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Updated Jan 17, 2024

How to Start a Photography Business

Learn the basic requirements necessary to succeed in the fast-paced world of professional photography.

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Pamela S. Stevens, Business Operations Insider and Senior Writer
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This guide was reviewed by a Business News Daily editor to ensure it provides comprehensive and accurate information to aid your buying decision.

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Starting your own photography business is a great way to add a second income or a main income if you work hard. While the photography market is competitive, many photography business owners have been able to find their niche and build a sustainable career. Like most creative endeavors, you need to balance your passion for photography with real business skills to be successful.

To build and grow your business, you need both raw talent and a knack for marketing. One photographer we spoke with said an ability “to market yourself” was one of the most important factors in success. You should continually be working to improve your craft and evolve your product and work consistently on your own branding, online marketing and people skills. Without the two, the results will likely end up being an expensive hobby rather than a viable full-time business.

How to start a photography business

Based on interviews with professional photographers, here is a list of equipment, software and services you should consider acquiring to launch your photography business.

Basic business requirements

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There are a few things nearly all businesses need that you should get squared away first, before you even think about buying equipment:

  • Business licenses: Business licenses are usually required by the state governments in which you operate. Make sure you register your business and obtain a license and tax identification number before launching your company in earnest.
  • Insurance: Insurance protects you from liabilities related to accidents, equipment damage and more. Consider which insurance your business needs before taking on work; protecting your assets is critical.
  • Accounting services or software: You’ll need to be able to manage your revenue and expenses. You can do this yourself by using an accounting software solution or you can outsource the job to a professional.
  • Legal services: Lawyers are important for any business. Make a connection with legal counsel that you trust and have them on call as needed. You can usually pay an hourly rate for when you need legal services rather than a more costly retainer.
  • Business cards: Business cards are a great way to hand a physical token to the people you meet. You never know who will hang onto it and call you with a job down the line.

Equipment

Determine the equipment you’ll need to do the job. While you don’t need all of the following all at once, professional photographers we spoke to suggested eventually acquiring the following inventory. If you want to keep costs low, consider what in this list is an absolute necessity to complete your first jobs in a quality manner:

  • Two cameras
  • Multiple lenses
  • Two flashes
  • Multiple memory cards
  • Two external hard drives
  • Computer or laptop with sufficient memory

Digital services and software

Photography businesses will need certain digital services and software, including a website and hosting, editing software and an online proof gallery:

  • Website: You can launch a basic website for relatively cheap with services like Wix or Squarespace. As your photography business grows, you could consider developing a more extensive website.
  • Lightroom and Photoshop subscriptions: Subscriptions to editing software are essential for putting the finishing touches on your photographs and videos.
  • Online proof gallery: Online proof galleries like ShootProof allow you to share and sell your photographs online. These galleries offer another potential revenue stream or the ability to upsell clients on additional photos not included in the price they paid for the event.

Build a brand and generate new business

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Once you have all the equipment, software and services you need to do the job, it’s time to start finding work. In the early days of your photography business, this may be challenging, but the following steps can help you generate leads and land gigs:

What does it cost to start a photography business?

While you don’t need to buy every single piece of equipment and subscribe to every service all at once, many professional photographers say to plan on budgeting between $10,000 and $15,000 to launch a photography business.

According to professional photographer Austen Diamond, “building slow and smart” will help you stay nimble. Allow the organic growth of your business to fund gear improvements and avoid debt if possible, he said.

As a professional photographer, you’re likely to need at least two cameras, which can cost up to $2,000 each depending on the model you choose. However, if you need to start on a lean budget, you can probably get away with using only one camera for your first few jobs to help fund the purchase of the second camera.

Additionally, you’ll likely need multiple lenses and flashes, which can cost upward of $1,000 each. Similar to the camera, start with the basic, most essential lenses you’ll need to complete paying gigs. When the money comes in from these jobs, you can use it to acquire additional equipment and level up your work.

The other major expense you can expect is a computer or laptop that has ample memory and processing power, especially if you plan on shooting and editing video content. Expect to spend up to $2,000 for a suitable device. 

