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  • So you want to start a photography business!

    Lisa Langell

    Want to start your own photography business?  Here are some thoughts that I hope will help you in your journey forward-- and please take the following advice as general insights that may/may not apply to your particular direction in the business.


    First, I REALLY understand the excitement that running your own business brings!  Every day is truly an adventure!  I want to be supportive toward anyone getting started---but also give you the realities so that you don't go into it blindly.  This isn't to dissuade you at ALL... but it's just what I wish I knew going into this business that I started in 2010, while I was still working full-time as a psychologist/consultant.  I don't think this information would have changed my mind...but it would have better prepared me for the challenges!


    Second, 2021 is the hardest time ever to be a photographer.  It was already really challenging with stock photo markets drying up or paying pennies, magazines going belly up, printed calendars being used less and less by younger people over digital technologies, and more. But then COVID-19 came. It has been a HUGE disrupter in the industry. Those who survive will be fiercely competitive and will have honed their skills and business offerings to new heights.  


    Nearly all of the pros in the nature photography business that I know of (and even many in the portrait business) were knocked squarely on their anatomy with what COVID did--and is doing--to their businesses.  Many have not recovered and I know a number who have given up their businesses and went back to whatever they did previously (or something new).  It's REALLY tough to be a photographer right now in an extremely competitive market and without the ability to rely on myriad income streams.  If you've built up one "vertical" in your business too heavily, you are likely over-reliant upon it and may set yourself up for failure.  This business should be like a mutual fund--- a lot of pots that have upside potential so that if one falls off, you can still rely on the others.


    Many have turned to webinar instruction--but webinar instruction is fiercely competitive and anyone delivering dull, uninformative and trite classes have been left in the dust.  These include some of my dearest industry friends who are excellent photographers, but aren't the best at content development, speaking or teaching in an online environment. 


    All of that said, here are a few of my suggestions: 


    1.  Define what type of photography business you envision having.


    There are many ways to own a photography business.  Portraits?  Landscapes? Nature?  Video?  Wedding?  Pet?  Children? Stock?  Event? Food?  And those are just a few!  Often, most professionals engage in numerous avenues at once---or at least build up numerous revenue streams over time because you can't put your eggs all in one basket, such as just selling prints, or just leading tours/teaching workshops, or just shooting for magazines, stock, etc.).  That's a fragile, precarious way to run your business. 


    2.  Have a good business plan. 


    Even a simple plan is better than none.  Include short and long-term goals that include services, products, initial funding sources and short/long-term financial goals.  A business plan will make you think critically about what you want to do and focus you.  It will also point out the needs and pain-points so that you can start working those out.  There are plenty of business plan templates on the internet for free to download.  You may also find  SBA.gov  and  https://www.score.org/ to be helpful.  


    3. Do the research. Become informed.


    Here are a few resources to get you started:



    4.  Does your business plan involve image/print sales or licenses?


    I personally recommend exploring your potential market.  Do market research.  For example, where and to whom do you envision selling your work?  Who are the buyers?  Do you understand the "hot buttons" for those buyers?  (The thing that makes them buy!)


    In the nature photography world, photos that are printed in magazines and calendars are typically very different from what consumers hang in homes.  Pay attention to what is on-trend today for home interiors / commercial interiors and see if your work is in alignment with today's styles.  If it's licensing for stock, what trends are in?  What is in demand?  It's often not what you think.


