The number one question that successful photographers get asked is how to start a photography business. People see their work, travel, money, and lifestyle and want that for themselves.
Odds are that you’ve had a fair bit of experience and have been shooting for a while, and now you want to turn your passion for photography into a business.
Choosing to start a photography business and take it serious is a huge leap, primarily because most young photographers don’t know about or care about the business side of the business.
You want to focus on the gear and create amazing photographs, but unfortunately, neglecting business will mean death for your budding photography career.
In our 2016 guide, we’ll cover four of the most important aspects of getting started:
- Understanding the “Small Business Owner” Mindset
- The Cost to Start a Photography Business
- How to Start a Photography Business “Legally”
- The 3 Biggest Mistakes People Make When Starting Their Photography Business
The fact of the matter is that you need to focus on steps 1, 2, and 3 before you can worry about 4-500. Too many startup photographers start with social media because it’s easy and familiar, or worse, they dive into the market and just start shooting quickly making all sorts of pricing and positioning mistakes.
Let’s dive in…
A Quick Note About This Guide
This is a really long article and is separated into two parts:
- Tips and technical information about starting a photography business
- The six stages of starting and growing your photography business
If I had this guide when I started my business, I would’ve done two things with it:
- Read the entire thing through beginning to end
- Print it out and refer to it often (at least the second half with the six stages)
Understanding the “Small Business Owner” Mindset
99% of photographers never planned on having being a business owner. They maybe say themselves, at best, as a freelancer who got paid to do work.
Their confidence in their photography work is high, but they feel like they’re mediocre, at best, at business. If you’re like me, photography has always been an escape from academia. I’d rather express myself or tell a story with a camera than sit in a classroom.
Let’s face it, you don’t start a photography business because you want to own a business. You want to take pictures. Plain and simple.
Except when it’s not simple. At all.
There’s marketing, branding, pricing, packaging, confidence, and a ton of other tiny business aspects that soon become an equally important part of your business.
The Cost to Start a Photography Business
The cost varies greatly as a photographer whether you’re starting out or looking to grow your existing business into something larger. Here’s we’ll cover the minimal costs for a beginning photographer or you can check out the costs associated with growing your photography business and taking your business to the next level.
The Minimum Viable Business (MVB)
I like to call this the MVB because it’s the size and scale necessary to cover the costs of your gear and other expenses (listed below) all the way up to your spaghetti number (the amount of money you need to survive if you ate spaghetti every night).
If you’re looking to grow your MVB into something larger and really go full time with it, check out our 2016 Guide to Growing Your Photography Business.
Don’t Stress the Gear
Okay. It’s tough love time. Get ready.
The gear doesn’t matter. You want me to tell you what gear to buy because, deep down in your subconscious, you think that if you have the gear the best photographers use, you’ll be as successful as them.
But don’t feel bad. We do this in almost every area of our life. Bookshelves full of unread books, closets full of unworn clothes and cupboards full of cooking gear we’ll never use. We got it because we wanted a shortcut.
New photographers think gear is a shortcut. It’s not. It’s just not.
If you’re starting out, get a Nikon D5100 or a Canon Rebel T3i.
If you’ve been around for a bit and already have one of those cameras, get a Nikon D750 or a Canon 70D.
More tough love coming: There’s no difference between Nikon and Canon. I’m not going to debate it. If you need *me* to pick one for you, are you really sure you’re going to be able to run a business if you can’t even decide between cameras? I’m being a bit harsh, but I want you to see it for what it is. You know I love you.
I got my first Nikon because my buddy had an awesome lens that I wanted to borrow. You should do the same, especially if you’re starting out. Get the same camera brand they have and mooch as much as you can to learn how to use new gear. BUT be willing to do the same for them.
You won’t be more successful if you choose one over the other, so it doesn’t matter.
Lenses are the same. Here’s what to get:
- Beginner: 50mm f/1.8 for Canon or a 50mm f/1.8 for your Nikon
- Advanced: Grab the 50mm above plus a 35mm and 85mm (Canon) or get a 35mm and 85mm for your Nikon.
One final time, gear is an excuse not to focus on what really matters: running a business successfully and telling amazing stories with your work.
What about all of the gear you “need” other than what I listed above? Here’s a helpful consolidated shopping list for you.
Done. Let’s move on 🙂
Serious Business is Serious (Yay Legal Stuff!)
You’re reading this because you want to start a business and part of that means being an adult (not that you aren’t, but you’ll get what I mean in a second). Being a freelance photographer with a DSLR who does weddings for $250 is dangerous. Here’s why:
You’re shooting a wedding and take a flash photo that catches a waiter off guard. He trips and falls, spilling hot coffee on the groom’s mother, who is burned by the drink.
Who’s to blame? She sues both you and the venue, but since you don’t have a legal entity, insurance, or anything to fall back on, you can lose your home and everything you (and your family) owns.
