Starting your own photography business may be a lifelong goal or simply the next phase of your photography career.
Regardless, to help you along the way we’ve listed 8 steps that will help you get the foundations of your business right.
- Choosing your niche
- Deciding what you’re going to be selling
- Understanding the practical challenges of going pro (your costs)
- Understanding your competition
- Formulating/legitimizing your own brand
- Understanding your pricing
- Marketing yourself and finding clients
- Planning for sustainability
1. Choose your niche
First things first, you’ll need to figure out which photography space you want to enter. There are a number of factors that may help you better decide.
1. Feed your passion – If you don’t love what you do, it’ll always feel like work. So be sure to pick an area you’re passionate about. Think about the kind of photography that interests you the most and which brings you the most joy.
2. Think about your reputation – As you think about the kind of photography that most inspires you, you may also want to consider how you want to build your identity as a photographer. For example, look at the fascinating work of famous photographer Nick Veasey, who is renowned for his X-Ray photography. This may not be where his passion began (it might be, we’ve never had the chance to ask), but it’s how he’s branded himself. In so doing he’s found a niche and set himself apart from the competition.
3. Profitability – If you’re thinking of going pro, you’ll need to think about the practical challenge of making a living. Mixing up different styles, like portraiture and fashion could be one way to go. Or perhaps you could try getting some paid jobs and selling some stock photos through portals like Shutterstock or Istock photo.
We did some research to reveal the most profitable photography genres. Here’s the top by ranking:
- Fashion Photography
- Commercial Photography
- Product Photography
You can read more about which are most profitable here: 9 Most Profitable Photography Genres
2. Decide what you’re going to be selling
There are many ways to sell your photography. Whether its your direct services, your know-how expertise, or your photographs.
We’ve outlined some of the sectors in which you could work, and different ways you can market your photography talents here:
- Selling digital licenses online (think about online stock agencies)
- Selling prints (you might want to create conceptual collections)
- Selling travel features (airlines and travel companies are potential clients)
- Shooting for clients (a few niches here like portraiture, wedding or corporate – as well editorial magazines)
- Assisting other photographers (this is a great way to learn the trade and get contacts)
- Creating an online portfolio and building up a presence on social media
- Teaching/Mentoring others (though you’ll need to get a bit of experience behind you before starting down this road)
- Entering photography competitions
- Applying for photography grants
- Specializing in a niche: building a brand
If you’re looking for a more information regarding how you can make money with photography, you could check out an earlier post: 11 Ways to Make Money With Photography
3. Understand the practical challenges of going pro
Once you’ve decided what you’ll be doing and selling, its worthwhile trying to understand what costs are going to come along with setting up your business and equipping yourself adequately.
One-Time Startup Costs
1. Equipment Costs – This ties into Step 1 as your equipment costs will depend to a certain degree on what photography niche you selected.
Remember, the last thing you want to do is over purchase tons of equipment that you never use and have it all collecting dust. That being said, a commercial photographer with a studio is going to need a lot more equipment than a nature photographer always on the road.
Here’s a bare bones list of what’ you’ll need:
- Two Cameras (a pro always has a back-up camera)
- Multiple Lenses (a couple of good quality zooms from 24mm to 200mm should be enough)
- Flashes/lighting (LED lamps are a good value option and are easier to use)
- Memory Cards (you’re a pro – buy at the top end)
- External Hard Drives (make sure everything is backed up at least twice)
- Laptop (don’t stint on performance)
2. Business Cards – A staple of any business, visiting cards don’t tend to be expensive and you can design them easily online using tools like Canva. They’re not as popular as they used to be but it’s still a classy touch.
3. Business License – Setting up an LLC or sole proprietorship will require a registration fee. Depending where you live this can vary between $100 and $500. Lots of freelance photographers skip this step but the advantage of an LLC is that your personal liability is limited. In any event, you should research the pros and cons of have a company or being purely self employed.
Operating Costs (Monthly)
1. Website/Online Portfolio Hosting – A good portfolio website is a must for anyone who’s serious about their photography. It’s a great way promote your work, and allow new clients to contact you. Plus you can use it as a tool for delivering work too. There are endless options in this space, but we’d recommend picking something that makes your photography stand out and is good value for money.
LightRocket offers a $59 a year plan that lets you create a portfolio website, securely delivery files to clients and backup and manage all your photos. There are alternatives such as Squarespace, Wix, Photobucket, however these services are pricier and often don’t provide any serious storage or photo management value.
