How To Build A Business Plan As A Photographer - Part Three

How To Build A Business Plan As A Photographer - Part Three

In our first two segments of building a business plan, we’ve talked about defining your product and forming a long term vision. In this final section we will talk about some of the practical steps you need to take to take those hypothetical concepts and put them into action.

Before I start, I’ll suggest that, if you haven’t seen the previous posts, that you take a second to go back and read (or at least skim) the information presented previously. You need a firm foundation to run a business, and having those basics nailed down are essential to the success of the following concepts.

Business Organization

How will your business be set up? Most photographers are likely to start out as sole proprietors. But maybe you’ll be a corporation. Or you may be a partnership or a co-op. Even if you are a sole proprietorship, maybe you have employees like a studio manager or an in-house producer. This section of your business plan tends to get more complicated over time as your business grows. But it is important to know who is responsible for what within an organization so that it can run smoothly and effectively. Even if you are a one man band, it’s good to have an idea how you’d like to build out your future string section.

Marketing Plan

This section too can be worthy of its own 100 page document. Identifying your product and market is one thing. Having an effective plan for connecting the two is the difference between a successful business and returning to your day job.

In this section, you should lay out the real concrete steps you are going to take to get your customers to buy your product. These methods will vary wildly based on your product and your market, but you need to know specifically what your methods will be. If you’re a wedding photographer, maybe you will market by shooting editorials for bridal magazines or through personal connections with wedding planners. If you’re a headshot photographer, maybe you’ll connect with actors at their acting classes or by placing an ad on Facebook. If you’re in the commercial world, your marketing effort are likely more along the lines of face-to-face meetings and promotional pieces.

Whatever your product and market, you need to come up with a firm step-by-step plan of how you intend to raise awareness among customers and drive business. As a starting point, take a moment and write down ten specific methods you will use to reach your customers. Once complete, review the list for effectiveness, affordability, and potential return on investment. Once that’s complete, repeat the process, adding more ideas and deleting some less effective ones. It’s okay if you don’t get them all right the first time around. Business can be a process of trial and error. But you are building your roadmap to get off to a positive start.

Set Concrete Goals

Continuing the theme from the marketing plan, I have found it to be most effective to set very firm goals. Don’t just say, you want to be “successful” in year one. Instead, put down in black and white that you are going to shoot ten headshots per week. Or say that you are going to generate $50,000 in year one. I’ll write more about the benefits of firm goals in a future article, but you need to plug in objective benchmarks in your business plan. They give you specific numbers that will allow you to measure the health of your business. They also help to reinforce your motivation. Think back to high school when you had a very firm goal in mind like raising your grade from a B to an A, or finally being able to jump high enough to dunk for the first time. Having a specific mark in mind pushes you just that little bit harder and helps you to excel.

Financial Projections

This is the hardest section to complete when you are new in business. It’s hard to say exactly what your revenues and expenses will be if the business didn’t previously exist. Even the most informed estimates are still bordering on guesses in the opening stages.

Yet, not taking the time to do financial projections can be fatal. For one, you may just find through the process of projecting revenues and expenses that the business model you have in your head may already be doomed from the start. Perhaps it is a great concept, but your market can’t sustain the business. Much better to know that now, then a year from now once your nest egg is gone.

Speaking of nest eggs, knowing how much money you have and how much money you will need to spend to get the business off the ground is essential. Many a great photographer have had their freelance careers cut short by under capitalization. No matter how good you are behind the camera, building a successful career takes time. Often years. So before you ditch your day job, confident that you’ll be profitable within a month, maybe you should take a moment to run the numbers first.

I stayed at my day job for a long time before going out full time as a photographer. And I really, really hated my day job. The benefit, really the only benefit, of that was that it allowed me to stash away a bit of money in the early stages of my photography career. Once I started booking larger and larger photography jobs, I stashed that money away as well.

