The 8 Steps to Becoming a Professional Photographer

Choosing to become a professional photographer sounds like a great idea if you are the creative type looking for a job with flexible hours, exciting projects, and significant financial rewards. But what you may not realize is that you’re not getting a job; you’re starting a business. To become a photographer, you must first learn how to start a business and then sell your creative skills as a service to your clients.

Not All Professional Photographers are the Same

Before we get into the steps to become a pro photographer, you should first know the four main types of photography businesses:

  1. Commercial Photography
  2. Retail Photography
  3. Photojournalism
  4. Fine Art Photography 

Here’s what you need to know about each type of photography business.

Commercial Photography Business

Photo shot for Hunter Douglas by Lincoln Barbour

A commercial photographer creates photos and videos for other businesses and organizations. The work you create is very much driven by the creative direction outlined by the client. The people that hire you are usually business owners, art buyers, media producers, and/or marketing directors. Here at Photo Authentic, we help photographers like you start and grow their commercial photography business through online coaching, estimate consulting, and portfolio editing.

Retail Photography Business

Photo by Jen Fariello

A retail photographer creates photographs for consumers and their photography services range from weddings to family portraits, to senior portraits, and so forth. The work you create is usually for one person or a family and is used for personal use only.

Photojournalism & Reportage

Black Lives Matter Protest in Portland, OR – Photo by Lauren Brooks Barbour

This type of photography can be either a salaried position or a self-employed freelance gig where you document current events for news outlets. Oftentimes, you are hired by a photo editor and given the assignment to do complete on a certain day or at a particular time. You are very much at the whims of a news cycle when you are a photojournalist. Some photojournalists will apply for grants to fund longer-term photo projects.

Fine Art Photography Business

Geometric Patterns by Lincoln Barbour

Photographers who sell their photography as art have the luxury of being able to shoot what they want, when they want, and sell it for whatever price they define. The downside is demand is usually low and supply is very high. It takes a photographer with a very unique vision to rise above the millions of photographers selling their work as art. Usually, a person buying your art is a collector or a patron is buying from an art gallery. Therefore, your client is often the gallery owner just as much as the art buyer.

Follow These 8 Steps to Become a Professional Photographer

No matter which way you want to take your photography business, you will need to do the following steps:

  1. Decide if your photography business will mainly be Commercial, Retail, Photojournalism, or Art. It’s very hard to convince business owners to hire you as a product photographer if you also show weddings on your website. It’s like buying a car from the same place you bought your bicycle. Sure they’re both vehicles, but the service is very different. Someone who sells bikes probably doesn’t know a lot about selling cars and vice versa.
  2. Define your niche as a photographer and who your ideal customer is. Make sure your niche makes sense for your current situation. It may be harder to become a celebrity portrait photographer if you live in Lincoln, Nebraska rather than Los Angeles California.
  3. Verify your name, business name, and or trade name is not being used by someone else in your state or nationally. First, just Google your name and see what shows up. If there’s an ax murderer with the same name as you, then you may want to come up with a different moniker to work under. Conversely, if there already is an established photographer using your name, then decide if you want to challenge that or build something new.
  4. If you want to protect your personal assets, consider registering your business as an LLC. You will need an EIN number and file a corporate registration in the state you live in. Google “Register LLC [State Name]” for more info.
  5. Check with your city/county if you need to register for a business license to operate where you live. Most places do. Again, Google “Register Business [City Name]” and you will find out all the things you need to do to do this. You have to be legit otherwise big fines and penalties await you down the road.
  6. Open a Business Checking and Savings Account separate from your personal account. You will need to bring with you your EIN Number (recommended) or Social Security Card, State Corporation Registration (if you did an LLC), and Local Business License (if required) as well as personal identification like a driver’s license or passport. You’ll also need to put some money in there so bring a checkbook or cash.
  7. Develop a portfolio, website, and marketing plan to serve your niche. This is KEY. You must line up your marketing efforts to your ideal client otherwise your wasting your time. You want to fish where the fish are.
  8. Sign up for Business Liability Insurance ($1 million policy minimum) with Equipment and Rental Coverage. I use and recommend Taylor & Taylor

Now you’re in business! 

(just don’t skip any of these steps)

There are many pitfalls to working for yourself as a photographer, but following the above guideline will keep you on track to succeed. Here are some of those downfalls to skipping any of these steps.

  • Not deciding on a business model will create more work for you because each type is very different in how you find clients, shoot jobs, and deliver your work. It’s a huge headache and can cause a lot of confusion.
  • The same goes for picking a niche. Picking a style or genre of photography that you like and do well is the fastest way to get work you love to do and clients who will pay you well for it.
  • Registering for a business license is super important and often overlooked by those just first starting out as photographers. If you go a full year and make an income as a photographer, the city or town you live in will want to tax you and if you don’t pay it, you will be forced out of business. Do it early to save yourself fines and hassle later.
  • Keeping your business purchases separate from your personal purchases is so important at tax time. You can do it in one checking account, but it’s a huge hassle to split out what was used for business and what was used for personal later when you file taxes. Make your life easier and get a business checking and savings account. Use the savings account to save for taxes. At least 25% or more of your profit will go to taxes. Keep that in mind and don’t forget to pay your taxes.

Need Help Becoming a Professional Commercial Photographer?

I hope this guide was helpful to you as you begin your journey of becoming a photographer.  If you need any help with these action steps, I would be happy to be your guide.

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