2. Insurance – This is insurance for gear and your healthcare (depending on the extent you need to be travelling). We’d suggest a service like Full Frame that offers insurance for the year starting at $129. In the post COVID age, health insurance might even be a requirement for traveling.
3. Accounting – If you decide to setup an LLC for your business, you’ll need to report your income for taxation purposes. This may be an ongoing expense if you need to outsource the work to a verified accountant, otherwise you can try managing it on your own.
4. Understand your competition
At this point you know which photography genre you’re going to enter, you have everything you need, you’re ready to go!
Not so fast.
It’s now that you should start thinking about how you can set yourself apart from the competition.
A useful first step might be to reverse engineer your competitors’ strategies.
Try to understand what’s working for your competitors, find areas you can learn from and things you can do better. There’s no point in reinventing the wheel, it makes most sense to take what already works, make it better, and then find a personal angle/approach that no one else has taken.
There are a number of ways to do this, but we’ve outlined a few simple steps here:
1. Find 5 other successful/prominent photographers competing in your space. (If you are a wedding photographer in El Paso, Texas, look for 5 photographers who are also wedding photographers in El Paso).
2. Study their website, pricing, social media pages, and any other affiliated content.
3. Crawl and read. What kinds of words do they use on their website? On their social media pages? What does their social media content look like and which posts are most succesful? Are there similarities between the different photographers ? Is there something they all have in common? What are none of them doing that you could be doing?
Answering these questions is going to give you a great foundation for what you might want your content, website, and social media to look like, as well as hopefully helping you find a marketing angle that no one is taking.
5. Formulating/legitimizing your own brand
By now you should have a good sense of who you’re competing against. Now it’s time to figure out how you’re going to brand yourself to set yourself apart from the crowd.
Here we’ll want to cover a few things:
1. Brand name – Is this going to be a personal brand like “Sarah Stevens Photography” or a corporate name like “Simple Photography”. If you’re looking for a unique name, we recommend Namelix for exploring some fun possibilities. Note. Keep in mind the SEO of your website. Branding yourself as a wedding photographer in your business name and URL will help potential clients more easily discover you when they search for these terms into Google.
2. Logo – Is your logo going to be plain text or going to be a more comprehensive icon? You can use a logo generator here like Tailor Brands to get you brainstorming about what you might like.
3. Colors/Schematic/Style – What is the style of your brand going to be like? Do you use cursive fonts or rigid narrow fonts? Do you prefer light colors or dark colors? These are fairly small considerations but worthwhile to address for the sake of creating consistency for your brand across all your media platforms.
4. URL/Website Name – What is the URL of your website going to be? Preferably it’s a unique URL that describes your business, for example michaelstevensphotography.com. You can search the availability and get the best price for a unique domain here at NameCheap.
5. Business Structure – The most important consideration to make here is whether you legitimize your business as a sole proprietor versus establishing an LLC. As we noted above, a key difference with a sole proprietor business is that you as the individual can be held legally liable for any and all actions conducted under the ‘business’. Oppositely, if you operate under an LLC, only the company itself can be held liable and not you as an individual. Depending on where you live, an LLC may be harder to setup and will also include more stringent accounting and finance reporting to the chamber of commerce. Nonetheless, you should legitimize your operations under one of these structures if you’re looking to get serious about growing your own photography business. Collecting payments in cash is not particularly scalable.
6. Understanding your pricing
The last thing to do as part of establishing the infrastructure of your operations is to determine your pricing. You want this to be fixed and adequately reflect both the amount of work you put in and the value a customer will get from your work.
If you have lots of experience, you should be pricing this in. Even if you’re a beginner, don’t sell yourself or your work too cheaply. If you do, you’ll be eroding your own chances of earning a decent living. Believe in what you do and charge a price that reflects the realities of the marketplace and the cost of living.
Here are a few steps and tips to consider:
1. Look at your competitors – What are your competitors charging? What appears to be the baseline average per hour, per shoot, per image? Use what your competitors are already charging as a ballpark to know where things stand and what customers are likely to pay.
2. Understand your goals – If you wanted to make $50,000 per year, work out how many assignments you’ll need to work on per month (at your fixed rate). ie. work backwards from how much money you want to make per year to understand how much work you need to be bringing in and how much you’ll need to charge per assignment to make it all work.
