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How to Start a Photography Business: Your In-Depth Guide

20-minute read

You can use these tips to start a successful photography business, just like this wedding photographer.
Mariah Bliss

Mariah Bliss

16 May 2019

There’s no denying that you’ve always had a knack for taking beautiful photographs. From landscapes to portfolios, your unique talent and eye for details make your photographs stand out from the crowd.

One photographer we interviewed, Ryan Mason, said it well: You're like a painter. But instead of acrylics, you paint with light. In fact, your photographs are so good that you’ve had friends and family tell you that you should start your own photography business.

So...should you? You may not know how to start a photography business. Do you need any special qualifications? And how much money do you need to get the business up and running?

We’ll answer those questions, and more, right now.

11 Steps on How to Start a Photography Business

1. Decide on your photography business name and niche.

Where do you go when you need to buy something specific? Odds are, you go to a brand or store and you recall the name. Your photography business will be no different when it comes to potential customers, and so you want to make sure that you come up with a clever and memorable business name.

Picking out your business name sets the tone for how you should market your business. Plus, if your business name doesn’t resonate with your customers, you may end up making it difficult to get customers.

We'll come back to it later in the guide, but setting yourself up with good, optimized content so customers can find you when they need you is important--stay tuned for more on search engine optimization (SEO).

Choosing the right name for your photography business involves a lot of different factors, including understanding what your competitors are doing, feedback you get from those important to you, and more.

One of the most important factors that may contribute to your business name is your niche.

Choosing a niche can help catch the eyes of customers who are looking for a photographer who specializes in one area. For example, if you decide that you want to specialize in wedding photography, then you could include the word "Wedding" in your business name (e.g. "Wedding Shots by Stephanie").

Sure, you're just starting out now, but if you already know that you want to specifically focus on one type of target customer (like couples getting married, new moms, sports team photos, etc.) then you have the option of incorporating that into your photography business's name (e.g. "New Moms with Maria").

Once you’ve chosen your business name, you’ll need to determine what you want your business structure to be. Next, we'll go over what legal and tax details you may want to get in order. Before we do, ask yourself the following to prepare:

  • Are you starting a full-time business, or are you doing this as a side business or money-making hobby?
  • Do you want to be personally liable for any business debts, or do you want to protect your personal assets?
  • Are you starting this business by yourself, or working with someone else?

Don’t worry if you’re not sure of the answers to all of these questions. When thinking of how to start a photography business, the main goal here is to figure out how much time you’re going to devote to your photography business and how much you want to protect your personal assets.

I know this isn't the most fun, but thinking about your business's structure and how you'll manage the company from a financial standpoint is important. The time you spend on these things now could have a big impact on the success of your business later, so it's best to take your time and get it done now.

Let's talk about taxes. If you’re starting a business with someone else, that could affect the type of tax structure you should choose. It isn't a bad thing, it'll just be something to keep in mind and take note of.

In general, you’ll be asked to structure your business as one of the following:

  • Sole Proprietorship: This is an unincorporated business structure with one person running the company.You will file your company's taxes under your individual name.
  • General Partnership: This is an unincorporated business structure with two or more people running the company together.
  • Corporation: A corporation is an incorporated business structure that limits a business owner’s personal liability, as the corporation is its own legal entity.
  • Limited Liability Company (LLC): A limited liability company (LLC) combines the benefits of a corporation with those of an unincorporated business. In other words, business owners have limited liability for debts and aren’t required to pay separate corporation taxes.

We're insurance people, not tax experts, so we can't tell you which type of structure to go with when you're thinking of how to start a photography business.

Check out this handy article from the IRS — it can help streamline your decision process. You can also consult a tax expert, accountant, or lawyer with more questions.

Once you've decided on your business's structure and how you plan to file your taxes, it's a good idea to choose a software for taxes.

"Why don't I just wait until tax season to choose one?" you may be thinking. Running a business means keeping a lot of plates spinning. Getting things in order ahead of time now can save you time and stress down the road. Looking into the best tax software for your small business now will also give you time to test and trial any features you think you may need.

The Small Business Association (SBA) is a great resource for any small business owner. It has a helpful learning center, information to guide you through funding, and more. If you're unsure what route to go with taxes and business structure, the SBA is a great place to start.

The SBA has local centers in regions all across the United States. Head to their site to get assistance in your local area.

