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How to Start a Profitable Photography Business

You love taking photos

You want more autonomy over your career and work schedule.

Starting a photography business seems like the perfect plan.

In business, however, only the strong survive. Only 40% of photography startups last a single year, and from there, only 15% survive to their third year of business.

If you want to be part of that 15%, you'll love this guide. We're going to teach you, step by step, how to start (and grow) a profitable photography business in 2019.

1. Choose Your Niche + Rates

Like other self-employed entrepreneurs, selecting a niche to focus on is a great way to hone your skills and become a specialist. There are things all photographers need to understand, like shutter speed, manual and automatic settings, and types of light.

But different styles of photography (e.g., wedding vs. landscape photography) call for various skills and a unique creative eye.

Choosing a niche is beneficial for many reasons, like the opportunity to work on a particular style of photography that you love, the chance to refine your skills for that type of photography, and the ability to shape your business to serve your clients better.

Plus, as you become a better photographer for that niche, you'll be able to charge higher rates based on your level of expertise and experience.

Source: Unsplash

It's worth noting that just because you choose a niche doesn't mean you a) have to stay in that niche for your entire career and b) that you can't expand within that niche.

If you're a wedding photographer, you don't only have to shoot weddings. You could get into couples portraits or engagement sessions as well. We're merely suggesting that trying to be a landscape photographer and a wedding photographer may be a bit of a challenge.

If you aren't sure what niche to choose, it's worth exploring several to see what you like, what you don't like, and what you're genuinely excited about learning. Try taking photos that align with the standards of stock, wedding, portrait, family, landscape, etc. and gauge your level of interest from there.

Once you select your niche, or if you already know what type of photographer you want to be, you can start setting your rates. Setting rates can be intimidating and tricky, but it's important to have those in place before you start engaging with clients.

To get an idea of how much you should charge, take the following into consideration:

  1. Gear
  2. Studio space
  3. Marketing budget
  4. Travel expenses
  5. Administrative expenses (e.g., hiring an accountant, booking software, etc.)

From there, calculate your time and labor costs. Consider the amount of time you'll need for pre-production, travel, equipment handling, shoot time, and post-production. Keep in mind, you want to make a profit, so be sure you charge enough so you can pay yourself after your expenses are paid.

If you're having trouble pricing yourself, take a look at how your competitors or people you look up to professionally are pricing their services and go from there.

However, if you're just learning how to shoot manually, you likely can't get away with pricing like a 10-year veteran photographer. You need to account account for your level of experience and set your prices fairly.

As you and your business grow, your ability to charge more will, too. And as that happens, make sure you remember to raise your rates and communicate those changes with each new client.

2. Acquire Your Gear

When you figure out what type of photographer you want to be and generally how much you'll be making, start to gather your equipment. If you're still learning the basics of photography and can't yet distinguish what you actually need versus what is nice to have, do plenty of research before you start swiping your credit card.

Source: Unsplash

It can be tempting to buy every cool camera accessory you see, but if you're trying to stick to a strict budget, there is gear you can go without to start. You can always make bigger purchases later on!

Here are the essential items you'll need to get started:

  1. A camera
  2. Lenses
  3. Editing software
  4. Batteries for different equipment
  5. Cases for your gear
  6. Tripod

You may find that you need more items (or maybe fewer), but it's important to note that photography equipment adds up quickly. To stay within your budget, figure out what items are essential and which items you can purchase down the road.

Because of this, it's best to do as much research as you can about different equipment before you rack up a hefty credit card debt. And there are many options available today that make trying equipment before you buy a breeze.

Consider browsing used camera equipment sites like MPB or even renting gear from Brown Lenses if you want to try gear out before you invest in it.

Or if you have a generous photographer friend who is willing to let you test out some of their equipment before you purchase your own, that's always a great place to start.

Read photography forums, reach out to photographers in your niche, or talk to an expert at a camera store to gain insight into what equipment you need to invest in as you start. Learning from pros who are in your industry and have been in your shoes before can not only save you money, but it will help you become a better photographer at a quicker rate.

