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How to Start a Photography Business – The First 10 Steps

It’s talked about frequently, that it is getting more and more difficult to make a living in the photography industry. While that’s true of certain genres, such as magazine and newspaper photography, there are still many opportunities to make a good living as a photographer. These opportunities just happen to be slightly different than what they used to be, and the way of obtaining these jobs has changed as well. If you are planning to start a photography business, here are the steps that I wish I had known when I began mine over 10 years ago.

photography business steps and tips

Business portrait photography

Due to the importance of social media, websites, and internet media, imagery and photography is more used than ever. Where once only actors needed a headshot, now everyone does. Businesses of all types need photographs. There are many places where your photography skills can be used. The problem is that since these changes in the industry have been so new, there’s no roadmap for how to reach these new jobs, but they are out there. On to the 10 steps.

Step #1 – Figure out what type of photography you want to do

photography business steps and tips

Engagement photography

It’s okay (and can even be a great idea) to be a generalist in photography, but when it comes to what you do to make a living, you have to focus in on something at first. Many people fragment themselves too much at the beginning. It’s great to want to start both a print selling and a portrait photography business, but it’s incredibly difficult to focus on them both right at the beginning.

If you are starting a photography business, you need to make money first to not go out of business quickly. So make a list of the ways to make a living from photography and place them in order of potential income and enjoyability. Find the one that is the most practical for your situation. That is goal number one, or you will not be around long enough to truly get a chance to succeed. There’s no time at first to figure out anything else.

Once you get that part in place and off the ground, then you can start to work on numbers two and three on the list. But if you try to do all of them at once, you will be too fragmented to succeed at any of them.

Step #2 – Research your colleagues and competitors

photography business steps and tips

Business portrait photography

You need to figure out who else is out there so you can learn from them. The other people doing what you want to do are the ones who you can learn the most from. Go through their work, and make a folder on your computer of photographs that you would like to learn how to do. Then go create them. Figure out what you will need to do to get your work to that level. Take the best aspects of each photographer, and bring them together in how you approach your photography.

See which websites work the best, try to figure out what type of clients they work with and if there are any hints about how they reach those clients. How do they use social media and where is their work being shared? Researching people is not a bad thing. You can research your colleagues. You’re not trying to copy them or steal work from them. You’re only trying to educate yourself about the market.

If you’re a young photographer, you can even consider assisting for these photographers. Assisting is by far the best way to learn, both from the artistic and the business side, and it can help you transition to your own businesses eventually as the photographer may start to send you jobs that they cannot do.

Step #3 – Create a business and marketing plan

photography business steps and tips

Wedding photography

Google a template for a photography business plan, and make an official one for yourself. You need to have a workable plan for how you are going to be successful. This plan with change over time as you become more experienced and learn more about what is possible and what isn’t. What minimum income will you need to achieve to survive, and what is the realistic income that you would like to make in the first year?

Pricing is important

Take these numbers and work backwards from there. Figure out an average profit per job and how many jobs you will need to do to achieve that income. From here, create a pricing plan for yourself. This will be very important when you have people trying to lowball you. Cheap clients are everywhere, and they know how to abuse young photographers. These are the jobs that somehow end up taking up all your time. Having this break-even number and business plan will give you a clear understanding of what prices are unreasonable. In addition, you need to be making an amount that will allow you to actually enjoy the job so you will be able to put your all into it. How can you achieve a good result for your client and your portfolio if you are not making enough to live on?

In addition, by doing this you are empowering the entire photographic community by letting clients know that their prices are unreasonable. You don’t have to actually tell them they are unreasonable. You can just educate the client on the amount of effort that goes into a job and why you need to charge what you do. They need to know why your price is fair. Some clients will move on and look for a lower priced photographer, while others may just have been ignorant to the amount of work that goes into a job, and are now educated. Photography is not just a hobby.

Step #4 – Don’t go overboard with equipment

photography business steps and tips

Event photography

Keep your costs low at first. Of course, everyone wants the latest and greatest, but it’s so common for new photographers to spend way too much money on equipment that they don’t need. The equipment does not make the photographer. Camera technology has already peaked. You need a professional level camera and lens, but you don’t need the latest and greatest 50-megapixel camera. In fact, 50 megapixels can be a pain in the butt! I prefer cameras with around 20-24 megapixels, and I find anything more than that to be cumbersome due to the files sizes.

You also probably don’t need a wide-angle zoom, a midrange zoom, a telephoto zoom, and three prime lenses. I use a 24-70mm lens for a majority of my photography jobs. You can rent lenses that you rarely use when they are needed for a job. You only need to purchase a new lens if you find yourself using it on a regular basis. I also will wait for a new version of my favorite camera to come out, and then I will purchase the previous version since the price will drop. I even know photographers who purchase used Apple laptops instead of new ones.

Step #5 – Build a portfolio of personal work

photography business steps and tips

Fine art photography

The best photographers make it a habit to do some personal work. This is your chance to do what you love on your terms. It is a chance to take the work of other photographers that you admire, and to create something similar with your own twist. This work is what will ultimately get you hired. It will be your best quality work due to the fact that you have no boundaries, and it will form the foundation for your business.