3. Invest in photography equipment.

It should go without saying, but to start a photography business, you're going to need equipment. The type of equipment you may need is going to depend on the types of photography you plan to shoot and what your clients will request. Just like you want to understand your target niche, know your overall goals.

For example, if you know you're going to do portrait photography, you're going to need a different setup than if you decide to do landscape photography, sports photography, or wedding photography.

For wedding photography, for example, you're going to need equipment that can help you shoot quickly and remain agile, so you'll need equipment that will support you.

There’s no one right answer for the exact photography equipment you’ll need before you consider yourself “a business”; in fact, a lot of photographers say that all you need to start your biz is a good eye for photography and a camera.

Depending on what you specialize in, different photographers will recommend different photography gear. For example, if you plan to establish your own studio, you may need specific gear that differs from the gear you'd need to use as a sports or wedding photographer.

Check out our next section, which has more detail on which equipment you should have, as well as how much you can expect to spend.

Your Camera

Some think that the challenge of how to start a photography business is easily solved by owning a smartphone.

But taking photos on your smartphone isn't the best option when you're starting out your photography business. Sure, you already may have a smartphone, but the quality of the images will be stronger with a separate camera.

Besides, if your customers wanted an image from a smartphone, they would probably just ask a close friend to shoot their photos.

Digital single light reflex cameras, also known as DSLRs, come in a variety of price ranges. You'll find that the price typically ranges depending on the camera's type of sensor that helps to filter out the light from the lens while shooting.

Mirrored cameras are considered the cousin of the DSLR and while they won't give you the same quality image, they can sometimes be less expensive and on the lighter side--great if you're a wedding photographer or travel photographer.

Lights

If you do decide to go the studio route, then there's a list of equipment that you'd be smart to get, such as background stands, paper rolls, and cloths. But since your studio is inside and you won't have the advantage of natural lighting, what you should focus on is your lights

When starting out, you may choose to only get a couple smaller soft box lights, but I'll admit--even those are pricey. If you find yourself having sticker shock, then it may be best to hold off for now or look into applying for a small business loan to help with the costs.

If you're working outside, also look into getting a sunblock and reflector.

There is also the option of renting equipment if you don't have a place nearby to rent from. There are also companies like this one who will ship the equipment you're renting to you.

Lenses

What good is a camera without a quality lens? If you're just starting out, you don't necessarily need multiple lenses, especially if you're on a budget (and most of us are when starting out).

Depending on what you decide to focus your photography business on, you have a few options in terms of which type of lens to to: prime, macro, or zoom.

Prime lenses are great choices if you decide to be a portrait photographer, for example, while macros lenses are helpful if you decide to do commercial photography and focus on products close up, like jewelry pieces.

Tripod

If you've ever seen another photographer at work before, then odds are you've seen them using a tripod for their work. Tripods may seem like a pricey investment, but are worth every penny for the stability of shot they can give you.

If you don't already have one, see if you can get a tripod that easily anchors to the ground and won't vibrate in less-than-ideal weather.

Laptop and Photo Editing Software

After you shoot, you'll need to process the work you've done so you can get it to your client. Having a reliable computer or laptop is a must--a laptop may be a better option since you can travel to photoshoots with it, if need-be.

But the big decision to be made here is the editing software you choose. There are many types of photography softwares available out there. Similar to how your other gear needs will depend on the type of photography you decide to specialize in, so do your software needs.

You have the option to use one software and then change or upgrade, but some software packages can be expensive, while others, like the Adobe Creative Cloud give creators the option of different price intervals per software.

If you do choose to go with a basic editing software, try to choose one that will allow you to upgrade to add further capabilities down the road.

One main part of choosing your editing software is making sure that the software allows you to use different file types. Some softwares use their own file types, but depending on your preference and client, you could choose to work with RAW, JPEG, or TIFFS.

Whatever gear you decide you need when you're thinking of how to start a photography business, remember that you don't need all the fancy items to create quality work. Think of how far technology has come in the past decade--yet 10 years ago, people still were creating impressive photography.

Be true to your budget now--your future self will thank you (and so will your business's books!) down the road.

4. Get photography business insurance.

You're just starting out, so you may be asking yourself why photography business insurance is something you should even be thinking about right now.

Shouldn't you wait until you at least have business consistently on the books to get business insurance coverage?

You may want to reconsider. Think of it this way: if you're cut and bleeding, the best time to buy a first aid kit isn't when you're sitting there holding your wound. Instead, the good time to get a first aid kit is before any accidents happen at all.

Business insurance is the same way!

