How to Start a Photography Business
When You Want More
You’re aware starting a photography business is risky enterprise. You’ve seen others embark on the journey, take some head shots, land a wedding, but ultimately fail. That’s not what you want. You want to build something sustainable–something of substance. You know a business is going to take time to build and that often, what separates the successful from the failures is planning. So you’re thinking about more than which lenses you’ll need, about who your first clients will be—you’re thinking also about how your business should be structured, how to create the plan that sets you up for success.
Below, we’ve done the legwork for you to provide a free guide to starting a home-based photography business today.
Not interested in starting a photography business? Visit our generic Start A Business Guide.
What Does a Photography Business Do?
Photographers stop time—they capture the most meaningful moments of our lives, yes. But what does a photography business do? A photography business finds clients willing to pay for your ability to capture those moments. A photography business markets, networks, maintains a dynamic web page, and patiently, slowly builds a sustainable clientele over time.
As a new small business, you will likely need to be available for any kind of gig you can land. This means shooting weddings, head shots, engagement photos, baby shots, family photos, and real estate photography.
Steps to Starting a Photography Business
Create a Business Plan for Your Photography Business
Before you get started, you’ll need an idea of what resources you’ll need—and how to monetize your business in a practical way. We’ve answered the biggest questions about clients, costs, and profits below.
How do I get clients?
Unlike most small businesses, photographers can rarely depend on repeat customers. People may only hire a photographer once or twice in their lifetime, though nearly everyone hires a photographer for their wedding. This is a challenge. Doing an amazing job on one wedding will not necessarily lead to more, especially at first. For this reason, marketing will be very important… and discouraging. Regular social media posts showing your work will be essential. Building a quality web site that makes an immediate impression on a first time viewer is important, and advertising that site on social media is also important.
Know that building a clientele will take time, probably years. For this reason, a photography business is usually best started as a part-time gig. But to be successful, you will need to treat it as a priority. Make sure that from the get-go you have the business aspects of your photography down. Be professional, structure your business, and make sure you have professional invoicing, and quick product turnaround.
How does a photography business make money?
Photography businesses make money by charging a flat fee for an event or a set amount per finished photo. You’ll want to decide on rates early, so that you can communicate them clearly and effectively. Know what you want to charge for a wedding, know what you want to charge for a real estate shoot, and have those price sheets ready to give to potential customers.
How much money will it take to get started?
Photography equipment is expensive. Make smart decisions. Buy second hand gear. RENT expensive gear. You’ll want to budget about $10,000 to start and to do this, you’ll need to be careful about what equipment you’re buying. Below is a sample list of materials and costs:
- Two cameras: $2,000
- 3-4 lenses: $1,000+ ea
- two flashes: $700
- backdrops and lighting: $800
- MacBook Pro: $2,000
- Website: $100
- Quickbooks: $100
- Lightroom and Photoshop: $30/ month
- Various props (such as blankets and baskets for baby shoots): $200
How much do photography businesses make each year?
Fact: The average photographer makes $34,000 per year. Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t and won’t make more, but you should be prepared for several lean years while your business builds. Successful wedding photographers make around $80,000 per year.
How much should I charge?
There are three ways to charge for your photography services: hourly fee, event rate, or per photo.
Remember that when you charge an hourly rate, that rate does usually not include your consultation, travel, editing, or delivery. For that reason, you shouldn’t recoil when someone balks at your $100-$200 hourly rate.
However, many people choose to charge flat rates. For example:
- Weddings- $1,000-$4,000
- Senior portraits- $150-$350
- Website photography- $35-$150
- Real estate shoots- $100-$300
- Baby shoots- $150-$350
Other circumstances call for per image pricing. Charging this way can be advantageous in circumstances like commercial settings. If a company reaches out to you in need of a shoot and five photographs, you would do well to charge the client $400 per client-selected photo. This method would allow you to avoid shocking the client with a $2000/ day photo shoot rate, and it would also avoid any conflict that might arise if you were to say, finish early, or if the client wanted additional photos, etc.
Select a Name for Your Photography Business
Have a great name idea? Before you start marketing and branding your business, you’ll need to ensure your name is available. Most states prohibit or restrict businesses from adopting names that are already in use. Even if it’s legally allowed, a copycat name puts your business at risk of a lawsuit.
See if your business name is available in your state with our Free Business Name Search.
Trademarks and Domain Names
Plan to trademark your business name? You can see if the trademark is available on a website like Trademarkia. It’s also a good idea to see if the domain name is available, which you can do on websites like Network Solutions and GoDaddy. Even if you don’t plan on putting together a website right away, you can buy the domain name to make sure no one takes it in the meantime.
Choose a Business Structure
Should you form an LLC? A sole proprietorship? Your choice of business structure will affect many aspects of your business, from liability to taxes.
Sole Proprietorships & General Partnerships
If you don’t file any paperwork to legally form a different kind of business—you have a sole proprietorship or general partnership. Essentially, these are “default” business structures. A sole proprietorship has one owner, and a partnership has multiple owners.
These structures have a few initial benefits. They’re easy, fast and cheap to start and maintain. However, the limitations and risks of these business structures quickly become more apparent as your business grows. In both of these business types, you are your business, legally speaking. Your company’s legal business name is YOUR name—so you’ll need a DBA to operate under any other name. Any business debt is YOUR personal debt. If anyone sues your business, they are suing YOU personally.
