Mohammed Shehu, model (fashion photography)

How to Start a Photography Business: Everything You Need To Know

Starting a photography business? Learn business planning, marketing, client relations, and pricing tips.

Table of contents

I ran a photography business for four years, and it was one of the best periods of my life.

I quickly learned that turning your passion for photography into a profitable venture can be thrilling, but hard without a roadmap.

This guide aims to help you navigate the photography industry, establish a strong business foundation, and build a successful photography business.

We’ll discuss various business structures and the significance of building a compelling business plan, portfolio, and marketing strategy.

We’ll also touch on the crucial legal and insurance aspects of running a photography business.

Understanding the photography business

Professional photography is not merely about snapping photos.

As a professional photographer, you’re a creative director, marketer, salesperson, and customer service professional all at once.

Professional photographers must navigate an industry marked by constant change and stiff competition. You can’t rest on your laurels, else you’ll get left behind.

You’ll need to develop a deep understanding of your target market, define your unique selling proposition, and fine-tune your business model to meet your clients’ needs and stand out from the crowd.

Mo Shehu - Business headshot (courtesy of 16V Photography)
Mohammed Shehu, founder and business advisor

8 photography business niches to consider

It’s easier to build a business as a freelance photographer or studio when you focus on one domain.

The photography industry has various niches with specific demands. Here are eight niches to consider:

  1. Wedding photography
  2. Commercial photography
  3. Portrait photography
  4. Real estate photography
  5. Fashion photography
  6. Stock photography
  7. Product photography
  8. Event photography

Here’s what you need to know about each niche.

1. Wedding photography

As a wedding photographer, you capture one of the most significant days in a couple’s life.

There’s little room for error, as you may not get another chance to shoot an engagement or wedding.

Wedding photographers require excellent interpersonal skills, the ability to work under pressure, and a creative eye for capturing emotional moments. 

Depending on your offering, wedding photography often involves editing and creating wedding albums or digital galleries. 

Wedding photography peaks during certain times of the year. This means you may have quiet months followed by a busy calendar with engagement shoots and wedding shoots.

And because you can only be in one place at a time, the best strategy for a wedding photographer is to connect with other wedding photographers in case they have an overflow of bookings.

2. Commercial photography

Commercial photographers create images used for commercial purposes such as advertisements, product packaging, and corporate publications.

This industry requires an understanding of branding and marketing, proficiency in various photography techniques, and often involves working closely with advertising agencies or marketing departments.

Namib Smoke - Product photography
Namib Smoke

3. Portrait photography

A portrait photographer captures individuals or groups, highlighting their personality, mood, or expression.

This can include family portraits, maternity shoots, business headshots, or creative portraits for models. 

A good portrait photographer needs strong people skills, creative lighting techniques, and a comfortable studio environment or the ability to work on location.

You’ll also need the right lenses — I shot with a 50mm f1.8 prime lens at first, then moved to an 85mm f1.4 lens. These lenses produce sharp, clear images with nice bokeh.

Karabo Banda - portrait photography
Karabo Rabina Banda, PR specialist

4. Real estate photography

Real estate photographers produce images of properties for sale or rent. Such images help real estate agents and homeowners attract potential buyers or renters. 

This industry requires an understanding of architectural styles and proficiency in wide-angle photography, and often involves post-production techniques to enhance images.

5. Fashion photography

Fashion photographers work with models, designers, and fashion magazines to create images that showcase clothing and accessories. 

This highly creative field often involves working with a team of stylists, makeup artists, and models, and it requires a keen eye for fashion trends and creative composition.

I offered fashion photography as part of my photography business, as I had studio space and previous experience as a fashion model.

Kelly - fashion photography

6. Stock photography

Stock photographers produce images you can license for specific uses.

These images are used by businesses, marketing agencies, and media outlets who need specific photos but don’t have the resources or time to commission a photoshoot.

Stock photographers need to produce a high volume of diverse, high-quality images and must understand the demands of the stock photography market.

Because I worked at an ad agency, I was familiar with stock photography — we used stock photos quite a bit in our ad campaigns.

AI art aims to disrupt this industry, but I suspect it’ll evolve and remain relevant for much longer.