This is business. This is serious business.
We’ll cover exactly how these work together in a moment, but for the sake of looking at the expenses related to starting a photography business, we’ll list them here:
- Incorporating your business
- Accounting Services
- Invoicing Service
- Photography Business Insurance
- Photography Contracts
- Legal Fees – I always advise having an attorney look over your incorporation, insurance and contracts. We live in an extremely litigious society and you need to protect yourself and your family. Additionally, you need to be able to enforce contracts with other vendors and clients.
The Tech Stuff
As I mentioned above under gear, tech stuff is often used as an excuse to procrastinate. Can you imagine if some of the greatest photographers in the world thought they couldn’t start their business until they got the latest imac or freaking lightroom?
I say that, starting out with your MVB, use whatever you have available. But as you start to grow, look into some better tech such as:
- 21″ iMac Computer
- 2 Backup Hard Drives
- Screen Calibrator
- Lightroom & Photoshop
Let’s talk briefly about websites. As a photographer, you’re in the client services business. This means that potential clients will judge your photography based on the quality of your website. If you’re doing SEO, content marketing and social media correctly, one of the first major touch points a potential client will have with you is your website.
In addition to having a beautiful site (Zenfolio or Smugmug are also options), it has to have great on-page SEO options so I tend to lean towards WordPress versus any other themes.
- Theme: Choose from one of the portfolio or Photography themes on Theme Forest
- Hosting: Bluehost if you’re at MVB and Siteground if you’re more advanced.
Business Education (This is the most important part)
I used to run a full time portrait/wedding studio and we joked that it was 90% business and 10% photography. It’s is accurate though. – Darlene (Digital Photo Mentor)
You’ve likely paid for a course on improving how you use your camera or how you use photo editing software. Your skills as a photographer are the most important part to getting started, but once you start a photography business, the game changes fast. If you want to keep getting paid what your worth for the skills you put so much of yourself into, you need to learn business.
If you’re at MVB, I’d highly recommend our free 7 day course that will change how you think about running a photography business. Start making your business work for you instead of the other way around.
If you’re more advanced, I’d recommend becoming a member of The Photo MBA. Taking amazing photos isn’t the reason that most photography businesses fail (or never get off the ground). It’s all of the other stuff like marketing, clients, and sales. Learn all of it from somebody who learned it in the trenches. (Coming Soon)
How to Start a Photography Business “Legally”
I have a secret to share.
There’s a part of “business” that even I, the “photography business guy” hate.
I’ll be honest with you. I love wheeling and dealing, hustling, writing, and even the idea of “How to Start a Photography Business” has me pumped up enough to write about 3,000 words on it.
I L-O-V-E the business side of photography business. But the legal stuff? Not so much.
No thank you, taxes.
No thank you, LLC or S-CORP.
No thank you, accounting.
Can’t I just spend my time making more money?
Unfortunately, even I have to be an adult and do the hard work that makes a business run successfully.
And despite what the internet wants us to believe, there’s more to starting a business than creating it’s Facebook page.
You Need Structure to Function
You need *a* structure, more specifically. Here’s 3 great options:
Sole Proprietor – This is the easiest but it also leaves you the most vulnerable. If for some reason you’re ever sued, they can go after all of your personal assets. Your home, vehicles, and even your collection of Cal Ripken Jr. baseball cards (no? That last one is just me, then.). If you care about yourself, your future, and want to be a professional, this isn’t right for you.
Limited Liability Corporation (LLC) – Ah, now we’re talking. An LLC separates your liability for business and personal holdings. There is some paperwork to file in your state, but if I remember correctly from when I started my LLC, you can do it online in most states. The name of your photography business LLC doesn’t matter at all, just don’t make it ridiculous in case it has to go on paperwork in the future.
S-Corp – As a single person photography business, there’s no reason to look into this costly and more complicated option right now. In the future, it may provide a better tax situation for you, but if you’re just looking to get started, don’t worry about it and just get an LLC.
Then, grab your EIN from the IRS website and you’ll be ready to roll.
The 3 Biggest Mistakes People Make When Starting Their Photography Business
There are always things you look back and wish you would have known when you started your photography business.
Here’s 3 of the most important:
Rookie Mistake #1: Failing to Set and Anchor Prices
In our guide to creating profitable photography packages, I covered how to anchor your prices. The anchor is the price point by which your future client will judge all of your other prices.
If you’re starting out and think you need to be cheap to compete because you’re “just getting started” you’re dead wrong. You might even end up positioning yourself as a price competitor within your local market and that’s a VERY dangerous place to be. If you think you need to be cheap, you’re dead wrong.
Set 3 price points and anchor yourself against the top package. If your top package is $1,500 and that makes you uncomfortable, great! Your potential client will purchase the middle package (most do) at a more moderate, but still profitable price. However, they see you as the $1,500 photographer and not the “$50 guy.” More on that guy is Mistake #3 below.
