An interview with the creator of the "That's Why I Chose Yale" viral video that has set a completely unreasonable bar for us video producers who do work for colleges. Thanks to collegewebeditor.com for the link.
Travel expenses are a heads-up item for
an audit. It's what triggered mine. Here's what you do to audit-proof
When I'm on the road I obsessively
collect my receipts. I order a Starbucks, I put the cash register
receipt in my wallet. When my wallet gets too full, I store them in a
zip lock baggie in my luggage.
When I get home I gather my pile of
receipts by the computer and start entering each one onto a
spreadsheet. I have an Excel template I've created, with simple
categories: food, lodging, airfare, transport (cabs, trains), other.
I code which expenses I paid with a credit card and which ones I used
cash. Then I filter for the cash transactions, and write myself a
check for that amount. That's how I capture those expenses into
All the receipts, and a printout of the
spreadsheet, go into a 9x12 envelope. I label it with the client and
the dates of travel, and file it.
Now, what travel can you put on your
Schedule C? Most of my travel is for a client. They reimburse me for
all my expenses. I have the proof on the invoice. I can deduct every
If no one else is reimbursing your
travel, it gets more complicated. You need to take care. Is the
travel about your income-producing photography? Or is it a pleasure
trip, during which you took some pictures? This is not the place to
Here's how it went down with the
auditor. One of my trips that year was to Maine, to take a week long
digital printmaking workshop with John Paul Caponigro. I spent
another week on the road photographing and working on my contra dance
project. I travelled alone. That travel passed muster.
Later that year I flew down to meet
Robin in LA, where she was at a conference. I took photos from the
hotel balcony, and those shots are in a stock agency. We drove up the
coast together for 5 days, and had a sweet, romantic time. We visited
my niece and nephew in San Francisco. I took a couple thousand
photos. Some of those are on the Getty site. But I could not
demonstrate that the primary reason for the trip was for business,
even if some business activity took place during the trip (the rules
say exactly that). The auditor wouldn't let me deduct that trip
(which was fine—I had already categorized it as a personal trip.
If, however, I had taken this trip in 1998, when 90% of my income was
from stock photography, I might have been more aggressive about
including it. I can't say if I would have been successful.)
Another gotcha with unreimbursed travel
is food. You can deduct only 50% of the cost of your meals. Another
reason to segregate expenses by type. There are also rules regarding
travelling with a spouse. Ask your accountant what they are.
The single most important thing to do?
Be honest. Life is so much less stressful that way.
In the middle of last month we got a pair of thick, hand addressed letters (one to me, one to Robin) from the IRS. We were going to be audited.
“Everyone's getting these,” our accountant said. “The Seattle office just hired a bunch of new auditors. All my colleagues have someone going through this.”
Today was the day. Luckily, we got a good one. He was a recent college grad, doing this for a year. He had social skills. He was not confrontational. We were nice to him, and he reciprocated.
We spent two hours describing our businesses and our bookkeeping methods. He was willing to speculate why our 2007 return was flagged, which is partly an artifact of the limited information the IRS office has to make its decisions. They don't have the return in hand when they send out an audit notice, just a summary. What made ours stand out were the expenses on our two rental houses, and my equipment and travel expenses.
He said it was obvious on the return that the house expenses on the Schedule E were well within reason. The summary figure didn't detect that we had two houses, and it included the mortgage interest, which adds some big numbers to the total. He spent little time verifying that part of the return. My travel expenses were easy to justify and completely documented, even though they were over $20,000 that year. I am careful to separate business and personal travel, and in fact I had another $6,000 of travel that I didn't claim. Equipment—well, pro photographers go through a lot of gear. I buy a lot less than many of my colleagues.
We were told to set aside two days for the audit. He finished in a day, largely because we were so organized. “I'm not seeing any problems in the 1040,” he said. “The income matches the bank statements, and the expenses are reasonable.” During the day we uncovered a mistake in my spreadsheet—some empty cells in a formula column—and I was able to add another grand to my travel expense deduction.
