Here’s What You Need To Start Your Own Photography Business On The Side With Little To No Money Or Experience
First Step: The Planning Stages
Second Step: The Practicalities
Third Step: Attracting Clients
Fourth Step: Growing Your Business
You may have stumbled headlong into photography and want to start a business that can earn you a nice side income. Or you may be seriously considering making photography your full-time gig.
Never before has it been this easy to start a business that can reach people all over the world with the click of a button. Social media and online marketing are making more successful photographers than ever before.
But these same advantages also mean that you’re now up against a sea of competition as a new photographer. You now have to compete with thousands, even millions, of other photographers with skills and equipment that rival your own.
“Making it” in this business is tough, but anyone who puts in the time and consistent effort can carve out a place for themselves in the photography world, and potentially make a good living doing what they love.
All great endeavors begin with a plan. So, before you dive into the daily work it takes to run a business, let’s go over the basics of what you’ll have to consider before you start one from scratch, so you can be prepared to succeed!
First Step: The Planning Stages
Always ask “Why?”
Any business, whether it’s based on fulfilling the needs of a market or based solely on doing something you love (and most great businesses do both) will take a huge amount of time and effort to get going. For many people, that’s part of the fun!
But before you even start deciding on a name or creating a website, it’s important to ask yourself: Why? Why do you want to start a business? Knowing the true answers to this question can really help inform your business decisions in the future.
Everyone’s reasons are a little different. Be honest with yourself – if you hate your current job and absolutely love shooting weddings, then this will impact how you structure your business for wedding photography. If you just want to earn a side income doing something you know you’re good at, then this will impact how many hours you devote to your business.
Another good question to ask is: What do you enjoy about photography? If you couldn’t be bothered to take portraits but you absolutely love getting up at 5 am to get the best sunrise shot, then this answer leads you in a very different direction than “Portrait photography.”
Focus On What You Love Most
There are two sides to the advice you get when starting a business. Both of them have their advantages and disadvantages, and you can be successful with either if you’re smart about it.
The first common piece of advice is to offer something that your market wants. Create a business that fulfills a need or desire, and the money will come. Many successful businesses, in fact, MOST successful businesses do this.
On the other hand, you see the advice to “do what you love, and the money will follow.” If you’re very passionate about something, you are more likely to follow through with it, put in the work necessary to make it succeed as a business, and enjoy the process more.
Both of these pieces of advice are valid, and ideally, you would combine both. If you happen to be very good at something that people will pay money for, then you’re set. If you actually enjoy taking photos, you’re far more likely to succeed as a photographer than someone who doesn’t enjoy taking photos (and it seems silly that they would even start a business around photography anyway).
But as you probably know, the competition can be fierce, and many photographers offer very similar products to their market. In order to succeed, you need to set yourself apart enough so that people will choose your products and services over the other guys.
The most obvious way to do this is to study what you love doing most – because this is likely what you are best at. And the better your work, the more you can charge and find clients who want your work. If you can monetize this, then you’re set.
Lauren and Rob from Photography Concentrate put this whole concept really succinctly:
“We’ve tried our hand at a pretty decent range of work in our short careers. We’ve done commercial photography, headshots, weddings, portraits, graphic design, teaching… And from that experience I can tell you that if you are doing something that you aren’t head over heels in love with, your work will suffer. Your heart won’t be fully into it, and that lets everyone down—both you and your clients. It also makes it harder to put in the effort to handle the business side of things, when you’re lacking the passion.”
So, while it’s important to monetize, you should focus on what you really love shooting. You’ll have to put in a lot of work to get your business off the ground anyway – it may as well be around doing things you love.
Focus On One Thing At A Time
Tied in with the point made above is to focus on one thing, and doing that one thing really well.
It can be tempting to offer everything including the kitchen sink when you first start, but to have a chance at making money when you first start, you have to focus on something first.
This doesn’t mean things have to be boring. Just focusing on portrait photography can give you a world of opportunities and different ways to take portraits. Only doing wedding photography establishes you as a specialist in that market and makes it more likely for you to be chosen over other generalist photographers.