When it comes to insurance, most people are familiar with things like auto insurance, health insurance, or homeowners insurance.

Business insurance coverage, though, is its own type of protection. It's an investment you can make in your business to protect all your hard work.

Having a policy for your photography business means that you're protected against risks and accidents. You may think that being a photographer doesn't come with much risk, but you don't need several claims to have an impact on your finances.

Did you know the most common insurance claims for burglary and theft, is $8,000? That kind of money could easily sink your business before you even get started.

But even beyond a situation like theft, there are plenty of other things that could happen, no matter how careful you are.

Say you're shooting a family portrait series and you get the location okayed by the family--it's a beautiful setting. The day of the shoot, one of the children trips over a piece of your equipment, hurting themself--they have to go to the emergency room. Not only is the shoot ruined, but now the family has a costly medical bill.

Having general liability insurance coverage could help to cover the child's medical bills, since this type of policy helps to cover accident, third-party injury, or property damage. Not only would the family be slightly relieved, but they may feel better knowing that you were insured and feel comfortable rescheduling the shoot.

Or say you got hired to shoot a wedding and unfortunately while you were on the grounds of the wedding venue, one of your reflectors was stolen. You had no choice but to continue shooting the shots as planned, but without all your desired equipment.

Later on, once you've sent the edited images to the newlyweds, they are furious. Their photos don't look anything like the quality they say you promised them and these are moments they can never get back.

They decide to sue you, even though you try to explain that one of your tools was stolen.

In this case, errors and omissions insurance, also known as professional liability insurance can help you with your claim and any legal fees that you may incur because of it. Think of what else you could use that money for, if not towards legal matters.

At this point, you may not even know what type of gear you need yet, so it's hard to imagine these types of things happening. But it's more common than you'd expect--over 100 million civil suits are filed each year.

Getting business insurance coverage is one thing you can do to make sure your new photography business doesn't become part of that statistic.

Just like your gear, we know that you may want to weigh your options when it comes to the insurance policies available to you. Every business is different, and so every policy is, too. Use our free tool to compare quotes and find what business insurance coverage will work for you.

Get Insured in Under 10 Minutes

Get an affordable & customized policy in just minutes. So you can get back to what matters: Your business.

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5. Get your photography business licensed.

Once you've looked into getting business insurance for your photography business, you'll want to look into getting your business license. They're two different things.

Depending on where you live, the rules for getting a business license in your state will differ. In some states, you'll be required to license your photography business at the state level. In other states, though, you'll only be required to get a license by your local municipality.

Similar to having business insurance coverage, having a business license. By applying for your photography business license, can:

  • Help you build trust with potential customers and vendors
  • Fulfill requirements set by venues or vendors
  • Help you get a loan, grant, or other financial assistance
  • And more!

Once you've applied for and received your business license, you can display it on your website (or brick and mortar location if you have one).

6. How to get your first clients for your photography business.

So now that you've invested time and money into researching and getting your gear, insurance, and license for your photography business, you'll need clients to help make good on the investment. Here are a few ways to approach getting clients:

Word of Mouth Marketing

According to Lindsay Connors, the photographer in the interview at the video further down, one of the best ways to get customers is by talking to everyone you know. And she isn't the only small business owner that thinks so. Word of mouth marketing is a popular marketing method used by small business owners.

Through word of mouth marketing, you can get a good feel for what your potential customers are looking for and how you may be able to provide them with the style of images they want. Any time you can get one-on-one time with your target audience to figure out what they want should be treated like gold.

These moments occur a lot when you're starting out and are often overlooked--so take advantage of asking questions and also asking for referrals.

Your Photography Website

Beyond word of mouth marketing, you'll have the option of creating your own website. Don't worry about being an expert with technology, because there are tons of website building tools that help you create a stunning website without knowing how to code, for example.

Your website will help give potential customers a place to see examples of what type of photography you specialize in and which services you're able to offer them. Your photography website is also a tool for helping people find you.

You can use search engine optimization (SEO) and use keywords that answer the questions your audience are asking. For example, someone may search for "wedding photographer in my area" on Google, Bing, or another search engine.

If you optimize your website for the keyword "wedding photographer," your website may pop up in their search results, leading them to look into your site and working with you. You don't have to be an expert in SEO to use it for your website.

Bookmark this article for tips that can improve your site as you grow.

Your Business's Social Media Accounts

Your website isn't the only place to show your work. A lot of people look for potential photographers to hire on social media. You have the option of using tools like Facebook to advertise, Instagram, and many more.

