How to Start a Successful Photography Business: The Complete 10 Step Guide (2019)

As the price of high-quality cameras has continued to fall, the art and craft of photography have flourished.

For many people, photography isn’t just a way of capturing a memory.

Photography is a fulfilling way to express yourself. It’s a way to interpret the world and make the invisible visible.

And for many, it’s a way to make a living.

Navigating the transition between photography as a hobby and creating a photography business can be tricky. People often ask:

  • How much money does it take to start a photography business?
  • What do you need to do to start a photography business?
  • Is a photography business profitable?
  • How do photographers get clients?
  • Do I need a business license for photography?

If you want to take the plunge and start your own photography business, there is a lot to consider.

Here’s a complete, 10 step guide on how to start a photography business.

  1. Develop and refine your idea
  2. Write a business plan
  3. Decide your legal business structure
  4. Purchase business insurance
  5. Crunch the numbers
  6. Create a strong brand identity
  7. Build a web presence
  8. Create a sales plan
  9. Build your team
  10. Grow your business

1. Develop and refine your idea

Before you dive into starting your own photography business, you need to consider your strengths, weaknesses, and interests.

You probably have an idea of what kind of photography business you want to start. Maybe you want to start a wedding photography studio, or perhaps your heart is set on taking headshots and portraits.

No matter what angle you choose, it’s important to evaluate existing businesses around you to see how much competition you’ll face.

Think about how you can integrate your natural skillset into your photography business so you can stand apart from your competition. Ask yourself the following questions, and take time to reflect on the answers:

  • What skills set me apart?
  • What is the purpose of my business?
  • Who am I providing a service or product to?
  • What is the maximum figure I can safely spend on this business?
  • Do I need outside capital? How much?
  • What kind of work/life balance am I looking to achieve?
  • What are my expectations of being an entrepreneur?

Find a niche

You’ll also want to consider what specific niche is right for your photography business.

Is your photography geared toward a particular group or segment of the population?

Are you looking to attract a particular demographic?

You’ll have a better chance at success if you start with a specific target audience.

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Make sure you build your business to meet the needs of a specific niche to avoid overspending and underwhelming all of your potential customers.

You’re more likely to succeed if you start your business with a specific product or service designed for a particular group of people. And you’ll gain experience more quickly by concentrating in a specific area.

This is true for any business, not just a photography business. For example, in our definitive guide on how to start a successful clothing brand or clothing line, we suggest that aspiring apparel entrepreneurs choose their niche too. It’s too hard to compete, especially when you start, when you don’t specialize.

Here are some photography niches to consider:

  • Weddings
  • Fashion
  • Real Estate
  • Travel
  • Portraits
  • Sports

Whatever niche you choose, make sure you’re passionate about it. That passion will come through in everything you do, and your customers will appreciate and embrace the authenticity of your brand.

2. Write a business plan

Although a business plan isn’t mandatory, it can help you to crystallize your ideas. Toby Nwazor advocates for creating a business plan:

Any experienced entrepreneur knows a company without a business plan is like a fish without water. The plan does not need to be lengthy at first. Rather, it should be one or two pages, identifying the key elements of the clothing line’s business strategy.

A business plan is a document that outlines the financial and operational goals of your business. It defines the objectives of your company and then provides specific information that shows how your company will reach those goals.

Your business plan doesn’t need to be 100 pages long. Keep it short and concise and focus on the essential details.

Studies show that entrepreneurs who take the time to write a business plan are 2.5 times more likely to follow through and get their business off the ground. The work that goes into creating a business plan also helps new entrepreneurs build skills that will be invaluable later.

Traditional business plans have the following sections:

  • An executive summary. This section summaries the entire plan, so it is generally written last. Anyone reading your plan will read this first, so it’s an important element.
  • An industry overview. This section gives a brief overview of the industry sector your business will operate in. It includes key players, industry trends, and estimates of industry sales.
  • Market analysis. This looks at the target market for your product or service. It has a breakdown of your market segments, their geographic location, and what their needs are. This section shows anyone reading that you have a thorough understanding of the people you plan to sell to or serve.
  • Competitive analysis. Who are your direct and indirect competitors? How do they currently meet your target market’s needs, and how will you differentiate your product or services?
  • Sales and marketing plan. What is your unique selling proposition? How are you going to promote your business and persuade your target audience to buy? This section goes into detail on questions like these.
  • Management plan. This section outlines your legal and management structure. It shows who your leadership team is and what your staffing needs will be. If you plan to seek funding, you should describe your advisory board here, as well.
  • Operating plan. Your business location, facilities, equipment, and what kind of employees you’ll need are in this section. Any suppliers, manufacturing processes, and any other operating details also appear here.
  • Financial plan. This section is for all things financial. There are three key financial documents of any business that go here: an income statement, a balance sheet, and a cash flow statement.
  • Appendices and Exhibits. Any information that helps support your business idea goes here, including market studies, legal agreements, photos of your products, and more.

