So, can you start a photography business
So, can you start a photography business?
More to the point, can you make it last and make money?
Is it time to turn your interest in photography into a business? Have you thought about all the differences between taking photos for yourself and the need to sell your work and services?
Keith still gets asked about how to ‘turn professional’ in photography and has put together this selection of things that all too often don’t seem to have been given enough attention.
There are links to many more of his articles about the business of photography that hopefully can help a few photographers avoid some of the pitfalls.
After a number of questions about setting up in photography, I thought I’d address a few specific issues.
I’ve included links to more detailed articles I’ve written over the last few years that may also be of interest.
Your new photography business
I’m going to assume that you enjoy photography and for various reasons are wondering if you can make some money from it.
The idea often starts when someone comes up with a comment such as:
“Your photos are good, you should sell them”.
It’s something I heard back in the 1990s, in pre-digital times. The problem then was that film was a relatively expensive medium to experiment with. Unless you were very serious about having your own darkroom, it was also quite a slow one to perfect techniques.
Jump forward twenty years and you can produce technically superior results in a fraction of the time. You can produce excellent colour prints and share photos on social media, or create on-line galleries with ease.
The technology of photography has come on in leaps and bounds, but many aspects of running a business have not actually changed as much as some would tell you (be particularly wary of social media snake-oil purveyors in this respect).
I still get regular emails asking where someone can sell their prints:
My answer is still the same – where people buy prints.
The same goes if it pictures of brides or machinery – where/who are the customers?
- What do your friends know about photography?
- Will your prints sell? – is there a market for your photos
- Will they sell?– is there a sustainable market for your photos
Where will your business fit?
The basics of any photography business is that you have clients who buy your photos. The simple follow-on from this is that you will need to find clients and have a product they are willing to pay for.
Going back to that person who suggested you sell your photos. Do they buy ever photos? Do they know anything of the market for photography?
If the answers are no, then take their suggestion as welcome, but from a business POV worth as as much as a Twitter ‘like’.
Without some clear ideas of who your clients are and what they want, you are pretty much adrift.
The market for photography has changed markedly since the 1990’s, but not the fundamentals of business.
In many ways it was the pro photographers who had stuck to the tried and tested aspects of their photography business who suffered most in the Film->Digital revolution. Those that embraced change and had a solid understanding of what their business was there for weathered the storm.
It was a storm too – many people who’d been ‘in the business’ for years didn’t adapt.
Remember if people stop buying what you are selling, it’s not their fault…
The same probably goes for the explosion in photography now that almost everyone carries a phone with them and can share photos instantly.
This changes many aspects of the business of photography, but not the fundamentals of marketing and selling.
You still need to answer the basic client’s question of “What’s in it for me?”
The fundamentals of finding clients and providing them with a product they want hasn’t changed from the film days and applies whether you photography brides, babies or buildings.
Are you likely to find the right sort clients here?
Making the change and paying for it
Are you looking to make a full time job of your photography or is it just to supplement your income, or even just to pay for new equipment?
Does your ‘day-job’ give you enough spare time to do the photography? Oh, and perhaps you (or someone else) will want spare time away from both.
It’s quite a different approach once you go all-in and the photography has to pay the bills.
The money side of things is a continual worry for many photographers. Sometimes this comes down to just not being comfortable with the prospect of having no work for a while, and then feeling rushed when multiple jobs do turn up.
Not everyone has the temperament for self employment. You are responsible for everything – there’s no accounts department to chase up invoices.
Another aspect is that there’s a lot of working on your own.
I’m an active member of local business groups, for more than just the chance to find new business.
- Making a living from Pro photography – what I’ve found essential over the years
- 5 important things I realised after 10 years in the business
- How much to charge for your work
- Why turning down work is sometimes the right thing to do
The types of work I do take me all over the place – by choice…
Is it a job or a business?
When I set up Northlight images in 2004 I decided that I was creating a business that would have just me doing the photography. Karen joined the business in 2010 looking after some of the marketing aspects, but it’s still a business based on me doing the photography.
For your new business, where do you see it going over time? Are you thinking that one day you’ll be employing other photographers who will likely come and go their own way after a while.
Is it a business that will have its own studio? Who will manage that studio and what will you be doing then?
Is it a business that you could sell at some point, or does it retire when you do?
The more you see the business developing, the less you will be doing about photography. If that concerns you, then think about someone else doing the tasks you don’t want to.
How much work do you need to do to pay that person (remember it’s not just their wages) – does that still give enough profit to pay yourself?
There are lots of resources aimed at getting small businesses up, running and thriving – make use of them. I know there is the temptation to consider that your photo business is different – it almost certainly isn’t.
I’ve a whole series of (50) business tips I’ve seen offered over the years, which are actually best left to your competitors.
