So you wanna be a Professional Photographer? Here's what you need to know (and things I wish I knew!) (Lehigh Valley Photographer, Allentown Photographer, Bethlehem Photographer)
It’s so much fun having your photos taken, right? So surely it must be fun and easy to be on the other side of the camera too! All you do is click a button! And so, you go down to the Dan’s or the Best Buy, pickup a $400 DSLR camera, put it on auto mode and start “building your portfolio” with free or low cost shoots.
I see so many photographers begin their journey in the exact way above - mine started similarly (though I didn’t start charging until I knew how to shoot in manual mode) but I wish, I wish, I WISH I knew then what I now know about starting your own photography business. If you’ve even played with the idea of starting a photography business, currently have a brand new photography business, or just curious and want to learn more about behind the scenes, this article is for you!!
1 -Taking photos (the actual session) is truly only about 10% of the time you will be spending with your clients.
The other 90% of your time is comprised of (and not limited to):
-Ongoing Education, Editing, Emailing with potential & current clients, Setting up Client Accounts, Invoicing/Contracting clients, Blogging (hello!), Working on Website/SEO, Working on Social Media, Advertising, Downloading/Upgrading/Purchasing new programs, Filing & Paying Taxes, Uploading to Online Galleries, Organizing Receipts / Purchases, Shopping for studio props, Invoicing / Contracts with Clients, Revising Contracts/Policies, Customer Service, Standing out from the crowd (it feels like everyone is a photographer these days!), Cleaning/Servicing Gear, Purchasing & Handling Insurance information, Remitting Sales tax, Researching Hospital or Vendor Policies, Location Scouting, Helping clients with wardrobe, Designing Albums, Ordering Canvases & Prints, Washing Newborn Outfits/Blankets, Organizing the Studio, Cleaning the Studio, Packing your camera bag, Charging your batteries, And many more things!!
While everyone has their strengths, most photographers I know greatly dislike the back end of the business, which should be about 90% of your time. I remember years and years ago working at the gap part time as a kid - it was so much fun! Go in a few hours a week, get a great discount, make a little money. Eventually, I went full time and it was no longer fun - the responsibilities became greater & the pressure was more intense! Owning your own business is both fulfilling and rewarding, but it is also REALLY really hard.
2 - You cannot make a profitable living shooting for $150 or less.
We are in a for profit industry, like any other business. This means we MUST charge a livable wage. This is a wage that’s enough to cover our time, taxes, business expenses, and then leave enough to pay our bills and have a business savings account on top.
Many new photographers start out with $50 or $75 sessions to gain experience and clients. DON’T FALL INTO THAT TRAP! First, you will lose 20/30% of that to taxes. Secondly, you teach the market they can get professional photography for super cheap. The clients who book with you at $50 will likely not stay your client as you raise your pricing.
You also cannot make a living charging $150 or less for a family or newborn session. You will work yourself to death and make minimum wage. Remember, our time is just not clicking the button. it is everything I shared above and more. You can read a great article HERE outlining how $150 sessions will leave you burnt out and broke!
I’ve seen “I just do this on the side”, “I just do it for fun”, “I want to be affordable” alllllllllll the time in photography forums and groups. It is still your responsibility to get paid well for your time and cover your expenses, regardless of your motivation behind running a business.
3- You’re a small business owner. This means you do not get benefits like a full time employee!
As a small business owner, you do not get paid vacation, sick pay, holidays, short term disability, or maternity leave. After the birth of my daughter in October, I was back shooting at 4 weeks postpartum from a C-Section (and was editing a week after she was born!) As much as I would have loved to 'spend more time with her, it was a hardship to not work. It can be very difficult to pace your income enough to cover significant amounts of time off.
4 - Photographers have slow seasons & busy seasons!
I am SO busy from April-May, and again September - December. These months are absolutely insane for me. On the other hand, I am much slower January - March & June-August. April, May, September & October are super full with outdoor family sessions - the weather is most ideal, the scenery is gorgeous. On the other hand, January - March is way too cold for outdoor, and June-August is usually very hot. In addition, families are on vacation or saving for vacation and session start times are too late for young children. You have to be business savvy to save enough money to get you through the slow times.
5 -You will lose 20-30% of your income to Uncle Sam!
As a “Professional”, it is absolutely imperative that you operate as a legal, licensed business that pays your taxes. If you are not a licensed legal business, you are NOT a professional, but instead wearing an unethical mask. Expect to lose 20-30% of your income to taxes. If you charge $500 for a session, you must automatically put aside $150 to give to the good old USA. In addition, you must register to both collect & remit sales tax for your state, which is a huge pain - they want their money every month and if you are even one day late you get hit with a really nice penalty.
