How To Become A Pro Photographer, Part 4 - The Business of Photography

Posted on 10/21/2010 by Daniel H. Bailey | Printable Version | Comments (0)

Today we move on to Part 4 of my How to Become a Pro Photographer series. If you haven’t read the other three posts in the series, Part 1- Making the Jump, Part 2- Getting the Gear and Expertise and Part 3- Marketing and Self-Promotion, be sure and check those out as well.

The Business of Photography

Most of us became photographers because we love the creative process of making images that tell a unique visual story about the world around us. When we first started out, we were drawn by the excitement that comes from making a permanent reflection of our own artistic drives and perceptions.

As our technique and craft improves and our personal vision becomes more defined, some of us decide to make it our profession. This is were the trouble starts. This is where the business part comes in.

We’re primarily right brain people. We’re creative. We focus on the subjective, the random, the visual and the intuitive. We tend to focus on the whole picture first, then focus on the details later. That’s why we bought cameras and chose a career that revolves around creativity.

Business, on the other hand, is analytical, sequential, verbal and it focuses on the details. These are all left brain ways of thinking. Often times these clash with what may come more naturally to us, and the result is that we’re just not always the best business people.

That’s not to say that all photographers are right brain people and can never become good at business. In fact, I would argue just the opposite.

Photography is a very technical craft that requires significant left brain functions, like calculations, numerical values and estimations. It attracts all kinds of left and right brain predominant people. It’s no wonder that so many doctors and lawyers take up photography as a hobby, it probably allows them to be creative while still using the exacting analytical aspects that are familiar to them.

Running Your Business

Photography as a hobby is just that, a hobby. Photography as a career is a business. Once you decide to make it your profession, you need to establish that mindset. That’s not to say that you have to go and change your whole personality and start wearing a tie every day, but you do need to conduct yourself as a professional.

This means acting the part. You may have gotten into this field because you love tromping around in the outdoors in your old Patagonia® clothing with your camera and trail weary backpack, or because you love to focus on the extremely introspective aspects of making perfect images. That’s probably still how you create your best imagery, but when it comes time to deal with those clients that you found by marketing yourself, you need to put on your game face.

This means being on time, acting and speaking in a professional, wearing khakis and a button shirt instead of dirty mountain pants and a smelly polypro top, and establishing proper practices, not to mention staying organized.

When you’re a self employed creative type, you are your business. There are many aspects of your life where you and your photography business will be intertwined. However, you should try to separate out some of the business parts, especially the money.

I won’t go into the details of how to budget and allocate your incoming and outgoing dollars, there are methods that work for each type of photographer, but you should get yourself a business bank account, credit/debit card and a business line of credit if you can.

A credit line helpful because often times you’ll have to front load assignment expenses and buy gear that may take awhile to pay off. You may not want to use available cash for these types of expenses, because as you’ll soon learn, (welcome to the club!) it often takes awhile to be paid in this business. Especially if you shoot for corporate clients, who often like to wait at least 30-60 days before paying.

You’ll also need to consider what type of business category you’ll run under and think of a name, unless you simply go by your own name. Many photographers are sole proprietors. Often times, photographers who have studios will go the LLC route, (Limited Liability Company) which offers the business owner more liability protection from acts or debts. Some photographers even establish corporations for their businesses, although most are either SP or LLC. Check with an attorney or business advisor for more information. Check out the Photo Attorney® website for legal advice and info that’s geared specifically towards photographers. Depending on what type of work you do, you may also need business insurance.


Self employed you say? Your taxes just got more complicated. You’ll need to pay taxes on your business income if you earn over $600 per year, and you’ll have to file some additional forms, such as a Schedule C and Schedule SE.

On the flip side, you just gained a whole new set of deductions. As a working photographer can deduct any business related expense, including office and studio space rental, office supplies and equipment, all your photographic hardwear, gas, travel, airfares, hotels, National Park entrance fees, lunch with your models and anything that you use in your business, like that 27” iMac and copy of Lightroom 3 that you just bought!

In order for this all to be legit, though, you’ll need to keep accurate records off all your income and expenses and save all of your receipts. Again, you should also check with an accountant, because there are some very specific rules about how you deduct and depreciate certain types of rent, travel expenses and equipment costs.

Business Software

This is where things get a little challenging for some photographers. We’re not all hard nosed business people, (some of us have trouble keeping our desks clean!) but now we need to bid for jobs, negotiate prices and get paid. To start off, you’ll need to establish a system for keeping accurate records for client contacts and management, scheduling, invoicing and billing. You may even want to hire an accountant to handle your money issues.

At the very least, you’ll probably want to set your business up with Quick Books or one of the other photography business and/or accounting software options out there. Here are some of the more popular titles:

•   PhotoOne: Studio management
•   Successware:  Studio management
•   Projected Frame: Free online accounting solution
•   BlikBid: Bidding and invoicing software for creative professionals
•   StudioCloud: Businsess management
•   PhotoBiz and Photo Quote: Complete photography business management and pricing solution

Pricing Your Work

You’ll also need to learn how to deal with clients when it comes to negotiating for your fees and services and pricing your work. This is perhaps the hardest part of the business for many photographers. This is party because, depending on the type of jobs you shoot, they can all be slightly different in terms of how long they’ll take, how and where the images will be used, how many prints the customer wants.

