This is an in-depth and constantly updated guide about how to become a photographer and start a photography business. This guide is also long (4000+ words) so grab a coffee and dig in.
Over the last few years, when I’m interviewed or talking to people during an assignment, I inevitably get asked the following question:
If you could start over… with no network, no “name”, nothing. Just a laptop and a camera… what would you do?
Usually, this question is asked within an interview or just while doing some small talk, so I don’t get a lot of time to really flesh out an answer. Most of the people asking are looking for quick wins, and not necessarily comprehensive guides.
In this ultimate guide, I’m going to dedicate a few days of research and reflection instead of a few seconds and attempt to give you a thorough framework for how to become a pro photographer and start a photography business step by step that won’t fail.
Who this guide is for: Full-time photographers who want to boost their business, those who have just begun (or are about to begin) running their photography business full-time, or anyone who’s thinking about it or wants to at least start doing side jobs.
Why Would You Want To Be A Photographer?
Maybe you want to become a portrait photographer, or you’re just thinking about starting a photography business on the side.
And “why?” is always the first question I ask when someone wants to know more about becoming a photographer.
Because everything becomes easier and more clear when you know why you want to turn photography in a career.
Of course, I think being a photographer is the best job in the world.
It’s crazy how many doors open when you have a camera in your hand, how many interesting people you meet, and how rewarding it is.
Here are some other really great perks to being a freelance photographer:
- Self-Employment (Freeeeeedom!)
- Creative Self Expression
- Getting Paid To Do What You Love
- Opportunity To Travel The World
- Meeting Interesting People
- Nerding Out On Gear
- Doing Things You Could Normally Only Dream Of
- Having A Lot Of Great Stories To Tell
- Connecting With Other People
- Living In The Present
- Getting Challenged
However, there are also quite a lot of things you’ll have to ask yourself before you can even think about making it as a photographer.
Luckily it’s all very doable when you know what you should focus on, and we’ll cover everything in this guide.
Creating Good Images
Obviously, before you’ll get anyone to give you money for your photos they have to be good enough. This is good and bad news.
Don’t Worry About Great
Notice that I said “good” images, not “great”.
Many photographers are making a living by just creating good images, and you can too. That’s good news. Of course, there is a basic level you’ll have to be able to reach. That’s the bad news. There are a couple of ways to know when you could start considering asking for money. Unfortunately, social likes and feedback from those who love you (Hi mum!) don’t count.
So what does count?
- People asking you how much it would cost to hire you or buy one of your prints (duh).
- Getting hints from others that should know (Photographers, Magazine editors, Professional Photo Reviewers,…)
- Your own best judgment. Take an honest look at your own work and try to compare it to that of professionals.
Although your images don’t need to be great to get started, it’s always better to keep growing and learning. Better images lead to more assignments and being able to ask for more money 💰.
So how can you get better?
Buy Books Not Gear
Depending on what kind of photography work you want to do, the amount of gear you need might differ. But as soon as you have the absolutely essential camera, lenses, modifiers, and other tools it’s better to spend your money on learning. Not easy for those with GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrom), which is probably all of us.
There are many books you can buy or photograph websites you can turn to for information (just like this one). See here for some great photography book recommendations to get you started. So go buy some to put on your coffee table or on your nightstand and go through them now and then.
Google for workshops in your area. One of the best ways to learn is in person, as you can have direct feedback or ask questions. Make sure to do some research on the photographer that leads the workshop though. You want to make sure he knows what he is doing and that his style speaks to you.
It’s not always possible to find good workshops in your area, or you might not have the time. Online photography courses are a great way to get an in-depth education on specific topics and enable you to go through them on your own pace. Of course, they can also double as a refresher later. Take a look at our own online photography courses. Mastering our Badass One Light Portraits course alone could bring food on the table for the rest of your life.
Assist A Photographer
If you can’t find a good photographer to assist (or even if you can), you might also watch some of these interesting photography documentaries. It’s the closest you’ll get to learning from the masters and offers a glips into their minds and work.
Always Be Shooting
In the beginning, your agenda might not be filled with assignments yet (we’ll fix that later). Don’t let this keep you from shooting. Take your camera and head out, organize your own TFP shoots and bring your camera with you on your holidays.
