If you are wondering how to start a photography business you aren’t alone. Photography businesses are steadily increasing in popularity. If you own a professional digital camera, have some basic business sense and have an artistic flare, starting a photography business might be the answer for you.
While you may have decided to start your own photography business because you enjoy taking photographs, there are still some business issues and decisions that you must address before getting started. While this doesn’t cover every aspect of starting your business, it is a great starting point to get you going in the right direction for your business.
How to Start a Photography Business – The Business Considerations
Owning a business is hard work. I’ve talked to many new photographers entering the market who think they can just buy the gear, get a few friends to let them take some samples of, put a website and BAM the business will just come flowing in. Sorry folks, it just doesn’t work that way. If you really want to know how to start a photography business keep reading.
A photography business, no let me rephrase that…ANY business, must have certain practices in place to grow and survive. Here are some steps to start with when you are still in the startup stages of your photography business and what you need to have before taking even your first client.
- Register your business – No matter how small you think you are you still need to ensure that your photography business is legally registered with your local and/or state. Some cities don’t require business registration at all if you use your own name, while some require DBA announcements in the paper, fees and extensive paperwork. Check with your city and state requirements before you open your doors for business.
- Sales Tax – If you plan on taking even $.01 from a client, you are legally required to collect sales tax on that sale if you are located in a state that requires sales tax to be collected. Some people believe that they don’t need to collect sales tax when they are portfolio building, charging only their cost or don’t make enough to even claim it on their income tax. Not true! It doesn’t matter how much or how little you make. The second you take even a penny from a client, you should be collecting sales tax. Obtaining a sales tax id is an easy process and in many cases can be done online at your state department of revenue website; many times resulting in an immediate issue of a sales tax id.
- Bank Account – It’s very important to separate out your personal finances from your business expenses for accounting purposes when you are starting your home based business. Opening a simple business account is for easy by just bringing in your DBA form or business license into the bank. Many banks also have small business bank accounts designed specifically for those just getting started. If you think you will want to accept credit cards for payment, having a business checking is required and your bank is a great place to start shopping for credit card merchant accounts.
- Business Insurance – Insurance for your business is very important especially when you work out of your home. At a minimum you should obtain liability insurance to cover yourself when clients are in your home and you may wish to get an add-on to cover your equipment if you are shooting on location.
- Collateral Materials – How you present yourself to your clients is very important. This includes your logo, website, business cards, letterhead, etc. You should find a company who can design some materials that will give the best impression of your photography business. Keep away from self printing jobs on your home computer and send it out to a professional printer.
- Determine Your Services – One of the most important decisions you will make will be what line (or lines) of photography you will go into. You may decide to stick to children’s photography, family photography, commercial photography, fine art landscapes, business photography or any other product line you choose. Determine these up front so that you are prepared when a customer calls you to answer questions about the services you provide.
- Marketing Plan – A solid marketing plan most certainly cannot be explained in a short single paragraph but it is definitely necessary to stress the importance of having a good solid marketing plan. A marketing plan will help you design your marketing strategies and monthly plans for your promotions and public relations. If you have never written one for yourself, there are dozens of examples on the internet. Just use your favorite search engine and you will find many articles, templates and guidelines to use when starting to write your own marketing plan.
- Equipment – Obviously, if you don’t have any equipment starting out your investment is going to be quite large. However, when you are just starting out you don’t need to drop your life savings into equipment. Add things to your inventory as you grow your business. Let it pay for itself if you can. Basic needs will include cameras, various lenses, tripod, flash units and digital cards. In addition, depending on the services you offer you may also want to invest in studio lighting, backgrounds, props and other studio related items.
How to Price Your Photography
Deciding on what to charge for your photography is probably the thing you will struggle with the most when starting your photography business. You will constantly wonder if you are charging to much or too little. Should you price according to your competition or base it off your cost of goods? It can be a constant struggle trying to figure it out and keep up to date but it’s a necessary part of running a photography business.
When figuring out the pricing structure for your photography services and products, it’s important to keep your cost of goods (COG) in mind but also the perceived value that you wish to achieve for your photography business. Even when you are first starting out, if you price yourself too low, what happens in a year or two, when you have built up the client base and your skills are much more advanced? Do you think your clients will be ok if you raise your prices from $10 for an 8X10 to $50? Of course not!
Don’t think only of the here and now. Think of your future and where you want to be in 1 or 2 years. If you want to be charging $50 for an 8X10 in 2 years, start off 20% below that so you can gradually increase the price, without losing your entire client base at once.
