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.

  1. Select Your Focus
  2. Research The Market
  3. Identify Your Direct Competitors
  4. Study Your Direct Competitors
  5. Determine Your Strengths And Weaknesses
  6. Respect Yourself, Start With Education
  7. Define Your Target Market
  8. Create your Values/Vision/Mission
  9. Create Short & Long-Term Goals
  10. Outline Your Business Plan

1. Select A Focus

Start a photography business by first selecting a focus. When you hear the words, “select a focus,” I know that many of you just starting out in photography are probably going to respond the same way that we did, with anxiety and hesitation.

Like the rest of you, we didn’t want to pigeonhole ourselves into a single genre. We felt like we would be losing clients and opportunities. We were also confident that we were good enough to compete across multiple genres of photography. Shown above are a few examples of our work in different genres of photography.

In short, we were wrong in many ways. That feeling was leading us exactly down the path of most resistance.

It’s important to realize that in selecting a focus you aren’t just focusing on the type of photography. Selecting a focus defines who you’re going to be competing with and which market that you’re actually going to be marketing to. When you’re in the planning phases of your “How to Start a Photography Business” journey, your time is extremely limited, especially if you’re planning to do this part-time. In addition to everything you need to do when starting a business, trying to market your product within multiple genres of photography is near impossible.

On top of that, you have to compete with the quality work of other photographers who are already 100% committed to specific genres. It’s a challenging task to say the least, not only from the marketing and business administrative sides but also from the artistic side to produce quality work that matches or exceeds your competitors’ work, especially when all of your competitor’s time is going towards one specific genre and even sub-genre of photography. For example, wedding photographers who focus purely on film versus more dramatic imagery as shown below.

This example shows that even within a niche or genre, we can compete within a particular sub-genre. Competing in multiple genres is equivalent to trying to start up a business that opens its doors competing on multiple fronts.

Coming back to photography. There are far too many genres to take on all at once. Choose one particular genre: weddings, families, high school seniors, and so on. Choosing to take on multiple genres means choosing to compete with every competitor who is 100% focused within each niche. Simultaneously, you are choosing to attempt to market to each of those genre’s target markets.

Instead, spin up one business, get that wheel successfully turning so that it runs on its own and generates a healthy profit, and then spin up another. It’s far easier to maintain momentum then to start it. Focus all of your efforts on one genre to gain business momentum before moving to another.

2. Research The Market

The second step we recommend on “How to Start a Photography Business” is to research.  Once we’ve selected our focus, we need to research the market. This is where knowing our focus is key because we want to research one and only one market. It’s a time-consuming process to not only do the research but then to put in the work of creating all of the marketing assets.

Narrowing down your focus will also narrow down your list of competitors. It all starts with keyword searching your genre (e.g. wedding photography). We want to look at who is competing within our focus and area. The simplest way to do that well is to have a well-defined focus of our own.

Hop onto Google or any online search, and type in your genre and location as shown in the image below.

Remember, if we are trying to compare multiple genres/markets, the research alone becomes far more daunting a task.

3. Identify Direct Competitors

From our search results, we’re going to identify and create a list of our direct competitors. These are people who operate within our genre and offer a product similar to our own. Now, I understand that we all think our 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 that of your competitors.

There are plenty of people in our price range or within the target market who are offering a product with a quality level that’s difficult for consumers to differentiate; here’s what I mean by that.

As consumers and non-professional drivers, most of us can differentiate the difference between a Honda and a BMW. That is a simple differentiator and we wouldn’t generally compare those two cars. We wouldn’t look at a Honda Accord and compare it to a BMW 5 Series and say, “Hey, the price is $20,000 different.” We know that the comparison doesn’t really make sense. Most of us can understand that level of differentiation because it’s a significant differentiation. But, we might have a harder time being able to tell the difference between Mercedes and BMW. For example, the equivalent Mercedes that competes with the BMW 5 Series will have very comparable, comfortable luxury features. Without personal bias, the typical consumer would be unable to tell a significant difference between these two cars. In that way, BMW is a direct competitor to Mercedes and an indirect competitor to Honda. A Honda Accord will not fulfill someone’s need to own a luxury car.

Think of your photography product the same way. When a client can’t substantially differentiate your work from someone else’s, the only thing left to compare is the price. When the price difference is significant on a product that is substantially perceived as similar, consumers will always choose the cheaper option.

By the same token, if you are a bright and airy fine-art film photographer, it’s safe to assume that clients can 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, which we will discuss next.

If you’d like to download our S.W.O.T. template or our Executive Summary, you may download it for free by subscribing to our newsletter below:

4. Study your direct competitors

The next step in our How to Start a Photography Business guide is selecting and studying our direct competitors. To do this, we will perform a S.W.O.T. (strength, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis on four of the direct competitors we identified in step three.

