Doesn’t the life of a photographer sound so fabulous? Someone pays me a few hundred bucks to take a few pictures in a dream location and I just get to edit them in an afternoon and Netflix the rest of my day away.
If only that were the reality!
Thinking back to the beginning of my photography career, I was a little haphazard. I would figure something out in relationship to my business, which would cause me to stumble into something else that needed to be done. I had a few legal scares, a bunch of late fees, and this feeling like I was always behind the curve. Was this really the fabulous life that photographers got to live? It seemed so easy, and yet I was freaking out and losing a lot of sleep. I felt hungry for information, but didn’t know where to look, so I started asking a lot of questions. Luckily, the photography community can be a really valuable well of information and support. Here are a few key things that I feel are really necessary to running your business well from the get-go!
So, you’ve decided you want to be a photographer! Woo! You’ve really started booking some good stuff, and you’re thinking this is something you want to do long term. Your absolute first order of business is to make sure you register as a business in your state. There are several types of entities you can register as, so make sure you do your research to see what is best for you! There are quite a few reasons why this is an important first action to take, but the main one being that you’re shoring up any possible legal action against yourself/your business by taking the appropriate precautions in advance. Once you’re legally registered, depending on the state, there will be some other paperwork you will need to fill out. I really think it’s best to call your comptroller or visit your state capitol to make sure you have everything you need.
How to form your business: Legal Zoom / State Capitol
Oh boy. This one is such a huge deal, and I know some pro photographers who don’t have this! Insurance is by far one of the most important business decisions you’ll make, especially as you begin to make more equipment purchases. There are several ways you can insure your gear, and there are some organizations that not only cover your gear, but will also provide legal counsel if you should happen to get yourself in a pickle. I went that route, and for only $500 a year I would say it is well worth it!
Some places where you can get insurance: PPA / Hill + Usher / TCP
I cannot caution you enough to make sure you have an incredibly solid contract. I will spare you the many horror stories I have heard from other photographers about not having a contract that covered all the bases! Mine covers everything right down to the type of food I’m served and where I’m placed at the dinner. You think that’s ridiculous? Wait until you’re eating a cold sandwich and chips in some far away room during the father-daughter dance because no one came to get you to let you know it was beginning. That is just one of the minor things contracts can cover, so make sure you either invest in a high quality legal template (read it all the way through and understand what you’re giving people to sign!) or meet with a lawyer who can help you draw one up.
Places to have online contracts: Agree / Client Management Softwares (see more below)
Accounting. It’s such a long and slightly frightening word for a lot of us. I know I have never been, nor will ever be a talented mathematician. It’s just not how I was made. Sadly, it’s imperative that we have some grasp on it, at least when it comes to our businesses! There are several great versions of accounting software that literally do it all, so us non-mathematicians don’t have to. Have you ever heard that sometimes you have to spend money to make money? Invest in these softwares. It will be far less of a headache when it comes time to do your quarterly or yearly taxes.
Another aspect of accounting and taxes are usually learning what you can write off. Meet with a CPA. It’s worth it! If you keep track of everything from the get-go, instead of (like me) fumbling around a week before taxes are due trying to figure out how much your cell phone bill was 11 months ago. This also might sound ridiculous, but it has to be said: make sure that you’re not only paying your taxes on time, but also that you’re paying all the taxes that you need to be paying. Each state is different, so check with your tax office!
Accounting Software: Wave / Quickbooks
I personally feel like the big mistake I see new photographers make is not having a clear vision for what you want your business to look like. Writing a business plan is really the best way to do this, and I know my business did not begin to grow until I narrowed everything down including what niche of photography I wanted to be working in, and how I could best market to the demographic I wanted to get. Do not fall prey to the idea that you have to take every single thing that comes to you!
Please please please listen. This is going to sound harsh, but I mean it kindly. You have to have a genuine working knowledge of your gear. If you want to become a professional photographer it is so important to understand the mechanics of what each thing is doing in your camera, as well as how to get what you need in camera through settings adjustments. You need to know that there are certain lenses that can’t go on certain camera bodies, or the difference between shooting in RAW or JPEG. Do not be afraid to ask questions! Ask, ask, and then ask some more. I spent an entire year second shooting and getting my hands dirty before I ever took a wedding of my own. Reach out to photographers you admire. Save up to take a workshop, or just Google it! We all learn so differently, and I think that is great. Figure out what works best for you, and run after that with all you’ve got!
Planning + Pricing
Do you want to hear one of the worst thing that ever happened to me? I double booked a wedding. It was one of the most horrific and sad days of my life when I realized that in just 3 days time I was supposed to be in two different places shooting two different weddings. Luckily, I have great brides and a great friend who came to the rescue. I vowed to never let that happen again, so the next day I finally buckled down and bought a client management software. It was and is one of the best tools I’ve purchased for my business, and I’m glad to see that money draft out of my account each month. It’s better than missing out on several thousand dollars, right?
Also, speaking of money...let’s talk about pricing. It is so important that you do a bit of research, and know that your prices will support a sustainable business before you put them out there. Do a bit of market research and find out what the going rate is in your area. I can’t tell you how many times I hear that someone is charging far under the going rate. There are 2 things that can happen here:
1. Your prices are so low that no one books you. Or,
2. Your prices are so low that you’re undercutting others in your area.
I won’t go too into these two, because there are a lot who feel passionately about this issue. The bottom line is that you should make your prices fair not only for the sake of others, but for yourself as well.
I feel like I just told you to spend a lot of money and that’s all. I want you to know that I had to learn all of these things the hard way, and sometimes it is not very fun. I don’t necessarily wish I could go back and change the circumstances because it is helping me run my business like a ship, but I also wish I had this checklist to start out with! I hope this helps you on your journey!
I’m a native New Orleanian who moved to Texas to marry my husband Josh. I love French culture, food, coffee, interior design, minimalism and Celine Dion. I am an avid thrifter, and deep lover of all things creative. I have a husky named Nanook, and my little family is moving to Seattle this year! See more of my work here.
It’s time to stop letting the fear of not knowing what to do (or how to do it) keep you from creating a solid foundation for the business you’ve been dreaming about.