Nobody needs to know that the work in your portfolio was not done for hire. In fact, sometimes it is even beneficial for them to know that, so they realize that you are a passionate person. Just create the of work that you want to get more of in the future.

6. Build a website and marketing material

photography business steps and tips website

My website made with WordPress.

After you have all this in place, now is the time to build a website. If you try to build a website before you have a well-thought-out plan, then you may make something that will not fully fit your purpose, is too fragmented, and doesn’t ultimately get you to where you want to be. If you are focused on your business plan and portfolio, then it becomes much easier to show that off on a website and in your marketing materials.

You do not have to go overboard with a website right away. Make it look good, but also make it to the point. This will be the engine that will get you jobs and make you money, so make sure that it does that first and foremost. This is not a website to just show off every image that you love. If you have one of those, great, but separate it or hide it within your main business website. For the technically inclined, I suggest using WordPress, and for the less technical, Squarespace is a fantastic choice for making a beautiful website.

Now is when you will need a logo and business cards. You will also want to consider creating fliers that you can pass out, but only if that is part of your strategy. Sometimes, when trying to build a clientele of local businesses, something to leave behind can be a great way for people to remember you.

Step #7 – Set aside time every day for marketing

photography business steps and tips

Fine art photography

You can achieve a lot with a feverish month or two focused on marketing. But to do marketing well in the long term, it needs to be done in small, regular increments. You want to enjoy it, you don’t want it to burn you out, and you want to be able to adapt what you do over time as you gain more experience.

Book your marketing time in your calendar each week, and create a plan for the types of work that you will be doing during that time slot. Will you be meeting local businesses, sending out emails, creating a mailing list email or blog post, or doing research to find new feature opportunities? There are so many directions and ways that you can attack marketing for your businesses that taking some time to plan them all out will save you a lot of time in the future.

In addition, continue to read about and educate yourself on marketing. It’s a skill that is equally as important as your lighting and camera skills, and it needs to be treated as such. This is the engine that’s going to allow you to succeed, so take an active interest in improving your marketing knowledge.

Step #8 – Work within your network

photography business steps and tips

Artist / musician portrait photography

Your friends, family, and acquaintances can take you a long way. They know you, trust you (hopefully), and will be willing to do what it takes to help you. Work within this group to build your business. If there is a business owner or someone important that you want to reach, see if you have a mutual acquaintance who can provide an introduction. It’s those situations where some of the best marketing happens. Who knows, maybe you’re out to drinks with some friends and one of them remembers that they know someone to put you in touch with. Those moments are so valuable, but they need to be sought out. And you don’t have to be that annoying friend who always markets to his friends. This can be done respectfully and in a way that is not annoying.

I would also suggest sending out a mailing list announcement of your new business to your network. Most of these people work for businesses and many might need your skills or know someone who does. But how can they do that if they are not fully aware of what you do? Make it professional and official, show your work, and explain what your business is, who it can help, and how it can benefit them. Actively ask for references. People won’t know to help you unless you show them how they can.

Step #9 – Build a local marketing plan

photography business steps and tips

Artist Portrait Photography

Furthering the last point, when people start marketing these days, they almost always think about the internet, SEO, and social media. Those are very important aspects of running a business, but they’re not going to get you clients right at the beginning. Those take some time to develop. However, your local community is right there. You can actively find the clients that you want to work with, and you can contact them or walk into their businesses with some marketing materials. Picking up a phone to call someone does not cost you any money.

Make sure that a local component is included when you allocate time each week for marketing. Internet and SEO can bring you a lot of rewards down the road, but this type of active marketing is what will pay the bills so that you survive long enough to take advantage of these other, more technical avenues.

Step #10 – Build an internet marketing plan

photography business steps and tips

Business portrait photography

An internet marketing plan is something that takes some time to develop, and some photographers completely neglect it. They skip SEO (but not social media) and focus all their efforts on local marketing, networking, and referrals. In many cases, this might be the best way to go for your business, as the return on your time could be much higher, but it really depends on your situation and business.

For the rest, internet marketing is a way to bring a whole new audience to your doorstep. Internet marketing is a topic so broad that you can never really stop learning it, and so it’s hard to do it justice in this article. Here are a few ways to use internet marketing

  • You can build your web presence through contacting journalists and websites to do articles about your work
  • You can write educational articles or interest pieces for websites to try to get their readers to come back to your site
  • Create a mailing list
  • Create educational products
  • You can build up your social media presence (although don’t focus on too many social sites or you won’t be successful with any of them).

There are so many creative ways to market yourself on the web. When done well, a good internet marketing plan can allow you to leapfrog the competition and bring you clients and customers that you would never have been able to reach before.

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James Maher
James Maher

is a professional photographer based in New York, whose primary passion is documenting the personalities and stories of the city. If you are planning a trip to NYC, he is offering his new guide free to DPS readers, titled The New York Photographer’s Travel Guide.
James also runs New York Photography Tours and Street Photography Workshops and is the author of the e-book, The Essentials of Street Photography.

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