Do you carry a camera with you wherever you go? Are you always adding new pictures to your Instagram feed that aren’t just selfies and dog photos? Are you the go-to photographer in your family?
If you love taking pictures, it might be time to take your talent and turn it into a home-based photography business. You’d be in good company: To date, there are more than 12,458 businesses in the U.S. specializing in photography, and the industry is expected to grow 2.5% annually through 2024.
The photography industry’s growth rate makes sense: It’s a service that’s flexible, built quickly (and only requires a few supplies), and always in demand. That makes it a perfect business opportunity for entrepreneurs looking for low overhead and a relatively speedy ramp-up period. In fact, depending on your focus, your needs, and the kind of equipment you already have on hand, you might be able to start your photography business as soon as this week.
In This Business Formation Guide
If you’re wondering how to turn your hobby into an in-demand and profitable business, know that there’s much more to it than simply capturing moments with your iPhone. Starting a photography business requires a significant investment of time and money into securing the basics: Equipment, a business plan, a website, a business structure, and, of course, actually getting your first client.
At Swyft Filings, we help aspiring business owners like yourself navigate the critical steps of becoming an entrepreneur. In this business formation guide, we map out your journey from taking pictures as a hobby to taking pictures for a profit—and all the important steps in between that’ll help you get your new photography business started off on the right foot.
Decide what types of photography services you’ll offer
People need photographers for all kinds of reasons. Think about how you’ve consumed someone else’s photography in the past. Maybe you looked at stylish product photos in a magazine. Maybe you browsed through perfectly-lit house photos on a realtor’s website. Or maybe you scrolled through a friend’s professional wedding photos on their Facebook. Each of these required the eye, talent, and equipment of a professional photographer, and that means there are dozens of different ways you can position your own photography skills, too.
But with so many different photography avenues to explore, it can be tempting to offer everything including the kitchen sink when you first start. To have a real chance of making money when you first start, however, you have to focus on one thing at a time first.
To do this, ask yourself these questions: What do you enjoy doing most? Where do you have the most experience? What existing portfolio pieces are you most proud of? What type of photography is your strong suit? Whatever your answer is, that should be the one area you choose to specialize in and the type of expert you want to become.
A few popular genres to consider include wedding photography, portrait photography, commercial photography, sports photography, travel photography, and food photography. As you grow, you can make your mark in multiple photography genres, but starting out with strong expertise in one niche is crucial to establishing a successful photography business.
Build your business plan
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. In fact, keeping it short and sweet helps you focus only on the details that matter.
So why does a business plan matter anyway? Studies show that entrepreneurs who take the time to write a business plan are 2.5x more likely to follow through and get their business off the ground. Think of it as a guide that’ll help you make the right decisions along the way.
Traditional business plans have the following sections:
- 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.
- 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?
- Operating plan: Your business location, facilities, equipment, and what kind of employees you’ll need are in this section.
- 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.
Identify your ideal client.
Once you identify your photography niche and build out your business plan, you’ll need to figure out who your ideal client is. This helps you avoid casting too wide of a net on unqualified prospects, and instead, ensures you’re only zeroing in on the people who could actually use your services. Here are a few things to help you identify your perfect future customer.
Do you want clients closer to where you live, or are you willing to travel regularly for photography assignments? Be aware that many of the photography genres like wedding photography or portrait photography are pretty firmly tied-in to the location. Clients tend to pick photographers from their local area based on references and their network.
The kind of people you want to work with can be a significant deciding factor in the type of photographer you become. You may feel more comfortable working with kids or seniors, or with expecting mothers rather than fashion models. Or you might excel in commercial or corporate shoots rather than working with families. If you’re having trouble deciding, the best rule of thumb here is to go with the demographics you feel most comfortable and at ease around.
How much money are they willing to spend
Based on your photography business goals, you will need to choose clients based on their income levels. For example, you may want to focus only on premium and luxury wedding assignments that pay upwards of $5000 rather than working with smaller family affairs that would pay only $1000 for a portrait photography shoot.
Based on your interest and style
Some clients will automatically be drawn to your signature style while others might have a clear vision about how they want their photoshoots to turn out. You need to find opportunities that let you find a balance between your creative freedom and working to a fixed client brief.
Set your pricing
Now, it’s time to establish your own pricing structure. But how do you know where to start? As a new business owner, you want to avoid lowering your prices too much to win business. Underpricing can set your standards low. But there’s danger in over-pricing, too. As a new business with little-to-no references, this can deprive you of genuine prospective clients.
That’s why, the first thing to do is research other photographers in your area, especially those who specialize in the same niche. A simple Google search is all you need here, and it can help you discover things like: Who is your direct competition? Who are the top photographers working in your target niche? And what makes them stand out from the rest of the competition?
A lot of your own pricing comes down to your market research, so it’s crucial that you don’t skip this stage. Here are a few other important questions to ask yourself—the answers will give you the data you need to make informed decisions.
