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How to start a photography business
Get paid for what you love to do, if you’re ready to think like a business owner.
Photography in the US is a $10.9 billion dollar industry, which has been slightly declining in the last five years. But the industry is expected to grow by almost 3% in 2021. So if you’re willing to spend the time and money to start your photography business right, you could be a part of that growth.
6 steps to start your photography business
Even if you start small, consider the following first steps to opening your photography business:
1. Research the market and choose a specialty.
There are several ways to capitalize on your photography skills, but not all are equally as marketable. Consider the following specialty options as you research what photography businesses are lacking in your area:
- Portrait photography. Whether you start a studio on your own, buy into a franchise or work freelance, taking pictures of families, babies and graduating students can be really profitable. Offering pet portraits, boudoir and glamour shots can broaden your client base.
- Event photography. If you’re good at capturing moments and emotions, chronicling concerts, weddings and other events could be a good fit for you.
- Commercial photography. Marketing, social media and real estate companies are just a few of the businesses that hire photographers to help build advertising and catalogs. And while competition can be heavy for these opportunities, infusing your unique style can build a brand for you and give you an edge.
- Photojournalism. This can be a challenging field as you chase stories into remote and sometimes dangerous places. But if you’re adventurous, tenacious and driven, you may be able to sell your work to magazines or newspapers.
- Stock photography. These images may only sell for a dollar each, but if you’re willing to put together a portfolio of tens of thousands of images, you may be able to make a decent living.
2. Create a business plan.
This is your chance to put all your ideas down on paper, then determine what you need to make your business work financially and to fit the lifestyle you want to lead. Figure out what kind of expenses you’ll have, what you need to charge to make a living and what kind of financing you’ll need.
3. Look into permits, licensing and insurance.
Next, it’s time to protect yourself by making your business legal and insured. You’ll need to consider the following requirements:
- Classify your business. Are you going to be an LLC? Sole proprietorship? Classifying your business is one way of separating your work from your personal finances, which can help with taxes and legal protections.
- Get a business license. Most states require you to register or license your business for a small fee.
- Apply for your sales tax permit. Whether you choose to separately charge sales tax or add it to the cost of your products, you’ll need a sales tax permit in most states.
- Insure your business. There are quite a few options to insure a business, but at the very least, you’ll probably want liability protection and insurance for your expensive photography equipment.
4. Figure out a marketing strategy.
Part of your job running a photography business is to sell your services and products. But to stand out in the industry, you’ll need to focus on what makes your work unique within your specialty — your brand. Once you decide on your brand, consider the following ideas to market your business:
- Build a visually stunning website
- Establish yourself on social media
- Make business cards and brochures
- Attend trade shows in your area
- Network as much as possible
5. Establish a budget and secure financing.
Once you’ve determined how much you’ll need to keep your business afloat, you’ll know how many events or photoshoots you need to book to meet your monthly goals. But be sure to put some money aside for months when the work isn’t as plentiful, for equipment breakdowns and for expansion plans. Then you can include that contingency when you decide how much financing you’ll need.
6. Build a portfolio.
Before you open your doors, you’ll need to have a solid portfolio so clients can see what you’re capable of and whether your style fits into their photographic needs. And your portfolio should be dynamic, changing and expanding as your skills and business grow.
Pros and cons of starting a photography business
If you’re still trying to decide whether turning your photography skills into a business is the right choice for you, consider the following:
- Do what you love. Turning your hobby into a career allows you to make money doing something you already enjoy.
- Chronicle milestone events. Attend parties and events in a variety of locations to document important memories.
- Use your people skills. Whether you’re helping people feel comfortable in front of the camera or convincing them to trust you to document their special events, your people skills are vital to capturing beautiful moments on film and helping your business grow.
- Inconsistent work. Your work may be sporadic, with a rush of events during certain seasons and large gaps with no clients.
- Requires an investment to start and build. Your personal camera probably won’t be enough to capture the quality images you’ll need for a professional portfolio. Add in the software and supplies needed and some estimates suggest you’ll spend between $10,000 and $15,000 to set up as a professional.
- Working weekends. You’ll most likely be working outside the normal corporate work week and may even find yourself working more than you’d like during busy seasons.
What costs should I budget for?
The expense of cameras, lights and darkroom essentials can make your gear seem like your biggest budget concern, but keep in mind the following possible costs:
- Software and other supplies
- Commercial space, if needed
- Insurance and licensing
- Accountant and legal expenses
- Personnel, such as assistants or office workers
- Gear maintenance and photo supplies
Types of financing for photography startups
Businesses that build from a hobby can make your costs feel a little murky at first, separating out your personal gear from business needs. But when you’re ready to expand, you’ll want to explore all your options to determine which type of financing will work best for you.
- Startup loans. These loans are for first-time business owners, but lenders offering financing to a startup will use your personal finances to determine your rates.
- Small Business Association (SBA) loan. An SBA loan is government-backed, which means more paperwork for you and possibly a longer closing. But if you’re eligible, this loan usually comes with the lowest rates available.
- Franchise financing company. If you decide to buy into a photography franchise, the franchise registry can help you research the different franchise brands and over 9,000 lenders who specialize in franchise financing.
- Community bank loans. Getting financing from your local community bank can create a relationship that’s helpful over the long term and can provide services beyond initial financing to help your business grow.
- Business credit cards. While you might not be able to finance your business with this option, you’ll definitely need a business credit card for your ongoing expenses.
With the right resources, drive and people skills, you can make a good living as a professional photographer while doing something you love. The variety of photography specialties can provide alternate income streams for when work is slow, and the flexible schedule can give you a lot of freedom. But if you’re still a little anxious about turning your hobby into a business, use our small business resource guide to help you get a stronger start.
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