The Complete Guide to Becoming a Professional Photographer
Part 2: Expenses and Legal Requirements
How do you start a photography business that will last? The reality is that there’s little room for sloppiness or error if you want to make it as a freelance photographer in 2018. In fact, in order to succeed in today’s ultra competitive photography market, you need to run a tight business operation right from day one. Talent and skill are only half the story, and without good planning and preparation you’re unlikely to get far. But where to begin?
In order to help you start out on the right foot, this latest installment in our series of articles on how to start a photography business deals with photographer finances and legal obligations: never the most fun or glamorous part of the job, but nonetheless essential if you plan on running a successful photography business.
This is Part 2 of a four-part guide on how to start a photography business. For Part 1, click here…
The internet is scattered with advice on how to take better pictures, but for those ready to turn their hobby into a career, there’s a real lack of practical information available about how to run a freelance photography business. Most of us get into photography as a creative outlet, one that soon becomes an all-consuming passion. We live for composition and light; action and atmosphere. Even if you don’t consider yourself an artist, you’re likely to have something of a creative flair. Unsurprisingly then, the realities of keeping business accounts, dealing with taxes, and worrying about legal matters, are often pretty low on our list of priorities. But ignore these important details and you’re setting yourself up for failure from day one.
With the right knowledge, though, running a successful photography business needn’t be such a chore. Get your finances in shape, and form good habits right from the start, and your business will sit on solid foundations: leaving you free to get on with the work you love without interruption or distraction.
How Much Money Do You Need to Start a Photography Business?
If you’re still in the very initial stages of establishing a career in photography, one of the first questions you’re likely to ask is how much does it cost to start a photography business. The fact is, though, that circumstances will likely differ considerably for every photographer – both in terms of the type of photography you do and the price of services and materials from vendors in your local area.
For example, as wedding photographers in Atlanta, our expenses for studio rental are going to be lower than for most people in NYC or San Francisco. Similarly though, most Atlanta photographers will pay more for studio space than those based in small towns or rural regions. Clearly if we can’t say what it cost’s to rent a studio, or indeed know whether your photography business even needs a studio in the first place, there’s no way we can give an accurate estimate of the overall cost of starting a photography business.
What’s more, we also want this guide to be of use to photographers all around the world, not just in Atlanta or the United States, and the cost of running a photography business will vary wildly between countries. For this reason it’s impossible for us to give a precise indication as to how much it costs to start a photography business. Indeed, given the large number of variables, any figure we might suggest would likely be very misleading for the majority of people. Instead we prefer to leave all calculations to you, the reader.
Having said this, here at REDFOX we’ve compiled a list of the main expenses you’ll need to consider when starting a new photography business, and many optional ones that may or may not apply to you. Use this photography business checklist as a rough guide, adding to and adjusting it to suit your specific needs.
Professional Photography Equipment
When starting a photography business, equipment purchase is likely to be your single greatest expense. Some items, such as a computer, will be essential for everyone; others are optional bits of gear that you may or may not need, depending on the precise nature of your photography business.
In the beginning it can be tempting to think you need to buy everything, and start drooling over top-of-the-range-camera bodies and ridiculously long lenses. In reality, unless you work in a particular photographic niche that requires specialized gear (say a tilt-shift lens for architecture and interiors photography), you will likely shoot 99% of your photographs using the same vanilla equipment: camera body, standard lens, and maybe tripod and/or strobe. What’s more, even if you might genuinely need some specialized bits of kit, until you’ve been shooting for a few years, it can be hard to tell precisely which items these might be, and which will just end up as clutter in your bag.
The more money you spend at the start, the more money you need to recoup before you’ll begin to see a profit on your business. Rather than convincing yourself that you need various “essential” bits of gear, you should buy only the bare minimum, and rent or borrow extra bits of equipment as and when you require them. Much better to slightly eat into your profit on a job (or better still, charge the rental fee back to the client) than to purchase a bunch of expensive and unnecessary toys that will just end up gathering dust and depreciating in value on a shelf somewhere.
The day that you realize you’re spending a considerable amount of money repeatedly renting a particular piece of equipment is the day you can legitimately buy it. Otherwise, make do with as little as possible, or risk going out of business due to having too much money tied up in useless and gimmicky gear. “GAS” is a truly terrible affliction and should be left to sweaty-palmed gear-geeks and wealthy amateurs undergoing a mid-life crisis. A true professional can use almost any bit of equipment and produce a great image.