- 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?
Once you’ve done your research, it’s time to explore different pricing structures to find the one that makes the most sense for your business. Oftentimes, the type of photography you provide and your level of expertise plays a major role in determining how you’re charging (do you want a flat rate or charge by the hour?) and how much you charge.
Hourly or Flat Rates
First, it’s important to know how you want to charge your clients. Do you have a single flat rate per project? Or do you charge by the amount of time invested in the project? You can charge an hourly rate for events photography such as weddings, corporate events, birthdays, school events, etc., where you are investing a lot of time.
Portrait photographers, on the other hand, often have flat portrait photography session prices. These usually consist of various packages that are priced based on volume, which can include the number of images in the package and retouches. Photography session prices may also include alternative themes and backdrops, prints or digital downloads, editing, and other services.
Rates Based on Level of Experience
Experience plays a pretty big role in determining how much you can make as a photographer. Here are some pricing averages to consider, based on the level of experience.
Amateurs and hobbyists
Amateurs and hobbyists commonly charge $25-$75 an hour for images normally used on blogs, small websites, or for local advertising. The fee is generally under $100.
The entry-level or semi-professional photographers charge $50-$150 per hour or $25-$125 per image. Entry-level photographers often do this type of work on the side.
Professional photographers with experience
Professional, experienced photographers usually charge $75-$250 per hour or per image. They rely solely on their photography work to make a living and typically have invested a lot in their equipment. Professional photographers also have more experience in both the pre-production and post-production stages of photography.
High-end professional photographers charge $250-$500 per hour or $200-$1200 per image. They typically cover areas such as sports, fashion, entertainment, film, documentaries for TV, movies, billboards or magazines.
Rates Based Areas of Specialty
Remember when we said it’s important to select your area of expertise when starting your photography business? That’s because niche artistry drives the rates higher than non-specialized photographers.
Here’s a breakdown of average prices, determined by the type of expertise.
Photographers that specialize in senior portraits may charge rates on the lower-to-midrange. Still, they could potentially have steady work during a specific season and more steady commercial clients. Portrait photography pricing usually varies between $150-$300 for each session.
Wedding photographers perform seasonal work, but their gigs can have pretty long hours and are fairly high pressure (seriously, you only have one opportunity to capture the perfect moment. No pressure, right?). That’s why wedding photography comes at a higher price: You can take home anywhere from $1500 to $3500.
Wedding photography packages can vary based on experience, your wedding photography portfolio, and the nature of the wedding.
Photographers that specialize in creating images for local websites charge $25-$150 per image. They usually provide work for small, local businesses in need of a professional boost for their marketing presence. Many photographers consider the traffic a site is getting before quoting a price.
Product photographers focus on images for smaller products that are used online or offline for independent websites (think Etsy) or for major retailer sites (think Amazon or Nordstrom). Here, product photography pricing can range from $25-$150 per image.
Whether it’s birthdays, family functions, or corporate events, event photography pricing is generally lower than other types of services, but it helps you build up a portfolio and gain references. Event photographers typically can charge anywhere from $50 to $300 an hour.
Establish your business structure
Once you’ve chosen your niche, done your competitor research, and locked in a pricing model, it’s time to set up the legal structure that your business will operate under. There are many different types of legal structures you can choose from, each with varying levels of complexity. So how do you know which option is right for your new photography business?
Let’s start by taking a look at the most common business entities that you can choose from:
- 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): This structure 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.
So what does this all mean for creative entrepreneurs? Chances are, you’re probably starting small (as in, it’s just you running the show). 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 and there’s minimal equipment involved. The other benefit, of course, is that you’ll have complete control over your business.
It’s important to note that establishing a sole proprietorship does come with downsides. There is no clear distinction between your business and your personal assets. And that can get pretty messy if things go wrong. For example, you’ll be held liable if your business tanks because of extreme debt—and your personal assets will be at risk.
Make sure you tackle the other legal stuff
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, too. The SBA’s database lets you search for licensing requirements by state and business types.
Lastly, don’t forget about your 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. 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.
Buy your equipment
Unlike other businesses, which often require tons of upfront purchases, you probably already have most of the equipment you need to get your photography business running.
Still, turning your hobby into a profitable business means you’ll have to assess if the quality of your current equipment is high enough to charge for services. Along with a camera, you’ll need lenses, flashes, batteries, photo editing software, quality photo paper, and packaging used to deliver the photos to clients. You may also need lights and screens to control lighting.
The best rule of thumb here, though, is to start simple. Here are a few must-haves to add to your list:
- One camera: $1,500 to $2,000
- Multiple lenses: $1,000+ each
- Two flashes: $700
- Multiple memory cards: $50+ each
- Two external drives: $120 each (keep one backup off-site)
- Computer or laptop with sufficient memory: $2,000
- Website (like Wix or Squarespace): $60+
- Lightroom and Photoshop subscription: $120 per year
Build your portfolio website
A photographer’s calling card is their portfolio and work samples.
