Starting a Photography Business
You’ve invested a lot of time and effort into growing your skills—you’ve taken the courses, attended the workshops, and most of all, you’ve done a lot of shooting. Editing at one time was a complex mystery, but not anymore.
Gear? You’ve dropped a bundle on it.
When you post your photos on Instagram and Facebook, you get all kinds of love. And you’re starting to get requests for portrait sessions…outside of friends and family.
Is it time to turn pro?
Your heart thumps in your chest every time you think about it. Is the timing right? Should you ditch your day job? You have so many questions that need answers!
Here’s what you need to know before you take the plunge into full-time or part-time professional photography.
“Should I Go Full-Time or Part-Time?”
It’s exciting to think about ditching the 9-5 for your own photography business.
But not so fast…the grass isn’t always greener running your own business.
You have to be an accountant, a marketer, deal with taxes and licenses, a webmaster, and your own customer service team to make it as a professional photographer. You’ll be driving to shoots and editing far into the night to deliver your photos to your client.
In fact, it’s almost a given you’ll put in more hours running your own photography business than you do at your current 9-5.
That’s why I encourage you to spend some time as a photographer’s assistant or second shooter before going out on your own. It will give you risk-free professional experience and help you decide if you want to start your own business or not.
Before you consider going full time, have at least six-month’s worth of expenses in the bank. It may take longer than you’d expect to get your business rolling, and/or have unexpected expenses you hadn’t counted on.
“What Kind of Photography Should I Specialize In?”
It’s not that you won’t have the technical ability to shoot everything under the sun. It’s more about what you enjoy shooting most.
For example, if you’ve put all. your eggs in the basket of being a wedding photographer because it pays well, yet you hate every minute—your 9-5 grind looks real good, real fast.
So specialize in something you enjoy or you’ll be miserable!
There are many possibilities to make money with your photography.
Here are a few specialities to consider:
- Corporate headshots
- Family photography
- Pet photography
- Newborn photography
- Maternity photography
- Boudoir photography
- Wedding photography
- Commercial photography, such as real estate/architecture, product photography, editorial photography, food photography
- Stock photography
- Professional retouching
Notice one speciality I left out: Landscape photography.
It’s difficult (although not impossible) to make a living as a landscape photographer. If you’re exceptionally good at it, you can sell art prints and hold workshops. But it can take years of dedication and exceptional work to become recognized enough to make money at landscape photography.
If you have your heart set on making money shooting landscapes, I’d add another revenue stream until you have built up a solid following. Selling stock photography is one option. Real estate photography is another option, as the skills you learn in landscape photography transfer easily to real estate. If you do drone photography in conjunction with real estate photography, it is a real money-maker in hot markets.
No matter what specialty you choose, have a back-up plan to generate income in the off months. Maybe that’s switching from weddings to portraits, or adding pet portraits to your portrait business. Perhaps you're selling stock photography or prints to supplement your income.
Just be sure to have a ‘Plan B’ before you run into a cash crunch.
“What Do I Need for Equipment?”
My short answer? Not as much as you might think.
You can get started with a decent camera, a portrait lens and a reflector, plus a computer to edit your photos, along with an external hard-drive to back up your photos.
Once you’ve put some money aside, then you can upgrade your equipment, purchase additional lenses and lighting gear, etc.
The fastest way to go broke is to buy gear that never gets used.
If you find you need specific equipment you don’t already own for a shoot, one of the best options is to rent it.
My choice for camera equipment rentals is Borrow Lenses. When you book your rental equipment through my link, https://davidmolnar.com/borrow-lenses, enter “15OR30” at checkout to save $30 or 15% on your next rental.
Also consider good used equipment as a cost-saving measure, especially for backup camera bodies and lenses. B&H has a great used section on their website that is reliable and guaranteed.
“How Should I Legally Structure My Business?”
While a sole proprietorship is fine to get started, speak with an accountant before you set up your business to save taxes. A bookkeeper can help you keep your accounts straight, but they won’t have the knowledge of tax laws like an accountant does.