7. Product photography

Product photographers create images that accurately but attractively represent a product. These images are used for online stores, catalogs, and advertising materials. 

Product photography requires understanding lighting techniques and often involves close-up (“macro”) photography and image editing skills.

As this niche deals more with products than people, it can be well-suited for introverts, although you still have to communicate with clients.

8. Event photography

Event photographers capture public or private events, from corporate gatherings to music festivals, charity events to birthday parties.

Event photographers must be able to work in various lighting conditions, capture candid moments, and often manage quick turnaround times for delivering photos.

This role requires a dynamic approach and flexibility, as the nature of the events can vary greatly.

One day you might be at a black-tie gala and the next at a bustling outdoor fair.

Event photographers often have to be on their feet for long hours, moving around to capture different perspectives.

A reliable, versatile, high-quality zoom lens is usually a must in this niche.

Networking is crucial in this field, as happy clients can lead to referrals and repeat business.

Many event photographers also offer on-site printing services or online galleries for event attendees to purchase images.

Wedding photography business

Understanding the unique requirements and trends in these industries helps you diversify your services, enhance your skills, and expand your client base.

Choosing your photography business structure

Choosing the right structure for your photography business can significantly impact your legal liabilities, tax obligations, and how you run your business.

There are several business structures you can consider for your photography business, depending on where you live.

A common choice is sole proprietorship, where you, as the business owner, run the business as an individual. 

This structure is straightforward to set up and gives you complete control over your business.

However, being a sole proprietor means you have unlimited personal liability for the business’s debts and legal issues.

Another option is a limited liability company (LLC), which offers protection from personal liability for business debts or lawsuits.

This is sometimes known as a Close Company (CC) or Limited Company (Ltd.) depending on where your business is based.

Unlike a sole proprietorship, an LLC is a separate legal entity from its owners, and you can still maintain full control and ownership of the business as a 100% shareholder. 

This was the option I chose, and one used by many photography businesses I know.

While an LLC involves more paperwork and administrative complexity, it can offer significant advantages in terms of liability protection and tax flexibility for photography businesses.

It’s always a good idea to consult a legal or business advisor to understand the implications of each structure. 

Once you’ve chosen your business structure, choosing a business name is the next step of building your brand identity. 

A good business name resonates with your target audience, reflects your photography style, and stands out from the crowd. 

When choosing a photography business name, consider factors like availability (especially for domain names and social media handles), relevance to your niche, and potential trademark issues. 

I use namechkr to ideate business names and social media handles, and IONOS to register domain names.

Mo Shehu - Fashion photography
Mohammed Shehu, (former) fashion model

Creating a photography business plan

A well-crafted business plan serves as a roadmap that guides your business decisions and focus. It can also be helpful when seeking financing or partnerships.

Here’s how to create a photography business plan:

  1. Write an executive summary: The first part of your photography business plan should be an executive summary, which provides an overview of your business concept, your business structure, and your unique selling proposition. You should write this section last.
  2. Conduct a market analysis: Identify your target audience, research competitor offerings, and understand market trends in your chosen photography niche. Whether you’re a wedding, portrait, or commercial photographer, your market analysis should give you a clear understanding of your ideal client’s needs and how you can meet them.
  3. Include a service description: Define what types of photography services you’ll offer, what packages you’ll provide, and how you’ll differentiate your offerings from your competitors.
  4. Define your marketing strategy: Your sales and marketing strategy outlines how you’ll attract and retain photography clients. It may include strategies for social media marketing, networking, referrals, and partnerships. A clear and effective marketing strategy is often the difference between a struggling and a thriving photography business.
  5. Define your operations plan: An operations plan outlines your business’s day-to-day operations. This includes your photography process, from client consultation to delivering final images, your equipment needs, and your workflow management. Of course, all of this is subject to change, but defining it early helps you hit the ground running.
  6. Include a financial projection: Estimate your startup costs, ongoing expenses, projected income, and do a break-even analysis. Be realistic and thorough in this section, as it will guide your financial decisions and can be crucial when seeking financing.

Your business plan is a living document. As your photography business evolves, revisit and revise your business plan to reflect changes in your market, services, or financial situation.