While I was doing that, I had also spent years carefully tracking my living expenses as well as my photo business expenditures. So I had a spreadsheet of exactly how much I spent on everything from test shoots and promo cards to cable and my dog’s health insurance.

By this point, I had already done the hard work mentioned earlier in the process of identifying my product and market. I had done enough jobs and researched enough to establish a price point for my product and my costs of good sold.

With that information in hand, when building my business plan, I created a spreadsheet detailing exactly how much money I would need to spend over the course of the year (broken down month-by-month) to be able to continue to feed myself and market my business without my day job. I then compared that amount to the amount I’d been saving from my day job and photography jobs as well as an ultra-conservative estimate of projected photography revenue. Once those two numbers got close enough in size, I left my day job and went into business full time.

Now, keep in mind, it took me years to get those numbers to work. Also, even though I eventually got them to work, they just barely worked. So, jumping off the ledge into full time business owner was still a leap of faith. There are no guarantees.

But, because I had baked, and re-baked, the numbers in my planning phase, I had the confidence to know that at I had a plan in place and wouldn’t starve for at least a little while as I tried to implement it.

Now That You’ve Written Your Comprehensive Business Plan, Write It Again

There’s the old saying that “if you want to make God laugh, just try telling him your plans.” While it is essential to have a plan, it is also essential to maintain you flexibility. The genesis for writing this series of articles came from my decision the other day to update my own business plan which necessitated that I look back at the original business plan I wrote when first starting my business.

My initial surprise was how much of the plan had actually proved to be spot on. I don’t say that to pat myself on the back, but to me the fact that I had hewn so close to the original plan over the years was evidence that I had done a good job of understanding myself and the type of business/man I wanted to become.

Of course, not every prediction had born fruit. Specifically, I looked at an number of my original marketing objectives and found that while I did follow through on the vast majority, there were definitely some that fell far short of their projected effectiveness. They weren’t bad ideas necessarily, but they weren’t worth the money or time that I thought they would be.

I quickly went to work highlighting the parts of my original plan that had been effective and crossing out the parts of the plan that had not. I then added to my business plan based on the lessons I had learned from the years running my business full time. What do I know now that I didn’t know then? What areas should I focus on more? What additional concrete steps do I want to take going forward to ensure those objectives?

The financial projections were suddenly repopulated with real life numbers. How much do I actually spend on column A or column B? Has one marketing effort proved more effective than another? What’s the cost difference? How much has my revenue grown (or not grown) from year-to-year? These are not things that I would have had anyway of knowing before I officially launched my business.  But as I now willingly make 5, 10, and 20 year life projections, past performance is a strong indicator of how to plot future success.


It may be an overused cliché, but it is nonetheless true. A career in photography is a marathon, not a sprint. No matter what your friend’s Instagram feeds may suggest, the pathway to your ultimate goal is winding and not always paved with gold. Speak to any high-profile editorial photographer shooting for the world’s top publications, and for every tale of shooting portraits of Queen Elizabeth or Bruce Springsteen, they are likely to have two tales of shooting a horrendous wedding early in their career or years spent assisting.  

Remember that where you are today in life doesn’t necessarily predict where you’ll be tomorrow. What is your ultimate goal? At the end of your life, when they go to chisel your gravestone, what is the legacy you want to leave behind? To be a successful business owner, you have to be ready for your life and your profession to often be indistinguishable. What is your long term vision for this dual legacy? What do you want that legacy to look like? What do you want it all to mean?

It all starts with an understanding of who you are, what you have to offer, and how to best share your gifts with the world you inhabit. Start making a plan. Keep your eyes on your goal. And live the life you’ve always wanted.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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When in a creative, unpredictable, ever changing business like photography it is good to keep this in mind.

As Don Rumsfeld said, "There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don't know we don't know.

A photographer's business plan is a good road map to avoid the unknown unknowns.

Love this articles!! Thanks a lot Christopher! How often do you review or rewrite your business plan?