Photography doesn’t have to be a mere hobby. Professional photographers are needed in fields such as journalism, real estate marketing, and travel reporting. If you have a passion for photography and an appetite to start your own business, it’s worth exploring how to merge the two.
All business ventures require legwork in terms of licensing, financing, and marketing. Starting a photography business is no different. With the right approach, you can draft a business plan, manage startup costs, and start sharing your creative photography services with the world. Here are tips for getting started.
Types of photography businesses
There are lots of different ways to jumpstart a photography career. Explore the following types to find a photography niche that is both artistically fulfilling and financially rewarding:
- Wedding photography. Wedding photographers cover ceremonies and receptions. They may also work with couples at other points, taking engagement and rehearsal dinner photos.
- Portrait photography. Portrait photographers can snap their subjects in a studio (think family portraits) or on-site (think school or workplace photos). Some specialize in one type of portraiture (such as actors’ headshots), while others take on a broad array of projects.
- Real estate photography. These photographers work on behalf of real estate agents, landlords, and sellers. They produce marketing photos that entice someone to buy or rent a property.
- Photojournalism. A photojournalist, or news photographer, covers current events, including breaking news and sports. They specialize in candid shots taken with little notice.
- Food photography. A food photographer may work for a food manufacturer or a restaurant. They may also work in journalism alongside a food critic. They specialize in capturing portraits of food and drink, including both raw ingredients and plated meals.
- Travel photography. Travel photographers journey to destinations around the world and capture scenes on behalf of hotels, magazines, airlines, and other industry clients.
- Nature photography. A nature photographer takes shots of animals, landscapes, and other elements of the natural world. They may work for magazines, travel companies, and real estate businesses.
- Stock photography. A stock photographer creates a photography portfolio that users can license. Depending on the photographer’s specialties, a stock portfolio can include landscapes, portraits, solitary objects, food, and more.
What costs are involved in starting a photography business?
Like any small business owner, a photography entrepreneur can expect a number of expenses as they launch their enterprise. Plan to absorb the following business expenses:
- Photography equipment. Clients expect professional photographers to provide all of their own equipment. A high-quality DSLR camera costs roughly $700, plus $300 or more for a lens, and prices go up from there. Many professional cameras cost several thousand dollars. Other expenses can include tripods, flashes, cases, and accessory lenses.
- Photo editing software. Some of today’s leading software is sold on a subscription basis. Adobe, maker of Photoshop and Lightroom, offers subscriptions that range from $20 to $55 per month. Photographers on a particularly tight budget may choose to start off with software that comes preinstalled on some computers, such as Apple’s Photos app.
- Legal documents. Depending on your business structure, you may need to enlist a lawyer or use a legal services site to properly establish your photography business in your state. Lawyers typically charge several hundred dollars per hour, although legal services sites tend to charge a small fraction of that.
- Business licenses. You may need a business license to operate in your area. The fees and requirements vary by region, so consult your local government resources. Shopify’s Starting Up guides can also help you navigate these requirements.
- Marketing. Selling photos online requires a well-designed website that functions as a way to offer your services to prospective clients. Your marketing materials will center around a photo portfolio that highlights your best work. Many small business owners start with a tiny marketing budget, which you can increase as your photography business grows.
Pros and cons of starting a photography business
A photography career comes with many rewarding upsides, along with challenges.
The pros of a photography business
Starting your own photography business lets you embrace your passion. Whether you view photography as a side business or a full-time job, you can get paid to do what you love. Your photo career can lead to travel opportunities, professional and personal networking, and behind-the-scenes access to exciting industries. You’ll also be able to claim photography equipment, software, and startup costs as business expenses on your taxes.
The cons of a photography business
There is no set photography business roadmap, and you probably can’t count on a stable routine. You might go weeks without paid work, and then later have to turn down jobs because you’re already booked. If you’re a wedding photographer or event photographer, you’ll often work nights and weekends. In some cases, you will work for clients who don’t share your artistic vision.
