How to Start a Photography Business
Do you always have your camera by your side? Whether you’re capturing stunning landscapes or making memories with your family, your photography talents might be the key to your new business. In addition to a love of photography, you’ll need some ambition and some training, but starting your own photography business could give you a flexible source of income. Because these businesses cost relatively little to start up, you can get into professional photography on a part-time basis, gradually building your business into a full-time operation.
Photography business owners provide services to customers, who may be the public, business owners, sports venues, or the media. There is lots of variety in the photography industry, and business owners may choose to specialize in fields like portrait photography, fine art, sports, headshots, studio settings, and more. In addition to selling photography sessions, photographers usually make money off print purchases, photo licensing, and even stock photography.
The photography industry is highly competitive, and many photographers start their businesses part-time before building up the clientele they need to go completely full-time.
While the photography industry has undergone steady growth, it does face numerous challenges, and we may see the industry be reshaped over the coming years. According to IBIS World, the photography industry experienced an annualized 0.3% growth from 2014 to 2019 and is predicted to bring in $10 billion in revenue in 2019. The number of businesses has also grown to 199,500 in 2019. Most of those businesses are independent photographers who do not employ staff. In total, 239,526 people are employed within this industry during 2019.
Photography is largely a luxury service, so its popularity is dependent on the amount of disposable income that consumers have available. This disposable income is closely linked to the economy and unemployment rates. With lower unemployment currently, more consumers are willing to pay more for professional photography services. Disposable income is projected to be higher in 2019, which implies increased business for the photography industry.
Numerous trends present a challenge to the photography industry. According to ICT Trends, the rise in social media and the falling prices of entry-level DSLR cameras have given the general public the ability to take higher quality photos than they could previously. Today, many smartphones are equipped with higher-quality cameras. With this more user-friendly equipment, consumers may be less likely to hire professional photographers, relying on their own equipment instead.
This increased focus on enabling the everyday consumer to take better quality photos has also reduced appreciation for the art and talent that go into professional photography. With consumers valuing professional photography less, photographers can meet increasing resistance when asking for higher prices for their work. Photographers need to work harder to differentiate themselves and their work from what consumers can accomplish with a DSLR and a filter.
Target markets vary significantly between different photography businesses. In the most general terms, photographers target adults with disposable income who value professional photography. Specific audiences may be business owners in need of product photography, couples getting married in need of engagement and wedding photography, parents-to-be looking for a photographer to capture the early life of their baby, pet owners looking to have a photoshoot done of their pets, school photographers, and much, much more. From special event photography to sports photography and more, a photography business’ target market is largely defined by the type of photography that the business specializes in.
Checklist for Starting a Photography Business
Starting a tutoring business can be an incredibly rewarding experience, but it’s important to make sure you’re prepared for the challenges ahead. Use this checklist to get a clear snapshot of what you need to do to get started.
Step 1: Write your Business Plan
After coming up with the idea, the next step in starting your business should be to write a business plan. Not only will a bank require you to have a business plan, but multiple studies have shown that a business plan helps increase the odds of starting a successful business.
Related: How to write a business plan
Step 2: Name the Business
Finding the perfect business name can be challenging. Not only does the name have to resonate with your customers, but it also has to be available to use.
Step 3: Form a Business Structure
A business structure (also referred to as a business entity) refers to how a business is legally organized to operate. There are four primary business structures to choose from, which include the sole proprietorship, partnership, corporation, and Limited Liability Company (LLC). Each type of structure has its own pros and cons, such as liability exposure, costs, and administrative requirements.
When deciding on which business structure is best for a photography business, it normally comes down to the sole proprietorship and Limited Liability Company.
A partnership opens the owners up to unnecessary personal liability because if a partner does something to get the business sued, or runs off with cash from the business, the other partners are personally liable to repay. The corporation can be a good choice because it separates the business assets from the owner’s assets. If the corporation is sued or certain business debts can’t be paid back, the owners aren’t personally responsible to repay them. The downside to the corporation is that it is more complicated than all the other entities and requires more administration than the LLC. If you plan on raising a lot of investment though, the corporation is usually the better choice.
That leaves the sole proprietorship and LLC.
The sole proprietorship is the least expensive and easiest entity to start which is appealing. The downside is the owner is personally liable should anything happen to the business, which is an important consideration. The LLC offers the ability to operate as a sole proprietorship with the liability protection of a corporation. Depending on the state, the cost to form an LLC runs from $40 – $500, which is pretty inexpensive for protecting the owners from business-related lawsuits and certain debts.
