10 Steps to Starting Your Own Photography Business

December 7, 2015


Elizabeth Langford

Is a camera on your wish list this year? Maybe you've been thinking about starting your own business for awhile, but aren't quite sure where to start. We've put together a quick and helpful list of 10 steps to help you take those first steps towards building your own photography business. The list of things you'll have to do is much longer of course, but these first 10 steps should get you on your way.

    1. Pick your team. If you haven't already purchased a camera, one of the very first big decisions you'll have to choose is which team you'll be on. Team Canon or Team Nikon. And for that matter, Team Sony is also an option. That is, of course, if you're planning to be a digital photographer. If you're headed down the path of being a film photographer, you have lots of other choices to consider. When I was looking to buy my first DSLR, I consulted a local photographer and asked for her opinion. I had done tons of research on both Canon and Nikon and was having a hard time understanding what, if any, was the significant difference between the two. liz-cameraThe response I received back surprised me. “Hold them,” she said. “Go to the camera store and try holding a Canon, then try holding a Nikon. Buy the one that feels right in your hands.” It was unexpected advice, but it was spot on. I went down to a local camera store and I knew right away when I held a Nikon DSLR in my hands that I had found the camera and the team for me. There are, of course, differences between the two manufacturers, but at the end of the day they're very similar and choosing can be tough. I've now taken 151,000 frames with my Nikon d700 and each shot has been comfortable because the camera feels at home in my hands.
    1. Shoot, shoot, then shoot some more. Shoot a little of this, then a little of that. Photographing a variety of subjects in different situations is a good way to find out what you love to photograph the most. My friends Alisa McCormick and Cortney Talbott are amazing newborn photographers. They love photographing brand new babies, and they're both so incredibly good at it. For me, I knew right from the beginning that I didn't have the patience for 4-hour newborn sessions, and I suspected weddings were more to my liking. Whatever it is that is your niche… the way to find it is to shoot and keep shooting all sorts of things until you find that happy place. Take photos of landscapes, take photos of people; my sister-in-law loves to take photos of cows… that's her happy place. There are all sorts of topics and subjects you can photograph; finding your specialty may happen overnight or take years. Grab your camera and start taking photos; even taking bad ones will help you to become a better photographer. You'll understand why when you get to step six on this list!
    1. Avoid the temptation to buy everything at once. This can be really hard to do (trust me, I know from experience), but in the long run, it's a much better financial strategy for your business. Don't go into debt buying things you think you need now, only to find out 3 or 6 months later that you never actually use them. Depending on what type of photography you choose to specialize in, you'll find that there are certain pieces of gear you want to have in your bag, but you can start with one camera body and one lens at the very beginning. It's about knowing the gear you have and understanding how to maximize what you can get out of it. I also realized early on in my business that not every piece of gear I owned needed to be brand new. I've purchased a used camera body and several lenses over the years from Adorama's used gear department and saved a lot of money as a result. If you're wanting to try out a new lens, especially a very expensive one, I recommend renting it before you buy it. You might find that once you've tried it, the allure of that new lens (or other piece of gear) isn't as strong as it once was. Or, you might find that you absolutely love it and you can then confidently make a purchase knowing the lens isn't going to collect dust at the bottom of your camera bag. Many large cities have great rental houses (Tempe Camera is my rental house of choice in Phoenix), but you can also rent online from companies like BorrowLenses.com.
    1. Build relationships with local photographers and creatives in your area. We hear over and over again how lonely small business ownership can be, especially when that small business is photography. As a photographer, it's likely that you'll spend the majority of your time behind your computer and a much smaller percentage of time actually taking photos, which can translate into a lot of time at your computer in your pajamas and minimal contact with the outside world. While working from home and “PJ days” have benefits, it's also really important that you build a community of people around your business. This can include other photographers and/or creatives in your market (think florists, event planners, venues, graphic designers, and stylists). LasVegas Dinner_4At Showit we have a community for our users, who we lovingly refer to as Showiteers. Once subscribed to Showit, Showiteers can request to be added to our online Facebook group and are invited to a variety of events we host throughout the year, including our Showiteer Christmas party, the Showiteer Dinner at WPPI and Showit United. Many have credited the Showiteers group with being hugely impactful to their businesses over the years. Being a part of a community that understands the unique challenges of owning a photography or creative business can be a tremendous resource, as well as a way to connect and make friends with other creatives. There are many groups for creatives around the country and around the world that also help to foster positive relationships amongst photographers and creatives. One of our favorites is The Rising Tide Society. RTS is a community focused on the idea that a rising tide raises all ships and they encourage their members to foster relationships that are based on “community over competition.” If there isn't a local group in your area, consider starting one… or just invite another creative out to coffee. It's a great excuse to get out of your PJs and you'll find the benefits of community to be huge.
    1. Invest in good education. I realize that in step number three I suggested you not spend too much money on too much gear. But there's another type of investment… your time. Invest time (and then quite possibly some money) in good education for your business. This can be education pertaining to photography skills and techniques or it can be business education. Chances are, you're going to need and benefit from both. There are many workshops and events that feature or are produced by photographers and creatives across the country, from large conferences like WPPI to multi-day events like Creative at Heart and one-day events like theeventThe Event presented by International Wedding Photographers Justin & Mary Marantz. The beauty of the Internet is that there is a lot of education out there, and a lot of it is free. Each week our team at Showit produces a weekly webcast called Showit Live. We feature a different guest each episode and discuss topics related to small business ownership, photography and living a creative life. Subscribe to our YouTube channel so you don't miss any. In our archives here on the Showit website, you'll also find past shows on topics like Improving Your Blog's SEO, Destination Wedding Photography, and an episode with photographer¬†Jasmine Star about using blogging to grow your business.
