What Does It Take To Start a Photography Business

Building A Photography Business – A Starter Kit For The New Guy

February 5, 2017 , , Barry Kidd
The Restoration of an Antique Kamado by Kinuura Yaki Pottery of Japan. With Smokeware Chimney Cap in the rain
A motorcycle sores over heard in the arenacross races at Motorama 2017. Main Arena Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex, Harrisburg, PA

A photography business isn’t like owning a bakery. We can’t just hang out a shingle and have people walk in and start forking over their cash. Photography businesses start and grow slowly. All of the time, every time. I would venture to say that there is no exception to this rule. With that said I more than understand the desire to be successful but If you absolutely insist on instant success stop reading now. This article nor this business is right for you.

Beyond the fact that things start slow, different people have diffrent viewpoints and no two businesses start or work the same way. There’s no such thing as a cut and dry formula but here’s my take.

The Basics

We all know that every photographer needs, or at lest should need, a certain skill set. You need to be able to get results and more importantly do so consistently. Beyond that there’s often a great deal of confusion about what it takes to earn your keep with a camera.

Clients Do Not Hire Photographers

Clients do not hire photographers. They hire people.
The most important thing that anyone starting a photography business needs to understand is that clients do not hire photographers. Clients hire people. They hire you for who you are far more than they hire your for what you do. People and businesses would rather hire a real person that they like and can work well with. More often than not it has little or nothing to do with your photos. Trust me. They have seen your photos long before they ever contacted you. Now they want to meet the person behind the lens. It’s always the person that gets the job. Never the photographer. This is why seemingly random people with only a basic skill set often get the best jobs. (Myself included.) 

I never pretend to be a great photographer or a great artist for the simple reason that I’m not. I am however good with people. My clients like me and they come back to me again and again. It’s certainly not because I can produce images that are beyond the scope of any other photographer. The very idea of that I could would be ludicrous.

The Right Place At The Right Time

Often building your business has as much to do with luck and being in the right place at the right time as it does hard work and perseverance. Nearly all of us will get that big break sooner or later. When it comes, you damn well better preform. Once you “luck into” your first big break a bigger break will fallow. Wash, lather, repeat and don’t screw up the opportunity.

Referrals Are Your Best Friend

Referrals are your best friend. If I had to guess I’d say that 80% or more of any Photographers work comes from referral. Happy clients will refer you to their piers. Photo editors at magazines will refer you to other photo editors from other magazines when asked about photographers in your area. Corporations are always looking for someone that is easy to work with and compatible with their own view of the world. If you come with a great referral from another company that they do business with they will more likely hire you than not. In short, they trust their friends and colleges more than any promotional information that you can generate and the job will be all but in the bag long before they ever even contact you.

Websites And Search Engine Optimization

Google is the new Yellow Pages.
Referrals not withstanding a solid web presence is a must. We do occasionally get cold calls from potential clients looking for a photographer. Google is the new Yellow Pages.  Simply put, if you can’t be found on the web you will never get the job. Because of this a solid understanding of SEO or Search Engine Optimization is just another hat that any photographer, or any small business for that mater, must understand. Learn it. Start using it. Get better at it. SEO is far more important than slick web design. Don’t worry that you are not the SEO guru at the start. “Just Do It!” You’ll get more proficient over time.

You want your site to be found at or near the top of Google Search. If your’e not there you’re loosing out on a great deal of potential work. A site without good, solid SEO it’s just taking up space on a web server and doing you little, if any, good.

A Photography Business Always Starts Slow

When starting a photography business work comes slow at the start. It always does, always will and no mater how good you are you’re not going change this simple fact. One job this year. Two jobs the next year. Fifteen jobs the year after. Who knows how fast your business will grow.  It never works the same for everyone but it will grow. Once you have a good returning client or list of clients hold on to them. Always do your best to preform as they need and, when ever posable exceed even your own exceptions.

You Are Your Own Brand

As a photographer you are your brand.
In short. As a photographer you are your brand. You are your photography business. Coca-Cola for example is different. Their brand is their logo and perhaps a bottle of Coke with condensation running down it’s sides. This is not the case for you and I. Rather than logos and flashy images we are our brand. It really isn’t our logos and or photos. None of that shit maters. It’s you and I and the reputations that we develop with our clients.