6 - You need to carry insurance!
Carrying insurance is another MUST in this business, especially if you shoot weddings, births, or deal with babies & children. If you are not insured, you have no right to be touching and photographing people. You could pass out while holding a baby. A child could trip over your camera bag. Your memory cards could corrupt from a wedding. Bottom line: If you are a ‘Professional’ you need to also carry insurance.
7 - Professional equipment is EXPENSIVE!!!!!!
While you most likely will start out with a $400 camera (and a 18-55 kit lens) - this is NOT Professional equipment and regardless of how experienced you become, will not yield you professional looking images. For the price we need to charge to make an honest living, our clients should be receiving high quality images. Expect to pay between $2,000-$3500 for one camera body, and lenses from anywhere between $500-2500 EACH. Most Professionals will have anywhere from 2-10 lenses depending on what they photograph. Most people I know regularly use over $10,000 in equipment depending on what they are shooting. In additional to cameras & bodies, you will likely also be purchasing: flashes, stands, memory cards, a high performance computer for editing, backup storage, product packaging, online galleries, a website, studio lighting, studio lighting triggers, camera bags, equipment cleaners, etc. This is not including the cost of backdrops, props, outfits, studio rental and other miscellaneous expenses. I typically have anywhere from 10-25,000 in expenses each year depending on if I buy near gear or not!
8 - Standing out from the Crowd
Photography is becoming an over saturated profession. I’ve had so many friends tell me they see new photographers popping up on Facebook or Instagram nearly every week. In some ways, its wonderful to make new photographer friends. On the other hand, it also devalues Professional Photography as there is more supply than demand. As such, there is more of a need for you to stand out from ‘the crowd’ of other photographers. Of course, this is never a bad thing to stand out - but it becomes more and more challenging as more and more people decide to pickup their cameras and offer cheap photo shoots for cash on the side. You will need to work hard to run a successful photography business! Many fail and go back to their day jobs.
9 - Be prepared for rejection - a lot of it!
Over my 5 years in business, I have received a LOT of rejection = most of which comes from being out of someone’s price point or budget. It’s easy to fall into a place where you start to judge yourself based on how many inquiries are booking (or not booking!) and you simply cannot do this or you will fail. While there are some people who take the time to respond and tell me I am out of their budget, other people do not respond to your email (in other words, they ghost you.) This can feel really, really bad! It’s difficult to not take it personally or allow it to be a reflection of you or your work. Once you realize this is a reflection of their budget and/or how much they value photography, it becomes so much easier to remember they are not “your client.”
\10 - People will expect you to work for free.
Most of us have all had family or friends at one time or the other expect that we take their portraits for free. While I actually love gifting my photography when I can, it’s simply impossible to always work for free. In addition to the time shooting them, you will have hour and hours behind the scenes editing their photos & uploading to a gallery for them. It’s a lot to ask someone to give up hours and hours of their time for free. On the other hand, it also feels super awkward to take money from friends and family. How would you manage this expectation from others?
It’s not just friends and family who expect us to work for free. Be prepared to be contacted by endless numbers of charities, businesses, etc who will ask you to work for exposure. I do love giving back when I can, but exposure will never, ever pay your bills. Ever.
11 - Most clients want you to work evenings & weekends.
You will be spending a lot of time working in the evenings and on weekends. While you can choose to run your business how you would like, you will find that most people want weekend portrait sessions. While I have cut back on the number of weekend sessions I offer, I still have loyal clients who need a weekend. Are you prepared to give up your weekends? How about EVERY SINGLE weekend during October & November? It’s so easy to get burnt out in this business!!
12 - Education (to start, and ongoing) is a must!!
You simply cannot just learn how to use your camera and know all you will ever know. Education & Ongoing Education should remain a priority in your business, just like other industries. Do not even think about photographing newborns until you have taken a newborn workshop or mentoring, and taken safety classes.
Gear & trends are always changing. There are always techniques to learn that will improve your business and make you feel more confident in running your business. I just attended a two day Maternity & Newborn workshop with Erin Elizabeth Photography & Stephanie Lemmens (“Celebrity” Photographers!) to the tune of $1400. Expensive? Sure! Was it worth it? Every single penny! Anyone who thinks they’ve learned all they can needs a slice of humble pie.
While being a Professional Photographer is absolutely rewarding, it does not come without things behind the scenes that aren’t as fun or fulfilling. If you’re considering becoming one, be sure to know that you are opening a business, not just playing photographer. It is your responsibility as a ‘Professional’ that our clients are in the best hands. This means you are an educated, licensed & legal photographer.
Questions? I’m happy to help!