Beyond these major expenses, you’ll need to factor in equipment like memory cards and external hard drives. There are also business expenses, such as acquiring a business license, insurance and professionals like accountants and lawyers. You’ll also likely need a website, software like Lightroom and Photoshop, business cards and budget for attending networking events and joining trade associations to help make contacts and expand your business.

TipTip
Plan on budgeting about $10,000 to $15,000 to start your photography business.

Other considerations when starting a photography business

Beyond equipment, software and services, there are some other important aspects to consider when launching a photography business. The following are important elements to plan for when you begin trying to generate leads and accepting jobs.

Your branding and reputation

graphic of a photographer taking photographs of a married couple

Building a personal brand and reputation for quality work is one of the best ways to generate referrals and recognition. In a business like photography, word-of-mouth advertising is highly effective. For example, if a newlywed couple was thrilled with your work at their wedding, their friends and family may hire you for portraits and events of their own.

Building your brand and reputation is a way to reinforce your image as a top-notch professional photographer and generate more work and revenue. Here are the things you should consider about branding and reputation:

  • Your person and gear: If you work with people, you are your brand. Even the little things affect your reputation, and most of your business will come by word-of-mouth referrals. When you go to a shoot, dress appropriately. Iron your shirt. Wash your car. Be organized. Bring your own water and snacks. Charge your electronics. Thank you and referral gifts should be classy. Being ready shows respect and professionalism.
  • Being timely: Always arrive to the shoot early and don’t fail to deliver your product when promised. Print out directions so you don’t get lost. Ensure that your clients understand your production schedule and how long it will be for them to receive their proofs and final product and stick to your agreements. Answer phone calls and emails in a timely manner.
  • Online: Anonymity is nearly impossible these days. Many potential clients will be searching for you and your work online. The images you post online should not only be high quality but also the kind of images you want to be taking to attract the kind of work you want to be doing. Avoid contentious social media posts and keep your language positive. Keep your LinkedIn profile and contact information on all sites up to date.

Your pricing and rates

Many photographers have difficulties with setting their price and determining their value. Certainly, you should never price work to result in lost money or less than minimum wage, but many do. You can research your area to see what your competitors charge but, ultimately, you’ll need to charge what you feel you are worth.

Generally, you’ll want to estimate 3 hours of editing time for every hour of shooting. Some photographers use a gauge of roughly $75 to $250 per hour to cover standard costs. Be sure to factor in travel and preparation time as well as the equipment and expertise you bring to the shoot. Consider your ongoing costs, such as insurance, professional services and your website, as well. These expenses support your business and allow you to provide your photography services, so make sure you’ve built them into the rates you charge and left room for profit too.

You should also always require an upfront deposit for high-priced gigs. To avoid credit card stop payments, you should require cash, cashier’s check or bank transfer for paying the deposit.

Key TakeawayKey takeaway
Photographers should factor in a number of factors when setting their price, including any travel, equipment, as well as their level of expertise.

Customer expectations and contracts

Managing your clients’ expectations is important to your success. Your clients should know exactly what to expect of you and also what is expected of them. For weddings, timelines and group pictures should be organized in advance. For infant photos, your customers should know what clothes and accessories to bring. If you are taking corporate headshot images, people should know how to dress.

For contracts, your clients should know how much is due in advance and how to pay it. You should set terms on how far in advance you need them to commit so you can schedule.

Contracts should be explained carefully and, if applicable, your customers should know how they are allowed to use the images — and that should be in writing as well. While not everyone is comfortable with legalese, your professionalism will help make this necessary part of your business agreement go as smoothly as possible. You can find free contracts online, such as model release, photo licensing, wedding agreements and other common photography contracts, on sites like Less Accounting.

Finding your niche market not only allows you to focus on a specific skill set but also offers the opportunity to find networking prospects in a specific genre. Wedding and infant photographers are abundant. You can still book these types of gigs, but if you can offer something that others do not, you may find more work.

