As professional photographers, few of us are looking to add to our overhead, but while it may be tempting to skip out on seemingly non-essential business expenses, it’s not a good idea. One thing you definitely don’t want to skimp on is insurance. Most photographers know they need to insure their equipment; after all, these are the tools that allow them to do their jobs. But other coverage is actually more important—things that could cripple you or your business for the long term are actually way more important than even the most expensive camera kit. Many types of coverage will fall under a general business insurance policy, but you should speak with your commercial insurance agent in order to determine the exact coverage you need. And don't forget about the most important thing to insure—yourself. If you’re out of commission how will you support yourself and your business? Here's a breakdown of how to properly insure your equipment, your business and yourself.
You may think your homeowner’s policy covers your camera equipment, but not once you’re in business as a photographer. And maybe you think it’s covered under your studio’s property insurance. That’s true—until you take your gear on location. For that you’ll need an Inland Marine policy, or a standalone endorsement on your business policy. If you’re a member of an organization such as the Professional Photographers of America, look into their insurance programs for discounted coverage that’s specifically for photographers.
For longtime professionals, special equipment coverage is a no-brainer; it’s just part of the cost of doing business. But for brand new photographers trying to get a business off the ground, for whom every extra nickel matters, equipment insurance is all too easily overlooked. Unfortunately it’s not a matter of “if” something bad will happen to a photographer’s equipment, it’s only a matter of “when.” Take, for instance, the story of Travis Carroll, a young photographer who learned about equipment insurance the hard way.
"I had 99% of my photo gear stolen from my vehicle,” Carroll says. “It happened right outside my studio on a Monday morning around 9:00. I had zero insurance and had to replace everything on my own. It was a disaster and I had a shoot two days later. Thankfully I had some really great friends and a really great local photo community who loaned me more than enough gear within a few hours that I was able to complete my shoot with zero issues. About a week later I had purchased all new gear and didn’t go a single day without working. Insurance is very, very important. I lost something like $25,000 of gear that I purchased over three or four years. Having to replace it all within a week hurt. If I had insurance I would have been $500 or $1000 in the hole instead of $15,000. Needless to say, my insurance policy now is one of the better ones out there."
"Camera insurance is camera insurance,” says commercial photographer and Sony Artisan Michael Rubenstein. "Forget cameras getting stolen. Professionals have business insurance. What if you’re on set and you get hurt? What if you hurt somebody else? You have to have those kinds of insurance that any company has to have. Just to do business as a commercial photographer, to shoot advertising, I have to provide certificates of insurance to my clients to show that I am covered in case something like this happens. You can’t even walk through the door without that. They regularly want $5 million of liability coverage.”
General Liability Insurance - If, in the course of business you cause property damage or bodily injury—someone trips over a cable, for instance, or you put a C-stand through a plate glass window—you’re going to want a general liability policy to take care of those expenses. On occasion clients want proof of this insurance before doing business with you, in which case you simply provide them the certificate of insurance that shows your coverage. And in rarer instances, clients may ask to be designated as “additional insured” on your policy before allowing you to work on their premises. Defer to your insurance agent, but adding a client as an additional insured is not unheard of and should cost little, if anything to accomplish.
Professional Liability Insurance - This type of coverage protects you from having to pay out of pocket for failed photo shoots. Shot a wedding and the bride claims the whole $50,000 event was just for the photos? Better make sure you have professional liability insurance if she takes you to court. This coverage essentially protects you from having to pay for mistakes, big or small scale, that occur in the course of doing business. This type of insurance is sometimes referred to as “errors and omissions” coverage, because it’s to protect you from a small error literally costing you a huge sum of money.
Property Insurance - Whether you own your building or are renting a studio, sharing an office or doing business out of your home, some form of property insurance must be included. This coverage protects your premises and the stuff inside it from damage due to events such as storm, fire or theft. It’s pretty standard for individuals as well as businesses. Be aware, though, that if you work from home, your homeowners policy may not cover your business equipment. For that you’ll want in-home business insurance. More on that below.
Umbrella Insurance - A commercial umbrella policy provides additional insurance above and beyond the basic coverage in your business liability and property policies. Wherever the limits are in your current coverage—in terms of dollar amounts and specific coverage—an umbrella policy can broaden the scope of coverage for increased protection for your business. These policies can be tailored in a wide variety of ways to fit your exact needs. In short, an umbrella policy really does act like a policy that covers all your other policies—like an umbrella.
