How to Start a Photography Business: A Step-by-Step Guide

Learn how to start a photography business today. Whether you're an established photographer looking to make money or an aspiring photographer ready to explore your entrepreneurial side, starting a photography business can seem intimidating. It doesn't have to be, however. Check out this step-by-step guide to starting a photography business to quickly understand the major pieces you need to get in place to become a successful photography business owner. While this guide isn't exhaustive and shouldn't be taken as a substitute for legal or tax advice, it can help understand some of the elements you need to figure out before you even book your first photoshoot.

In this How to Start a Photography Business guide, we'll take a look at:

  • How to understand where you're starting from
  • How to prepare the business side of things
  • How to manage the first few key clients you land
  • How to bridge the first few months with some alternate photography income streams

Understanding Where You're Starting

The first question you need to ask yourself when thinking about how to start a photography business is: "Where am I at as a photographer?". While this question might seem a bit vague, it's possible to consider it from several different angles. This might mean "Do I have the gear I'd need?" or "Do I already have experience shooting in critical situations, or under a little stress?". Another few essential questions to think about include "Do I already have clients I could work with?" and "Do I have images I could work into a portfolio or am I starting from scratch?"

Start a Photography Business

Furthermore, these answers have to be considered in the context of the photography you want to do. Suppose you're just looking to get started with selling some stock photography. In that case, you might only need a basic camera and some lighting gear. At the same time, the equipment required to photograph a wedding effectively might be pretty substantial and include multiple pro bodies, f/2.8 lenses, and lots of lighting gear.

If you're thinking to start a photography business, you probably already have an idea of what you'd like to do. Perhaps you see yourself shooting great-looking portraits and working with families to create happy memories for them, or you want to work as a wedding photographer or a product photographer. Whatever that idea is, even if it's somewhat general, can help you better understand the importance of the answers to these questions.

A few of the other vital aspects to consider might be difficult to answer if you've not run your own business before but may still apply. These include any existing business knowledge you may already have, as running a photography business isn't just about being a good photographer. Instead, you also have to be good at marketing yourself and your product, have a decent eye for design, and the ability to tackle customer service issues with a smile. As a photography business owner, especially at the start, you'll have to wear many hats. Having prior experience in any of those areas can be a big help when you're just getting started.

One last consideration could be called "special sauce." Is there some unique skill, niche, or attribute that you could bring to the table? This could be the fact that you're based in a smaller area, without established competition, or a special connection you have to the community. It could even be a close friendship with another business owner as a wedding venue manager. Essentially, can you think of anything that you could leverage to land your first client or build your business more quickly than someone else?

Setting Your Short and Long Term Goals

As part of the process of thinking through all these questions, you might start to identify some strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities for your budding business. That's great! To best make use of those insights, consider writing down a few short and longer-term goals. Reasonable goals should be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely.

Setting Your Short and Long Term Goals

Specific goals target a particular aspect for improvement - saying I want to build a website with a portfolio, about page, and pricing page is a more useful goal than saying "I want to build a web presence." Measurable goals don't have to be super complex, but having a way to gauge progress can be more motivating, considering breaking big goals into smaller sub-goals when possible. Realism may be brutal to judge when you're just starting, as you might not even be aware of the potential challenges each goal poses, so don't be too hard on yourself if you fall short. Timely goals are essential, as you'll see that there are many moving pieces to starting a business, and in many cases, delaying one can hold up several other processes.

Many of those aspects of reasonable goals also apply to identifying your business's niche, by the way. Saying you want to photograph weddings is a good start. Still, a better statement of purpose might be, "I want to photograph weddings at a reasonable price, focused on the three major towns near me, with an emphasis on natural lighting." Don't forget, you can continually update and change these goals as you go along, but it's better to have at least some target to aim for!

When you're considering some of your short-term goals, the subsequent few portions of this guide can be helpful, but here's a quick preview of some potential goals. Short-term goals, defined as the ones to accomplish in the first weeks around starting your business, are mainly focused on non-photography-related tasks. Unfortunately, many business administration tasks are best done before you've started taking on any clients. While these things aren't exciting, they can be necessary for the future of your business, and doing them well is like building a solid foundation for your business to stand on.

