There’s much more to being a professional photographer than meets the eye. Making photos for your clients is about 5 percent of the job. Making a living from photography is difficult to say the least. If you want to be a professional photographer, there are many aspects you should consider before diving in.
The second you decide to be a professional photographer you become a businessperson first and a photographer second. Being an entrepreneur is no simple task; you need to wear many, many hats. It’s a never-ending uphill battle of learning and adapting. In order to succeed you’ll need to have a solid grasp on taxes, marketing, business practices, bookkeeping, and many other facets of entrepreneurship.
Finding Your Niche
What are you going to photograph? What demographic are you catering to? How much will you charge? What products will you offer? Are you focused on the high-end market or the average consumer? Do you do weddings and seniors or pets and families? You need to ask yourself all of these questions before you start. Finding a niche is important to your brand and spreading yourself between too many genres may be detrimental.
Sales and Pricing
One of the first stumbling blocks you’ll encounter is how to price your photography. There are an endless number of books and articles that cover this topic so I won’t go into detail here. Who you’re catering to and what area you’re in will determine how much you can charge. Doing research in your local market is a good first step.
Once you’ve booked the client and done the photos you need to know how to make the sale. In-person sales is the industry standard for selling to consumers. It involves meeting with your clients, showing them the products you offer, helping them make decisions, and answering questions for them. The opposite of in-person sales is called shoot-and-burn photography and most professions despise this approach. Shooting and burning is when you take photos for someone and hand over the digital files. This approach offers no print sales and they are now free to use your photos in perpetuity for whatever they like. It’s not a sustainable business model.
Marketing is the single biggest obstacle you will encounter as a business. If no one sees your work, it doesn't matter if you’re the best photographer who ever lived. The photography industry in general is very saturated, and breaking through the noise gets more difficult every day.
Despite your web presence, word of mouth marketing remains the most powerful tool as your disposal. It doesn't matter if you’re a wedding photographer or a commercial photographer. People trust recommendations more than any ad you’ll ever be able to produce. If your business caters to consumers instead of businesses, incentivize your referrals and you'll get more clients. Reward your clients for getting you more clients.
A website is the most important part of your web presence. It’s where you showcase your brand, your work, and your personality the best. A business without a website will have a hard time being taken seriously. The market is abound with amateur photographers who don’t want to invest in a website, so having one will automatically differentiate yourself from them. Getting your website to show up in a search engine is a massive topic in and of itself, but you’ll need to learn how to make your website search engine friendly. Blogging is perhaps the best way to ensure your website gets traffic. It does wonders for your SEO and you can promote the posts on social media.
Social media is an important facet of modern marketing and advertising. Being on social media makes your business look more professional and enables you to have a more cohesive brand image. Hard sells don’t usually work on social media; people are so used to seeing ads that they are experts at ignoring them. Social media is for soft sells, brand awareness, keeping your business at the top of people’s mind, and of course showcasing your work.
Copyright and Legalities
Part of being a professional is ensuring that everything you’re doing is legal and that you’re protected. You need to protect yourself in case of difficult clients, and that protection comes from contracts. Having contracts that outline what your client can expect, what image usage rights you’re giving, and also verbiage to protect your own rights is a necessity. Model releases are also a must if you plan on using your photos for promoting your business. Oftentimes if you’re working with a high school senior or family, verbal permission is enough. If you’re working with other businesses or models, getting it on paper is a must. You can find contracts and model releases online but I highly suggest contacting a lawyer to get what you need for your specific business, or at the very least to review what you found online.
Copyright law is a complicated issue but it lies at the foundation of everything we do as photographers. In the age of social media, it’s more important than ever to know your rights. In the event that someone or another business steals your images, you need to know how to get them taken down or how get proper compensation. The longer you’re a photographer, the more likely it is that your copyright will be infringed. It’s more a matter of when than if it’s going to happen.
Taxes, Bookkeeping, and Accounting
To run your own business often means keeping your own books and financial records. The more organized you are the easier your life will be, so meticulous bookkeeping is a must. You’ll need to familiarize yourself with what expenses can be written off and what records you need to keep. Your camera gear will of course be a tax write-off, but so will things like insurance, stationary supplies, advertising expenses, or even getting coffee with clients. Business mileage is a big write-off as well. In Pennsylvania the reimbursement is 53.5 cents per mile driven. Every state's tax laws will vary. If you plan on doing your own taxes, the more knowledgeable you are the less money you’ll be leaving on the table.
Insuring your business is vital to its survival. If you’re a wedding photographer, many venues require that you have liability insurance. All other types of photographers should have insurance too. For example, it’ll keep you covered if someone falls over a light stand at your shoot. The insurance will pay for their medical expenses and your legal fees. You can also insure your camera equipment against theft and breakages.
The information here is by no means comprehensive; writing such an article would quite literally turn into a book. I hope that it made you more aware of all the facets that go into running your own show. Succeeding in this business means showing up seven days a week, at all hours of the day. Patience is a must, as you will not succeed overnight. If you can’t handle any of the topics discussed above, this business isn’t for you. Becoming an entrepreneur is a big risk, but big risks can pay off and be extremely rewarding. If you’re willing to put in a tremendous amount of hard work, you just might make it.