Starting a Photography Business

Photographers: I am more than happy for you to share this page with anyone you wish, and you are also welcome to link to it and share its content on your websites. In doing so, I ask that you include the link back to this page with credit to Shannon Holden Photography as the author. Thank you very much.

Update as of Spring, 2012: Lately I am getting about 5-8 emails or calls per day asking me for advice on starting a photography business. Many are asking questions that do not have a simple or short answer, such as “Can you tell me how to start my business?” I’m sorry to say I just do not have time to respond to each of these emails individually anymore. Please know that I would love to address each question sent to me, but as I am a working wife and mother, both my family and business time are limited and precious. My advice to anyone starting out is simply to do your homework … through books, art schools, trade organizations, forums, etc. Starting and growing a successful business is not fast, very expensive, and not easy. But if you are willing to invest your time and energy into learning what you need to know, it will be worth it. I wish you all the best.
Blessings,
Shannon


I get several emails and phone calls each week from aspiring photographers looking for advice. Maybe they are just launching out on their own, or perhaps they are looking for employment as an assistant or intern with an established photographer. I am honored by their requests and inquiries, and I am flattered that anyone would look to me as a mentor in business or art. At this point in time, I am simply unable to devote as much time as I’d like to such requests, so I thought it might be helpful to share some information here to answer some of the questions. Most of the information here will apply to business as a Children and Family Portrait Photographer, as opposed to Weddings or Commercial endeavors.

A photography career can be truly fulfilling. It is a joy to work with new families, capturing lifelong memories with them, and looking forward to new ones as their babies and children grow. But as you launch into the professional realm, it is incredibly important to be thoughtful and realistic about the road ahead. Your favorite photographer may make her job look easy, but trust me … it’s not. A successful photographer devotes long hours and a tremendous amount of energy to her craft, and the journey to success is not a short, lighthearted trip.

There are a few things that I think are critical for any photographer hoping to build a business around their passion. Some of these things can be a little sensitive to talk about, but you asked!:)

Technical Skill

The first is simple and obvious … know your craft and your tools. I do not believe in the “Fake it til you make it” approach. I believe you should be honest with yourself and your potential clients as you grow and learn, and have faith that one day you will be where you want to be. Especially with location photography, you are going to find yourself in a huge variety of settings and situations. You might end up shooting in a house with no light to be found. Or maybe you will be shooting 4 year old triplets with dirty clothes and a sugar high. You might be standing in the rain racing to get that one last shot before the downpour really starts. (Yes, I’ve done all three of these.) The variables in this business can really cause some stress during a session. The elements you can control in the midst of chaos – your mastery of your camera, your ability to find and manipulate light properly, and your own creative vision – will be the keys to your success. That’s not to say every session will be stressful. But there will be a few, and you will want to come through those smiling just like the non-stressful ones.

Know your camera, your light modifiers, your lenses, and your photo editing software. Know them like the back of your hand. Know what Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO mean, and how they work together. Know which lens and f/stop to use to achieve that beautiful background blur, and know what f/stop is best to keep multiple subjects in focus at the same time. Know how the focal length of your lens relates to your shutter speed. Most professional photographers shoot fully manual with their cameras, except perhaps auto-focus. I strongly recommend manual shooting. You must know how to set your camera to capture a scene, and how to reach those settings very, very quickly, before your adorable little subject toddles off to the next adventure.

Business Knowledge

The second is probably the most critical … be a business person. Any successful photographer (not the starving artist, but the photographer who can actually afford to pay their bills and still pay themselves, too) will tell you that success in this industry is 20% talent and 80% business skills. You absolutely must understand what it takes to run a business and do so legally. Be prepared for the money and time required. Even if you are planning your business to be a small, secondary job, you will probably be surprised at the amount of time you will pour into it. Your cost of doing business is not just your camera and your prints. Your business time is not just your time behind the camera. Consider all these additional and important expenses (and more that I haven’t even listed here):

* Back up cameras and lenses. Ideally, you should have at least two of everything you might need during a shoot. And plan on upgrades yearly. I typically replace my cameras once per year. I invested close to $40,000 in equipment in the first few years of my business. You’ll probably need twice that if you plan to shoot weddings. And that doesn’t even include studio lighting and equipment, since I don’t shoot with those things. Add another $20-30K if you plan to shoot in a studio environment. And that is also not including money to be spent on props.
* Business registrations, city occupational taxes, sales tax, etc. You must understand how to file all of these, how to stay up to date, and budget to pay them.
* Professional services. Budget for consultations with legal and accounting professionals, especially as you are getting your business and policies established. You’ll want to work with a professional accountant at least once or twice per year in addition to tax time, to keep yourself on track.
* Insurance. You MUST protect yourself and your clients, not to mention your equipment. Plan on about $500-$2000 annually for property, liability, and other business insurance. I also carry a short-term disability policy in case I am unable to work for more than 3 months.
* Computer expenses. Like cameras, I upgrade my computers annually. I have two computers, two monitors, and a bunch of other little gadgets that help me run my business. Time is money, and a slow, unreliable computer will eat up your profits quicker than you can imagine. Losing a client’s images to a faulty computer will be your worst nightmare.
* Education. Unless you are Ansel Adams or Anne Geddes, you will probably have a wealth to learn about photography even after your business is well off the ground. I know I do! Attending workshops and conventions, joining professional organizations and forums, taking classes, buying books, subscribing to magazines … these are all business expenses and time investments you should plan for.
* Marketing. You need a way to help people find out about you. Maybe it is print advertisements, maybe it is direct mail, maybe web marketing. Even word of mouth marketing costs money and time.