Rookie Mistake #2: Not Embracing Content Marketing
Let’s talk content. No, not photos. Writing.
I’m a photographer, Brendan. Why the heck do I need to write?
Honestly, because words tell stories in ways photographs don’t (the same is also true vice versa). But also because Google doesn’t have a way to search images yet. If people want to find a photographer that has shot at a venue they’ve booked for an event, they are going to Google “venue+photographer” and see what comes up.
Maybe some day Google will be able to recognize the location in the images and geo-target where they were taken or something, but until then, you need to make content around ALL of your work.
That’s the content, now the marketing.
Great content marketing means making compelling content and also getting it in the right hands.
“Hey [venue], I just did a shoot on location weekend and I wanted to share with you how it turned out. What I love about shooting at your location is…….. One of the biggest challenges was …… but I was able to overcome it by….. I’d love to give you guys the rights to share the photographs that are in my article about it, as well as ask the opportunity to shoot there again in the future.”
They’ll share what you’ve done with people booking their venue and “Viola!” you get new clients.
This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to my content marketing strategy for photographers. Be on the lookout for our full guide coming soon.
Rookie Mistake #3: Using the “Free Shoot” Incorrectly
Some “pros” (note the use of quotes) will tell you never to do a free shoot because people then expect it. That’s ignorant, incorrect, and shows they an amateur at business. They’re ‘transactors’ and only think about the money for service exchange.
If you really want to master this business, you have to think bigger.
What if I could do a free shoot that will get me more business later? Great! In fact, that’s the only reason you ever do a free shoot. If your family and friends respect you, they’ll pay for your photography. I’m great friends with the photographers that photography my family and friends and I always pay full price because I know what their skill is worth.
Whenever you’re considering a shoot for free, you need to make it very clear from the start what you charge and why you’re doing it for free. One of my favorite companies is Lamon Luther, who are very successful, but when they first started, I bet they were strapped for cash. Here’s how it would go:
“Hey Brian, here’s the deal. For what you’re looking for, I normally charge around $3,500. But I know you’re a growing company and you don’t have that kind of money for professional photography. So here’s what I want to do. I believe in your mission to help employ and empower men affected by homelessness and addiction. What you’re doing is going to make a significant impact and change lives and I’d be proud to have my work be a part of that story.”
After the shoot, you can even provide an invoice or document with your stated fee and the discount you provided. This, again, helps to anchor you to your professional price.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t add (and this advice might save you years of work and make you thousands of dollars):
The client who hires the $50 photographer never comes the client that hires the $5,000 photographer. AND even if they do become that type of client, they certainly won’t be looking to hire you, the $50 guy.
The Six Stages of Starting and Growing Your Photography Business
When I was 22, I was invited by a friend’s family to visit Mackinac Island.
A small, isolated, island-town in northern Michigan, Mackinac didn’t offer much in the way of entertainment and it was there that I read through the entirety of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.
If you’ve never read his work, Gladwell studies top performers and discovers trends that are true across the various groups he studies.
One of his most notable points is called the “ten-thousand (10,000) hour rule.”
No matter what, Gladwell states, you need to put in at least 10,000 hours before you can achieve mastery in anything and the sooner you can reach that number, the better.
No matter what, building this business is going to take time.
Whether you’re a hobbyist just starting out looking to get that lucrative first paying client, or you’re a budding entrepreneur that employs multiple photographers… then you will relate to the stories below.
However, the most important thing you’ll find below is a roadmap to follow along. No matter where you are on it, you can see the next step ahead.
The Photography Business Roadmap
The number one question that I get from photographers is:
What do I do next?
All anybody ever wants or needs to know is what they should do next when they start their photography business.
The roadmap that follows lays out everything you need to know to grow and take your business from one level to the next; all the way from starting your photography business to a thriving self-sustaining business entity.
The best way to use this article is to scroll through, find what stage you’re at and learn about what you need RIGHT NOW to figure out the challenges that you’re facing.
Despite that, I sincerely encourage you to read through the entire article and see what you may have missed in a previous stage, as well as what challenges and decisions you have coming your way in the future.
Finally, bookmark this page (or print it out) so you can come back and refer to it on a regular basis.
Whenever you feel like your business is failing or your drowning, just come back to this guide and follow the success factors to continue growing your photography business to the next level.
Stage 1: Just Starting Out
Stage 2: Photography Side Hustle
Stage 3: Start a Photo Business
Stage 4: Committed to the Success of Your Business
Stage 5: Lead Your Team
Stage 6: Scale Your Photography Business and Become and Entrepreneur
What is ONE THING nobody told you that you wish you knew when you decided to start a photography business? Post a comment below!
This article was last updated September 10, 2018.