Ultimate Guide to Launching Your Own

Photography

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipates that the job outlook for photographers is expected to increase by just 4% from 2012 to 2022. The main reason for this slower than average growth is because companies are turning to freelance photographers as opposed to still hiring an in-house photography. That stat, however, shouldn’t deter you if you have a great eye and passion for capturing a story or event. A career as a professional photography can be fulfilling both creatively and financially - even as a freelancer.

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Types of Photographers

Even though you’ve decided to become a photographer, you should decide on what type of photographer you want to be. This decision will guide you into the schooling and gear required to become a professional.

There are typically five different types of photographers:

  • Action or Event. These photographers work at re-creating the memorable moments of the action taking place at these, and other similar functions: weddings, sporting events, business events, speakers, religious events or ceremonies.
  • Fashion. These photographers will capture models on the runway or during a shoot for a designer, studio, or catalog.
  • Nature. These photographers capture both rural and urban landscapes.
  • Portrait. These photographers work in a studio or set location and capture family or celebrity portraits.
  • Still Life. These are the photographers that take pictures for advertising purposes.

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Where to Learn to Become a Photographer

One of the best ways to learn photography is to earn a degree in photography. Some of the leading colleges and universities that offer photography programs include:

Almost every art school features a class or course in photography. If you want to stay local, checking out art schools in your area is a great place to start.

What if you don’t have the time or finances to obtain a photography degree? There are alternatives that include:

Books

You can either visit your local library or purchase books on Amazon to learn photography - from books like The Art of Photography by Bruce Barnbaum, Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson, and Scott Kelby’s The Digital Photography Book (vol 1-4).

You can also spend as little as $10 on informational eBooks on sites like Craft & Vision.

Blogs

Follow blogs like: Photofocus, Black Star Rising, Click It Up a Notch, Everything Everywhere, Common Cents, Chase Jarvis’ Blog, and David duChemin can teach you techniques, the ins and outs of the photography industry, and keep you up-to-date on the latest photography news and trends.

Online Courses

There are many online courses where you can learn photography. Here are just a few suggestions that are either low cost or free.

Practice

As the old adage goes, practice makes perfect. But usually, practice merely makes more practice. If you don’t want to practice on your own, you can join a local photography club or meetup. You can find photography meetups in your region by using Meetup.

Work With a Professional

One of the surefire ways that you’ll gain the knowledge and the skills needed to become a photographer is by working alongside a professional, like being an assistant. Not only will you learn the basics of photography, you’ll also have a glimpse into the business side of the profession, as well as obtain experience. Being an assistant also gives you time to build a portfolio and start your own business.

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Plan Your Business

You’ve just gained the knowledge, skills, and hopefully experience needed to become a professional photographer. Now it’s time to launch your very own photography business. Beginning any business starts by planning out your business.

Have a Business Plan

No matter what type of business you want to start, you need to have a business plan. A business plan is simply a document that will be your roadmap to success. Business plans describe what your business is and how it will be profitable. Make and write down the mission statement for your business first. Then follow the core elements of a business plan. They include:

  • Executive summary. Highlights key points of your business plan.
  • Company overview. Overview of company’s legal structure.
  • Products and services. What your business offers to customers.
  • Target market. Who your customers are and how to market to them.
  • Marketing and sales plan. Your marketing strategy.
  • Milestones and metrics. How you’ll track the growth of your business.
  • Management team. Describes the individuals on your management team.
  • Financial plan. Details your cash flow.

Not only will this help your business be successful, business plans will also be needed if you want to secure a loan from a bank or investor.

Creating a business plan is crucial, along with being a daunting, task, you can use this free downloadable business plan template, Bplans. This has been tailored for a photography business.

Access and Secure Finances

To become a photographer, you’ll need to purchase the right camera equipment, which can cost around $10,000. You also need to invest in photoshop software, a website, insurance, business licenses, and that’s not taking into account a studio to development your images. Don't let this business side of becoming a photographer be discouraging. Remember, you can start out small. However, all of these finances need to be considered when creating a business plan so that you can determine how much money you’ll need to start. Figure out and take into account how much your budget needs to be each month so that you can handle your monthly costs.

