So You Want to Start a Photography Business

So you want to start a photography business! First and foremost, do you have a product to sell? Are your images clean, exposed properly and of consistently high quality? If they are, then maybe you are ready. The best way to know is to compare. One of the easiest and most efficient ways is to put your images next to other well-known and established professional photographers. Another way is to ask. Posting on PhotographyCorner is a great way to ‘shop’ around your potential. Another thing, if you are still asking, ‘how should I set up my studio lighting?’ you are not ready to start your business! If you are still at the learning stages gather as many freebie models as you can and practice, practice, practice so you can get yourself to a sellable product level, then come back to this article.

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If you have a sellable product then you need to start sizing up your competition. Who do you want to market? When you’ve decided who your market is then find your sitting fee price. Be competitive. Too many photographers don’t do this, in my opinion. Most are stuck on a price. In order to see any kind of success, you have to be willing to negotiate your worth. Now, I’m not saying to give your product away for free, I’m saying be flexible. As soon as you acquire your client base and continually provide them with top of the line customer service, quality, and value, they will remain loyal.

Shop around printing services if you do not have a professional quality printer. Some really good ones are Miller’s Professional Imaging, Mpix and Color Incorporated. I’m sure there are other great pro labs out there; the ones I’ve listed are the ones I’ve had the best experience with quality, service, and value from! You want to go with a high quality professional lab, your customers will not take you seriously if you print from Wal-Mart, Shutterfly, Snapfish and I could go on. Don’t go cheap – I have warned you! Also, most pro labs will help you with monitor color calibration. When I signed up with Miller’s they had me send a few files to them and they printed out a comparison package to me. They showed me their color processing versus mine plus seeing their quality firsthand was great business practice! Oh, and drop ship! Drop ship means that shipping boxes will not be labeled with the lab name and invoices will not have prices written on them – keep this in mind!

Equipment is a biggie and should be bought way before entering the business realm. Why? Because you need to practice, practice, practice… oh, did I mention you need to practice? If you are shooting outdoors, you want a good off-camera flash, diffuser, reflector and any filters that you might need. Also, you should have a couple of towels or blankets, a step stool and a mirror. Studio equipment is a bit more involved. You need two good lighting sources. I suggest soft box lighting, the bigger the better. A reflector and/or umbrella, light stands, backdrop stands, lint brush, hand steamer, pillows, stool (optional), extension cord and backdrops. Don’t go crazy with backdrops at first. You can get away with a solid black (velvet works really well) and a solid white (white paper backdrops work well) for a start. The more you establish yourself and get more comfortable dealing with clients you’ll find yourself adding and subtracting items.

Your client base should be multiplying because you should have asked your freebie sittings to spread the word about you (provided you are delivering a good product). BUT, everyone needs a marketing boost!! Now is the time to print business cards! Places like Vista Print give away free business cards provided you use one of their designs. Getting anything free is a great first marketing tool so do it and always have a stack of cards on you at all times. Strike up conversations wherever you are and start handing out those cards! You do not have to be pushy to be a good salesman, you just have to be able to smile and say hi… you wouldn’t believe how far those two little tricks will go! As soon as you get your first client always have three things with you to give to them: 1) Release form for them to sign (important for portfolio building and viewing), 2) Business form (thanks your clients and gives them relevant info pertaining to their session), and 3) Print pricing list with studio contact information. My packet always consists of these things plus a handful of business cards for my clients to hand out.

Another marketing tip is to make sure you are searchable on the internet! Don’t have a professional website, then get one! Refrain from Shutterfly, Photobucket, Facebook or any other social photo-sharing forum when you enter the pro market. Trust me on this very important fact, the public will often expect free services if your product is not handled in a professional manner. Why do some portrait photographers make good money while others don’t? It’s because of their level of professionalism! Amateur is written all over the sites that have ‘free’ ads attached to them or a sloppy layout! Invest the money and get a pro website, you’ll thank me in the end!

Set yourself up as a DBA (Doing Business As) and open a business account with your bank! Separating your business from your personal will help come tax time AND, again, people will take you more seriously if they are able to write out their check to your business name! Most banks will not allow you to cash that ‘John Smith Photo Studio’ check even if your name is on it so setting up a DBA is very beneficial. Plus, a DBA allows you to set-up a tax ID number where you’ll be able to write off anything you buy for your business, just keep your receipts and make sure it is a photography related purchase! It will save on taxes in the end. Go to gov.org to get yourself set-up!

Now that you have established yourself as a business, don’t compromise yourself! I was once asked to do mall-type Santa Claus shots for a corporation willing to pay me a pretty hefty price but I turned them down. The fact that my name would be on these Santa-on-the-lap shots was enough for me to know it would not help my business but hurt it… my images have to reflect what I do all of the time, even if it means turning down potential business. Remain firm on your pricing; don’t make excuses. Excuses show there might be a potential flaw in your product. Giving away special offers will counteract any questions or hang-ups on pricing, so offer them.

One other important thing: Always be willing to learn and improve both with your photography and with your business. Just because you are in business does not mean you stop learning. Be open to improvement, be open to criticism and be open to new ideas and ways of doing things. Yesterday one form of photography was popular, today a whole new form is popular – times change and we have to be willing to change a little with it. Even after I’ve gotten my nice big sale, I often look back and say, ‘What could I have done better?’… this only helps in the grand scheme of business!

These are all very basic starting points to beginning your business. The rest is up to you! Be good to your clients, give them excellent service, excellent value and excellent product every time!

In summary:
  1. HAVE A SELLABLE PRODUCT!!
  2. Don’t be afraid to be competitive and set your price
  3. Find a good professional lab
  4. Have proper equipment
  5. Get business cards, - Smile and say, ‘Hi!’
  6. A professional website or blogsite is a must!
  7. Set up a DBA, you’ll thank me in the end
  8. Do not compromise your product
  9. Offer specials/sales AND be good to your clients
  10. Never stop learning and improving!


Good luck! And have a great business!