Photography is often viewed as a romantic occupation: have camera, will travel.
But as a competitive industry — and one where everyone thinks they’re a photographer because they’ve got a smartphone — it’s not an easy freelance or full-time occupation to break into.
We talked to nine professionals about how to start a photography business, including the steps they took to find their niche, sign their first clients, and develop the business skills needed to be successful.
Portrait and Lifestyle Photography
“I started my photography business a little over two months ago. I felt good doing it, and I love to see the happiness on people’s faces when they view the finished product.
Equipment and paid advertisements have been the biggest startup costs. Finance, organization, creative management, and scheduling are key to my business at the current time.
I found my first clients through friends and family — most of the people who I already had some type of relationship with. My advice to others would be to keep it simple and don’t overthink it. It’s okay to ask for help and advice as long as you keep a good spirit of discernment in every decision that you make.”
– James Parker, SeeYouOnTheWest
“Before going off on my own, I worked for a restaurant group and did photography for them, so I had a pretty good understanding of what restaurants wanted and needed. I’ve also been working on expanding my photography work to include travel.
I freelanced on the side before starting my business, so I had a lot of the tools I needed. There were some initial administrative costs, but nothing too daunting.
I’ve had to learn so many things about establishing a business, from the legal paperwork to the marketing side. It’s been an intense learning curve. Many of my freelance clients carried over, which was a great way to start out.
Figuring out effective marketing strategies has been challenging! I’ve found that reaching out directly to pitch potential clients has been the most productive route, but it’s very time consuming, so I’m testing out different things all the time.
My advice for starting this type of business would be to save up enough ahead of time to get through a year. Invest in getting help at the things that are particularly challenging for you, whether that’s design or accounting. Be willing to try different things to get to your ultimate goal.”
– Sandy Noto, Sandy Noto Photography
Event and Wedding Photography
“I started photography about seven years ago, but it only became an official business a year ago. In the beginning, I tried a little bit of everything, working with anyone who reached out — anything to get better at my craft and learn.
Equipment was definitely the most expensive startup cost. I started with the most affordable camera I could get my hands on, and have only made two upgrades since! Another huge cost was (and continues to be) time. An hour of photography means at least another few hours of editing.
I’ve learned a lot about negotiating. Because photography isn’t a physical product, a lot of potential clients will try and negotiate a lower cost for your services, or extra time on top of the package you’ve offered.
I started by shooting photos of products I love (user-generated content is huge for big brands these days) to increase my exposure and practice. I posted all the work on social media and got really lucky with referrals — it was clients who pitched me first for jobs!
Social media has been the most effective marketing strategy — it’s great when clients can find my work through location sharing, tags, and other clients tagging my profile.
The best advice I have is to start! Shoot every day, whether it’s the pretty latte art from the cute cafe you go to, your dinner, hangouts with friends, or the street you walk on.”
– Hanna Kim, Haeweddings Wedding Photography
“I started my business in October 2015 as a portrait photographer and then moved into weddings in September 2017. I saw so many weddings happen where the focus was reportage photography and decided in the era of digital phones and cameras that I would concentrate on the fine art area of wedding photography.
To run a business as a wedding photographer, you need exceptional communication and organizational skills — and lots of planning!
I asked friends to recommend me if they knew of anyone getting married and went to a lot of wedding fairs. The biggest startup cost was the samples, the albums, and getting artwork ready for the fairs.
My advice for others would be to do a lot of investigation into what you want to do. Don’t go into this because you want to make money, as you don’t for a long time. Do this because you love it.”
– Annie Park, Park Photography
“I officially started my business in 2006, but I always had a camera in hand before that at holiday parties, BBQs, and the like. I enjoy photographing people in the moment, doing what they enjoy, be it playing sports, DJing at the club or performing on stage. I focused on capturing those moments.
Equipment can be costly. I was able to obtain some quality equipment early and work on my craft.
My first clients were mainly my close friends and family. They helped spread the word and share my images. I’ve found the most effective strategy has been my presence on social media sites. I’m able to reach others that I normally wouldn’t. I’ve also partnered with a few other photography companies to market me and my business.
If you truly enjoy something, put the hard work and effort into it. Especially in a world where everyone has a camera or smartphone — you need to separate yourself from the everyday photographer. Be creative and experiment!”