Have fun. Be yourself. Never fake it. Your clients can see right through fake and you will loose every time.

More In-depth Information

If the information above struck a chord and you want to know more keep reading. A lot of what follows is simple fact. There’s also a good deal of personal opinion tossed in. After all, we all have our opinions and are all to often willing to share them. I need to pointed out that I have a clear understanding of corporate photography.  I know how corporate photography businesses evolve. Wedding photography or basic portraiture.? That’s not my area of expertiese.

Before we get any deeper it’s important to point out that I’m not a photography coach or agent.  I’m just like you.  Someone who does his best to earn his keep with a camera. Weather you’re just starting out and want to earn income from your photography or already do this information may benifit you.

In The Beginning

In the beginning there was just you and your camera. It was s simple little love affair and by no means complex. As you progressed you may have entertained the notion that you could use your photos to earn extra income on the side. Perhaps you came to this conclusion yourself or perhaps others encouraged you. This is normal but before you jump on the pro photographer train you need to seriously consider a few things.

You certainly don’t need to walk around wearing a little black French beret or a dumb ass scarf wrapped around your neck.
The first thing to consider is if your photos really are worth someone’s investment. This is an honest assessment of your talent. As I state above you do not need to be a great artist. You certainly don’t need to walk around wearing a little black French beret or a dumb ass scarf wrapped around your neck. You do need to have a solid understanding of basic photography principles and have the ability to get consistent results. The most important word in theat last sentence being consistent. If you’re going to take someones hard earned money in exchange for services you need to be able to perform. Any job outside of your skill set should to be turned down. You owe that to your clients. Not to yourself.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be bold and try new things. That doen’t mean never accept challenging work. It means that you should never go into a job wondering if, or hoping that, you will preform well. You have to know that you can long before signing on the dotted line. Don’t take a job hoping that you will get your client the images that they want.  You have to know that you will.

New Investments

Starting a photography business means a few new investments. You don’t need to run out and buy new cameras, lenses or studio lighting right off the bat. That would be a waste of money. You should always avoid extra investment in big ticket items. These idems come as your business, skill and need grow. There are however a few things that you should invest in right away. The longer you put them off the longer it will be before you start seeing any type of return. Below is a short list of somethings you really should consider investing in.

Get Yourself A Website

I spoke earlier about Search Engine Optimization for your website. It should go without saying that to practice good SEO you need a website.  Though you may feel that it’s an unnecessary expense when just starting out. I can assure you that it is but only if done right.  If you don’t do it right you may as well flush the money and time you spent on it.  A web presence takes time to establish.  With hard work you may be able to achieve good ranking on Google search in as little as six months. That is however the exception, not the rule. A good solid standing in Google Search will most likely take one or two years.  Don’t sweat not being an over night hit on the web.  

You need to consider that your website will take at least a year to get established. Perhaps more.  It all depends on your effort. In effect the first year your website is live you will not see much return on your investment. Building a solid web presence takes time. Just as with with a photography business it’s a long slow process. Starting now will allow your site and business grow together. Do it now rather than later.

My own advice is to use a system like wordPress.  WordPress.org on a hosted server. Not wordpress.com.  WordPress will give you complete control over your SEO and other things that simple builders like SquareSpace do not.  Avoid that trash and don’t be suckered in by it no mater who suggest it. That includes your mom and best friend! Good quality SEO is far more important than slick design.  Slick design will come as you progress in you knowledge of web design.

A website will also give you a dedicated email address.  This is more professional and something that potential clients do notice.  you@you.com is simply going to be more appealing to any client than bubbas-pictures-n-stuff@gmail.com.

Learn How To Properly License Images

One of the most frequently asked questions by new photographers is how much do I charge. Well, that’s one of the things we all need to get our head around.  Some people charge very little while others charge way more. I’ve even heard photographers in forums say stuff like “Squeeze them for every dime you can get.” Talk like that is just bad business. You should charge fair fees for your work and your images. 

On the flip side giving your photos away or under charging hurts all of us because it establishes the president that what we do has little or no value. Gouging your clients is no better because it gives potential clients the impression that all photographers are crooks that want to stick it it them. Don’t screw your clients. Don’t let them screw you. Find the middle ground. That’s the cornerstone of not only a good photography business but any business.

