The Business of Photography: Establishing a Business Strategy

The Business of Photography: Establishing a Business Strategy


A Guest Post by Robert J. Mang

The product side vs. the business side

Whether you consider yourself selling a service or a product, there are two fundamental sides to most small businesses, including photography businesses: the product/service side and the business/marketing side. Most of our energy goes into the product side (improving skills, learning about new equipment… just trying to get better at what we do). The business side is not studied as often; however, that is going to be the subject of this discussion. The focus of our attention will be on developing a sound business strategy.

OK, so you’re either getting ready to start a photography business, are in the process of getting one off the ground, or you are looking to redirect an existing venture. If you haven’t already, the first thing you must do is write a business plan. Even if you change it a dozen times (which most likely will happen) write one anyway. And keep all the iterations so you can see how it evolves.

A good business plan includes a thorough financial and pricing analysis, but that will need to be a topic for another discussion.

Developing your Strategy – a few basic questions to get you started

Some of the following questions may seem elementary and even academic; however, answer them like you were at a wine tasting: consider what’s in front of you, let your intuition guide you, don’t over analyze, and then write down your thoughts. These items will establish a foundation for your strategy. We’ll pull them together further on in the exercise.

  1. The first question should be (even if you already decided what market segment you are going to target), “What type of photography do I like?” Ideally your business would be built around your passion; but realistically, that may not always be possible, at least not in the short-term. To help you answer this, you should also consider what aspect of photography you think you are particularly good at. Be honest. It may help to solicit the opinions of some people whose input you value.

Also, as part of this, consider what type of photography you don’t like, and what you feel you are not so good at. Say for example you want to do family portraits, but upon this analysis, you realize that you don’t particularly like children who misbehave. You’ll then know that is an issue which might affect your ability to be successful, and it may result in a change of direction. Or, you may need to address this issue and find a solution around it.

  1. The next question you need to ask yourself is, “What am I selling?” Am I selling photography services? Photographs? Fine Art? Memories? When Dominos Pizza started out, they did not think of themselves as primarily being in the pizza business. They were in the Delivery Business, and they just happened to be delivering pizzas. (Maybe that’s why their pizza is so bad, but that’s another story.)
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  3. Conduct a competitive market analysis. Start by looking at what segments are already being serviced in your area. Then, try to determine segments that might be under-served. Next, look for some “unmet needs”. These are opportunities that no one is currently addressing.

Once you look hard at all the photography businesses in your area you’ll probably see some common areas of emphasis, or you’ll most likely see a lot of broad offerings. Try a niche within a broad offering and you might find it easier for people to identify with what you have to sell. A business opportunity can sometimes be a niche that “sits inside” a broad offering. Or, you may find a completely new opportunity that addresses an inadequately addressed segment.

  1. How do you define success? When you are successful what does that feel like?

A SWOT Analysis

  1. From the foundation work above, you can now develop a SWOT Analysis: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. It’s best to do this by creating a grid with four sections. In the upper left put Strengths, upper right put Weaknesses, lower left put Opportunities, and lower right put Threats.
  • Strengths – simply put, what are you good at (from Q-1)?
  • Weaknesses – what are you not very good at (from Q-1)?
  • Opportunities – what are the under-serviced segments or unmet needs in your area (Q-4)?
  • Threats – what are the internal factors (that’s you) or external factors (that’s the outside world) that might limit your ability to be successful?

For each category, list as many items as possible. Really try to scrape the bottom of the barrel.

Developing Opportunistic and Defensive Strategies

  1. Now, look at your Strengths and Opportunity items (on the left side of your grid), and then develop a list of ways you can capitalize on your Strengths, while at the same time taking advantage of as many Opportunities as possible. These are called Opportunistic Strategies, and when you have an idea that both plays on a Strength and address an Opportunity, then you have a potential are of focus for your photography business.
  2. Next, look at your list of Weaknesses and Threats (the right side of the grid), and then develop a list of ways to mitigate the effect of these. These are called Defensive Strategies. These may take nothing more than occasional monitoring, or if they are significant issues, you may need specific action plans to actively mitigate them.

Factors for Success

  1. Know your Key Success Factors. These are a list of items that are fundamentally necessary for you to be successful (success, as you’ve defined it). Without these in place you believe that success will be difficult, temporary, or even impossible. E.g. do you want to be a product photographer? Well, having a studio would most likely be needed. List as many of KSF’s as you can think of, but try to list them in order of importance, or rate them in categories, A, B, C.
  2. Who is your Target Customer? For this exercise, you should resist trying to target everyone who might need the services of a photographer. Narrow your market segment. Niche segments can be more profitable then broad ones. E.g., Portraits could be narrowed to Family Portraits. A narrow segment is easier to explain to your target customer. They get it. They will understand what you do, and they will be more comfortable coming to you for their specific need that you are addressing.