Photographer Lindsay Connors says, "Instagram is one of the biggest places...it's a platform where people can go to see your work."

Instead of waiting until someone in your network refers customers to you, social media channels can help you reach a larger audience than you otherwise could have. You can use popular hashtags on your posts and people looking for photographers in your specialty could possibly see your work.

Once you gain followers, they can follow your journey and see the wonderful work you create. Over time, they may hire you, recommend you, or generally share your work with their own network.

Of course, once someone decides they want to work with you, they'll want to know how much it'll cost them. We'll get to that in the next section.

Play

7. Decide on your photography pricing.

Once you have yourself up to show off the type of photography work you plan to do, you'll be asked how much you charge for it.

This isn't the easiest decision. A lot of photographers who are just starting out struggle to find a good balance between what rates they should accept because they're just starting out, while also making sure they make some money. After all, this is a business!

Each photographer is different and has different goals for their small business, but in general, here are a few things you'll want to consider while deciding your pricing:

Your location

Even though you're doing a lot of your work online, the in-person photoshoots occur face-to-face. And thus, where your clients live is relevant to your pricing.

How many people live in your city and surrounding areas that could be potential customers? And what is the standard cost that these people are willing to pay for your photography services?

Your competition

How much potential customers are willing to pay is a big part of figuring out your pricing. You'll want to scope out your competition to see what other photography businesses are targeting the same audience of people to be potential customers.

Make sure to find out what they charge for their specific packages and services so you're able to compare rates and price your services at a competitive rate.

Your expenses

The gear and tools you use for your work do not come cheap, as we discussed earlier on. You'll want to build the cost of your expenses, like renting equipment or maybe needing to buy an additional external harddrive for a client, into your pricing.

If you need to travel for a job, also incorporate that cost. If you typically shoot weddings, you may have one wedding package price for any weddings within 35 miles, but if the wedding is outside that radius, your rates increase.

Finally, remember that some software will have to be paid regularly, like if you use a customer account management software like this one, or if you rent an Adobe software. Build in software subscription costs to your pricing.

Your time

Remember that the time you spend taking photos for your clients is only a portion of the time you'll spend on your work.

You'll also need to take time to understand your client's vision ahead of time. If you're shooting in a location, you'll need to get the equipment you'll need (like a reflector, if you're shooting in a field).

But outside of preparing and the time you'll take shooting, you'll also need to organize, process, and edit photos.

Photographer Ryan Mason told us of a time he once spent 12 hours shooting a client's wedding, but had to spend several hours more combing through thousands of pictures to sort and edit them.

Each project will take a different amount of time, but over the course of working with different clients, you'll learn the average amount of time it takes you to turn around the end product to a customer.

It'll take time to adjust and decide what's right for you, but you can start with this simple formula:

Equipment + Business expenses + Taxes x 50% profit margin (the current industry standard) 12 months

This formula will give you the amount you'll need to make each month. From there, you can decide how you'll get there. Maybe it will be two photoshoots during the week and one event each weekend, for example. You can specify how you plan to get to that goal however you think may work for you.

8. Write a business plan for your photography business.

Speaking of goals, it's important you make them, even though you're starting out. In fact, now is the perfect time to dream big.

Whether you want to create an official plan to get funding or just want to create a document that can help you track your goals, a photography business plan can play a crucial role in setting you up for success.

Here’s why: A business plan can provide guidance and feedback regarding whether you’re on track for achieving your own personal goals. For example, if you want to grow your clientele list or be named one of The Knot’s Top Wedding Photographers by 2022, your plan can suggest milestones you should be accomplishing along the way.

In a more traditional sense, the business plan is absolutely crucial for nabbing any funding you may need. Even if you’re planning on raising money from family and friends, a business plan can show you what success looks like, and if you have a solid plan for getting there.

Some small business loans or even some grants may also require to see a drafted business plan when considering you and your business. Like having business insurance, creating a business plan is one way you can be proactive about protecting your business, by planning ahead.

Creating the actual business plan can be a pain, but we’ve cut down on the learning curve so you won’t waste time with formatting or plan research. Just download our FREE business plan template and follow the step-by-step instructions to create the type of plan you need.

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Want to learn how to start your own photography business? Download our FREE guide today!

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9. Plan for your business's future by thinking ahead.

It's likely that while writing your business plan, you may learn that there are specific steps you can take to help you reach the short and long term goals you set for your business.

