photographers are not photographing this often all year round. During May-September I have about one session/wedding per week. Sometimes 2 or 3 a week and then none the next week, or nothing for even 2 weeks. October-April can be hit or miss. This year I have 2 weddings in October and one styled shoot. I have nothing in November, 1 wedding in December, 1 in January and nothing is booked February, March and April for next year. That’s what an average photographer’s schedule looks like. I may get more things booked as times goes on, but the winter months are very sparse and sometimes I go an entire month without any clients. I consider myself a successful business owner at this point, but even I see photographers who talk about being booked up completely months in advance and it makes me feel bad sometimes. Don’t let those things make you feel bad. Everyone’s business is different and building clients is going to take as much time as getting a profit is. It will come eventually, just focus on practicing and make your goals less lofty and more feasible.

Final Reality – Stop Letting Other People Decide What Success Looks Like for You!

In conclusion, I wanted to tell you guys that we need to stop letting other people’s standards for their own businesses define our own successes. Everyone’s situation is different. You may be a full-time photographer with all the time in the world for lots of clients. You may be a stay at home mom who can only take on 2 sessions a week. You might be a mom, a full-time worker, and a part-time business owner which really limits how many sessions you can take on. Success is going to look different to each of these people. The bottom line is we need to decide what success looks like for us. Once we do that we will be much happier with our businesses.

Bridal Show Tips and Photos

I thought I would take today’s post and focus a little bit on the bridal show I did yesterday. I know not everyone who reads is a wedding photographer, but if you’re thinking about doing an expo of any kind maybe this might inspire you.

To make a long story even longer I’ll say that I’ve been preparing for this bridal show for quite some time. I did a re-brand of my business this Spring. Re-brand isn’t even the right word. I branded for the first time ever and I learned so much.

What I learned about branding this year really changed the focus of my business and the types of clients I am getting. I can’t even begin to tell you what a valuable investment branding was. I really wished I had taken the time years ago to understand the ins and outs of branding, how it works and mostly, and how important it is.

So the story of the bridal show is that I started going shopping for antiques and purchasing items that I felt expressed my brand to use in my booth. My booth ended up looking like a cute antique shop store front. I focused on showcasing images that best expressed my brand and the types of clients I was looking for. A lot of photography booths at these big expos have huge industrial-style set ups, tv screens and other things that I don’t think are as visually appealing. My goal was to use my branding as a way to draw in clients. Although my images aren’t edited in a vintage style, vintage stuff expressed my personality and that’s what I use to brand my business.

You can check out some of the photos of the booth below. They are iphone photos. The bridal show is crazy busy so I don’t like having my fancy camera sitting around just in case. This was probably the most successful bridal show I’ve ever had simply because of the way my booth looked. Sometimes the booth was so packed that my husband (who helped) and I couldn’t even stand in the booth. Normally, with bridal shows it’s my goal to email everyone who left info within 24 hours and I was receiving emails all evening when I got home, into the wee hours of the morning and again today. My inbox hasn’t ever been so full of inquiries all at once and normally I’m the one chasing them down instead of the other way around. I think it’s all due to having a cohesive brand that people can connect to. There were definitely some ladies who gave my booth the “that’s gross” look because they don’t like rustic and that’s great. I have always emphasized that a really strong brand is one that people either immediately love or hate and there’s no wishy washy feeling in between. Brides connected with my booth because it appealed to their own likes and they immediately felt we had something in common.

I also wanted to touch on what my booth cost me for display items, etc. I don’t ever want to display a lot of huge framed photos or buy big industrial displays, big TVs etc. None of that is my style. I have always emphasized that you could run an awesome business that’s also not going to break the bank. So, here’s the lowdown.

10 Canvases in various sizes from CGPro Prints – $270
500 Business Cards from Vistaprint – $20
200 Handmade Fliers with burlap and lace textures – $100 + lots of man hours of labor 😉
3 Antique Doors – $35 each
1 Antique Window – $30
100 4×6 Prints from WHCC (purchased through my own PASS galleries) – $100
Big Banner Sign in the Back from Vistaprint – $70 ($40 for banner and $30 for stand)
Antique Desk from Flea Market – $15 (yep you heard me)
Antique Chair from Flea Market – $15 + my mom bought fabric and recovered it for me – she’s AMAZING!
Mason Jars and Vases – Approx $40 (purchased at goodwill or Hobby Lobby)
Ribbon and flowers for Jar Decor from Hobby Lobby – $20
Candles and Candle Holders from Target – $20
Vintage Suitcase (it’s a Newborn Prop I’ve had for years) – $0
Old 7up Crate (family heirloom) – $0
Business Card Basket (old newborn prop) – $0
Canvas Stands (used from my own wedding years ago) – $0
Burlap Table Runners from Hobby Lobby – $10
iMac (it’s my own regular computer) – $0
Bulletin Board that matches Chair – $0 (made by mom)
2 Notebooks and Pens (Target) – $10