Looking at work from other successful photographers makes sure you have a constant input of things you might not have thought of yourself. So get some of their books as we discussed above.
A more modern option is to go on Instagram and find a couple of photographers that inspire you. Take a look at this list of some of the best photographers on Instagram to get you started. This way you can just open the app when you’re in need for some inspiration.
Creating A Brand
Now that you know your photos are good enough and made sure that’ll keep on getting better its time to create your brand. This is one of the most important steps in how to become a photographer.
This makes you more professional. And professionalism helps you to get more clients and ask for more money. We certainly want to avoid to just become “that guy/girl with a camera”. Or even worse, being asked to “bring your camera along” all the time.
Decide On A Name
One of the first things to do before you start your photography business is coming up with a photography business name. Now, don’t get to hung up on this or go all overboard with the naming. In general, I recommend to just use your name with an extra word as Photographer, Photography or Studio.
- Lauren Patrick Photographer
- Lauren Patrick Photography
- Studio Lauren Patrick
This immediately tells someone who doesn’t know anything about you what you do. Also, why I don’t like to use generic names like ‘clickit photography’ is that it’s impersonal. Photography is a very personal profession and in the end, you are your own brand. People like to work with other people.
There’s always the option to create a more general name later when you’re more successful.
Choose Your Niche
Let’s say you are a restaurant owner looking for a photographer. Would you hire a general photographer or a food photographer that specializes in this and has a relevant portfolio?
The answer is, of course, the specialist.
That’s why it’s important to focus on what type of photography you want to be known for when you start your photography business.
Now, if this is an easy choice for you and only one subject interests you, great. Don’t worry too much however if you have no clue and like to photograph everything. It might take some time to figure out. I would still recommend choosing something though, as you can always change direction later on.
The more specific you can be the better of course. Try to become the best hamburger photographer there is, or may you are the one that companies need when they are looking for everything to do with the color pink.
You can also go broad, and say you are a “people photographer” or a “studio photographer”. It’s still better than nothing.
The goal is to get a bell curve of assignments, where most of your jobs are within your niche but you still can do everything else now and then when asked.
This focus is also very important for your marketing and sales, as we’ll see later in this guide.
Get A Professional Image Of Yourself Taken
You would be amazed at how many photographers have shitty headshot or portrait of themselves. So do yourself a favor and stand out from the crowd while showing your possible clients that you know what a good image is and that you’re a professional.
Get another photographer to create some images of you, with and without your camera. You’ll be able to use these later on in the guide.
Setting Up Your Online Presence
When you start a photography business, it’s important that people can find you or look up more information about what you do. There might be some exceptions, and we’ll look at some offline tactics later, but we mostly live in an online world.
Remember the name you decided on above? We’re gonna need it now to register some accounts and your own website domain, so you might want to check if they are still available when choosing that name. Or you can always get creative.
So here are the essential things you should get set up for your online presence when you want to become a photographer:
Optional actually, but you might want to consider getting a logo. Choose something that represents you and your style of photography. You can go classy or modern. Many photographers choose a photography related design, but you can just use a modified version of the name you chose above.
When you’re just getting started and have some design skills you can design your logo yourself. Otherwise, get a designer to create something for you or hire one on Fiverr.
Whatever you do, stay away from the tacky cheap ones.
Most new clients will first check out your (latest) work on your website, to see if you know what you’re doing and to make sure your style is a good fit. Often having a website is also a good way for new clients to find you. We’ll get into that later in this guide.
Update: Check out our guide on websites for photographers.
The easiest way to get a website set up is by using a dedicated platform. The best option by far is Format in this case. It has all the features you need and even directly connects to Lightroom to upload your images. Selling your prints through your own shop is also possible.
If you’re a bit more technical or know someone who can set your website up for you then WordPress is the best option and also gives you the most flexibility. In this case, you’ll also want to get a theme like those from FloThemes which are specially designed for photographers.
Displaying a lot of images on your websites brings up the need for a fast hosting service. You can use the blazing fast SiteGround service or get a dedicated server at Kinsta who are the best in the business.
If you want to be professional it’s time to say goodbye to that firstname.lastname@example.org email account you’ve had since you were young.
