Last Updated on July 20, 2020
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, it’s possible for you to 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 or who may be 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 family portrait, fine art, sports, retail photography, and more. In addition to selling photography sessions, photographers usually make money off of print purchases, photo licensing, and even stock photography.
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 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 resulted in reduced appreciation for the art and talent that go into professional photography. With consumers valuing professional photography less, photographers can meet increasing resistance when it comes to asking 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.
Who is the target market for your photography business?
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 photo shoot 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.
Skills, experience, and education useful in running a photography business
While starting a photography business doesn’t require a business degree, there are some skills and experience that are important in this industry.
Photography skills. A business owner doesn’t necessarily need a degree in photography, but they do need to have strong photography skills. In addition to those skills, business owners need editing skills, usually in programs like Lightroom or Photoshop. Many courses are available to help develop both photography and editing skills.
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 being able to build 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 can draw in 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.
Costs 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.
Common startup costs
- Equipment such as cameras and lenses, a computer, and lighting
- Subscriptions to photo editing programs like Lightroom or Photoshop
- Studio-related costs, such as the studio rental, lighting, props, and backdrops
- Promotional materials like sample prints, canvases, and books
Steps to Starting a Photography Business
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.
Step 2. Form a Business Entity
A business entity refers to how a business is legally organized to operate. There are four primary business entities to choose from which include the sole proprietorship, partnership, corporation and LLC. Each type of entity has its own pros and cons such as liability exposure, costs and administrative requirements.
Related: Comparison of Business Entities
Step 3. 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.
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 4. Apply 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, and Occupancy Permit among others.
Step 5. 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 invest 15-25% of their money towards the total start-up costs.
Step 6. 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 social media, paid advertising, e-newsletters, and more. Word-of-mouth from happy clients will be an effective marketing channel once the business is up and going.
The biggest competitor to professional photographers is the cell phone, so it’s important to have a niche in your area and be the go-to person.
Step 7. Get Insurance
A photography business requires multiple types of insurance to keep it fully covered:
- General liability insurance protects a photographer in case 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 property insurance protects a business owner against damage to their rented or owned studio. If operating a studio out of your home, be sure to read your insurance policy as many don’t cover business activity in the home, unless an additional policy is purchased.
- Commercial auto insurance is necessary in case a photographer’s personal auto insurance doesn’t cover accidents or damage incurred in a vehicle used for business purposes.
- Workers comp insurance is required for any photography business that hires employees. This type of insurance can cover expenses like an employee’s lost wages or medical bills if they’re ever hurt while on the job.
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 8. Hiring 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 be able to 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
Every state has specific requirements and regulations when starting a business. Select your state below to find the guide to starting a business in your state.
How much can you potentially make owning a photography business?
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.
Things to consider before starting a photography business
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. 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.
Drone photography is a growing add-on service for photographers. There are additional licensing requirements through a background check from the Transportation Security Agency (TSA), Unmanned Aircraft System operator licensing, in addition to any state regulations.
Customers printing copies of photographers work has been a constant struggle and as a result, impacts the income of these businesses. 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.
Much of a photographer’s success comes down to their talent, their business skills, and their 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.
American Photographic Artists
American Society of Media Photographers
International Freelance Photographers Association
National Press Photographers Association
Photographic Society of America
Professional Photographers of America