5 Ways to Dip your Toe into the Business of Photography

5 Ways to Dip your Toe into the Business of Photography


I had an email yesterday from a reader named Stephanie who said that she’s caught in a vicious cycle of portfolio building. She doesn’t want to charge while she’s portfolio building because then, she’ll be in business and have all the worries that come with it but she doesn’t want to launch a for-profit business until she’s finished building her portfolio.

I’ve written before about the dangers of spending too long in the portfolio building stage of your business. It’s not meant to last 10 years. And it doesn’t have to be an absolute work-for-free scenario. I’ve counseled newbies to establish their pricing structures early on and work up to full-time money while charging discounted fees for portfolio building sessions (more on all that here). But that’s not really what this post is about. I wanted to hit on the theme behind Stephanie’s comment.

What I read between the lines in Stephanie’s email is that she knows that in business, it’s all or nothing. She knows that as soon as she starts charging even a little, it raises the bar and the expectations to a level where only the best will cut it and she’s absolutely right. Do a session for free and you’re free to learn from your mistakes. Charge even $20 for the same session and suddenly, you have a photographer/client relationship and all the expectations that come with it. In order to make the business worth while, you have to do it right or not do it at all.

If you Google to find the things you need before jumping into business, you’ll find that it’s not as simple as printing up a couple flyers and making a little pocket money. Not only is it illegal to operate a business on the side, it’s not going to make enough money to sustain itself and you’ll flop before you even really get going. Photography isn’t a business you can just dip your toe into to see how it feels if you want to do it right. By ‘do it right’, I mean protect yourself with legal documents and liability insurance, protect your equipment with insurance, establish yourself with a professional printing company, have the computer and software to process your files in a quick-like-fashion that doesn’t have you up all night staring at spinning wheel icon…all that. Once you tally up the monthly overhead, you soon realize that it’s not as easy to make a quick buck as you once thought.

But fear not! Here are a few tips I have for testing the waters in the photography business:

  1. If you’re not ready to formally establish yourself as a business, then schedule portfolio building sessions with friend and family. Shoot everyone and everything and don’t charge a penny. Because, like I said, as soon as money changes hands you’ve entered into a client relationship and are liable for all sorts of yuckiness you’re not ready to handle.
  2. In these portfolio building sessions, set some of them up where you create the concepts, choose the wardrobe and location and get to flex your creative muscles. But also have some sessions where you ask what the client wants and see what it’s like for us paid-for photographers who have to cater to our clients’ every desire. This will help you learn to work with people on a professional level. You can even try it out like a full-on professional session with client questionnaires, a contract, an order form for prints – try out different versions of paperwork to see how you want to operate when you’re in business for real.
  3. Try all sorts of different types of sessions like children, couples, maternity, newborns. This will help you find your niche for when you’re ready to go into business.
  4. Even though you might not feel ready for heavy duty legal forms, at least have a model release that everyone (yup, even your own mom!) needs to sign so you’re free to do what you wish with your work.
  5. Instead of charging money for sessions, use your talents to raise funds for charity (don’t take the money in your own name – have checks written directly to the charity) or as bartering power with your babysitter, plumber, anyone! Trade sessions and prints for other products and services – everyone loves a good trade!

So you see you can dip your toe into professional photography without taking the dive into the business deep end!

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Elizabeth Halford is a photographer and advertising creative producer in Orlando, FL. She wrote her first article for dPS in 2010. Her most popular one racked up over 100k shares!

Some Older Comments

  • Marcus Davis March 7, 2012 09:12 am

    Yes, this is a great article with some great tips. I am beginning the process of starting a photography business.

    I'm working on the EIN now and then slowly going from there.

  • Gaby February 18, 2012 01:03 am

    Great info on all the blogs!
    What just puzzles me is how you get the photo in this 'vintage style' look (photo on top with the boy and the camera).
    Can you explian me how you get to these colours/effects?