The other tip I have for you in regards to pricing is to NOT do what your competition is doing. The sad fact is that most likely your competition is not priced the way they should be. Most photographers try to compete with others based on price alone. This is not a good thing and rarely works out for them. To be competitive in this market, it’s not price to focus on, it’s what you offer to your clients and if your clients value that offer they will pay what it is worth.
Keep in mind that most photographers are not business people. They want to be creative and not think about numbers. You can use that to your advantage if your pricing is reflected correctly and your activities support those prices.
What About Cost of Goods?
While I do suggest that you base your photography prices around your perceived value, we can’t completely ignore our cost of goods…or we’d quickly be out of business if we aren’t charging enough.
Your cost of goods includes anything that you would need to produce the finished product to your client. If you aren’t sure of the difference between an expense and a cost of good, a good way to look at it is this: if you have no business coming in, then you have no cost of goods going out. Things like your rent, phone bill, etc. will all be there even if you have no client orders. However, things like lab fees or packaging are only there if an order is place, so those are cost of goods.
For many photographers, a good goal is to have a cost of goods percentage somewhere around 8-12%.This of course is just a preference but is a good place to start. This means that if an 8X10 costs you $2 from your lab and you charge $20 for it retail, you have a 10% cost of goods.
Let’s take a look at the spreadsheet below. I’ve entered into the field for “Your desired COG%” as 10%. I’ve also added in my lab costs to finish a product. If you take a look, you can see what my retail price would need to be for each product shown based on my cost and a 10% COG.
Remember, this is just a starting point and a guide to help you price your photography and shows you what the minimum is you need to charge to meet your desired cost of goods. You may want to adjust lower or higher based on your own goals.
If you need more assistance in pricing, check our Pricing Your Photography for What You’re Worth article and you can even get our Kindle Book the Startup Photography Business Kit which includes the above spreadsheet that also helps with expenses and number of sessions needed to meet your financial goals.
Tracking Your Photography Business Expenses
One of the things you will need to track and monitor when starting your photography business is your regular business expenses. All startup fees including business license fees as well as equipment can be counted as an expense through your business for tax purposes.
I always recommend using an accountant to handle your taxes and you should probably consult with one to get you started, but that doesn’t mean that your accountant is actually going to enter all of your data in for you or keep your receipts organized for you. Well, they might, but they are going to charge a whole lot more for it! Your best bet is to send your accountant monthly bank statements as well as balance sheets, expense reports, and anything else they request.
To do that, you will need some way to track everything. There are so many ways to do this from inexpensive paper tracking to very expensive accounting software. When I first started my business I used Microsoft Excel and made a new worksheet for each month. Within each worksheet I had columns for receipt date, amount, how paid, who it was paid to, what it was and what expense category it fit under. This way I could send just that month’s worksheet to my accountant.
Then I moved up to QuickBooks which was a relatively inexpensive software solution under $200 and that was perfect for my business. I could manage my customers with the “Customer Management” add on product and track all of my expenses. I could send either reports or just the whole QuickBooks file to my accountant each month. This is probably what I would call the ideal and inexpensive solution.
If you are the least bit intimidated about QuickBooks when you get it home don’t worry. I think everyone is confused with it at first. When I got my copy, I called my accountant who came over to my studio and spent about 2 hours there with me importing all of my customers, showed me how to add my products, how to add orders, how to invoice, etc. This was a priceless lesson that cost me about $200 to learn from my accountant. And it was the best way I think to learn the essentials. Those manuals are crammed with all sorts of things and some doesn’t apply to me. So why bother with it? Trust your accountant to lead you in the right direction.
How to Market a Startup Photography Business
When you first start your photography business, you are a nobody in the world of photography. You may be a great photographer but nobody knows who you are, does it really matter how good you are? However, starting out, you probably don’t have the marketing dollars required to make a big splash in your community. I have a good news for you. You don’t need it!
There are a ton of great marketing ideas that you can use to market your photography business that are inexpensive and in many cases free. For some great ideas on marketing check out my Marketing Ideas for the Budget Photographer. These are just a few ideas that you can use to market your business on a budget!
It’s a safe bet to say that you will definitely want to consider a website when marketing your photography business. Sure, you could choose to leave it out, but with the low cost and wide range of your audience what would be holding you back? The key to using your website to market your photography business is to ensure you are using it properly and that you’ve included all the important aspects of good website design. For that, I invite you to read over the Essential Principles for Your Photography Website, a 7 part series that tells you exactly what you need to look for in a website.
Social Media Marketing
One of the cheapest (ok free) ways you can marketing your photography business is through social media. More than likely you are already heavily involved in social media through your own personal Facebook account, Twitter account or Pinterest boards.