These might vary by the area you're operating in but can include things like registering your business name, applying for tax licenses and bank accounts, getting insurance, drafting up a primary contract, and registering a URL. While we'll look at what some of these require later in the guide, this can at least give you an idea of the tasks you might have to do right at the start of your business venture. Fortunately, these are one-off tasks, and once you've completed them, they'll be a tiny portion of your time to manage going forward.

For the longer term, think the first couple months to your first year in operation; these are goals that should help you make your business a success. In the order of the first few months, you should consider finishing up the initial marketing efforts, completing things like your website, business cards, and initial marketing outreach to family and friends. 

Portfolio Preparations

Portfolio Preparations

You'll also want to make sure your portfolio is polished. If you're looking for a great option to create a WordPress portfolio, consider checking our guide to WordPress themes compatible with NextGEN Gallery, the leading WordPress gallery plugin. If you're starting up your photography business, the portfolio can present a challenge - how do you have photographs of clients if you haven't had any clients yet? Fortunately, you've got a couple of options, depending on the type of business you're looking to create. 

If you're focused on portraiture, consider offering some free sessions to family and friends. It gives you a chance to practice your skills and gets you incredible images to use. Just make sure that they're OK with you using their photos in this way (and get it in writing!) Fortunately, family and friends are also more apt to be forgiving of the mistakes everyone makes when starting, and it's always better to make them before working with "real clients."

Another option if you're a portrait-based business is to hire a model. This will work particularly well for regular portraiture, headshots, or fashion style photography. In many cases, you can find models who are willing to trade their time for the rights to use your photographs in their portfolio as well, making it a win for everyone. Again, though, make sure that you're using a contract when negotiating these deals, as it's essential to be in mutual agreement over things like image releases and who holds the copyright. Again, this might seem cumbersome when you're just starting, but it can prevent a lot of trouble down the road.

If your focus is on a different type of subject, like architecture or product photography, you can go out and shoot! You can create a compelling portfolio for free, as well as get in some practice with techniques. Keep in mind that you should still respect copyright laws and property rights when doing this, but depending on your specialty, you should still have plenty of options for the subject matter.

After you get the initial setup tasks out of the way, you'll probably want to shift your goals to longer-term business objectives. That may mean looking to book ten clients, receive a referral from an existing client, generate your first $1,000 in sales, or finish a project for a client - what's important is that the goal is a concrete, measurable marker of success in your business. Not only does this serve as a huge morale boost when you reach it, but it also helps focus your attention on one of the essential parts of a business: making money. As you're going to be your boss, you don't have someone setting these tasks for you, but instead, you have to find internal motivation and direction to achieve them.

Preparing the Business For Opening

Preparing the Business For Opening

As previously mentioned, there's a lot of unique considerations for setting up a business. These can vary significantly between locales and are often very legally significant. As a result, make sure you consult your local professionals for things like tax and legal advice - they're the best equipped and qualified to answer those questions. Another excellent resource for referrals is the local chamber of commerce or other small business authority in your area. They often have several resources to provide entrepreneurs with guidance and advice about navigating the particular environment you'd be operating in.

Almost every business, however, will have to have some registration. Whether this is an official registration of your business, a tax license, or even just a business bank account, you'll need to make things official in some way. Setting these things up right from the beginning makes things a lot easier than trying to fix issues down the road.

As part of that official setup process, you'll probably want to choose a single name to do business as. Particularly for a photography business, this can be very important. Not only do you need a useful name for business operations, but it's also something that can significantly impact your marketing activities. While you might be able to have an "official" name separate from what you use for things like your URL and Instagram handle, keeping them aligned makes everything easier. 

