This article is part of our “Starting Business” series, an in-depth look at how to start a company in a particular niche or industry.
A widely – and increasingly – popular pastime, photography requires patience, luck, a creative eye and, in many cases, excellent people skills. Whether you are a paid professional or an amateur hobbyist, it can also be well paid, too – especially if you decide to set up your own company.
Of course, this isn't a simple process; it requires far more than competency with a camera, and it's unlikely that you'll achieve instant success overnight. But given the vast array of opportunities available – from weddings and events, to photojournalism and stock photography – there's no reason why you can't sustain a healthy venture.
To illustrate this point, and to guide you in the right direction, we've compiled an in-depth, step by step guide on how to start a photography business on your own. So if you're keen to make your snaps pay, here's what you need to know.
Step 1: Market Research
In today’s world, everyone is walking around with a highly advanced camera in their pockets. Media organisations are producing entire news segments with them and families are recording important milestones on them, with top-of-the-line smartphone cameras provided by the likes of Huawei, Samsung and Apple increasingly able to offer high-quality images. In other words, it can be hard for firms specialising in photography to compete against advances in technology, let alone other photographers.
However, there is still scope to forge a niche for yourself. People always want to hire professional photographers for their wedding, for instance, as do schools and nurseries come picture day. The key is to perform a thorough market assessment in your area to assess the level of demand – as well as whether or not that demand is sustainable.
For instance, search for professional events photographers in your area. Is there a lot of competition? If so, what kind of reviews are those photography companies getting? Is there a potential gap in the market that you can exploit? It's also worth trying to identify services that these potential competitors don't offer, as well. If none of the companies in question provides a skilled and qualified video camera operator, but you can, then you already have a competitive advantage.
If you don't already, you will certainly need your own form of transport, too. Many weddings, for instance, are held at locations that are not accessible by public transport, while you will also have to carry your equipment (and your employees) around. The last thing you want is to be relying on combinations of trains, buses and taxis to get around, while a company vehicle, such as a car or a small van, can also be expensed when it comes to tax returns season.
Look at digital possibilities, as well. Submitting paid images to stock websites or press agencies is an additional form of income that can help you to sustain and invest in your primary operations.
Step 2: Company Research
In addition to market research, you must also perform company research. These are technical factors that plant your entrepreneurial seeds, helping you set up your business from the ground up. As the primary owner of the company, you need to consider several points:
It is difficult to estimate how much you need to start a photography business, as much will depend on the equipment you currently own. You will almost certainly need to make upgrades, though, as well as acquire the aforementioned company vehicle if you don't possess one already. You will also certainly need an online presence, too, with an aesthetically pleasing and well-designed website showcasing your most valuable asset – your portfolio.
Once you have calculated how much you need, you will then have to figure out how you are going to acquire it. Most photography companies are self-funded through personal savings and generally start life as sole proprietorships; therefore, it is often difficult to obtain bank loans or private investment – at least during the early stages of your venture, anyway.
While it is great to possess a visual arts college degree, or something similar, many professional photographers are self-taught. Besides, the majority of your potential customers will be looking for two things: good feedback from previous clients, and a strong and easily accessible portfolio. The former can be difficult to acquire until you've secured some customers, while the latter needs to be relevant to the niche you are trying to pitch; landscape vistas may look great, after all, but they don't give an indication of how well you can photograph weddings.
The key to overcoming this is, at first, to offer your services for free, ideally to friends or family members or as a second photographer alongside an already paid one. This enables you to build up and then showcase an array of shots, as well as receive testimonials.
The ability to network is another vital component of a successful photography company. With so many potential markets to tap into, it's always worth engaging with event attendees, acquaintances, or even people in your personal network.
Say, for instance, that you overhear the manager of your local gym discussing the redesign of their website; why not offer to provide the photography? If your partner's company require headshots for their company profiles, ask to be recommended. If you meet a business development contractor for a local enterprise at a wedding, give them your business card and offer to cover any local publicity events.
The main lesson to acquire is that you have to be creative and always looking for potential paid opportunities wherever they may arise. Sitting and waiting for lucrative wedding bookings to come your way won't be self-sustaining, so be prepared to hustle and put your name out there.
A portion of your initial capital investments will be allocated to your resources, such as equipment, travel costs and software. In order to manage your budget effectively, though, determine what exactly you require and why. Remember that justification is paramount; if you don't need something, then ask yourself if it's a necessary expense.
Licensing / Legal
Most jurisdictions around the world do not require photographers to carry any form of certification or licensing. However, you will likely have to undergo background checks to be on school premises and photograph children, while you may also need specific accreditations to photograph certain sports or public events.
In many jurisdictions, you will need to possess business insurance that includes public liability and indemnity - as a minimum - when photographing an event. Many venues are becoming increasingly strict in this regard, and failure to possess the right cover can lead to potential problems.
Step 3: Business Documentation
As any serious entrepreneur will tell you, it is crucial to put your thoughts on paper, outline your objectives and lay out a roadmap to realising your goals. This is known as a business plan.
Owning a photography business is more than just snapping pictures and collecting remuneration; you need to break down, step by step, what your business is, how it operates and how you will turn a profit. This means understanding the technical aspects of starting and running a business, such as how you plan to manage cash flow, overhead costs and operational expenses, as well as identifying mission and vision statements. It's a good idea to obtain a small business checklist to ensure that you have covered all bases when setting up shop.
