Starting Your Photo Business

There’s more to running a successful photography business than making great pictures. Lots of folks make great pictures—it’s the ones who understand how to run a business that make it work for the long haul. Here’s a primer of business basics if you’re thinking about setting up shop.

1. Identify your niche. Are you going to cater to businesses (corporate portraits, for instance, or products, architecture and the like) or to consumers (family portraits, senior portraits, weddings and so on)? This is a fundamental distinction and likely will shape everything from how you price your services to how you market yourself. Once you’ve identified your niche, you’ll know more about what kind of equipment, office space or studio you’ll need, and you’ll be better able to identify your target market and your ideal customer.

2. Write a business plan. A business plan will help you determine how your business will operate and generally provide a road map to profitability. A business plan is also a must if you’ll be approaching a financier in search of a start-up loan or to fund the purchase of equipment. There are many resources online for developing an effective business plan. The Small Business Administration is particularly helpful, as are local organizations that cater to helping entrepreneurs. A great one is SCORE, a volunteer organization that offers mentoring and all manner of assistance from retired executives who know what it takes to run a successful business.

3. Think about pricing. Business-to-consumer photography is often priced less than B2B photography, but there are no standard prices for either market. The key is to determine the range in your market and where your pricing should fit in relation to that. If you’re fresh out of college and still learning, you’re likely going to price yourself lower than someone with 30 years of experience and a highly refined portfolio that caters to a select high-profile clientele. Commercial assignment photographers can fall back on stock photography agencies (such as Corbis and Getty) to determine rates for specific licensing terms or use software such as fotoQuote for much the same purpose. B2C photographers are likely to have better luck by monitoring their local market and asking friends and colleagues what they’ve paid (or what they charge) for similar services. Don’t forget to factor in the actual cost of doing business. If your studio rent and expenses are $3,000 a month, but you’re only open 20 days each month, then for every day you’re open, you need to make $150 simply to cover your costs.

4. Get a business license. Business licensing rules vary by state, but usually involve a small fee and some basic paperwork. This is also a good time to determine what kind of business structure you’ll have. A sole proprietorship is the most common arrangement for individual business owners, and it does provide some tax benefits and legal flexibility, but it doesn’t insulate the owner from business liabilities. Consult a lawyer to determine if your unique situation may benefit from a limited partnership or incorporation. You may also want to set up your business with the Social Security Administration in order to get a Federal Tax I.D. number. That number, or your own social security number, will be required by many business customers in order to get your invoices paid.

5. Get insured. No matter who your customers are, you need insurance. You should probably have your equipment protected since it is, after all, how you make your living. Don’t expect your homeowner’s policy to cover your business equipment, as it’s likely to be explicitly exempt. You should also protect your business with indemnity and liability insurance in case someone has a fall while visiting your home office or studio, or in case you make a poor judgment that causes damage or injury to a customer. B2B photographers, in particular, regularly need $1 million of liability insurance just to set foot on a customer’s property. Some property managers require proof of that insurance and even may require a formal declaration of their company as explicitly insured before you’ll be allowed to set up shop in their office. These requests often come in at the eleventh hour, so if liability insurance wasn’t already in place, there would be no way to meet the client’s request. Savvy photographers can even play up their business insurance as a selling point when competing with potentially uninsured photographers for an assignment. For some customers, the protection afforded by insurance is invaluable.

6. How will you get paid? Some folks want to pay with cash and check, but a lot more want to pay with credit cards. So if you can’t accept credit cards, you’re going to limit your ability to accept money, and that’s not good! The old-school approach is to set up a business banking account—which is still a good idea, by the way, because you want to separate your personal finances from your business finances—and work with your bank to accept credit card payments, then select accounting software that can process those payments. Or, one of the easiest ways to make yourself credit card-ready is to use a device such as Square. This little adapter plugs into your smartphone or tablet and, for a flat fee of 2.75% per transaction, allows customers to swipe credit cards right on your phone. Do you sell prints or other services online? You may want to sign up for PayPal—an easy method for sending and receiving money online. Ultimately, you’ll want to deposit the funds into a dedicated business bank account in order to keep the accounting crystal clear for tax and legal reasons. On this last point, be sure to consult with a qualified professional regarding tax and legal issues when setting up your business so you don’t run into unexpected liabilities later.

7. Develop a brand identity. Your brand becomes your statement to potential customers about who you are and what they can expect from you. For instance, your brand may communicate that you’re young, creative and affordable. Or perhaps you want to create a brand that says you’re experienced, conservative and reliable. Addressing the branding question begins when you identify your niche, and it’s refined by what sets you apart and what you provide to your customers. The main outward manifestation of your brand is your logo, which will be used on your website, business card, letterhead and any other marketing materials you create. If you want to start your branding journey on the right foot, work with an experienced designer to help you set the right tone. Consider trading services: You design my logo, and I’ll shoot your headshot.

Remember, when you’re positioning yourself, both in your branding and in your marketing materials, you don’t want to come across as a jack-of-all-trades. It’s one thing to cater to a portrait audience and shoot the occasional wedding on the side. It’s entirely another to try to be everything to everyone and muddy your brand with too much variety. Customers want to know who you are and what they can expect when they hire you. You started this process by identifying a niche, so don’t water that down when it comes to branding. Determine what sets your work apart, what positions you uniquely, and build your brand on that.

Consider Joining PPA
Professional Photographers of America exists to help photographers star
t and maintain their businesses. This nonprofit organization provides a variety of benefits and services for working photographers, ranging from training and certification to assure clients that you’re qualified for the job at hand, to insurance coverage, help with protecting your copyright, networking with other photographers, and benefits like discounts from major photo and technology retailers. Their innovative Square One tool lets you choose a target income for your photo business, and then helps determine the number of photo sessions and average sales per job you’ll need to achieve your goal. Learn more about Square One and the many benefits of PPA membership at www.ppa.com.

8. Make sure others know your brand. This is accomplished with marketing. That means so much more than a website—which requires strategic SEO and likely even paid search advertising in order to get seen by prospects. What about traditional methods of marketing, like placing ads for your senior portrait business in the back of high-school yearbooks? Or what about sending promotional postcards to the art buyers who may hire you for their next advertising gig? If you did your due diligence when you created your business plan, marketing was a part of it. If budget is limited, you’re in luck: Social media offers an affordable and quantifiable marketing vehicle. If you don’t have much of a budget, consider using your photographic expertise to harness social media to create content customers will care about. This content marketing approach is perfect for photographers because we’re regularly making pretty pictures—the perfect content to post on social media.

9. Now you have your business up and running. How do you ensure it stays that way? No matter what your niche or who you’re interacting with, behaving unprofessionally is a surefire way to find yourself out of work fast. Pay attention to the details of professionalism, both in how you present yourself and how you interact with potential clients. You’re going to get a lot of callers who simply ask, "I want to do a photo, what will that cost?" They may not know that all the details matter a lot. Do they want a headshot for Facebook or an architectural shot out of town for the cover of a Fortune 500 company’s annual report? You’ll need to learn to suss out what your customers want without frustrating them with too many questions or, worse, scaring them away by not asking the right questions. This initial call happens on every job, and it’s always the first opportunity to demonstrate your expertise and how effective you’ll be at solving their problems. When it comes time to talk about money, remember that if you can’t speak about your services and your pricing with confidence, your customers aren’t going to do it for you.

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