So You Want to Enter the Photography Business?

So You Want to Enter the Photography Business?


The photographic industry is one of the most challenging, difficult, and competitive for start up businesses. The statistics prove it. Take this 3 year study discovered by Dane Sanders in his book Fast Track Photographer: In the 1st year, 60% of photographers give up their business. Of that remaining 40%, another 25% will fail within the 2nd year. The ones that make it are the remaining 15% who endure through the 3rd year.

That’s a staggering 85% turnover rate.

Obviously, something is wrong with the way most photographers enter into this business.

So, you want to enter this business? Do your research. In reality, the photographic industry is not about photography. Photography is the end product, yes, but it is only a small percentage of what the industry is about. The rest is about business; Real-to-life business application.

What is the greatest challenge to photographic business? Understanding that many standard business principles apply to this industry, but to a degree, business principles take on a customized spin to photography business.

It’s obvious that photographers need guidance and direction for the specific tasking involved with the photographic business.

The following list is a dream business essentials kit of resources to help you survive the 1st, 2nd, 3rd years and beyond. Remember, foundations are everything. You may need to enter the industry at a slower pace, but have the perspective that you are building your business to last.

Whether you are a naturally business savvy individual, or clueless about business practicalities, this list will assist you to not only survive the photographic industry, but to find the beauty of thriving.

1. Vision Mongers by David DuChemin

Everyone’s path to success is different, because everyone’s definition of success is different. In this book, DuChemin highlights the journeys of nine photographers who have passionately devoted themselves to their craft and their business. You will be challenged, inspired, and encouraged by their stories – and find out if this is an industry you really want to be a part of.

2. Business and Legal Forms for Photographers by Carolyn E Wright

Even a photography business is subject to the law – and those laws may surprise you. Written by a photographer, this book will de-mystify the area of photographic legalities, and give understandable and concise information for you to run your business.

3. The [b] School

Created by the successful “Becker”, the [b] school is a subscription only resource for professional photographers – or aspiring professionals. You must have a business name in use, a web presence, and a desire to get involved with industry leaders. Building relationships with others in the industry will be invaluable to you as you build your business – after all, no one else can help an aspiring professional photographer as well as a professional photographer.

4. Photographic Mentoring

Several professional photographers offer one-on-one mentor programs that will help you dig deep to discover the motivations and foundations for setting up your business. Sometimes you need more clarity than you can give yourself. Dane Sanders, Bride Inspired, Sarah Barlow, Sarah Petty and others will help you build slowly and surely toward your goals.

5. The Photographers Guide to Making Money: 150 Ideas for Cutting Costs and Boosting Profits by Karen Dorame

The opportunities to spend money on photography equipment, supplies, and investments are endless. Don’t spend unnecessarily. Be savvy enough to discern which products and services you should choose to maximize your profits – and which you should do without.

6. News fire / Google reader

If you become like your friends, then it may be safe to say that you will become like the photographers you follow. Take the time to follow and subscribe to photographers whose work inspires you. Study their work, their branding, their business practices; you will be able to consistently glean profitable information – without spending a cent.

7. Café Joy

Sarah’ Petty, a professional photographer for over 10 years has developed the program that she wished she had as a starting photographic professional. Offering both paid and free resources, Sarah’s passion and business sense will help guide aspiring pro photographers to legitimate business depth and practice. Moreover, she guarantees that her resources will indeed help you – or money back.


Developing workflow systems can be a great challenge to photographers because it requires fluid organization and clarity – outside the creative zone. DPBestFlow offers advice and guides on what it means to develop professional workflow to save time and money in your business.

If you slowly incorporate these resources into your research and tasking, you will be set on a more than solid track to any photographic business.

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Christina N Dickson is a visionary artist and philanthropist in Portland Oregon. Her work includes wedding photography and leadership with

Some Older Comments

  • DJ Morford August 5, 2012 07:17 am

    I savor, lead to I discovered just what I used to be having a look for. You have ended my 4 day lengthy hunt! God Bless you man. Have a nice day. Bye

  • rick August 21, 2011 06:49 am

    fascinating read. wish it weren't so. I see tons of newbies at our local public gardens area every time I visit. I guess this means more used camera gear to be put on craigslist. Sad that many financed their new business with a loan, or on their credit card. OUCH!