How to start a photography business in 7 steps
- Determine your photography niche
- Conduct market research
- Choose a business name
- Legally establish your business
- Create a business website and post your work
- Market and advertise your business
- Build a network of clients
Starting a business requires effort and discipline, no matter what field you pursue. It doesn’t require a formal business education, just a clear plan and determination. Here are the seven steps that can help you get a photography business up and running:
1. Determine your photography niche
Start your journey with a photography business plan geared toward a target market. Whether you see yourself as an on-set photographer in the film industry or a school photographer traveling from campus to campus, you’ll want to focus on where you fit in the industry. You can use a free business plan template to guide your way through the process.
2. Conduct market research
Once you’ve found your photography niche, it’s time to study the competition and the pool of potential customers. This means diving into market research and market analysis, which may involve third-party reports and industry publications. Analyzing competitors will help you define a unique selling proposition (USP) that makes you stand out.
3. Choose a business name
The best business names offer clues about your products and services. They may also communicate your style or price point. For instance, Red Lobster and Nobu both serve seafood, but the names convey a very different customer experience—one unpretentious and the other elegant. The same applies to photography business names. A photo studio called Actor’s Home Base clearly serves a different client base than Jerry’s Party Pix. Shopify’s business name generator can aid your quest to find the perfect name for your photography business.
4. Legally establish your business
Once you’re ready to establish your business in your state, consider whether you would like to legally establish your business as a limited liability company (LLC) or a corporation. You may also choose a less formal structure called a sole proprietorship. In all cases, your state will have specific rules for registering the business, obtaining a business license, collecting and remitting sales tax, and periodically reporting business information.
Note that, as a photographer, you may not have to collect sales tax on your services, but you might on any retail items you sell, such as photo books or digital images. Shopify offers Starting Up guides for establishing a business in many states, and these can provide further guidance.
5. Create a business website and post your work
Having a strong photography portfolio can help you attract new clients. To keep up with the competition, create a portfolio website that showcases your best work, along with the breadth of what you can do. If you’re on a budget, you can start with a free portfolio website, or use social media platforms such as Instagram or VSCO to showcase your photography.
6. Market and advertise your business
You can market your business in many ways, from online ads to social media campaigns to word-of-mouth referrals. As you promote your brand, develop elements such as your branding design, logo, brand voice, and brand storytelling. When these elements are consistent, they help potential clients draw subconscious associations between your marketing materials and your business.
7. Build a network of clients
A business is only as strong as its client base. Your biggest job is to meet or exceed customer expectations. This leads to repeat business and new client referrals. You can do this by operating with the utmost professionalism whenever you pitch your services, create client contracts, show up to take photos, or deliver your final images. If your clients appear satisfied, ask for referrals and online reviews.
Starting a photography business FAQ
Do I need an LLC for my photography business?
You do not need to own an LLC to operate a photography business. Although starting an LLC does offer tax benefits and liability protection, you can also do business as a corporation (with similar benefits but more upkeep) or as a sole proprietor (with fewer benefits but minimal paperwork).
Do you need credentials to be a photographer?
You may need credentials for certain types of photography, particularly photojournalism, which can require access to restricted areas. Other photography niches require no special credentials or certifications, but as a small business owner, you may need business licenses and tax certifications.
Should I specialize in a certain type of photography?
Many photographers specialize in one type of photography because it helps them focus their marketing and networking efforts. Others find fulfillment in bouncing between different photography niches. In some cases, you may have to venture into different areas. For instance, school photographers may be busy during the fall but need other income in the spring, depending on school photo schedules.
Is a photography business profitable?
A photography business can be profitable if you build a broad client base, invest wisely in your equipment, and work efficiently when planning shoots and editing images. You may have to charge lower prices to break into a market, but your rates—and profits—can go up as your photography business grows
What are some mistakes to avoid when starting a photography business?
Be open to new opportunities when you’re starting out. For instance, a job snapping ID photos at an office might lead you to meet someone who wants professional portraits of their family. Avoid getting caught with inadequate gear on a shoot; make sure you have a backup for any piece of equipment that might fail, and that your camera has the necessary capabilities. To avoid spending too much on high-spec gear, ask friends and colleagues for gear recommendations. Read reviews and make prudent purchases as you scale up your business.