But rules are made to be broken if there’s good reason. If you don’t know what your specialty might be or where your passion may lie, though you like photography in general, then it’s worth it to experiment and try all sorts of different styles before committing to just one. In this case, it’s probably not a good idea to pressure yourself into making money. So experiment, have fun, see what really inspires you first, then move forward.
Set Your Goals
Having goals helps keep you focused and moving in the direction you want to go. Goals are wonderful things to keep you enthusiastic and enjoying the often difficult process of getting a business off the ground.
For the first couple of years, your main goal may be just to survive and pay the bills (which any road-weary photographer will commend). But even from the beginning, you can decide what direction you are going to aim for and where you’d like to take your work in the future. Just the act of declaring what you want and what your goals are can be a powerful force behind making them happen.
If you don’t yet have any goals, it may be helpful to go back to the “Why?” questions mentioned earlier and start thinking about what you want to achieve with your endeavors.
Goals have a different meaning and time-frame for everyone. You could set a yearly goal (shoot 30 weddings this year), a monthly goal (create 20 great photos for selling prints), or daily goals (practice taking or editing photos every day). They can be as big or as small as you want. The only requirement here is that they are reasonably achievable for you and that they excite you!
Don’t Buy Anything That Isn’t Absolutely Necessary
Buying unnecessary gear or business-related purchases can cripple your progress.
Because photo gear is already very expensive, it’s difficult for budding photographers to find the money to market their work and expand their horizons. Starting a photography business will be a big investment, especially if you don’t already have the gear you need. So making sure to watch your spending in other areas will help you avoid getting saddled with lots of debt.
It’s not hard to make excuses for fun and exciting purchases that may seem to help your business. Like that new lens that could help you take better photos… which would help your business be more successful! Not exactly.
Again, here’s Lauren Lim from Photography Concentrate:
“I don’t even want to think about how much money we’ve wasted by buying gear that we didn’t really need. It all ended up collecting dust in our closet until we sold it for a serious loss. After a few years of that nonsense, we got wise and started being very, very, very thoughtful about purchasing anything. Our gear might not get many jealous stares from other photographers, but as long as it’s creating the images we want, that’s all that matters.”
When you’re first starting out, it’s hard enough making a living with photography without having other huge expenses to deal with. So make sure you think carefully before pulling out the credit card for new gear or business purchases. If you can bootstrap yourself now and be successful, then you’ll be better equipped to make those purchases later when you can better afford them.
On the same note…
You Probably Don’t Need Stationery
When it comes to your marketing, being memorable in a sea of thousands of other photographers is key. You generally won’t stand out with the same generic fliers and business cards, and they can simply be a waste of money in today’s world on online marketing.
Your branding should be eye-catching and unique, and it can be tempting to order a bunch of print materials to make your business seem more “official.” But aside from a simple website, you will hardly ever need or use stationery to market when you’re starting out.
It may be useful to get a few simple business cards printed, but also keep in mind that you may end up changing your branding anyway down the line as you change and evolve as a photographer.
Second Step: The Practicalities
Registering and Licensing Your Business
Registering and licensing your business is the next important step in the process of getting your business off the ground.
In the beginning, it may be best to use your own name as your business name if you’re not sure what to name your business, as registering a name and then changing your mind can be a hassle.
But if you already have a good idea about what your business will be named, here are a few questions to go over to make sure your name is a good choice:
- Will you name be easy to find in a Google search?
- Is your business name (or a similar variation) available across all the social networks you will use?
- Is the domain name you want for your business available?
- Does another business currently have the same registered name?
- Will the name work well with your visual design or logo?
- Will you eventually sell the business, and if so, how will your name choice impact this decision?
Registering your business protects your brand from use by others and helps you establish financial accounts.
To learn more about performing a US Patent and Trademark search, check out this guide. The Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS) lets you search their entire database of businesses for existing trademarks. It’s also a good idea to perform a search on the web, as not all business names are officially registered but may have popular usage.
(Another great resource is the Wall Street Journal article which contains more information on how to register US trademarks.)
To learn more about registering with your local and federal governments for tax, legal and communication purposes, Check out this article.
