Close your eyes. Take a moment and think about your business. Imagine what it looks like 5 years from now. What is your business doing to help make your life better? How does it feel to see all your hard work pay off?
“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” ~Confucius
Photography is a wonderful job, but a business is different from a job. When you start a business, you become the CEO, accountant, marketer, customer service representative, and more. Having a plan and setting yourself up for success from the start will help ensure you are able to not only build a successful business, but also ensure the transition from photographer to business owner is a smooth one.
Before even considering launching your business, you must first be an excellent craftsperson. If you have not yet mastered the technical side of image making or if you do not know how to use your gear to make the images you want, stop right now. Your business will take away from the time you need to learn about image making, so master as much as you can before starting your business.
Treat your Business like a Business
The transition from hobbyist to business owner is made easier when you commit to treating your business like a business. With that comes the knowledge that photography is now your “product” and your business will take up much more of your time than your image making. "Photographer" is only one job title amongst all the others you now wear.
Make a Plan and Keep it Simple
Your business needs to reflect what matters to you. Ask yourself why you want to start a business and what your long-terms goals are. Do you want to work part-time or full-time? Are you ready to commit time, resources, and energy to your business? Do you have time, resources, and energy available? How are you going to find clients? What do you need to do to get your first paying clients? What will your business look like in 6 months, a year, 5 years, or 10 years?
Write down a series of short-term and long-term goals based on the answers to these questions. Perhaps you want to have 10 sessions on the books within 60 days. Maybe you want to hit $10,000 in sales by a specific date. These targets will help motivate you when things get tough and keep you on track when you feel pulled in a million directions.
Choose a name and brand that will last
There are two options when naming your business: you can name it after yourself or you can give it a “company” name. If you choose the latter, take some time and consider names that won’t impede your business growth over time. You want a name that will evolve with both your business and photography. You may decide to focus on newborns at first, but soon discover you love boudoir photography. Will your business name work for both those genres? Ensure your chosen name is not already being used by another photographer, especially someone working in your market.
Once you have a name, you will need some kind of graphic representation of your brand, whether it’s a specific font choice or a mark. To start, choose something that reflects your personality and business ideals, but don’t spends weeks making that decision. Wait to work with a designer until you have a better understanding of the business you are building. There are great templates you can use while you are getting started.
Now the paperwork begins. Requirements will vary based on your location, but you will need to register your business, get a tax ID number, and ensure you have the proper permits and licenses in place. You need to decide if you want your business to be a Sole Proprietor, a Partnership, a Corporation or LLC. If you want to move quickly, start as a sole proprietor. You can change your business structure later if necessary.
The U.S. Small Business Administration website has great information on how to ensure your business is set up, and registered, correctly.
A contract protects you and your clients by clearly laying out all the terms of your agreement. Find a solid contract template to get you started and have a contract attorney ensure it complies with the laws in your state. You may also need different contracts for different types of work. For example, a wedding contract will differ dramatically from a portrait contract.
You will also need equipment, liability, and errors & omissions insurance. Another thing to consider is your own personal health insurance. Now that you are self-employed you may have to cover those costs yourself.
Price for Profit from the Start
Understand your business expenses well before you price your sessions and products. Write down all your fixed business expenses first. These include things like insurance, licenses and permits, website and server space, domain names, and gear. You also need to decide what you are going to pay yourself as well as determine the cost of any goods you offer (albums, wall prints, etc). Let’s not forget about taxes. Do your research and discover if you need to collect and remit sales tax, and what percentage you need to set aside for your personal taxes.
If you’re not sure where to start, check out our pricing guides for portraits and weddings. You can use the included worksheets to help you calculate your costs of goods, time, and pay. Once you know all this, you will have a sense of how much you need to charge in order to make a profit.
Do Your Homework
Pay attention to your chosen genre and target market, learning what sells and what doesn’t. You can save time and energy by researching what is already available. If every photographer in your market is offering the same thing, set yourself apart by offering compelling products that give people a reason to choose you.
Now that you have all the basics taken care of, it is time to start marketing. You will need a website and social media accounts to share your work with potential clients. Focus on 2-3 social media channels (Facebook, twitter and Instagram are our faves) . You likely have a number of fans already, so ask them to help you spread the word about your business. Remember to be professional and courteous in all your interactions, and to tell everyone that you are open for business. Referrals and word-of-mouth marketing are you best friends, you want people talking about you, and your work, for all the right reasons.
We cannot overstate the importance of marketing, especially when you are first starting out. Our Marketing and PR calendar will help you set up a marketing plan that you can implement immediately and allow you to use every opportunity to tell the world about your business.
Get to know other photographers in your area by attending local meet-ups and/or just reaching out to introduce yourself. Offer to second shoot for some of the more established pros in your area to not only gain experience, but to also showcase your professionalism. Most photographers are happy to share their experience with newcomers, but that is a courtesy that must be earned. Once you have built connections, you will have a solid resource for referrals as well as a group to turn to for help and advice.
Reach out to other vendors who service the same clientele. If you are a wedding photographer get to know florists, designers, planners and other industry professionals. People like to help and refer people they like, so remember to always be nice, respectful, and have top quality marketing materials ready to go.
Be the Tortoise, not the Hare
Success in business is neither linear nor predictable, and it is often a marathon rather than a sprint. Stay hungry and excited about your business, working to grow it everyday, but temper that hunger with patience. You will have as many setbacks as you do successes and the long term viability of your business will depend on how you react to those setbacks and capitalize on those successes. It is tempting to race towards your goals at breakneck speed, but don’t be afraid to slow down and lay a strong foundation for long term success.
From a very early age I loved taking pictures and looking at them in magazines and books, but the art of photography captured my heart when I was a teenager, on my first overseas trip to Wales. From that point, I began shooting with a little film SLR and having my friend model for me. In college I took some digital photography and visual communication courses as part of my communication studies major, and decided to pursue a career in photography. I became a legal business and took my first paid client at age 20, and it's been quite a journey and adventure over the past nine years.
I secretly bought a mail-order 35mm camera when I was 15, and took lots of ordinary photos of animals and nature for several years. Although I majored in art and studied photography in college, my career started in marketing and advertising, from the client service end. Then I had the most beautiful baby, found my old camera and realized how much I love photographing people.