    The avatar above is quite interesting. Do Canon cameras have an eyepiece on the side now?

  • zac July 16, 2011 06:35 am

    What photography business? No, that isn't a trick question, it is the view of pretty much all the established professionals, many of whome are now leaving the industry and selling their equipment to pursue other things. The post on this forum will give you a general example of some of the reasons why this is happening:

    And here also.

    Unfortunately, issues like these (which are to a greater extent driven by the onset of digital, the resulting massive oversaturation in the "supply" side of the market, and a glut of massively underpriced images) have become so endemic, that it is now becomming virtually impossible to make even a basic living from photography. Sad, but it is a fact, and a great many people would save themselves a lot of heartache and money if they sat back and considered that fact.

    Entrepreneurs identify markets (ie areas of demand) for what they do, and then satisfy those markets, making sufficient profit to function a business in the process. As a matter of necessity, that will mean that some ventures that they evaluate will not be viable and should be left alone. Photography is now in that state. Most of the established people who have made a living from it in the past are reassessing their options and moving onto other things, to be replaced by inexperienced new startups that struggle for a few months and fail. The main issue is the rubbish pumped out by camera companies and photo magazines, that still present photography as an "industry" when in fact it has failed to be this now for a few years or so. The question you need to ask when reading any one of these articles is "if this person really is a professional, why are they making money by writing magazine articles, giving training courses, writing books etc". I suspect the answer to that question would be interesting.

  • cem May 16, 2011 12:04 am

    Just came across this article, more than a year after it was written and found it to be very relevant. Love the comments. The author is actually correct. It is always laughable when you have people incorrectly correcting something, plus the confusion is so unneccesary. Wow, so many below-average mathematicians here, lol.

    100% (photographers)
    60% (100 minus 60 leaves 40)
    25% (40 minus 25 leaves 15)
    15% (100% minus 15% leaves 85%)

    And there you have it. The author was correct all along.

  • St Louis Wedding Photographer November 13, 2010 12:37 pm

    Thanks for the list of resources. I think I must be a cheapwad because anything online that I have to pay for, I usually just don't do it. A physical book though, I have no problem paying for. Also, I've added your blog to my reader. I'll catch up with you on your blog soon.

  • Hardy Helburn August 25, 2010 12:01 pm

    To Frank Worth - you should email me if you're interested in hearing from Bill Helburn - He's been cataloging his old negatives, and reminiscing about old times and old assistants.

  • Ron Gibson March 17, 2010 03:43 am

    I had a few moments and looked back over these posts to read comments and thought I'd answer some questions.

    @ Jim, DDT745, and everyone concentrating on the numbers. There are no cold hard numbers for startup failure. Just note that there is a high rate of failure. Just as in restaurants, people move into something that they just can't handle and get in over their head.

    @Visible Soul- I've wondered that for a long time myself. I'd suggest joining a local photography club and see who you can network with. If you are not in a major metropolitan area you are stuck with online conversations. In either case look on deviant art and strike up some conversations, most photographers are fairly open minded and willing to help out others.

    @ enrolled agent- That's a great question. If you don't want to dive in head first (and have extremely high risk) I'd suggest just starting with it as a hobby (a very expensive hobby). Buy only what you need and start slow. Use any proceeds to improve your equipment piece buy piece. Jumping in head first and equipping a studio is a huge capital investment that I wouldn't suggest.

    I hope this was helpful.

  • Jim March 15, 2010 12:19 pm

    Actually, if you use her numbers and work it out for the 2 years, the actual failure rate is 70% not 85. If you start with 100 new photographers and 60% fail the first year you have 40 remaining. Subtract 25% from that (10 more) and you have 30 left. It makes your article much less credible if you use the wrong numbers.

  • Visible Soul Photography March 13, 2010 03:22 am

    How does one go about finding a mentor? I would love to work with one and learn more. Books can only take you so far.

