How to start a photography business
Keen to develop your photography hobby into a photography business? From equipment costs to marketing and more, here’s everything you need to go pro in 2021
1862. That’s when the first photograph is believed to have been taken.
Back then you had to leave a wooden box outside for several days(!) of exposure. Now it’s as easy as applying a modicum of pressure to the touchscreen of your smartphone, and everybody thinks they’re a photographer.
But it takes a lot more than being a trigger-happy smartphone snapper to be a professional photographer.
So, how do you turn your photography hobby into a photography business?
This guide will tell you everything you need to know about how to start a photography business in 2021, with top tips on everything from equipment and costs to getting noticed in an extremely crowded market…
Decide which type of photography business to start
There are a number of broad categories of professional photography, which can each be broken down into more niche subcategories.
- Event photography
- Wedding photography
- Advertising and lifestyle
- Sports photography
- Portrait photography
- Fashion photography
Sure, you could operate within a few different photography niches, but we think the best route to long-term success is to choose one type of photography and stick with it.
That way you can build a consistent, quality portfolio, and you can be more focused about what equipment you need, the skills you need to develop, and how and where you find clients.
We spoke to Jon Enoch, a London-based advertising and lifestyle photographer who set up as an independent freelancer 11 years ago.
He started his career in newspaper photography before developing a strong unique style in lifestyle and portrait photography. He now works with advertising brands and portrait shoots for sportspeople, celebrities and CEOs.
“My best tip for anyone going freelance or moving into photography as a full-time profession is to simply work hard and put yourself out there as much as possible. I think there is always possibility and opportunity – you just have to find it.
“Early on in my career I was asked to go and photograph a really small gig in Sheffield, and went along. That band turned out to be the Arctic Monkeys and those photos were instrumental for my portfolio in the early days.”
Calculate your photography business costs
Even if you work as a one man band, the initial and ongoing costs of freelance photography can really stack up.
Decent photography equipment is expensive. Even the bare bones kit is going to set you back a pretty penny. Then you need to factor in insurance, software subscriptions, marketing, and more…
Far from being demoralised, Enoch says he found this initial outlay quite a strong driver:
“I actually took a fairly considerable loan out when I started freelancing to cover for the kit. It was a good motivator to stay focused as I knew I needed to earn it back. You could easily be looking at £10,000 to £15,000 for a modest set up. You need cameras, lenses and the computing power to work on those images quickly and efficiently.”
So, what exactly constitutes a modest set up?
Invest in photography equipment
The tool of your trade, your camera(s) is going to be one of the most expensive items in your arsenal – and it’s worth investing in a decent one. But what should you be looking for?
In 2021, any self-respecting photographer should be looking for a DSLR or mirrorless camera with at least the following specs and features:
- Sensor type – professional photographers usually opt for a full frame sensor. This gives you a large field of view and allows you to capture much more of a scene. Alternatively, a crop sensor, or APS-C sensor crops out the edges of the image, giving a more zoomed in effect, which affects the focal length of the lens used
- Megapixel count – the more megapixels, the better the resolution, and the larger the prints you can produce from your photographs. You certainly don’t want anything less than 20-megapixels. If you want images that can be blown up to any feasible commercial size then we’d recommend opting for something around or above 35-megapixels
- Shutter speed – the faster the maximum shutter speed the better the camera is at shooting moving subjects, which makes it good for sports or animals in motion. Opt for something with a shutter speed around 1/8000 seconds
- ISO range – determines how the camera performs in low light. Something in the region of 100-51,200 would give a good low-light performance
- Autofocus – the more autofocus points the sharper the detail, and the better the camera will be at capturing moving subjects. You really only need one autofocus point, yet the most high end cameras can have hundreds. More often than not, the success of the image will come down to the skill of the photographer
The above barely scratches the surface of specs that dictate the performance of your camera but, for our purposes, those are the most important.
Remember, good specs do not equal a good picture. You can’t compensate for a lack of talent with an ultra-high end camera. Learning how to use your camera properly, and learning the fundamentals of good photography are much more important.
Enoch uses two Canon 5D ‘bodies’ which he supplements with a wide range of lenses.
Cost: £1,500 – £7,000
Start researching lenses and you’ll quickly find it’s another chance to dive into a click hole of jargon, prices, and baffling technical specs.
But what do you actually need to know?
A lens manipulates the image that’s projected onto the camera’s sensor. Most professional photographers own a selection of interchangeable camera lenses, which are designed for different functions.
