Sometimes, statistics can be scary. If you were to search for success rates for new photography businesses, you would find that the vast majority of them fail within the first two years. I’m not sharing this information to dissuade you from starting your own photography business, but rather to emphasize the importance of putting together a plan (or reviewing your existing plan) before launching your business. In this article, I’m going to teach you how to start a photography business in 10 steps. By the end of this tutorial, we hope to help you craft your very own photography business plan.

Understand The Concept of Business vs Passion

For those of you on the fence between pursuing photography as a hobby or a profession, here are five essential points of comparison to consider and think about before making that decision.

Select A Focus

Selecting a focus defines who you’re competing with and which audience you’re going to attract. You have to compete with the quality work of other photographers who are 100% committed to specific genres. It’s a challenging task from the marketing and business administrative sides as well as from the artistic side.  In addition, even within genres of photography, many photographers are niching down even further to sub genres or very specific styles and aesthetics.  See the example below.

Wedding Photograph Niches: Film (left) vs Dramatic (right)

The example above shows that even within a niche or genre, photographers compete within a particular sub-genre. There are far too many genres to take on all at once.

Research The Market

The second step to start a photography business is to research the market. This is where knowing your focus is key because you want to research one and only one market. Start by searching your genre and location and make a list of competitors. Look at who is competing within your focus and area.

Identify and Study Direct Competitors

From the search results, create a list of your direct competitors. These are people who operate within your genre and offer a product similar to your own. Now, I understand that we all think your own product has no substitutes. However, think of this exercise from your clients perspective. While your style might slightly vary, to your clients, your wedding photography is likely similar to others in your area.

For example, if you are a bright and airy fine-art film photographer, it’s safe to assume that clients are able to differentiate your work from another photographer who shoots dark and dramatic portraits. In other words, a photographer’s dramatic images will not fulfill a client’s wants for bright/airy filmic imagery. Even if you are both in the same genre of photography, you are indirect competitors. However, another photographer within your genre offering a substantially similar product would be your direct competitor.

Determine Your Strengths & Weaknesses

Understanding yourself and your business is a key step in determining how to start a photography business. Focusing on strengths and weaknesses, complete the S.W.O.T. analysis with at least four direct competitors to see where you are in terms of your product quality, web presence, SEO, and content marketing.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are we strong/weak in the quality of photography that we offer?
  • Are we strong/weak in the client experience and service that we offer?
  • Are we strong/weak in our website design?
  • Are we strong/weak in our SEO?
  • Are we strong/weak in our marketing?

It’s important to be objective when considering and answering these questions. Try to answer these questions from the perspective of a would-be-client. For now, let’s focus on strengths and weaknesses within the S.W.O.T. analysis. Within the Complete Business Series, we discuss environmental attributes that are beyond the context of this article.

Respect Yourself, Start With Education

It is imperative that you respect yourself and start with education in every one of these areas that you’re weak. If you are a wedding photographer and you’re weak in your photography and technical ability, we have a complete training series for that.

There’s no point in doing test shoots before first gaining a baseline knowledge and education. Yet photographers constantly make this mistake. We select a genre of photography and then start planning shoots. Without a baseline educational foundation, your learning process is dramatically slowed as we make every mistake in the book. Sam Levenson said it best:“Learn from other people’s mistakes. Life is too short to make them all yourself.” 

Define Your Target Market

Who is your main target audience? Are they expecting mothers? Are they brides? Are they brides who are slightly more into alternative photography, such as tattooed brides? Are we looking for seniors for senior portraits? Are we looking for actors and professionals for headshots?

We need to understand your target market because we will eventually need to know how we’re going to market to these individuals. In the target market persona below, you can see that we’ve created an artificial profile for someone whose lifestyle represents the basic lifestyle of your ideal clients. We might create 4-5 of these in the process of identifying your target market. We will use these profiles as guides to creating content that is tailored to resonate with your target market. Without a single focus, we have to divide your attention between multiple genres and potential clients.

Create your Values & Mission for Your Photography Business

You have defined your focus. You know what your competitors are doing. You have a good idea of where you’re strong and where you’re weak. You’ve also educated yourself. You’ve been going through the steps and now you need to start piecing together what you believe as a business. Create your values and your mission statement for your business.

Knowing your core values and mission statement will help guide your overall business. On a day-to-day basis, these statement pieces will guide your every action, the opportunities you take, and those that you leave alone. Opportunities that don’t fall in line with the values and mission for your company need to be ignored! In addition, these statements will be your compass when the waters get rough and they will indeed get rough.