  • enrolled agent exam March 13, 2010 12:33 am

    So many people are visionary or creative people, but they can't put a business plan together to save their own business. I liked this article. A start-up business requires careful planning. I especially liked the following line and believe it is so true. "If you become like your friends, then it may be safe to say that you will become like the photographers you follow"

  • Jeff March 12, 2010 10:03 am

    Surprised it didn't make the top ten... perhaps because it is just a given... but Join organizations like PPA or WPPI. I'm rather new to the biz and the PPA webinars have rocked my world.

  • Keith March 12, 2010 08:41 am

    Sounds like the restaurant business without nearly the overhead!!

  • Ken March 12, 2010 03:02 am

    I recently started my photography buisness to help compliment my engineering job and to make extra cash. I am doing extremely well but I feel that's because I do not have any expectations and I am truly honored that people choose me to take their pictures and I put the customer and their needs 1st. I feel many photographers go into a shoot and tell the customer what they need instead of listening. I would love to make my buisness a full time thing but right now I'm happy taking pictures like I did before my buisness but for money. That way I keep the love for it

  • DDT745 March 12, 2010 03:02 am

    Except for the fact that she says "of the remaining 40%, another 25% will ..." I think Jamie's math is correct. Regardless of the math ... the busiest restaurant in town can go bankrupt if mismanaged. Thanks for the post, it has lots of information and resources.

  • Thomas Jupe March 11, 2010 11:07 am

    Hey all

    I'm using a PhotoShelter website to handle online sales, for my photos. It's a great way to attract new clients, show my work professionally, and do business with clients online. And I think it might be a great fit for you all too.

    You can use the link below to save some money on sign-up, and I get an account credit too!

    I think you're really going to like what you see, so come join me on PhotoShelter!

  • enrolled agent exam March 10, 2010 12:43 am

    With the high rate of failure, is there a limit to how much equipment one should buy before making any sales?

  • Zack Jones March 9, 2010 10:54 pm

    This article makes me happy that I shoot for the joy of it and not for my vocation.

  • Chris Breidenbaugh March 7, 2010 06:51 am

    I have owned a moderately successful industrial supplier for over 15 years. My two cents says that any business owner must have an adequate knowledge of how to SELL their product.

    This is especially true for a start-up. Your ability to sell yourself will be what gets your business off the ground. You may want to call yourself a photographer, but a salesman will be required to sell your product. Let face it, most pros will have the best equipment, and will take good shots. A good salesman will get your company the order.

  • Ron Gibson March 6, 2010 10:12 pm

    The premise of this article is great. And I have to agree that most startups fail- but not just for photography. Most startups fail- period. The reason they fail is either lack of talent, or lack of business knowledge, or a combination of both- no matter what industry. Talent is never enough, and you can be successful without much talent if you market yourself correctly. It's funny (and a little sad) how this is true. But the best people in any business have some decent level of talent, and (more importantly) know how to run a business.

    I'm not too interested in buying photography specific books on how to run a business- why? Because these are all written by photographers. And I have to say most photographers do not have business sense. (try not to pick this apart) Photography is very right brained, while business is very left brained- but a combination is required to be successful. And if you want to run a successful business you need to be successful at running a business. If you truly want to be successful in any business you must hire people for each area that you lack the skills to perform. Photographers take photos, they are (usually) not accountants, lawyers, marketers, PR's, or even managers. So if you delegate these areas that you lack to other professionals, and you have talent in your own field- you have a greater chance at a successful business.

    How is this possible if you are a one man (woman) show? Well that is why the failure rate for all startups is so high- we lack the skills in other areas that are required to run a business. And no one can do it all.

    What about myself? I have a degree in business and consult for many, I'll repeat, many failing businesses -and it's all the same. The people in charge are usually great at what they do, but so poor in other areas that they sink the entire business or just scrape by for decades trying to make ends meet.

    I would suggest enrolling in a few business courses at your local college. You don't need a degree, and you don't need a diploma. But you do need some foundations if you truly want to make a go of it. Just take a class at a time when you can- marketing, accounting, and basic management are all you need to get started. Either that, or hire people to do it for you. Hey, while you are there check out the photography section!

