Starting your own photography business is a great way to add a second income or a main income, if you work hard. While the photography market is competitive, many photography business owners have been able to find their niche and build a sustainable career. Like most creative endeavors, you need to balance your passion for photography with real business skills in order to be successful.
To build and grow your business, you need both raw talent and a knack for marketing. One photographer we spoke with said an ability “to market yourself” was one of the most important factors in success. You should continually be working to improve your craft and evolving your product, and work consistently on your own branding, online marketing and people skills. Without the two, the results will likely just be an expensive hobby rather than a viable full-time business.
Quality photography equipment is notoriously expensive, so you’ll want to start off with the minimum: Buying a $5,000 lens doesn’t make sense if your business isn’t making money yet. Many professional photographers say to plan on budgeting about $10,000 to start your photography business.
According to professional photographer Austen Diamond, “building slow and smart” will help you stay nimble. Allow the organic growth of your business to fund gear improvements, and avoid debt if possible, he said.
Based on interviews with professional photographers, here is a basic budget for starting your business, not including studio or office space. All prices are yearly estimates or one-time purchases.
- Two cameras: $1,500 to $2,000 each
- Multiple lenses: $1,000+ each
- Two flashes: $700
- Multiple memory cards: $50+ each
- Two external drives: $120 each (keep one backup off-site)
- Computer or laptop with sufficient memory: $2,000
- Website (Wix, PhotoShelter, SmugMug and/or Squarespace): $60+
- Lightroom and Photoshop subscription: $120 per year
- Business licenses: $150 (varies)
- Insurance: $600 per year (varies)
- Accounting: $300+ per year (varies)
- Contracts: Free to $1,000+ (varies)
- Online proof gallery, such as ShootProof: $120 per year
- Business cards: $20+
- Business training, such as Lynda.com classes
- Photography workshops and classes
- Stylish camera bags and straps
- Second computer
- Printed marketing materials
- Studio and office space
Other things you’ll need to do (that may be free or low-cost):
- Market your business via social media (Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, to start)
- Create your business name and logo
- Research the best business structure (LLC, S corporation or other)
- Acquire sales tax permit and employer identification number (EIN)
- Obtain image licensing and usage contracts; Creative Commons offers free services
- Set up business bank accounts
- Find a way to manage client contact information and emails (see BND’s list of the best CRM software)
- Choose a spreadsheets and scheduling solution (Google Docs is free)
- Find an expense tracker (mileage, expenses, billable time), such as Expensify or BizXpenseTracker
- Research credit card payment processing, such as Square or PayPal
- Establish a referral program
Your Branding and Reputation
Our expert sources offered the following advice for building your personal brand and reputation as a professional photographer.
Your Person and Gear: If you work with people, you are your brand. Even the little things affect your reputation, and most of your business will come by word-of-mouth referrals. When you go to a shoot, dress appropriately. Iron your shirt. Wash your car. Be organized. Bring your own water and snacks. Charge your electronics. Thank-you and referral gifts should be classy. Being ready shows respect and professionalism.
Being Timely: Always arrive to the shoot early, and don’t fail to deliver your product when promised. Print out directions so you don’t get lost. Ensure that your clients understand your production schedule and how long it will be for them to receive their proofs and final product, and stick to your agreements. Answer phone calls and emails in a timely manner.
Online: Anonymity is nearly impossible these days. Many potential clients will be searching for you and your work online. The images you post online should not only be high-quality but also the kind of images you want to be taking to attract the kind of work you want to be doing. Avoid contentious social media posts, and keep your language positive. Keep your LinkedIn profile and contact information on all sites up-to-date.
Many photographers have difficulties with setting their price and determining their value. Certainly, you should never price work to result in lost money or less than minimum wage, but many do. You can research your area to see what your competitors charge, but ultimately, you’ll need to charge what you are worth.
Generally, you’ll want to estimate 3 hours of editing time for every hour of shooting. Some photographers use a gauge of roughly $50 per hour to cover standard costs. Be sure to factor in travel and preparation time. Consider your ongoing costs, such as insurance, gear, accounting services and your website.
Once you start adding up the numbers, you can see why undercutting your competitors may not always be the best strategy and may result in you losing money on a gig. If you cannot seem to make the numbers match, you’ll either have to consider whether you are OK with having an expensive hobby or if you need to branch out into a different, more profitable market.
You should also always require an upfront deposit for high-priced gigs. To avoid credit card stop payments, you should require cash, cashier’s check or bank transfer for paying the deposit.