  • Lettisa October 10, 2011 02:14 am

    Hi, i'm Tisha from Indonesia, as a female photographer here, it's hard to compete with male photographer that tend to compliment their clients or model too much for their beauty just to get paid.
    Relating to the contract, ies indeed, it's important. i've been working on my friend's pre-wedding photos and deliberately treat them less as clients, thus, they didnt respectful at the end about the quantity.... they want all the photos with the same package price!
    i'm sorry if you cant clearly understand what i mean cause English is not my main language, but the point is it's true to be professional even if it's your family member.

  • Amara Photos October 1, 2011 04:28 pm

    What worked out for me - to built a portofolio and not work for 'free' - invent a photoproject and contact (future potential) clients.

    For example - I want to shoot events in hotels. New in the country I just called PR managers of 5 star hotels, saying I was a new photographer in town and I was working on a "Ramadan Kareem" project. You could convert this in the Western world to that you have a project to capture the decorations & atmosphere of Xmas.

    I offered the best photos 'complementary'. I love this word, as it is so much nicer than saying you work for 'free' (basically you are, but that's besides the point). It gives you an opportunity to shoot photos without being bothered by security, establish contact with and a network of potential clients - and don't forget to send off some of the photos to newspapers - and/or (local) publications. Next year well in advance for Ramadan I will present the local publications a DVD with my Ramadan photos - as all magazines have this theme in their magazines.

    I had my first photo's published in newspapers and some projects lining up - due to this 'photoproject'. Failed to get the first assignment through, as I put my price to high : ( Few days after the event however I put together my courage and phoned the event organizer. To find out 'If you have tips for next time for me to land the assignement. Was it the presentation, the fact I work alone or the price?" He confirmed I would have gotten the job - as my portfolio and personal presentation was fine. (pffffffffff happy to hear it was not that...) However there was an other photographer who jumped in for half of my price. (300 euro instead of 600 euro). That was for a full day work (7.00-16.00 shooting, not including the post-processing/selection time + printing time he must have had). Well, at least I know now what are the 'going rates' here now for this type of work...

  • BobFrankly October 1, 2011 09:53 am

    Slang lately interchanges "on the side" with "on the sly", meaning hidden or evasive. Like a "lady on the side" who is hidden from a man's wife, a "business on the side" can mean a business that does not report income, pay taxes, or pay various fees or licenses that may be required in the locale. Obviously, conducting "business on the side" in this manner would be illegal regardless of your location.

    Thank you for this article Elizabeth. I'm slowly working towards a small photography business on the side of my normal job, and reminders to establish our business in a legal fashion, AND to insure our equipment are much needed.

  • bill griffith September 30, 2011 08:56 pm

    It is not illegal to run a business part time in Australia. In fact I would say 95% of photographers hee are doing just this. Nor does one have to register a business in Australia. Rather, all that is needed to be registere is a business name if one wants to trade under another name but their own or known as name AND occupation. A maried woman can trade under her married or maiden name AND occupation. Example.
    Jacqueline Smart can trade under the name Jacqueline Smart Photographer OR Jackie ( being her known as name ) Smart Photographer without registration. An Ausalian Business Number (ABN) must be obtained by all Australian businesses and registration for GST ( Goods and Services Tax ) applies once incomes exceeds $75 000pa.
    Hope this helps
    Bill Griffith
    Transportraits, Sydney Australia

  • iamunique127 September 30, 2011 04:14 am

    Good article. Thanks for the tips and the reassurance. I am approaching my small business like this.
    The comments are useful too for giving other ideas.
    By "on the side" I understood you to mean "under the table" or not reporting the income. I don't think that's legal anywhere.
    It would be handy if the author spoke to the issues, though.

  • Tim September 30, 2011 02:19 am

    Fuzzy, the markets you speak of (landscape/nature) are VERY saturated with photographers, and only a few can and will make a LIVING out of doing that. Even those that do usually supplement that income with classes, or writing books etc...and unlike protraits, unless the image "speaks" to a person on a personal level, it will simply not sell. I'm not saying its impossible, just a harder rough to hoe than portrait/wedding photography.
    In my experience, the image can't be a snapshot, it has to be something the viewer realizes that they can't do themselves..(why do you think painters have it easier...can you paint?...I can't). Because you have to fight against the mentatilty of "it's only a photo"...
    Want to see if you have images that will/can sell...try out a couple of local art fairs and see what kind of reception your images get..if nothing else the experience will humble you...