Vivette Rittmann - Portrait photography in studio
Vivette Rittmann, TEDx speaker

Designing a photography portfolio for your business

A photography portfolio is your visual business card — a highlight reel of your best work. It showcases your skills, style, and range as a photographer. 

Your portfolio should include examples from the niches you specialize in, such as wedding, portrait, landscape, or commercial photography. 

You can choose any of the following photography portfolio formats:

  1. Photography portfolio PDF: You can use Canva to create a photography portfolio PDF. Adding notes to each photo — such as the client, aims, challenges, or awards won — can help add color to your portfolio.
  2. Online photography portfolio website: An online photography portfolio makes things easier. You can reach a wider audience and help potential clients view your work and contact you. No need to attach large portfolio PDFs to emails — just send a link to your portfolio. Pixieset is my go-to platform for creating online portfolios, as you can add pricing, contact details, and service descriptions. You can view my photography portfolio here.
  3. Social media photography portfolio: Social media platforms like Instagram can also help you display your work and interact with potential clients. Best of all, you can run ads directly on the platform.

No matter your chosen format, a diverse and well-curated portfolio helps you attract prospective clients more effectively.

Pastor Ellen Angel (Rutendo) - Portrait photography
Pastor Ellen Angel

Building client relationships in your photography business

Client relationships are the lifeblood of any service-based business, and photography is no exception. 

Developing strong client relationships involves understanding their needs, delivering high-quality service, and exceeding their expectations.

Every interaction, from the initial consultation to the final delivery of photographs, contributes to the client’s overall experience.

A great customer experience leads to glowing reviews, which bring in new business.

Be clear and transparent about your services, prices, and processes, and manage expectations early. It’s better to underpromise and overdeliver.

After a project is completed, maintaining contact with your clients can lead to repeat business and valuable referrals. 

Simple gestures like sending a thank you note or following up after delivering photographs can go a long way toward building client loyalty.

Photography business marketing strategy: 7 tactics to try

A potential client learns about your photography service long before they ever send you an inquiry message.

Marketing your photography business is crucial to attracting prospective clients, retaining existing ones, and ensuring your business’s growth and success.

Here are seven ways you can accomplish this:

  1. Social media marketing: Social media platforms have become powerful tools for photographers to market their services. Platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest are well-suited to visual storytelling. Regularly posting high-quality images, behind-the-scenes content, and client testimonials can help build your brand presence and attract followers who can turn into clients.
  2. An online website: Creating a professional website is another key aspect of marketing your photography business. Your website should include a portfolio of your best work, information about your services and pricing, an “About” section highlighting your experience and unique selling points, and contact information. If you’re brand new to web development, check out my previous guide on how to create a website. If you’d prefer to have this handled for you, check out my website design services.
  3. Search engine optimization: Professional photographers who implement search engine optimization (SEO) can rise up the search engine rankings. This increases your chances of attracting potential clients.
  4. Networking: Joining photography groups or forums, attending industry events, or partnering with related businesses can help you connect with potential clients and other industry professionals. Hand out business cards and other marketing materials to interested clients during your meetups.
  5. Referrals and word-of-mouth marketing: Another effective way to market your small business is through referrals and word-of-mouth. Encourage your satisfied clients to refer your services to their friends, family, or colleagues. Consider offering a referral discount or a bonus service to incentivize referrals.
  6. Content marketing: Sharing valuable content positions you as an expert in your field, builds trust with each prospective client, and can improve your website’s SEO. Blogging about portrait photography tips or your experiences as a landscape photographer can help attract potential clients. Check out my previous guides on how to gain more bookings through content and how to generate content ideas. If you need help with this, check out my content marketing services.
  7. Advertising: Ads put your business in front of potential customers at scale. You can run ads on social media, search engines (PPC), radio, print media, podcasts, newsletters, billboards, and TV, depending on your goals and budget.

Marketing your photography business is an ongoing effort. Regularly assess your marketing strategy and adjust it as needed.

Monica Geingos - Event portrait photography
Monica Geingos, First Lady of Namibia

Starting a photography business involves several legal and insurance considerations. You’ll need to protect yourself, your clients, and your personal assets.