Now let’s say you identify two segments you want to pursue, but they are somewhat different, e.g., Family Portraiture and Product Photography. You should develop a list of ways these segments overlap (studio, lighting, etc), and ways they don’t (target customer, lenses, etc). I would suggest the best way to market yourself is by completely segmenting your message to each audience, in lieu of say promoting yourself as a portrait + product photographer. The fact that you do both is OK, buy it’s how you position yourself to each target audience that counts.

  1. What is your channel to market? Will you sell direct to consumers or through an intermediary (e.g., a gallery)?

Even though volumes have been written on these principles, if you answer the questions in this brief overview you should end up with a much better idea of how to chart your path to success. At the minimum, you will know a bit more about yourself, your market, your target customer, and your product/service offering. Good luck!

Robert J. Mang is a photographer living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Visit him at his Photo Blog and Travel Blog.

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Some Older Comments

  • Barney Delaney - Landscape Photography May 17, 2012 05:37 am

    Thanks for sharing, very interesting article. I'm just starting out and reading through this has made me rethink a few angles. As Mark mentions, keeping the focus on one particular area is where I'm trying to devote my energy, branching out only when I've got a foothold.

  • Mark May 12, 2012 09:06 am

    Focusing on your one true particular niche is the best way to stand out. If you try to be a photographer that knows how to shoot everything then your will be competing with every photographer. If you dedicate yourself to one particular photography business then you will have a lot less competition. You will be able to charge more because you will be seen as an expert in that particular photography field. It's good to use Googles keyword research tool to see how many prospects are searching for your particular photography service in your area.

  • Richard December 28, 2010 01:20 pm

    Great article on the basics of business.

    Somewhere in that planning should be what you will charge for your service/product offering and how you will collect it. A friend of mine has been shooting (for money) for a little over a year now, he's pretty talented and has a good following building. But the "paperwork" side of his business is lacking. He is so focused on the creative that he forgets to invoice, follow up on collecting and worse, being clear what his service rates include - UP FRONT. Because of this, he often fails to meet expectations with a client that observes him shooting hundreds of photos but only delivering a few finished products. He knows this is a problem, but somehow can't wrap his process around the issue(s) to really get paid what he should.

  • James December 1, 2010 04:45 pm

    What are your experiences in terms of advertising? Print media? internet? Promotios?

    I'm only doing shoots base on reccomendation, but that's fine because i hold a full time job. But how do i get more people to know about my business if I go into potography full time?

  • Emmanuelle November 21, 2010 09:09 pm

    Thanks for this great article.

    I'd also like to know how important business cards are. How is my website looking for someone who wants to start up my own photography business? I always thought I was just into portrait photography, but after recently working on recipe photos for
    a book project, I also think this is what I'd like to go into too. Can these two areas be combined? Please help! :-D

  • Chris Gattis November 20, 2010 01:04 am

    This article is a great intro into the marketing strategy side of starting a business. As a small business consultant who just happens to like photography, I coach with hundreds of hopeful entrepreneurs each year about how to start a business. I recommend completing a market analysis and marketing plan, similar to what is described above. Then, looking at your target market figure out how many widgets you can sell (in this case cameras, photos,...). Based on an organization that size, what do the income statement and cash flow look like. One of your primary responsibilities as a small business owner is to understand how what you do in the real world translates to profitability and cash flow. And remember, the day you run out of cash is the day you're out of business!

    If you don't know how to do this, stop and get some help. In the U.S. there are hundreds of organizations that provide start-up business coaching. Check with your local Chamber of Commerce to find the names of organizations in your area. You can also read my book for more advice on the business start-up process, Business Start-up 101. Get it on my web site at or Amazon.

  • Alexis November 19, 2010 02:26 pm

    Thanks for this. If I get to starting a photography business, I'll definitely keep all this in mind! It's given me some definite things to think about! :-)

  • Eric OConnor November 19, 2010 12:16 pm

    It's great to see a post strictly focusing on the business side of photography. Thanks Robert. It is certainly often neglected. If you don't have a strategy you would be wise to use the principles above. Don't forget milestones. Photographers often create a plan and stick it in a desk. A strategy does you know good without dates to hold you accountable.

  • Diane November 19, 2010 06:05 am

    Thanks for this article. Although my husband and I have been in business a long time, I still found the information relevant. The photography market has changed tremendously since we opened our studio 16 years ago. Where there were once only a handful of photography businesses in our area, there are now dozens and many of those don't look at their photography work as a business.

