How to start a photography business?
Are you a good enough photographer for people to pay money for your photos? If you are, you have probably already thought about becoming a professional photographer. But how do you start a photography business? Do you need to start a limited company, get legal advice, open a business bank account, and whatever else?
Starting to work as a self-employed professional photographer in England is not complicated, but there are certain things that you need to sort out – or at least consider – right from the beginning. If you take the right steps to start with, you are much more likely to make a success out of your endeavour, and avoid being in the large amount of businesses that fail in the first year. So here are the…
10 steps to starting a photography business
- Calculate Your Break Even Figure
- Choose A Legal Structure
- Make A Business Plan
- Get A Separate Bank Account
- Use An Accounting System
- Set up Ways for People to Pay You
- Have A Fail Proof Photo Shoot Booking System
- Get Business Insurances
- Use Photography Contracts
- Develop Your Brand (not just a pretty logo and website)
1. Break Even Figure
This is the first thing you need to work out in order to know how much you need to earn from your photography. I have written a whole separate article about the importance of working out your break even point, so if you haven’t done this part yet, read the article now. That way you can make sure that you are working towards having a business rather than a very expensive hobby.
2. Choose A Legal Structure
The most common business structures for photographers in the UK are 1) Sole Trader and 2) Limited Company. You can find more information on the UK’s Government Website.
The best and easiest option for anyone starting a photography business on their own is to have the legal entity of a Sole Trader. The general advice is that if you earn less than £25,000 a year, you don’t need to even consider registering as a Limited Company. Also you don’t have to charge (or register for) VAT until you start earning a nice amount of money (at the time of writing, £82,000 a year). You can register as a Sole Trader on the HRMC website. You will need to tell the tax authority under what name you will be Trading As, so this is the time to think about a name for your business.
Starting to work as a self-employed sole trader is ridiculously easy in the UK. In many other countries you need to have a business licence, register for sales tax, and have various other permits. Check with your local authorities what you need to have in place, if you are not in the UK.
3. Business Plan
Make a business plan. I know – sounds scary, right? This is proper grown-up talk now. How on earth do you make one of those, if you are just starting out as a self-employed photographer? Well, it’s simple, really. It doesn’t have to be a complicated 20 page plan that takes weeks to write.
Unless you are making a thorough, all-inclusive plan for the purposes of presenting it to a bank manager or an investor, all you need to do is make a plan for yourself. Even a short, one page plan is much better than nothing, and will help you have a clearer view on how you are going to make this whole thing happen. As with any plan, it helps you get focus and clarity on what you actually want to do and how you are going to do it.
To start with, you know what your break even point is (because you’ve figured that out by now)(haven’t you?!), so you know how much you aim to earn in a year, in a month, in a week, and in a day. In the business plan you will state how you are going to make that money.
A few other things good to have in your business plan: State what your area of speciality is (commercial, portrait, wedding, sports, etc). Who are the people who use your services (target market). How are you going to find your clients (marketing plan, incl. budget). What do you offer to your clients (photography, prints, wall art, training, etc). What assets do you have (gear list). What are your milestones.
4. Business Bank Account
Don’t do what I did: as soon as I started charging money for my photography, I got myself a Business Bank Account in one of the major banks. The first year was free, but after that a monthly service fee was charged. I only found out about six months later that you don’t have to have a Business Account when you are a self-employed sole trader – an ordinary savings account (which doesn’t have a monthly fee) is fine. This is the case in England, in any case. If you live and work in another country, check what you country’s regulations are.
I do recommend opening a separate account for your business, though. It makes your life easier when you can see at one glance how much money is coming in and going out in your business, rather than having to tediously check through your personal bank account in search of business expenses and income.
5. Accounting system
Decide whether you are happy to use a spreadsheet for all your accounting records, or whether you prefer a dedicated accounting software. If you are just beginning in your business and don’t have many clients yet, a spreadsheet may very well be an adequate way to record all your income and expenses.
An online accounting system saves a lot of time and effort when you start having more clients. You can send quotes, estimates and invoices straight from the accounting system, rather than using a separate invoicing tool. You can have all these connected to your client records in one place, which makes keeping records a lot easier and tidier.
Some accounting systems also file your tax return directly to HRMC with a press of a button, filling all expenses automatically into the correct areas (provided that you have input them correctly in the accounting system), which is a great help if you are not a fan of filling out tax returns. It is recommended that you have your accounts checked by a certified accountant before filing your return, though.
6. Ways for People to Pay You
Make sure that you make it as easy as possible for people to pay you. Apart from direct bank transfers, consider accepting payment via PayPal and/or Google Wallet. That way people can pay with their credit card, should they prefer it.
Unbelievably, some people still pay with cheques here in the UK. Because cashing in a cheque takes a ridiculous amount of time (unless you live right next to your bank), I introduced a handling fee for cheque payments. Having that clearly written in my invoice reduced cheque payments to nearly zero, which made me very happy.
For international payments I recommend TransferWise, as they have much lower currency exchange rates than regular banks do. (Some currencies have business limitations, though, so check your currency before accepting business payments.)
7. Fail Proof Booking System
Again, you can use a spreadsheet to start with, especially if you are good at creating macros, but as soon as you start having more than one client a fortnight, I strongly recommend using a proper purpose built booking system. That way you can stay on top of every client communication, post production and product delivery, and never miss a task – which is elemental for good customer service. You can also send your contracts directly from your booking system without having to rely on other online services for contract signing. Long gone are the days when we relied on physical papers to sign.
8. Business Insurances
Business insurances are a must for a professional. Do not even think about skimping on this part of your business. Without an insurance, you can lose your livelihood out of the blue due to one unlucky burglary, or someone claiming compensation for a broken toe that was cause by your equipment at a wedding. You need to insure your equipment as well as having a public liability insurance, and I also recommend a professional indemnity insurance – just in case you make a mistake and are pursued for a big compensation.
Get an insurance with a professional photography specialist insurer. Don’t forget to check the small print – many insurances have clauses to exclude cover for equipment left in a car between the hours of 9 pm and 6 am, for example.
Please also note that any equipment you use for professional services is NOT covered by your home insurance.
9. Photography Contracts
A photography contract is a legal document, but as with any legal document, it can be challenged in a court of law. There have been cases in the press where a photographer has been sentenced to compensate their clients regardless of the contract they had had in place.
You might ask “What’s the point of having a contract, then?” I personally think that the most important aspect of having a photography contract – from the photographer’s point of view – is to set client expectations. The more into detail you go about the services you provide and the time scale you promise to deliver them, the better. There are plenty of things that the clients wouldn’t even think to ask before the job being carried out; mentioning them in the contract gives the client a clear picture of what is included in the service and what is not.
I have added so many clauses into my contracts over the years, after having minor problems with some clients – either my own or of fellow photographers’ that I have learned from. If you cover all bases in your contract, you can avoid any potential misunderstandings and disappointments. And your customer satisfaction rate is higher as a consequence.
Branding is not only your logo, website, stationery, and any other visual image you have. YOU are your brand. Everything you do is your brand: the way you treat your clients, the way you talk to your prospects, the kind of clothes you wear to a photo shoot, and kind of language you use. Everything. So think carefully what kind of image you give with everything you do.
You can have the most beautiful, professional looking website and brochures but if you don’t treat your clients and prospects like VIP, your pretty website will not result in a sustainably successful business. Imagine how you would like to be treated by a professional personal service provider, and act accordingly. This includes anything from how soon you reply to emails, to whether you deliver exactly (or more) what you promised to deliver.