If you have some creative photography chops, you might want to open your own business. You’re not alone. Photography is a popular profession and hobby right now—and that’s the problem. In the past decade, camera gear has become more affordable and consumer friendly, and as a result, everyone is a photographer.
But, that doesn’t mean you should toss your dreams of owning a photography business aside. It just means you have to work a little harder to set yourself apart from the flock of amateur shooters.
To help you find your photography foothold, we asked three professional photographers who started their own business to share their tips for success.
The planning stages
Before you buy a camera and create a website, you’ll want to do a little prep work.
1. Make a business plan
For starters, wedding and event photographer Peggy Farren says you need a business plan. Any serious entrepreneur will tell you that you need to organize your thoughts on paper. This detailed document serves as your roadmap, describing what your business is and how it will be profitable. It breaks down things like cash flow, expenses, ownership, and competition.
“Photography is one of the most competitive businesses out there,” Farren says. “You need to be a very good business person to make a decent living. You’ll get there much more quickly if you start out right.”
A business plan can be a daunting task, but not if you have the right tools. Check out this free downloadable business plan template that’s specifically tailored to owning a photography business.
2. Access your financial startup needs
As part of your business plan, you’ll need to access startup funds. Camera equipment alone will cost at least $10,000, Farren says. You’ll also need business licenses, insurance, a website, and accounting software.
What about a studio? Do you plan to start with a studio or work out of your home? If you need office space, you’ll need to investigate commercial rental properties and figure that monthly cost, along with the cost of utilities, into your financial plan.
To help you figure out how much startup cash you need, check out our starting costs calculator.
3. Secure startup funds
If you have enough money in your bank account to start your business, you may not need to borrow money, but most entrepreneurs need assistance. A recent study from the National Knowledge Commission shows that 63 percent of entrepreneurs “self-financed” their business, but that doesn’t mean every owner saved up their own money. Upon closer investigation, at least half of these entrepreneurs asked friends and family for financial support.
4. Figure out your personal finances
If you’re just starting out, realize that your business isn’t going to be profitable overnight. It took 18 months for Farren’s business, Avant-Garde Images, to make enough money to pay the bills. Like Farren, you might have to work another job to make ends meet until your business is generating enough money.
To help you learn when you’ll hit the break even point, use this calculator to crunch the numbers.
5. Get professional experience
You’ll need to show your prospective clients what you can do, and working alongside a professional photographer is a great way to get some experience and start to build a portfolio. Farren worked as a photographer’s assistant while starting her own business.
6. Buy camera gear
When it comes to camera gear, Farren says you’ll need two cameras, two high quality lenses, two flashes, and Photoshop and Lightroom to edit the images. Why two cameras? You need backup equipment. Even new equipment breaks, Farren says.
If you buy used gear, you can get everything for about $5,000, but Farren says $10,000 is more realistic. Of course, you can always upgrade gear as you go.
7. Come up with a pricing plan
How much will you charge for your services? It’s a tough question for every photographer, especially when you’re just starting out. Figure out what one hour of your time is worth. Let’s say you believe your time is worth $50/hour. For every hour you spend shooting, you’ll spend about three hours editing. You need to factor that into your pricing. So, in this equation you would charge $200 for a one-hour photo session. Of course, your pricing structure is your own, this is just a way to come up with a starting point.
8. Invest in a killer website
Once you’ve come up with a name for your photography business, you’ll need a website. There are free website templates out there, but your website is like your storefront. You want it to be impressive, so it’s best to have a website professionally created.
Your website should, of course, showcase your work. That’s what your clients will want to see. Keep your site organized by breaking your galleries up by category. Include a picture of yourself and a page that describes your background and experience. Contact information is also a must. It’s a good idea to list at least some of your prices. This helps manage customer expectations and keeps people from trying to negotiate for a lower price. Here’s what Farren uses as a pricing guide on her website.
You want to track every dollar that comes in and every dollar that goes out. To do so, you’ll want to use accounting software. There are plenty of options there, but they can take some time to learn so it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the program before you get busy.
Ok, you’ve got everything in place and you’re ready to start shooting pictures. Now, how do you get customers?
1. Create your own brand
You need to set yourself apart from others, according to husband and wife photography duo Jason and Joanne Marino. The pair own Imagine Photography, a company that attracts couples who are interested in unique wedding pictures, not the conventional altar photos.
“You can’t be everything to everybody or you’ll fail miserably,” Jason Marino says. “To attract customers you must carve out a brand and style.”