Related: Guide to forming your LLC
Forming an LLC sounds complicated and expensive, but using an entity formation service guides you through the process so you know it was done right.
Some popular LLC formation services include:
IncFile - $0 plus state fees & free registered agent for 1 year!
IncAuthority - $0 plus state fees & free registered agent the first year!
ZenBusiness - $49 plus state fees & free registered agent for 1 year!
Step 4: Select your Location
A photographer who plans to lease a studio space will need to account for monthly lease fees. The cost of a lease will depend on a studio’s location and size. Studios in retail locations that see heavy traffic may bring higher lease costs, but they may be worth this extra investment in terms of the public awareness and walk-in traffic they can generate. When considering a studio space, you can calculate how many customers it will take to break even to see if the investment is worth it.
Many photographers shoot at picturesque locations or have a studio in their home. If running a studio from your home, be sure to look at neighborhood covenants and city ordinances to make sure you can legally operate.
Related: Choosing a business location
Step 5: Register for Business Licenses and Permits
There aren’t specific licenses for photography businesses; however, some common local, state, and federal registrations most businesses need include a sales tax permit, Employer Identification Number (EIN), and Occupancy Permit, and others.
Unfortunately, protecting the copyright of photos is becoming even more challenging, and photographers will often face the situation of having people screenshot and use their work illegally. Having a lawyer who you can reach out to at these times can be helpful. Customer’s printing copies of photographers’ work has been a constant struggle and, as a result, impacts these businesses’ income. This is copyright infringement, and for most operators, it’s often cost-prohibitive to go after customers who are using this work without permission. Legislation has been introduced over the years but hasn’t fixed the situation.
Step 6: Find Financing
Coming up with a good business idea and having the skills to run it are one thing, but getting the funding to start a photography business is another. Fortunately, the cost to start a photography business is relatively small, but seeking funding for studio renovations, furniture, and equipment can be difficult due to a lack of collateral. In order to get a loan, the borrower(s) will need to have good credit and be able to personally invest 15-25% towards the total start-up costs.
Step 7: Open a Business Bank Account
Keeping your business and personal finances in separate bank accounts is important to track the income and expenses of your business and identify trends.
Many banks offer free business checking accounts, so be sure to find a cost-effective option for your business.
Step 8: Get your Marketing Plan in Place
All photography businesses need to have an active marketing presence. Marketing budgets will vary according to how much marketing a photographer can do themselves, as well as the type and volume of marketing efforts. Common marketing techniques for photographers include marketing on social media, paid advertising, e-newsletters, handing out business cards, and more. Word-of-mouth testimonials and referrals from happy clients will be an effective marketing channel once the business is up and going.
Part of your marketing will be building a portfolio of your work. Make sure potential customers can easily find your work by putting your pictures on your website, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.
The biggest competitor to professional photographers is the cell phone, so it’s important to have a niche in your area and be known for that type of photography.
Step 9: Get Business Insurance
There are several types of small business insurance to consider when starting a photography business. A few of these include:
– General liability insurance protects a photographer if a customer is ever injured during a shoot or while at the studio.
– Equipment insurance is necessary to cover damage or loss of photography equipment like lenses, camera bodies, and equipment, especially since that loss can affect a photographer’s ability to do business.
– Commercial auto insurance is necessary if a photographer’s personal auto insurance doesn’t cover accidents or damage incurred in a vehicle used for business purposes.
The cost of insurance policies varies depending on the value of equipment and the studio being insured. Different insurance companies may offer policies at different costs. To get the most accurate idea of what insurance will cost, request quotes from several companies. Then, compare factors like the policy premium, deductible, coverage exclusions, and coverage limits.
Step 10: Hire Employees
Most photographers operate without hiring employees, but in some cases, a larger photography business may benefit from hiring staff. For an occasional second shooter or help at only certain events, photographers may hire independent contractors. For regular work, it may be necessary to hire a second full-time photographer to help with shoots and editing.
According to PayScale, entry-level photographers earn about $13.20 per hour. Photographers with 5 to 9 years of experience earn about $19.36 per hour, while photographers with between 10 and 19 years of experience earn about $20.15 per hour.