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Name Registration

With that in mind, I'd suggest tackling these first few steps simultaneously: check out a name that will work for a website URL, Instagram handle, email, and business registration. While that might seem like many things to check at once, there are several helpful resources to make checking them easier. For example, consider trying namecheckr, a service that checks URL availability, as well as the availability of the handle on dozens of social media and web services. Also, make sure to google the name itself - the last thing you want is to pick one that's already similar to another business, or even worse, already trademarked for another business's use.

Once you pick one out, make sure to register it across the various services that you think you'd need. I'd suggest starting with a domain name, then moving in order of importance to things like Instagram, YouTube, and conventional business registration. Even if you don't want to set up an entire website yet, it's quick and easy to deploy a small website with a WordPress tool like NextGEN Pro.

After you've gotten the legal things filed, there are still some more things to print. While a bit old-fashioned in today's age, business cards are still an excellent option for marketing and word-of-mouth referrals. Having a few dozen in your camera bag is a great way to convert passers-by into potential clients, as well as a great way to help existing clients refer business to you. One of my favorites is Moo's business cards. These are very high-quality cards at a reasonable price, but one of my favorite features is the ability to create a different design for every card. Whether you use this to show off a variety of your photos or just play around with a few designs, it can help your cards stand out.

Start Marketing

Getting started and landing the first few clients can be one of the most challenging parts of setting up any business, and photography is no different. If you've not tried promoting yourself before, it can seem intimidating, awkward, or just difficult. Fortunately, it gets easier with practice, and you don't have to be pushy. Instead, think about your first steps in marketing as driving awareness. Letting family and friends know that you've started, showing them a few sample photos, and asking if they know anyone looking for a photographer can be a significant first step. Not only is it going to be your most receptive audience, but it lets you quickly tap into a more extensive social network.

Another great option is attending events targeted towards your niche. Wedding shows are a perfect example - the attendees are looking for wedding vendors and are open to what you're selling. For other niches, consider seeking out trade shows or other gatherings relevant to your field. Being in front of potential clients can be a big help.

Online marketing, via things like Instagram, Facebook, Google, and YouTube ads, can be effective tools and can also be more complex. As these typically have a high cost, you'll want to make sure you have a polished web presence and marketing message before you commit a significant budget to them. Perhaps consider running one with a limited budget to see if it fits your business, to make greater use of the six months or a year in.

How to Start a Photography Business: A Step-by-Step Guide

Photographing Your First Clients

Once you've booked your first client, there's one crucial business element to remember: customer service. Things can go wrong, and if it's your first professional shoot, they probably will. That's OK. What's important is that if something goes wrong and affects the client's experience, you make it suitable. Early on, particularly, it's worth building goodwill over "being right." Creating that positive first impression is key to their satisfaction and shapes the first impression many will get of your business. Having a 1-star review among fifty good reviews isn't a big deal, but if that's your only review, you can see how that might negatively impact your business.

Customer service doesn't stop when you stop clicking, either. After you've delivered the photos, follow up and see what they think. They might have constructive criticism, or it could be an opportunity to sell additional services. If they sound like they're pleased, remind them that you're looking to take on new clients - you could even consider offering a referral bonus or discount to encourage them to promote you.

Exploring Alternative Income Streams

Your first few months can be lean. Between startup costs and a lower number of clients as you scale your marketing, you might not be making much money. If you're already an experienced photographer, there may be some tremendous alternative streams of income to help supplement your business. We have a guide to selling photos online with a variety of services. Among these, you could consider listing your back catalog of images on stock image websites, selling prints via your website, or working outside your niche (as long as you're still able to deliver quality results).

Start a Photography Business

Don't get discouraged if you're facing some challenges starting up! Things will get better, and perseverance is essential for anyone wanting to start a photography business. Creating a successful photography business can seem like a lot of work, but fortunately, many of these tasks only have to be done once. After you're all set up, you can spend a much more significant portion of your time doing what you love: creating amazing images for your clients. If you're looking for more tips on setting up a successful photography business or want some more information on how to improve your photography, make sure to check out some of our other articles available on our blog.

Alex Coleman

Alex Coleman is a commercial photographer based in Phoenix, Arizona. More of his work can be seen at adcimagery.com.

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