The two main categories are prime and zoom lenses.
- A prime lens has one fixed focal length, making it lighter, and allowing for clear, high-quality images
- A zoom lens allows you to adjust the focal length, meaning you can easily reframe the scene without changing lenses or physically moving closer to the subject
There are also speciality lenses. E.g. macro lenses for ultra-close-up shots, and super telephoto zoom lenses for ultra-long shots.
Bear in mind that lenses from most major camera brands will only fit cameras from the same brand. However, some small, independent lenses will fit multiple brand cameras.
Likewise, lenses for DSLR cameras often won’t fit a mirrorless camera and vice versa. You can buy a lens adapter, which enables the use of some camera and len combinations from otherwise incompatible brands/camera types.
Cost: £20 – £16,500
For such a simple bit of kit, it’s amazing how much a tripod can transform your photography. A stable camera support opens up all sorts of possibilities, including panning, long exposures, and remote shutter shots.
But which is the one for you? The decision could come down to something as simple as camera size. A heavy DSLR with a long telephoto lens will require a bulkier, sturdier tripod. For a more compact mirrorless camera, you could make do with a smaller, lighter tripod.
Check out the max load of any tripod model to check that it’s suitable for your camera, and check out the max height to check it’s suitable for you (you don’t want to give yourself a bad back bending over to see through the viewfinder!). If you’re likely to travel a lot for work, see if the folded height, and the weight, makes it feasible for you to travel with.
Tripods can range in price from £10 to hundreds of pounds, but the cheap ones are often flimsy and unsuitable for professional purposes. We’d definitely recommend spending more than £100.
One thing that can really affect the price is whether the legs are made from aluminium or carbon-fiber. Aluminium is cheaper, but weighs more. Carbon-fiber is lighter, and more shock absorbent, but can be much more expensive.
Cost: £100 – £500
The good thing about lighting is that, unlike everything else in professional photography, it’s quite simple. You can buy comprehensive ‘kits’, which include everything you need for specific kinds of shoots.
You can buy battery-powered kits for location shooting, and mains-powered kits for the studios. There are also flash setups, and continuous LED kits. LED lighting is most suitable for video shoots or for when you want a more consistent, predictable look. They are, however, much less powerful.
And that’s about all you need to know. If you need additional lights, just buy them separately and position them appropriately.
There are extensive guides on the techniques for actually lighting a shoot, and, as any worthy photographer will tell you, good lighting is the difference between an amateur shot and a professional one.
Check out Digital Camera World’s breakdown of the best photography lighting kits here.
Cost: £150 – £2,000
Affixed to the top of your camera, an on-camera external flash is far superior to any in-built flash, and much more portable than a lighting kit. It’s an instant way to elevate images when the natural light isn’t playing ball. It can also help to achieve balanced exposures in daylight conditions, and improves shots of fast-moving subjects.
Cost: £20 – £500
SD memory cards
High quality digital photos take up a lot of space. There are a number of storage formats but, currently, SD or microSD memory cards are the most widely-used. These postage stamp sized beauties will store hundreds of gigabytes of photos for you.
Cost: £10 – £80
Remote shutter release
This nifty and affordable device is a great addition to any pro photographers arsenal, allowing you to take shots without touching the camera. This means you can move around the room freely to inspect the scene from different angles, and there’s no risk of you ruining a carefully framed shot with clumsy handling.
There are very simple models, which just allow you to activate the shutter, and more complex ones with timers, long exposure features and more.
Cost: £10 – £150
Photography editing software
Photographers use photo editing software to manipulate or enhance their digital images. You could turn an average photo into a good photo or a good photo into something sublime. Many photographers will just make minor tweaks to colour or saturation, but there’s no end of weird and wonderful results you could achieve if you know how.
If you’ve never used photo editing software before, we’d recommend taking a course – there are plenty online – as the software can be very confusing and complicated for the uninitiated.
Adobe Photoshop is the most commonly used photo editing software by professionals, but there are numerous other fantastic editing tools you could use to elevate your imagery. Some of them are more specialist, some of them are much more sophisticated, and some of them just do everything Photoshop does at a fraction of the price.
Because, while it’s a very comprehensive software package, you’re often paying for a lot of features you won’t use. Check out Affinity Photo, PhaseOne Capture One Pro 20, or Luminar 4 for some worthy Photoshop rivals.