For more information about how to create a business plan, the Small Business Administration has you covered. Click here to see their complete guide to writing a business plan.

Do market research

Before you dive into your business plan, it’s important to know the market you’re entering.

Business planning and marketing research help you to build a more successful photography business.

Who is your direct competition? Who are the top photographers working in your target niche? What makes them stand out from the rest of the competition?

A lot of the work to come relies on information gleaned from market research. It’s crucial that you don’t skip this stage, so you have the data you need to make informed decisions.

There are two major types of market research: primary and secondary.

Primary research answers some key questions, such as:

  • What factors do your potential customers consider when purchasing similar products or services?
  • What do they think is working and what needs improvement in their current choices?
  • What do they like and dislike about the options currently available to them?
  • What price do they pay? Do they feel it’s reasonable and provides good value?

You answer these questions by talking to potential customers. Surveys, focus groups, one-on-one interviews, and questionnaires are the tools of choice for primary research.

Secondary research is information pulled from existing sources.

You can identify competitors and define your market segments or demographics using currently available data. Key attributes like age range, lifestyle, and behavioral patterns are some of the data points used to divide your target customers into segments.

Once you have this information, you’ll refer back to it repeatedly as you build and launch your business. Make sure you spent a decent amount of time collecting data, so the decisions you make are based on solid research.

Plan for all of the necessary legal and logistical business considerations, and you’ll create a strong foundation for the successful future of your photography business.

3. Decide your legal business structure

There are many different types of legal structures for various business entities. For new business owners, choosing the best one for your business can feel overwhelming.

Here are some of the major business entities you should look into:

  • Sole proprietorship – this is the most basic business entity. A sole proprietorship means that one person is solely responsible for a business’ profits and debts.
  • Partnership – A partnership is a shared responsibility between two or more people who both hold personal liability for a business.
  • Limited Liability Company (LLC) – a structure that permits owners, partners or shareholders to limit personal liability, but still includes tax and flexibility benefits associated with a partnership.
  • Corporation – this is an entity legally considered separate from its owners. That means that corporations are permitted to own property, can be held liable, must pay taxes, and may enter contracts.

As a creative professional, chances are you’re starting small. Setting up a sole proprietorship or partnership may be the best fit if you’re going it solo, especially if your business will be home-based when you start.

It’s important to consider your future business goals, however. You want to choose a business structure that can accommodate the growth and expansion of your business.

For more information, the Small Business Administration is a great resource.

Once you decide on your legal business structure, be sure to register with the government (typically your state and sometimes, your municipality) and the IRS.

The forms you need and where you have to register, are determined by your business structure.

You can find a full list of the forms for each type of entity on the SBA website. You can also find state-specific tax obligations on the same site.

In some cases, you may need federal, state, or local licenses and permits to operate. The SBA’s database lets you search for licensing requirements by state and business type. And remember to contact your municipality to see if there are any local licensing or registration requirements.

You may also need to get an employer identification number (EIN) from the IRS.

If you’re a sole owner and don’t have employees, this is not required. But you might want to get an EIN anyway to keep your personal and business taxes separate and to be sure that you can quickly hire when the time comes to expand your business.

The IRS has a useful checklist to help you decide whether you will need an EIN to run your business.

If you do need an EIN, you can register online for free.

4. Purchase business insurance

You’d be surprised how many new business owners forget to protect themselves and their business by purchasing insurance before they start their business.

It doesn’t help if you buy insurance after you start your business and incur claims.

Insurance can cover property damage, theft, intellectual property lawsuits, and other incidents. Those can be very costly to small businesses and you need to protect yourself and your new business. This is true even if your business is home-based as your personal home insurance might not cover your business.

Depending on your photography business niche market, you may need insurance to bid for jobs or secure client work. Some companies require all of their vendors and contractors to have insurance.

And if you will employ people, you’ll need to have workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance. Coverage varies by location, and much general liability (GL) policies will cover at least workers’ compensation.

As a provider of photography services, you’ll want to have professional liability insurance so you’re protected against possible claims. You probably also have lots of expensive equipment, and insuring those against theft, damage, or worse will make sure if disaster strikes, you’re prepared.

Here’s a good read on the different types of insurance you should consider as a business owner.

5. Crunch the numbers

When you start a new business, even if it’s a home-based photography business, understanding the numbers involved is crucial.

These numbers include being able to track your sales and profits – but a smart business will need to account for much more than sales alone.

