5 Things You **Must Do** To Be A Legit Pro Photographer
Around the blog, I don't tend to speak a lot to newbie photographers trying to get their businesses off the ground. The market seems to be saturated with pro photographers shaming newbies, freely explaining what they're doing wrong, aggressively defending their territory from would-be competition. It's exhausting to watch. It's very important to me to work on my own art, my own business, and stay OUT of the comparison game altogether. Plus, what works for me may not work for anyone else, so why pretend to be the expert on anything?
But. But. But. I'm going to make a quick exception to my rule, and break my silence on a few things. Hypocrisy? No, it's love. I promise. Here are 5 no-bullshit, no-shame, absolute MUST things you need to know and do to have a legit, legal business.
1. Stop shooting free sessions.
This is not meant to shame you - this is meant to express my love for you. Sweet, hardworking friend - if you undervalue your time and passion and talent and work, everyone else will, too. I know you're building your portfolio, and that is important, but if it's taking time away from your family/dog/workout routine/cooking obsession, then you need to be compensated. It's appropriate and good to charge a low rate for a short (emphasis on "short" here) time while you get your photographic feet underneath you, so to speak. But if you're running a business, you need to get paid. Bottom line. Period.
Here are my caveats to this rule:
Model calls. If you want to transition into a new niche (say, weddings or birth or boudoir), then you need to build your eye for those things and get comfortable with them. You will want to hold a "model call" to get some practice first. What a model call is NOT: it is NOT an open announcement that you will be shooting for free. See above, my loves. You don't shoot for free. You're building your portfolio in this model call stage, and your goal is to SCREEN the sessions/clients you accept. What a model call IS: it is a chance for you to design your ideal session with your ideal clients. Have people apply to participate. Have them submit a photo and give you some background on themselves/their event/their story. If it lights you up, take it on. If not, politely decline. This is YOUR business you're building, and you get to decide. You're not running a charity. I know your kind, lovely heart wants to serve all the people, even the ones who are very clearly not your ideal clients and just want a deal. But say no (politely). This is not for them, it's for you and developing your eye and stoking your passion for the niche you love.
Charity events. Business doesn't have to be cold and heartless!! If that's what you're hearing from me, don't. If giving back is important to you, pursue it. You can hold charity events like a day of mini-sessions where you give a portion or all of the proceeds to a specific cause or fund. Or you can volunteer with Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep, or Red Thread, or Operation Love Reunited, or Tiny Sparrow.
2. Get legal, like NOW.
I could tell you some horror stories of photographers who have just "let the legal stuff slide" and charged cash "under the table," only to get caught and end up owing TENS OF THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS to the IRS. This is a real thing that can really happen to you. DO NOT BE THIS PERSON, my sweet friend. If you are receiving money in exchange for your work, you are a business and you MUST must must get legit. Register your business - learn your state's laws and the different options you have (sole proprietorship and LLC are the most common options for photographers), choose a name, pay the applicable fees, get a tax ID or EIN, pay your taxes (sales and income, both). I highly recommend taking a few weeks/months to set all of this up BEFORE you even start to think about booking sessions. It's a lot of work, and you'll want to be able to focus on it with no distractions.
If you're local to Chattanooga, The Co.Lab is an INCREDIBLY invaluable resource. I recommend going through their Co Starters course for a full, in depth walkthrough of everything you need to know. I can't recommend it highly enough, and no, I don't get paid in any way to say that. They also have free Wayfinding Sessions that you can schedule to help get an idea of what your next steps should be.
3. Get your money in shape.
If you're a creative, chances are you may have aversion to the money side of things. That's okay, you are not alone. Best practice here is to hire an accountant - preferably someone who has worked with photographers before. Don't be scared, accountants don't bite. I promise. But at the VERY least, you need to:
Open a business checking account. Do NOT mix your personal finances with your business finances. It's messy and dangerous. Don't do it. Also, DON'T DO IT. Local banks and credit unions usually have great programs for small businesses just like yours, so do some bank shopping and find the right one for you.
