December 2, 2022
A good photographer can make serious profits from their work. Once the startup costs are covered, overheads can be incredibly low, and a respected professional can be paid very handsomely for their talents.
But how do you break into the industry, and what will it cost? We’re going to look at just how to start a photography business shortly, but let’s discuss the current state of the industry first.
Photography Businesses: An Industry Overview
Photography is one of the most profitable industries in the US. Despite a significant drop in demand for photography services during the peak of the pandemic, the industry is recovering well, and individuals, partnerships, and studios are on the rise again.
Despite all the setbacks, the market is expected to grow from $36 billion in 2021 to $44 billion in 2025 at a CAGR of 5%. This follows a recent CAGR of 10.6% after businesses rearranged their approaches in response to COVID-19 restrictions. This also covers a lot of different business models, so doesn’t really give a good indication of an individual’s prospects of entering the market. For that, there are other things to consider.
Photographers are diversifying. Social media is playing a huge role in the industry as a whole, but particularly for freelancers, and many now make money on YouTube or Instagram selling stock photos or running tutorials. This is both a positive and a negative to those starting out as it does mean there are more platforms and niches available, but it’s also a sign that the competition is getting higher.
Technology is also driving the industry, as professional-quality hardware is becoming cheaper and more accessible to many. Phone cameras alone are better than many high-end cameras from the previous decade already, at least for general use, but specialist hardware is also improving.
Mirrorless cameras, new lens tech, battery improvements, and various other technological factors are bringing the quality up and the price down across many fronts, and trends suggest
Trends suggest that photos taken on smart devices are set to increase as a proportion of total photos taken and that the popular themes will continue to lean towards activism and inclusivity. Togetherness and empowerment are resilient targets of the craft across all markets in the industry in the US.
So, while it’s been a tumultuous few years for the industry, recovery is looking good, and it does appear that starting a photography business could work out well for the savvy investor. There key things to consider in the process will be the business model that’s right for you and a strong focus on how to market your services in a competitive environment.
Photography Businesses: Revenue Streams
As we suggested, there are countless approaches to getting a new business off the ground. Not only can you work at almost any scale, but there are also both products and services that could act as your revenue stream throughout, and this applies across a wide range of specialties.
A March 2022 survey highlighted fifteen primary photography specializations in the industry, split into their genres. In increasing significance, these were:
- Fine Art
The three largest specializations were portraits, landscapes, and weddings, with a share of 19.3%, 11.4%, and 8.7% respectively. The vast majority of photographers surveyed (83%) said that they work with up to three different types of clients, and just over one-third said they work with only one. These clients range from small to large businesses, to individuals.
So, there are several revenue streams available, and your startup costs will reflect the angle of your approach in relation to them. That is, if you’re looking to shoot wildlife, you’re going to need a different set of equipment than if you’re going to be working at weddings. Similarly, if you’re alone, you’ll need less gear than if you’re working as a team.
So, whether you want to be a freelancer, a studio, or a contractor team, your revenue sources will vary considerably. This means there’s no set answer for how much it’ll cost for you to reach your goals, but the good news is that for most, starting a simple photography company is more than achievable without extra funding.
Photography Businesses: Startup Costs
To get an idea of some high and low-end estimates, let’s break down some of the costs of getting set up.
Canon and Nikon have the majority of the market share when it comes to camera brands, so we’ll look at their most popular kit. A low-end business that wants to start small and grow organically might involve a simple setup with a Canon EOS 5D – the most popular model – and a lens with the most common focal length of a “nifty fifty” 50mm. All of this kit is available in perfect condition, second-hand, but let’s assume you’re going to buy everything brand new:
- Camera – You’ll want at least one, maybe a spare. $700 - $1400
- Lenses – Again, two is better than one. $150 to $300
- Bag, lens cover, spare batteries, memory cards – The basic accessories. $250
- Tripod - $50
- Software and storage - $500
For the gear, then, you’ve got a startup cost of around $2500. Assuming you have a laptop or computer that can both handle processing and storing your photos, that’ll be more or less all you need to begin with.
The rest of the startup costs will relate to getting the business set up and insuring your gear, and this will involve next to nothing at the low end. Then, there’s marketing, and this too can be almost free if you leverage your social media effectively. You could factor in around the same cost of your gear again at the low end, bringing your total startup costs to somewhere around $4500 for a small photography freelancing business.
It’s important to understand that this is a bare-bones estimate, and while it is possible, a comfortable budget for a photography startup would be closer to $10,000 – a figure that many professionals consider plenty to begin with.
At the high end, you’ll be looking at much the same in terms of equipment, only more of it. Multiple lenses of different types, vehicles, lots more insurance, and a far bigger marketing budget. Then you may need a headquarters, which will come at a cost of rent and utilities, and you’ll also be paying salaries and other employer-related costs like insurance.
This will put you into the tens or hundreds of thousands, and of course, will also be variable depending on where and how you want to break into the industry. Either way, you’ll be able to start off slow and work your way up, meaning that you can fund your expansion from the money you make as you progress.
Starting a Photography Business: How much will you make?
What your revenue amounts to will depend on your niche, your skills, and how well you market yourself. You’ll also have to be willing to put the work in, and if you’re doing this as a side gig, it’s obviously going to bring in less than if you’re totally committed to full-time work.
