5 Essentials to Start your Photography Business
Beginning a photography business (to most people) seems very easy. “There’s nothing to it” I’ve often heard people say. Another common one that I hear is “it’s not a business, it’s a hobby”. Don’t get me wrong, hobbies are great however; there is much more to running a business than running a hobby. Your hobby doesn’t need a license, insurance, a website and updated software, contracts, and taxes (just to name a few). Your business does need these 5 key essentials though and I’m going to help you get started on this.
Before we begin, there is one thing that I do want to cover. If you are charging someone any amount of money for a session; you are operating as a business. If you are charging anyone any amount of money, you must (I cannot stress this enough) begin your business the right way.
- Licensing – “I really have to get a license to have a business”? Yes…yes you do.
Now I want to be open and honest with you. I don’t have a license. Now before you exit out of this blog hear me out…every state, county, and city is different from each other. In Oregon, if you’re business name is different than your legal name you don’t have to register your business (this is just for photography, I know contractors have to register their business regardless of what their business is called because my husband is one). My photography business name is Jessica Lillie Photography thus it being my legal name therefore; I don’t need to register my business with the state of Oregon. The town that I live also does not require a license to work in. However, if I do a session in a city 20 minutes away they may require a license to work in their city.
Almost every photographer I know is required to have some sort of licensing at some point for their business. However, twice a year I do call our city courthouse just to make sure they haven’t changed this law. When I do travel for a wedding this is something that I do check into every.single.time. Some cities even have restrictions on when and where you can and can’t do a session. Within the last year, Portland Oregon now required photographers to purchase a pass to shoot in parks and other areas within the city. The passes are not cheap and fines are even higher if you get caught shooting without one. As my parents always said to us growing up “when in doubt…check it out”.
- Insurance – “Why on earth would I need insurance to run a business out of my home”? I’ve heard this a lot and each time I’m asked this I tell them the same thing; “you want to protect your gear, your clients, and yourself”.
When I first started, the only reason why I thought photographers purchased insurance was to protect themselves against an angry client. About a year and half ago, I was talking to our personal insurance agent (she’s my husbands aunt and our neighbor) about how the photography business is going and she asked if I had insurance. I didn’t and she told me to come into her office so I can hear exactly why photographers need it. She explained to me exactly what I mentioned earlier in the first paragraph. She also stated that since I’m mainly shooting wedding, most venues will not allow a photographer to work there without insurance. That shocked me. However, the more I thought about it the more it made sense.
As your business grows, you will purchase more and more gear that is top notch. If your lens gets stolen, dropped, lost, bumped (and doesn’t work anymore) your insurance is there to help you with the cost of the damage or replaced lens. That alone sold me on having insurance for my business. You work hard to purchase your gear and within a split second all that hard work can go down the drain.
Your clients and yourself should also be covered under your insurance policy. Here’s an example. You’re doing a senior session at the river and you ask your senior girl to kneel beside the river. Normal senior girl pose, nothing wrong and the shot is going to perfect. She slips and can’t catch herself in time and hits the side of her head on a rock. You run over there and see a deep cut that is going to need stitches. The session is over and you (or her parent(s)) bring her to the hospital to seek medical attention. First off, you did nothing wrong. Secondly, it was an accident. Thirdly, (and most importantly) she is going to be okay. Now comes the interesting part. The hospital takes down information on what happened and suture her up, give her prescription medication for the pain that she’s experiencing, and sends her on her way. The hospital sends the bill and information (regarding what happened) to her parents’ health insurance company. They see that YOU asked her to kneel next to the river. Now, not every insurance company will come after you, they see it as an accident (or don’t read the information report) and accidents happen. However, not all insurance companies are like that. They don’t want to pay out of pocket for something YOU asked her to do so they go after you. This is where the ball just begins rolling if you don’t have insurance to help you out. However, you now have insurance and it’s taken care of pretty quickly and easily. This is only one of the many examples how it protects your client and yourself. Lastly, insurance for photographers doesn’t cost much at all. In all honesty, I pay around $325.00 per year and have the highest coverage you can purchase. Not bad!
- Website and Updated Software – “Why wouldn’t only having Facebook work as my website.” Facebook has so many restrictions on what a business can and can’t do that many businesses have been shut down because of it. “Isn’t the free software just as good?” It’s really not, there are two programs that have so many options for editing, its crazy!