Once you’ve chosen a name, go ahead and register your website and any social media accounts you plan on utilizing. You don’t need to go all-out and spend hours designing them just yet: this is mainly to secure your business identity before the names are taken.
Setting Up Your Website
Hiring a professional photographer can be a long, complicated process. The goal of your website should be not only to show off your work, it should make it easy to clients to contact, hire, or purchase work from you.
The easier and simpler you make things, the more likely clients will enjoy the process of working with you and want to come back for more!
In terms of designing your website: keep it simple!
Many websites are absolutely stunning to look at. But if your beautiful website takes ages to load and navigating the complex menu is difficult, then your potential customers will get frustrated and leave.
Here are a few ways to make things simple for your clients:
- Make the location of your business easily visible on your website
- Create a simple contact form so people can message you, along with an FAQ page
- Enable online payments through your website
- Create a simple PDF for clients to walk them through the process of working with you
Your website is the engine that will help you get photography gigs and make money. So it’s important to make it look good, but don’t overcomplicate it. Only show off your best work – this isn’t the place to display every single photo you love.
If you’re already technically inclined, WordPress is the most obvious choice for your photography website (easily customizable, offers a multitude of plugins and compatible with most other tools you will use).
If you’re less technical or just don’t want to bother with anything but design, then Squarespace is a fantastic choice to create a beautiful, functional website.
After you have the legal stuff sorted, it’s important to set up the ways in which clients and customers can pay for your photography.
Still unsure of what to charge for your work? (see our other handy article about pricing)
Most financial advisors argue that having separate business accounts is essential for proper organization and record keeping in your business. To learn more about setting up a separate business account and why it’s generally a good idea, check out this article.
Once you have a bank account set up, don’t forget to connect it to your PayPal account. When you’re starting out, it’s easiest to set up a button on your website that directs clients to PayPal or another online payment portal to pay for your services. You can learn how to do this here.
Third Step: Attracting Clients
One of the best ways create and grow a successful photography business (or any business, for that matter), is to ask your clients lots of questions.
It’s so simple to do, but the results can impact your business in huge ways.
Asking them questions can be of benefit in many ways. First, it shows that you care about them and want to help them. Asking questions allows you to focus on them and get to know their needs, which can be a very valuable thing for you as a photographer.
Knowing what your clients really want and need helps you create better images for them. For instance, as a wedding photographer, you could ask them all about the style of photography they like and what parts of their special day are most important to them.
You can also get some valuable insights from asking your clients about why they chose to work with you, and what they liked (and what could have been better) about the experience. These little pieces of information are like gold nuggets for your future marketing.
While you’re at it, you can politely ask for a review or a referral from a satisfied client, and most are more than happy to point you in the direction of future work if you did a great job for them.
What separates most successful photographers from the rest comes down to marketing well.
You can have an absolutely gorgeous website and portfolio, but if no one sees it, then you’re not going to make it in this business. Without an audience to see your work, customer referrals, or any online traffic coming to your website, your business will only be there to drain your bank account.
The hard truth here is that no one cares about what you’re doing (okay, aside from your close friends and family, no one cares) unless you find them, metaphorically or literally introduce yourself, and get them interested enough to care.
Simply put, that’s what marketing is all about. You have something to offer people, they have a desire for what you offer, and marketing facilitates the communication between both of you. Marketing connects point A to point B.
Setting up your website and portfolio and all the legal stuff we talked about earlier is simply the precursor to the real work: marketing yourself! But it makes it MUCH easier to market if all you need to do is send them to your beautiful website that allows them to make a purchase or schedule an appointment.
Much of modern marketing centers around the online world, but for some photographers, old-school word-of-mouth marketing has led to the best business.
You’d be surprised how far your friends, family, and acquaintances can help grow your business with referrals and word-of-mouth marketing. These people know, like, and trust you (hopefully), so a good start to your marketing efforts would be to mention your business to them and simply ask for referrals if they know of any. You don’t have to be the annoying friend who always has a sales pitch for his new business – just a quick mention is all it takes.