An accountant will fill you in on the options to register your business, including setting it up as LLC. There are significant tax advantages to structuring your business certain ways, and a good accountant will steer you the right way.
Yes, accountants are expensive, but in my experience, they save you much more in taxes than what they charge. They can also help you register for taxes, and in your local state.
Note: Once you get advice, you can use a service to set up your business entity online. This can save you big bucks over having your accountant set it up for you.
“Do I Need a Business License?”
Licensing requirements vary from city-to-city, county-to-county, and state-to-state, so it’s best to check with your local authorities on what you need.
The U.S.Small Business Administration website has a great resource for determining which business license and permits you need, found here:
Here’s an overview of typical license requirements:
A General Business License: This allows you to operate your business in your local area (home-based businesses aren’t exempt.) A general business license helps protect local residents dealing with your business and also makes sure your city/state is getting a cut of your tax dollars. These licenses are renewable annually.
Sales Tax Registration: The best place to check on registration requirements is your state’s department of revenue online. Once you’ve registered, you can then apply for a tax permit, which allows you to collect and remit taxes from your clients.
Professional/Occupation Licenses: Certain professions require special permits to operate in their local states. Each state is different, so be sure to check into this before you open your doors.
Home Occupation Permit: If you’re planning on running a home-based studio, you may need a home occupation permit. This permit protects homeowners in your area from traffic, noise and environmental hazards produced by your business. You’ll have limits on how much of your home your business can occupy, the number of vehicles that can visit your home-based business, property modifications, etc. Home-based businesses have strict limitations as to signage, so check with your local city government on this matter.
Zoning Restrictions: If your business is in a ‘residential’ zone, then you may need a variance before you can open your doors. Another thing to consider is you may run into issues with your HOA (Home Owners’s Association) agreement by operating a business out of your home. Review your HOA agreement before getting started with a home-based business.
Here is a more in-depth look at home-based business licensing requirements from Wolters Kluwer: “Do I Need a Business License or Permit for My Home or Online Business?”
“Should I Rent Studio Space?”
If you can avoid renting a studio until your business gets some traction, I would.
It’s just one more expense you don’t need starting out. While being home-based is a good option for many, it’s not always practical to run your studio out of your home. But renting a studio may be cost-prohibitive when you’re just starting out.
A better, more cost-effective option when you need studio space is to join a photography/artist co-working space in your town. By sharing space with other photographers and creatives, you’ll pay far less per month than you’d pay for your own studio.
Co-working spaces are an ideal solution for new photography businesses. They often come with amenities like meeting rooms, shared equipment, client galleries, and a kitchen. A huge plus is that you also get to bounce ideas and projects off fellow artists and photographers. Collaboration makes the creative juices flow!
The big advantage of a co-working space over a dedicated studio is that you rent the only space you need, instead of leasing an entire building. Co-working spaces have options to rent space by the day, or several times per week or month—only when you need it. This is ideal when you’re just starting out and don’t need a full-time studio.
Another plus is that working out of a co-working space gives you a business address to meet with your clients. Meeting new clients in your home can be risky. They don’t know you, and you don’t know them. Having a neutral meeting ground helps put both of you at ease.
“Should I Make Clients Sign a Contract?”
You should never go into a shoot without a contract signed by your client.
A good contract spells out the expectations for you and your client, like dates deposits are due by, the number of proofs and the delivery date for the images, specifies the number of days either party has to correct errors, and contains the effective date of your contract (and for how many hours.)
You must also decide who has copyright over the final images, you or your client. If you’re signing over copyright to your client, you’ll need an additional form.
A photo/model release is also necessary if you’re planning to use your client images in your advertising.
If you have a second shooter who is a contractor, not an employee, have a written agreement in place with them spelling out your expectations.
There are several websites online that offer basic free photography contracts. I advise you to consult with an attorney before you use them. Free or cheap becomes expensive when you’re hit by a lawsuit.
“What Kind of Insurance Do I Need?”
You need two types of insurance: one that covers your equipment; and another that covers errors and omissions.
