32 Detailed Tips for Starting a Photography Business
Starting your own photography business is tough work, but with the right guidance you can join this rewarding profession along with the other ~50,000 photographers in the USA.
Hand and Arrow Photography began in early 2017, and as we began to grow, take on new clients, and experience new things as photographers and business owners, we learned a whole lot that we feel would be valuable to share with others. This article is going to be quite comprehensive based on our experiences.
Found here are 32 Tips for Starting a Photography Business. Hopefully you will find some of these to be useful to you. We are always happy to talk as well if you have any questions - feel free to leave a comment at the bottom of this article!
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32 detailed Tips for Starting a Photography Business
- Get ready to work around the clock. In our first year of operation, we had to adapt to learning how to manage a substantial amount of work. In truth, we were quite surprised by the level of success we saw, especially given how many stories are out there about some photographers struggling to book even a single wedding in their first year. Early on in the year, we were relatively slow as we were starting up, but this comes with the territory as wedding bookings typically happen 1 year or greater from the date. Many of our weddings were held in the fall of 2017. Leading up to this, we handled mostly engagement sessions and occasional portrait/family sessions.
During the heat of October (our busiest month), every day was requiring constant effort to manage our workload. Between culling and editing photos, responding to emails, making wedding day timelines, and having meetings with prospective clients for the following season - it can be daunting. Be ready for this experience, and prepared to take it on.
- Accept that you will not just be a photographer, but a business owner. One of the core reasons we were attracted to becoming professional photographers is because it would allow us to...take photographs! Having done photography as a hobby for much of our lives, it seems like a no brainer, but like most things - when you decide to do it as a business, the act of taking photos is only a small portion of what you will be doing. Running your own business requires a host of skills to be successful - photo editing, accounting, staying organized, managing client expectations, etc.
- Create a business plan. Having a plan for where you are going to take your business is a key to success. A good business plan will provide your photography company with a template for success. As with any plan, be prepared to make adjustments as you go along, but a good plan will set out expectations. Even a simple plan can go a long way.
- Decide on a photography business name. Naming your photography business is a big challenge for many. The process of stumbling upon our name, Hand and Arrow Photography Co., was a mixture of a lot of time spending time just actively thinking about what we wanted the name to be, researching potential names, and a little hint of luck.
- Decide what things you can do, and what things you should outsource. Because running a photography business requires much more than just being a good photographer, knowing your limitations is valuable. Currently, we run our entire business in-house, but we expect sometime in the future as we continue to grow, it will become necessary to hire someone to help with certain aspects of the business. We are fortunate that we have had many diverse work and education experiences, as well as personal quirks and interests, that have lent themselves to allowing us to manage all components of our business by ourselves with minimal input from outside sources (such as a CPA).
- Establish how much time you have to commit to your business. One of the biggest challenges for us was learning when to limit the amount of time we spend on our business pursuits. This is especially challenging as we both have full time day jobs (for now). Coinciding with this point is also learning how to manage time better, and be more efficient in other ways. Even with limitations in place, in high season, it can be difficult to pull away from work - so do realize that your limitations may also be flexible to a certain extent. The overarching point here, though, is being sure you provide some space for yourself to relax and unwind. Burnout seems inevitable if you are working 80+ hours a week. One thing that is obvious to us is that, once we are able to take our photography business full time, we will have a much better work/life balance as a result of not having to jam every facet of our business into the evening hours every day; and not being exhausted from our day jobs as well.
- Determine who your target audience will be. A major part of running a photography business is knowing who you want to attract as a client. The simplest way we have implemented this "audience targeting" is into our website content - particularly our About Us page. A quick glimpse through that page will reveal quite a bit about each of us as photographers and individuals. While there is no doubt that people want to see good quality photos that elicit a response in them, just as important is being able to sell yourself to people. In our About page, we make mention to some things that we are interested in and enjoy like Game of Thrones and Angus & Julia Stone. Oh, and a good deal of travel when we get the chance!
- Decide what kind of photography you want to specialize in. Deciding you want to become a professional photographer is only half of the battle. Perhaps of more importance is deciding what kind of photography you want to do. Keep in mind that just because you choose a specialty does not mean you have to completely limit yourself from doing different types of gigs. However, there is real value in defining yourself as a brand so as to better target a specific audience. For us, we decided to become wedding photographers. Our core audience is going to be couples and doing photos for them. Outside of shooting the wedding day, our sessions and wedding packages involve couples in other ways. We offer couples sessions, engagement sessions, and day after sessions all oriented around providing new photo opportunities for our couples. We also do portraits and family sessions, and are completely open to other types of photography opportunities as well; but we know that our main focus is on weddings and the experience of couples.
