How to Start a Photography Business

Kelly Tuohey

A photography business of any sort, whether it’s a full-time venture or a weekend fling (you know what I mean), needs a beginning. Whatever your business objectives, you need a map for this adventure before hitting the road. This tutorial is your road map (GPS, if you’re like me) to starting a successful photography business.

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I’ll teach you how to:

Set Business Goals

Business goals can begin in general terms. For example, my goal was to establish a core group of expectant mothers who I could photograph — from maternity through the kindergarten years of their children. I wanted to replace my existing full-time job, so I had to be available about 40 hours per week to make it happen.

Having an end goal in mind makes it simpler to find the path needed to reach the destination, like breadcrumbs you’re leaving for yourself to follow later. Let’s begin with your client goals.

Choose your ideal client

It’s important to first establish your ideal client. The audience you choose will greatly impact the necessary time commitment and revenue potential of your new business. Be specific. The definition of an audience can include any or all of the following:

  • Type of person (twenty-something bride, mom with three children, etc.)
  • Location (city, venue, distance from home, etc.)
  • Income level (luxury, budget)
  • Style
  • Interests

For example, marketing to a wedding client who favors a luxury destination is much different than marketing to a mom on a budget who needs family photos. Effective business and marketing plans (we’ll get there soon) require knowing exactly who this ideal client is. You shouldn’t even begin a plan before defining your ideal client.

Set revenue and schedule expectations

Begin with the amount of time you want to put toward the business, the amount of money you want to make, or a combination of the two. You can start to see real numbers emerge after doing a little bit of math.

Let’s assume a 40 hour workweek. That could mean one to two portrait sessions per week for 48 weeks (assuming four weeks of vacation) or one wedding session per week for 26 weeks (half the year). Move these numbers up or down depending on how much you want to work and the time required to complete each session.

$50,000 per year in revenue requires $500 – $1,000 per portrait session or $2,000 per wedding.

$75,000 per year in revenue requires $750 – $1,500 per portrait session or $3,000 per wedding.

How pricing goals determine workload

Once you see the actual numbers, you will be better able to plan the potential of your business.

When making these calculations, don’t forget to account for expenses, downtime, seasonality (especially for weddings), and time needed to manage the business (advertising, marketing, office organization, strategic planning, record keeping). Don’t be overly optimistic. I use very conservative assumptions so that I’m not shocked when unexpected things arise, like a severe computer crash or a nasty flu during the peak of the photography season.

Create a Photography Business Plan

When you have goals in hand, begin putting them to work. Creating your business plan is the next step toward successfully achieving your goals.

Essential parts of a solid business plan include:

Business summary

Company description: What do you do? How is your business different than others? What needs does your business serve?

Management and organization: How is your business structured — both from a legal perspective and internal standpoint? Who is part of it? There are a variety of business structures to choose from: sole proprietor, LLC and corporation. Each of these choices has a different level of initial investment cost, personal choice of liability and tax liability.

Services and products: What does your business sell? How does it benefit your clients? What is the story of your product line?

Check out the Business Planning Cookbook for samples, templates, worksheets, and videos to guide you through the process.

Market Analysis

Market research: What unmet need does your business serve? Who are your competitors? What are the industry trends? How does this benefit your business? Who is your perfect client?

SWOT analysis: SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. What advantage does your business have over its competitors? What personally do you bring to the table? What do you need to improve upon? Why do you see opportunity with your business idea? What could make your business fail?

Sales strategy: How are you pricing your services and products? Do you have different pricing options for different clients?

Marketing strategy and planning

Marketing strategy: How are you going to promote your business? How often are you going to promote it? What different methods will you use? How will you gain exposure?

Advertising strategy: What are potential advertising opportunities? What is your advertising budget?

Sales planning: How are you going to attract clients? How will you store information about clients? How many clients are you looking to work with? How much do you expect your average client to spend? What products will they buy?

Financials

Forecasts and budgeting: What are your fixed costs? What costs will you incur every time you make a sale? What major purchases will you make? What workshops will you attend?

Cash flow: What is your initial investment going to be? When will your busy/slow seasons be? How will you finance any slow periods? How much and how often will you take money from your business?

Many new business owners find it valuable to sit down with an accountant and work through these numerous questions during an initial forecast-and-budget session. A financial expert will likely think of things you have not considered.

Establish Business Accountability

Be confident your business will make it big. But first, you must act like the big business you will become: Set up proper documentation before your first sale.

Register a Business Name

A business name should be easily remembered, descriptive and distinctive. You can brand the business with your name or come up with something different and unique. My last name is difficult to spell, but I want people to remember ME when they come across my site. Therefore, I kept my name in my business name: Kelly Tuohey Photography. Your decision is a personal one, but here are some tips for researching a business name.