The type of photography you choose to pursue will determine if you need items like a studio or certain light fixtures. Wedding photographers, for example, usually take photos on-site and therefore don't need a studio space.

Portrait and stock photographers, however, will likely need a studio space and different lighting options.

Having the latest and greatest equipment won't necessarily make you a better photographer, and it certainly won't guarantee you more clients. There are plenty of ways to showcase your talent and eye for photography with just the essential gear.

As you improve your skills and gain experience, you'll learn what you need to run a lucrative, successful photography business.

3. Build Your Portfolio

You know what type of photographer you are or want to be and what gear you need, so now it's time to build a portfolio that will attract the kind of clients you're after.

Your portfolio should demonstrate your skill set, your experience, and the type of photographer you are. Having both an online portfolio and a printed portfolio can increase your exposure and ensure clients near and far can see your work.

Selecting your portfolio pieces

It's important to invest time in creating a portfolio you feel confident sharing with potential clients. After all, it's how you will keep booking clients, polishing your skills, and growing your business.

With a curated portfolio, potential clients will be able to quickly look at your work and know if you are someone they'd like to work with.

Your portfolio pieces should be consist of:

  1. The style of photography you do
  2. The images you're most proud of
  3. A wide range of shots that demonstrates your skill set

When it comes to determining what will be included in your portfolio, select the work you're most proud of that also aligns with the type of photography you want to do more of in the future.

Potential clients will want to see if your style and skill is on par with what they're looking for, so keep that in mind when pulling this together.

This will give potential clients a feel for your style and what it's like to work with you, which is equally as important as every interaction with a client.

Source: Unsplash

No experience? No problem

If you aren't an experienced photographer yet, how are you supposed to build a robust portfolio that highlights your abilities and impresses potential clients?

Take matters into your own hands and make your own portfolio material.

Schedule a styled shoot as part of a work trade-off and run things just as you would if you were working with a paying client.

For example, you could work with models who are looking to build their portfolio as well and are willing to trade their time for free photos. Or you could offer free or discounted photo sessions to people, which may lead to your first client.

No matter how you collect items for your portfolio, make sure you build it with intention and with your ideal clients in mind.

Your portfolio is one of your most significant selling points, and if it's done in a way that showcases your skills, it will undoubtedly set you apart from your competitors.

4. Market Yourself & Deliver Great Service

You could have the best portfolio in your industry and be the best photographer to work with, but no one will know you exist until you promote yourself!

Step up your online advertising

There are many ways to market yourself these days, from creating ads to posting in photography communities to attending expos and meeting other photographers.

There are a few things to consider when marketing yourself online:

  1. Test different ads that target your ideal clients. Just be sure to link back to that impressive portfolio you spent time creating.
  2. Network with other photographers and build professional relationships with them. Other photographers could be some of your biggest referrers (and you could do the same for them!).
  3. Build a website (if you haven't already) that links out to your portfolio, make it easy to contact you, and gives potential clients an idea of your style and what it's like to work with you. Your website should serve as a hub of all things You.

Participate in online groups

Think about where your audience or ideal clients hang out online (e.g., wedding Facebook groups and blogs if you're a wedding photographer) and frequently post on those platforms.

Build connections in these groups by answering questions from posters, sharing your work where and when allowed, and reaching out to those who seem like your ideal clients.

Make sure it's not all self-promotional, though, as that can turn people off instantly.

It can be intimidating or uncomfortable to promote your work and put yourself out there, but it's how you grow your business and find more work.

However, it's not enough to post links to your work in a few Facebook groups or run a few ads. Your marketing efforts don't stop when you shut down your computer for the day.

Leverage word-of-mouth marketing

Creating memorable, extraordinary experiences for every client you book is just as much of a reflection of what it's like to work with you as your portfolio or the ads you run.

That's how you build your reputation and get noticed by potential clients.

Knock it out of the park with your customer service experience during every session, and you'll be booking months in advance in no time.