Cost: £10/month for subscriptions or £50 – £300/month one off
Price your services
How much are you worth? It’s a tricky question, and one that all professional photographers must grapple with. You don’t want to overestimate the value of your services and price yourself out of the market but, equally, you don’t want to undersell yourself and lose out on revenue.
Typically, photographers working on commission charge a day rate. That rate has to cover your expenses, including the initial investment in equipment, and the ongoing costs of running your business. That’s before you factor in holidays, unplanned absences, and even your pension.
Enoch says: “Initially it can be very hard to understand how to price your work, especially if you are organising the entire creative shoot and you have outgoing costs too. This is where it's very helpful to have some peer support from other photographers or creatives working in similar projects. Having an agent helps in this respect as they have a better concept of pricing across the whole industry.
According to the Freelance Fees Guide, you should charge no less than £400 a day before production charges and expenses.
Your commission fee should then include an initial limited licence for reproduction of your work, and include restrictions on who can reproduce it, and how often it can be reproduced.
Check out this handy (if dated) day rate calculator to work out a rough estimate of how much you should charge for your day rate.
Develop a photography marketing strategy
Creating your photography business website/portfolio
If you want to get noticed, you need a portfolio – a curated collection of your best work that will wow any prospective client.
Enoch says: “It is undeniably hard to stand out in a crowded market, but that's why it's so very important to develop your own strong visual style. You have to very quickly figure out how to market yourself – get on social media, make a good quality website and simply showcase your work as much as possible.” You can check out Enoch’s impressive portfolio here.
A physical portfolio can be a nice, tactile differentiator but, these days, most professional photographers opt for an online portfolio. And, thanks to website builders, it’s never been easier to build and manage your digital photography portfolio
For a picture-perfect photography business website, look no further than Squarespace. According to our researchers, it’s the second best website builder for small businesses, and more importantly, it’s the best for design.
So, what does Squarespace actually offer photography businesses?
When you upload a photo, you can set a focal point and Squarespace will automatically create perfectly cropped versions of your images for every device. You can then choose to showcase your work in multiple presentation formats, including full-screen slideshows, lightbox, and more.
Then, using the website builder’s numerous social integrations, you can make sure your work gets noticed by connecting with your audience across multiple platforms.
It’s no wonder some of the world’s best photographers use it. Lexis Rother, Jules Davies and Caylon Hackwith to name a few.
Find out everything you need to know about creating a portfolio here.
Getting a photography agent
Let’s be clear: you don’t need a photography agent to be a successful photographer, but it can certainly help you clinch those higher profile jobs.
Photography agents represent photographers in client-facing discussions, and help find work in return for a fee. This includes negotiating fees, setting up shoots, and giving you career guidance.
It’s this kind of administrative support that a lot of time-poor professional photographers really value, as well as the handling of those potentially awkward business conversations that a lot of creative types are averse to.
If you do decide to work with an agent, find one that you can have a fruitful and productive relationship with. After all, it’s likely to be the closest relationship in your professional life.
Coping with Covid-19 as a photographer
It’s been a tough time for anyone looking to start a business, and photography is no different. But there are still plenty of opportunities out there for bold, budding photographers.
Enoch says: “The coronavirus pandemic has definitely hit the photography industry hard because all advertising and portrait shoots were put on hold. Promoting yourself in a world where face-to-face meetings are shunned and fewer people are working from the office requires some lateral thinking.
“I've spent the last few months working on my website, marketing my business ready for the end of lockdown and also experimenting with different types of photography. There is always something to do!”
A good lesson for any aspiring professional: the work doesn’t stop just because the work stops. There’s always something you could be doing.
Enoch continues: “In post-lockdown, the commercial world has had to adapt very quickly. The situation since March has accelerated many trends and I think these will be positive for the independent creative in the long run. Companies are now more used to working with dispersed teams and working remotely where possible. With budgets getting trimmed, the flexibility and speed that independent photographers can bring will be increasingly attractive.
The modern economy is virtually built on photography. Advertising, social media, business websites; all require a constant diet of high quality imagery to sell, sustain, and entice.
Good news for you, then.
All you have to do is work hard, put yourself out there, and take some bloody good photographs.
But you need to look beyond the lens of your camera. Think about Enoch and the Arctic Monkeys. Photos of a little known band ended up being instrumental to his portfolio when that band became one of the biggest rock bands in the world.
Have an eye on the culture, an eye on the times. Could you get a life changing snap of the next big thing? It could be the picture that makes you the next big thing…