For serious photographers, starting a photography business is a great opportunity to get paid to do what you love. Maybe you’ve dabbled in photography as a hobby for years before accepting payment for a few gigs. Or maybe you’ve been doing freelance photoshoots for a while, and are looking to level up your photography business and make a career out of it.
Whatever the case, starting a photography business might sound a little daunting — but it’s actually simpler than you might think! With the right process, you can be up and running in no time.
Here’s what you need to know to start a photography business.
Before You Jump In
Okay, so you’re excited to set up your business and start booking gigs. That’s great! But there are a few things you should think about before you jump ahead to the actual business-building phase.
What’s Your “Why”?
Any business has to start with a “why.” Why do you want to start a photography business in the first place? What do you want to get out of the business in the long run? A flexible schedule (potentially leading to more free time and the ability to fit work around family time, other hobbies, or travel)? To earn a living on your own terms and be your own boss? To get paid for doing what you love instead of sitting at a desk bored out of your mind?
In other words, what positive difference will starting a photography business make in your life?
Having a strong reason like this gives your business purpose and will help you keep going on those inevitable days when you just don’t feel like working. Once you identify your reason for starting a business, you might even want to write it down and put it somewhere you’ll see it often.
Types of Photography Businesses
Next, it’s a good idea to decide what type of photography business you want to have. The great thing about starting your own business is that you get to decide what type of work you do — and what type of work you don’t do.
Here are just a few different types of photography businesses to consider:
- Wedding/event photography: When you think of photography businesses, this might be one of the first types that comes to mind. Many people hire professional photographers for weddings, parties, or other events.
- Product/marketing photography: Photographing products, people, etc. for advertising purposes. It’s not as simple as it might seem to photograph products so they sell, but it can also be a fun way to stretch your creativity.
- Real estate photography: Photographing houses or commercial real estate properties. While this type can be fun and rewarding, you may also go long stretches of time without any clients, and it can be especially hard to find well-paying work if you don’t live in a large city.
- Portrait photography: More than just taking photographs of people, portrait photography is about capturing the subject’s personality. This can be another great choice for stretching your creative muscles.
- Boudoir photography: A type of portrait photography with a romantic or sensual focus. You’ll need to establish particularly strong trust with your clients and help them feel safe, confident, and comfortable in a very personal setting.
While some niches will certainly pay more than others, avoid making the decision solely based on money. Instead, also consider which type(s) you genuinely enjoy and would want to do on a regular basis for a long period of time.
However, also keep in mind that choosing a niche or type of photography business doesn’t mean you’ll be locked into it forever. You can always rebrand and add or remove services down the road.
Finally, before you start a photography business, there are some potential challenges to keep in mind. There’s no need to let these discourage you, but if you can prepare for them upfront, you’ll be much better equipped to handle them when they arise.
- Upfront and ongoing costs for equipment, advertising, etc.
- Marketing and finding new clients
- Managing administrative tasks on your own
- Setting prices and handling finances, including self-employment taxes
Besides the above practical challenges, you will very likely face internal challenges like self-doubt, procrastination, and days when you want nothing more than to stay wrapped up like a burrito in bed. That’s why it’s so important to have your “why” hammered out ahead of time: because that’s what will help you push through the hard times.
What Do You Need?
Finally, before we get into the exact steps you’ll need to take, let’s look at some things you’ll need to have. Here’s a checklist of the basic things you’ll need to start your photography business:
- Quality camera (obviously!)
- Lighting, props, backdrops, tripod, etc.
- Computer and photo editing software
- Online portfolio
- Business pages/channels on social media
- Business bank account
- Any state- or city-required licensing/documentation
- Client contract
Keep in mind, though, that different types of businesses may need specialized equipment or have unique requirements. For example, for some types of photography, like portrait photography, you may need a studio space; meanwhile for other types, like real estate photography, you’ll need reliable transportation and the ability to shoot on-site.
How to Start a Photography Business
Starting a business takes time and attention to details, but it’s really not overly complicated, especially if you have a roadmap to follow. Here are the basic steps you’ll need to take to start a photography business:
- Make a plan
- Design your brand
- Make it legal
- Acquire equipment
- Lay finance groundwork
- Create a portfolio
- Start marketing
- Create a contract & onboarding process
- Organize projects
- Start shooting!
It’s worth noting that many of these steps can be done simultaneously. You’ll want to be careful not to get bogged down in the planning stages just because you’re trying to get everything perfected before you go out and start finding clients. Remember: your business will always be a work in progress.
Now, let’s look at each of these steps in more detail.