Create a special email account for your business. This way you can also separate your work and personal emails.
This email address should belong to the domain name you chose above to keep everything coherent. Options can be email@example.com (e.a. firstname.lastname@example.org) or more general like email@example.com.
Pro Tip: Put the address of your website (and Facebook/Instagram accounts) in the signature of your email, so that everyone you contact can easily find your online accounts.
Whether you like it or not, Facebook is everywhere and billions of people still use the platform daily. So it only makes sense to have your own Facebook page where you can show your work and which you can use to find new clients.
Make sure you get a business page, as this gives you a lot more options than a personal one. You also don’t want to mix your private life with your business, as most people aren’t interested in your selfies ;-).
When creating the page, use your business name here as well. You should end up with something like facebook.com/studiolaurenpatrick. Once you have your page, put your logo or headshot on it so people can know it’s you.
Instagram is made for photographers, so get an account.
Just as we did with the Facebook page, use some version of your business name as your username and put an image of yourself or the logo on there to tie everything together. Fill in the short bio with who you are and what kind of photography you create.
Also, be sure to fill in your contact info like your email address and website so people can contact you when they’re interested.
Further Reading: Hashtags For Photographers
Figuring Out Your Pricing
The most questions I get when people ask me how to become a photographer are about pricing.
Of course, if you start your photography business this will be lower than when you have more experience. Your pricing will also be dependent on your type of customers and your niche.
How Much Do Photographers Make?
This is a very good question to ask when figuring out how to start a photography business, but the answer is a bit more complicated.
There are many photographers who can barely get by every month while others earn a very decent living. Just like your pricing, the amount of money you’ll eventually make will depend on your level of expertise and niche.
You can read this great in-depth article about the general incomes for beginners, students, wedding and pro photographers to get an idea of how much you could make.
Of course, the way you present, market and sell yourself also plays a big role in how much you’ll earn. So follow the advice in this guide to learn how to become a photographer that does make a lot of money.
How To Calculate Your (Hourly) Rate
Spreading The Word
Now that you have everything set up and some places online to send people to, it’s time to start and tell everyone what you do. Because if they don’t know that you’re a photographer they can’t hire you.
The goal is to be top of mind when people think “I need a photographer”.
So start inviting friends, family and everyone who might be interested to like your Facebook and Instagram pages you created earlier, or join your newsletter. This way they’ll get your updates which will act as a constant reminder that you are a photographer that they can hire.
It might take a while before people will make the connection between you and “photographer”, so stay at it and remind them every chance you get.
For more professional situations you might consider getting some business cards.
They are old skool but still used often, and are a handy way for people you encounter during shoots or network events to get your contact details.
Make sure you stand out though and grab this chance to showcase your work. A great way for this is to print a photo on one side of your business cards. Nobody does this better than MOO which has the greatest quality and even lets you print a different photo on every card if you want, without an extra cost.
Building Credibility And Finding Your First Clients
Imagine again that you’re looking for a photographer yourself.
Would you rather hire someone who has been trusted by others to create their images and has a strong portfolio, or someone who says he is a photographer but has nothing to show for it?
In the end, we all try to minimize our risks, especially when money is concerned. And people who work in a company often have a boss to report to as well so they don’t want to hire the wrong person. As humans, we thus often base our decision by looking at what others do or who they hire.
Getting started is the hardest part, but when you want to start a photography business it’s essential that you build up credibility and the best way to do that is to find some clients. It may take some time so keep at it. If you want to understand why this is actually an advantage, go read The Dip by Seth Godin.
This way you’ll also have content to post on your social media accounts.
Should You Quit Your Job?
When you want to become a photographer, it’s tempting to quite your regular day job and go all in.
Unless you have a strong reason to believe that you’ll manage to get some clients soon it’s probably best to wait a while. This buys you some time to create a (stronger) portfolio and get your first clients without having to worry about your income.
I often compare it to how Tarzan swings from tree to tree, where he doesn’t let go of one liana until he has a firm grip on the next one.
Friends, Fools And Family
It makes sense that your first clients will be people that you already know and who are willing to give you a chance.
So ask around if there is anything they need. Ideally within the niche that you chose of course, or at least something that interests you. Maybe someone is getting married, has a restaurant that can use images for their menu or needs some portraits.