Set a budget. Contrary to popular belief, being a photographer is expensive. Like, CRAZY expensive. Who knew, right?! At the outset, you're going to need at least one camera body, at least one lens, one flash (though my advice is try not to use it much - but you do you, and also that's another post for another time), one computer, a backup system for your files, several external hard drives, PLENTY of memory cards, a dedicated office space (it can be anywhere, but you absolutely must have one. Years ago, I transformed my walk in closet into an office space and it was awesome. Get creative, but get your own space), a camera bag, insurance (more on that in a minute), a CPA, income taxes, business license, a business management platform (I swear by Pixifi, but there are others like 17hats, ShootQ, and Tavé - and lots more), a website (!!!!!!! do NOT skip this step!! More on this later), including a domain name, domain registration, web hosting, website platform, web design, and any integrations like shopping cart, booking system, lead capture, photo hosting/client galleries, etc. And that, my friends, is the very bare minimum. You're going to want to add in things like professional services (Canon Professional Services if you're a Canon person - and whatever you Nikon people do if that's your thing *eyeroll* #justkiddingNikonIsFine) because you have to get your gear checked at least once a year if you want to keep it working; memberships like maybe WPPI and/or PPA, or ClickinMoms (don't let the name turn you off, the knowledge base they have is wonderful); marketing/advertising, printing (welcome packets, brochures, business cards, etc), education (honestly, this one falls under the "must" category - you just can't be a photographer on your own inherent knowledge or talent) - there's a LOT out there, but I highly recommend CreativeLive. All that to say, there are so many things to consider when going pro, and it's important not to underestimate how much it's going to cost you. Build a comprehensive budget based on these things. Some are one time purchases (at least until they need to be upgraded), but many of these expenses are monthly or yearly or in some way recurring. A loose framework to keep in mind when budgeting is that 30% of your gross income needs to be allocated to taxes, and the remaining 70% needs to be divided between business expenses, business savings, and income (don't forget to pay yourself!). The percentages you allocate to those things are up to you and your own specific needs.
4. Get a website.
This will come as a shock, but photography is a visual industry. And where do people make their spending decisions? Primarily online. Thus, you need a website. This may seem obvious, but there are so many photographers who rely on Facebook or Instagram or just word of mouth to book clients - and it just isn't sustainable. For starters, you don't look professional. You also don't have a reliable way to share your style and eye and process and the necessary information for potential clients to hire you.
To build a great web presence out of the gate, an easily recognizable domain name (you can buy one through Bluehost or GoDaddy or any number of domain registration sites), a web host (I currently use Bluehost and have no complaints), a platform (I currently use WordPress but am in the process of switching over to Squarespace - and have also used Showit in the past), and a site to put on the platform (ProPhoto is great for Wordpress sites and has a variety of beautiful templates that work right out of the box, so to speak). Once you have a domain name, you can set up business email through your domain (important for looking professional!).
5. Set your policies.
Guess what? Clients and potential clients are going to ask you to do things you don't want to do. Whether it's offer a discount, or "just take one good photo," or do some intense Photoshop work that doesn't fit your style, or stretch your one hour session to 3 hours, or do a reshoot, or come to their kid's birthday party as a friend - but "bring your camera," or shoot a session that's out of your wheelhouse - it's going to happen, and it's going to happen multiple times. So before you even start, spend some time doing some soul searching and ask yourself what your ideal session experience is and how to achieve it. Anything outside of that ideal needs to be put down in writing. Make a list of the things you just won't do, and stick to them. Create a contract (hire a lawyer for this, or at least buy a contract template from a real lawyer - Rachel Brenke of The Law Tog is a great place to start). Have every. single. one. of your clients sign it before photographing them. Every client, every time. Any client you photograph or receive money from without that contract is legal danger you're leaving yourself open to.
Now that you have policies and a contract, make sure your clients are aware of them. Every client, every time. Email it to them so they have it in writing, or put it in their welcome packet if that's more your jam, but make sure they have it in writing.
I know all of these things seem like a real buzzkill to your dreams, but trust me when I say they are V I T A L. Don't leave yourself open to lawsuits, brutal IRS audits, angry clients, not getting paid, burning out, not breaking even, and piles of unnecessary stress.
Emily Lapish is a family documentarian and birth photographer in Chattanooga, TN. She likes storms, coffee, and bulky sweaters. To book your session or consultation, click here.