– Joe Pearson, Piehouse Six Photography
“When you first pick up a camera and fall in love, it takes a lot of practice to find your thing. Through that process, I found I loved having couples in front of my lens. It was apparent the type of couple I could connect with best and I started to specifically seek those couples out. Today I call them my ideal clients!
The biggest startup cost was equipment — cameras and lenses aren’t cheap, but start with only what’s needed: one camera and one lens. Monthlies are also a big chunk of a photographers cost of doing business: Adobe Creative Cloud for editing, your website host, your professional email address, etc.
You need to always be learning. When you start up a business of any kind, there are things you’ll need to know, but probably don’t. You need to learn the basics of nearly everything (including things like taxes).
The other skill that is absolutely crucial is people skills. People will remember how you made them feel and that will trump the quality of the photograph.
I found my first clients from my support system. A good friend of mine told a couple about me and they booked. That was my first wedding. Social media is also a game-changer these days, but ultimately it depends on the type of photography you’re doing. Being personable on Instagram is my most effective marketing strategy!
Know why you’re going into business for yourself inside and out. That way when you have a rough day, you can go back to why you’re doing this and it will motivate you rather than disappoint you.”
– Alicia Yarrish, Alicia Yarrish Photography
“I’ve always loved photography, but I originally only liked taking pictures of things. Then I realized how beautiful taking pictures of actual people can be.
I spend $144 on a website for a year and $25 a month on a program called 17hats, which I use to run my business. Then there’s the editing side, where I spend $10.99 a month for Adobe Creative Cloud, which gives me Lightroom and Photoshop. This is more cost-effective than buying it outright because then I get new updates!
You have to be approachable and know how to make the first approach as well. Word of mouth is honestly the most powerful tool in this business!
My most effective marketing strategy has been promoting myself on different Facebook groups. I’m in lots of wedding groups in the area and I post in there constantly. I also work at a school and I put things in teachers lounges as well, and I’ve volunteered at charity events and donated my services there to promote myself more as well.
The best advice I can give is to buy that camera and start taking photos. See if you really like it enough to want to be in this business. It’s super competitive, so you’ll need to stand out and put a lot of time and effort into your work. I also recommend attending different workshops and meeting other photographers.”
– Taylor Zeldes, Taylor Ruth Photography
Real Estate Photography
“My partner and I have an interest in architecture, and a friend of ours is a real estate agent. He got us interested in shooting properties.
We shot events before real estate, so we had the basic equipment when we started. However, we did need to add some specific lenses and other equipment to make our gear specific for shooting houses.
The biggest skillset we had to learn in this business is online marketing! Any time we’re not shooting or editing, we’re concentrated on marketing.
We shot for friends for free to build up the portfolio on our website. Once we had that, we started putting up profiles on various online platforms that connect photographers with clients. That’s where we landed our first paying client, and we were stoked!
The biggest marketing strategy has been running paid ads on Google and Yelp. The second biggest one is referrals from other clients; we always push for that.
The work is rewarding and challenging and frustrating at times. You won’t please every client you have, but always be consistent and honest about your work!”
– Roman Debotch, Finally Real Estate Video & Photography
“I started my business, part-time, in 2016. I began by doing 360 virtual tours, but there wasn’t a lot of demand. Having the basic real estate photography gear, it was an easy shift into doing still photography. From there, I’ve added video and drone photography.
I was a real estate agent, so I started taking pictures of my own listings. From there, I started doing my broker’s listings, and from there, it’s been a combination of online marketing and referrals. I constantly network and let others know that I’m a real estate photographer. Once I’ve done a few jobs for a client, I ask for a referral.
Hands down, the most expensive items for real estate photography are the lenses — you need a tilt-shift lens, a wide-angle lens, and one or two close-up lenses. Next would be the camera body — I use a full-frame one.
Another consideration is the time needed to learn Photoshop and Lightroom. To do this type of photography, you need a very good working knowledge of editing photos. The next important skill is time management.
For me, the most effective marketing strategy has been from online marketing. I rank well for some key phrases, and this brings in a steady amount of requests.
My advice for others would be to get a mentor, take classes, and practice, practice, practice! Also, be prepared to do free or very low-cost work. As you gain experience, you can then adjust your pricing.”
– Tom Poblano, Big Island 360 Media
Starting a photography business? Check out our photography logo ideas page to get a jump-start on your visual branding.