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What Really Happens When You Quit Your Day Job with Chris Nachtwey

By Chris Nachtwey on June 18th 2014

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.

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REWIND: MY SECRET TO GETTING FROM “WANTING TO GIVE UP” TO WHERE I AM NOW | AMANDA DIAZ

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.

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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.

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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

I used godaddy.com to purchase my website domain chrisnachtweyphotography.com. The price was extremely inexpensive, and Go Daddy made the process extremely simple.

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).

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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 protected] vs. [email protected] 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.

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Conclusion

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!

Chris Nachtwey is a full-time wedding and portrait photographer based in Connecticut. He is the founder and creator of 35to220 a website dedicated to showcasing the best film photography in the world. Chris loves to hear from readers, feel free to drop him a line via the contact page on his website! You can see his work here: Chris Nachtwey Photography

31 Comments

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  1. Aaron Cheney

    Loved it! Thank you for sharing!

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  2. Vince Arredondo

    Very informative, thank you!

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  3. Charles-Augustus Nas-Omogiafo

    Thanks so much for this insight Chris. Just two weeks ago I came to the same conclusion, resigned my day job, and I decided to invest the next 2months focused on the logistics and admin of setting up and running my wedding photography business. Not really having other photographers to reach out to can make you start to wonder, but I was 100% sure I was on the right track. Then this article arrives in my inbox from SLR Lounge and boom, I feel so much more encouraged and determined that I am. Much respect brother.

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  4. Daniel Thullen

    Chris, what a great article! I’ve done freelance for several years while supporting the wife and children with day job. I’m contemplating making photography my career. I agree with you regarding the “professionalness” of email accounts related to your business domain name. Would you also apply that same logic to galleries? There are may web gallery sites available, Smugmug for instance, that will allow you to set up a gallery that becomes “yourname.smugmug.com.” They also generally make the commercial transactions easier. What is you opinion regarding these types of sites?
    BTW, thank you for taking the time to respond to everyone comments! Love the Blog!

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  5. Marco Guzman

    Well, is ugly truth, I learn in my life that, nothing is free, you have to playing in life. Good article!

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  6. Reggie Mitchell

    Chris, this is wonderful insight into the business of photography. Most of us love what we do so much that we put the ‘tail before the dog’. Doing things in their proper order is paramount to running a successful business and things fall into place that much easier. Starting your own business is scary but having a template sure does help.
    Thanks for giving us a sense of direction and the real deal honest truth!

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  7. Alex Ramos

    Chris,
    Do you use Squarespace to host your client galleries? Do you make them public or private galleries?

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    • Chris Nachtwey

      Alex, I use to use pixieset for online client galleries, but moved to shootproof recently. pixieset is great for simple clean galleries, while shootproof has a more robust client proofing system, and I love their archival option to save final images on the cloud at a very low cost. All my client galleries are private password protected allowing the client to share them if they want.

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  8. Servando Miramontes

    The definition of “All in”

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  9. Martin Falada

    I have to disagree about the email thing. Your email address is impossible to remember and who wants to type that long thing (either of them in your example frankly). Typing it 1 character….at….a…. time…. proof reading it to make sure you got it right. ugh.

    Your customer’s are going to want an email address they can easily and quickly type in, and everyone knows gmail.com. So that makes the end even easier for them to type in.

    I get annoyed every time somebody has an email like that.

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    • Chris Nachtwey

      Martin, I have to disagree with you.

      First of all no client has had any issues getting ahold of me with my long email address. If they really need to talk I get a phone call.

      What would you shorten it down to? My name is kind of long and sure I could have made it photo vs. photography, but I choose photography because thats what my business is called. If I went with lets say @chrisnachtwey.com that would just look like a personal site not my photography. And yes @gmail.com or any other provider looks like a non business. Take a look around at many of the professional photographers sites and you will see almost none of them use @gmail.com.

      Also, a good contact form is key on your site, that way your email is not a big issue anyway.

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  10. Brian Ramage

    Reading through this…nice read BTW…and decided to check out your Photo Site.

    -Under “About Me” you say: I’m obsessed with beautiful and unique stationary!
    -Should this be: stationery ? (with an E at the end) I was thinking that but then thought maybe you like when your clients are “still” and it makes a better shot.

    Back to the article. I love articles like this that encourage me to stay a Shutterbug as a hobby. I am a designer (print for a decade and switched to digital) and have loved Photography for years. Many way I should enter contests and I could become a paid photographer but I tried the Freelance Designer way a few years back in spare time and though money was decent, I am NOT a businessman. I had trouble billing clients, marketing myself, and with kids and a full-time job have let my freelance “career” slide away and only do volunteer or family/personal jobs. Less stress for me.

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  11. JC Vogt

    Great article! Your blog is amazing. I’m a huge fan of film and find it a huge source for inspiration. Thanks for keeping up with it!

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  12. Jared Stewart

    Great article. Lots of good info here.

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  13. Kurk Rouse

    Thank you for this, I find that they are tons of courses that teach you how to be a better photographer, but not many teach how to be a business person. When you get to the point even if you have a love for photography the business side can get very overwhelming and frustrating. I can be very challenging balancing creativity and business

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    • Chris Nachtwey

      The business side is tough stuff, but once you get a system down it becomes easier. I totally agree with your view that a lot of courses teach you how to be a better photographer, but few tell you how to run a business, let alone how to start one from the ground up.

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  14. Jeff Lopez

    Thanks for the great info. I’m in the process right now and this puts a good perspective on things.

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  15. Larry Sandez

    As a brainwashed Apple user (yay for having an Apple IIE at home back in the day as a child) I must say Google Apps is pretty awesome and easy to use. It definitely succeeds where Apple’s .ME failed, and it great for business use.

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  16. Steve Pellegrino

    Chris,

    I’m curious why you’re paying $5 a month for an email address? I have the exact set up you do – domain registered through GoDaddy and SquareSpace is hosting my site. I use GoogleApps as well and I don’t pay $5 a month for an email account. In a typical hosting account, the email is handled by the hosting company and most hosting companies will allow you to have unlimited email accounts. However SquareSpace doesn’t offer this, so you have to do it through GoDaddy and they give you a free email account with your domain name. Unless you’re using multiple email addresses associated with your domain, the first one is free with GoDaddy.

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    • Joseph Elliott

      Wow. i didn’t know this. thanks

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    • Chris Nachtwey

      I use Google Apps for multiple business reasons and for more than just my email, I like everything to be integrated under the same umbrella. You are right, I could use go daddy if I wanted to.

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    • hIDE ME

      Yeah man! Keep supporting GoDaddy and help fund their CEO to go on his hunting trips and killing wildlife for fun. ROCK ON boy!
      Way to support your fellow (wildlife) photogs, and your mother earth who supports your entire family and friends.

      Seriously, to use godaddy is just a joke.

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  17. Matthew Saville

    I’d recognize that Viewfinder prism anywhere! Isn’t that an F100?

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