I link these two together because for me personally, they go hand in hand. Let’s start with a website. Having a website is crucial if you want to be taken seriously as a photographer and a business owner. I never had one until about 2 year ago because I thought I wasn’t making enough to cover the cost of a website. That wasn’t true at all. After doing some research and talking to a lot of other photographers about it; I learned that there is a vast variety of website to choose from. Anywhere from free to around $200. Some websites, you can pay monthly and others it’s a one-time fee. Some websites come with templates you build off of and others you literally build your entire site from scratch. It takes a lot of time building your own site but it is worth it. In fact, I know a photographer that had a client once say “I only consider a photographer to be a professional if they have a website.” That says a lot.
Having software that is up to date is also important. I use Lightroom for 99% of my editing and Photoshop for creating advertisements. Lightroom (in my opinion) is much more user friendly. It does take a bit of time to learn how to use it but it’s very simple and straight forward. Through Adobe, you can pay a monthly rate of $10.00 and have both Lightroom and Photoshop. Both are in a bundle package (along with a lot of other programs) called Creative Cloud. Almost every photographer I know uses this option because of the low cost and it also doesn’t cost anything to upgrade any of the programs you use. It’s a really great deal and affordable.
- Contracts – “I’m not charging this client anything so I don’t need a contract.” That’s not quite entirely true.
Personally, I enjoy contracts because each photographers is completely different and unique in their own way. You can purchase contract templates just about anywhere; I found some very good ones on Etsy. Or you can make your own. I choose to make my own because I couldn’t find one that I liked. It took time to create it and I do tweak it a couple times a year however; it is a very important piece of information to have. Every session you schedule you MUST have a contract. For legal purposes you MUST have a contract. Also, it is a good rule of thumb to have because if there is a miscommunication; both you and the client can look back at the contract for clarity. It isn’t something that the client signs and you throw it in the junk pile. I often resort back to mine because there is a lot of client information on it such as addresses, phone numbers, emails…ect. It also tells me the best way and time to contact them as well as what package they purchase or if prints were purchased. Their contract is also something I bring with me to their session. Almost every session, the client asks me “when are my photos going to be ready?” Lets look at the contract. “This is a maternity session so you’ll have you images to you in 2 weeks; that’s June 23.” The client sees that YOU are resorting back to the agreement that you both signed; therefore they are important.
- Taxes – “The IRS won’t catch me because I only take cash.” But if they do…you are in deep trouble.
I saved this one for last because I feel that this is the most important essential and the most commonly abuse essential. Within the last year, I’ve helped two photographers start their business and one of them refuses to pay taxes on the income that he makes. That’s his choice and no one can change that however; if he is audited by the IRS…that’s not going to be pretty. He would be looking at major fines and could have jail time (the likelihood of that is slim but still possible).
Even with “only taking cash” here’s one example of how the IRS can audit you. You are hired by the owner of an insurance company to take head shots of their employees. Let’s call the owner Bill. You go to the office, set up a little studio area, take the employees pictures, edit images, return the images to Bill, and Bill pays you in cash. Done deal and easy peasy. Months go by and around November you get a form in the mail from Bill’s tax accountant. The form is called a 1099-MISC. It’s for non-employees that a company hires. You are that non-employee that Bill hired. Legally, you have to take this to your tax accountant and keep this in your records for 7 years. Also, Bill has this in his records and filed this paper with his tax accountant. In other words…the IRS knows that Bill paid you X amount for something that he hired you to do. The IRS sees that Bill paid your photography business but after looking up your information, your business isn’t something that has ever paid taxes. Red flags go up and this is just the “push” that got the ball rolling.
This is a very serious thing and I can’t stress enough how serious this is.
In the end, you are responsible for you. Yes there are many photographers that would be more than willing to help you begin your journey as a photographer because we’re excited for you! I’d be more than happy to help you start your business. I don’t know everything and I’m learning new things about it all the time but that’s how we can all help each other out. It is important to build each other up.
DISCLAIMER *This blog post is solely to help you in the right direction in entering your business. This is not written by a lawyer, rather a photographer with experience trying to help you out. Seek counsel from a professional in your area, county, city and/or state.
Jessica Lillie Photography