The one hit, however, is to Robin regarding payments to her consultants. She didn't issue them 1099's. No psychotherapist does. No one knows that they have to. This is a completely unknown issue in her profession. We'll have to pay a relatively modest fine for that oversight.
It's been educational. Tomorrow I'll write a post on how to audit-proof your bookkeeping.
I've set up a Zenfolio site for my Daily Photo posts. Like one? Now you can buy it.
I ordered several prints to check out the quality. Three sizes are available: 9"x12", 12"x18", and 16"x24". They come borderless. Yes, there's a markup. If I make enough to cover the hosting fees I'll consider it a success.
The Lou Lesko show breezed into Seattle's ASMP this evening, not without a little culture shock as histrionic Hollywood met staid Seattle. Great content though, even if his transition to video content was aimed at the high production value ad shoot mode.
“The good news is that professional photographers make fantastic directors. We catch what cinematographers miss. We see details. We have a strong sense of light and how it tells a story.”
Where we get lost is in the gear. We love to master every aspect of a process. Video production doesn't work that way. “Where you will fail, if you're not careful, is to get awash in the technical details. As soon as you step up, get other people.”
If you want work, learn Final Cut. “The biggest demand in the next few years is going to be for video editors.”
The other big takeaway is the necessity of narrative. It's all about story. Even a one minute commercial needs athree act structure. Blake Snyder's “Save The Cat” is a fast read on the subject that Lou says will completely change how you look at movies.
Even though I'm doing small documentary pieces and I prefer to work on my own, I see a lot of value to what Lou has to say. In my own work, I can look at my most successful pieces and see that they obey the three act structure, even if I didn't know I was doing it.
Now I have another model to use to structure my shooting and my editing.
So how do I battle this tidal wave? Apparently the new thing in college videos is: musicals.
The new video from Yale, “That's Why I Chose Yale,” is getting a ton of press and a lot of blog attention in the college admissions marketing world. It's a high production number that, if anyone was getting paid for it, would have cost in the low 6 figures. As it was, this was a completely volunteer effort solely produced by students and alums. Their only cost was the camera rental (and dolly track, and steadicam, and crane, and probably a ton of grip gear).
On the low production end, but engaging in its commitment, is the pair of dueling (here and here) Shoreline, WA high school lip sync numbers (I'm sure they didn't purchase rights to the music. I wonder how that's going for them?).
Something's going on out there in the zeitgiest. Musicals seem to be the vocabulary of the moment for getting a message out. It looks like I'm going to have to actually watch the stack of Glee episodes on my Tivo to understand what this is about.
And maybe enroll in a four year film program so that I could produce something like one of these. Do I have to?
I have been taking photographs for almost 50 years. I have been taking them with a digital camera for a little over five years. I am a different, and possibly better photographer than I was in 2004. There is almost no other interval in my life where my work has grown and changed so dramatically. Maybe my first year of college, or at the photography workshops in Sun Valley, Idaho. Those experiences upended my understanding of what made a photograph, and what kinds of photographs were available for me to make. Upending experiences, however, are the norm in one's twenties. A life changing event in one's fifties is rarely cause for celebration.
When I first got a digital camera I was confused and overwhelmed with the amount of new information and skills I needed to acquire. My professional credentials as a photographer were seriously suspect. I faked it, and hoped not to blow things too badly. I started a daily photo blog as a mechanism to get good at a digital workflow. If I made myself shoot every day, and post a photo every day, I would eventually regain that unconscious fluency in the process of imagemaking that I seemed to have lost.
It appears that I forgot to stop. I have surpassed 1700 blog posts on Daily. I carry a camera with me much of the time (a real camera, not that fake iPhone one). No matter what else is going on in my life, I make a photograph. If I'm on assignment, it's from that. If I'm homebound, it's often my garden. If I go shopping, I might photograph the produce. When I take my mother-in-law to the doctor, I scour the exam room for photos. If I'm sick with the flu, I make a photograph of the sickbed.
