Administration, paperwork, accounts, no matter what name you give it it’s hardly the most exciting part of running a photography business, but if you’re running a business then it has it be done. Personally it could bore me to tears and I’ve been known to leave my accounts for months at a time and then do it in one hit which to be honest isn’t ideal as it takes 2 or 3 days to catch up and then there is the chance I could forget or misplace something.
I’d always just used a page a day diary to run my calendar, spreadsheets to run my invoices, along with my monthly and yearly expence and income reports. It was a simple and uncomplicated but fragmented and unhelpful way of working. Nothing is centralised when working that way and nothing links to one another and its time consuming. Information or records relating to one shoot could be in as many as 5 or 6 places, in my diary, on an spreadsheet, on a Facebook message, in an Email, from a text message, via a phone call and noted on a piece of paper etc and keeping a check on it all was far more complicated than it needed to be, and there were certain things I wasn’t keeping track of at all, like the need to follow up enquiries.
I’d looked for software based solutions for a while but nothing seemed to fit. With me, anything I invest in has to strike me as being the perfect solution for the problem at hand otherwise I won’t spend out on it. I’m not a fan of making do. Some software solutions involved monthly, never ending subscriptions, and the costs involved were far to high for a one man band, as well as not being aimed specifically at photographers or not being the complete package. I even tried a freebie, Studio Cloud, as it came across as being just about what I was after, but it was totally cloud based, which is not ideal should you have internet issues and more than that it was just a bit clunky, non intuitive, and boring. I know its only software and its not supposed to entertain you, but when I was signed up to it, in the process of setting it up and yet simply forgot all about it and never went back to it you can’t exactly say it was inspiring or exciting software to use.
So what’s the answer? Well Tom & Hamish would tell you that their, Light Blue Software, is the answer, and I have to say I pretty much fully agree with them, but what sets this software apart from the others I looked at and are there any weaknesses.
The first thing to say is I am not connected to Light Blue, Tom or Hamish, nor am I being paid for this and I didn’t get the software at a discounted rate, I paid full whack like everyone else who has the software, so any praise or criticism I give here is genuine as I have nothing to gain or lose.
Firstly, it has been designed from scratch with photographers in mind and what they face in the day to day running of their businesses and that pretty much started when Tom Catchesides created his own business software solution for his own wedding photography business. Although I have no idea how that compares to the software we see today, I guess it can be said that it was the first stone laid in the foundations of Light Blue and in partnership with Hamish Symington, who is behind much of the database side of Light Blue, along with the input and collaboration of other professional photographers, it has become a fully functioning, covering pretty much all bases, photography business software package.
Knowing exactly where to start with this isn’t as easy as it sounds as this software is pretty extensive so it may as well start with what we photographers love to do, shoots.
Booking in shoots is incredibly simple and recording all the details about the shoot, the client, quotes, sales, expences, appointments and mileage to do with the shoot can be recorded and linked to it as well, so everything you need to know about that one shoot is all accessible via that one starting point, the shoot. However, the client details, quotes, sales, expences all create their own records, so if you need to access them for your monthly accounting records then all quotes, sales, expences etc can be accessed separately or in a report that collates everything for that month, that quarter, that financial year, or previous months, quarters, years etc.
See what I mean about how extensive Light Blue is. In one paragraph about one area of it I’ve already hit upon 8 or 9 other things it does, and that’s only the start of it, so with that in mind I am not going to go into how it does certain things otherwise this blog will end up being far far to long, and seeing as Hamish and Tom have put together a knowledge base and tutorial videos that cover the workings of Light Blue it would be pointless of me to do so, but what I will do is let you know about what it does, to the best of my knowledge, or at least what it does for me.
The first thing I do when taking a booking, or recording an enquiry that may well turn into a booking at a later date, is to enter the date and time of the shoot. That then immediately gives me some important info without having to faff around looking in my diary by letting me know if I’m already booked or I already have an enquiry for that day. If I’m already booked the new enquiry date/time will turn red, if I already have an enquiry for that date it’ll turn orange, so I then know where I have to go with the new enquiry to either say I’m booked, rearrange a new date or get in touch with the previous lead to say that there is interest in their date.
Once that shoot date/time is set I can then fill out the clients details via the linked records. If it is a bride who has contacted me I can link her record to that of the grooms, or whoever I else I might want records of connected to that shoot. I can then create a linked quote or sale, and subsequently that quote, invoice, or once paid, receipt, can then be created and either printed or sent via email to the client.
