Starting a photography business on the side can be a great way to make extra money from your hobby without giving up the security of your full-time job.
Still, as exciting as it can be, making a success of your photography side hustle won’t be without its challenges.
To make life easier, I’ve drawn on my own experience as a small business owner and passionate photographer to create this simple, 12-step guide, teaching you everything you need to know to succeed.
How to Start a Photography Business on The Side: A Simple 12-Step Process
1. Choose a Niche
The first step towards starting your photography side business is deciding what kind of business you want to operate.
Sure, you could promote yourself as a general photographer for hire, but you’ll find that everything from creating a business plan to finding clients is much easier if you first pick a niche.
The best way to do this is to consider three things:
- What you enjoy
- What you’re really good at
- What kind of competition exists.
For example, it’s no secret that wedding photography can be incredibly lucrative, netting qualified photographers an average of $55 per hour.
Still, wedding photographers typically charge so much because they have the photography skills and experience to not only deliver exceptional photographs but also provide stellar service throughout the happy couple’s big day.
So, if that’s a niche you’re considering breaking into, you’ll need to be fully confident that you’re good enough to succeed in a competitive market.
Another option is to pick a couple of closely-related niches.
For example, if you want to make money as a live music photographer, it makes sense to offer studio photography sessions for musicians. You could even draw on your experience of shooting at busy, lively concerts to provide services as event photography.
2. Create Your Business Plan
As a right-brained creative type, business planning may not seem like the most enthralling task in the world, but it’s an invaluable process for working out the who, what, where, and how of your new venture.
Some things you’ll need to include in your photography business plan include:
A. Type of Business Structure
The most common business structures for new startups are sole proprietorships and LLCs (Limited Liability Companies).
As a solopreneur, launching your business as a sole proprietor is a popular option, as it’s the most straightforward and affordable entity to establish.
B. Target Customers
The type of customers looking for portrait photography services will be different from those looking for real estate photography or a nature-lover hoping to buy landscape photography prints for their home.
This is why it was so important to determine your niche earlier. It will help tremendously in doing market research to identify your ideal customers, a process that will later prove essential for advertising your services.
C. Strengths and Weaknesses
Here’s where it pays to be very honest with yourself about what you’re good at and what you’re not so good at.
Identifying your strengths will help you create a compelling USP (Unique Selling Point) that enables you to stand out from the slew of other professionals in your niche.
Meanwhile, admitting your weaknesses can reveal anything you may need help with.
For example, if you’re a magician in the studio but have a hard time with administrative tasks like booking appointments and ensuring invoices get paid, those may be tasks you choose to outsource to someone else.
This exercise can also help you to think realistically about how you’ll cope with being a professional photographer.
Think about it:
Suppose you’re a shy introvert who doesn’t enjoy dealing with people. Are you really going to be OK doing weddings, family portraits, or other types of photography that involve a lot of interaction with clients?
D. How Will You Fund Your Business?
If you’re looking into starting a photography side hustle, then it’s reasonable to assume that you’re already a passionate photographer with at least some equipment.
However, you may need to upgrade some pieces of kit to shoot at a professional standard. Even if you don’t, you’ll still incur some unavoidable expenses like business cards, websites, and business registration fees.
So how are you going to pay for it?
To answer that question, write down a list of everything you need to pay for and research how much each item will cost.
Next, consider whether you can cover those costs with your savings or 9-5 earnings or by borrowing from family and friends.
If not, another option is to apply for a business loan. If you’re going down this route, check out our in-depth guide to creating a solid business plan that will help you impress the bank manager.
3. Register Your Business
The last thing you want is for your business to fail only because you didn’t file the right paperwork, so these next three steps will ensure that everything is legitimate and above board.
As a sole proprietor, you’ll be required to register your Doing Business Name (DBA) in most states.
You can register this name, also referred to as an ‘assumed name’ or ‘assumed business name’ with your local County Clerk or Register of Deeds office.
Depending on where you’re based and how you plan to operate, there may be licenses and other officialities you need to register for before.
Check the following guide to see what other legal requirements may apply to your business:
5. Open a Business Bank Account
You may have heard that sole proprietors aren’t legally required to have a designated bank account purely for their business.
Not only does the IRS recommend it, but keeping your business banking separate from your personal banking will also make life much easier for you when it comes to things like filing taxes and applying for funding.
Most major banks will offer business accounts, and you can also use online companies like Novo, which offers free business checking accounts for photographers.
6. Select the Right Insurance
As with any business, there are all kinds of things that could unexpectedly go wrong for professional photographers.
From expensive cameras being stolen or damaged to customers tripping over your backdrop and injuring themselves, such problems can be so costly that they can easily toll the death knell for your side hustle.
This is why it’s so essential to have the right insurance in place, ensuring that your business is well covered should the worst happen.
See our guide to photography insurance for a full breakdown of the types of protection you’ll need.
7. Buy or Upgrade Your Equipment
If your business plan revealed the need for new equipment, now’s the time to invest in it.
It may be that you need to upgrade your old camera to a newer model or stock up on props and backdrops for studio work.
Do you need to buy software such as Adobe Photoshop for editing your photos? If so, now’s the time to get it.
What you’re doing here is making sure that you have everything in place so that when those first potential clients do come calling, you’re ready to provide exactly what they need to the highest standards.
8. Showcase Your Best Work in a Portfolio
So, your photography side business is legitimate, and you’re well-prepared to start taking on clients.
The question, of course, is how do you find them?