  • joe quinn September 30, 2011 02:14 am

    I'm sure Samuel (9/26) is correct. The IRS just wants to make sure that it gets its share of the profits. Likewise, you can reduce you tax liability if you take a loss on your side business - I believe its covered under form C of the IRS tax code.

    HOWEVER, you should be concerned about liability insurance. If you go to a client's home and cause damage or if a client comes to your home and is injured, you could be sued. You may be able to handle this, inexpenseively via a personal liability rider on your home owner's insurance. (You may be covered already.) Check with your insurance agent.

  • Laurie Young September 30, 2011 01:45 am

    One option is rather than doing commissioned work, start out doing photos at any event where you think participants would like photos. You can display photos digitally quite easily, and then your only cost is for prints you sell. I'm building website (http://frozenevent.com) designed to allow exactly this.

  • Dave September 30, 2011 12:51 am

    The is no reason at all why some can't go into a store buy some equipment and walk right into taking photos in exchange for cash.

    To suggest that doing a job free allows a person some kind of freedom from the responsibilites of making mistakes is the wrong advice to give in my opinion. Also doing sessions with friends is hardly going to improve your professional ability if those friends are not to the type to give honest comment.

    The best way to go once you are some experiance with sessions that are practice is to offer a full refund and accept the first sessions won't earn your anything. That way people will complain if not happy and you will learn what is expected. It won't be nice when people do complain, some still hurnt me years after when I know I hadn't done a bad job but that all part of being self-employed.

    I'm not a photgrather by profession by all is the same when moving into business.

  • Phil September 28, 2011 02:52 pm

    I like the tips, and some what agree with the "business on the side". Some what going off the subject, I repair computers for little chump change. Have to be careful on the liabilities of losing that persons data etc. I can count many times where I've fixed a pc and the customer would complain that I've didn't do my job in repairing wanting more for free. Long story short people want more for free and also what mwatson has posted up too about liabilities.
    But with taxes I'm sure there are a ton of loopholes and other ways.

    On the other hand, been taking photos of parties and small events for people for free. Best part I can think is meeting new people and free food and drinks :D

  • mwatson September 28, 2011 07:25 am

    What I believe Elizabeth is saying, in regards to the operating a business on the side, is once you exchange money for a service, no matter the amount, you are setting yourself up for all sorts of liabilities.

    Also, in the US, many states require you to establish, at the very minimum, a fictitious name license registration if you are regularly doing business on the side. It is the states way to generate income for registration and taxes. You can also list yourself as an independent contractor but there are some flaws with that route.

    Whether your state requires this or not, it would be smart to create a company that would protect your personal assets in the case you were charging for a service, whether shooting on location or in your house and something happened to the client. You are opening yourself to all sorts of personal lawsuits.

    I am not a full-time photographer, I am just a banker.

  • Fuzzypiggy September 27, 2011 05:38 pm

    Obviously this leans heavily on pictures of people and most articles about building a photo business seem to hinge on that, what about those of us who would love to try to make a living shooting nature and landscapes? Would DPS be running any articles on making money from the landscape shooting market?

  • Lara White September 27, 2011 08:16 am

    These are great ideas. I think the bartering option is a great one, as you are kind in an in between stage, and there's more freedom under a bartering arrangement.

    I'd also suggest working under another photographer on short term assignments, like kids sports pictures, prom photos or even the santa booth at the mall. While it may not offer the most creative opportunities, you do get to see how the business runs, how to interact with kids and parents, keep things moving smoothly, how to handle payments etc. Lots of great things to learn that you can then build into your own business model later.

  • Emmanuel Hemmings September 27, 2011 02:12 am

    In terms of the UK I would recommend never doing a shoot for free. Instead charge something like £200 to cover your costs and buy yourself a beer. Wedding photography is a hard industry to crack and would recommend it be done by those who have another income stream for the fuirst few years.