    Although we are constantly doing this exercise mentally, we don't often take the time to put it in writing. I'm thinking it should be an annual project.

  • Lana November 19, 2010 04:47 am

    WoW - Thank You so much!! This feels like divine intervention!
    I live in rural Alberta in a oilfield / foresty town of 7500 people. I really want to do boudair! How in God's green earth will I ever get enough shots to even keep myself busy 2 Saturdays a month! Little own pay myself back for a lens, some props & lighting. What will the market tolerate / accept in a place like this?!

    Hopefully someone from more rural areas of this great planet will chip in with their perspective.
    Thank You for the guidance - So Greatly appreciated!

  • Jennifer November 19, 2010 04:33 am

    Always knew I needed a business plan/strategy but never quite knew how to write one. This will definitely get me started. I'm a very system oriented person and have felt like I'm floundering a bit because I have no real "strategy" for my business. Thank you so much!

  • Tammy November 19, 2010 04:07 am

    Thanks so much for the article. I'm sitting at my day job (which I hope to ditch within 2 yrs). I work part time on my photography business but I'm beginning to be busy enough that I need to figure out how to make this my big source of income. This article gives me some ground work to complete in order to prepare myself. Thank you!

  • Kseniya Bulavko November 19, 2010 03:25 am

    Great article!
    I found very helpful in organizing my process and thoughts. It is a .gov web-site and offers TONS of free resources, video-tutorials and useful links that help one get organized and get started.

  • Cristina November 19, 2010 12:53 am

    Thank you for writing such a specific and clear article on what a business plan is. I know it isn't the most fun thing out there (that's probably why I have avoided it for so long), but without it, there is no direction. I appreciate how thorough you were with each section of it. Once again, thank you.

  • Sondra November 18, 2010 10:53 am

    Thank you very much for writing this article. I for one am trying to get my foot into the door and am still trying to find my niche. I honestly didn't think that a business plan would be needed for a part time - work out of the home - photography business, but now I am thinking differently. The plan will be a good tool to keep myself on track (flexible but heading in a good direction). I wish we had more articles that spoke about the business side of photography.

  • RJMang November 17, 2010 08:09 am

    Arun, thanks for the comment. Yes, this article didn’t get much dialog; though, I found it interesting the number of “likes” vs. the number of comments. I’d rather the article resonated with some people and they showed that by their “like” choice; and maybe they will consider even one of the points as they think about their path forward.

    As I said in the article, this isn’t necessarily the fun part of what we do, but unfortunately, at times it may be a necessary part. It’s admittedly a bit conceptual, and not as enjoyable and tangible as grabbing your camera and capturing an interesting image.

  • Arun November 17, 2010 05:28 am

    A very well written article on the much neglected part of a photography 'business'! And what do I find, very few takers on this subject?! Are they not interested, or do they think it's too trivial to read up? Lol...

    Well, great points, I think I've been trying so damn hard to define the niche area, I've done a few paid assignments but to set yourself apart is the key to a long-term success in your business. I think this article redefines my priorities and gets me back to doing my homework - AGAIN!

    Thanks a lot for this article, I think I'm going to be referring to this every now and then to make sure I'm not falling off again!

  • LaKaye Mbah November 13, 2010 11:19 pm

    I started writing a plan last year, but I gave up. I keep getting stuck at how to set myself apart from my competition, but I think that's very important. I live in an area that's saturated with wedding photographers and I'm not sure how I can take firm hold in this market. I will say that I'm proud of the ethnic diversity in my portfolio. Is that something that can be marketed?

    Great post and great reminder that I need to get back to writing!

  • Karen Stuebing November 13, 2010 11:11 pm

    Well, this ought to scare everyone from starting their own photography business? LOL.

    You mean I can't just print some business cards, spend $1000 on some new lenses, shoot my friends weddings and grannie's portrait and be good to go?

    Seriously, it makes me happy that someone has taken the time to explain what is involved in a home business. I ran a home business for six years. It was not photography but I did make enough money to live on.

    Just wait until you have do your taxes. :)

  • RJMang November 13, 2010 06:19 am

    Absolutely correct.. that's why I stressed right up front that the plan will most likely change dozens of times. It's just a road-map, doesn't mean you can't adjust your final destination.

  • St Louis Wedding Photographer November 13, 2010 06:12 am

    Definitely these are the principles of business that you need to use to make a run at any type of business, photography or anything else. I think I've mentioned this on DPS before, but keep in mind that a plan is great, but growing a real business requires flexibility. Don't turn away paying customers because they're outside of your defined market. What you're doing with a business plan is defining your focus. In other words, where would you like to eventually go. It's important to remember the big picture too, which is how do I pay my bills this month.