How to Start a Photography Business | Part 2 | Avoiding Legal Mistakes

Business Liability Insurance, Client Contracts, and other necessary legal stuff.

In my previous article in this series, I used the analogy of board game squares to address the starting point (square 1) in How to Start a Photography Business. We need to imagine that there are two boards playing simultaneously – one for the your creative strategy and one for your business strategy. If you missed it, I encourage you go back and read Part 1.

Part 2 may seem less inspiring because of the all legal mumbo jumbo involved, but once you get past that stuff, this is where the fun of being a creative entrepreneur begins. Let’s get started.

Square 2 on the Business Board – DBA (Doing Business As)

What is a DBA? Here’s the definition according to Wikipedia:

“The phrase “doing business as” (abbreviated DBA, dba, d.b.a. or d/b/a) is a legal term used in the United States and Canada, meaning that the trade name or fictitious business name, under which the business or operation is conducted and presented to the world, is not the legal name of the legal person(s) who actually own the business and is subsequently responsible and liable for it. In many countries the expressions operating as (abbreviated o/a) or trading as (abbreviated t/a) are used for this purpose.

Where a desired name was not able to be registered by the business operator, or if that business is owned by a separate company, franchisee, or a sole proprietorship then transactions may take place under the doing business as name, however, legal agreements are made under the registered trade name of the business/owner.

The distinction between a registered trade and a “fictitious” name is important as businesses with the latter give no obvious indication to the entity that is legally responsible for their operation. Therefore fictitious doing business as names do not create legal entities in and of themselves; they are merely names assumed by existing persons or entities.”

Is this really necessary?

The simple answer is: maybe.

It depends on whether or not you’re using your own personal name (I.E. Bradley Lanphear) or a fictitious name. It also depends on the laws in your own state/country. In the US, each state has it’s own requirements for registering a DBA or fictitious name, so you should check your state’s rules. For example, where we live, in the state of Pennsylvania, it’s only necessary if your DBA differs from your actual name. There is a registration fee involved and you are required to advertise your business name in at least two newspapers. If you are using your own name, then you do not need to register a DBA. For example, Bradley Lanphear Photography does not need a DBA, however, my other business, Rhema Images Photography, does need a DBA.

The Mistake I Made:

I didn’t actually know our state’s laws about DBA until I started doing research for this article. It turns out I  misunderstood this for the last 5 years and did it wrong. I THOUGHT that a DBA was essentially just the name on your business checking account for your bank records, but there is more to it than that.

The most important reason for registering your DBA is the ability to enforce your contracts. If you do not register your DBA with your state, you could face heavy penalties if you find yourself needing to enforce your contracts which are made under your unregistered DBA. So, make sure you take the necessary steps to do this right.

Fortunately, I’ve never had an issue arise where I needed to enforce a contract…


Square 3 on the Business Board – Insurance & Contracts

If you intend to get hired by clients, you NEED to protect both you and them. You protect yourself with a contract between you and your client and you protect your client by having liability insurance.

The contract serves the purpose of clearly defining:

  • WHAT you are agreeing to provide for the client
  • HOW they are going to receive it
  • WHEN they will receive it
  • What you ARE directly responsible and NOT responsible for

A contract does not need to be written by a legal professional, although it IS a legal document and if an issue ever arises where the terms of contract are in question, you’ll want to make sure it is well written. Having a lawyer critique it may be a good idea, but find a lawyer who specializes in small business affairs. This may cost you a bit, but it’s better than having to pay a settlement due to a poorly written contract. Here’s an example of the contract I use. I’ll post a more thoroughly dedicated article about contracts later.

Business liability insurance protects you and your client in the event of injury or property damage which you’re responsible for either by negligence or poor performance. For example, if you’re at a photo shoot and you have loose cables on the floor from lights or other equipment and someone trips on a them and gets injured, you’re responsible for not having secured the cables to prevent such an accident. Therefore, you need insurance to protect your client. On the other hand, if you’re photographing a wedding and a drunk guest knocks your camera out of your hand and it gets destroyed, (The horror!) the insurance will cover the cost of replacing your gear and possibly the cost of refunding your client for the loss of the photos, if the case may be. Therefore, you need insurance to protect you.

Also, many venues require outside contractors to provide proof of liability insurance.

Business liability insurance usually costs somewhere around $500/year and will cover you for 1-2 million in liability.

Coming up: Stay tuned for Part 3 in the How to Start a Photography Business series where I’ll discuss portfolio building, blogging, gaining an audience and my first ever interview with another creative pro, Portland photographer, Nicole Mason.

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