Part 1: Six important business steps to take before you think about charging a single client!
This is an unsugarcoated look into what life is really like when you walk away from the steady paycheck (i.e. the day job) and enter the world of being a self-employed photographer. I will be sharing my experiences, thoughts, and anything else that comes my way as I navigate the waters as a full-time photographer. I also hope to interview other full-time photographers to share their experiences with you as well.
A little introduction first: My name is Chris Nachtwey. I’m a writer here at SLR Lounge, Creator and Founder of 35to220.com, a blog dedicated to showcasing the best film photography in the world and most importantly, I’m a full-time wedding and portrait photographer based in Connecticut. A little over a month ago, I walked away from my job in television to run my business on a full time basis. I worked two years during my days off, late at night, and everywhere in between to get to this point.
How It Starts
Somewhere along the path of life you are introduced to photography – you are gifted or buy your first camera, and photography slowly flows into your blood stream like a drug. You start taking your camera everywhere, clicking the shutter endlessly! You start a Facebook page just for your photography. Family and friends like your Facebook page and photos you post. You jump on the Instagram train and start hashtagging your images and all of a sudden people you have never met, start hitting that little heart and leaving comments like “Awesome!” “I love this shot!” “OMG I wish I could take pictures like this!” Then it happens, you wake up one day and say “I want to be a fulltime photographer, I mean how hard it can it be? I hate my day job!”
Hold on there, Talented Photographer… Do you really know what it means to be a “fulltime photographer?” No, honestly, do you really know what it takes to quit that day job you say you hate so much?
Disclaimer: There is no wrong or right way to start your business or run it. This is what I did, and you’re free to go about your business as you please. Before you get to this point though, I do hope you have some type of portfolio and a sound idea of what you will be specializing in.
The Truth Hurts
I’m going to be brutally honest for a minute: you cannot look at photography as something that you do on the side for fun anymore. You need to look at it like a business owner, and truth is, you are a business owner first, photographer second! Remember what I just said, the hell with the photography for a little while, you’re a business owner! All those things you never had to worry about at your hated day job are all going to be on you now.
- Health benefits: You get to pay for them in full now! Yay!!
- Personal taxes: All on you, (oh and business taxes, those are a ball of joy)!
- IT issues: Now YOU get to figure out why your computer failed.
- Marketing: You really think clients are going to be knocking down your door for your services? Think again!
- Legal issues: They can happen, all on you and hopefully your lawyer now!
- Clients: You need to find them, meet with them, and work with them.
If all that sounds fun to you, awesome, read on! If that all sounds scary as hell, that’s ok; keep the day job and shoot for fun – there’s not a damn thing wrong with having photography as a hobby.
Six Important Business Steps I Did Before I Took My First Paying Client
1. Became an LLC
The very first thing I did two years ago, before I charged a dime for my photography was filing all the paper work for an LLC. I wanted to protect my personal assets from my business. Becoming a LLC is not a hard process. I’m not going to jump into how you become one, because every state is different, but for under $1000, I was able to form a LLC in the state of Connecticut. I was also given an EIN (Employer Identification Number). An EIN is important for federal and state taxes (remember, those are your responsibilities now). I recommend asking some local photographers or business owners who have an LLC how they went about the process in your local market/state.
2. Registered with the State and Town
Once my LLC was formed, I contacted the state to become a registered business. I was registered in the state’s systems to collect sales tax and pay personal income tax. You’re a business now, no more flying under the radar! If things go as planned, you will be making a significant amount of money from your business, and you can’t hide from the tax man.
3. Purchased Insurance
Again, before I charge a dime for my services, I went and purchased liability and gear insurance. This was important, because if something did happen at a wedding or session I would be covered. If my gear was stolen or destroyed for reasons out of my control, I could file a claim to have it replaced, or at minimum have financial assistance in replacing it. I personally use The Hartford for my insurance. This, again, is one of those areas I would really encourage you to ask fellow photographers in your area about.
4. Wrote Up Contracts
If I was going to charge someone for my services, I knew I needed a contract to not only protect myself, but also my clients. I personally went to legalzoom.com and used a free photography agreement document they had and tailored it for my needs. This year, I will be going to a lawyer to make my already detailed contracts extremely iron clad. You can save yourself that step though and check out The Law Tog, who has tons of specific legal resources and contracts for you written by a lawyer who is also a photographer. I cannot stress enough the importance of working under a contract; it can save you headaches down the road.
5. Purchased a Website Domain and Created a Professional Website
If you are great with website design, you have one up on many people. In the digital age, a great website is important for not only attracting clients, but also it’s your platform to showcase your work.
I suggest starting simple and clean. I personally use Squarespace for my website and blog. Squarespace allows me to have a clean, polished, and professional looking website that represents my brand and business well. (Clients have told me how much they appreciate how easy my site is to navigate and how clean and professional it looks).
You have tons of options, from WordPress, to Zenfolio, and everything in between. My only suggestion is find a solution that works best for you.
6. Purchased a Real Email Address
I use Google Apps to have an email address that is associated with my website and brand email@example.com vs. firstname.lastname@example.org. I personally believe that having an email that is associated with your website and brand looks 100 times more professional then @gmail.com or whatever email provider you use. This is personal preference, but for $5 a month, I have a much more professional email address. It registers with clients that I’m a business, and not someone doing things on the side.
Yes, I did all that before I booked a paying client! I shot some work for absolutely free in the beginning, but once I put a price on my work, I wanted a solid foundation for my business. As I said before, there is no right way to go about this, but this is what I was comfortable with. My thought was get all the business related one-time things done first. Shooting is easy, business is hard. The more you have done before a client writes you a check for the first time, the better off you will be.
Till next time, keep shooting, building your business, and embrace the hustle!