These considerations include:

  1. Business license: The requirements for a business license can vary depending on your location and the structure of your small business. You might need to register with your local guild or photography association, or not need one at all. Check your local laws on which business licenses you might need.
  2. Contracts: As a photographer, you’ll likely be dealing with various contracts, such as client service agreements, model releases, and property releases. These contracts spell out the terms of your services, protect your rights, and limit potential liabilities. A photography contract with your clients should clearly define the services you’ll provide, payment terms, cancellation policies, and copyright issues. Seek legal advice when drafting these contracts to ensure they’re legally sound.
  3. Copyright: Copyright is a critical legal aspect for photographers. Understanding copyright laws can help protect your work from unauthorized use. In general, the photographer owns the copyright to an image they’ve taken, but there can be exceptions, and sometimes these rights might be transferred through a contract.
  4. Privacy laws: Privacy laws are another legal consideration, especially when photographing people. You must understand when you need permission to photograph someone, particularly in private settings, and when you can use those images commercially.
  5. Business insurance: At the very least, you should consider liability insurance, which can protect you if someone gets injured during a photoshoot or if you damage a client’s property. Equipment insurance can also be invaluable to cover the repair or replacement costs of your expensive photography lens or other gear in case of damage, theft, or loss. If you’re planning to operate from a physical location outside of your home, you might need property insurance to protect your studio space. If you have employees, you’ll also need to understand your obligations regarding workers’ compensation insurance.

While it may seem daunting, addressing these issues early on can protect you from significant risks and help ensure a smooth operation.

CAT excavator - commercial photography

8 tools and equipment you need to start a photography business

Photography isn’t cheap, and starting a photography business means investing in quality equipment.

I shopped for photography equipment from Orms (in Cape Town) and B&H, but you might find somewhere closer and cheaper.

The equipment you’ll need largely depends on your budget and niche, but there are basic tools every professional photographer should have.

Here are my recommendations:

  1. Camera: You’ll need a good quality camera. Both DSLR (Digital Single-Lens Reflex) and mirrorless cameras are popular choices among professionals. DSLRs have a broader range of lenses available, while mirrorless cameras are generally lighter and more compact. Research and choose the one that best fits your specific needs and budget.
  2. Lenses: Different types of photography require different lenses. A wide-angle lens is great for landscape and real estate photography; a macro lens works well for product photography; a fast prime lens is best for portrait photography; and a telephoto lens could be useful for event or wildlife photography. Consider your niche and needs before investing in lenses, as they can be quite pricey.
  3. Tripod: A sturdy tripod is crucial for ensuring sharp images, especially in low-light conditions or when shooting landscapes, interiors, or portraits. I typically advise aspiring photography business owners to never scrimp on tripods — they’re a worthy investment.
  4. Lighting equipment: Good lighting is key to creating high-quality images. This might include external flash units for on-the-go lighting, softboxes or umbrella lights for studio work, and reflectors to manage natural light.
  5. Computer and editing software: Post-processing is a significant part of professional photography. A reliable computer with a good display and photo editing software like Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop is a must. I used both of these tools extensively, and Pixieset allows you to create digital galleries you can send to clients via a link — a professional touch.
  6. Memory cards and storage: High-capacity memory cards allow you to shoot without worrying about running out of space. Additionally, invest in good storage solutions, both physical hard drives and cloud storage, to securely back up your high-resolution photos.
  7. Camera bag: A durable camera bag is essential for protecting your gear and making it easy to carry around. I stuck with the Nikon camera bag that came with my first camera body, but you can spring for a fancier one that lets you carry even more bodies, lenses, and tripods.
  8. Other accessories: These could include spare batteries, lens cleaning supplies, and various props or backdrops depending on your niche.

While having good quality equipment is important, it doesn’t replace skill and creativity.

A pro with an iPhone can probably produce better photos than a newbie with the latest gear.

Master your gear and develop a unique style to assure your success in the photography business.

Fashion, beauty, makeup - photography

Pricing your photography services: 6 factors to consider

Pricing your services well ensures your photography business remains sustainable and profitable.