Customers choose creative services based on the brand, the person behind the brand, and the quality of the work presented to them. And for photographers, the most effective way to show off your skills and personality is through your online portfolio.
In fact, a recent study shows that 97% of consumers research their purchases online before they buy something. So, that means your website needs to clearly and succinctly show off who you are, what you do, and what makes you different.
As you start crafting your perfect online portfolio, here are a few key things to keep in mind:
Showcase only your best work
Here’s an obvious statement about your portfolio: Its core purpose is to showcase your work, and show off the exact type of photography that you want to be hired for. But here’s what a lot of photographers don’t realize: This isn’t the place to show all of your work. Pick only your best work to represent you. Evaluate your selection so that you showcase the range of your work but make sure that weak examples don’t creep in.
Can’t decide what to showcase? Here’s a tip: If you’re creating a portfolio website, showcase no more than six-to-eight projects with 15-20 images in each gallery.
Choose a minimal portfolio website template
When it comes to your portfolio, keep it clean and keep it simple: You want your work to speak for itself, not get bogged down by clutter and poor designs. The best professional portfolios typically follow a predominantly white/light color scheme (based on your work, you can also choose a black/dark background) that lets the large, high-quality photographs stand out.
Tell people who you are
People are coming to you to capture once-in-a-lifetime moments. Potential clients want to feel a personal connection to you and your work. And, most importantly, they want to know that they can trust you. Giving details about who you are, what inspires you, and the type of person you are outside of your work forms a connection with your site visitor.
You should also make it clear where you’re located. Proximity can play a huge role in whether or not you get hired for that next gig.
Make it easy for people to contact you
Avoid losing potential clients by putting your contact information front and center. Your contact information should ideally be available right on your website header or the main navigation. This can be as simple as including your email address or adding in a contact form. Whatever method you choose, just make sure it’s easy for you to check and respond to quickly.
Don’t forget to include the important details
Make the research phase easy on your site visitors. Consider adding in a FAQ section, which can break down your pricing structure, how you work with clients, and how long they can expect to wait for their final, edited photos. You can also list package details, so people know exactly how many photos they can expect, how long the photoshoot will be, and how they’ll be able to view and access their photos when ready.
Market your business (and get your first clients)
What separates most successful photographers from the rest? Oftentimes, it comes down to marketing.
You can have an absolutely gorgeous website and portfolio, but if no one sees it, then you’re going to struggle to get customers and make a name for yourself.
The hard truth here is that no one cares about what you’re doing unless you chase after them and get them interested enough to learn more about what you can offer.
Simply put, that’s what marketing is all about. You have something to offer people, they have a desire for what you offer, and marketing facilitates the communication between both of you. Simple, right? You already started part of your marketing strategy by setting up your portfolio. Now, it’s time to make sure it gets in front of the right people. Here are a few things you can do right now to get the attention of your first customer.
Don’t underestimate the power of a referral
Referrals are the lifeblood of many businesses, and the photography business is no exception. Fortunately, you have access to referrals right in front of you: Your friends, family, and acquaintances can all help you grow your business with referrals and word-of-mouth marketing. These people know, like, and trust you (hopefully), so a good start to your marketing efforts would be to mention your business to them and see if they know of any referrals. The easiest way to go about this? Just ask.
Maintaining a Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook presence is important in connecting with your target audience. The potential to reach a new business has on social platforms is truly massive—as long as you know what you’re doing.
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.
Offer new client deals
As you’re starting to promote your services, one effective technique can be to offer mini sessions. A mini session might include a 30 or 60-minute session and rights to a specific number of digital photos from the session. For example, you could post something on Facebook that you are taking appointments for mini-sessions on a particular Saturday or Sunday at a local park.
People can pick a time that you have available and show up for their mini session. Include the details of the price and what they’ll get, as well as the location and the times available. This is an easy way to get your first customers and more portfolio pieces. The best part? It can turn into more referrals down the road.
Get your business listed on Google
Think about what you did the last time you were researching a new service. You head to Google, and you type in whatever service you want in the region you’re located in (like, “wedding photographer in Chicago” or “newborn photo shoots in Austin”).
Creating a business profile on Google is completely free. Once you register your business, it will show up on Google search results and on Google Maps. Plus, you can include information like your website, phone number, and business hours so prospects can get the full scoop with a simple search. Registering your business also lets customers leave a Google review, which will be your most important asset when you get started.
Let us know if you need help starting your photography business!
With the right planning, you’ve already made your first step toward getting your first customer. If you need help with the incorporation and compliance aspects of your business, contact the business experts at Swyft Filingsfor assistance. That way you can spend more time growing your dream business while we handle the paperwork.