Other things that can be created or recorded within the shoot record is workflows. Say you take a wedding booking, I could create a general workflow for it that would then be attached to it and be worked to run via the date of that wedding. For example, the wedding is the 1st of June 2015, so in my workflow I have it set that 2 weeks before the big day I want to arrange the final meeting with the happy couple, and so via the task manager I get a reminder 2 weeks before the big day to contact the couple to get that meeting in the diary. That works for all other things you may want date related to the wedding, like venue visit 3 weeks before the big day, battery recharge 3 days before, print wedding plan day before, import & back up day after etc, the choice is yours.
One workflow I have set up is attached to enquiries, and having this workflow in place may very well have got me a job sooner, if not a job that may well have disappeared on me because I didn’t follow it up.. For example, in the past I may very well have had an enquiry come in via my business Facebook page, and I will answer that as soon as I can. Now for whatever reason some people decide not to reply back, not even a “thank-you for your reply” type message and very normally these enquiries would never get a follow up because I would forget about them and a week later it would be 25 messages down the list and out of sight, out of mind. Now though, when any enquiry comes in, whether I get a reply or not, it goes straight into Light Blue as an enquiry. That enquiry can have the “Enquiries” workflow attached to it, so in a weeks time I can send out a follow up message asking how they are getting on with their photographer search and did they want a consultation etc. It was with either my first or second occasion that I had a follow up reminder that I got a reply back saying “Ever so sorry for not replying, been so busy, can we book a consultation”. That followed up lead thankfully turned into a contract signed, deposit paid, customer of mine for next year.
So, going back to shoot records, it allows you to record specific shots related to the wedding, like the group shots, bride/groom portraits or requested key shots. I can make a schedule list for the day and record the addresses of where I need to be and at what time, and I can create a list of who’s who to do with the wedding, though how extensive you might want that to be is completely your choice. I think it’s nice to know the names of the bride and grooms parents etc, but I have never made promises to remember who they all are!
One very clever thing I have done with Light Blue is have some pieces of info embedded straight into it from my website, which then saves me even more time and it relates to the info gathered in the previous paragraph. On my website I use Gravity forms to gather information, that information can then be sent to my Light Blue account and can be imported into Light Blue as a new record or be entered into an existing record. So I have a questionnaire for my brides/grooms requesting what they want for their group shots, what they see as key shots and a who’s who. All that info is then gathered and entered into their shoot record without me lifting a finger. Well I say that, it’s two clicks of a mouse, but hey how hard is that. Half the final wedding meeting has now just been covered and all that info is now in the shoot and I haven’t spent any time on it.
I also have another form that allows clients, or prospective clients, to book appointment’s and that info also comes straight into Light Blue as well. However, that isn’t as straight forward, as it’s just the info I am after because booking an appointment is different to booking a shoot and that can’t be done. Once I have the info I can input it manually as an appointment linked to either a contact, a shoot or an enquiry for a shoot and then once I have double checked the requested appointment with my calendar I can then send out a confirmation email. To make this work I have utilised a handy feature that allows you to enter custom fields into the Shoot record, which can also be done with contact records as well.
You can also pull your emails into Light Blue by linking it to certain software like Outlook, which I haven’t as yet done, and you can also link it to Google Calendar, which I have done. I have found to be a valuable feature, specifically as I am one of the few who faces one slight downside to Light Blue. I am an Android user for both phone and tablet, though you’ll get no fan boy reasons, loves or hates from me here, it’s just what I know and what works for me. However, as a paid up member of the monthly subscription for two devices I can use Light Blue on my PC, my Laptop or if I had one, on my Mac, iPhone or iPad, but sadly not on my Android. So having Light Blue sync with Google Calendar so I can see on my phone whilst I’m out and about when I’m booked and see details of appointments it brilliant. I just can’t make, take or edit anything as the sync only works from Light Blue to Google, not the other way around.
I have asked Hamish & Tom about Android and their response was to the point, fully understandable and as positive as it could be whilst saying there was no immediate possibility of an Android App appearing anytime soon. The difficulties of coding for such a widely modified operating system, along with the costs to develop, to then be used by what would be the minority of Light Blue users doesn’t make it a viable endeavor. However, it is something they do want to achieve and do look into from time to time but as yet a solution it is not something that will be with us anytime soon.