This daily discipline of finding a photo worth posting is now the core of my creative process. I know how to quickly enter the zone, that state of being where one is alert to any possibility, and that with the camera both narrows and expands the sense of being in a place, in order to frame a coherent set of shapes and lines that feels, in some unconscious manner, complete.
Photography is not about subject for me, even if the evidence bears witness that certain subjects are more interesting to me than others. I photograph in my garden, or down the hill at Montlake Fill, the local birding hotspot, more than any other location. It just happens to be where I am more often than not. I make photographs in the most convenient surroundings. But I am largely indifferent regarding subject. The point of my photographs is not necessarily the subject of them. My favorite quote on the matter is from Frederick Sommers: “Subject matter is harmless, but it can be charming to the point of distraction from other elements.”
What I take that to mean is, if all you see is the subject, it won't work. Those other elements, line, shape, light, position—the pieces that make a photograph “work”--are the data stream of the moment that in this odd alchemy of presence and technology make it possible to create a compelling photograph. They make us care about the subject.
What I look for when I have a camera in hand is a state of feeling, inside myself, that finds some congruency with the external reality. Putting a frame around that reality and making a decision regarding moment intensifies and deepens that sense of connection with place or relationship. I feel as though I dive down into an altered state of awareness, acquire the goods for the day, and then resurface. Then I pop the card into the computer to see what I saw down there.
I was on vacation last week on Maui. I didn't take my computer, as I wanted a break from staring at a monitor. My evenings weren't filled with image processing as they almost always are when I travel. Instead, I shared the time with Robin, which was the point, except when she was working on Facebook (she brought her computer), and when I was working on Facebook on my iPhone. I read four novels during the week.
It was like the old days of traveling with film, when I wouldn't know what I got until I returned home.
What I did was photograph only where and when I felt compelled to. When something in the environment tugged at me hard enough to say, “stay, look, understand.” I was not out to capture or document our travels. I shot only when I felt the need.
That need is based on a particular approach to photography that I talk about whenever I lecture on travel photography. If the camera is useful for you to deepen your connection with a place or with a moment, then it is a tool of value. If it is a burden and a barrier to being in the moment, then the camera has no place. Have the experience of where you are, not the experience of fussing with a camera.
There are big swaths of this trip largely undocumented. When we went snorkeling, I left the camera behind at the hotel. I didn't want to leave it on the beach or the car. Being in the ocean is such a novel experience for me, overwhelming and disconcerting, that a camera of any kind would only have been a burden. It would have separated me from my experience. The trip to Hana, on the nervewrackingly busy 1½ lane road, generated no photographs. I couldn't place myself in that environment in any way that I could connect with it. The landscape was too dense, my anxiety over the drive too high (my problem, not the driver's—Robin was better at it than I would have been), that there was no point to photography until I settled down. Over several drinks. For a couple of days.
There was one spot however, on the southern road between Hana and Kula, that completely captured me. The why of it is a mystery and need not be solved, but there was a particular grove of Kiawe trees on a hillside that made me say, “Stop. Now.” For the better part of an hour I just roamed this small spot, feeling more content and grounded than I had the previous seven days.
I believe that there are certain geographies that attract us, places that pull us toward them or, similarly, repel us away from them. There's a spot in Ireland, a certain grouping of rocks, that over the course of four trips to that area, showed up on my contact sheets every time. Completely without intention. That one spot had a powerful hold on me. It was in a landscape that regularly recurred in my dreams, long before I ever travelled to that region.
This spot, high above the Pacific and in the rain shadow of Haleakala, likewise drew me into its orbit. I complied, and paid attention with the camera. I really wanted to know this place, and the camera is the best way I know to do that. Then I sat in the grass and gazed around me. For a long time.