    • DO NOT LISTEN to most friends and family who tell you, "Your work is so good you should start a business"  UNLESS you are confident they seriously understand the photography market.  Take advice from those who have been-there/done-that.  The rest have wonderful intentions of being supportive but in my experience they rarely buy enough prints to influence your bottom line by more than a few bucks and their purchases tend to fade in frequency pretty quickly.  They also want deals. Or things at cost.  You'll be under pressure (direct or indirect) to give everyone you know a deal. 
    • Print sales may be a portion of your product offerings for your business---but PLEASE NOTE that very few photographers that I know of make the majority of their income from print sales.  I'm not saying it doesn't happen--but it happens with far less frequency than you'd imagine, based on what I see and hear in the industry.  Print sales are usually a small percentage of overall income. (There are always exceptions!)  Even when you lump all of the avenues such as general image licensing, magazine/calendar articles/photo licenses, stock and print sales -- it may only be 5-10% of your business starting out.  It may grow to be up to 25%, but you will be in rarified air if it's more than that.   
    • If you choose to sell your images to the public, my strongest recommendation is to build strong relationships with people first--and always.  People tend to buy work from someone who creates quality work plus has wonderful story-telling abilities about the work they create, the relationship with each piece, and more.  Additionally, GREAT relationships are absolutely, unequivocally essential to every part of your business.  If you're not great at relationship-building (and maintaining), you'll struggle starting any business.  When it comes to clients buying your work, you must think of it as them wanting to purchase a a piece of YOU along with that purchase.  The purchasing experience and connection they get with you is a part of the benefit of owning a piece of your work.    Reflect back to the last time you spent a fair amount of money on a piece of artwork (i.e., not art from a "big box" store) --- did you know the artist or do research on the artist?  Or did you purchase it without knowing the artist or anything about them? What did you want to know about the artist?  What did you learn in the process?   These questions will help you develop your story as an artist. There is much more to it, but that's a great start.  
    • Magazines are becoming fewer and fewer---and for photographers submitting to them--very competitive.  They also don't pay much and you can spend months--even years--creating and submitting proposals/images to them before the Editor decides to publish you.  For example, the article I wrote for Outdoor Photographer in June 2020 had a 5 page spread, the cover, and numerous images.  It paid a total of $1500 pre-tax.  That's nice, but unless that happens on a weekly basis, it's not going to pay your bills!  It takes a LOT of article-writing, proposing, and submitting before you find magazines willing to print your article and work!  Granted, beyond the pay, the article can have marketing/publicity/credibility and even "access-related" benefits beyond the money, but if you are looking at article writing to pay the bills, it should be a part of your business plan, but not THE business plan.  Here is a great article on what Magazines tend to pay: https://www.format.com/magazine/resources/photography/who-pays-photographers-jobs


    5.  The myriad non-photography skills you'll need: 


    Think seriously about how comfortable you feel as an entrepreneur.  Do you get excited about the business-end of your business?  If so, this is GREAT news and will put you in much better footing than the competition.  I probably spend 85% of my time in the office, handling business-related "stuff."  I love business, but I would like to photograph WAY more than I have the time to do so.  I would love to take off for days at a time and play, regularly!  But running the business is tough work.  Gradually you can build up your business and have more time for photography  if you can ultimately allocate funds to hire and train assistants, or secure services, to support the demands of the business.  I have done a lot of that already and still have a ton of office work that needs to be done.  I understand that my clients don't usually accept an abundance of "out of office" emails that regularly that say "Sorry--I'm gone shooting photos again!" when they're trying to contact you about a workshop, an image they want, a contract, to schedule a meeting, or to discuss an event you're doing for them. 


    There are a lot of great photographers out there who are terrible business people.  I hear stories from camera stores, vendors, and sponsors with whom I regularly work that they constantly struggle working with other photographers who have poor business acumen and organizational skills.  For example, they don't turn things in on time, don't do what they say they are going to do, don't pay their bills, don't submit invoices in a timely manner, can't write well, don't have a business-minded sense of things, don't present themselves professionally, and on and on it goes.  If you have those skills,  you're a step above a ton of others who do not.  


    6.  Let's talk money!


    If you're in business, it truly needs to operate as such.  That means making money.  Otherwise you've just laid out a TON of expense to get the business started only to have it lose money.  Short-term, that's understandable, but long-term it needs to work for you. 


    As far as income goes, plan on it being a gradual build.  You will need $6,000-$8,000 to get started.  Why?  You need these things:


    • Website ($350 to do it yourself using a service like Wix, SmugMug, Zenfolio, etc.) or $4000-$8000+ to have someone design a site for you like Wordpress or code it using other software.  Plan on budgeting for regular maintenance/updates as well, unless you learn to do it all yourself.  If you want to do that, budget accordingly for classes to learn to do so.
    • Legal:  Getting the business created can be costly.  If you're saavy, you can try sites like Legal Zoom for <$1000.  But you have tremendous risk in not receiving advice about how your business should be set up in your state, how to do your articles of operation, filing it in your state (or another state that may have tax benefits), and more.  I strongly recommend obtaining a proper business attorney with whom you feel comfortable.  You may be looking at $4000-$7000 to start, but you will be tailoring it to your needs.  This individual will also walk you through things you'll need on your site today such as a Privacy Policy, Waivers, Contracts, Intellectual Property and more.  You want to be protected to the best extent possible.  Some law office will also serve as your statutory agent-- a nice thing that can save you a few hundred dollars per year.  But, if you do business in other states, too (i.e., for workshops, classes, or other reasons), you will need a statutory agent in every state (and potentially a business license in certain states) in which you conduct business. Ask your lawyer for details.
    • Insurance:  You will need to obtain business insurance.  This includes not only insurance for your office (even home office), materials and equipment--but you will need a liability, errors and omissions policy.  If you plan to do more than sell prints remotely (no storefront), you may have different insurance needs than if you are selling (or consigning) with a gallery or storefront.  You don't want your gallery-consigned pieces to be damaged without them being insured.   If you are planning to offer classes or workshops, you will need to find insurance that will cover you and your attendees on-location.  This can be VERY difficult to obtain.  (Trust me!)  Additionally, most parks and properties you rent/use for your event will require you to add them as an additional insured on your policy for every permit you are required to obtain.  Permitting is a painful process--and can also be costly.  But most require a 1-million / 2-million dollar policy for your insurance before they'll even consider issuing a permit.  
    • Accounting services:  Get a GOOD CPA.  One who understands business and who knows how to maneuver you well through the world of business taxes.  A good one can save you more than you spend on them.  A bad one will cost you a ton.  Again, trust me on this one.  Get a good bookkeeper as well.  They can often be found at the same business you go through for your taxes.  You will also need a subscription to Quickbooks (or similar).  Plan on $40/month or so, maybe less if your accountant can issue you a discounted rate on QB.
    • Other essentials:  You will need to set up a separate bank account, credit card (you establish business credit the same way you establish personal credit), and merchant accounts to handle credit card payments, such as your bank, Square, Paypal, Stripe, etc.  You may need seed money to get these established.  You need a means of maintaining client contact lists and a database to do so.  There are myriad resources out there to do so--but again, it's an expense.  
    • Branding:  You will need to have a logo and related collateral designed for your company that fits your brand.  This can cost anywhere from $100-$3000 or more depending on your source and what you need.  Typically places like Fiverr.com or 99designs.com charge less than a few hundred bucks for a basic logo, but there is also risk that they use that same logo for other businesses as well.  You get what you pay for and you don't want to have the same or similar branding as your competitor.  You will also eventually need other types of marketing collateral.  Are you a good designer? Do you have graphic design or Photoshop skills that you can create your own marketing content?  If so, you'll save a lot, but it also takes time to create.... so you'll have to balance that out as your business grows.


    What I have learned: 

    Nothing happens overnight. I started my photography business in 2010, but I had been taking photos since I was 8 years old.  It took a lot of hard work and long hours in addition to my full-time job before I felt I could quit my full-time job in 2015.  Even then, it was a huge risk and there were major unanticipated hurdles.  After making a comfortable living as a psychologist, I made a plan to step into full-time photography.  I quit being a psychologist and took two part-time jobs plus worked on my business to make the transition.  I had hardly any seed money to fund what I did.


    Sadly, I had those jobs BOTH fall through when one company broke apart and another laid off massive numbers of people and froze all contract work.  So suddenly my stepping-stone toward full-time photography tanked!  I ultimately made it work, but it was SO HARD at first!    I vowed to never take on debt for my business, and to never dip into savings...but boy there were tough times after earning a comfy living in psychology!!  I am relieved to say that those days are (for now) behind me, but one never knows when they could come again, given COVID or who knows what else!   You learn quickly to "eat what you kill" when you are self-employed.  


    A few other things I have learned so far (and you never stop learning!):  