- Build a portfolio of your work. One of the big challenges when starting a photography business is having a portfolio of work to display. After all, who would want to hire you to shoot their wedding day - one of the most important days of their life - without seeing examples of your work? The best way to acquire experience is by second shooting for other photographers. Prior to starting Hand and Arrow Photography, Jes worked as a second shooter for some other photographers in the area - both friends and people she had networked with. These photographers allowed her to use her images in blog posts and on social media. In addition, it is easy enough to build a small portfolio of work taking photos of friends and family. The opportunities are out there, but it does take some time to build a good portfolio - so be prepared to take the time needed to get this right as it is an invaluable tool for helping to get your photography business off the ground. The best way to keep up with our photography portfolio is to check out our latest stories!
- Shoot in RAW file format. One of the beginner mistakes of professional photography is not shooting in RAW format. The reason why RAW file format is so invaluable is because it allows greater post-processing opportunities, and can truly enable you to save photographs that might otherwise have to be put in the trash. Pulling a RAW file into Lightroom and being able to have a high level of control to fix the exposure, for example, is reason enough to recommend this. The only challenge this may present is requiring more storage space - both on SD cards and on your computer hard drive. Because with a single wedding we can shoot upwards of 3,000+ photos, it became essential for us to upgrade to cards with high storage capacities; and we have invested in multiple external hard drives.
- Offer services to charity. A cool part about running a photography business is that it gives you some unique opportunities to give back to your local community. While many people think of either volunteering to build houses or help the homeless, or just think of giving money to charities, providing photography services is also valuable because it allows these charitable organizations to capture important moments and share them with the world. Early on, we gave some of our time to JDRF - a diabetes research and fundraising organization. This in turn gave us a fairly stress-free environment to practice event photography, and some opportunities to network.
- Network with other photographers. The best way to learn how to become a good photographer, and a good business owner, is learning how to network with other photographers. Social media makes this incredibly easy - just find some photographers that you like, and reach out to them. Many work opportunities came about by just being to work with others in our local area. While running a photography business can be competitive, in our area (at least), there are many people who have been valuable sources of help. We aim to offer this help back out to others as well, and are already taking some people under our wing who want to learn more about wedding photography.
- Be prepared to be a people person. While many may think of photography as a fairly nice way to escape the spotlight that may come with some jobs, the truth is that in certain situations, having good people skills can make or break your career. In a wedding environment, it is important to be able to take control of certain situations (like organizing people for family formals) and react appropriately when an intoxicated guest starts bad mouthing you. On a more day-to-day level, just being able to maintain nice and casual conversations is useful. With couples photography, we have also found being able to make our couples feel comfortable during a shoot helps to make our photos more natural and authentic, and helps to make their experience of being photographed painless and fun!
- Figure out where your start up capital will come from. So you want to start a photography business? Great! The next step is fundamentally about how you will afford to start one. Unless you are already a seasoned hobby photographer with a ton of gear, you will need a good amount of money to get started with professional gear for all scenarios.
In our first year of operation, we easily spent $10,000+ on new camera bodies and lenses. Our annual recurring costs (for services like Microsoft 365, Honeybook, Squarespace, etc.) is around $2,000. While it is costly to set up a business, it is actually not as bad as you might expect - unless you are looking to have your own studio - in which case rent costs are probably going to be through the roof.
We maintained our full-time day jobs as a means for funding our photography business. You may need to consider similar, especially if you have other costs (rent, student loads, etc.).
- Figure out what you need to purchase to have professional equipment.
The beauty of photography is that it is an eloquent blend of artistic skills and technical components. A good photographer has a keen eye for capturing moments by examining the environment, and the people who are the focus of many of these shots, and being able to quickly adapt their settings to have a correct image exposure - all well understanding what their gear will (and will not) allow them to do from a technical perspective. Equally important is having the right tools, and knowledge of how to use those tools. Professional level camera bodies, such as the Canon 5D Mark III and Canon 5D Mark IV (both of which we use and love!) provide a solid foundation on which you build by selecting lenses that will suit your style of photography best. Pro lenses tend to be fairly expensive, and as a result you may have to be selective, especially early on, with what you choose to shoot with.
- Get registered as a Limited Liability Company (LLC). In our opinion, there is nothing more frightening than offering a professional service without creating some legal space between you and your customers. Many photographers do not register as legal business entities (making them sole proprietorships by default), but this also places them at greater risk if something was to go wrong as it allows them to be sued for personal assets. A LLC, while a bit of a pain to set up, enables a suing party to only go after business assets - so no worry of a lawsuit coming for your home and cars.