One thing Tom & Hamish are on top of all the time is responding to questions and requests from those using the trial or who are fully paid up customers who need advice or help in using the software to its maximum. They pride themselves on getting their customer service right and they get no complaints from me in that department. Every time I’ve emailed them they have responded quickly, and every time the info has been spot on and helped no end. Their interaction with their customers and the ability of the software make the price more than worth it.
The price advertised is £295 but that isn’t including the VAT that is due. I know its not their fault that VAT is chargeable but it bugs me when prices are advertised without it. I know some people buying this may very well be VAT registered and effectively they will get it back, but I’m not and I won’t and that’ll be the case for plenty of others to, so the real price you have to pay is £354. That said, it is still good value for what it is, specially when compared to some of the monthly subscriptions attached to the alternative software’s I looked at where most of them were £40 per month, so you’d hit £354 after just 9 months of use. The one off price for Light Blue is all you ever need to pay should you never want to upgrade to the next full version or have access to it on more than one device at a time.
As I mentioned above, I pay for the ability to use the software on two devices, and that for me is the office PC and my laptop at home and that costs £7.50 a month (£9 per month with VAT) and having the ability to use it away from the office is great, but one of the best parts of having the subscription is that anytime there is a full version update, I will get it without having to pay the upgrade fee.
New versions of Light Blue tend to appear every 12-24 months, and although there is never any promise about the release of new versions at set timescales, they are always working on new ideas, improvements and upgrades, so it makes the subscription more than worth it, although should you not want or need the ability to have the online services and therefore not pay the subscriptions you can still pay an upgrade fee of £95 (£114 with VAT) to get the latest goodies contained within the newest version of the software.
Whichever way you decide to use and pay for this software you won’t regret it as it is so complete. I’ve only scratched the surface of what it can do and this blog is starting to get a bit long so I’m no longer going to go into any real detail, but you can create your own documents for invoices, receipts, quotes, emails, use your own logo, keep track of your bills, what people owe you, what people have paid you, see your profit margins, create price lists for services and products, keep an inventory, make workflows, run your diary, keep track of mileage, your purchases, your transactions, keep track of your tasks, create reports, create wedding plans………….and I’m sure there is stuff I have missed out or not explained fully, but if I did this would go on forever.
One thing you do need to take into consideration, because it is so extensive, is it could take you a while to set up, specifically if you want it to print full reports ready for your accountant at the end of your first tax year where you’ve had the use of Light Blue. What I mean is, because I started using this a couple of months back, but my tax year starts/ends in April and because I wanted it to be used to the max from the very start I had to go about entering everything I had done, spent, earned, driven etc between Apr the 5th and now, that way when I hit print on the Income Vs Expenditure report on the 5th of April 2015 the report will be complete. So, you are either going to have to do one of three things.
- Be prepared to spend some time setting it up and getting up to speed with it, so that it is fully functioning from the start and all your records are complete.
- Just use it to run your diary/bookings/shoots until you hit the first day of the new tax year and then use it to it’s full capacity, however you’ll have to continue to do your books the way you always have until the last day of your current tax year.
- Don’t start the trial or buy it till the start of the new tax year. This would be the extreme answer if you just can’t bear to use it simply as a diary for the first few months and can’t be bothered to back date it all.
I think the option you’ll choose will be dictated by how close or far you are from the end of your own tax year. Had mine been close to being 9/10 months into the tax year I think I may well have gone with option two as it gives you a lot of time to set other things up, like your custom forms etc, which I have yet to do, but only being 6/7 months in I set about setting it all up properly, which took quite a while as I couldn’t dedicate all my time to it in one hit.
Personally, in my search for business software I didn’t find anything better and I can’t yet imagine how Light Blue could ever be bettered. All I can say is that I am enjoying using Light Blue and I look forward to the next new version, not because this version is missing anything, well not that I know of, but quite simply because any additions will be well thought out and well implemented and more than that highly useful.
Many congrats to Tom & Hamish on what is quite simply put the best Photography Business Software, it does indeed lighten the load, saves me time and makes my life easier, the only blues I’ve had from it is the regret of not getting it sooner.
For those wishing to try Light Blue or find out more about it or see the tutorials etc head over to www.lightbluesoftware.com and all I can say is have fun using it, and should you need to know anything don’t hesitate to contact Tom or Hamish as they’ll be more than happy to hear from you.
Catch up again soon