Any number of factors can affect how much you should charge for the job. To get you started, here’s an excellent post by Antonia Mamzenko about the basics of pricing photography.

For wedding, portrait and studio photographers, the task of pricing can be a pretty straightforward. You charge a sitting fee and then charge for any additional print sales, which includes your markup, which we like to call profit.

Pricing commercial jobs and stock sales can be much more difficult, because you need to factor in more parameters, such as image placement, size and circulation, as well as during and region of use.

In the past, photographers charged a flat “Day Rate” for shooting jobs. The industry is moving away from that these days, because it’s not the most accurate method of pricing. It doesn’t take into account your creative and technical expertise or the usage factors I mentioned above.

To illustrate why this doesn’t work, consider two jobs, both involve photographing a location that will take a day to shoot. Let’s say you charge $1500 as your day rate, so your pay for each job will be $1500.

The image for Job A will be used in a locally run ad that runs three times in a small, regional publication. The image for Job B will be used as an ad that runs on the back cover of Outside Magazine every month for six issues. Do you see the problem here? If you don’t factor in usage rates, you’re not getting what your worth. That exposure has value.

In today’s world, clients don’t pay for your time, they pay for your talent AND for the exposure of your images. Instead of charging a day rate, you should charge a Creative Fee that reflects your skills, as well as your overall cost of doing business. On top of that, you charge Usage Fees that reflect how the clients will use the images that you produce.

For more information on assignment pricing, check out the NPAA website’s pricing page.

Unfortunately, what we want to charge and what clients want to pay doesn’t always match up. This is were negotiation comes in. Negotiating is a skillful art, as is taught by Dr. Chester Karrass in his well known seminars. Basically, the art of negotiating involves identifying what each party needs and establishing a middle ground where each party communicates and compromises until both parties agree that they’re getting a fair amount for what they’re giving.

It takes practice to become a good negotiator, but the important thing for photographers to remember is this: Don’t just give your work away. Don’t just cave because the other side doesn’t WANT to pay what you’re charging. An don’t be the guy who undercuts everyone else. You’re just hurting the entire industry, which you are now part of.

If they won’t or can’t afford your fee and you decide to come down a bit, make up for the reduction in price by reducing the perceived VALUE of the job by reducing an image use duration or size, or delivering few images. Learn to be firm with your price, and more importantly, learn to say no. Sometimes it’s better just to walk away from a bad job. For more on this, check out this post: Stop Leaving Money on the Table by John Harrington.

When pricing jobs, always gather all the information from your client, and then get back to them later with your price. This gives you time to collect your thoughts, analyze all the factors, and even communicate with another photographer or pricing coach for advice. It’s very helpful to keep in touch with other photographers, because in order for our business to survive, we all need to stay informed and on the same page with consistent pricing models.

The most important thing to remember is this: YOUR WORK HAS VALUE. Even if you’re just starting out. Price it as such.

There are so many good resources on the web that can help you run a more successful photography business. Check out the Black Star Rising for starters, the have a Business category and a Stock category. Both are full of great advice and excellent articles. Consider joining, ASMP, they have chapters in most areas around the USA.

Best Business Practices for Photographers by veteran shooter and Black Star conributor John Harrington, is one of the best and most relevant book on how to run a photo business of any type. This up-to-date and comprehensive guide has everything you need to know- pricing, copyrights, IRS, contracts. He even has a chapter on how to balance the personal and professional aspects of your life. (Don’t we all need help with that?!)

If you want to make your living as a self employed freelance photographer, you should have this book. Or the next one. Or both.

ASMP Professional Business Practices in Photography Another excellent guide by the American Society of Media Photographers. Long considered the photographer’s “business bible,” this fully updated guide contains everything you need to know about how to negotiate prices, write contracts, handle rights and ethics, develop profitable marketing strategies and choose the right technology.

It also contains chapters on electronic media, digital asset management, metadata standards, ftp, the impact on media consolidation and its affect on the assignment and stock photography industry.

Negotiating Stock Photo Prices by stock photography industry expert Jim Pickerell (co authored by Cheryl Pickerell DiFrank) is the best and most widely used pricing guide to stock photography. It contains detailed pricing tables and rate guides for nearly every type of use that can help you price stock licenses and determine assignment rates.

It’s not just a simple pricing guide, though. Most of the book is a detailed discussion on the stock photo industry, including strategies for how to price and negotiate your work and remain competitive in todays market.
Your homework for today is to start thinking about the business side of photography. Consider the kind of business model you want to run, whether it’s editorial photography, stock, commercial and advertising, weddings or portraits, and start planning out the types of professional business issues you anticipate having to deal with in order to run a profitable career. Think about what kind of software, bank accounts, tax forms and services will you need to get things underway?

We’re almost done with the series, only one more day to go! We’ll finish it up tomorrow with some final thoughts about how to get started in your new career as a professional photographer, or if you’ve been doing this for awhile, how you can ramp things up and take your existing career to the next level.

Copyright © 2010 Daniel H. Bailey. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-461-7627, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz

Dan Bailey is a full time adventure and outdoor photographer and writer based in Anchorage, Alaska. Visit his website at


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