There is no doubt that most people don't want to think about the bad side of running their own business. For most people, we would imagine the threat of a lawsuit doesn't really pop up. Strive to do good work and treat your clients well, and you probably will not have a problem. But, it is important to be protected in the off chance something does happen.
Of course, there are other valuable reasons to set up an LLC as well.
- Be flexible. People like working with people who are easygoing. In most respects, we are significantly flexible and relaxed. We aim to make our sessions and the wedding days we shoot at non-stressful events. There are opportunities to be flexible all over the place with running a photography business. Some simple ways in which we have been in the past: Allow clients to make payment plans to pay off wedding day services, give clients a say in where their session(s) where be held, be willing to adjust course if your client's feel something could be done differently during a session or event.
With flexibility in mind, also consider the things you should not be easygoing about. Every photographer will have a set of things that they cannot budge on, and this is perfectly fine - so long as you make it clear to your clients (and prospective clients). Some common examples include providing RAW files to clients, and maybe more obviously, not accepting rude behavior. Flexibility does not mean you have to be walked over.
- Practice, practice, practice. Every photographer had to start somewhere. Just because you set up a photography business does not make you a good photographer. The key is to continue to hone your skills. The valuable skills at play are not just within the camera and the photos you take, but also refining how you do other things - like posing your couples.
- Seriously - know your gear inside and out. So you just bought $10k worth of photography gear, now you need to take the time to learn how to use it properly. In our experience, every camera body, lens, flash, tripod, etc. comes with its own quirks. You do not want to be fumbling to figure out how things work during a high pressure wedding situation.
Of course, there are certain things that can be difficult to practice before a session or event. Off camera flash set ups are an example of this for us, because using one in our home with low white ceilings, or backyard, is a totally different environment and set of rules when compared to using it in a large, brown, and high ceiling reception hall. There is, no doubt, some learning that is done on the job - but do your best to know your gear as much as possible before setting out.
- Stock up on batteries and flash cards. One thing we learned the hard way is how critical it is to have backup batteries and SD cards. This is especially true when shooting long days and big, important events like a wedding. Flash cards can fill up quick, and even in some horrifying times - stop working. Batteries seem to be able to die as a result of weather changes and even quicker when using flash. We have about 10 camera batteries, 10 flash cards (with 2-3 we primarily use at 64GB and 124GB storage respectively), and a large quantity of rechargeable Enloop AA batteries for our flashes.
- Offer inexpensive services for a few clients. When just starting off, you are not going to be able to start charging $3,000 for a wedding. It is a simple reality. To get your foot in the door, offer lower costing packages to really entice new clients. During this time, it is also important to set expectations with these clients so they fully understand that you are just starting out - because paying a newbie $500 dollars to do a full wedding day vs. paying a seasoned pro thousands of dollars is no doubt going to result in different images. We attracted many clients early on through Facebook and Thumbtack.
- Create a pricing list, and make it readily available to prospective clients. We believe transparency in pricing makes it easier to book new clients. Our pricing lists are easy to access right on our website, and we have done much to refine them down. You can check out our Wedding Packages, Couple + Portrait Sessions, and Family Sessions at their respective links.
- Make becoming your client an easy process. One meeting we had with a prospective client (that turned out to be our customer!) really opened our eyes to how some other photographers in our area make the booking process challenging. Frustrating a prospective client with requiring check or cash payment, signing paper contracts, etc. are not good business decisions. Providing convenience to your clients does come with some cost, but in our opinion, the good outweighs the bad by far.
We are always looking to refine our process, but right now the process of getting in touch to booking is extremely easy. We receive most of our messages through our website Contact form, process our emails using a well-organized Outlook app on our computer and iPhones, set up phone calls and in person meetings to discuss the details, then send contracts and invoices simultaneously to our booking clients through Honeybook. Through Honeybook, clients have the option to use credit/debit card for payment, and can sign their contracts digitally.
- Provide online galleries and physical products. Once you finish editing photos, how should you provide them to your clients? The easiest way we have found is by using an Online Gallery. Given that we shoot in digital format, uploading all of the photos on to Pixieset gives us some flexibility, and makes it easy for the client to access the photos whenever they want. For Wedding packages, we also provide a USB with all of the wedding/engagement photos in the mail, as we have come to realize that not everyone has a huge amount of storage space on their personal computers.
In our contracts, we also stipulate how long Online Galleries will stay online, as these services increase in cost as you use more and more storage space. For smaller sessions, it is usually a few months. For weddings and larger events, they stay online for a year from delivery date.