Develop a list of three to five names you love and then get feedback from friends and family. Their unique perspectives may save you from choosing a bad name for your business.

Consider how your business name will be used:

  • Search – Will your name be hard to find in Google?
  • Social – Is your business name available across all major social networks?
  • URL – Is the domain name you want available?
  • Trademarks – Does another business have the same name registered?
  • Memorability – Is the name easy to remember?
  • Logo – Does the name work well with a logo?

Registering your business name is a smart idea: It protects your name from use by others and is helpful when establishing financial accounts. Read this Wall Street Journal article for more information on How to Register US Trademarks.

Create and register your website and social media accounts: Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, Google+ and YouTube (even if you don’t plan to use them any or all of them). Don’t spend hours designing them; the point is to secure your identity as quickly as possible.

Register with your local and federal governments for tax, legal and communication purposes.

Set up banking accounts, business insurance, licenses and basic record keeping

Having separate business accounts is essential for proper organization and record keeping. This article on Legal Zoom (a great website) supports this concept. Don’t forget to connect the bank account to online payment services such as PayPal.

Apply for a business credit card. Many online vendors only accept credit cards, so you will need some way of paying that doesn’t touch your personal accounts. I simply added a debit card onto my business bank account — easy!

Business insurance is not cheap and can be a major deterrent for those who are starting out. In the long run, however, it’s more costly to be caught without insurance, so set up business insurance right away.

Business licenses are an absolute requirement. This registers your business at the local (municipal) level. Again, the penalties for lacking a business license can be severe: The fines you may be levied can be more than the initial cost of the license. Learn more at the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Set up a record keeping system. Even if you have no desire to maintain your own books, you need to have a basic understanding of proper record keeping. There are many low-cost software programs available online that can link directly to your bank accounts. For example, here’s an article describing how to integrate ShootQ successfully.

At the very least, keep printed copies of all your expenses and store them chronologically. Also maintain an electronic spreadsheet that tallies your income and expenses, preferably separated by categories.

Take photos of receipts with your phone and email them to yourself.

Live by Larry’s advice (he’s my tax dude): Plan time each week to update your records, which is easier and more accurate than saving everything until the end of the year.

Create a Portfolio

It’s hard to get clients if you don’t have sample photos ready and available. That’s where a portfolio comes in.

What is a portfolio?

A portfolio is a representation of your current and best work that reflects personal style, your niche and — most importantly — the work you want to do. Your portfolio should be minimal and concise so that potential clients get a great introduction to who you are and your style. Keep it simple; you don’t want to overwhelm them.

I’m new. How do I develop a portfolio?

Creating a portfolio can be difficult if you are just starting out. But a portfolio is very important when you are new on the scene. Don’t be afraid to do a few sessions for free in order to create the exact scenes and style you want to showcase in a portfolio for your future clients. You’ll attract your ideal client through images that best represent your style.

But I don’t know what my style is!

As a new photographer, finding your groove can be a bit intimidating. Everyone else seems to have something that screams who they are as an artist. The thing to remember, though, is that successful photographers were at one time new, too. Style won’t jump out and shake your hand on Day #1.

Start by looking for ideas. What do you enjoy viewing? What do you like shooting and who is your target market? Take those in and go out and practice. Soon, your style will emerge.

Build a Client List

What is client building?

Client building is the process of attracting ideal clients who can hire you. A photography studio doesn’t start with a line at the door; it takes hard work to recruit interested people and website traffic, and then turn those leads into clients.

Building your client list

Build slow and steady, one client at a time. Treat each client like they are your ONLY client (in the beginning they might be). Treat each client like gold, regardless of how much the person spends.

When starting out, word of mouth and referrals will be your best friend. You want every client to become an evangelist for your business. The client should love the experience with you so much that she or he will freely promote you to all their friends and family. The first few clients are your most important and likely will turn into lifelong, repeat clients.

Develop a system to remember the fine details about each client.

Set up a standardized client inquiry sheet in addition to a standard client workflow process that details everything — from the client’s initial phone call all the way to the delivered product. Note birthdays, anniversaries, favorite colors, taste in music, memorable first dates, or birth weight of children (depending on the type of session). Send each client greeting cards on their anniversary or birthdays. Attention to detail makes you unforgettable to a client.

Online list building can include collecting email addresses or social media followers (especially on Facebook and Pinterest). A combination of great content (like inspiring Pinterest boards) and an incentive (like a free PDF with “What to Wear” advice) will encourage potential clients to trade their contact details for your valuable information. Once you have a person’s contact information, it’s much easier to continue interacting through an email newsletter or social media.

Make a Marketing Plan

It took more than being a good talk show host for Oprah Winfrey to become a media mogul. Her company was a marketing machine that was skilled at developing partnerships and relationships, as well as product delivery. Similarly, it will take more than good photos or an advertising budget to build your business.