While it’s important to consider precisely which items of equipment you really need, and to put together a realistic estimate of other costs you may need to pay for, it can be easy to forget that you will also need money to live on in the meantime before your photography business takes off. Where will this money come from? Savings? Part-time work?
When starting out, many people also work as an assistant for a more established photographer. Not only is this a good option for earning income to tide you over, but it’s one of the best ways to learn about the photography business itself. You’ll likely also establish professional contacts that could be useful later.
Also, it’s important to remember that even once things start rolling along nicely with your business, it would be unwise to automatically assume that things will always be this way. You can have a run of really good months, or even years, and think your’e in the clear, only for the phone to fall silent as the economy takes a dive or photographic trends move in a different direction. You’ll need to be prudent with your income and keep a good chunk aside for leaner times.
Things need not go so dramatically bad for income to dry up either. For example, if you’re shooting weddings or other seasonal work, then you’ll need to earn enough to see yourself through to the next season. Just because you had a great summer shooting, and watched the money come pouring into your account , doesn’t mean you’ve actually earned enough to get you through the year.
Freelancing can be precarious. If you are to make it through the more turbulent patches you’ll need to spend wisely and plan ahead.
Photography Business Legal Requirements
Having looked at the main costs involved in setting up a photography business, let’s turn our attention to a photographer’s legal responsibilities.
Firstly, if you’re in the United States, before you do anything else you’ll need to make a decision as to whether you will operate as a sole proprietor or establish an LLC. If you choose the latter, you will also need to get an EIN.
before that though, you’ll need a name. This can just be your own name, or it can be a catchy brand name. If it’s the latter, check that it’s not already trademarked. To do this (again if you are in the United States), go to USPTO.gov and run a TESS trademark search.
When starting a photography business, taxes can often be overlooked. Get in the habit of keeping accurate accounts now – preferably setting aside a day each week or month to go over your expenses etc. – rather than just stuffing receipts into a shoebox and then having to deal with it all at once in a rush at the end of the year. This way your accounts will always be in order, you can keep a close check on the financial health of your business as you go, and you won’t be stressed out when you suddenly realize that the deadline for filing is looming fast.
A common error when starting a photography business is simply to forget to put aside a sufficient chunk of income to pay taxes at the end of the year. Remember that it’s not all profit. Consider setting up a second bank account purely to put aside money to pay your taxes.
At the start of your photography career, an accountant can seem like a real extravagance. But the fact is that the savings an accountant can help you make on your tax bill will likely be way more than they will charge for their services. Sure, it might seem like you can save some money here by doing it all yourself, but unless you have specialist knowledge of tax and finance matters, you just won’t be aware of the numerous deductions and loopholes that may be available to you as a freelancer. A good accountant will.
Ideally, try to find an accountant that specializes in working with freelancers – better still, one that already has clients that are photographers – as they’ll be much better informed regarding your specific circumstances. Conversely, the lack of comprehension from an accountant who doesn’t understand your line of business will just make your life a misery – especially in the beginning if you aren’t bringing in much money.
First up, you should check if a business license is necessary to run a photography business in your area. If it is, you’ll need to get one, as the repercussions for operating without one can be serious.
To find out how to get a photography business license in your area, you should contact firstly your state licensing board, and secondly your local city hall.
You will also need to consider contracts. Although drawing up contracts for jobs might seem unnecessary in the beginning, inevitably you’ll come to appreciate their value when (not if) a job goes wrong or a client becomes difficult to deal with. A legally binding contract can make the difference between getting paid for your work or not.
Many photography associations offer example contracts and legal advice for free, so joining one near you can be one way of getting hold of a model contract. Others may be available online, however you should consult a legal expert in order to establish their validity.
Model Release Forms
If you shoot portraits or fashion, you’ll need to get your subjects to sign model release forms. Like client contracts, these are often provided by photography associations, however the easiest solution is probably to use an app such as Easy Release, which allows models to sign a release form electronically on your phone which you can then distribute to everyone concerned in PDF format. Again though, you’d be well advised to seek legal advice as to the validity of these forms in your region.
If you’ve already read Part 1 in our series of articles about how to start a photography business, you should now have a good idea of the amount of planning and work involved in getting set up. Here in Part 2 we’ve looked at the legal and financial steps you will need to go through in order to get things running and above board, and also considered the main areas in which you’ll need to invest money in order to ready to take on your first photography job. In the next article in the series we will be looking at possible sources of finance for making these purchases and also consider how best to calculate fees for your photography business.
Subscribe for early access!