For example, if you're a portrait photographer, having snacks for clients to graze on in between shots makes an excellent impression. Or if you're a wedding photographer, gifting your clients a bottle of champagne to drink while they look through their finished photo album is a thoughtful finishing touch.

The little sentiments go a long way and confirm that you are not only a talented photographer but that you're fantastic to work with. Clients know you're busy, but taking time to make their session that much more memorable will earn you a positive reputation that potential clients are looking for. (And never underestimate the power of a positive online review!)

If you keep that up, you may not even need to run any ads eventually; all of your clients will be referrals from past clients, which is always a good thing.

One thing is for sure: You need to be marketing yourself in more ways than one.

This guarantees you get as much exposure as possible and helps you determine where it's best to reach your ideal clients. And when you know how best to reach your ideal clients, you can continue to foster your presence in those spaces.

5. Connect With Other Photographers

Having a strong network of photographers is not only smart from a marketing perspective, but it's great to have a community you can learn from and collaborate with. It's crucial to have a network, especially as you're getting started. This community should be one that is inclusive and big on helping each other.

Join photography Facebook groups, attend conferences and organize meetups.

Do whatever you can to create your community of trusted photographers that you feel comfortable asking anything from, “Has anyone used this preset series for editing before?” to, “How do you know when you should raise your rates?”

In addition to finding fellow photographer friends, identify a few photographers you know and look up to and ask one or a few of them to be your mentor.

Mentors are a significant part of growing not only as a photographer but as a business owner. Your mentor can help you with things like difficult client situations to new camera lens recommendations.

Source: Unsplash

Your mentor should be someone you can trust to guide you in the direction you wish to go and push you to be your best.

Keep in mind, your mentor is likely running their own business as well and has their own goals. Don't abuse the relationship you've forged by pestering them with questions each day about things you could easily look up yourself or by asking them to send clients your way.

Think of your mentor as a lighthouse—they will help guide you to where you want to be, but ultimately it's up to you to get there on your own.

It's great to have a network of diverse photographers in different niches, too. This way, if work comes along and you don't want to take the job or cannot take it because it's not within your area of expertise, you have a go-to list of vetted people whom you trust. They'll do the same for you when the time comes.

Building a stable community takes time, especially if most of these relationships are beginning online first. Set aside a few minutes each day to check in with these communities, but make sure you're contributing to these groups as well.

Don't get discouraged if it's taking longer than you thought it would—put yourself out there, help others, contribute to discussions, and be yourself.

6. Keep Learning & Mastering Your Craft

Mastery is what separates a career from a hobby.

One of the biggest reasons that photography businesses fail between that first and third year is that the photographer is just good enough to pull in an acceptable wage but not good enough to grow the business to a truly competitive income level.

One of the most important things you can do for your career as a photographer is to find your strengths and continue to build on them. Never stop learning and honing your craft. Continue to learn and grow even if you feel like you've mastered everything you should know—chances are, you haven't.

Learn about new lighting techniques, editing presets, or whatever it is you desire to know more about, and dive in. The more you learn and can put into practice for your clients, the stronger your business will be.

A significant part of being your own business owner is to be your own advocate and make sure you are up-to-speed on editing trends, new gear releases, and better ways to serve your clients.

Subscribe to industry newsletters, read relevant blogs, and invest in your education. Learning as much as you can will not only make you a better photographer, but it will help you find ways to optimize your business.

and collaborate with. Is there a new editing software you're having trouble learning? Ask a question in a community group and see if anyone can help you. Do you have a new camera lens you've been dying to try out? Get a group together and test it.

There are endless ways to learn and improve, and the photographers who are passionate about both will see the results in their business growth.

Next Steps

We've covered a lot in this guide, and while we can't directly help you improve your photography skills, we can help you start and grow your business.

For good photographers, the challenge is usually about finding the right clients. You might have tons of interest in your work, but it seems like the people trying to hire you don't want to pay much or aren't interested in the types of shoots you want to do.

If that's you, and you need a way to bring in a steady flow of quality, high-paying photography, we can help! Click below to learn how our students bring in 30-50 high ticket clients month in and month out.