Thinking About Starting a Photography Business? Read This!

You’ve just gotten your fancy new camera. You’ve started taking photos of your friends or your kids, and people have started noticing. Everyone has been complimenting you, lots of people have been asking if you could photograph them, and some have even offered to pay you. How cool is this? You could make money doing the thing you love and finally be free of your day job! Most people don’t necessarily start out looking to be a photographer. It just kind of happens. They realize that they could get paid for doing something they enjoy, and why not? So they go for it! Photographers must have the best job in the world because they just get to take pictures all the time! But sooner or later people realize that it’s not always all it’s cracked up to be. This post is not necessarily meant to deter you from starting your own photography business. It’s simply meant to bring to light all of the other stuff that goes into running a business, because really, shooting is only a very small percentage of what a pro photographer does!

Running a business means you have to:

LEGALIZE YOUR BUSINESS

This  means filing all of the necessary paperwork and registering with the IRS and local governments. If you haven’t done this, your business isn’t truly legit and you can get in lots of trouble!

FILE AND PAY TAXES

Yep! Money made from photography has to be included when you file your income tax every April, and depending on the products/services you offer (and the state you live in), you’ll probably have to be paying sales tax every quarter as well!

INSURE YOUR BUSINESS

This is huge. You need to have business insurance that covers your gear if it gets lost, damaged, or stolen, and you absolutely have to have liability insurance in case someone is injured on a shoot. Liability insurance also covers your rear if something happens to the images before you can deliver them to your client, like if the memory card that had the wedding ceremony on it failed or got broken and you couldn’t retrieve those files. (They can’t be re-done and your couple probably isn’t going to be happy!)

BE A BOOKKEEPER

You have to track every single income and expense for your business. And it sucks. Invest in Quickbooks.

BECOME A MARKETING GURU

Facebook alone usually isn’t enough to push your business forward. You have to know how to get your name in front of the right people.

BE A CUSTOMER SERVICE REPRESENTATIVE

Sometimes clients aren’t happy. They don’t get the shot they want, or they’re not happy with the results. You alone have to make it right with them so they remain a loyal client.

BECOME A WEB DEVELOPER

I am a strong believer that anyone running a photography business NEEDS a website. A Facebook page alone is not enough and not professional. There are plenty of template sites out there that are perfect for getting your first website off the ground, but you have to take the time and money to invest in it.

LEARN TO PRICE FOR A PROFIT

Although it sounds great to offer a 2 hour session for $75 and wedding photography for $300, this will not sustain your business and you will work way too hard for way too little money. Aka = burnt out. You have to figure out what your clients want and how to price it so that it’s a win-win for everyone.

CONTINUE EDUCATING YOURSELF

Photographers spend tons of money each year attending workshops, reading business books, and participating in communities built around education. If you don’t continue to grow as a business person and photographer, you’ll eventually stall out.

INVEST IN NEW GEAR

There’s a reason professional photographers charge a lot of money for their services. It costs a lot of money to be in business! Most photographers have at least $10,000 worth of gear that has to be maintained and updated on a regular basis. And you can’t forget about back up gear… what if your camera stops working in the middle of a shoot or a wedding?

Starting to sound like a lot of work? It is! Actual shooting is only a small piece of the pie the moment you turn your photography interest into a business. For some, it works out perfectly. Others get tired of the stress that eventually begins ruining their love for photography.

The Interviews

I reached out to a few photographers I know (all in various stages of business) and asked them to share their experiences starting their own business. Amy is one of the photographers for Sweet Little You Photography based in Cedar Falls, Iowa and specializes in newborn photography. Jamie is the photographer at Jamie K! Photography in St. Joseph, Missouri and specializes in couples photography. Rik now lives in California and is no longer shooting professionally, but you can still access his Facebook page here.  Here’s what they had to say:

HOW DID YOUR INTEREST IN PHOTOGRAPHY BEGIN?

AMY: “My interest in art started very early… like preschool age, but I didn’t really become interested in photography specifically until high school. I took a film photography class. That’s when it started to feel like something I would possibly enjoy doing for a living.”

JAMIE: “I grew up watching my mom take pictures. LOTS of pictures. I followed in her footsteps and started carrying a point and shoot camera in my purse during High School. In college I purchased a Canon Rebel for myself. It was my first ‘big’ purchase just for me.”

RIK: “I started becoming interested in photography with the birth of our oldest daughter back in 2002. Digital photography was still very much in its infancy, but I am enough of a computer geek to have been plugged into it back then. My in-laws gave my wife a digital camcorder as a college graduation gift a month after our daughter was born, and it had the ability to take 640×480 stills (no joke). That did it for me: the instant feedback on the screen was immediately addictive and I had to know more. My wife taught me everything she had learned in her broadcast journalism courses, we picked up a book, How to Photograph Your Baby, and the need to visually capture blossomed from there.”

WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO START A PHOTOGRAPHY BUSINESS?

AMY: “Not for the ‘right’ reasons. I liked the idea of being my own boss (I was a graphic designer at the time and hated working for someone else). And people were always telling me things like, “You’re so good at photography!”, “You should start a business!”, and “You have a nice camera? Will you photograph my wedding?” Of course, I just dove right into that because… why not? Easy money, right? And I was doing something I loved! Well big shocker.. I charged next to nothing and became burnt out after just a year or so. I ended up losing interest in my “business” before I ever even really learned anything about how to take good photographs.”

JAMIE: “I never anticipated becoming a professional photographer. I graduated college with a degree in Business Leadership and minor in Biblical Studies. The more I took pictures with my little Canon Rebel the more it felt like this is what God had been preparing me for, to be a business owner and professional photographer.”

RIK: “In retrospect, I’m not so sure it was really a decision to start one. I had been shooting for a number of years (3? 4?) with a point and shoot and reading voraciously about photography, so when I finally got my DSLR in early 2007, I was ready to hit the ground running. I photographed people and things for a while and somehow got connected with a local veteran photographer that took me on as a second shooter for his weddings. Once I started getting some experience there and my photography started getting seen locally, I got more requests for portrait work. It just made sense to start asking people to pay me for it, and so I started the business.”

WHAT WERE YOU MOST UNPREPARED FOR WHEN YOU STARTED RUNNING YOUR BUSINESS?

AMY: “Knowing what to charge. I got back into photography after my son was about a year old (that’s when Sweet Little You Photography was born), and I still struggled with pricing. I definitely still started out cheap. Portfolio building prices. It kinda worked because my portfolio grew pretty quickly, and I had high hopes for having tons of clients that would stick with me forever! Obviously, that wasn’t the case. I would raise my prices just a little and lose most of my clientele because of it. I felt badly about it every time. Now I know that that’s just how the business goes. You raise your prices as you improve your craft. Inevitably, you’ll lose some clients, but you’ll slowly start to gain ones that are in your target demographic. The ones who truly value great photography and will pay good money for it. This isn’t just a hobby anymore, after all. It’s something I put thousands of dollars a year into, and it’s how I feed my family.”

JAMIE: “I was most unprepared for technical side of thing, like my website. I had no idea what SEO was or how to create a website.”

RIK: “Everything. Literally everything. Okay, not literally–I did know how to work a camera, for the most part, within the genre of portraiture that I had tried up to that point. However, I knew nothing about business. I had to go to a local small business support office run by the county to ask how to even register the business and what to do about taxes. Even then, I didn’t submit tax payments for about a year (penalties and interest on year-old tax obligations are not fun) because I was simply clueless about how to make a business run, let alone grow or flourish or actually compensate me for the time I spent on each session.”

WHAT DO YOU LIKE MOST ABOUT RUNNING YOUR OWN BUSINESS?

AMY: “Ah there are so many things I love about this job! Interacting with sweet babies of course. Meeting tons of amazing families. Making new friends (not just clients but other photographers too)! And of course being my own boss is definitely a perk :)”

JAMIE: “Having God first in my life, and my marriage second, is critical to remaining true to who I am. As a business owner, I have the flexibility to choose how and when I meet with clients. This allows me to continue being a supportive wife and dedicated follower of Jesus Christ.”

RIK: “I liked what everyone likes about owning a business: paying myself to do something I really enjoyed doing. I could do it on my schedule, which was very important since I continued my full-time job throughout the five years I ran the business. I had complete control over the creative side of the work, and got to meet some amazing people and be with them during some of the most exciting and emotional times of their lives. Plus, I got a shirt with my name and logo on it. :)”

WHAT DO YOU LIKE LEAST?

AMY: “All the legal stuff. Taxes, contracts, tracking every single expense.”

JAMIE: “Taxes. Ugh, even the word gives me a headache! Over the years I’ve realized that it’s best to do what I do best, and outsource the rest.”

RIK: “Owning your own business means that everything rests on your shoulders–there’s no one else to blame when things don’t turn out right, there’s no marketing department to get your name out there so that you can reach new clients and convince you to hire them, there’s no accounting department to handle taxes every few months or bill clients or chase down late payments, there’s no IT department to fix your computer when it runs slow or figure out why your website is down…notice how little all that has to do with taking pictures and making them look good?”