Everyone seems to be involved in social media and news about your photography can spread like wildfire when the right people see it, like it and share it. Imagine after your last photo session you share a few of your photographs from it and share it with the person in the photo. What do you think they are going to do? They are going to share it! It will reach all of their friends and be forever imprinted on their social wall. This is great…and free…marketing for your photography business! Nothing can beat out the thrilled words from a client spreading all over the Internet.
Want more ideas to market your photography business? You can fill out the form on the right side of this page to get a free copy of 79 Ways to Marketing Your Photography Business just by subscribing to our newsletter.
Improving Your Photography Skills
One of the great things about the photography industry is the easy access to educational tools to improve your photography skills. While being “self-taught” can be a great credit to the photographer, I’ve never met a photographer who couldn’t use improvement. And if you think playing with your camera for a year or two, learning on your own how it works will teach you photography you are very wrong…and probably not getting the most out of the tools available to you through your camera.
If you visit any online photographers forum, people tend to belong to one of the following crowds:
- New Photographers – These could consist of any person who is trying to enter the photography market. It could be a new photographer straight out of college, or someone who doesn’t have much experience yet but has some gear they think can help them start a photography business. They are still learning and eager to learn everything they can about running a photography business.
- Experienced Photographers – These are the folks who’ve been in business for awhile, usually several years. They have their client base established and are doing quite well for themselves.
While new photographers seem eager to learn, it is coming harder and harder for them to learn from the experienced folks due to all the competition that has begun flooding the market. The easy access and low prices available on photography equipment has made it possible that anyone with a checkbook can purchase what they need and come out claiming to be a professional photographer. This is leaving the new photographer crowd to flounder around, make things up as they go, or startup and fail before they ever really had a chance.
The sad part is that much of this could have been avoided in the industry had those entering the market would have taken the time to properly evaluate their business and set things up a bit more in tune with running a business instead of just leaping out of the gate with the lowest price available, and taking a huge hit to the market.
When I first started my business, the friends I made and the network I made was vast and people were willing to help. What has started to happen is that the forums are now flooded with other new photographers who are all guessing as to what really works, or experienced photographers who are there simply to capitalize on the new photographers by selling them a “guaranteed success” online course or mentoring fee. Unfortunately, neither of these are great solutions and will lead to plenty of wasted money and time.
I do recommend getting involved in a forum, but be careful about which you join. If the first thing you see is a bunch of sales pitches from experienced photographers, it might be best to find another avenue.
One of my favorite ways to learn about photography techniques is the Lynda.com courses. I tend to be a very busy person and really need an “at your own pace” sort of learning venue and Lynda fits the bill. I hold an annual pass so I can take as many courses as I want, as often as I want. The videos are well made and I find them to be extremely valuable for learning many things:
- How to use studio strobes
- Lightroom Instruction
- Photoshop Instruction
- Retouching Tips
- Product Photography
- Color Management
- Digital Painting
- Flash Portrait Photography
- Wedding Photography
- and TONS more
I’ve spent countless hours on this website learning so many things and I don’t think I’ve ever ran out of courses to take.
Intern or Follow a Mentor
One of the greatest things you can do to improve your photography skills is to work under someone who has a style you admire. No, it won’t get you started in your business immediately. Most likely if you work for another photographer, they aren’t going to be to keen on you working for yourself as well. Be patient. It’s ok to start your photography business a year later if that means you can improve your skills to be an even better photographer. Remember, we are trying to provide something nobody else can, and if you want to be considered for more than just your price, you’ve got to learn the skill.
Learning from books is another great way to improve your photography skills. I think I must own 50 or more on my bookshelf and they are great to go back and read whenever you need inspiration.
Don’t look only at instructional books either. Some of my favorite books are simply photography art coffee table style books. These are perfect for inspiration or for diagnosing lighting setups to see if I can figure out how they were done.
Educational Photography Videos
Video is everywhere! Youtube.com has a ton of great photography videos to teach you about photography. Just type in “photography tutorials” into the Youtube search and you could be busy for hours learning about photography.
If you’d rather not sit at your computer and instead would rather sit in front of your TV, there are some fantastic DVD videos available that all teach different aspects of photography. Check out some of the videos below:
- Portrait Photography Secrets DVD
- Photography 101 Instant Video
- Jump Start Your Photography 3 DVD Set
- The Skilled Photographer 3 DVD Set
- The Ultimate Photographer 3 DVD Set
I hope this quick tip guide has helped you in planning to start your own photography business. If you have any comments, questions or even your own ideas to share to help others, please share them below!