A good Online Gallery service, like Pixieset, will also allow you to integrate a store front. Through Pixieset, we have set up the ability to order prints, canvases, albums, and other physical products directly. This provides some serious convenience to customers, and makes our lives substantially easier when it comes to selling these sorts of things.
- Set expectations up front with clients. During consultations, be sure to get a sense of what your clients expectation is from their photographer. Some clients are extremely easy going, almost not caring too much for all the details, while others are much more picky. The good news is that - both types of people can be easy and fun to work with, so long as you manage expectations if someone is asking for something you can't provide or reasonably achieve in a certain time frame.
- Become an accountant (or hire one). One of the funnest parts of running a photography business is keeping constant tabs on "the books." Okay, this is a little sarcastic. Accounting for all expenses can be mentally taxing. Fortunately for us, Chris is a bit of a nerd and enjoys maintaining spreadsheets (for some reason), so keeping track of our finances isn't too bad for us. He started based on an Excel accounting spreadsheet template, and it has worked quite well. You will also want to be sure you keep track of all receipts, as these will need to be provided when you file taxes. For this, we do use a CPA in our area.
- Do your best to automate as much of your work as possible. It is possible to automate certain aspects of your workflow. For example, through Honeybook, we are able to set up contract and invoicing templates. This alone saves a lot of time so we do not have to create a new contract or payment plan from scratch every time someone wants to book. This is still an area that we are trying to refine more, but it is entirely possible to make many aspects of your workload easier in this way.
- Track your mileage. As a photography business owner, it is common to drive long distances for sessions, weddings, events, and meetings with prospective clients. All of this mileage can be written off of your taxes, but it is necessary to keep a detailed log of all the driving you do. If you are just driving your personal vehicle, it is mandatory to track ALL driving - both personal and business. When we found this out, it seemed like a daunting and extremely tedious task. We initially tried keeping track with pen and paper, then in Excel, but this was too time consuming.
We ended up getting a trial of MileIQ - a simple service that automatically can track your mileage using your cell phone. It is clean and very affordable, and one of the few services that literally pays for itself. We have logged over $2,000 tax credit eligibility from driving in 2017 so far, from a service that we paid $40/year for. Using this link, you can get 20% off the annual subscription cost.
- Have contracts in place for any work you do. Going along with setting up an LLC as mentioned earlier, having contracts in place for every session, wedding, event you photograph is fundamentally important. The reasons for this should be obvious, but include capturing what exactly you are (and are not) providing in your service, the location(s), the cost (and how/when it will be paid), and your liability.
At first, contracts can be daunting, especially if you are not a lawyer (you probably are not) - a good starting point is just researching online photography contract templates. If you are particularly concerned about the verbiage in your contract, it may be necessary to have a lawyer actually put together a basic contract for you. In our experience, we did not feel this was necessary, in part because Chris has a background working with legal documents and contracts in his day job - so he is fairly comfortable with a lot of the legal jargon and requirements.
- Create a website. In the modern world, there is nothing more important than having your own website when you become a professional photographer. It is the easiest way to convey your brand and showcase your photo portfolio to the world. While website creation can be complex if you want it to be, potentially requiring a lot of coding knowledge or outsourcing to a developer, platforms like Squarespace (which we use!) provide the ability to put together a website yourself with ease from pre-built templates. The beauty of Squarespace is that it really seems to have been developed with photographers in mind, and we would say it works quite beautifully for our needs.
- Expand your online presence into social media. Gaining new followers and getting the attention of new clients is often tied together with having a good social media presence. Many of the weddings we booked in our first year came through people finding us on Facebook and Instagram. We limited paid advertising, and just spent time regularly posting and researching hash-tags to add to every image.
- Learn how to edit photos. Post processing of your photos will help you establish your style, and make you more able to stick out in a saturated photography market. This was made significantly easier for us because Jes is an experienced graphic designer. Modern photography is really reliant on being able to provide edited images - something that can be done in a range of software. We use Adobe Lightroom for most of our editing needs, and open files in Photoshop when more detailed work is required.
You can access the Adobe Creative Cloud for just a little over $100/year which includes Lightroom and Photoshop!
- Have fun! Starting a photography business can be daunting - and with good reason. There is a lot you have to do to become a successful photographer, and even more you have to do to become a successful business owner. From time to time, it is important to take a step back, review what you have accomplished, look at the things you still need to work on, and remember to have a good time while you figure all of this out.
One of our biggest challenges is handling our day jobs alongside the innate drive we have to make our photography business successful. Our fundamental goal is to be able to do this full time at some point, and with this comes the requirement to invest in ourselves and our business over and over again.