I get this question a lot.
“Hi, Jenn! I am looking at starting a photography business and I wondered if you had any advice or tips?”
In fact, I get this question SO much, that I decided to make a little page on my website to send people to. One that has all the things I would say to anyone asking this question. And trust me, there are a lot. A LOT. I probably get this e-mail a few times a month. So, we can start with that.
So, what do you need, if you want to start a photography business?
1. You need to know: Photography is a HIGHLY saturated market.
It sounds like a dream gig, you know? Make money making art, taking beautiful photos, it’s gotta be the best! …But if you decide to do this, be aware that you will spend countless hours trying to figure out how to get clients. And I mean, COUNTLESS hours. Say goodbye to a normal 9-5 job. In fact, say goodbye to “normal,” at all. I work from the moment I wake up, virtually until the moment I go to bed. I might go to the grocery store, or visit my mother in law, or see a movie, but I am constantly on my smart phone, responding to e-mails, subconsciously scouting photo locations, answering phone-calls and networking. And the thing of it is, there are hundreds of other photographers doing exactly the same thing at exactly the same time.
If you’re in Wisconsin, just know that in the Milwaukee and Madison Area Photographers group on Facebook, there are 903 members. (This number was 517 4 years ago. Also, not all the photographers in the state are in this group, and this doesn’t even come close to taking into account the hundreds of “shoot and burn” hobbyists advertising on Craigslist or offering “pro” photos to their friends and family when they are anything but. As an example, there are 7,631 members in the “Wisconsin photographers” Facebook group. You read that right.)
SO, yeah. Being your own boss is great. But… you’re also the only one to ask why you don’t have money in your bank account, people calling you on the phone, or inquiries in your inbox. You are the only one responsible for your own success, or your own failure.
2. You need to know: How to use your camera.
It might seem like a no-brainer, but if you don’t know MORE than the basics of photography, you shouldn’t be charging for it. If you don’t know how to use the manual settings on your camera, how to see light, how to pose people and create a beautiful image… you shouldn’t be charging for it.
I did my first two dozen portrait sessions completely free. My first five weddings were free. Before all that, I studied photography in college and shot friends and family with my film camera for a few years. It was ONLY once I was delivering a fairly consistent product that I started to charge, and it was nominal money. My fees were commensurate with my experience, quality level and talent level. As I got better and better, my prices steadily were able to increase accordingly.
Along with that, if you’re thinking about getting into photographing weddings, I HIGHLY recommend being a 2nd shooter for an established photographer first. The experience you will gain seeing how wedding after wedding after wedding goes, and how a professional photographer approaches the day, will be invaluable. Weddings aren’t just about pretty Bridal portraits, but it’s about the ONE shot you have at capturing a day that you can not do over. Being able to adapt to constantly changing lighting situations, ever-changing scenarios with a multitude of variables and large, diverse groups of people, and the art of anticipation: knowing when and where the moment will happen before it happens. These reasons (and more) are why experienced, quality photographers command the commissions they do.
*On that note: being a photographer is NOT a get-rich quick career. Seriously, if you are looking at photography as a way to make great money, run (don’t walk) in another direction. If you want the TRUTH about money in photography, read this.
3. You need to know: The money you make is NOT all yours.
One big thing that many new photographers forget is: you have to pay taxes. This includes: Self employment tax, income tax, and sales & use tax. This is a big one that people forget, when thinking “Wow! I will charge $200 for a photo session, woo-hoo, easy $200!” — Not so much. You also have to deduct the time you spend, the cost of the products you deliver, as well as the fact that the $200 gig you get might be one of two sessions that week. Doesn’t sound like much, does it?
It’s not fun, but you HAVE to pay taxes in order to be legit. And you do want to be legit, don’t you?
3b. Don’t forget the Business Basics:
1. All businesses using a business trade name need to get a DBA.
2. Get a Business License and/or Home Occupation Permit.
3. Get a seller’s permit.
4. Need a Federal & State Employer Tax ID number.
5. Choose a business structure as Sole Proprietor, Partnership, Corporation or LLC.
4. You need: Insurance!
Yep, don’t forget insurance. Liability, errors & omissions, and equipment insurance. Oh, and if you aren’t on someone else’s health plan, you also will have to pay for your own health/vision/dental insurance, too.
5. You need: Backup equipment.
Imagine: You are photographing a wedding. It is two minutes before the end of the ceremony, and your camera suddenly stops working. You power it off, then turn it back on. Nothing. The shutter just stops working. It’s now one minute before that kiss is about to happen, and you realize you have five hours left in the wedding day they paid you to photograph.
You MUST have backup equipment. Not only a backup body but lenses, flashes and batteries, as well as a ton of memory (you know, in case one of the cards becomes corrupted.) — ((On that note, I’ll reiterate insurance again.)) And it’s a good idea for your backup body to be a body you can photograph a wedding comfortably with. If you’re shooting with a D3s and your backup body is a D80 you’re going to notice really quickly that it’s not going to help you produce the same level of work. (Check out the gear I use and recommend HERE.)
6. You need to know: How to provide excellent customer service.
Being a photographer isn’t all about the art and the money, as we know by now. It’s also about providing an amazing experience from beginning to end for every client you have. That means clear communication, solid people skills and a high level of professionalism. (On that note, don’t forget – you’ll need to establish policies, create forms, and have a contract in place for each type of shoot you do. Don’t forget model releases.)
You’ll spend a lot of time on the phone. You’ll need to be prepared to answer tons of questions (which is why experience is so important,) – and you will write more e-mails than you ever thought possible. (For a great resource on client e-mails, check out the Go-to-Guide for Client E-mails.)
So. Now you’re probably asking:
“Well, jeez, Jenn! Why on earth are you a photographer, then? This all sounds like WAY too much mess and effort. Where’s the good stuff?”
I will tell you, that the benefits to being a photographer and doing what I do are truly great. I get to capture the best day of my client’s lives for them. I am honored to be there for those moments. I am my own boss (both a good, and a bad thing.) — I have flexibility with my schedule, I get to work in my pajamas (editing photos at home, for the win!) — I get to take part in a career that keeps me challenged, motivated and inspired constantly.
You have to know if this is TRULY something you are called to do. If it is, all these requirements will be worth it. You’ll do them because, you can’t NOT be a photographer. You’ll know it’s small potatoes to get all your ducks in a row, and work tirelessly at your craft – because you can’t NOT do that. And when you wake on on a Monday after an exhausting weekend, photographing clients for hours upon hours, hauling heavy equipment, squatting, bending, lifting and twisting – when your back is killing, your eyes are burning and your wrists are aching… you’ll have a smile on your face.
If that doesn’t resonate… this just might not be for you.
For another resource, check out the Modern Tog’s “Top 8 Essential Things to Buy When Starting a Photography Business.”