Total Spent: $825

I realize the total may not seem affordable to some, but this is on the cheap side for what most photographers spend for a bridal show investment. You can customize this look and spend less by purchasing less canvas, less prints, no banner/sign, print cheap fliers at Kinkos, etc.

I really hope this experience might inspire you to do something different for your own business. To brand and see what happens and how it can affect your business success. I also hope that I could show you that you don’t need big fancy tv screens, light up frames, and all the really expensive features to build an expo booth. You can have an amazing booth at an affordable price that people absolutely love.

Also, don’t mind the last image of me and my shoes. I like to brand myself to match, so I’m wearing vintage boots (that have lace) and a lacey sweater and a dress I felt expressed a little of my brand too!


Lightpainting Tips

Happy 4th of July!

Here in the US it’s time for the Forth of July, which means sparklers, fireworks and other fun things! So I thought I’d put together a post with a few tips on doing light painting for you guys. All of my images use a flashlight for light painting instead of sparklers, but the concept and instructions are exactly the same. We just aren’t legally allowed to use sparklers here in Colorado, although the government has allowed them for today only.

So here are a few tips about doing light painting for you guys since it seems to fit the season today!


1. A Flash
2. Flashlight, iphone light, sparklers, etc.
3. A camera body that can do a long exposure (think a 20 or 30 second exposure)
4. A wide angle lens (35mm lens or wider is absolutely ideal, but you can work with a 50mm too).
5. Tripod


1. You will want to be doing a 20 or 30 second exposure so you have enough time to write or draw with your light and so your camera gets enough light to the sensor to make an evenly exposed image.

2. It’s best to wait until it’s very dark out.

3. When you are writing out words or drawing a design make sure that your light is facing your camera directly. If it moves slightly at an angle the light can get cut off (see the heart image below). You can see where there is no line on the edge of the heart because the light started to face a different angle, but it did happen to work out in this image. As long as the light is facing straight forward and you are standing behind it you won’t be able to see yourself in the image. If the light shines on you at all you might see “ghosting” where you see the one body part (foot, shoe, hand, face) where the light hit you for even a moment in your final image.

4. Don’t worry about spelling backwards. Stand behind your light and write forwards as you would any time. The image will appear backwards in your camera, but you can flip it in photoshop. It’s easier to flip than write backwards.

5. Use a high aperture. Focus is difficult in these images so shooting wide open isn’t ideal. All of my images here were taken between f3.5 and f5.

6. Use manual focus. Before beginning I had our subject stand in place and hold a light up (cell phone works). Then I used manual focus on that light source before we started. Your subject will have to stay very still in the photos once you start your long exposure.

7. To have your subject be lit, but not show you writing the words, use a flash either before you start writing or after and do a little pop of light on your subject.

8. If you use sparklers you’ll have to consider how long they burn, blow them out when you’re done writing or start off to the side of your photo, write and then drag the sparkler off the other side so you get a continuous look, like with the heart photo below. If you want a word or drawing to only be in the middle of the photo, you will have to light the sparkler or turn on the flashlight where you want to start writing.

9. Using a wider lens will give you more room to write and draw, that’s why a 35mm is ideal. lf you use a 50mm just make sure you stand further back so you can see a wider scene.

10. You must have your camera on a tripod or a steady surface during these long exposures, so you don’t get camera shake. For the heart photo my camera was on the ground, propped up on some jackets and for the word photo it was on the tripod. Sometimes camera shake can come when you press the shutter button too, so it’s great to set your camera up to do a 20 or 30 second exposure and set it up with your timer on a 2 second delay for the shutter to go off. That way you can press your shutter button and if that shakes the camera at all, it gives it a little time to rest before the shutter goes off. It’ll help keep things sharp.