The referrals you get from others are one of the most valuable things for your business. Compared to seeing an ad for your business, actually hearing about your photography from someone else who likes and trusts you is far more likely to get you gigs.
One of the easiest ways to start getting referrals is to just ask for them. Be polite about it, of course. You can do this politely by saying something like, “Thank you for your business, and if you know of anyone else who’s interested in hiring a photographer, please feel free to direct them to my website.” Make sure to let them know how much you appreciate them telling their friends about you!
One of the most effective ways to get new and recurring business is to maintain an email list of all your clients and potential clients.
By creating a simple signup form on your website, anyone interested in your services can give you their email and let you keep in touch with them. These email lists are SUPER valuable. Even a list as small as a couple hundred people can generate thousands of dollars in revenue for your photography business!
What matters is that you make it enticing for potential clients to sign up and give you their preciously guarded email. They don’t want to be spammed all the time with sales pitches, but they are most likely to buy from you if you give them a great reason.
Many businesses offer something valuable for free in exchange for joining their email list. You can also offer a special discount or service package to anyone who joins your email list.
The sooner you set up an email list, the sooner it will grow and start making money for you. An email list can also serve as a great communication tool where you can ask clients about what they want (to create new photo offerings), or what you can do to improve your business.
To learn more about creating a simple email list that helps your business prosper, check out this great article by Pat Flynn.
Fourth Step: Growing Your Business
Invest in Yourself
One of the best ways to grow your business isn’t by purchasing new photography gear or business software: it’s by investing in your own growth.
In the beginning, when you first embark on your photography career, you spend most of your time learning and adapting to change. Your creativity is flourishing as you learn while experiencing growth and overcoming new challenges.
Even if you’ve got most of your business figured out, there should never come a point when you stop learning. Just coasting where you’re at, or on what you know, can lead to stagnation.
I mentioned earlier that you should carefully decide if an expense it worth it or not when it comes to your photography business. In this case, I would consider paying for a photography workshop to hone your skills far more valuable to your business than simply buying some new gear.
The learning never stops for us as photographers. There more you can embrace it, invest in your own growth, and roll with the changes, the more successful you will be.
You may know going forward that you’re a landscape photographer and will probably be passionate about shooting landscapes for a long time (and who wouldn’t be?).
Going with this example, you would have most likely followed other landscape photographers online. You may have also spent countless hours reading blogs, websites, and books related to landscape photography. Throw in some related magazines and tv shows, and you quickly become completely immersed in the world of landscape photography.
It’s very important to learn from the people who share your passion, but if you really want to stand out and find new ideas, look outside of your field.
The opportunities for inspiration are endless. By studying the work of some of the greatest photographers in history, you can learn a lot even if their subjects are completely different from yours. Even other great artists such as filmmakers, painters, and clothing designers can be great sources of inspiration. You can also find brilliant business ideas by reading books written by the best marketers of our time. Some of the greatest businesses simply connected two different ideas in a new way.
“At first we offered the same products, the same packages, and had our business organized the same way as most wedding and portrait photographers worldwide. And it was boring. It didn’t reflect how we felt about photography, and how we wanted to work with our clients.” – Lauren and Rob from Photography Concentrate
Don’t be afraid to be a little weird or different compared to your competitors.
Just because everyone is offering the same packages or designing similar websites doesn’t mean you should. In fact, just being a little different is enough to set you apart from your competition because it makes you memorable in the eyes of your clients.
These days, it’s so easy to get lost in the sea of competition. When starting your photography business from scratch, the subtle (or not so subtle) things that make you and your work different will help more clients find you and remember you for future projects.
Anything worth doing takes time and a lot of patience. Most photographers have to work at their craft and their business for years before they feel like they’ve built a solid foundation.
It takes time to hone your skills as a photographer, and the same goes for running a business. You will probably have to learn how to wear many different hats as a business owner-photographer and you will most certainly make mistakes – we all do!
So if things aren’t happening the way you expected, don’t fret. If you had given up the first or second (or 10th) time your photos didn’t turn out they way you’d hoped, you wouldn’t be where you are now.
Keep working, keep improving, keep daring to dream and you’ll get there.