Here are six factors to consider when setting your prices:

  1. Operating costs: Calculate all your expenses, such as equipment, insurance, marketing, transportation, and overhead studio costs, if you have one. Don’t forget to include the cost of post-processing time, software, and any outsourced services like printing or framing.
  2. Time costs: As a business owner, your time is valuable, and it’s essential to factor this into your pricing. This includes not just the time spent shooting each photography session, but also time spent on client communication, editing, maintenance, and other administrative tasks related to photo shoots.
  3. Market research: Benchmark your prices against other photographers in your area and niche. Resist the temptation to undercut competitors’ prices to try to attract clients, as this can devalue your work and make it harder to turn a profit. A race to the bottom hurts the whole industry.
  4. Experience and skills: My motto is, “learn more, earn more.” Experienced photographers with a strong reputation and portfolio can command higher prices than those just starting out.
  5. Pricing format: Decide whether you want to offer package deals, a la carte pricing, or both. Packages can simplify decision-making for your clients and ensure a minimum revenue for each job — for example, charging §500 for 10 edited photos and a frame. A la carte pricing can offer flexibility and allow clients to tailor services to their specific needs, for example charging §50 per photo.

When presenting your prices to potential clients, communicate the value you’re providing.

You can highlight your expertise, work quality, awards, personalized service, and other aspects that set you apart. 

Also, pricing isn’t a ‘set and forget’ aspect of your business. Review and adjust your prices regularly based on factors like changes in your costs, market shifts, and professional growth. 

Paul Munanjala ("Paul Da Prince") - Music, portrait, studio photography
Paul Munanjala (“Paul Da Prince”), recording artist

7 continuous education and professional development options

Whether you’re a seasoned professional or an aspiring photographer, there’s always room to learn and grow. 

Here are some ways you can level up through continuing education and professional development:

  1. Online courses and workshops: Websites like Coursera, Udemy, and Skillshare offer photography courses on various topics, from mastering the basics to exploring specialized photography genres. Additionally, many renowned photographers offer workshops, both online and in-person, that provide practical training and valuable industry insights.
  2. Photography conferences and trade shows: These events are opportunities to learn from industry leaders, network with other professionals, and get hands-on experience with the latest equipment. Events like the PhotoPlus Expo, Imaging USA, and WPPI Conference (for wedding and portrait photographers) often feature workshops, keynote speeches, and equipment expos.
  3. Industry publications: Magazines and blogs like Digital Photography School and Fstoppers regularly publish articles on new techniques, gear reviews, and industry trends. Following such publications can provide ongoing learning opportunities.
  4. Networking and professional organizations: Joining local photography clubs or professional organizations like the Professional Photographers of America (PPA) can provide opportunities for networking, mentorship, and peer learning. Many of these organizations also offer educational resources and certification programs.
  5. Experimentation: Experimenting with new techniques, equipment, and styles can significantly expand your skills. Personal photography projects can be a great way to push your boundaries and explore your creativity. If you see a great photo on Instagram, try recreating it to sharpen your skills.
  6. Feedback: Seek out constructive criticism from peers, mentors, or online communities. Guarding your work too closely from external feedback can stunt your professional development.
  7. Software tutorials: Editing is a significant part of professional photography, so staying up to date with the latest features of editing software like Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop is crucial. Online tutorials, many of which are freely available on YouTube, can help you master these tools.

Business growth is directly linked to continuous learning and professional development. 

Stay abreast of the latest techniques, trends, and technology to stand apart from competitors and reach your business goals.

Odile Madeline Gertze - Fashion model
Odile Madeline Gertze, fashion model

8 ways to achieve work-life balance in the photography business

Running a photography business can be stressful. It often blurs the lines between personal and professional life. The last thing you want is to hate your job.

Achieving a healthy work-life balance is crucial to maintaining the passion for your craft, preventing burnout, and ensuring long-term success. 

