How to Start Your Photography Business Step by Step

A month before graduating high school I wasn’t planning on going to college. I was pretty beaten up by the academics of high school and figured I would never make it through a college class. The only classes I looked foreword to in high school were my photography and choir.  Then, weeks before I snatched up my diploma, an acceptance letter from Northwest College arrived saying that I had been accepted to their Photographic Communication department. I wasn’t sure about college, but I was sure about photography.

I wanted my photos to be on the front page of National Geographic. Or have my images used in campaigns for nonprofits like UNICEF. I knew I wanted to make an impact on this world with my passion for photography, but I never knew where to start and didn’t have the confidence to pursue it because I had so many people asking “Well how are you going to make any money with that?” or “That’s a hard profession to get into, maybe you should have a back up plan.”

So that is why I am writing this, this is for the dreamers out there holding their Craigslist camera, wanting to photograph any and everything they come in contact with. I want to give you the confidence and all the knowledge I have so far to help you create a plan to start your own photography business. I have been a business owner for almost 2 years, but I planned and worked toward my business for 3 and half years before I ever hit the launch button on my website.

It takes A LOT of hard work, and I have made some really great decisions, and some not so great ones. I want you to be able to learn from it all! So here is my 2,172 worded answer to “How do I start my photography business?”

My first step was getting an education. I feel like this set me apart from so many photographers who start their businesses at my age, plus it gave me a lot more pride in my work and myself.

This is my personal experience with education in photography. I want to show you a possible path that has worked for me as well as many of my friends. If you read any of these options and want to hear more from someone who went through the program please leave a comment below and I will hook you up with someone I know that you can chat with!

I went to Northwest College and graduated with an associate’s degree in Photographic Communications. They offer a 2 year fast track, intense, and very educational degree for Photographic Communications. They are more focused on commercial work like portraits, food photography, fashion photography, and how to work with other creatives to make ads.

Northwest gave me an incredible bang for my buck! It has lower tuition costs with amazing scholarship opportunities. They have huge photography studios that make you feel like a pro and you can rent high end photographic equipment for FREE!!!

I could go on and on about Northwest, but personally I think it got me ready for the real world with critiques of my work, deadlines, and prompts for projects that made me explore my creativity. I was pushed by my professors daily to become better, and even though I had a lot of meltdowns, I would go back in a heartbeat.

Here are a few options for how to educate yourself

  1. If going to college isn’t for you, but maybe you had saved up for it in some capacity use your college money instead to go to workshops and conferences that teach you how to market yourself and teach you about posing, lighting, and how your camera works. Find a photographer’s work you love and see if they teach courses! Google beginners photography workshops and read all the reviews, look over what they offer in their program, and ask on social media if anyone has done those courses and if they would do them again. It’s also a great way to meet other creatives that you’ll keep asking questions far after your workshop is done.
  2. Montana State College has a great program that explores both the artistic and applied sides of photography for photographers planning to start businesses or for post-grad education. It’s accredited by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design so there shouldn’t be any doubt about whether you’re getting legit, professional instruction. In my experience, this is a more art-based program with a lot of work with film cameras and alternative processes. I have had a few friends graduate from this program and I saw a show they presented at the end of the year and they produce some impressive work!
  3. Online education: Find a college that does online photography classes, like the Art Institute where you get all the education you would learn in a classroom but with more flexibility for your schedule. Also there are incredible photography classes online for only $20 a month where you can learn from the best of the best in the photography industry. I have taken classes through Adorama, Creative Live, Skill share, and Masterclass. And again, if you find a photographer’s work you love they sometimes also have a class that they sell online. Just please do your homework and make sure it is at the level you are at so you don’t pay for something that is totally over your head.
  4.  I would suggest taking a few business courses in marketing or advertising. You can enroll in these during your time in college, or check local community college classes. The longer I am a business owner the more I realize that a huge part of my day is filled with advertising for my business and spending hours pinning down my exact market. If you have an understanding of how to start a business and keep it running legally it takes so much stress out of your business and you get to enjoy the creative side of it more.

FURTHER YOUR EDUCATION

I think the best decision I made for my business was messaging Tracy Moore and asking if I could help her in any way, shape, or form. I had just gotten out of college and wanted to see a real business at work. I knew that I had always loved how Tracy photographed but also how she marketed and ran her business unlike anyone I had ever seen in the industry.

I messaged Tracy asking if I could be her right hand (wo)man/assistant for the summer after I graduated. I wanted to be there for her shoots, and ask her all of my questions about this crazy business!