Make a plan
While starting a photography business doesn’t have to be overwhelming, it’s still a business and should be taken seriously. If you jump straight in expecting to wing it, you’re likely to skip something important or cost yourself extra time in the long run fixing things that you could have done more efficiently from the start.
You don’t have to know everything about how your business will operate from the get-go, but do take some time to give yourself a general course of action. Do you know what type of photography you plan to focus on (at least for now)? What will your upfront costs look like?
Pro tip: Read through the rest of the steps in this list, and make yourself a general outline of how — and when — you’ll tackle each of them. Breaking the big goal of starting your business down into manageable steps will make it a lot easier to accomplish.
Design your brand
Can you earn money from your photography without establishing a specific brand? Technically, yes. But it’s not advisable. Your brand — or lack thereof — directly affects how potential clients perceive you and your business.
Building a brand is about more than just choosing a name, colors, and a logo. A good brand is memorable and creates a positive first impression for you. And as you build your brand, you’ll also want to create places for it to live online: purchase a domain name for your portfolio website, set up business social media accounts, and so on.
But, again, remember not to get too bogged down selecting just the right colors or agonizing over your logo — your brand, like your business, is a constant work in progress.
Make it legal
While you don’t need a specific license to become a photographer, depending on where you live, you may need a license to operate as a business. Check with your state and city to determine if you need to apply for a business license.
You’ll also need to choose a structure for your business, which may require you to fill out additional paperwork. While also not required, it may be a good idea to register your business as an LLC. One of the benefits of doing so is that it creates clear boundaries between your personal and business finances and operations, affording you greater protection and privacy.
Chances are you already have a decent amount of photography equipment on hand, especially if you’ve already started charging for a few gigs here and there. But now is a good time to take stock of what you already have and decide what you’ll need to purchase.
If you’re working with a tight budget, think about which items will be the most useful upfront, and which you could do without for now. Then add a few new pieces of equipment every few weeks as you can afford them.
Lay financial groundwork
As a business owner, getting and keeping your finances in order is essential. There are several aspects of business finances to keep track of, so getting organized early on is a good idea.
Start by opening a business banking account to keep your personal and business funds separate, and research your federal and state income tax requirements so they don’t creep up on you when tax season comes around.
Finally, you’ll need to determine how you’ll price your photography services. If you’ve already been charging for a few small gigs, go ahead and re-evaluate those prices — no reason to undercharge just because your business is just starting out. If you’re not sure where to start, check out other photographers in your niche to gauge the going rate.
Create a portfolio
Your portfolio will help people decide whether to hire you or not, so don’t leave it for an afterthought. Choose some of your very best photos that reflect the niche you’ve chosen. Over time, as your craft improves, you can swap out the older ones for newer, better samples.
But just as important as the pieces you showcase in your portfolio is how you showcase them. Take the time to put together a professional-looking portfolio on a custom domain website. Check out some portfolio ideas here for inspiration!
Word-of-mouth advertising is great, but it’s not always reliable in order to attain consistent work. For sustainable, trackable growth, you’ll need to market your services via other channels as well.
Those channels include:
- Social media marketing through your business pages, groups, paid ads, etc.
- Email marketing by building a list of subscribers
- Advertising locally
- Content marketing through videos, blog posts, etc.
The type of marketing will be most effective for you may depend on your current skill set and on your niche. Whatever marketing avenue you choose, try to focus on just a few channels at a time, instead of spreading yourself thin trying to do everything at once.
Create a contract & onboarding process
Before you start working with clients, you always want to have a contract in place. This ensures clear communication of expectations and boundaries, and protects both you and the client.
It’s also important to establish a basic process for onboarding new clients, so you always know what to do first when someone books you for a new gig. While the experience with each individual client will likely be unique, having a basic process written down will help you operate more efficiently and professionally.
Congratulations, you’re in business! All that’s left to do now is book your first client, deliver quality photos, and send your first invoice to collect payment. If you’ve completed all the previous steps, you’ve got a solid foundation for a successful photography business.
But don’t forget to revisit your business’s organization, operating procedures, and branding on a regular basis and make adjustments as needed. The beauty of owning your own business is that you get to control how that business operates, and to change things that aren’t working as you see fit.
Build Your Photography Business as You Go
While a lot goes into setting up and running a photography business — or any business, for that matter — the key is to take it one step at a time and to remember that you don’t have to build it all at once.
Start with one small action, and then build on it. If you get stuck on one piece of the process, see if there’s a different step you can work on in the meantime. Keep your “why” in mind, and don’t let the nitty gritty details of brand-building distract you too much from the actual photography work you’re building the brand for. You’ll have your photography business up and running before you know it!