Here are eight ways I maintained a balanced lifestyle:

  1. Set boundaries: Clearly define your working hours and communicate them to your clients. Avoid the temptation to respond to business calls or emails outside of these hours.
  2. Outsource where possible: Delegate tasks that consume much of your time but aren’t directly related to your work. This can include accounting (hire a freelance bookkeeper), website maintenance (get a web developer), or photo editing (hire a retoucher).
  3. Prioritize your health: Schedule regular exercise, eat healthy meals, and get adequate sleep. These factors can impact your energy levels, creativity, and overall well-being. Stress management is key.
  4. Say no sometimes: Be selective with the jobs you take on and decline politely when you’re at capacity. It’s better to deliver exceptional service to fewer clients than to spread yourself thin.
  5. Make time for hobbies and interests: Pursuing hobbies outside of photography can refresh and re-inspire you. Make time for activities you enjoy, such as reading, hiking, cooking, or painting.
  6. Leverage technology: Use productivity tools and software to streamline your business processes, manage your schedule, and automate tasks where possible. This can save you time and reduce stress.
  7. Take regular breaks: Take short breaks throughout your working day and longer breaks or vacations periodically. Time away from work can recharge your mind, enhance your productivity, and inspire creativity. Breaks can also help you manage task anxiety.
  8. Seek support: Surround yourself with friends, family, other founders, or professional counselors to get you through when you’re feeling overwhelmed. A supportive network is important.

Achieving work-life balance is tricky, as what works for one person may not work for another.

Find what works for you and remember to love yourself. You are not your work.

Chef Kgalalelo "Lala" Nkadimeng - Event & portrait photography
Chef Kgalalelo “Lala” Nkadimeng (Courtesy of MeetupZA)

7 common challenges and setbacks

In the course of running a photography business, you will face challenges and setbacks.

How you respond to these hurdles can shape the trajectory of your business and personal growth.

Here are seven common challenges I faced and how I overcame them:

  1. Periods of low business: Photography can be a seasonal industry, as demand fluctuates throughout the year. Developing a financial plan to manage these slow periods can help, as I learned the hard way. What helped me was diversifying my services, pursuing personal projects, and using the downtime for professional development. I offered graphic design, social media management, and content marketing services to augment my main photography business.
  2. Difficult clients: Not every client relationship will go smoothly. Clear communication, setting expectations upfront, and maintaining professionalism helped me manage challenging clients. It’s okay to turn down work if a client seems particularly problematic.
  3. Technical failures: Murphy’s Law reigns supreme, and equipment malfunctions happen — often at the worst possible time. You can mitigate the impact of these issues through regular maintenance, carrying backup gear, and having a contingency plan, such as calling in a fellow photographer or using a backup venue.
  4. Burnout: The demanding nature of running a photography business can lead to burnout. I took regular breaks, worked on achieving work-life balance, and maintained hobbies outside of photography, such as gaming.
  5. Staying relevant: With the constant evolution of technology and trends, staying relevant can be challenging. I tried to remain current through continuous learning, experimenting with new techniques, and adapting my business and marketing strategy.
  6. Financial challenges: Running a photography business means managing cash flow, taxes, and pricing. Consider seeking advice from financial professionals or investing in financial management software designed for small businesses. I used Wave to manage my photography business revenues.
  7. Competition: The photography industry can be highly competitive, as I learned from talking to other professional photographers. Instead of trying to outdo or underprice all your competitors, focus on defining and showcasing what makes your work unique. Building a strong personal brand can help you stand out, and relationships and referrals were my bread and butter.

Challenges are part of running a business. They can be opportunities for learning, growth, and innovation. Embrace and address them with a positive mindset to build resilience.

Pinky - Fashion model photography

Build a successful photography business

Starting a photography business involves more than taking photos. It requires strategic planning, continuous learning, and reinvesting in your business

You’ll need to hone your photography skills, understand your market and prospective clients, and identify a niche that aligns your passion with market demand. 

Choosing an appropriate business structure, creating a detailed business plan, and building a compelling portfolio are critical steps on your business journey.

Additionally, effective marketing and addressing the legal and insurance aspects help you protect and grow your business.

Solidifying client relationships through effective communication and exceptional service leads to repeat business and valuable referrals.

With passion, strategic planning, and continuous learning, you can successfully transform your love for photography into a thriving business.

If you need help working through your business plan or positioning your photography business, get in touch.

Virtual personal assistant from Los Angeles supports companies with administrative tasks and handling of office organizational issues.