In addition to budgeting for employee salaries, a business that hires full-time employees will need to budget for expenses like paid time off, health insurance contributions, unemployment insurance contributions, and workers comp insurance.
Related: Hiring your first employee
Step 11:Set up an Accounting System
Setting up an accounting system is critical to the long-term success of your business.
Staying on top of taxes not only keeps the business out of trouble with the government, but the numbers can be used to track and monitor trends and cash flow in the business and maximize profits.
The thought of accounting can be intimidating for a lot of new entrepreneurs. There are a number of ways of handling bookkeeping, from DIY to hiring a bookkeeper. These include:
- Pen and paper - Low expense, but difficult to track.
- Spreadsheet - Low expense, but easy to make errors.
- Accounting software - Medium expense, but owner typically inputs expenses. Some great accounting software programs include Freshbooks or Wave Accounting.
- Hire a bookkeeper - Higher expense, though very affordable at $100-$200 per month in most cases. A dedicated bookkeeper will probably save money because, in addition to handling all of the bookkeeping (so you can focus on the business), they also provide personalized tax advice and ensure the business is in compliance.
Find bookkeepers in your local area or use a service like 800Accountant.
How much does it cost to start a photography business?
The cost to start a photography business depends on a number of variables. Some photographers offer mobile sessions and travel to their customers, while others invest in a studio, which brings about additional costs. The type of equipment that a business needs will also affect the startup costs. Plan to spend at least $15,000 for a basic equipment setup without a studio.
Some common startup costs include:
– Commercial photography gear such as cameras, lenses, flashes, lighting, batteries, memory cards, computer, and editing software
– Subscriptions to photo editing software like Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop
– Studio-related costs, such as studio rental, lighting, props, and backdrops
– Promotional materials like sample prints, canvases, and books
How much does a photography business owner make?
Photographers enjoy different incomes depending on their location, talents, specializations, and years in business. ZipRecruiter identifies the average annual salary for a freelance photographer as $57,806, with salaries reaching up as high as $79,000 and being as low as $35,000.
Drone photography is a growing add-on service for photographers. Licensing a drone photography business is more difficult as there are additional licensing requirements such as a background check from the Transportation Security Agency (TSA), Unmanned Aircraft System operator licensing, in addition to any state regulations.
Are there grants to start a photography business?
It’s extremely rare to find a grant to start a photography business. If you search for business grants, you will come across a lot of scams and misinformation. Occasionally an organization will offer grants to start a business, however, be skeptical and don’t provide any sensitive personal information or pay money to get more information.
Legitimate federal grants can be found at Grants.gov and you can check on your state’s economic development office to see if they have any grants available.
What skills are needed to run a photography business?
While starting a photography business doesn’t require a business degree, some skills and experience are important in this industry.
Photography skills. A business owner doesn’t necessarily need a degree in photography, but they need strong photography skills. In addition to those skills, business owners can benefit from having editing skills, usually in programs like Lightroom or Photoshop, though you can outsource this. Many courses are available to help develop both photography and editing skills.
Much of a photographer’s success comes down to their talent, business skills, and ability to develop their own style that is also appealing to their customers. If you’re considering starting a photography business, try to find an internship opportunity or offer to be a second shooter for another photographer so that you can learn as much as possible about the industry before you start your own business.
Creativity. The more creative a photography business owner is, the better they’ll be able to come up with intriguing shots that stand out from their competition.
Interpersonal skills. Running a photography business requires regular interaction with clients, and building a relationship with those customers can encourage them to use the business’ services again. Similarly, problems do occur, and clients may have questions or complaints, so strong interpersonal skills and the ability to address complaints and concerns is important.
Awareness of trends. The photography industry constantly evolves, and customers may be looking for a new photography style or idea that they saw online. A photographer who stays aware of new trends can offer these types of shoots and draw new customers.
Marketing skills. Marketing is a huge part of successfully running a photography business. From establishing and maintaining social media profiles to handing out business cards at events to blogging and investing in print advertising, photographers need to be marketers, too.
What is the NAICS code for a photography business?
The NAICS code for a photography business is 541920.
The NAICS code (North American Industry Classification System) is a federal system to classify different types of businesses for the collection and reporting of statistical data.
American Photographic Artists
American Society of Media Photographers
International Freelance Photographers Association
National Press Photographers Association
Photographic Society of America
Professional Photographers of America