Along with all these and other expenses, you need to get paid! How much is your time worth? And not just your shooting time … your driving time, your editing time, your ordering and packaging time, your bookkeeping time, etc. After my first year in business, when I was charging $25 for an 8×10 and a $75 session fee, I thought I was doing pretty well. Then with a trusted business adviser, I did a little math. In that first year, I made, on average, $4 to $6 per hour for my time. BEFORE taxes! With some sessions, I actually lost money. OUCH!! I was paying my babysitter more than I made for myself! And so, while it was hard to raise my prices after that first year, and hard to lose some of the clients who could no longer afford my work, clients whom I liked very much personally, it was necessary. I had to either price myself so I could earn a decent salary or I had to shut down my business.

Respect your Fellow Photographer

This business will offer a lot of competition, some of it friendly, some of it not. Some colleagues you meet may have been burned by a competitor, so don’t be surprised if they seem a bit guarded. Most photographers I know would love to offer insight and knowledge to an aspiring artist, but it can be very challenging to do so. Many, like me, are working parents, working very hard to maintain a delicate balance between career and family. As a business owner, our free time is so precious, and we usually want to save it for our spouses and kids. So while we would love to answer a question or two when we can, often the questions we get require a lot of time to address, time we simply don’t have to spare. For this reason, I highly recommend finding an online community, where most of the answers you seek are often being discussed at length, and you can find multiple perspectives on your topic.

Operate with Integrity. Realize in a business like this, your prices and policies affect the market as a whole. Research your competition in an honest way. Don’t call them pretending to be a potential client just so they will send you their rate sheet, and don’t hire them for a session just so you can learn their posing and location ideas. Most of the information you need is out there on the web. Gather it, analyze it, and learn from it.

As a custom photographer, you are not competing with the inexpensive chain studios, so don’t price like them. You are offering a much more refined service, with 500% more time involved. Factor that into your rates. If your market’s average price for a session is $200, and an 8×10 print is $60, don’t price yours at $75 and $20 to build your business, or even because you are “just starting out.” Doing so undercuts established photographers and hurts the industry … it makes it harder for all photographers to earn a living. One day, perhaps soon, you will be among the photographers priced at the average rate, and you’ll understand how frustrating it is to the see the quality of the market declining. And what is sad for the clients, is that the quality of the art declines with it.

If you feel you aren’t ready to charge the average market price, either take more time to develop your skill, or consider offering an “introductory rate.” Set your rate at the average, and offer a “50% Portfolio Building Discount” for a limited time, with a defined end date. You are doing yourself a favor in this point, but not cutting your future earning potential. Your clients will know that you are in a stage of career development (and again, I believe in honesty on this point), and they will understand when the special pricing ends later. You can then avoid the painful process of doubling your prices one day when you realize you can’t meet your business’ budget needs.

If you choose to seek a photography mentor, look outside your area. If you live 6 miles from your favorite photographer, they probably aren’t going to feel comfortable training you to be their future direct competition. Know that this isn’t personal, it’s just wise business on their part. Instead, talk to photographers in nearby markets, perhaps 30-40 miles away, or even pair with someone online who works in another city. Once you are established, building networks and friendships with other local photographers can be great. By then you are on an even playing field, so the doors to relationship will be much easier to open, and chances are that your colleagues will welcome your acquaintance.

Artistic Development

Lastly, be YOU. Find out who you are as a person, as a wife or a friend or a mother or a child of God. That will be one of the first steps to finding your voice as an artist. And in doing so, make sure it is YOUR voice, and not a copy of another artist you admire. Inspiration is a wonderful thing … let it be the launching pad for YOUR art, not the foundation for art you lay as a thin veneer over it. Let new ideas from other artists feed your creativity, but don’t let them bog you down in trying to keep up with all the latest trends.

Plan time into your schedule, a LOT of time in the early days, to just shoot. This goes along with Technical Knowledge as well. Make hundreds or even thousands of photographs. Analyze them to find ways you can improve them. Join that Photography club or online forum where you can share your work for constructive criticism and feedback. Keep up this habit through the years to keep your skills honed and your perspective fresh.

Be honest, be bold, be genuine, be loving, and be humble. Your clients will appreciate you more for it.