A S.W.O.T. analysis helps us analyze a new potential area of business. It’s valuable because it allows us to look at our direct competitors and determine their strengths and weaknesses, a process which helps us in identifying our own strengths and weaknesses.

5. 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 product that we offer?
  • Are we strong/weak in our website design?
  • Are we strong/weak in our SEO?
  • Are we strong/weak in our content marketing?

It’s important to be objective when considering and answering these questions. We’re all going to favor our own work, but that bias doesn’t help us. We need to be objective in this comparison. 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.

6. 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 test shoots. Without a baseline educational foundation, our 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.”

If an analogy helps, ask yourself whether other professionals would do the same thing? Would a heart surgeon practice by cracking open someone’s chest to see what’s inside? No, every profession requires schooling and practical experience in preparation for the work ahead. Jumping directly into a profession without education is to commit yourself to make a lot of mistakes and an incredibly slow learning curve.

“Every dollar spent on your education will pay you back 10x more than the thousands of dollars you readily spend on gear.

7. Define Your Target Market

Now the “How to Start a Photography Business” journey leads to the step of defining who we’re actually trying to reach. Who is our 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 our target market because we will eventually need to know how we’re going to market to these individuals. What’s our message? How are we going to market that message on our own website? How are we going to promote that message externally? We have to put together a marketing plan, and for that, we must first understand who we’re trying to reach. Take a look at this target market persona.

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

8. Create your Values/Vision/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. This may sound odd, but it’s crucial. I want you to create your values, your vision, and your mission statement for your business.

Knowing your core values, vision, 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, vision, 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.

Core Values

Core Values are essentially who we are. It’s what we believe, it’s what we strive for, and I’m going to give you an example of one within the business course. One of our Core Values is ownership. These Core Values are just as important within a one-person studio as it is within a multi-person studio. I’m going to explain why in just a moment. Our Core Value statement for ownership goes as follows:

We adopt extreme ownership. We understand that leadership is a two-way street going up and down the chain of command. Each individual of the team takes ownership over his or her actions as well as the actions of the team.

For our studio, we practice the principles of looking out the window with success, and into the mirror with each failure. The point of this, even on a one-person team, is to help guide your thoughts and decisions when you are emotionally compromised.

For example, let’s say a client complains about your work. As artists, we will naturally feel hurt. We have strong emotional ties to our work. It’s easy to fall into these emotions and respond negatively to an already negative situation. However, in these moments our Core Values act as a compass or guide. Core Values like ownership can help us to pause and instead ask ourselves, “Where was it that I went wrong in this process? Was it something that I did? What could I do better going forward?” Core Values encourage you to approach each situation with the mindset that’s aligned to your business goals. They help us to guide our behavior, responses, and decisions; particularly when we aren’t seeing a certain situation clearly.

Vision Statement

Now, let’s talk about a Vision Statement. A Vision Statement is similar to a future-thinking statement of your aspirations. It represents your aspirational future in the form of a short phrase. For Lin & Jirsa, we wrote the following:

We are the world’s foremost creative family historians, artfully documenting moments throughout our universal lenses.

You’ll notice in that statement we don’t mention photography because we don’t see ourselves simply as photographers. We see ourselves as historians and artists. We’ve written these words with intention. When photography is essentially taken over by the camera, we haven’t identified ourselves as photographers.

Photographers are the people that point and shoot, they click, they rely on their technical knowledge of lighting and all those things that are essentially being outsourced to the camera itself. The knowledge and skills you needed twenty years ago have now been outsourced to the smartphone, which is a better camera today than what we were using just a few years ago. Photographers will find themselves in a vulnerable position as technology continues to simplify the technical aspects of taking a photograph. However, as artists and historians, we identify ourselves as something that will never be outdated or replaced by technology.

Mission Statement (Critical when you start a photography business)

Finally, a Mission Statement is essentially your commander’s intent in a single word or phrase. You’re going to sum up exactly who and what you are. For example, I love TED’s Mission Statement: “Spread Ideas.” That’s it.

Patagonia’s is a little bit longer, but it’s crystal clear: “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire, and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” I love that. Let’s say you are a Patagonia supply representative. You are in the middle of seeking suppliers for your product in a place with no communication back to headquarters. There’s a supplier offering a product at a great price, but you know their business practices cause harm to the environment. Patagonia’s Mission Statement is a perfect guide and statement of the commander’s intent.

Your Mission Statement should guide your entire team whenever direction is unclear or emotionally compromised.

9. Create Goals When You Start a Photography Business

Once we have determined our core values and drafted our vision and mission statements, we’re going to create our short-term and our 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

10. 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.

Now Go!

Now that we’ve completed the ten steps to start a photography business, we can actually start considering a name, creating our website, and putting together a portfolio. Take the Executive Summary and fill it out to fit your specific goals and business aspirations.

More Information on How to Start a Photography Business:

This is a small sample from our 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.