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How to start a photography business in 9 steps

In a world where anyone with an iPhone and Instagram account claims to be a professional photographer, the public's respect for the craft has diminished. Then the COVID-19 crisis hit and brought an evolving industry to a dramatic halt.

Photography is and always will be a people business. It's a medium to capture and transfer emotion from one human to another. And when the whole world shut down, countless photographers fled to other industries creating a gap in the marketplace.

But these uncharted waters aren't without risk because launching your venture is roughly one-third photography skills and two-thirds business skills. A keen eye for composition, lighting, and detail will only get you so far if you can't build a profitable business. Read on for a roadmap to avoid the potholes that cause 50% of small businesses to fail and discover strategies to make your destination a place called "success."

1) Create a photography business plan

"Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth."

Who knew Mike Tyson's words could capture a photographer's ear? COVID-19 threw more than a few jabs at photography business owners, and for those, without a plan, it was a knockout punch. Before you step in the ring, here are questions to ask yourself when starting a business:

  • Executive Summary: How would you describe the business and your potential success?
  • Overview: What's the business's background, legal structure, and other key attributes?
  • Industry Analysis: What does market research reveal about the photography industry in your area, including size, opportunity, and current trends?
  • Competitive Analysis: Who are your competitors, and what are their strengths and weaknesses?
  • Marketing Plan: What is your marketing strategy to reach potential customers?
  • Management: What unique business and photography skills do you possess?
  • Operations Plan: How will you manage the day-to-day tasks of the business?
  • Financials: What are your estimated revenues, expenses, and profits for each of your first 5 years?

2) Find your photography niche

Your niche is the specialized segment of the larger photography market that you choose to set yourself apart from your competition. A niche is like a spotlight that only shines on your type of photography. It makes it easier for potential clients to find you.

Beginners often book anyone with a pulse and proper payment, but this haphazard approach can lead to burnout before your business gets off the ground. That's why focus doubles as a principle for photography and entrepreneurship. Check out these types of photography for ideas:

  • Aerial photography
  • Architectural photography
  • Astrophotography
  • Cosplay photography
  • Documentary photography
  • Event photography
  • Fashion photography
  • Food photography
  • Headshot photography
  • Landscape photography
  • Lifestyle photography
  • Macro photography
  • Newborn photography
  • Night photography
  • Photojournalism
  • Portrait photography
  • Product photography
  • Real estate photography
  • Sports photography
  • Still life photography
  • Stock photography
  • Street photography
  • Travel photography
  • Underwater photography
  • Weather photography
  • Wedding photography
  • Wildlife photography

3) Uncover your unique selling proposition (USP)

Once you've locked in your niche, you need a unique selling proposition. Your USP signals to potential clients your precise distinction from all other photography businesses. People are drowning in choice, so a specialized offering beats a general one. In fact, many top industry thought leaders say it's better to own 90% of a small pie than 10% of a large one.

Your USP helps you slice up your 90%. For example, a thrill-seeking entrepreneur with a love of travel may pick the USP, "Extreme Destination Wedding Photographer." When that bungee jumping, skydiving, Everest-climbing couple decide to say "I do," who else can they call?

A USP makes your business memorable, referable, and laser-focused. Your portfolio and testimonials will carry more influence with your ideal clients. And your expertise will grow faster because you're concentrating on similar projects.

What happens if there are not enough clients to support your photography USP? You simply enlarge your target market. In the extreme example, the photographer might open it up to destination weddings in general or pivot to travel photography. Profitable photographers balance their niche, USP, and market.

4) Pick your photography business name

Many successful photographers started with nothing more than a part-time hobby and a business idea. To transform that notion into reality, you need a name. As a photographer, you're creative by nature, so employ some of that artistic flair to blend your niche and USP into an unforgettable moniker. The spectrum runs from the straightforward like "Extreme Destination Wedding Photography" to the colorful like "Knot Too Far Wedding Photography."

Scan the competition to get a feel for the market or use a business name generator. Or you can brainstorm with friends and family. Then, after everyone casts their ballots for the best name, be sure that your vote carries the most weight. Yes, it must attract clients, but it also needs to make you smile even when dodging an Uncle Bob, losing natural lighting, or photo editing for an eternity.

5) Choose your photography equipment

This step will help inform the next one about finances. You're not looking to purchase expensive equipment yet, but you want to get a price for your upfront investment. It surprises some photographers that they can start by renting as a cost-effective means to access high-quality equipment. Then, as your portfolio and experience level grow, you can afford to upgrade.

Start where you're at and buy what you need only. Perhaps you already have a few items, and your comprehensive list may include:

  • Accounting software
  • Backdrops and lighting
  • Camera (DSLR or mirrorless)
  • Camera bag
  • Camera lens
  • Memory cards
  • External hard drives
  • Laptop
  • Photo editing software (such as Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom)
  • Tripod
  • Website hosting

6) Figure out your financial plan

According to several photography authorities, it costs between $5,000 and $15,000 to launch a professional photography business. So the last step already started your financial research, and this one will help you crunch the rest of the numbers. And this is one place where math class pays dividends because the Professional Photographers of America reports the industry average profit margin is around 50%.

How close you get to that figure will depend on several factors, including your type of photography, skill level, and even location. For example, in Manhattan, New York, photographers may charge more than those in Manhattan, Kansas, but other factors may offset the increased revenue, such as higher overhead. But before you fantasize about juicy profits, here are some additional considerations for new photographers:

  • What are your startup costs?
  • What's the ongoing cost of running the business?
  • How much is your cost to finish a project from booking to deliverable?
  • What is your pricing structure?
  • How much do you expect to make?

