This article is part of our Photography Business Startup Guide—a curated list of articles to help you plan, start, and grow your photography business!
If you have some creative photography chops, you might want to open your own business. You’re not alone in wanting to turn your creative outlet into a money-making venture. Photography is a popular profession and hobby right now—and that’s the problem. As camera gear has become more affordable and consumer-friendly, and almost every smartphone now features a great camera, everyone’s a photographer.
But, that doesn’t mean you should toss your dreams of owning a photography business aside. It just means you may 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 businesses 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. Write a photography 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.”
Creating a business plan may seem like a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be if you have the right tools. Check out this free, downloadable sample photography business plan.
2. Assess your photography business startup costs
As part of your business planning process, you’ll need to assess your startup costs. What are the essentials that you’ll need before you can really launch your business?
Camera equipment alone can cost upwards of $10,000, Farren says. You’ll also need business licenses, insurance, a website, and accounting software like QuickBooks or Xero.
What about a studio?
Do you plan to start with a dedicated studio space 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.
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 many entrepreneurs need assistance. Many people who are starting a business for the first time end up asking family or friends for help, or keeping their day job until their business is self-sustaining.
Whether you ask friends and family for financial assistance or apply for a bank loan, you’ll need a business plan in place that lays out how you’ll spend the funds and when or how you’ll pay your lenders back.
4. Figure out your personal finances
If you’re just starting out, realize that your business probably isn’t going to be profitable overnight. It took 18 months for Farren’s business to break even and 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.
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.
Equally important is using that experience to put together a photography portfolio that demonstrates your skill. Consider your audience and build the portfolio around what they want to see. Keep it updated, so new potential clients can see current and relevant work.
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 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 think about whether it’s better to have your 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.
Ok, you’ve got everything in place and you’re ready to start shooting pictures. Now, how do you get customers?
9. Create your own brand
Jason and JoAnne Marino have a unique brand for their photography business.
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.”
Start by identifying your target market. Do you prefer to do maternity shots? Newborns? Senior portraits for high schoolers?
Figure out what makes you unique as a photographer and use it to brand your business.
10. 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.”
11. 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.
12. 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.
13. 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 might be a good option, but you might want to lean towards one of the more visual social media channels like Instagram. One of the most important pieces of keeping whatever channel you choose to use active and updated.
When the Marinos 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 motion, let’s talk about how to pick up the pace.
14. 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.
Goodrich swears by Google ads. She uses some of her marketing budget to buy keywords that generate more website traffic.
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.
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.
Whenever you’re at an event, set out an email sign-up form for people to opt into your newsletters.
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. Write about your experiences, your work process, your equipment, how you plan the shots, etc. The topics are endless!
15. Make a savings plan and pay attention to cash flow
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 will sooner or later hit a slow month, Goodrich says. Save money when you’re busy so the lean months are easier to handle. This is about paying attention to your cash flow, or when cash comes into and out of your business.
On that note, make your payment terms clear. Many photographers will require a deposit upfront and the balance before releasing photos to the client. Whatever your payment terms, make sure your clients know what they are.
If you do invoice clients after you’ve already done a shoot, make sure you invoice immediately and that you’ve clearly articulated when payment is due. Waiting for clients to pay you can create a cash flow problem, even if you have plenty of business, and on paper, your business is bringing in lots of revenue. Until you have cash in hand, you can’t pay your own bills.
16. Reinvest in the business
Once you have at least three months’ worth of income socked 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.
18. Keep learning
One of the best tips Farren says she can offer prospective photographers is to continue improving their 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.
19. 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 to multitask. 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, or you simply don’t enjoy it. 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.