Create Goals When You Start a Photography Business

Once we have determined your core values and drafted your vision and mission statements, we’re going to create your short-term and your long-term goals. While creating goals, it is important to stick to your Core Values and not create goals based on what others have achieved. Another’s success may not be ideal for you if the pathway for attaining that level of success does not correlate well with your values.

Short-term goals should be those goals that are basically measurable and identifiable things that you can get done within the next month. Long-term goals are going to be more tied to your organizational objectives within a year. For example, maybe you want to reach a certain revenue point within five years. Learn to create those goals because you need to schedule and set your time accordingly.

Creating too many goals can be hard to track, especially if they’re convoluted. Instead, here is how to plan for long-term goals:

  • 2-3 years in length
  • Broad/aspirational
  • Designed to steer
  • Max 3-5 goals

Outline Your Business Plan

Finally, we need to have a place where we have summarized all of the details covered in steps 1-9 because we need to reference that information. That’s where a business plan comes in handy. A business plan doesn’t need to be complicated when you’re not going out and looking for outside investors, but it’s still a critical piece of information to document your entire plan for your business. There will be other opportunities and distractions that come up, and having quick access to all of the documentation and all the parts of your plan, including your short-term and your long-term goals, will help keep you focused on what you’re doing.

Set Up the Actual Business

Once you’ve made the decision to start a photography business, there are a few important things you need to have in place to legitimize it. Tempting as it may be, you can’t just create a logo, print up some business cards, and create a Wix website (though many do). If you want to be a legal and legitimate business, here are five things you need to do before you book that first client.

Choose Business Structure

When you set up your photography business, one thing you need to determine is your form of business. What you choose will have legal and tax implications, so be sure to do your research. Will you be classifying your business as a:

  • Sole Proprietorship?
  • A Partnership?
  • A Corporation?
  • An LLC (Limited Liability Corporation)?
  • An S Corporation?

The most basic, and the one most people choose, is the sole proprietor. This is when you and you alone own the business and are responsible for all the liabilities and assets. Depending on your type of business, find the one that works best for you. The U.S. Small Business Association is a good starting point and gives information on each structure to help you decide.

Get a Business License

Many states require licenses or permits to operate a business – check with your local city and county clerk to inquire about your specific state/city. In California, for example, requires a business license which costs about $120 a year.  If you operat out of a studio or physical building you may need various permits for zoning, fire safety, etc; If you’re running a business under a name not your own (example: Awesome-Sauce Photography), you’ll need to get a Fictitious Business Name (FBN) or Doing Business As (DBA) statement; If you have employees, there will be more permits, and you get the idea.

Each city/state may have different requirements, so be sure to do your due-diligence so you don’t miss anything.

Get a Tax Permit

Understand your tax permit laws and check with the board of equalization.  In many states, when you offer products like albums or prints, you’re probably charging sales tax, so talk to your accountant about your pricing structures and what can and cannot be taxed on. It can get very confusing and varies by state, but in any case, you’ll likely need a tax permit from the State Board of Equalization. You can usually apply for this at your local city hall as well.

Get Insurance

As with everything, there are a few different types of insurances to choose from and purchase. There’s insurance for your equipment; liability insurance, and if applicable, property insurance; disability insurance. and more. You may be tempted to skimp or skip this part, but don’t. You never know when your gear may take a dive into the ocean or stolen from your car. Many wedding venues, for example, require a minimum amount of insurance for you to shoot on their property, too.

Get Your Contracts Ready

It’s a lawsuit-happy world these days, and you need to cover your ass(ets) as best you can. One way is through a solid contract, agreed upon and signed by both parties. Having a contract between you and whomever you photograph sets expectations and protects you and your subject. Ideally, you’ll want this document to stand up in court, and therefore, consider getting a lawyer or someone who is up-to-date on legal jargon to draw up your contracts.

The LawTog is Rachel Brenke, who is a photographer with a law degree. She has many resources for all types of photographers, including contracts business planning tools, tax advice, and forms – everything you need to get your legal paperwork in order for your new photography business.

More Information on How to Start a Photography Business:

This is a small sample from your Complete Business Workshop Series on SLR Lounge. It’s a 40-hour course that acts as a complete roadmap to launching and creating the photography business of your dreams. This series is the complete operating manual for Lin and Jirsa Photography. It’s a roadmap and guide that we can promise will make you money. Give me your time, attention and effort, and I will return you a successful and thriving business.