3. Don’t race to the bottom in pricing – It’s easy to want to just undercut others in hopes of attracting new business. A cheaper service is more attractive to clients, right? While this seems like a good option, it can work against you. You need to understand the value of your photography skills in relation to the client and what kind of quality you can produce. If you can put out quality work that is going to be 100% what your client wants and more, it’s best to price in that value. Additionally, lots of clients will associate higher costs with higher quality, so pricing yourself accordingly can be a way to differentiate yourself from the mediocrity.
The last thing you want is to be underpaid and overworked. Not to mention, the kind of clients looking to pay the bare minimum tend to be the more difficult clients.
7. Marketing yourself and finding clients
Now the groundwork has been laid, it’s time to figure out what strategies you’re going to implement to begin finding work and new clients. There are a number of ways to go about this, and it really depends on the resources you have at hand.
1. Referrals can make and break your business – The easiest way to find new clients is by having existing clients talk to their friends, family, co-workers, affiliated partners about your services. All you need to do is make a good impression, deliver exactly what’s expected, and give the client an overall positive experience. Treat every client like they’re your only client and behave as if you would love to work with them again. If you can build an experience for your clients around that, there is a good chance they will share that positive experience with people they know.
2. Website as a funnel – SEO for your website will be how the world finds you. As a result, you’ll want to make sure the SEO of your website is fully optimized, so that potential clients can easily discover your services and reach out to you.
3. Social Media Channels/Groups/Forums – Another great way to find potential clients is to go interact with them in spaces they spend time in. This can include forums, subreddits, Facebook Groups – join these communities and begin interacting with people in there. Remember, don’t try to hard-sell yourself and shamelessly promote what you’re selling, they likely get bombarded with offers all the time. Instead, consider contributing first, share a new opinion, provide feedback, build relationships to garner trust, and from there use that to find work.
4. Think outside the box – Are there photography channels online/offline you can promote in? Think of photography festivals, galleries, and expos. These are great places where like-minded clients will mostly likely be. It could be worth spending time in these areas and meeting people.
5. Advertising – When all else fails, you can always throw money at the problem. Run targeted online advertisements to potential clients through Google and Facebook. If you’re a commercial photographer in New York, target your ads exclusively in New York so that you have a high likelihood of finding a relevant client.
7. Feature your work in more places – Last, you might consider donating some of your work to galleries, websites, and blogs – it helps to have more eyes come across your name and your work. This can sometimes mean working for free as a means of promoting yourself and your business.
With the groundwork laid out and a plan in place for sourcing business, the only thing left to do is create a contingency plan: how will you adapt and pivot your photography business if something goes wrong or doesn’t quite work out?
This ties very closely in Step 2 where we covered what are your photography business options.
For example, you might run a photography business doing photography workshops during the summer in Southern Africa, but during off-peak seasons, you’ll need to find a different revenue channel. This alternative could be something like teaching online classes.
Our final tips here are:
1. Know everything you’re capable of – Run through the possibilities and tick every photography business option you could be capable of doing. This will help you narrow down which options are viable for you.
2. Work on different projects simultaneously – It’s not unheard of for photographers to be working on multiple things in the photography space. You might be working on a passion book project documenting a certain event while also offering guided photo tours.
3. Be prepared to pivot, don’t stay rigid – If you’re a talented photographer, odds are there are several ways you can be selling and marketing your skills. If you keep an open mind and are flexible, you’ll find it much easier to adapt and continue earning money.
Core tips to never forget!
1. You are not just a photographer, you will need to wear lots of hats – Starting a photography business is akin to being something of an entrepreneur. You’ll need to be prospecting new clients, closing deals, doing the work, receiving feedback, sending invoices…the list goes on. Be ready to do more than just shoot photographs!
2. People skills are going to be almost as important as your photography skills – As we’ve mentioned, your reputation in photography, as in many industries, carries a serious amount of weight. If you can find a way to win over the hearts and minds of others, you’ll find success. Treat every client like they’re you’re only client to ensure you get repeating business and have those same clients be talking about you to people they know.
3. Be patient – No success is achieved overnight. As long as you are consistently working to improve your photography and are actively out in the market looking for business, there’s a good chance good things will happen. Try not to be deflated by slow progress or a single month of bad business, the more you work the easier things should get.
Written by Leighton Emmons
Featured image by George Milton
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