Customer Expectations and Contracts
Managing your clients’ expectations is important to your success. Your clients should know exactly what to expect of you and also what is expected of them. For weddings, timelines and group pictures should be organized in advance. For infant photos, your customers should know what clothes and accessories to bring. If you are taking corporate headshot images, people should know how to dress.
For contracts, your clients should know how much is due in advance and how to pay it. You should set terms on how far in advance you need them to commit so you can schedule. Contracts should be explained carefully, and if applicable, your customers should know how they are allowed to use the images — and that should be in writing as well. While not everyone is comfortable with legalese, your professionalism will help make this necessary part of your business agreement go as smoothly as possible. You can find free contracts online, such as model release, photo licensing, wedding agreements and other common photography contracts, on sites like Less Accounting.
Finding your niche market not only allows you to focus on a specific skill set but also offers the opportunity to find networking prospects in a specific genre. Wedding and infant photographers are abundant. You can still book these types of gigs, but if you can offer something that others do not, you may find more work.
The product you offer may cover a specific genre, such as sports, or even a style or mood, such as humorous photos. Or perhaps you are also a writer and can create beautiful picture books with family stories. Maybe you work in the medical industry and have the knowledge to create quality educational medical photography.
Where to find Work
A note about wedding photography
With weddings, you get only one chance to do it right. If you have issues with your camera or memory card and don’t have the proper backup gear, you may miss the whole thing and damage your reputation quickly. If you are not prepared for lighting challenges or the chaos of working with emotional, opinionated family members, you will not produce your best work. Although weddings are usually profitable gigs, many experienced wedding photographers recommend that you start as a second shooter with an established wedding photographer before going solo. Many part-time or freelance photographers are trying to get in the wedding game, but there are other ways to make money while you work on your skills and purchasing the proper gear.
It’s also important to note that the wedding market is seasonal, and business will likely fluctuate in the fall and winter. If you’re getting into this market, be sure to plan ahead and save for the off-season.
Other Photography Markets
Not interested in competing in the oversaturated wedding or baby market? Here are some other avenues you can explore:
Stock photography: You can start your own stock-photo website or sign up as a contributor to popular sites such as Shutterstock or iStock. Pay may be low, but licensing is managed for you, and you can sell in volume.
Contract Work: Some photographers have obtained contracts that pay a set monthly amount to cover local events or to be on call. For example, perhaps your local tourism or business development department may pay you monthly to cover local events.
Commercial Photography: All businesses need web images these days. You may be able to find work capturing images of their products or services, facilities, and even headshots of their board members and management team.
Real Estate: Oftentimes, real estate agents will contract with photographers to capture professional images of homes, business properties and land. They may also want you to capture 360-degree or interactive video footage.
Pets: People certainly love their pets, and some pet owners want professional images of their furry companions, either as portrait-style images or on location with natural movement and action.
Boudoir or Glamour: Many people like sensual pics of themselves or images taken of them with their hair and makeup professionally done. These can be done in a studio with other professional artists if you cannot do hair and makeup yourself.
Sports: A wide variety of sports organizations want professional images and video. You may even be able to obtain contract work to cover a full season or a specific event, such as a local marathon, rodeo or bike race. Keep in mind that lenses for capturing sports moments can be costly.
Local News: Local print, TV and online news sources may pay you for images of local events, weather disasters or crime scenes. It would require you to go out and cover events upfront on your dime, but it could pay off later.
Image or Video Editing: A busy local photographer may need assistance with his or her workload. The pay may not be ideal, but it is a good opportunity to work on your editing skills.
Product Images: Many local artisans and retail businesses sell products online and need good product images for their own websites or shopping sites, such as Etsy or Amazon. The pay per image would be low, but the work is relatively easy.
Food Images: Like every other business, restaurants need to have an online presence. You may find ample work in helping restaurants create online menus and promotional images.
Music: Working bands need promotional images for their websites, CDs and media packages. Some also desire video of their live performances.
Paparazzi: To some people, “paparazzi” may seem like a dirty word, but someone has to snap pics of the Kardashians in their less-than-flattering casual moments. If you live in a city such as Los Angeles, New York or Las Vegas, you may be able to make money from selling your celebrity photographs.
Prints: Some photographers have found success selling their prints. It’s a tough way to make money but worth exploring if it fits your genre. Prints can be sold online and in galleries.
Contests: If entering a photo contest is easy and doesn’t cost you anything, it may be worth trying to garner a little extra income.
There is a lot to know about becoming an exceptional photographer and making money doing it. With skill, careful marketing and a professional reputation, you have a good chance of creating a lucrative photography career.