Bplans has a useful starting costs calculator that can help you figure out how much money you’ll need to get started.

After you've figured out how much money you’ll need to start your business, you may realize that you may have to ask friends and family for financial help or apply for a bank loan because you may not have enough money to finance the business yourself. Remember, a business plan will be needed if you have to borrow money - even if it’s from your parents or best friend!

When you have secured enough money to purchase your gear and equipment to get started, it is common business knowledge that it may take over a year before you start turning a profit. During this time you have to make sure that you’re bringing in enough money to pay your bills each month. Entrepreneur offers a break even calculator that will analyze your revenue and monthly overhead so that you can determine if you’re breaking even.

Finally, during the planning stage you’ll also need two other extremely important components; besides having the right gear, you will need a quality website to showcase your work. As these two components are both crucial for all photographers, the next two sections of this guide will be devoted to them.

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Have the Right Gear and Equipment

Professional photographers suggest that when it comes to camera gear and equipment you should purchase two cameras, two high quality lenses, and two flashes. You’ll also need to purchase Photoshop and Lightroom, from Adobe to edit your images. Since you’re on a budget when starting, you may think that purchasing two cameras and extra equipment is excessive. But, what happens if you’re on a job and your camera breaks? Having backup gear will keep you working in case of an emergency.

When selecting a camera, you should obviously consider the price so that you still have money to purchase other equipment. When selecting a camera you also need to think about:

  • Lenses - perhaps the most important determination in the quality of your images.
  • DSLR Types and Sensor Size - there are two sizes and image sensors in DSLRs. There is full frame and APS-C. APS-C are usually cropped sensors and are found in more entry level cameras.
  • Battery life
  • Size and weight of camera
  • Type of viewfinder
  • Grade of camera; Entry, Intermediate, and Professional

Since there are a lot of professional cameras on the market, here are some suggestions to help narrow down the list.

Consider Renting

If you feel you don't have enough money to purchase a camera right up front, no worries. You can always rent that expensive gear and equipment for a while until you can afford your own.

If you visit a site like BorrowLenses.com, you can actually rent a Canon 5D or a Nikon D3 for a couple of weeks for just a couple of hundred dollars. Besides cameras, BorrowLenses has everything else a professional photographer needs to run a successful business, such as lenses, tripods, and backdrops. Another benefit of renting equipment is that you can try out the camera before spending thousands of dollars on a piece of equipment that you’re not satisfied with or don't like using.

This same advice can also apply to studio space. Believe it or not, you can rent studio space by contacting your fellow photographers in your area and see if they own their own studio. Fellow photographers are often willing to rent their space out to beginners when it’s not in use. This is a better idea than letting a space cost them money when it’s not being used. You can also do a quick Google search for “photography studio rental” to discover local results. Once you’re settled and secure in your business, you may want to look into purchasing your own studio, but when until then, rent a space out.

Miscellaneous Purchases

On top of your camera, lenses, batteries, photoshop/lightroom/other software, and studio/lab, you’ll also want to acquire:

  • Tax ID
  • Insurance
  • Accounting/Invoicing software
  • Pricing list
  • Business cards
  • Thank you cards
  • Packaging for prints
  • CDs and cases
  • External hard drive

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Build a Website and Portfolio

Having a website is essential for a professional photographer. Having an effective and well designed website, however, can make you stand out from the competition and attract clients. When building your website you want to follow these tips:

  • Purchase a domain. Your domain name should be short and memorable. Photographers typically use their names, such as janedoephotogaphy.com. You can purchase a domain at GoDaddy for just $2.99. GoDaddy also has hosting plans starting at $4.99 per month.
  • Think about your demographic. Are you a wedding photographer? Create a website that appeals to couples as opposed to a site that showcases only your commercial work.
  • Opening headline. Have a headline that attracts your audience to your site, but also briefly explains how you can help them.
  • Contrast. Most of the time images appear better with a black background. Just don’t forget to add contrast that dark background with lighter colors.
  • Only use high resolution images. Common sense here, but only include high resolution images so that your audience can see the best quality images of your work.
  • Add photo descriptions. Provide a one sentence description of your photos like the names of the models or where the photos were taken.
  • Contact information. How can a potential client get in touch with you if they don’t have contact information for you? Provide at least an email address and phone number that visitors can easily locate on your landing page.
  • About page. Let your audience know who you are by describing your background and experience.
  • Update. Continue to add new content, whether it’s new images or blog posts, to give your audience a reason to keep coming back. Also don’t forget to keep your contact information, event schedule, or tools up-to-date.