The first insurance is obvious. Your cameras, lenses, lighting gear and computers are significant investments. If anything happens (and it does!) you could be thousands of dollars out-of-pocket. So make sure you’ve protected your investment in your gear!
If you’re home-based, it’s possible that your home-owner’s insurance coverage will protect you in case of equipment loss. Call your insurance agent to inquire about this.
It’s a bit sad that we need the second insurance, errors and omissions. But it’s a necessity in the litigious society we live in. There are customers that are impossible to please, no matter how much you bend over backwards for them.
Dissatisfied customers can and will sue you, instead of working it out.
I’ve also heard stories of customers who received very few of the images they paid for, and the quality was terrible. It goes both ways.
In a nutshell, errors and omission insurance protects your company and its workers against claims of inadequate work and negligent actions. This policy covers court costs, and any settlements ordered against you, up to the amount specified on your policy.
“How Do I Market My Business?”
Marketing your business is your biggest factor for success or failure. An average photographer who is a savvy marketer has more success than a superior photographer who is a poor marketer.
Volunteer to Get Exposure
One way to get great exposure if your business is new and help your community is to volunteer with local charities. They’ll appreciate your work and spread the word. Your time may be a charitable contribution against your taxes (check with your accountant first.) Plus, if the charity uses your work in their brochures, you’ll get a photo credit. It’s free advertising for you.
Set Up Your Website
A website to showcase your work and deliver proofs and final images to your clients is a must. Choose the self-hosted route by purchasing a domain and hosting to set up your website, or go with an ‘all-in-one’ solution like Zenfolio, Pixpa or SmugMug.
The above providers not only give you a branded website, they also host your galleries, allow your clients to print their photos, and allow them to make payments through secure links. If there are technology issues, the provider has to deal with them instead of you. However, on the flip side, if you decide later to cancel your account, you have to deal with moving all your images off the site, and losing your website.
Start an Email List
Start an email list to capture your clients’ names and email addresses.
That way you can notify them about special events and offers you’re extending at later dates. In particular, family photo sessions can be repeat business for the years to come.
Kids grow up fast, and mom and dad want to capture those special memories as they grow and change before their eyes.
Besides your email list, consider starting a referral program for your clients that qualify them for discounts, extra images, etc. for sharing your name with a friend.
Developing a Social Media
Presence is a MUST!
It’s important to get your best images out in front of the public. And that means having a social media presence.
That doesn’t mean you need to have social media accounts on every single platform, but I would definitely build up a presence on Facebook and Instagram. People check out the work of photographers on those two platforms before they hire. Don’t go overboard posting, but do show off your best work!
Pinterest is another possibility to gain exposure, but you need your own blog for Pinterest to work for you. If you’re ambitious and love to write, I say go for it!
Watermark any images you post on social media; more for brand recognition than anything else. (If someone steals your images, there isn’t a lot you can do to prevent it.)
There is one last thing to consider before you turn pro. What will you charge for your photography sessions?
“How the Heck Do I Price My Images?”
Your pricing needs to take much more into account than just your time shooting and editing. If you don’t, you’ll lose money, and your business will fold.
Here are some factors to add in when determining your pricing:
- Cost of prints/albums
- Hard drives, cloud storage, website/gallery hosting, editing software
- Pre & post-production labor: setting up/tearing down equipment, travel (fuel, hotel stays, airfare), meetings
- Equipment: cameras, lenses, lighting setups, computer
- Studio space (if rented)
- Business insurance (for equipment, and errors & omissions)
Add up these costs and divide them by the number of projected jobs you’ll take over the next year. Then factor in this cost into your quotes.
Do some research and find out what the going rate in your area is for photography services. While you don’t have to compete on price, it will be difficult to charge higher rates when you’re just starting out. Once you’ve built your business, and have more demand for your services, then you can raise your rates.
I have an entire post about pricing your sessions – read it here.
Thanks for sticking with me through this long post!
If you have any advice for someone thinking about starting a photography business, I’d love if you’d leave a comment!
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