Photography Business Ownership: Myths, Truths, and Tips for Success

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“Start your own business”, they said, “it will be fun!” “You get to make your own hours, and be your own boss!” While all of that is true to a point, I’m here to provide a little hard-knock truth for anyone hoping to take the leap into full time photography business ownership.

“Start your own business, it will be fun!”

I spent 15 years in the food and beverage industry where I did some amazing things, and met some amazing people. However, photography is my passion and being a business owner was all I wanted. I thought, why not put the two together. Business combined with photography is a win-win right? That’s also true, to a point.

I am sitting here at 9:00 pm on a Saturday finishing up at my studio because, well, I work seven days a week. Why? I own a business that requires me to be here Monday through Friday. However, my clients also work Monday through Friday so weekends are when they can meet me for consultations, photo shoots, photo pick-up, photo reveals, and anything else related to their upcoming or past shoot with me. As a business owner, I want to cater to their needs and their schedules because, let’s face it, they are the boss!

Don’t get me wrong, I truly love what I do and I have a blast doing it. What isn’t so fun is figuring out how to make it through the slow winter months. Not many brides want to get married in the snow, it’s too cold for family or maternity sessions outdoors, and no one wants to schedule an engagement shoot in 15 degree weather. During the winter months my days consist of marketing myself to local businesses for holiday events, calling hotels to do themed photoshoots for their guests, or hiring an actor to play Santa for in-studio portrait sessions. I work harder and more often in the winter than I do during wedding season--and I shoot 40+ weddings a year!

If you are going into business for yourself, you need to do it right. Out of respect for the industry and all of the hard-working photographers, I recommend legitimizing your business as soon as you can. My company, Stolen Images Photography, has three business licenses, and eight county licenses. I have insurance for myself, my equipment, and my business. I pay state quarterly taxes, and all county taxes where applicable. I have a studio cost that is within my means and I make sure I have the proper equipment to shoot any event necessary. I hope you get the point.

I cannot compete with “Joe” who does photography on the side as a hobby to make a couple of extra bucks. His income from these shoots is untaxed and unaccounted for, and he can therefore charge a quarter of the price that I do. It is impossible to keep up. If you prioritize these legal aspects when first starting out, then you can avoid any issues down the road and know that you are charging your worth. In my opinion, owning a nice DSLR is at the bottom of the list when actually starting a photography business.

I encourage you to do the research, understand the financial and ethical responsibilities, and then move forward with the setup of your business. Consider how many photographers are in your area and are shooting the same genre. Have you consulted an accountant? Do you understand how to write and read a P&L spreadsheet? Should you be a sole proprietor or LLC? A lot of people see the cost of wedding photography these days and think, “I have a great camera, and I can make a ton of money too!” While there is money to be made in this industry, if you don't understand business 101 and how competitive the photography market is, your “fun business” will quickly become a nightmare!

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“You get to make your hours and be your own boss!”

Yes, owning your own business does make you your own boss. That said, as a professional photographer, it can feel as though you have over 100 different bosses who compare you, your portfolio, and the way you run your business to everything they see on Pinterest or read in bridal magazines. All of these bosses can request tasks like: “shave 15lbs off my photo, and lose my double chin.” Every weekend your bosses are worried about having the perfect wedding day without a glitch. They will expect magazine quality photos and nothing less every week, every month, all year long.

When I am hired for a wedding, I wear multiple hats. First and foremost I am a photographer, but I’m also a comedian, coordinator, and often times a counselor. You certainly do not have to do all of the things I have shared here, but to be the best, you have to stand out which means going above and beyond for every client. For every one of my “bosses” I offer two consultations, an engagement shoot, an engagement photo reveal, a save the date layout and reveal, a walk-through tour of their venue, I attend the rehearsal, and capture their wedding day for 10-14 hours. I also ensure I’m accessible to my bride via phone, text, or email. Did I mention I shoot 40+ weddings a year? As you can see, owning a wedding photography business is a lot more than just shooting a wedding.

In regard to office hours, ideally I would like to have “open” & “close” hours listed on my website. Realistically, If you want to be one of the top professionals in your area, I recommend you do not have these restrictions. As mentioned before, your clients, or “bosses,” normally work the office hours, so they are contacting you when they are done with their day, which is likely outside of those hours. Lastly, even if you limit client support to office hours, there is still editing to be done which can easily take over the hours you hope to spend away from your business if your time is not managed well.

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“Own a business--it’s the American Dream!”

Thus far, I have been brutally honest about the realities of owning a photography business. My intention is not to steer anyone away from it. I want to be transparent about all aspects involved in making sure your business is a successful one. The money will come, but it will only come with time, effort, and dedication. I encourage you not to throw in the towel and run away screaming when things get challenging. Get creative when solving problems. Find new avenues and new and interesting locations. Go out and shoot whatever it is that you’re passionate about so you can remind yourself why you started your business in the first place.

I hope I’ve helped you understand that owning a business is hard work. I don’t know anyone that thinks owning a business is a cakewalk. But it can also be extremely rewarding when your hard work pays off. I want to also provide some encouragement. Go out and chase your dream of being a world-renowned photographer. Put in the work and time to make it successful. Get up early, shoot all day, edit all night, and never forget where you started. No one in this industry started at the top but that doesn't mean you cannot get there yourself.

Take care, happy shooting!

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Blake Crossley

Blake Crossley