Since you’re using a website to book clients, you should showcase your best work. However, you should also keep the site organized so that it’s easy for clients to navigate. For example, you could create categories that contain relevant galleries. And, you should also provide a price list so that clients are aware of what you’re charging.

Since money can be an issue, you can build a blog or website for free using WordPress. SquareSpace is another option if you’re not that tech savvy with plans starting at just $8.

If you’re looking strictly for portfolio-building website, here are ten options:

One final note about portfolios. In the photography world, portfolios also mean physical books that illustrate your work. Just like your website or online portfolio, when creating a physical portfolio you need to keep your audience in mind. It’s also recommended that you have a large case, around 20x30 cm or about A4, where your collection can be presented in a way that reflects the shoot. Finally, the contents of your portfolio should contain:

  • Your artistic statement.
  • A list of the shots.
  • Shot titles and a brief description.
  • Date and location of shots.
  • Contact sheet.

Unfortunately, being a professional photographer doesn’t give you the right to just start taking pictures wherever you are. There a number of legal issues that need to be addressed before snapping pictures in the real word. According to Carolyn Wright, a photographer, attorney, and author of the website Photo Attorney, photographers should be answer the following ten legal questions:

  • Who owns the copyright of the image?
  • Are you on private property? You may need permission from the owner to use the images.
  • Are people recognizable? If so, you’ll need a model release if images are used commercially.
  • Are there any minors in the image? A parent or guardian will have to sign a release. (even at that church party...go figure!)
  • Are you photographing a trademark? You’ll need permission.
  • Are you violating any city, county, state, or federal laws? For example, photographing a nuclear power plant is illegal.
  • Are you taking images of copyrighted work? Again, you’ll need permission.
  • Are you violating any privacy expectations of your client?
  • Do you have an errors or omissions insurance policy in case you miss or lose the paid shoot?
  • Are you endangering others, such as blocking an emergency exit, while taking photographs?

Besides answering the questions raised above, you should turn to resources like the Photo Attorney, Tad Crawford's book Business and Legal Forms for Photographers, and advice from your attorney before accepting a job.

As any freelancer will inform you, there are also contracts that must be signed to protect you and the client. Most photography contracts should resolve:

  • You or your business name and contact information, such as address, email, and phone number. You’ll also need the name and contact information of your client.
  • The hours that you’ll work.
  • The overall cost of the shoot.
  • Payment terms.
  • How the images will be delivered - maybe you will use a package that includes physical and digital prints.
  • When the photos will be received.
  • The copyright of the images.
  • Failure to comply clause.

When negotiating a contract, always keep in mind that it should be beneficial for both you and the client so that everyone involved is satisfied with the work and protected from unforeseen circumstances.

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How to Attract and Work With Clients

You have your photography business all set up and ready to go. Now it’s time to obtain customers.

Create Your Own Brand

Branding yourself is one of the most effective ways to attract clients. Why? Because it will help you stand out you from the other photographers that are in your area. You should already have an idea on how to create your brand’s identity after creating your website since that was used to attract a specific audience. Remember, you’re different than the other photographers in your region. Use that to your advantage so that you’ll have your own unique style.

Are your photographs more suited for journalism? Are they kid-centric? Have you mastered the art of wedding photography? Knowing your personality and skill level will help determine what sets your brand apart from the competition.

Networking

One of the best ways to attract new customers is through networking. Not only is a low-cost form of marketing, it connects you directly with the people you may be interested in your services. Furthermore, networking can create personal relationships with potential customers and vendors. But, where are the best places for photographers to network?

When you plan to network, always make sure that you’re well prepared. This means have business cards or brochures or a portfolio that have a samples of your work. And, as with any networking event, make sure that you’re dressed to impress.