    • Putting images for sale on a website alone will rarely ever result in print sales.  Yet I find that's the first thing most photographers want to focus on when starting a business.  Get a few images up to prove your worth/skill, but quickly focus on everything ELSE that's going to drive revenue for you.  This is especially true for photographers who do not have incredibly wide name recognition.  The general public will rarely "discover" your images (unless you pour a ton of effort and time into keywording, marketing, blogging, brand-building, and other means of making it so people can't help but stumble upon them on the web).  I cannot emphasize this enough. 
    • Art/craft shows are really expensive to start--- and you print tons of stuff that may not sell, and it gets damaged over time due to the hauling, handling, etc.  
    • Most photographers and artists I know, who run their own businesses and who generate enough money to realistically be self-sustaining have a lot of income streams.  They may sell work, but a lot of income results from speaking engagements, sponsorships, affiliate relationships, work for hire, writing, consultative and/or instructional services, trades, and more. 
    • Friends and family told me "I love your work -- you should sell it!" But you can probably guess who rarely put their money where their mouth was!  They were genuinely being supportive, but were not very well versed in the photography market.  So get information and input from people who actually know your market.  Do the legwork and research.  It will pay off.  Even if all you learn is that you need to go in a different direction. You still learned--and adjusted your business plan accordingly. 
    • You will spend AT LEAST as much time on marketing and branding your business as you will on anything else you do. Plan on 50% of your time (20+ hours per week) dedicated directly or indirectly to this process, if not more.  You have to learn that few will sell yourself better than you.  You know YOU.  You know what you have to offer and why it will help others.  Be honest.  Be sincere.  Be respectful.  Be fun.  Be trustworthy.  Be humble.  And be careful.  There is always someone who will see naivete in a new business owner and try to take advantage of you.  I've had it happen several times---and always by Professional photographers in our industry.  Probably some you have followed over time, too!
    • KNOW YOUR WORTH. Charge accordingly.  It's a hard lesson--especially as a woman--I find.  We are nurturing beings!  Charging to cover your expense, time, and have a little extra can feel awkward.  It took me a long time to personally work through that. But I finally realized that time and skills are valuable and thus worth a price.  Just like every other thing in this world---it has a value and a price.  My goals is to always deliver a high value, quality product, and thus the fee is a fair exchange for what I offer to a client.  Every time.  If we don't both genuinely feel good about the exchange--if it isn't a "win-win" situation, then something (or someone) was amiss. 
    • Remember this:  "If you never say no, your Yes means nothing."  People will ask and ask and ask for freebies, favors, etc. as you start your business---and even when you develop your business well over time.  It doesn't mean you never agree to doing them, or never support a cause....but just remember there is a balance. Understand your worth. 
    • No one is an overnight sensation.  I worked at my business HARD since 2010.  Realistically, I wasn't where I wanted to be, income-wise, until about 2 years ago.  It just simply takes time to build the business, build your reputation, network, and keep all of the plates spinning while you hustle every single day to keep it all going and put money in the bank.  If your business isn't growing, it's dying.  Every day there are goals to meet and a million priorities.  I love it!  But it's not easy! 
    • You must be so much more than a photographer. Having an assortment of skills such as fluent technology skills, a true business-mind where you can see opportunities and potential in myriad places, you can troubleshoot when needed, write well, speak well, know your brand, network well, and on and on.  You will find that everything you want to do has to be done from scratch when it's your own business.  For example:  Need an ad?  It's up to you to write it/make graphics.  Need to write a proposal?  Yep... you need to do it from scratch.  Need a newsletter?  You bet.. you again.  And on and on.  It simply takes time to do all of these things.  You'll get better as it goes along, but self-reliance and being resourceful are great skill-sets to have in any business.  Photography included.
    • Treat people well.  Be honest.  Be kind.  Be respectful.  Be fair.  Always.  You may or may not succeed at the business of photography, but how you dealt with people (clients, business-to-business, vendors, even your competition) will be remembered forever.  


    There is SO much more to say, but hope this information for starters will help inform your decision-making. I don't regret, for a single day, being a photographer or building my own business.  I have wanted to do that since I was a kid.  I've always had an entrepreneurial spirit!  I had a roadside stand when I was eight years of age selling vegetables out of a little garden I tended in my back yard. I helped start two startups that had under $200,000 in sales when I started working for them (I was employee #3 and #10, respectively).  They both sold for around $35-60 million.  I also worked for a huge corporation (35k employees) in my lifetime.  I certainly do not know it all... but I learned a lot.  Those skills helped me do well in my own business, in addition to knowing how to photograph.  I couldn't do this today without those experiences.  


    So, if you think you have that entrepreneurial spirit, lots of drive, and have a lot of skills to build your business, join in!  It's never the same day twice and it always brings new challenges.  The satisfaction of knowing you are self-sustaining is incredible. But never easy.  Rarely anything worth it is, though, right?


    I recommend my advice as one aspect of your research in starting your business.  You will want to get feedback from several sources.


    Lastly, I intentionally did not include questions or comments about your skills as a photographer.  That's up to you.  I have seen INCREDIBLE photographers who are terrible at business.  And vice versa!  You can be an incredible photographer, but it won't pay the bills unless you can build an incredible business around it.  


    Better to be a "really good" photographer and an incredible business person....  those are the ones I've seen who are truly successful at this.

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