Think about the relationships you need to foster over the next year, and how to bring revenue from those relationships.

Creating a 12 month marketing plan

A solid marketing plan keeps you in a proactive mode. You’ll be ready well in advance for family sessions in the fall, the summer wedding season or Christmas holiday sessions. Avoid scrambling to put together packages and marketing pieces after the season is already upon you.

Types of marketing:

  • Advertising (local print publications, Google, Facebook, etc.)
  • Online (website, blog, social media, search engines)
  • Networking
  • Referrals and word of mouth
  • Email
  • Direct mail
  • Events (meetups, tradeshows, speaking gigs)

Your marketing efforts should reflect the essence of your business. Most photographers have niche businesses that provide personalized services and products. Your marketing tactics should reflect that. Mass mail campaigns with “Dear Customer” on them may not bring you the right type of client.

Relationships, not dollar signs

Whenever you create a marketing piece, write a client newsletter, draft a blog post or attend a networking event, keep in mind the purpose of your content. You are speaking to past or potential clients: What will be useful for them? Always focus on them and the relationships you want to build.

Good marketing focuses on a customer need (not your need).

For a client, investing in photography is much like buying a house. Remember that sales are based on emotions, first impressions and relationships. Focus on these three things when formulating every piece of your marketing content, and the look and feel of your website and community presence.

Acquire the Right Tools

A business can’t operate smoothly without the right tools and products. Some will improve the quality of your service; others will improve efficiency. The starting list below shows all the areas where you might need funding. Keep in mind that this isn’t a list of must-haves to be successful. It’s a list of suggestions for items that can help you and your business. Your needs will vary and your business can function without some of them. Buy what you need — not what you want — and your budget will be much happier. Affiliate links below.

Now It’s Time to Start the Business

You can see by the sheer length of this blog post, there are several important factors to consider before starting a photography business. Addressing these topics early on will set you on a path to success.

Take the time to set up everything properly in the beginning so you aren’t unprepared later. You will present yourself as a professional because you will have taken the right steps to BE a professional business person.

Use this article to create a plan of action — steps that will take you from the idea to the realization. Then work through the plan a little each day. It doesn’t matter if you only have 10 minutes a day to work on it, you can do it. This means taking action. Ideas mean nothing if not put into action. Whether you think you can or think you can’t — you’re probably right. Keeping a positive frame of mind during your growth stage will help you combat burnout, frustration and self-doubt. It will be hard and there will be some rough going, but you can do it.

Now get out there and start the business you’ve always dreamed of. Create your own success!

Photo credit: Lin & Jirsa

Kelly Tuohey

Kelly Tuohey is a loving momma of three, a professional photographer in Kamloops, BC and the creative dreamer over at Three Sweet Peas. Her mission is simple: To help aspiring momma photographers build their dream photography businesses in a smart and life-filled way. In her regular life, she's known as the midnight finder of lost teddies, guacamole maker extraordinaire, wine weakling, chocolate snob, coffee addict and lover of life!

12 comments
scricherson49
scricherson49

Well said! I appreciate how easy you make it to understand the business aspect of this job! Wonderful advice! 

MirandaPowley
MirandaPowley

very nicely explained article. Broken in to steps. appreciate that Kelly :)


Miranda

CommentOnTime
CommentOnTime

Hi Kelly, do you have a sample template or format for a photography business plan? I checked the anchored text but, it was an article. 


I am planning to build a physical office for my professional family portraits in Laguna Beach.


Dorine Pederzani
Dorine Pederzani

This by far is the most complete article I've read for starting up a business, and I've read a lot of articles on the subject. I'm saving this to my computer for future reference. 

LeaCiceraro
LeaCiceraro

I moved recently and had to leave my client base in Austin behind. I think it was for the better, though, because I think I dug myself into a business hole that I couldn't get out of. Now I'm in North Carolina and can have a fresh start! This was the PERFECT article to help me figure out how to get going again, and make sure I cover all of my bases properly before relaunching! Thank you!!!

ElizabethStamey
ElizabethStamey

Thank you for all the great info! I'm finally working towards this business goal after barely dipping my toes for the last five years. So scary and so exciting!

ckizuka
ckizuka

VERY well written article.  I think you have just about covered it all!  I started out 2 years ago and wish I had come across your advice sooner. :)

LeahMarieMulder
LeahMarieMulder

You are such an Inspiration!!! I'm a recent grad from the New York Institute of Photography I have two children I love what I do but I find it so difficult to get started... I just wanted to let you know that I love that you help newbys out it makes me feel like I can make it and love what I do 

JammieLopez
JammieLopez

Awesome info and well written Kelly! You ROCK!!!

scricherson49
scricherson49

I just did the exact same thing! Iam totally hard headed and this article truly broke threw my thick skull!¿ lol :)