WHY DID YOU END UP CLOSING YOUR BUSINESS? (specifically for Rik, who is no longer shooting professionally)

RIK: “There were quite a few factors that went into my decision. First, business was too good. By this, I mean that something I had started as a simple side business was beginning to require nearly as much time as my full-time job, what with all the responding to inquiries, following up on inquiries, editing sessions, posting them, uploading them to blogs and Facebook and tagging them, invoicing clients, withdrawing funds, keeping the books up to date, walking clients through ordering prints, prepping print orders, answering the same questions over and over again via email, marketing my business…and occasionally actually taking pictures. I barely had any time with my family even though I limited computer work as much as possible to after my children had gone to bed.

I couldn’t simply “quit my day job” because business wasn’t that good, and my family deals with some chronic diseases that make health insurance a critical necessity. In the days before the Affordable Health Care Act, a pre-existing condition meant that there was no way we could even go for self-employed health insurance, so expanding my business was pretty much out of the question.

Still, at the beginning of 2012, I got a good run of exactly the kind of clients that I had been hoping to connect with all along, and then I got accepted into a doctoral program in California related to the work I was doing full time. Knowing that I was going to enter the program and move to California, I looked at my clients and realized that it had taken me 5 years to get those clients, and that I simply didn’t want the stress of working my way back to that point in a completely new environment. I really didn’t have the time to work a full-time job, be a full-time dad, a full-time husband, and run a (nearly) full-time side business. Since the business side of business had always given me headaches, I gave myself permission to simply say that I was done and walk away from all the stress of chasing down the next client.”

WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO SOMEONE WHO IS THINKING ABOUT TURNING THEIR HOBBY/LOVE FOR PHOTOGRAPHY INTO A BUSINESS?

AMY: “Don’t forget about learning. No matter how many clients you have. Even if you think you’re already plenty successful. Never stop looking at photographers who inspire you. It’ll make you think, “How do I achieve that look? How do I do that pose? How do I get my lighting to look like that?” And then research it. Google it. YouTube it. Watch Creative Live. Ask a question on Love Your DSLR and ask other photographers for constructive criticism! Figure out what you need to do to better your talent and become the photographer you’re inspired by. I am truly never bothered seeing people start their own photography business. No matter how terrible their photos may look. After all, I WAS one of those people once. And looking back… yes. My photographs were just the worst. What bothers me is when people start a photography business and don’t take the time or effort to improve. You can’t think that you’re some amazing photographer right off the bat (even if your friends keep telling you that ;) ). There is always room for improvement. I’m still learning too!”

JAMIE: “I would probably ask them to reflect on a few questions… Why do I want to own a business? (When you’re a professional photographer, 80% of what you do is business.) Have you done the math to figure out how much you need to charge? (As a business owner, I do not receive 100% of what I charge for weddings. After the cost of goods have been taken out, I usually end up being paid about 1/3 of the remaining amount. Do the math! Your hourly rate might surprise you.) After you’ve asked yourself questions like those, the very first thing I recommend doing is creating or purchasing a legally solid contract. Contracts are a benefit to business owners and clients. They discuss each party’s responsibilities and help eliminate any miscommunications.”

RIK: “I guess my best advice would be to recognize that running a business takes something you love and turns it into a job. It may still continue to be something you love to do, but then it also becomes something that you have to do, which can completely change your relationship with photography. Also recognize that just because you have a camera and a passion for photography does not in any way mean that you have to start a business! That’s one great thing about photography: it’s completely open to the masses with practically zero entry requirements. Once you hang your shingle out, you start to be compared (and compare yourself) with every other photographer and photography business and the rat race begins. Some people thrive in that sort of environment, and others don’t. You need to figure out which one you are before you decide to throw your hat into the ring.”

What now?

If you’re thinking maybe a business isn’t exactly what you’re looking for, it’s okay! Just because you enjoy photography does not mean that you have to go into business or that you can’t bless people with your photography. If you are still totally excited to start your own business, great! It’s a big commitment but one that is truly rewarding in the long run. Here are some of my favorite resources that will help you along your way. :)

The E-Myth Revisited, book, seriously this will change your life!
creativeLIVE, online video workshops for creative business owners
Tofurious, a marketing strategist for smart creatives
Zach and Jody Gray, husband/wife team that love teaching
Clickin Moms, blog, forum, and workshops for women in photography
The Free Beginner’s Guide to SEO
The Modern Tog, the ultimate business resource for photographers
– Local Professionals, finding people in your own area to connect with is a great plact to start

If you have any other resources that you love and would like to share, feel free to leave a comment below! As always if you have any questions, feel free to contact me.


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