  • daniel mollino March 6, 2010 04:53 pm

    This article needed only one line, RUN!
    Now joking aside, if you jump in your destined for falure, If you don't know buisness but take amazing photos get someone who knows buisness.

    The people I know who have succeeded started how I did, They started as a hobby and taking stock type photos. Now together the group of people I know avoid liability, its all on the contractor for the shoot. Models are not ours ect.
    Oh and they all refuse to do weddings and portrats of familys ect. I understand why and give credit to all phtogoraphers in those fields that is a war zone.

    Really though you have to understand photography is not a get rich thing. You have to love it. If you shoot what i shoot you may need a second job to pay for life as your photo money will be recycled to new destinations and equipment. If you intend to shoot stock you might want to get off the beaten path. Too many people use cruises and excursions to get to places to shoot stock, big mistake as these shots are usually taken. Instead go where the locals go. Moscow is nice but go to a side town you may find something unique.

  • Frank Worth March 6, 2010 10:34 am

    I was a semi successful photographer published many times in NYC in the 70's. I was trained by William Helburn one the best photographers that ever lived. The reason that I was not more successful is that I did not work hard enough. I worked 40 hours a week at my photography not the 60+ that I should have. Just doing it for money is not is not the answer, you must love photography and that is the bottom line. There was a great basketball coach Jim Valvano who had a quote "Don't ever give up, Don't ever give up."
    Frank Worth

  • Chris Horner March 6, 2010 04:44 am

    I actually agree that the photography business is not mainly about photography. It's mainly about getting the results that your client wants and is happy with. You really need to be able to get inside your clients head to understand what they want and are trying to accomplish. That's an entire skill in and of itself, and IMO the one that matters the most. The photography is important of course, but it's just a piece of the means to the end. I've seen so many people that want to be a photographer then get discouraged when they realize they won't just be taking pictures all day long. It seems the ones who stick it out are the ones who can deliver the entire package to their clients.

  • Remington March 6, 2010 03:38 am

    @ Jake - perhaps they are great at photography, but lousy at business. Being extremely creative and talented at what you do does not mean that you have the business sense to be successful.

    Let's see, you have contracts, model relaeses, taxes, scheduling & logistics, accounting, invoicing, collections, perhaps employees, marketing, sales, customer service, negotiation, possible litigation (contract disputes or copyright/licensing issues) vs. photography (i.e. actually pressing the shutter).

    Just my take, though. I had a business education before I took up photography.


  • Joshua March 6, 2010 01:38 am

    If 60% fail the first year that leaves your with 40% left at the end of year 1.
    If 25% fail the second year that leaves you with 30% of the original 100% left at the end of the year 2.

    I suppose the writer meant:
    60% of the original number, and
    25% of the original number (and not of 40%)

  • Greg Taylor March 6, 2010 01:36 am

    It's a shame that in the end you say The Photography business is not primarily about photography. I operate under the model of Make Great Photos, Be Smart Marketing and Do Right By the People Who You Work For & WIth.

  • Jake March 6, 2010 01:13 am

    "Obviously, something is wrong with the way most photographers enter into this business." ...or maybe, they just aren't that great at photography. Just sayin'.

  • Jamie Wallingford March 6, 2010 01:03 am

    I enjoyed your article, but the geek in me thinks your 85% figure is off, at least the way I read the calculation the remaining percentage should be 70%.

    If 60% fail the first year that leaves your with 40% left at the end of year 1.
    If 25% fail the second year that leaves you with 30% of the original 100% left at the end of the year 2.

    So what you have is a 70% failure rate over the first two years.

    If my logic is wrong or I misunderstood, I'm sorry.

  • Ian McKenzie March 6, 2010 12:35 am

    I'm not sure there's too much wrong with the way photographers enter into the business. Failure rates for all types of start-ups is around 75% within the first two years. AT 85% photography is a little higher, but isn't too far off the average.

    Still, your point is well made, the more you know going in, the better your chances of surviving. Thanks.

  • Jim Poor March 6, 2010 12:31 am

    Business and Legal Forms for Photographers is a Tad Crawford book, though Carolyn Wright is a wealth of good information also.