When you attend the event, make sure that you mingle. Standing around kind of defeats the purpose of networking. Don’t be shy, but also don’t be overly aggressive. Finally, don’t forget to follow-up with the individuals that you have met. Send them an email the day after the event and offer to meet for lunch or drinks in the near future.

Freelance Websites for Photographers

You can also use the numerous amount of freelance websites and job boards for creative individuals to connect with people looking for photographers. Some of the leading freelance sites are:

If you don’t find any openings on the suggested site above, you can simply search social media and Google with terms like:

  • “freelance photographer wanted”
  • “freelance photographers wanted”
  • “freelance photographer needed”
  • “freelance photographers needed”

You can also sell your photography to sites like SmugHug, reach out to your network of friends or family, or freelance your services to local publications.

Working With Clients

After landing a client, you need to be able to work with them properly so that you can help establish your business and help it grow. If a client is satisfied with your work, they’ll be more likely to recommend you to their friends or family.

Here are a couple of pointers to keep in mind when working with clients.

  • Know why they are hiring you. What are their needs and how can you help solve them?
  • Let them know your rates or agree on a budget. This should be addressed from the get-go to avoid any misunderstandings. Once this has been determined, make sure that it’s included in the contract.
  • Always get a deposit. Deposits, whether it’s 25% or 50%, is an industry standard. Deposits protects you in case the client doesn’t pay and can cover overhead costs while working on a project.
  • Agree on a timeline. If you’re hired for a wedding, make sure that you know the exact date and time. You and your clients should also agree on when the photographs will be delivered.

You should also let your clients know how much time you spend on a project. You can accomplish this by providing your clients a list that consists of:

  • Email correspondence or phone calls that discuss the upcoming shoot.
  • Travel time to shoot.
  • Time it takes to shoot the session.
  • Time spent editing photographs.
  • Packaging orders.
  • Backing up files.
  • Sharing photographs on social media.
  • Time spent on accounting and bookkeeping.

One of the most important things to remember when working with clients is that you need to communicate frequently with them. Whether it’s discussing the scope of the work, negotiating the contract, or keeping them updated with the editing process, contact will keep them happy and ensure that you’re both on the same page.

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Setting Your Rates

Now that you have everything else in order it’s time to come to one of the most important parts of being a freelance designers; getting paid and managing your money efficiently. After all, if you don’t get paid for your services and budget your income, how can you expect to maintain a positive cash flow?

Submit a Clear Proposal

As any fellow freelancer will tell you, setting your rates is essential for the success of your business. If you set rates too low you won’t be able to pay your bills. If your rates are too high, you can be certain that clients will look elsewhere.

There are normally two ways to set your rates.

  • Market rates.You can do a little investigating to see what other photographers are charging per hour or the prices for packages. Another great resource is PayScale. The site has found that the hourly rate for photographers in the U.S. range from $9 to $51 per hour. According to a survey conducted by SmartShoot, full day rates average $1341.
  • Your own “need to make” rate. Freelancers can also determine their rate by how much they need to make. This is based on your budget, your skill level, and the time you spend on a project.

Because the market rate is pretty straightforward, here’s some suggestions on how to set your own rates.

  • Use this formula to determine your minimum acceptable rate: (personal overheads + business overheads) / hours worked ) + tax
  • Your experience. A twenty year photography legend will charge much more than a first time photographer.
  • Supply and demand. If you are the only photographer in town who specializes in family portraits, your rates can be higher than average. If the market is saturated, you’ll have to stick with a competitive rate.

Regardless if you use the market rate or determine your own rate, there are a couple of other factors that will help you decide on how much to charge, such as geography and the type of shoot. For example, a photographer in New York City will probably charge more than a photographer in Milwaukee. A family portrait will take a short amount of time to shoot than a wedding.

Hourly or Flat Rate?

One last thing that freelancers must decide on. Should you charge by the hour or a flat rate? According to Freelancers Union, ask these questions to answer that important question.

  • Is it a long term or ongoing project? Go hourly.
  • What are the goals and timelines? Go hourly.
  • Are you charging different rates for different clients? Go project.
  • Are you compensated for scope-creep or midstream project changes? Either project or hourly.
  • Does your client understand what you do? If not, go project.
  • Are you looking to maximize productivity? Go project.
  • How fast are you? Go project.
  • Is your client on a budget? Go project.