    1. Edit your own photos (at the beginning). As your business grows, you may find the need to outsource certain elements, including editing. When you're ready to do that, companies like ShootDotEdit and Photographer's Edit can be great at helping you get a HUGE chunk of time back that you can spend on other aspects of your business. But in the beginning, I think it's important that you edit your own photos because it will make you a better photographer. At the beginning of my business, I edited everything I shot and it helped me to make a better connection between what was happening during a shoot and the results I was getting. I do the majority of my editing inside of Adobe Lightroom and just a little bit of heavier editing using Adobe Photoshop. For culling images, I absolutely love using Photo Mechanic… and I'm not alone. Read why here.
    1. Make a friend and shoot with them. This is especially true if you think that you'd like to be a wedding photographer. Having the opportunity to second or even third-shoot for other photographers will teach you not only about shooting techniques, but client interaction, timeline management, and vendor networking. When I first started my wedding photography business, I didn't make any money for almost a year. I spent months second shooting for another photographer for free because I wanted to be sure that I was worth the investment before I started charging clients. Over time, my confidence grew as did my abilities; and when I did start booking my own weddings and being paid for them, I was ready. That doesn't mean you have to do the same thing, but I highly recommend making friends in the industry and looking for opportunities to work with other photographers.
    1. Get your legal ducks in a row. If you're serious about starting a photography business, then you have to be serious about running your business like an actual business. Research the laws in your state and city and be sure that you understand the ins-and-outs of collecting and paying your sales tax, having clients sign model releases, contracts and payment agreements. A great resource for legal information for photographers is TheLawTog.com. thelawtogPhotographer and lawyer Rachel Brenke offers a variety of products on the site and you can learn a ton by reading her blog, which isn't just about the legalities of running a business, but also about business in general. And if you're looking for a simple way for clients to sign contracts online, check out our friends at Agree.com. They've built an app for photographers and creatives that does just that. Whether you plan for your business to be small or large, it's important that you take care of the more tedious tasks and make a plan for how you will manage all of them. This is sometimes an area that creatives cringe over, but it's certainly one of the most important elements in building a business with longevity.
    1. Build a brand that's unique to you. Part of building a business is building a brand around that business. It's easy to get caught up in the notion that your brand is simply the colors and fonts you choose, but it's so much more. Branding goes far deeper than that, and the photographers and creatives that really pay attention to every detail of their brand are the ones that seem to have the most success. Why? Because a well-designed, well thought-out brand radiates Quality, Reliability and Strength. That translates to Value, Trust, and eventually, Loyalty. This doesn't mean that in order to be successful you have to start on day one with a professional designer or a brand manager. It does mean that you should very thoughtfully select the details that you will use to represent your business. Your brand should be unique to you, and not a copy of what someone else is doing. It should evoke specific emotions in your ideal clients and it should clearly express who you are as an artist. Part of building your brand includes building and crafting an online identity, which means you're going to need a website. While we're clearly a little biased, we're not the only ones that believe Showit is the best drag-and-drop website building platform for creatives. Showit allows you to be you, to build a site that is free from constrained templates; and provides technology for you to be creative so you can reflect your unique brand and style. This is why photographers like Katelyn James and Amy & Jordan use Showit for their websites.
  1. Create a business that meets your personal goals and needs. It can be easy to get overwhelmed at the beginning of your business, but also in the middle. There's a balance you have to strike between maintenance and growth, and it can be tricky. If it were easy, more people would do it. Building a business takes time, energy, resources and its fair share of blood, sweat and tears. It can be a wonderful blessing in your life, but it has its fair share of rough moments. It's important to not lose sight of the reason you started your business in the first place. One of the very best things you can do at the very beginning to take the time to outline the goals and needs of your business. You can create a business that benefits you financially, and certainly your business will need to eventually be profitable, but I'm sure there's much more than financial gain you hope to get out of your business. What about creative freedom? Do you want your business to benefit other people as well as you? Are you dreaming of leaving a 9-to-5 job so that you can spend more time traveling, or with your kids? Whatever your business goals are, write them down. Writing goals down has proven to be an important step in actually making them happen. And don't forget about the “needs” your business must fulfill. How much revenue must you generate every month to allow you to leave your full-time job? What are the hard costs of your business that you must be able to pay (with cash) every month? Make your list of goals and needs at the very beginning of your business, understanding that over time they will evolve and change. When your needs do eventually evolve, set aside time to revisit and revise those goals and needs. Making this a consistent activity in your business will help you to stay on track, and will guide your decision-making process. It's especially helpful when you find yourself presented with an opportunity that you're not quite sure is right for you. Being able to assess the opportunity against your list of goals and needs will help provide clear direction on what you should do.

So there you have it, ten steps that should help you on your way to building your photography business. Of course, it's not an exhaustive list and everyone's experience is different. Building a business is hard work, but the results can be so incredibly rewarding. We'd love to hear from you in the comments below what other suggestions you would give to someone just starting out.

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