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Starting a photography business: what you need and what you don't.

Updated on June 3, 2012
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If you are like most people who are drawn to this hub by the title, you are starting a photography business because you already love taking photographs. Chances are that you have spent countless hours photographing people, places and things for the sheer enjoyment of it. You might have even photographed a wedding or two.

The next natural, logical step must be to take the plunge and market yourself as a "real" photographer; magnetic sticker on the car and everything.

And you are right! Unless you are wrong. What do I mean? Read on.

A quick reality check...

Photography is fun. I will say that without pause. If you have ever felt the thrill of taking a digital or film-loaded device and bringing a visual idea or to life, you know that there are few feelings like that in the world. But when you offer photography as a professional service, the dynamic changes, it can be a very challenging job, in every meaning of the word..

Is it rewarding? Yes.

Is it difficult? Very.

The obvious question: Are you good?

There is a marked difference between "pretty pictures" and "professional photography." By calling yourself a professional, you officially leave the zone where colorful snapshots of flowers, sunsets, kisses and kids are sufficient for your portfolio. You're not looking for compliments any more, you're looking for money. This is especially true if you are seeking to be a successful wedding photographer with a good chance of magazine exposure.

You have to be objective about your work. An entire web site is devoted to mercilessly roasting photographers who failed to be objective about their portfolio and created vast online galleries of "fauxtography."

You do not want to be in this category.

If you want to make photography your sole source of income, you will not succeed unless you consciously work to make your photographs stand out from the crowd. As I wrote in another hub, you have have to offer something that no one else can give. Your portfolio, be it a physical book or an album on your iPad, is the heart and soul of your business. It is your product. Anyone with the gift of gab can sell themselves to a client, but you can't win on personality alone, you have to back your words up with a stellar product.

Obviously, the first step to success is simply being good at what you do. An expensive camera does not a good photographer make. If you assume that you are as good as you need to be and consistently ignore criticism with the lofty assumption that your critics "just don't get it," that will be your downfall.

However, from this point on, I'm going to proceed in this article with the impression that you are good at what you do. So, enough of the amateur hour, let's talk branding.

Poll!

What is your favorite subject to photograph?

See results

Treat your work as your brand.

The ideal situation would be to have the look and feel of your photography to be as identifiable as your favorite snack. Very few photographers reach that level of recognition, (Trey Ratcliff and Chase Jarvis being two very notable and current exceptions), but that is the goal you want to have in the back of your mind.

You need your work to stand out. For that reason, you must focus intently on what gets the most positive response from clients, and develop that part of your body of work. Just for argument's sake, you may hate the job of taking family portraits (even if you love kids and families), but if the family portraits you have taken in the past are the portfolio shots that are getting you the referral work you have now, consider focusing on them and making them objects d'art.

Another huge part of branding is to have a good business name, website and business card that integrates with your portfolio in both tone and design.

If you choose to name your business instead of working under your own name, think long and hard about what that name is going to be. Don't take the easy way out and say "Photos by [Name]" or a cheesy name like "Dazzling Images."

On a personal note, I will always recommend that you work under your own name, because I trust people who are unafraid to publicly claim their work instead of taking shelter behind a catch slogan.

Build your website and make it pretty. Buy a good domain name. Learn SEO marketing, register for Google Analytics so you can track user response, and integrate your site with a Facebook page. If you can't design a web site, find a good designer to do it for you. Paying for good work is the same courtesy that you want people to extend to you, and it is an investment in your business.

The same thing goes for your business card. Don't settle for VistaPrint's famous free card offer, pay for good paper and design something original to give a strong first impression. Tie the design of the card in with the design of your website.

What all of this does is create an identity for you as a photographer. Some of my local friends who have done this extremely well include the always awesome David and Jessica Marshall of David and Jess Wedding Photography and my old boss (and all-around fun guy) Jeremy Cook of Cook Images.

Just what is a "licensed photographer?"

A common question I get asked is whether or not a photographer needs to get a license first. I usually reply "a license for what?" A driver's license? Might come in handy. A license to kill? Not necessary on most jobs. A license to thrill? Baby, I got that in spades...

Oh wait, did you mean a "photography license?" If so, the answer is a flat no.

Some photographers will pad their reputation by calling themselves "licensed," grouping the term in with their oh-so-many years of experience and town faire accolades. That is a certain kind of bull that is utilized by the insecure.

On the flip side, like any other professional service, you do need a business license.

A business license is necessary because you will be accepting money for your services. You will also be building a brand, and most likely selling work online. If this work yields sufficient income, the exact amount of which varies from state to state, you need to have the source of your income on file for tax purposes.

Sole Proprietorship or LLC?

This is common question for any entrepreneur about to launch a small business. What is the difference, and how does it affect you? The actual explanation in photography terms is actually pretty simple, and you can judge for yourself which one would suit your business best.

As a sole proprietor, there is very little delineation between personal assets and those of the business. You provide a service, people pay you for it and the money is deposited in your bank account. If you hire an assistant for one or two jobs and not as a regular employee, you can pay them and mark it off as a business expense. The downside of this very easy and personal system is that since the business is small (you and your equipment), all liability rests on you if something goes wrong on a job.