Fake It Till You Make It
If you want to know what most people who want to start a photography business do wrong its this: They wine all the time that nobody wants to hire them, let alone pay them money. This, in turn, leaves them without a portfolio or experience.
And as we saw above, almost no one will hire a photographer without a relevant portfolio.
This is great news, as it’s a great opportunity for you to differentiate yourself.
So don’t sit around waiting for assignments, but start organizing your own shoots.
- If you want to shoot weddings grab a couple you know, go to the second-hand store or borrow a dress and suit, and hold a fake wedding and love session.
- When you’re interested in food photography, have someone you know who is a good cook create some dishes and photograph those.
- If your focus is on portraits, grab a friend and provide him with his new profile image.
- If you dream of becoming a music photographer, contact a local band and ask if you can photograph them at their next concert.
There will almost always be a possibility to photograph the things you want to get hired for.
But whatever you do, create. Practice.
Pro Tip: Use the power of suggestion. When you post these images online or use them in your portfolio people will easily assume that you created these for a paying client if you don’t tell them otherwise. And if possible, use well-known brands, people or locations to boost this effect.
Working For Free
In general, nobody should work for free.
If your skills, time and work provide value for someone it’s only natural that they would compensate you for your images.
That said, not all value can be expressed in money. And when you are just starting your photography business you might find it hard to get people to pay you when you have no portfolio or experience.
In this case, you can make some exceptions and do some assignments for free (or with models as TFP).
Important: If you decide to work for free there should be some other clear advantage or opportunity in it for you that isn’t money. You can check this by asking yourself: “How does this job help my photography business along?”.
- Will this introduce me to potential paying clients?
- Does this greatly improves (a missing aspect in) my portfolio?
- Can I use the well-known name of this client as a reference to get more jobs or increase my price?
- Is this a once in a lifetime experience?
Whatever you do, don’t let anyone fool you when they say “if you work for free this time, we’ll pay you next time”. This almost never happens.
And even worse: “We’ll pay you with exposure by mentioning your name”. This is just common courtesy and should be done whether you’re getting paid or not.
So even if you decide to work for free, be very selective and at least get something else of value in return.
You can calculate how much exposure you’re worth with our handy calculator.
Finding Clients Online
Although you’ll probably get most clients from your offline efforts (we’ll cover those next), being present online will play an important part in setting the stage.
Because many people might not have the need for a photographer the moment you contact them or when they discover you. This means it’s important to find a way to stay in contact with them and stay top of mind. So when they are searching for a photographer somewhere down the road, they’ll turn to you.
Being present online also means you’ll have a greater reach.
Update Your Social Media
Time to show the world what you can do.
Make sure to take the best of those images you’ve been creating for your first clients and start posting them on your social media profiles. You can use some of the tools I’ll list below to schedule them, so it only takes a small amount of time now and then.
Use Instagram stories to provide some behind the scenes images of you at a shoot, editing images,… In the end, people like to hire people so show some character.
As we saw above this will help you stay top of mind with those who don’t have an assignment for you right now, and put your work in front of as many people as possible.
Of course you can integrate some hashtags in your posts to reach even more people.
Participate / Reach Out
Social media is not made for monologues.
Since you’re probably interested in photography and the subjects you want to photograph, it’s important you also participate in the conversations happening online.
Answer some tweets, react to a Facebook post, like interesting Instagram photos, send some DM’s to other photographers or people you would like to work with. Create a Reddit account, go to meetings,… The possibilities are endless!
This will help you stand out from the crowd, and gives you a chance to show your expertise.
Don’t be afraid to contact people or companies you would like to work with!
Create A Newsletter
In marketing, you’ll often hear that “the money is in the list”.
In a society and online world that only gets busier this is truer than ever. Contrary to social media, email is still a very personal medium. So when someone gives you their email they probably like what you’re doing and want to hear from you.
So create a signup form on your website and ask people offline if they want to be added to your list.
Then whenever you have something to share, send out an email.
Your job main job when you start a photography business is finding clients, not updating your social media all the time.
So it’s best to use some tools to make your life easier and be as efficient as possible to free up time for more important work.
Finding Clients Offline
Exploring Other Monetizing Options