- Part 1 – business tips that are wrong
- Part 2 – Tips to be wary of
- Part 3 – More popular myths of pro photography
- Part 4 – Unwise photo business tips
- Part 5 – Business advice for you competitors
Have a read through and see how many superficially seem quite reasonable?
Are you sure your idea is a viable business? [click to enlarge]
How much photo work can you do?
It’s very easy to misjudge how much photography work you can fit into a working week.
My own calculations are based on starting with how many photography jobs I want to average in a week and then work backwards from there to decide the minimum average amount I need to be getting from a photo job.
Do bear in mind that I’m a commercial photographer – I wouldn’t do wedding and portrait work if you paid me triple. I simply have no interest in the subject. Without that interest, it’s just another job, and that’s not why I do it. I will work weekends, but invariably charge a lot more for doing it.
If you’re a wedding or event photographer, then you might also want to consider how much time you’re going to be spending selecting and editing your work. I tend to produce relatively small numbers of images for the kind of work I do, but even then have to allow several hours a week just for editing. That’s OK, since I don’t intend to do more than a few jobs a week.
At a certain point, you might even want to outsource some of your editng and production work? Certainly, the more images you produce on a shoot, the more important is a streamlined workflow. Time not spent editing images is time to spend marketing your business, and time spent doing things for yourself and your family.
Never be afraid to go back and re-evaluate your workflow as new software comes along. I rather dislike Adobe Lightroom, with its catalogue and workflows, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t reconsider it if the type of work I’m doing changed.
The only time I make large numbers of prints is when writing a review.
The jobs you didn’t think about
I mentioned the amount of photography you can do, just now, but it’s more than that. There are many other tasks it’s easy to ignore/overlook and they all take up time – how much do you have?
You can obviously predict the need for taxes and accounts, but a bit of care and regular attention can reduce the effort (and stress) associated with them. We have an accountant who takes care of all filing, using data Karen notes down in a few spreadsheets.
Have a word with other people running small businesses and see if they can suggest anyone who could help. Don’t forget to get some clear estimates for how much you’ll pay and remember to put money aside for it.
There are lots of small business advice schemes, a quick search for “creative industry business advice” in your local area will likely yield some very useful sources of info for startups. Look for networking and business meet-ups in your area.
Even seemingly trivial aspects of your work such as checking emails can become a time sink – start thinking of the processes that you want right from the start. We have a booking form for training work and standard templates for quotes and invoices. It seems a bit over the top the first few times you do it, but having an organised process makes things easier for you, and an awful lot easier when you decide that someone else is doing that part of your business.
Sure it’s going to be a lot of work to begin with, but if you don’t plan for things to ease off, they won’t.
Who cleans your studio?
My only word of caution once again regards the use of social media in your business. Take any claims of it being essential with the same degree of scepticism as you would for anyone else selling you marketing services. It might well be useful, but keep asking for evidence, especially if you are looking for businesses as clients.
One simple example from talking with a number of architects about architectural photography. Who actually reads and sends the tweets for a moderate size practice? Do they have any connection with the people making business decisions? Are you in danger of wasting time where the only people who see your tweets are those responsible for sending them to others?
If you’re looking to work with consumers (wedding/portrait work) then social media can be much more useful, but look for ways of measuring real ROI (Return on Investment) for all the work you put in.
After several years of following social media marketing companies I’m more than ever convinced that they are like the the sellers of picks & shovels and owners of ‘Hotels’ who made the real money in assorted gold rushes.
Social media riches
Business articles and Photography coaches
Take time to explore the vast range of advice that’s out there, both specifically relating to photography and to more general small business advice.
All the articles I’ve written are based on 15+ years of real experience running a photo business, along with senior management, research and consultancy positions in a wide range of businesses before I chose this path.
Over the years I’ve noticed a growth in the number of ‘Photography Coaches’ and people offering specific business advice/plans for running your own ‘XYZ Photography’ business (pick specialism as required).
Whilst there are many I respect, there are all too many others falling into the ‘couldn’t make a go of photography, so let’s teach others to do it category’.
Make sure you really know what you will get, and how much it will cost, before parting with any cash – all the articles on the Northlight site are free (and will remain so – part of my academic background I guess…)
The house wins again…
Please do feel free to ask questions or email me, since that’s often what inspires my articles.
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Business related articles (50+) are listed on the Photo-business page.
Some specific articles that may be of interest:
- Will it sell? - I'm often asked about selling prints
- Photography - making a living from it?
- When to turn down work
- Marketing for photographers - 5 'M's
More of Keith's articles/reviews (Google's picks to match this page)
Buying anything from Amazon (not just what's listed) via any of the links below helps Keith and Karen keep the site going - thanks if you do! [Amazon UK]