Example: You have photographed a wedding, and something happened to cause your equipment to malfunction erase all of your memory cards. The job was a total loss, and you realize that the circumstances that caused the malfunction were not covered in your contract. When the bride takes you to court for damages, and wins, everything you own will be fair game for renumeration. Whether it is marked as a business or personal account, a sole proprietorship means that you, the individual, are totally liable.

In contrast, a limited liability corporation (LLC) means that there is a sharp divide between business and personal property. If there was ever an issue in which you were culpable, your personal assets would be protected.

There are some exceptions in which you (or a corporation partner) would be held personally liable in the event that you were actively responsible for a major snafu, but the function of an LLC is to keep your assets separate from business assets, for everyone's protection.

You can file as an LLC simply as a pass-through to have the LLC protection and function as a sole proprietor, or you can file an LLC so as to make your business an actual corporation with multiple partners.

A sole proprietorship is fast and cheap; you can get a business license for it at your local tax collector's office for a small annual fee. An LLC takes more paperwork to file and is more expensive, but might be worth it if you have a long term plan to enlarge your business and include partners in the business. That is where it becomes your call.

For more information on sole proprietorships and LLCs, LegalZoom has a very informative education center.

Networking, it never ends!

Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, WordPress, Google+, Tumblr, email, newsletters.

Those are just a few of the many, many options available to the modern photographer in their business networking. It almost takes more time to share your work than to actually create it these days.

For active, one-on-one client communication, email needs to be your top priority. That's where first contact is usually made. You must be prompt in your replies, and stay in touch with clients after the job is complete. The personal touch will be appreciated, and when when your clients need more work in the future, you will want to be the name they see in their inbox.

Facebook is very important for fast networking and marketing. If you have a thousand likes on your page, and you regularly post a special offer or photo post in the morning or mid-day, you will receive much more of a response than if you update it "just now and again" with an inspirational quote or old photo. Timing is important. You want to post when people are checking their social outlets and have the energy to respond positively, such as mornings and lunch breaks.

A blog is important too, but only effective if you update it regularly, make it easily accessible from your main site, and have the updates sent automatically to the rest of your social networks. WordPress is probably the best blog to have right now, and its templates are very easy to upgrade and make into your main website, if you so choose.

These are the best options for revenue. Google+ is coming into its own, but unless you already have a substantial following, you aren't going to see the same returns there as you would in more familiar environs like Facebook. Same thing with Twitter. Don't just think about the possibility of "hits" (unless you are running AdSense or something similar to earn revenue) think about which ones are going to get you the most possible returns.

Competition (there's a lot of it!)

If none of this has scared you off, and if the idea of filing the paperwork and making the commitments has actually gotten you excited, awesome!

Now, just bear in mind that enthusiasm does not dismiss what has been discussed in the above paragraphs. The same accessibility to gear and software that allowed you to become a photographer can and will give the same opportunity to many others. Tthere are is an amazing number of people who confuse accessibility with talent.

Most of these people are easy to dismiss from a critical point of view, but not everyone knows photography like you and I, and the idea of saving a thousand dollars is often enough for a bride to simply call her "friend with a camera" instead of hiring a true professional.

You might have been that "friend" at one point, but you are now taking steps to go the extra mile and make yourself a legitimate player in your city's photography scene. That sets you apart, and you should feel proud.

Many others will never come this far, and you have to be ready for the consequences. Like dozens of photographic Ralph Naders, "friends with cameras" will siphon away work that might otherwise have gone to you. Don't let it make you embittered, it's not worth the time to be angry at them.

The saddest part of that is actually that it makes relationships between "real" photographers a bit testy sometimes, because good work is getting harder to get. It can be a tooth and claw battle to get clients in this economy. Just remember that the better your work is, the more respect you will have. Never be complacent in your work, always be trying to make your portfolio better.

Criticism

Photography as an art has a few basic rules that dictate what is commonly thought of as good and bad work. But like all the arts, judgment of photography is subjective. What you like, what your clients like, and what other photographers will positively critique are rarely going to play well together. But you don't want to let that fact intimidate you or dissuade you from trying new things with your work. Take criticism from people you respect and use it to make your work better. It doesn't make it any less yours, it simply gives you another perspective.

Give yourself permission to think outside the box and be experimental. Just remember to refine new techniques or Photoshop actions on your personal work before springing it on clients, because that mother of five who really liked the black and whites on your site might not appreciate a sudden barrage of selenium-toned images in her proof gallery.

Just be creative. You have to be.

A final word.

I hope that this article was helpful. It was gathered from first-hand experience from my own misadventures as a starting photographer, a job which I am trying to take full time myself this year.

I've seen the strain this kind of work can put on individuals and relationships, but if you have your priorities straight, aren't afraid of the commitment and can be a self starter, there is no reason that you can't be successful as a photographer. To quote an old but favorite phrase:

Do what you love, and you'll never work a day in your life.

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