Also, many photography businesses tend to work on a contract. That means you need to prepare for the ups and downs of inconsistent revenue. You need to know how much revenue you need to cover the times when things are leaner.

As you may be a company of one, you should also plan for health and life insurance, and budgeting for vacations, too. Don’t be one of those entrepreneurs who never take time to step away for a while. Everyone needs a break at some point, and your budget should consider that.

To start a new photography business, your costs may include:

  • your brand design (logo, business cards, and website)
  • any license or permit fees
  • deposits and rent for a physical work location if you plan to lease your own workspace
  • basic infrastructural costs like phone and internet service, invoicing software, etc…
  • marketing and advertising costs
  • equipment costs or leases
  • salaries or wages for any employees

Once you know how much it will cost to get you started, compare that with the funds you have. Then plan how you’ll make up any difference.

Even if you start a home-based photography business, you’ll still incur costs, so pay careful attention to your budget.

Run calculations to determine how much it will cost to create your business will allow you to plan and think about pricing.

6. Create a strong brand identity

Crafting a memorable brand identity is a crucial element in any creative professional’s success. This identity is increasingly important as Instagram and other social media blur the lines between who is a professional and who is a hobbyist.

As we’ve previously discussed,

…your brand is your company’s public identity. Ideally, your brand should embody the best (and most essential) attributes of your company.

A brand represents how people know you and your business. It affects how customers perceive your reputation or the reputation of your company.

In today’s competitive creative market, a strong brand is more important than it has ever been.

Ask yourself these important questions:

  • What identity/personality do I want my creative brand to project?
  • Who will want my products or services?
  • What can customers get from my products or services that they can’t get anywhere else?
  • What can customers get from working with me that they can’t get anywhere else?
  • What are my brand values?
  • What is the most important part of my customers’ experience?

Your answers to these questions (and others like them) will build the core of your brand. All of your future branding decisions should expand on these ideas. Your company name, your company logo, and your website design should all grow from the concepts you laid out here.

Remember that your business name plays a role in almost every aspect of your business.

Whenever you make personal appearances be sure to carry business cards and brochures in case people want to learn more about your services.

You can learn more about the nuts and bolts of establishing and maintaining consistent brand identity in Grow Your Small Business with Consistent Branding.

7. Build a web presence

A photographer’s calling card is their portfolio and work samples. Today that means having a  professionally designed website.

Customers choose creative services based on the brand, the person behind the brand, and the quality of the work presented to them.

The most effective way for creatives to show off their skills and personality is through their web presence.

Don’t believe us? A recent study shows that 97% of consumers research their purchases online before they buy something.

Start by ensuring that your website design truly embodies your brand. Visitors should be able to understand who you are, the services you offer, your style, and the quality of your work.

Your website’s design and marketing copy should project your brand’s voice and identity. Here are some suggestions:

  • Use your brand’s colors.
  • If you are the primary employee, include a photo and bio. Customers want to know the person behind the site.
  • Be authentic and avoid marketing “happy talk.” Speak the same language as your customers.
  • Include high-quality examples of your work.
  • Give site visitors an easy way to get in contact with you.

Aim to create a site that builds your brand establishes your approach and style and communicates your business’ value proposition. As it is with other fields that are personality-driven (like real estate sales and other creative services), people are not just buying your services; they’re buying a relationship with you.

There are self-hosted open-source portfolio apps available that allow you to combine your uniquely branded website with a gallery of your work.

Check out WordPress if you’re looking for a self-hosted solution.

Finally, a strong website design will lend credibility and legitimacy to your business. To learn more about great website design, check out Grow Your Small Business With These 7 Website Design Best Practices and 7 Modern Web Design Trends for 2019.

8. Create a sales plan

Never forget the power of good old fashioned market research when you’re ready to open your photography business.

Not every option will be cost-effective or practical, and you should understand what choices will work best for your business.

How will you sell your products or services?

Photography can be a personal, intimate service, so a hands-on approach is often more effective and successful. Your website can help you generate leads, but your success is based just as much on the customers you say no to like the ones you say yes.

What does this mean? It means getting up from the computer and on the phone.

A quick call with a prospective customer can establish whether or not you’re a good fit for their needs. It saves both you and your customer time and effort if it turns out there isn’t a good match.

All of this pre-work leads to the second part of your sales plan: the in-person consultation. You definitely want to meet with your client before you pick up your camera so that you can work out in advance their needs, expectations, and any critical factors.

The ultimate goal is for your client to buy your work. You may have your particular style or aesthetic, but you also want to capture what your customer wants. The in-person meeting is when you can establish these criteria.

One other part of your sales plan is what happens after you’ve completed the work. Post-sales customer care can be a place where you differentiate yourself from your competitors.