If pounding the calculators gives you a headache, you can lean on a bookkeeper, accountant, or software. And while money's on your mind, check out these simple and savvy ways to finance your new business:

  • Ask friends or family.
  • Crowdfund with community help.
  • Finance equipment and with vendors.
  • Invest your savings.
  • Open a line of credit.
  • Secure a personal or business loan.
  • Use personal or business credit cards.

7) Get your paperwork in order

Something about putting pen to paper makes progress tangible.

a) Register your photography business with the state

Before you book clients, you must choose a business entity to file with the state. Start by selecting the type of business structure for your photography business, such as sole proprietorship, limited liability company (LLC), or corporation. Many professional photographers start as sole proprietorships and move on to LLCs later because they offer more protection for personal assets should legal problems arise.

b) Apply for your EIN

Your Employer Identification Number (EIN) identifies your business for taxes. Fortunately, it's free and easy to get your EIN from the IRS.

c) Open a business bank account

Once you have your EIN, you can open a business checking account, apply for a business loan, and separate your personal and business finances.

d) Obtain a business license and permit

Depending on what state you live in, you may need a business license to operate legally. You may also need a sales tax permit, so you can collect taxes when you sell your photos or services.

e) Get photography business insurance

As a photographer, the unexpected is simply part of the job. Say you're shooting a wedding and ancient Aunt Margaret's selfie attempt causes her to trip over your tripod and break her hip. Endless apologies and even a refund won't make her walk anytime soon. That's why you need solid small business insurance for your photography services.

Here are the key coverages to insure your photography business:

  • Workers' compensation: This coverage protects your employees if they get sick or injured while working in your photography business. Every state requires workers’ comp, and the consequences of skipping this coverage could cause the state to close your business. (You can get a quick estimate on what you'd pay for workers' comp with our 60-second workers' compensation calculator.)
  • General liability insurance: This policy protects your photography business if you're sued for a property damage or injury claim—Aunt Margaret will be okay. (Expensive lawsuits can quickly put a photography service out of business.)
  • Property insurance: This policy protects your photography equipment, essential for cameras, lenses, laptop, and all the other equipment you had to rob a bank to pay for.
  • Business interruption: This coverage, also called business income insurance, provides financial support to your photography business if you must close because of a covered reason.
  • Business Owner's Policy: This policy bundles general liability, business property, and business interruption insurance for your photography business in one convenient package.

f) Draft a contract

So, your name's not Andreas Gursky or Annie Leibovitz. Does that mean you can skip the contract? Nope. Written agreements protect you and your clients by setting proper expectations. You can have an attorney draft one for a reasonable fee or buy a template through a legal website.

Amongst other details, your contract should outline these 10 parts:

  1. Contact info for you and the client
  2. Date of photoshoot and deliverables
  3. Summary of deliverables
  4. Cancellation policy
  5. Payment schedule
  6. Copyright ownership/usage rights
  7. Model or property releases
  8. Liability limitations
  9. Post-production editing
  10. Extra fees

8) Hire your first employees

When you add that first helping hand, you'll need workers' compensation insurance to operate legally.

After you finish your paperwork and legal requirements, a hiring checklist is waiting for you from the Small Business Administration. Many photographers fly solo at the beginning and then hire an assistant as the business grows. Or they team up with other photographers to help service one another's clients.

When it's time to start the search, friends, family, and colleagues can be a fruitful source for finding talent. In addition, job advertisements and temp agencies may provide leads. Because referrals and word-of-mouth are an integral part of the photography business, track down the most experienced assistants and employees you can afford. However, you could flip this advice on its head and transform an art student apprentice into your perfect protégé.

9) Spread the word about your new photography business

A shutterbug should never be camera shy, even when they're on the opposite side of the lens. For once, you get to be the subject, and here are some winning ways to market your venture:

  • Build a photography website. Get the domain name for your business. A service with templates like Weebly or Squarespace can make the process painless.
  • Search engine optimization (SEO). After launching the website, you can get clients to visit it with great content that answers their inquiries in a way that makes Google and other search engines happy. Hire a digital marketer for help.
  • List your business on Google and Yelp. Sign up for your Google My Business and a Yelp profile.
  • Launch your social media accounts. Get your unique Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest, TikTok, and other handles relevant to your niche.
  • Create word-of-mouth. Small business owners understand word-of-mouth advertising is worth its weight in green, and if you want to tilt the scale, simply wow client after client with breathtaking photos.
  • Distribute brochures, business cards, and flyers. It's kicking it old school, but these marketing materials can generate new clients even in the digital age.
  • Loyalty program. Give price breaks to customers for more prints and services or after they refer a new client.
  • Partner with related businesses. Businesses such as caterers, event planners, and wedding planners can be stellar referral sources.

Bonus: Check out these tips for running a successful photography business

To build your own photography business from scratch, you need an eye for detail, a heart for people, and a head for business. When all three harmonize, photographers express terms like "life work" and "passion." While you pursue your unique path, here are some resources to help your journey:

  • American Photographic Artist: "American Photographic Artists (APA) exists to provide business tools that help photographic artists of all levels run a smarter, more creative, and profitable business."
  • Professional Photographers of America: It's the world's largest nonprofit photography association, providing discounting, certifications, continued education, and a vibrant online and in-person community.
  • Fstoppers: The website is a helpful mix of blog articles, tutorials, and even contests to show off your work and get feedback from the photography community.

Too many photographers go from part-time hobby to full-time headache. Here's one way to stay sane as an entrepreneur. Another way not to lose your cool is to count your blessings because photographers are privileged to do what they love every day.

If your heart's steering in the right direction, then you've got the green light to get business insurance from Huckleberry, and finding a policy is almost as immediate as the best chimping. (Getting a quote is free, easy, and 100% online.)

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