Business Interruption Insurance - If your studio is flattened by a tornado, property insurance will cover the damage to the building and its contents. But what about the fact that your photography business is now on hold for several months? Business interruption coverage will protect your income should a catastrophic event interrupt your ability to do business for an extended period of time.
In-Home Business Insurance - If you use your home as an office and generally shoot on location you might think you’re free from needing special insurance, but in fact an in-home business policy, a business owners policy or at the very least an endorsement on your homeowners policy will cover you in the same ways traditional property insurance and liability insurance might protect someone working from a traditional office.
Business Auto Insurance - Your personal vehicle policy covers your car in the normal course of business, so you probably don’t need anything extra here. The general business use of your vehicle, in most cases, is fine. If you’d like to go the extra mile you can get coverage for “non-owned” and “hired” vehicles to protect your business from liability if an assistant causes an accident, for instance, or if you rent a vehicle—say, a grip truck for instance—in the course of normal operations.
Workers Compensation Insurance - If you have any employees, most states (not all) require that you also have workers compensation insurance. This way if someone is injured while working for you, their medical expenses and loss of income will be covered by the policy. In exchange, they won’t sue you, their employer, for negligence. If you have interns or freelance assistants, you are most likely not required to cover them with workers comp. But if you hope to pass off an intern or assistant as a student or an independent contractor when in reality they’re more like an employee, you may learn the hard way that you should have had workers compensation insurance. Bottom line: if people will be working for you, get workers comp.
Supplemental Income and Disability Insurance
You may not think of your health as something especially pertinent to your business operations, but Mr/Ms Self Employed Photographer: if you can’t work, your business doesn’t work either. You hopefully have health insurance by now, but you’ll also want to think of how medical issues would impact your business too. What happens if you’re seriously injured and you can’t work for six months, a few years or never again? That’s when supplemental income (have you ever heard of Aflac?) and long-term disability insurance become essential.
Sony Artisan Michael Rubenstein was unfortunate to learn about the necessity of supplemental income and disability insurance the hard way. When asked if he had any thoughts on the relatively humdrum topic of insurance, he was surprisingly passionate.
“I’m always into talking about insurance,” he said. “It’s so not dry. It’s really intense. I was in a really bad motorcycle accident five years ago and I was not properly insured. So I know all about insurance at this point. I had health insurance; that was fine. But as an independent business, as a photographer you’re likely a freelancer. So if you don’t work you don’t get paid. And I was out of work for two years. So I didn’t get paid.”
Rubenstein says he had a minimum of disability insurance but it wasn’t enough.
“I had a weak disability policy,” he says, “it paid about $1000 a month. I live in New York City where $1000 a month doesn't get you very far. If I had Aflac then I would have been able to say, ‘Here are my taxes from the year before,’ and they would’ve paid me more in line with that. It’s basically insurance for if you get into an accident, you hurt yourself, etcetera. I also should have had a long-term disability insurance, which is something you get through your insurance agent in case you have a career ending injury.”
"I was lucky that I had some money in the bank,” Rubenstein adds, "because I had done pretty well in the years previous to that. But all of that money is gone. All of my savings is gone, and I’m carrying a fair amount of debt because of my medical expenses and from being out of work for a few years and not earning a dime."
"You never know what’s going to happen," he continues. "It doesn’t have to be your fault. You can be as careful a person as anyone and you can still find yourself in a really bad situation. Yes, you need to protect your camera. The top of the line professional Sony α9 is $4,500. Top of the line G Master lenses go for about $1500 to $2600. You can go to the store and buy replacement gear and work with a few thousand dollars on a credit card if you have to, or you can rent them for a few hundred dollars a day. It’s not going to stop you from being in business. But if you're hurt, that’s it. There’s nothing you can do. You can't rent another you.”
About the author:
William Sawalich made his first darkroom print at age ten. He earned a Master's Degree from The Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California. Along with portraiture, still life and assignment photography, Sawalich is an avid writer. He has written hundreds of equipment reviews, how-to articles and profiles of world-class photographers. He heads up the photo department at Barlow Productions in St. Louis.