Similar to business insurance, there are specific softwares you may want to look into and plans-of-action you have in place so that when certain situations come up, you're ready and don't waste your time.

One type of software you'll want to look into, is customer management software. You can use this type of software to invoice clients, send them proposals of the work you'll do for them, schedule photoshoot appointments, etc.

Some of these platforms, like Wave, are great for invoicing and you can use them together with your small business bank. Other platforms, like Honeybook, are a great all-in-one solution so you can keep all of your customer communications in one place.

These softwares are often easily bought via subscription, either monthly or annually. We suggest trialing a couple to see which you like best, and factoring their cost into your business plan.

But remember, just because you use a software that creates your invoices for you, doesn't mean that you clients will necessarily pay them on time, or at all.

An unfortunate reality of owning a small business, is that not all clients pay their invoices.

You may need to send late payment notices to customers who are late to pay. We have 5 FREE late payment email templates you can download here in this article that you can save to have on hand in case this happens.

If a client for some reason refuses to pay you at all, then you also have options on how to move forward. It may seem unnecessary to think about the chance of this happening now, but the more prepared you are for it in case it does happen, the better.

10. Learn about photography from others in the business.

When it comes to being prepared, no one knows better about the industry than veteran photographers who've owned their own small business for a bit. In fact, Lindsay Connor (in the video above) got into photography through a mentor who showed her the ropes.

You can learn from other seasoned photographers by reaching out and asking if they'd be open to answering a few of your questions, grabbing coffee, or even arranging a more formal mentorship.

And don't be afraid to suggest the latter, because mentors learn just as much from mentorships as their mentees

When it comes to learning from people you don't know, this is another way to use the power of social media.

Look at what's being shared, liked, and commented on in different social media channels. Who are other photographers whose styles you admire? What kind of photography is engaging to the people you'd want to be your customers?

It's easy to think of learning as an active thing, and it definitely can be, but when you're starting your photography business, listening and observing is just as important and useful.

11. Stay open to other photography opportunities outside your niche.

Earlier on in this guide, I mentioned narrowing down your niche and getting specific on what type of photography you'd like to specialize in as you grow your business. And deciding on your niche is something that will help you better target potential clients. But when you're starting out, it isn't always easy to get clients in your target niche

For example, say you want to be a travel photographer, but you're unable to land any clients or gigs in that space right away. That's okay. So instead, if you have the opportunity to take on a client who needs portrait or wedding photography, take it.

You can use these chances to perfect your craft and diversify your portfolio. And you can still use your photos to boast your skill set. For example, you took photos at a wedding that were so stunning, a popular wedding venue asked to use them in their marketing materials.

A wedding venue isn't as exotic as an international destination, but it's still a place and something you can use to sell your travel photography services.

In addition to being open to accepting clients outside your desired niche, remember that you can sell your photography beyond individual clients, too. For example, you could offer to sell your photos as stock photography to different companies.

Here are some examples of places you can go to sell your photography as stock, including a few options that help sell photos on Instagram:

You Know How to Set Up Your Photography Business

Most of the photographers we interviewed for this guidebook didn’t have proper training before starting their business--and that's okay! You can learn a lot through research, mentorship, and practice. Aside from that, these were the qualifications that they said helped them set up for success:

  • The willingness to shadow other photographers and learn from them directly
  • The tenacity to teach yourself how to shoot
  • The will to nurture the “eye” you have for the job
  • The ability to work well with people — especially customers
  • An eye for detail
  • Kindness and compassion

Following the steps in this guide and bullet points just above will help set you up for success with your photography career. From narrowing down your niche and getting business insurance, to creating your business plan and deciding your pricing, each part plays a crucial part in the recipe for a photography career you can be proud of.

But what may be the most important thing of all is the relationships you build with your clients. As you grow more comfortable behind the camera, don't forget to help your clients be more comfortable in front of the camera, so you can get the best shots possible. Remember that growing a business takes time, but now you have a plan for moving forward!

Mariah Bliss

Written by

Mariah Bliss

I love writing about the small business experience because I happen to be a small business owner - I've had a freelance copywriting business for over 10 years. In addition to that, I also head up the content strategy here at Simply Business. Reach out if you have a great idea for an article or just want to say hi!

This content is for general, informational purposes only and is not intended to provide legal, tax, accounting, or financial advice. Please obtain expert advice from industry specific professionals who may better understand your business’s needs. Read our full disclaimer

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