Resources

This is just a short list of some resources that I and others have found helpful, and I hope you do, too.

Better Photo – an excellent site for online classes, inspiration, and learning

Photo.net – another internet community for amateur and advanced photographers

Flickr – an enormous international community of photographers, and a wealth of inspiration

Professional Photographers of America

Wedding and Portrait Photographers International

National Association of Photoshop Professionals

Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson – a fantastic book for learning the technical side of photography

Digital Photography Review – a website for equipment reviews and technical discussion

The Luminous Landscape – a website devoted to Nature and Landscape photography, which offers some great insight on artistic and technical development

Adobe Forums – a Photoshop community

B&H Photo and Video – one of the most trusted equipment stores in the country.

 

Frequently Asked Questions (some of these question may make you laugh – or cringe – but they are actual questions I’ve been asked! And I will be blunt … you have been warned.)
*Due to the high volume of emails and questions I receive about starting a photography business, I can no longer answer each of them individually. Between the needs of my business and family which must come first, I simply don’t have the time.  

Can you tell me how to start my business? In a word, no. I am asked this question almost daily. There is no short or easy answer to this question. Learning to run a business can take longer to teach (and learn) than learning to be a photographer. I have a college degree, had several years working in corporate marketing and sales, and had several years after that running my own business in another industry before becoming a professional photographer. The lessons I learned in those years combined to teach me what I needed to know to start my business, and I’m still learning. No one can tell you in an email or even a blog post how to start your business and succeed. You have to do your homework. Research, study, learn, analyze, plan, make mistakes, and learn some more … there is no simple or quick formula. If you don’t have the time or interest to do this learning on your own, you won’t succeed in business.

I’m planning to quit my day job to be a photographer. How much money can I earn as a photographer? Again, there is no short or easy answer to this question. But I have one clear and concise piece of advice for anyone considering  a career change of this nature: DON’T QUIT YOUR DAY JOB! It took me YEARS to build my business into what it is today, and YEARS to even see a meaningful profit, and that was in a much healthier photography market than we have today. With competition coming from every direction, some of it from talented photographers and some of it from not so talented photographers who are selling barely more than snapshots, I cringe at the thought of anyone expecting to make an instant profitable career in this industry. Start your business on the evenings and weekends and hold on tight to your paycheck and benefits until your business is well established. Being a photographer will not offer a retirement plan, medical or dental benefits, and it won’t make you rich. I don’t know a single photographer who is in this business for the money. We are in it because we are passionate about our art. And I’m thankful for a husband with a steady paycheck and benefits to keep our family afloat. My business wouldn’t feed my family of 5.

Do you shoot Canon or Nikon? In my opinion, Canon vs. Nikon is almost like Coke vs. Pepsi. Everyone has a favorite that they will swear is better than the other. Personally, I am currently shooting with a Canon 5D Mark III. But I have shot with Nikon in the past and may one day again in the future. Both companies make excellent cameras and lenses. My personal favorite lens is the Canon 70-200 f/2.8L IS II. I have that on my camera at every possible opportunity. My other lenses of choice include the Canon 24-70 f/2.8L, the Canon 100 f/2.8 Macro, the Canon 135 f/2.8L, and the Canon 85 f/1.2L II. Some photographers prefer prime lenses, some prefer zooms. I’m a zoom girl.

What editing software do you recommend? I use Photoshop CS5 for my work. Other photographers prefer Lightroom or Aperture. There are also a seemingly infinite number of plug-ins, actions, and presets available for an equally astounding number of effects you can apply to your photos – far too many to list here.

Where do you buy your prints or products? I choose not to divulge that information publicly. There are hundreds of great vendors and labs from which to choose who offer a variety of high quality, creative products. PPA, NAPP, and the Photography forums can help you research and choose the vendors who will meet your needs best.The PPA and WPPI annual trade shows are a great place to see and feel the products in person.

How do I make my backgrounds blurry like yours? Is that done in Photoshop? No, it’s not Photoshop. It’s a function of using the right lens and the right aperture and shutter speed to achieve that effect. Learn how to shoot your camera on manual and you’ll learn how to achieve this effect as well. If you are asking this question, you are not ready to start a business.

I’m just hoping to earn some play money by doing shoots on the weekends. Do I really need to charge sales tax? Have insurance? YES!!! If you charge one cent for your work, you are in business and you MUST operate as a business. Not charging sales tax is illegal, period. Not having insurance is foolish and irresponsible.

Can I come with you on a session? Watch you work for a while? Do you offer classes/workshops? I do not offer photography mentoring or classes at this time. Keeping my family life in balance and harmony with my professional life is an ongoing endeavor, as it is for any professional photographer or business owner. As I’ve said before, join the forums, PPA, NAPP and other organizations for a wealth of information. The major organizations put on annual conventions and trade shows which are a treasure trove of info and a fantastic opportunity to network with other photographers.

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