Figure out what makes you unique as a photographer and use it to brand your business.
2. Make time to network
As a photographer and a new business owner, you need to network your heart out, Marino says.
“You can be the greatest photographer in the world, but unless people know about you, it won’t do you any good,” he says. “Join groups, forums, clubs, collectives, whatever you can. Make sure these people know about you and respect you, and you’ll get referrals.”
3. Be a people person
As a photographer, you don’t just need mad composition skills, you need people skills too, Marino says. You want to make sure the client has a great experience. Not only will your client trust you, which results in great shots, but a good experience also means your client will refer you to others.
If appropriate, meet with your clients before the shoot. Wedding photographers set up engagement photo sessions as a way to get to know their clients before the big day. If you’re not offering wedding photography, make sure you sit down and talk with the client before you start snapping pictures. Make a little small talk and chat about expectations. Remember, you’re not just selling great pictures; you’re selling an experience.
4. Have a friends and family rule
Your friends and family will probably be some of your first customers, which is great. You’ll be extremely grateful for the opportunity and probably feel inclined to give them a discount. There’s nothing wrong with that, but remember, you’re trying to make a living. You should come up with a standard friends and family plan and stick to it.
5. Use social media to promote yourself
Social media is a great promotion tool, but it’s best to start out with one or two sites and use them consistently. Facebook is a good option, but you might want to lean towards one of the more visual social media channels like Instagram.
When the Marino’s are working on a shoot, they share teaser pictures on their Facebook page like the example below. It’s a great way to showcase work and keep customers interested.
Grow your business
Now that you’ve got the wheels in motions, let’s talk about how to pick up the pace.
1. Up your marketing game
Jane Goodrich, a New York based children’s photographer, says one of the best ways to grow your business is to invest more in marketing.
2. Google ads
Goodrich swears by Google ads. She uses some of her marketing budget to buy keywords that generate more website traffic. Not familiar with Google ads? Goodrich wasn’t either, but the service comes with free support.
3. Team up with charities
Farren uses other unique techniques to grow her business. For instance, she teams up with charities that run high-end silent auctions.
“Not only are you getting your name in front of wealthy people, but in most cases the clients will purchase much more than the free prints that come with the package they bought at the auction,” she says.
4. Generate an email list and add to it constantly
Through the years, Farren has also generated an impressive email list. She uses that list to send clients a monthly newsletter, which she says is her best marketing tool. She credits a lot of her repeat business to the newsletter as it keeps her business top of mind to her customers.
5. Maintain a blog
A blog is a great way to establish authority in your field. It’s an open platform to showcase your talent, tips, and opinions. For example, a recent post on Goodrich’s blog offers photography tips to parents.
6. Make a savings plan
It takes time to draw profits from your business, and it takes even longer to put a few bucks in the savings account, but saving money should be a priority as you grow your business. No matter what kind of photography you do, you’ll hit a slow month, Goodrich says. Save money when you’re busy so the lean months are easier to handle.
7. Reinvest in the business
Once you have at least three months worth of income stocked away, then you can start thinking about reinvesting it. From new lenses to better editing software, new pieces of technology can improve your product. To make wise decisions, make a list of the items you want. Prioritize the list and shop around for good prices before you spend your hard earned money.
In time you’ll be able to add certain elements to the business that will help you diversify your revenue stream. Goodrich, for example, added maternity and newborn photos to her list of services. Rather than generating all of her income from children’s shoots alone, she was able to generate more money by branching out.
9. Keep learning
One of the best tips Farren says she can offer prospective photographers is to continue improving your skills. Take classes, watch educational videos, or schedule time to go take pictures of something completely unrelated to your career track—anything to keep your skills sharp.
10. Hire help
In the beginning, you’ll wear all the hats. You’ll set up shoots, take the shots, edit the pictures, and place the orders for prints. When you’re just starting out, you can’t afford not to multi-task. However, once your business is established, it’s not a bad idea to delegate responsibilities, even if it’s on an as-needed basis.
To do this, Joanne Marino says you need to recognize your strengths and weaknesses. Maybe you’re great at taking pictures but not so hot at editing. If that’s the case, find a freelancer to help in that area. If you don’t know any freelancers, ask a colleague for suggestions or use freelance sites like Elance to post an ad.
As with any new business, you’ll have ups and downs, but if you’re committed to your craft and work to give each customer a great experience, you’ll earn a solid reputation as a go-to photographer.