Getting Paid

Photographers, like any other freelancer, must also bill their clients for the services rendered. This isn’t always in the job descriptions, but it’s an absolute necessity as a freelancer. Before sending out a bill, you and the client should have already agreed on how much you’ll be paid and when you expected to be compensated for your work. You also have to settle on a billing method when you bill your client. JP Danko, via DIY Photography, states that there are three common billing methods for photographers.

  • Time Plus Cost. This is pretty straightforward and is easy for clients to understand. You bill the client for your time, like your hourly rate, along with expenses that can include; travel, renting/purchasing equipment, or paying subcontractors.
  • Lump Sum. This is a single price for a shoot, such as $3,000 for a wedding. To prevent any confusion, you should itemize your tasks so that the client knows exactly what they’re paying for.
  • Upset Limit. Danko describes this method as “basically billing on a time plus cost basis, up to a predefined lump sum upset limit.”

Invoicing 101

After deciding on the billing terms that work best for you, you can send your client an invoice. Regardless of the method, there are basic components that every invoice should contain to avoid any conflicts and speed up the payment process.

  • Your business name, contact information, and logo at the top of the invoice. Also include your client’s name and address.
  • Amount owed. An itemized breakdown on the invoice will help the client understand how you determined this amount.
  • The date that the invoice was sent.
  • The date that the payment is due; use “30 days” instead of “net 30” to avoid confusion.
  • The types of payment that you accept; checks, credit cards, PayPal.
  • Payment terms like late fees or discount if paid in full before due date.
  • An invoice number to keep your records organized.

To make invoicing as painless as possible, you should use invoicing software. Not only does this speed up the payment process since you’re emailing the invoice and not using snail mail, it’s also gives your brand a more professional image.

Due.com, for example, is a powerful invoicing tool that gives you the ability to add your logo to invoice, set up recurring payments for frequent clients, integration with third party gateways like PayPal, and even a time tracking tool so that you can track the time it takes to edit or develop your photographs.

On top of including the basic invoicing components and using software like Due.com, you can also increase your chances of getting paid on time by:

  • Invoicing as soon as a shoot is completed.
  • Automating the process if you have a recurring client. This will deduct a specified amount from the client’s bank account or credit card each month.
  • Securing a deposit. Freelancers could ask for 50% up front, 25% during the project, and the final 25% when the project is completed.
  • Using your manners. Simply saying “please” and “thank you” can increase your chances of getting paid more quickly.
  • Following up with the client if due date is approaching. You shouldn’t have to wait until the invoice is past due to remind the client that they owe you money. Maybe it slipped their mind and they’ll pay you after receiving a follow-up email. You can even automate this through invoicing software.

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Growing Your Business

Your photography business is now all ready to go. But, you should always be looking for ways to continue growing your business and making it better. Here some of the best ways to keep your business thriving.

  • Keep Marketing Your Business. Invest in Google ads or Facebook ads where you purchase keywords related to your photography business.
  • Have a Blog. Your blog illustrates your expertise through advice, showcases your work, and allows you to create content that other photographers and clients would want to share.
  • Build an Email List. Have clients or visitors to your website subscribe to a monthly newsletter so that you can keep them up-to-date with you and your business.
  • Have an Emergency Fund. You never know when you’ll have an emergency or run into a dry spell. An emergency fund will keep you afloat when you run into a problem.
  • Reinvest in Your Business. If you have the money, keep investing in your business by purchasing top-of-the-line hardware and software.
  • Diversify. Expand your business by offering more than just one service. For example, a wedding photographer should be willing to capture other events like anniversaries or conferences.
  • Work With Charities. You will be giving back and you’ll get to mingle with wealthy and influential leaders in a specific area.
  • Hire Someone Else. This is a two-fold process. For starters, you could hire an assistant to help you set-up a shoot or schedule upcoming events. Another perk of hiring additional help is that they could be more talented at a certain tasks then you are. For example, they could be a better editor than you are. Having a second pair of hands overall will help boost your productivity.
  • Sharpen Your Skills. Whether it’s a class or just experimenting with photography styles that you’re not familiar with can increase your photography skills.
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