Present your work to your customers personally, and walk them through some of your thoughts and comments about the project. Many photographers are content to send clients a link to an online selection of photos. An online gallery may be efficient for both parties, but it may turn your work into a commodity.

Add in a personal perspective when you share your work, so your clients understand your thought process. By creating a great sales experience throughout the project, you can bolster work-of-mouth referrals.

Word-of-mouth is a powerful marketing tool, especially for photographers. As we wrote:

In fact, customers referred to a product are more valuable. A Wharton School of Business study found that referred customers have a 16% higher lifetime value and are more loyal.

Think about your sales plan ahead of time so you can capitalize on every opportunity to close the sale and generate more.

9. Build your team

There’s a time in almost every entrepreneur’s career when you feel like you’re going it alone.

When you first start your photography business, there’s a good chance that you will be.

For your business to scale and grow, however, you’ll need help.

Many photography businesses are started by sole entrepreneurs who hire experienced professionals to handle specific parts of their business.

Whether you hire employees or work with contractors depends on your particular business.

At first, you should only hire for positions that provide the most immediate benefit to your business.

There’s no one right answer for what those positions might be – every business is different. As you plan what positions to hire, consider what aspects of the company pose the most significant challenge. It’s also crucial to recognize your limitations.

Hire an employee who is an expert in areas your business lacks expertise. Build a robust and well-rounded team to create a stable foundation for your business.

With all of that in mind, where should you start?

You may want your first hire to be a part-time assistant. Look for someone who is a jack-of-all-trades, eager to learn new skills, with a strong work ethic. You’ll sleep better if you have someone in the trenches with you that you can rely on. And you’ll likely need someone to help you with equipment at photoshoots.

If you’re new to marketing, a marketer can help you strategize your business.

One position you’ll need to fill is an accountant or bookkeeper. You need to ensure you’re tracking your expenses and revenue and keeping good records for tax season.

The Legal Stuff

Of course, hiring staff or consultants for your photography business means that you’ll have to deal with all sorts of legalities and paperwork. Hiring and signing contracts with professional service providers isn’t an area where you should “wing it.”

To help you with some of the legal issues to consider we went straight to the source. The hiring experts at Indeed recommend that you:

  • Get an Employer Identification Number (EIN) by applying on the IRS website (you’ll get your number immediately after applying!).
  • Register with your state’s labor department.
  • Fill out paperwork to withhold federal taxes from your employee’s wages.
  • Set up workers’ compensation insurance if it is required in your state.

You’ll also need to decide whether you’re hiring full or part-time employees.

Part-time employees cost less. This cost-savings can be an advantage when you first get started. As your business grows and you can afford it, you can expand their hours.

Full-time employees also require more paperwork to get set up. To gain more complete insight into the hiring process, read Indeed’s step-by-step guide, “How to Hire Employees.”

And if you need help with employment or contractor agreements or agreements with your vendors, take a look at Quickly Legal, which offers entrepreneurs, small businesses and startups an easy and inexpensive way to create, sign and manage legal contracts and agreements, with many you can start using right away.

10. Grow your business

You have your business ready to go – your brand is a masterpiece of consistency and charm, your legal and business plans are all squared away, and you have a solid team standing behind your business.

Here comes the fun part – introducing your business to customers!

Look into newspapers and local magazines, trade shows, and public events where you can bring your brand and your work to the people. Any outlet that makes sense for your business is one you should seek out.

Give your prospective customers an intimate view of your work and your business.

As a new, up-and-coming business owner, social media is an inexpensive and easy outlet for all of the beautiful work you’ve created. As we previously explained,

Social media gives you the ability to easily keep customers up-to-date on new products, store policies or sales. It also enables you to build a social rapport with current customers, while building low-pressure relationships with future buyers.

Maintaining Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook presences are important tools to build a following and connect with your market niche. With the advent of micro-influencers, the potential reach a new business now has is truly massive.

As a visual creative, your social media presence should be managed with intent.

Instagram is an obvious priority for photography businesses. You can post examples of your work to the platform, connect with customers, and use it to build your personal brand. But Instagram (and other platforms like Facebook) can also be where you post behind-the-scenes photos and videos to give prospective clients an insider’s eye to your business.

Conclusion

There’s a lot to think about when you’re starting your own photography business.

These ten steps will give you an advantage and will help get you started on the road to owning a successful business of your very own.

  1. Develop and refine your idea
  2. Write a business plan
  3. Decide your legal business structure
  4. Purchase business insurance
  5. Crunch the numbers
  6. Create a strong brand identity
  7. Build a web presence
  8. Create a sales plan
  9. Build your team
  10. Grow your business

Additional Resources for Photographers

If you want to sell your photos to stock image sites, here are the sites you should consider:

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