That said, it’s a simple matter to look at some of the jobs that different photographers take on, and extrapolate from their prices.
A wedding photographer can make $2000 to $3000 for one day of shooting. That means if you get the clients, you can make $78,000 a year just shooting once a fortnight. The profit on that will depend on your overheads, and this does rely on a steady stream of clients. On average, the national salary for a wedding photographer is $54,000, but this will include employed photographers, who may earn significantly less.
Portrait photography rates are around $150 to $300 an hour, with daily rates of around $1000, meaning you could make around half as much in the same amount of time, but the larger market for portraits suggests that you’d be likely to get more clients.
Landscape or nature photographers will cost their customers about $150 to $200, making it a less lucrative pursuit in terms of daily rate, but those who choose this path appreciate the work enough and receive a significant number of clients to make it worthwhile.
All in all, it might be a good idea to appeal to more than one market. It’s not useful to diversify too much, but if you are capable of reaching more than one segment at a time, you’re likely to weather various shifts in consumer demand.
Typically though, diversifying your revenue streams in photography is less about switching styles and more about branching out within the same style, by way of teaching, selling equipment, or offering photo editing services along the same lines.
So, with all that in mind, where to start? Learning how to start a photography business begins with gaining the appropriate skills. If you have these already, you can skip the next part. If not, here’s a brief guide.
Starting a Photography Business: Becoming a Photographer
Your skill set will define your niche, and vice-versa. If you’re starting from scratch, it’s a good idea to have a goal in mind, so that you can pick up the relevant skills to achieve it. Step 1 to becoming a photographer is to understand what motivates you and what will keep you coming back to the job in the long run.
Then, get some experience. This doesn’t mean only going out and taking photos, but also following photographer spaces and attending talks and lessons. Go to exhibitions and talk to experts. Get an overall feel for the industry and what it takes. If you haven’t got your heart set on a direction yet, this is how you’ll be likely to find it.
Photography is one of those skills that can be acquired in numerous ways. Paying for the best education might be useful, but it isn’t necessary. There are so many paid and free resources online that you have plenty of ways to teach yourself, on your own schedule. This makes it great as an after-work pursuit and gives you time to learn at your own pace.
Be sure to improve and hone your skills in the area you want to work in, and then move onto certified photography programs to improve your resume. If you choose to follow a degree path, there are photography degrees at both bachelor’s and master’s levels.
For experience, it might be useful to do an internship or take a job before you go it alone. You’ll be getting paid to gain valuable experience, and it may set you up to avoid some mistakes when you start your business.
How to Start a Photography Business
Now, it’s time to get your project off the ground. You should have your focus area, your experience, and your education behind you, and you should have started developing your unique style. You may even have all the gear already, and a decent portfolio for your marketing.
Start by working on your business plan, which will guide you through the market research, into your pricing schemes, and give you an overview of exactly how you’ll grab your market share in the area of your focus.
A good business plan will also include your financial projections. These will be handy for taking out a startup or expansion loan if you need them for working capital or more equipment, and we've got an easy to use financial projection template specifically for photography and videography businesses.
Make sure you’re registered and insured. Look up the requirements for opening a business of your type and register it appropriately, then consider insurance based on your needs. This might include one or more of the following:
- General Liability
- Business Owner’s Policy
- Professional liability
- Worker’s compensation
- Vehicle insurance
Once you’ve got everything planned and registered you’ll have to start marketing hard. Your business plan should have led you to an outline of your marketing strategies, and now is the time to implement them. Social media is your friend here, and if you don’t have an online presence, you need to find one fast!
How to Start a Photography Business: Growing your Client Base
Common sources of clients for photographers include:
- Trade shows
- Email Marketing
- Google Ads
With the majority coming from Instagram and direct contact. In many areas, photography is all about your reputation. You may have only one chance to get it right (your clients aren’t going to run their wedding back if you screw up), so you have to make it count. Growing your client base will be heavily reliant on referrals based on this reputation, so be ready to do a good job.
Other than working on your reputation, it’s important to engage with your audience. This is what makes social media the most powerful tool you’ve got. Put your work out there, share your expertise, and establish yourself with a presence so that when the time comes that your prospects are looking for your services, they don’t have to look far.
Post regularly and be heavy in the comments section with compliments, suggestions, and other useful material. Have a blog, and keep it updated. Consider even a YouTube channel where appropriate. There are many saturated markets in photography, so your network and your online presence will be everything.
With that in mind, keep in touch with previous clients, even if they aren’t likely to get married again, they might know someone who will. If you do all of this, your client base should grow organically, and with it, your business. Coupled with the potential for great returns on your startup overheads, this is what makes photography such an appealing prospect for many looking to turn their skills into a career.
Photography projects come in all shapes and sizes. One of the perks of going down this path as an entrepreneurial photographer is that you can get started for a very accessible sum and grow your business slowly and smartly in a way that allows you to channel your profits into that growth as you go.
This means you keep full control over your vision and you’re not financially responsible for paying off any loans. It’s also infinitely variable. Anything that can be seen can be a subject of photography, and there’s a market for all of them if you know where to look.
And that’s where social media will come in critical to your success. From finding your people to engaging with them and showing them what you have to offer, it is the most powerful tool a photographer can wield.