Find someone in your town that whose work inspires you, and just ask! Flatter them! See if you can do a mentorship for trade of helping them package their product. Or ask if you can just come along on some of their shoots to hold their reflector and observe how they talk and pose their clients. Meet up with them before and see if you two mesh well with each other because they will hopefully be a huge encouragement to you and your business.

Make sure  they are community focused on growing other peoples’ businesses up around them. If they aren’t or don’t want someone “stealing” their business don’t be upset with that. Just thank them for their time to read your email or meet up and find someone else to work with.

GET BOOKED

My first work that I had was second shooting for weddings which I think is an amazing crash course in how to really fine tune all of your camera settings. I also think before you ever commit to photographing someone else’s wedding you should photograph at least 5 weddings as a second shooter.

Why is that? Because it’s so important to see how professional photographers run weddings. If the bride doesn’t have a coordinator the photographer always gets chosen to decide what time things happen and how things run. That’s hard to figure out on your own, shooting weddings solo. Also you can see how a professional carries themselves when awkward situations or unexpected problems arise. That way when you do shoot a wedding for the first time by yourself you have some idea of what could happen and you feel more prepared.

To get a second shooting job write up an email around March or April and send it to photographers that you’d like to work with and ask if they need any second shooters for their weddings. Send a gallery of your work, what equipment you have, and your experience level.

I filled up my summer calendar almost every weekend with wedding days of photographers that I admired. Ask if you can use some of the images you took on the wedding day for your own portfolio, so in the future you have images to show possible clients.

I personally want to put together a list of photographers who would like to second shoot so if you want to, send me an email or write a comment below saying that you want to be on that list. I would love to get you booked!

Other ways to get booked is by getting added on Facebook photography pages that are in the area. There will always be posts asking for second shooters or needing an assistant on a project. I said yes to everything when I was starting out: setting up people’s studios, holding reflectors, and even occasionally modeling. Anything that can get you to meet other photographers that are doing what you want to be doing!

It’s so important to build community with people in this industry so they can start recommending you but also so you can have people to rely on when things get hard. And if the bookings aren’t happening with other photographers make your own photoshoots! Ask people to do stylized shoots with you. Make a Pinterest board of ideas, pick a location, ask a model or friend, be creative, and start building your portfolio!

I think it’s really important to have a year or two of really working on your craft before you fully launch your business. Photography is such a hard business to be in sometimes because there isn’t a book that gives you a step by step process on how to start and run a killer photography business. It’s a lot of try and fail or try and succeed!

I have seen a few people decide they want to offer sessions really cheap with all the images burnt on a flash drive edited and unedited, and they end up over booking themselves and burning out. Then in 2 years they aren’t in the photography business anymore. Like any other job you need to give yourself time to learn. You want to launch your business strong so people don’t end up taking advantage of you.

STARTING YOUR BUSINESS

Finding your niche is so powerful for your business. You can focus solely on what gives you the most joy to photograph. It guarantees that when people think “newborn photography” they think of your business immediately.

I found my niche with the book Work Happily Ever-After – Professional Photographer Edition by Jeff Jochum. After I decided I really wanted to focus on seniors it made me hyper-focused on what I needed to do. Once you figure out what you want your specialty to be I think you need to give yourself a solid month to hone in on launching your business.

Some of the things you have to do take time to put together because it’s outside of your wheel house. So make a launch date and stick to it! Use your images that you have spent time on, you really only need about 10 for each category to show your true style. Have a great bio page with wonderful images of yourself, and make sure it’s easy to navigate for anyone. Also, set your business up to be legal! There are so many amazing resources out there that give you a step by step on how to make sure you are completely covered.

Last but not least, get contracts made for every photoshoot you do! NO MATTER HOW CLOSE OF FRIENDS THEY ARE! There has to be a legal understanding of what services you are offering and for how much so that there are no misunderstandings. Then you need to be confident and start posting your work on instagram regularly, get yourself out there, and hustle to make your dream a reality.

I know it’s a long winded answer to what seems like a simple question of “how do I start my photography business?”, but just giving you a quick 2-3 step process didn’t feel like a caring answer to give to someone who truly wants to make their dreams into reality. I reminded myself of what it was like to be graduating high school and thinking I want this so incredibly badly, but how? And how I had people around me that poured their wisdom into me and how thankful I was for even just the smallest piece of advice.

I have taken that advice and worked so hard over these past years and I am very proud of the business I have created, the close friendships I have made, and the experiences I have cherished. Without the help and encouragement I was given I would have given up a long time ago. But now I want to encourage and help others around me to make their passion their profession, because it wasn’t long ago that I was asking “How do I start my own photography business?”.

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