Even so the question remains.  What do you charge?

Commercial Licensing

I really only have a good deal of experience where commercial licensing and commercial photographer’s fees are concerned. That’s really the only area that I can help guide you. If you do family portraiture my experience and knowledge will be of little use.

For commercial licensing there are many tools that will help you. I prefer fotoQuote Pro 7 by Cradoc Software. You can also download a demo here that will help you decide if it’s right for you.  FotoBiz is also an option.  FotoBiz includes fotoQuote but also helps establish assignment fees as well as track income and licensing. That however may be something for later. If you’re new I’d stick with fotoQuote and upgrade to fotoBiz later if needed. Don’t waste your money on something you aren’t using.  

Below is a video about fotoQuote Pro 6. This is the old version but it’ll help you see how it works.

You can also view and download the users guide PDF for fotoQuote Pro 7 at the link provided.  Perhaps that can give you some idea of what it can do for you.

There are many other tools available that help you astablish fair licensing and assignment fees. I prefer fotoQuote and fotoBiz as it’s what I’ve always used. Other than that I have no special attachment to the software.

Note To Self

It’s important to note that if you shoot mostly family portraiture, weddings or even buduar it’s unlikely that you will need to license photos. Any advice about tools like fotoQuote will be an unnecessary expense. Often new photographers aren’t even sure which direction their photography business will follow. Not yet anyway. We all have an idea of what we want to shoot. Just as often, like it or not, our path is chosen for us and we follow the route that is laid out before us rather than the other way around.

Never toss money away on cool toys that you will never use. These tools are good to have on hand if you start shooting photos that have a chance to be licensed by potential clients.  When I think about a photography business I tend to think of commercial and corpraite photography.  That’s just how my brain works.  I need to step back and realize that not everything I do applies to everyone. 

Why You Should Invest

You should invest in a website because it’s just good sense. As stated above, Google is the New Yellow Pages. It’s your best chance to be found.

A delay after you get the call can be a lost opportunity and income.
As photographers we also shoot for ourselves. Not just clients. If you use proper SEO your website and individual images it will be searchable. You’ll be found by potential clients from all over the world that you never dreamed of.

As photographers we are often surprised at the photos our clients want to license. You unlikly to get wealthy from it but several times a year you maybe contacted by clients that want to use your photos. These are almost always found on the web found through image search. Depending on usage you may make anywhere from three hundred to several thousand dollars each time you get one of those calls. Sooner or later it will hapen and you have to be ready to negotiate the deal. A delay after you get the call can be a lost opportunity and income. Be ready before hand.

Out Of The Blue

Often we get calls and emails out of the blue to license this image or that one. As an example. I was recently contacted by a client that found one of my images through Google Image Search that wanted to license the photo of the American bullfrog below for a small postcard run.  Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. I wondered why anyone would want to license it as well but I didn’t mention that to the client. DAUGH! 

Starting a photography business. Macro of photograph of a bull frog's face and eyes

Macro of photo of an American bullfrog’s face and eyes.  You can read more about this shot and how it was captured at this link to my journal.

Anyway, the fee wasn’t huge but it more than paid for my website for a year plus the cost of fotoBiz. The result was a little thing we call profit.  Any other income that my site generates after that is basically free money. It’s that easy. You only need to set yourself up for success and be ready when the call comes. It may take a year for that first call.  It may take two years but if you truly are ready to start a photography business that call will come. You have to be ready for it before hand. 

You’ve Already Spent Money

I look at it like this. You’ve already spent a considerable amount of money on your gear. If I had to guess I’d say that the average person on the verge of staring a photography buisness has already spent any where between $2000 and $10,000 on gear that they use for their hobby. You’ve also learned or stared learning both Lightroom and Photoshop. After all these expenses an additional $200 or $300 over the course of a year is a small price to pay.

Don’t just say that you now have a photography business. Actually do it. You’ll be better off and more profitable in the long run.

Tip Of The Iceberg

The information above is just the tip of the iceberg. There is so much to consider and I haven’t even scratched the surface. If I were asked how to start a photography business tomorrow I may give similar but but different response.

There are literally millions of webpages and thousands of books written on the subject. If you’d like to learn more let me know and I’ll see if I can write more detailed information on the subject or even the subject you specify asked about so long as I actually have the answer.

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