To begin, you will need a portfolio of your best work that demonstrates what you’re capable of.
Although it’s a good idea to have a physical portfolio for face-to-face discussions with potential clients, any photographer hoping to run a successful business in the digital age will need an online portfolio too.
You can use portfolio builder tools like Format to create an attractive digital showcase for your photography, promote your services, and accept customer inquiries via an online contact form.
To avoid confusing customers, your portfolio should mainly focus on photographs relating to the niche you chose earlier.
After all, could you imagine looking up a wedding photographer you were considering hiring only to find that their entire portfolio consisted entirely of product photography?
9. Use Contests to Boost Your Reputation
The key to success in any business is to earn a reputation as being among the very best at what you do.
In time, you’ll be able to grow your own reputation as a photographer by delivering amazing work for your clients and getting positive reviews and referrals in return.
Until then, you can get the ball rolling by entering photography competitions.
Submitting a photo should mean that it’s displayed as part of the competition exhibit, exposing your work to a broader audience.
More importantly, if you win, or even if you only place, it can do wonders for your credibility.
Accoldates from photo contests that are determined by a jury rather than a public vote serve as a vote of confidence from industry professionals, something which can go a long way to establishing yourself as a photographer of some distinction.
Besides, what client wouldn’t want to work with an award-winning photographer?
Sites like Expert Photography are a massive help in finding large competitions. However, as a photography enthusiast myself, I often find that smaller, local contests are just as good for building your reputation in the area you want to get clients from.
Many such competitions tend to fly under the radar, so the best way to find out about them is by asking around at local libraries, art galleries, and other creative or cultural spaces in your area.
You may also want to join local photographers’ associations as they can be a great source of news on new photography competitions.
As an additional benefit, photography contests in which work is displayed in a physical location, such as a gallery, typically allow entrants to add a price tag to their work, making them another great source of revenue should you win.
10. Create a Marketing Plan to Attract Clients
Entering contests is a great way to start establishing yourself as a photographer, but if you’re going to make real money from your passion, then you’ll need a marketing plan that covers both online and offline marketing channels.
Some approaches to consider include:
A. Using Social Media
The visual nature of social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, combined with their enormous numbers of active users, make them essential marketing tools for any business.
You can use these platforms to showcase highlights of recent shoots, provide behind-the-scenes insights to show customers what it’s really like to work with you as their photographer and offer discounts and special offers.
B. Distributing Print Marketing Materials
Flyers, brochures, and similar printed materials still have their place in the digital world.
Once printed, consider running a door drop campaign and partnering with other local businesses to leave flyers at their location.
The increased brand visibility alone can go a long way to ensuring potential customers remember your name when they come to need a photographer.
C. Optimizing for Local Search
Along with using search engine optimization techniques to ensure your portfolio site ranks for location-based keywords, it also pays to create optimized profiles on platforms such as Google My Business and Yelp.
Doing so significantly boosts your chances of appearing in search results when people search for things like “portrait photographer near me” or “professional photographer in Chicago.”
D. Registering for Freelancer Marketplaces
Plenty of freelance photographers advertise their services on freelance marketplace sites like Fiverr and Upwork.
Though you may not make as much from such platforms as you would if you and your clients worked directly together, they can be a good way to begin building your client base when you first get started.
You’ll also benefit by signing up for dedicated photographer marketplace sites such as:
11. Host a Launch Event
One great way to draw as much attention as possible to your new business is to officially launch it with an event.
Talk to local creative spaces, or even bars and restaurants, about hosting an event to celebrate the opening of your photography business.
Personally invite everyone you can and promote the heck out of it with flyers, posters, and even a press release to the local papers.
On the night, use the event space to display your work and marketing materials, and look at ways that you make the event even more memorable such as by providing food, drink, and entertainment.
12. Diversify Your Income by Selling Stock Photography
Providing photography services for clients isn’t the only way to make money from your talent.
Whether you’re just starting out and waiting for your marketing to take effect or you’re between clients, there are other things you can do to diversify your income streams, such as selling stock photography.
Stock photo sites like Alamy, Shutterstock, and iStockPhotos allow you to sell stock images to business owners and creatives for use on their blog posts, brochures, or other marketing materials.
Although payouts vary from platform to platform, this can prove to be a good source of passive income.
Personally, I’ve made over $600 on Alamy just by selling stock photos I took at various landmarks and locations while traveling on vacation. What’s more, almost $300 of that came from a single sale.
Other ways to diversify your income as a photographer include:
- Teach local photography classes
- Create an online photography course
- Sell prints and original works at art fairs and vendor events
- Sell your work on Etsy.
How to Start a Photography Business on the Side: Takeaways
If you’ve read this guide from start to finish, you now know exactly what it takes to start a photography business on the side.
For example, you’ve learned to:
Start by defining your niche – Knowing exactly what kind of photography services you want to offer will help you make important decisions when it comes to building your business and finding customers.
Tackle the business side first – Creating a business plan, registering and insuring your business, and opening a bank account aren’t nearly as exciting as being out there with your camera, but they’re vital for ensuring your side gig is a legitimate operation.
Use multiple approaches to attract clients – Websites, social media, and local search optimization will help you win clients online, whereas print materials and launch events can do the same offline.
Create several revenue streams – Selling stock photos, teaching photography, and selling your work directly are all fantastic ways to make additional income as a skilled photographer.
See our 22 low-cost marketing ideas for more tips on how to make your photography side business a success.