The product you offer may cover a specific genre, such as sports or a style or mood, such as humorous photos. Or perhaps you are also a writer and can create beautiful picture books with family stories. Maybe you work in the medical industry and have the knowledge to create quality educational medical photography.

Types of work for professional photographers

graphic of a photographer taking pictures of a posing model

This list includes some types of work for professional photographers, so no matter what your interest you can find some inspiration for your photography business:

  • Weddings: Weddings are a big source of work for photographers and, while they can be highly lucrative, they are also quite challenging. With weddings, you get only one chance to do it right. If you have issues with your camera or memory card and don’t have the proper backup gear, you may miss the whole thing and damage your reputation quickly. The organized photographer that does a great job capturing the happy couples’ special day, though, may find themselves in a profitable niche.
  • Stock photography: You can start your own stock photo website or sign up as a contributor to popular sites, such as Shutterstock or iStock. The pay may be low but licensing is managed for you, you can sell in volume and get paid several times over for the same photo.
  • Contract work: Some photographers have obtained contracts that pay a set monthly amount to cover local events or to be on call. For example, perhaps your local tourism or business development department may pay you monthly to cover local events.
  • Commercial photography: All businesses need web images these days. You may be able to find work capturing images of their products or services, facilities and headshots of their board members and management team.
  • Real estate: Often, real estate agents will contract with photographers to capture professional images of homes, business properties and land. They may also want you to capture 360-degree or interactive video footage.
  • Pets: People certainly love their pets and some pet owners want professional images of their furry companions, either as portrait-style images or on location with natural movement and action.
  • Boudoir or glamour: Many people like sensual pics of themselves or images taken of them with their hair and makeup professionally done. These can be done in a studio with other professional artists if you cannot do hair and makeup yourself.
  • Sports: A wide variety of sports organizations want professional images and video. You may be able to obtain contract work to cover a full season or a specific event, such as a local marathon, rodeo or bike race. Keep in mind that lenses for capturing sports moments can be costly.
  • Local news: Local print, TV and online news sources may pay you for images of local events, weather disasters or crime scenes. It would require you to go out and cover events upfront on your dime, but it could pay off later.
  • Image or video editing: A busy local photographer may need assistance with their workload. The pay may not be ideal, but it is a good opportunity to work on your editing skills.
  • Product images: Many local artisans and retail businesses sell products online and need good product images for their own websites or shopping sites, such as Etsy or Amazon. The pay per image would be low, but the work is relatively easy.
  • Food images: Like every other business, restaurants need to have an online presence. You may find ample work in helping restaurants create online menus and promotional images.
  • Music: Working bands need promotional images for their websites, CDs and media packages. Some also desire video of their live performances.
  • Paparazzi: To some people, “paparazzi” may seem like a dirty word, but someone has to snap pics of the Kardashians in their less-than-flattering casual moments. If you live in a city like Los Angeles, New York or Las Vegas, you may be able to make money from selling your celebrity photographs.
  • Prints: Some photographers have found success selling their prints. It’s a tough way to make money but worth exploring if it fits your genre. Prints can be sold online and in galleries.
  • Contests: If entering a photo contest is easy and doesn’t cost you anything, it may be worth trying to garner a little extra income.

Ready to start your photography business?

There is a lot to know about becoming an exceptional photographer and making money doing it. Understanding the equipment and the art of photography is just the start; you’ll also need business acumen and exceptional organizational skills to deliver high-quality work that leaves your clients satisfied. However, with skill, careful marketing and a strong professional reputation, you have a good chance of creating a lucrative photography career.

Tejas Vemparala also contributed to this article. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

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Pamela S. Stevens, Business Operations Insider and Senior Writer
Pamela has one personal business motto: "If I ever lose money, I quit." And that has not happened yet through the past 20 years and five small businesses. Pamela is a California transplant who now resides in Ogden, Utah. She was one of the first Top Ten Reviews (TTR) writers, where she reviewed all types of products, including business, security, and financial software and services. Her formal education includes a degree in Creative Writing and Geography, specializing in intelligent planning and urban development.
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