Remember, photography is a highly competitive industry, so you need to possess stellar business acumen as well as a creative eye.
Step 4: Branding
Most novice photography entrepreneurs tend to first concentrate on hyper-local customers, such as neighbours who are hosting a wedding, or a company that requires high-quality images for a website overhaul. However, your brand strategy should eventually go beyond a five-block radius – after all, you have an entire global market to potentially take advantage of.
Your brand strategy, therefore, should utilise many different components – both online and offline. To ensure it highlights the positive aspects of your brand's identity, you need to consider the following:
- Approach: Executing a brand strategy can be difficult because you are trying to stand out from the crowd and be different from other photographers. It can be a good idea, therefore, to position yourself in regards to your style and approach. Are you going to institute a comprehensive digital crusade? Or, are you going to be a bit more personal by attending conferences and participating in trade exhibits?
- Name: 'John Smith Photography' or 'Oh, Crop'? As with any business, your name can reveal a lot about your company and your approach. A punny name might suggest a lack of seriousness, but a simple adaptation of your name might be considered uncreative. The key is to identify the kinds of clients you are going to be targeting and aligning yourself accordingly. Be sure that the name has not already been taken, too – aside from the confusion (and the threat of legal action), a unique name is often a requirement for incorporation.
- Website: As a photography business, a professional and well-designed website is vital. This is where people will be able to judge and assess your work, as well as get a feel for your personality before deciding to contact you. Therefore, if you don't possess the skills yourself, invest in a professional designer. It's also a good idea to understand local SEO techniques to be more visible in local web searches, which can represent a considerable portion of your potential custom.
- Social media: In line with your website, social media accounts are also a must. At a minimum, you should be active on Facebook and Instagram, with the former representing an excellent business generation tool, and the latter a great place to show off some of your work. Pinterest and 500px are also recommended.
Step 5: The Legal Bit
If customers are paying for the goods and services that you offer, then in most jurisdictions, you need to register your business formally. Generally, you have the option of adopting one of the four following legal structures:
As previously mentioned, most photography businesses begin life as sole proprietorships or partnerships. It's unlikely that you will ever need to incorporate or become an LLC, but it is a possibility.
Whatever you choose, the key is to do your research and ensure that you follow the guidelines relevant to your location, especially if you want your business to be taken seriously.
Step 6: Attracting Customers
When you are starting from scratch, you will likely accept any clients (within reason). As your business increases, though, and you start noticing what area of your work is performing best or growing (say, corporate headshots versus weddings), then it's a good idea to begin appealing to that target market. This will then allow you to tailor your marketing strategy to the needs of specific demographics.
Take wedding photography as an example. You need to think about how to connect with couples who are engaged, wedding planners who require subcontracting photographers and facilities that host weddings. You could:
- Run a search engine optimisation (SEO) campaign that homes in on wedding searches.
- Join photo social media outlets (Instagram, Pinterest and Flickr) to showcase your work and share stories of past clients.
- Write blog posts that offer valuable tips on how to hire the right photographer, or what to look for in wedding photography.
- Produce sharable videos and include clips of you in action.
- Connect with bloggers, reporters and writers who are active in the industry.
As mentioned, local SEO is an excellent way of attracting customers, and so you should ensure that you are following best practices in this regard. If needs be, hire the services of an expert, or take the time to read about and understand how things work.
It might be counterintuitive, but the digital age has produced even more photography businesses than ever before. Indeed, while the days of Black's and Kodak may be over, many others are filling in the gaps.
There are hundreds of examples of successful enterprises which have started locally and then expanded, such as Alex Buckland Photography, a regional photography business in the south of England. Owner Alex Buckland began by shadowing his own wedding photographer on other assignments – an experience he describes as "invaluable" – before marketing himself on social media.
He argues that attending hands-on workshops and continuously honing your photography skills are key. "Always have a camera on you", he says, "as practicing will improve your skills whatever the subject. Using your camera should be completely intuitive, as there is no time on jobs to study your camera manual".
In order to stand out, you need to be more than a gifted photographer, however. "Giving great customer service will help drive word of mouth referrals, which are still king in this game. Offer more than your local competition in the way that you invest in your clients. If you stay passionate, be kind and go the extra mile for your customers, then the referrals will start to flood in".
Merging commercial awareness with creative ability should be treated as an extended learning process, too. "Master one thing and slowly learn the rest in bits and pieces", adds Buckland. "There is a plethora of photography forums and support networks available, so don't be afraid of asking for help and advice from fellow photographers. Failure is OK, but it's how you learn from those failures that counts".
While it is true that most people possess high-quality cameras in their pockets, not everyone has an eye for professional and timeless photography. Yet not all photographers have an aptitude for business, either, meaning that there is indeed a window of opportunity to be exploited.
If you are capable of performing this balancing act between artistic integrity and commercial nous, then setting up a photography business could be a wise choice. Sure, the competition is fierce, but there are many avenues to explore to earn a living – and plenty of ways in which to market yourself. With an open mind and the ability to spot a niche, there is no reason why your passion can not become your full-time role.
What do you think? What other tips would you offer for aspiring photography entrepreneurs? Let us know in the comment section below!