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Thanks to the proliferation of smartphones with great cameras (for mobile devices, that is), it seems like everybody is a photographer nowadays.
But there’s a big difference between those who take the perfect selfie and those who can call themselves professional photographers. If you’re interested in starting and running your own photography business, you know there must be more to it than a iPhone.
As with any business, your own photo enterprise requires investments of time and money into securing the basics: a business plan, a website, an LLC to limit your liability, starting capital that perhaps goes beyond what you’ve got saved up in the bank, and—if you need it—a studio or other space to take pictures of your customers.
Luckily, photography is an industry that doesn’t always require a lot of start-up investment. Depending on your focus, your needs, and the kind of equipment you already have on hand, you might be able to start today.
“I run my business out of my camera bag and my computer bag,” says Alexa Klorman, owner of Alexa Drew Photography in New York City. “Because you don’t need to use film anymore—you used to have to buy that—the overhead every month is just my travel to and from my sessions, and any sort of expenses in running the business.”
If you already have things like a camera body, lens, and flash, you’re on your way. They don’t even have to be very good pieces of equipment—just yet. Here’s how you go from hobby photographer to a professional.
Once you have your business plan settled, it’s time to start shooting. You need evidence that you’re actually a photographer. Your Instagram photos of your lunch probably won’t cut it here. Depending on what you plan to focus on—whether it’s weddings, newborns, corporate events, or some combination of multiple areas—you need to start accumulating samples to showcase your abilities.
How do you get that first client? Consider a free shoot or two to get yourself off the ground.
“My business started five years ago now,” says Klorman. “I gave my first client a free session because I knew I wanted to focus on newborns. There was a co-worker who was pregnant, and I said, ‘Hey, I’m starting a business for myself, and I would be thrilled to gift you a newborn session, assuming you’d be alright with me then using the photos to promote the business.’
“From there I built my website, and I used the photos from that session to fill out my website. That was the only session I ever gave for free,” she adds.
In the beginning, you might not yet have a grip on your niche—or even your style. Use these free sessions to decide how you want to build your business and your brand.
“It was a slow build at first,” says Klorman. “I started as a newborn and kids and families photographer. I kept my focus there, but I do events too—I’ve done weddings, and I do corporate headshots.”
Good photographers have good (read: often expensive) cameras. But you don’t necessarily need to start out with top-of-the-line equipment.
“As a young photographer, I started with more amateur equipment—a camera, a lens, and a flash,” says Klorman. “Then as my business grew and as I started to get more clients and increase my price, I wanted to make sure that the quality of my photos were validated in what I was charging.
“I slowly upgraded my equipment—every few months I’d swap in this lens for this better lens or this camera for this better camera body, until I built up a nice camera bag of great equipment,” she adds. “So now I have a couple of flashes, a bunch of lenses, a really awesome body. It’s never something I had to drop a ton of money on in one stage, because every so often I just decide to get fresher equipment. ”
Also along the way, Klorman added on accessories when she needed them for a particular focus area. For example, corporate headshots require backdrops and camera stands.
Upgrading equipment might also help you refine or develop a particular style for your work, which can become as unique to your business as a logo.
“When you upgrade your lens, you are upgrading how quickly it’s going to shoot. I generally buy lenses that have very wide aperture. My style is focused in on people’s faces, their eyes, then a beautiful, milky blurred-out background—it’s called bokeh,” explains Klorman. “A lens that has a really wide aperture that goes down to 1.4 aperture lets in tons of light and gives you that background.”
Referrals are the lifeblood of many a business, and photography is no exception. The most effective marketing—the kind that professionals would kill for—is positive, word-of-mouth referrals that don’t cost a dime.
Klorman, for example, invests time in building relationships rather than spend money on marketing tactics that may or may not pay off. She’s seen great results. Her website says that her business is “90% referral based.”
“I pride myself on my referrals,” says Klorman. “I don’t invest money in marketing. I would rather spend more time making my clients feel awesome, giving them amazing photos, and building a relationship with them. When I post sneak peeks of their photos on my Facebook business page, they’ll like, comment, and tag themselves. The photo then pops up on all their friends’ newsfeeds, and referrals start coming in.”
Facebook is crucial here (as it is with most things in life these days). Klorman cites being a part of a “couple of mom groups” on Facebook as part of her marketing process.
“The best feeling is when I see someone looking for a photographer in those groups, and I go to throw my name in and I see someone else has already done it,” she says.
This isn’t to say that all kinds of paid marketing and advertising are out of the question, but Klorman says she doesn’t see nearly the kind of return on those actions as she does in cultivating relationships.
“If I do any advertising, it’s generally boosting posts on Facebook or putting a photo up and putting some dollars behind it just to drum up exposure. But I’ve found poor performance in terms of converting into leads and clients,” she says.
Whether you need a new camera body or lens, or something simple like a memory card, you need a supplier. No doubt you’ve heard of Amazon, which is a convenient and often inexpensive place to find, well, anything. But the cheapest option isn’t always the best.
“I go to Adorama in NYC. I love going there because I know the people there, I always go to the same guys. They always give me a good deal—they’re honest and kind,” says Klorman.
Klorman recommends establishing a relationship with a local shop that can keep track of your purchases—when Adorama opens her account, they see her entire camera bag is bought through them—and they’ll be open to the kind of long, detailed conversations that often accompany big purchases.
“I like to stick to one store. I always go in and ask them questions, they’re very patient and give me sound advice. I’ve always had great experiences,” she says.
One of the toughest questions to answer is what to charge for your services. Your formula should include time, plus labor, as well as a fee for using your resources. To get an idea of where to start, do what Klorman did: Look to your peers, and grow from there.
“I looked up other photographers in the area and I started pretty low on the pricing scale. Then every few months I’d bump it up a bit, then bump it up a bit. And I’d always say, ‘I’ll wait to see if inquiries and emails drop off, and if they do, I’ll lower it back down.’”
Of course, don’t just raise your price just to raise it. Once you find yourself working with your preferred clientele, at a price that works for you, you can stick with it. Similarly, stay firm on what you charge.
“I find that people generally accept my pricing—they don’t really negotiate so much,” Klorman says. “I have my price and I’m pretty strict on sticking to it because it’s a fair price. Because I’m transparent with what my packages cost, generally when people contact me, they’re ready to book.”
Part of what may affect your pricing is how long each job takes. It varies on the type of session, of course, as well as how long you spend in processing, editing, uploading, and sharing the photos with your clients.
For Klorman, portrait sessions generally last between 1.5 and 2 hours. This produces somewhere in the range of 75-100 images, edited in both black and white and color. Events can lead to hundreds of photos, though it depends on how long the event lasts.
“The time commitment varies for each photographer based on their process and workflow,” says Klorman.
Find your workflow, decide how much that time is worth, and go from there.
Photography isn’t just a popular hobby: It can be a legitimate business, provided you have an eye for a great shot and the passion for turning other people’s actions into timeless memories. It takes as much dedication as any other business, but the added bonus is your work can be visceral and affecting. It’s also a business that is easy to start small and build up.
So if you’re interested in starting your own photography business, stop messing around with your photo apps on your smartphone, and get started.