  • Ren A. September 27, 2011 12:06 am

    I think a great way to "test the waters" is to start up your own site on Zenfolio or Smug Mug. They aren't going to break the bank. I pay $100 for a year for them to host my site and then maybe $20 a year to host my own domain name. Start building your site, gain a following using social media and getting out in your community. Show your work to local galleries/restaurants/ cafe's/ anything! Just get out there and become known. Once one person recognizes your work, the word will spread. Zenfolio takes care of all my order's, so all I focus on is taking photos and editing them. If you start making money then you can choose your path from their on out if the business is really for you. It's not easy by any means. especially if you want to make a full time income, but it obviously can be done. It's very overwhelming in these days, there are millions of photographers out there trying to do the same thing. SO be creative and find your niche, otherwise you just drowned in the seas of others.

  • Samuel September 26, 2011 09:02 pm

    Bartering, on the other hand, WOULD be required to report as income, and not doing so may run afoul of the tax authorities. I don't know, but I wouldn't be so sure that bartering is the same as doing it for free.

    So, again, I don't know where you live, but your advice does not at all seem to be universally applicable.

  • Samuel September 26, 2011 08:59 pm

    re: on the side:
    I don't know where you live, but in my state, as far as I am aware, you do NOT have to register and incorporate just to make some money on the side. You do have to report income as per the relevant taxing authorities' rules, but as far as I know there is no licensing nor other business restriction here that would compel you to incorporate first.

  • Johnp September 26, 2011 10:31 am

    In Australia basically, their are other indicators, but if you do not expect to make a profit you could treat your photography 'business' as a hobby and the Australian Taxation Office don't want to know about it. I guess you still have the problem of public liability insurance etc. I get around that by not asking for money when I do weddings and make sure the 'client' knows I am not professional, not to expect professional results and I'm only doing it out of a favour to them. Jobs are usually by word of mouth. I've been fortunate in that I'm always rewarded by unsolicited gifts of money or gift vouchers, obviously not a reliable source of income but it helps to pay the bills.

  • Rebecca September 26, 2011 07:35 am

    I live in WA State USA. Here, when you barter, you must declare the value of your services as income and pay taxes. I'm wondering if it is also like that in other places? Bartering might not be a safe bet for everyone. Also, in our state the amount allowed for "hobby" income (exempt from income taxes) is much lower than what is allowed for federal income taxes.

  • Bekah September 26, 2011 06:16 am

    I would love to see an article on here sometime directed towards people who are just hobbyists and want to make some extra cash with their work, but maye not as an official occupation.

  • Mark K September 26, 2011 04:21 am

    I'm surprised this article didn't have more responses. Thank you Elizabeth, good article, and I find myself generally in the same position. I've been shooting concerts for the last two years, and have been privileged enough to be media accredited from day one so I get to shoot the "big stuff", cut my teeth in the media trench from day one too. The "problem" is the same...constantly building the portfolio, all concerts so far shot for free, and still feeling not quite ready. The legal things notwithstanding the big one for me would be feeling my technical and creative are at a level that would justify fees.

  • Elizabeth Halford September 26, 2011 03:17 am

    By 'on the side' I mean without making it legal by registering your small business.

  • Stephanie D. September 26, 2011 02:42 am

    I am not the Stephanie that wrote to you however I am in the same boat with her. You mention in point .04 about legal forms and model releases, where if a good resource for those items? I have been able to find apps on iTunes (yes there is an app for that!) but I am rather speculative over the quality of the iTunes apps.

    Any help in the right direction would be wonderful!!

  • Chip Meyer September 26, 2011 01:18 am

    I would love to see clarification on this: "Not only is it illegal to operate a business on the side..." Please explain where it is illegal to own a business on the side. Everywhere you look these days people are starting self-employed ventures. I would love to know where it's "illegal."


  • Ben September 26, 2011 12:59 am

    sorry but am i missing something oris it specific to the USA but why is it illegal to run a business 'on the side'....do you mean to say...'undeclared income'?! I am full time employed but have registered myself with the Government Revenue and Customs office and complete a tax returns form detailing my income and expenses from my part time photography business....but this is 'part time' and in addition to my main full time occupation...thats not illegal in the UK. Cant imagine its illegal in the US. I think you should be more specific so as to not scare people away from trying to start up a business alongside their main source of income because a lot of people do it this way and then scale down their hours in the main occupation as the photography starts to scale up.