LLCs & Corporations
Limited liability companies (LLCs) and corporations are business entities formed at the state level. The entity is legally separate from its owners, meaning the owners are not personally liable for the debts and obligations of the business. As a separate entity, the business also has multiple tax election options. For example, both LLCs and corporations can choose to be taxed as S-corps if they meet the requirements.
LLCs and corporations are not quite as simple and inexpensive as default structures. LLCs and corporations come with formal requirements like state reports. They also have more fees than default structures, such as formation and annual report fees. However, the benefits of an LLC or corporation—especially liability protection and tax flexibility—are significant.
Legally Form Your Photography Business
If you opt for a sole proprietorship or general partnership, there’s no formal paperwork to file to legally create your entity—you just start selling your product or service. However, you will not have anyliability protections or tax flexibility.
LLCs and corporations are formed by filing paperwork with a state agency, typically the Secretary of State. To start an LLC, you file articles of organization. To start a corporation, you file articles of incorporation. In most states, you can file these forms online or download a paper form from the state’s website.
Whether you’re forming an LLC or corporation, your articles will require certain basic information about your business, such as your company’s:
- business address
- registered agent and office
- business purpose
- members/managers or directors/officers’ names and addresses
- number and type of authorized shares (for stock corporations)
You’ll also need the signature of someone authorized to sign on behalf of the business, along with the state’s filing fee. Fees vary by state but are typically between $100 and $200. If you hire Northwest to form your LLC or corporation, we complete and submit your formation paperwork on your behalf for just $100 plus state fees.
Create Internal Policies and Procedures
It’s important to put your company’s internal policies and procedures in a written document, especially if you’re starting your business with others. Partnerships have partnership agreements. LLCs have operating agreements. Corporations have bylaws.
These documents look a bit different for each kind of business, but they serve the same general purpose. They ensure there’s a clear path forward for any major issue that may arise, from changes in ownership to closing the business. LLCs and corporations also typically need an operating agreement or bylaws in order to open a bank account.
Get an EIN and Register for Taxes
Nearly all LLCs and corporations will need to request a federal employer identification number (EIN) from the IRS. If you file corporate income taxes, have employees, or file certain franchise taxes, you must have an EIN. An EIN is also a common requirement for opening a business bank account. Most businesses can request an EIN by filling out the IRS’s online form.
Your EIN is for federal taxes—but you’ll likely have state and local tax obligations as well. You will most likely need to set up an account with the state’s Department of Revenue, and you may need to apply for a state tax ID or a sales tax license as well.
Learn more about how to Get an EIN for your business.
Open a Bank Account
A business bank account keeps your personal finances separate from your business finances. For LLCs and corporations, keeping separate finances is essential for maintaining liability protection. To open an account, LLCs and corporations typically need to bring to the bank a copy of their articles, their operating agreement or bylaws, and their EIN.
Obtain Required Licenses and Permits
Many businesses will need a business license to operate. Licensing information—as well as any zoning requirements or other permits—can usually be found on the city or county website.
If your home is part of a homeowner’s association, you’ll also be subject to any of their restrictions for home-based businesses. Some areas may also require home-based businesses to obtain a Certificate of Occupancy (a document certifying the property owner has given the business permission to operate).
Next Steps for Your Photography Business
After your business is up and running, there are a few additional steps you may want to take as you grow:
- Get online: With your domain name, you can create a business website. You can hire a professional or use a website-builder like Wix or WordPress. You may also want to invest in online ads through a program like Google Ads.
- Hire employees: Hiring employees requires quite a few steps. You’ll need to collect W-4s and I-9s from employees, report the new hires to the state, set up withholding, pay for unemployment insurance, distribute any required documents and notices to employees, and display wage and safety info in the workplace. Employer.gov is a good place to start, followed by your state’s tax or labor office.
- Get business insurance: While LLCs and corporations protect you from personal liability, you don’t want your business to go bankrupt in the face of an accident, injury or other disaster. At minimum, it’s a good idea to look into general liability insurance. Home-based businesses can sometimes add insurance onto their homeowner’s policy.
How Do I Know If a Photography Business is for Me?
What’s it really like to work in a photography business?
You must be passionate about photography, otherwise there is little sense to starting a photography business. The costs are high, the competition is fierce, and you’ll end up working a lot of unpaid hours. Undeterred? A photography business might be for you. You will spend a lot of time managing your website, your portfolio, your marketing plan, and keeping your books. It’s also easy to spend more time editing than actually taking photos. But if you can do all that, then over time you could build a strong business doing what you love.
What does it take to succeed in the world of photography?
To succeed as a professional photographer, it is not enough to take great photos. Of course you must take great photos, but you must also become saavy at marketing and self-promoting. You must also take excellent care of your clients, manage their expectations, and deliver to them what you promise in a timely manner.
Additionally you must be patient and persistent. Building a photography business takes time and you have to be willing to stick it out. Also, you must be flexible. For paying gigs you must be willing to hop in the car at the drop of a hat to shoot a real estate gig, or spend long weekends shooting weddings, and evenings in post production.
This is all true, but as important, to succeed as a professional photographer, you must be will to run a business. Don’t try to build the house first, then pour the foundation later. Set yourself up for success by putting into place first your business plan, structure, billing and book keeping methods. Having these things down first will save you worlds of hurt in the future.
Ready to Form an LLC or Corporation?
Northwest Registered Agent is here to help with all your small business ideas and needs. Answer a few simple questions about your business, and we’ll prepare and submit your formation paperwork to the state. We also provide your new business registered agent service, free business forms and guides, and much more.