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Managing The “Business” Of Your Professional Photography

by Paul

You might have what it takes to make money from photography, but you’re going to need more than talent to stay in business.

If you’ve been following our blog, you may have read one, several, or all of the following articles:

What You Should Know Before Considering a Career in Professional Photography
How to Determine Your Pricing Strategy
The Bare Minimum: Essential Equipment for Photography Beginners
Building a Strong Portfolio from Scratch
Marketing Your Photography Business: A Beginner’s Guide
9 Ways to Get More Contract Work
10 Keys to Effective Communication with Clients

Notice a theme? Yes, we’ve been dedicating a lot of our time to covering the basics: everything it takes to parlay an interest in photography into a successful business when you’re starting from zero.

And if you’ve kept up with our blog posts so far, you also know that as a professional photographer you should expect that a significant portion of your daily work will involve activities other than pointing and shooting. As we wrote in the first part of this ongoing series: You will spend as much time as you do on photography, if not more, on the “business” side.

Unless you’ve earned an MBA or operated your own company before, you probably have only a vague idea of what to expect. Running a business can seem daunting; in one sense, it is: business administration involves real, grown-up-sounding stuff like taxes, licenses, legal protection, and regulatory compliance.

That said, people start new businesses every day—and I can guarantee there are at least a hundred entrepreneurs out there who are less prepared than you already are.

Once you’ve decided you’re serious about being a professional photographer, and have defined your sales and marketing strategy, you’re more than halfway there. What’s next? Well, let’s take a look at a few of the potentially tedious but necessary hurdles in your way.


Don’t make the costly mistake so many newbie freelancers make. Figure out and plan for your tax situation ahead of time.

When you run your own business, you’re self-employed, which means it’s your responsibility—and yours alone—to make sure you have enough money to pay your taxes and do so on time. It sounds straightforward, but if you’ve spent your career thus far holding down jobs as an employee rather than an independent contractor, you may be surprised at just how much you’ll have to save: 30–40% of your revenue, depending on your income level and state of residence. The IRS’s quarterly estimated payment requirements make your ongoing tax savings a relatively easy and painless process.

Make sure you complete the following forms when filing annually:

– Form 1040
– Schedule C
– Schedule SE
– Form 2106
– Form 8829
– Form 4562

While you can fill these out by yourself, you’ll save hours of your time and likely improve the accuracy of your return by using a service such as TurboTax or H&R Block. They’re not free, but seeing as tax software rates for self-employed individuals are typically inexpensive, they’re almost always worth it.

For more information about taxes, make sure to check out Fstoppers’ tax guide for photographers.

Business Formation

Of course, there are ways to structure your business other than as a sole proprietorship. Incorporating your business can help you save on taxes, reduce your debt liability, raise money, and make life easier for any organizations you buy from, sell to, or partner with.

By structuring your business as an LLC (limited liability company), you can maintain independence and operating efficiency while protecting your finances and property from anyone who might try to sue you. LLCs are easier to set up than corporations, and generally a better fit for one-person operations and small teams. To establish an LLC, you’ll need to choose a business name and file a basic informational document called your “articles of organization” with your state. Each jurisdiction is different, and you may need to register additional documentation as well as obtain certain permits and licenses as required by your state.

Suffice it to say, business formation is a vast and sometimes complicated subject. I recommend starting with the SBA’s “Choose Your Business Structure” page.

Your Invoicing and Billing Process

Unless you sell prints or digital negatives through an e-commerce portal (e.g. an Etsy page or a store on your website), most of your transactions will not happen instantaneously. Instead, you’ll need to bill your clients through invoices.

Your invoicing process should adhere to your pricing strategy: if you charge by the hour, keep a running log of your time and include your hours worked on each invoice. If you charge by the project, break down each invoice by task. Applications like Freshbooks, Quickbooks, and Zoho can help you speed up the process and keep an eye on who owes you what.

Consider how soon and how often you need to get paid, and write your terms into each invoice. Some photographers expect payment within 30 or 60 days, while others shorten the timeframe to 15 or 10. You may choose to invoice your clients biweekly, monthly, or quarterly—it all depends on your unique situation and needs. Generally, clients like fewer bills, but a scarce number of high-value invoices is a surefire way to jeopardize business if payments arrive late or go missing…


Contracts with Clients

…Which does happen. It’ll happen to you. And unless you have a contract with the client in place, you’ll be out of luck.

It’s unfortunate, but in creative professions, there’s a certain kind of client who decides that, after all the labor you’ve dedicated to a project, they’d rather not pay you. They’ll ignore your emails and angry voicemails, because they know deep down in the place where their heart should be that there’s nothing you can do about it. Sure, you can try taking them to court, but your attorney’s fees will probably exceed the value of the invoice. Moreover, you won’t have much legal recourse to pursue unpaid invoices if you and the client haven’t agreed to a written contract beforehand.

What belongs in a contract? Again, it depends on your unique situation and line of business, but here are several basic clauses to include:

The parties: Who’s part of this business agreement?
Deliverables: What will you be providing to your client?
Scope and due date: How long is the business engagement?
Payment details: How much are you charging the client? How and when will you receive it—in installments or all at once?
Image rights: Who owns the products of your work?
Changes to the agreement: What happens if the terms of the contract need to change?

Please note that this article does not constitute legal advice. When it comes to contracts, don’t rely on something you read online! Talk to a lawyer or other legal professional.

Budgeting and Cash Flow

Running a successful business is about knowing at any given time how much money you have, how much you’re making, and how much you’re spending. Unless you hire an accountant, it’s your responsibility to keep an eye on your revenue and expenses.

First, determine your annual budget and costs of doing business. Looking ahead, create projections of how much you intend to earn and spend over the next year or several months. Then, as time passes, compare your projections with your actual spending as detailed on your bank statements, and adjust your business practices accordingly.

Your business must be able to meet short- and long-term costs. In corporate-speak, these traits are known as liquidity and solvency. If your business is not liquid, you can’t pay yourself or others on time; if your business is not solvent, it’s dead.

Cash flow impacts both liquidity and solvency. That is, if you’re theoretically making a lot of money but can’t access it immediately, you’re going to run into financial problems. Make sure to keep enough cash on hand to pay any employees, contractors, and suppliers. It’s also a good idea to retain an emergency fund in case any equipment gets lost or stolen, or breaks down.

Insurance Coverage

Speaking of equipment breaking down: you should probably buy some insurance coverage as well. In fact, your state may obligate you to insure your business.

Why? Imagine what could happen if someone breaks their leg during a photoshoot. Or you take a bunch of wedding pictures and the files won’t open. Or your studio burns down to the ground. Or someone steals your lens kit. Or your assistant gets pneumonia. Or…

Okay, enough paranoid thinking. The point is that the upfront costs of insurance coverage are nothing compared to the costs of cleaning up after a disaster or fighting a protracted legal battle with a disgruntled former client or employee. Do your research and understand which options you have and what obligations you face.

Though tedious, all of the above are very necessary aspects to running your business—and this is just an overview. Would you like to learn more about taxes, business formation, invoicing, contracts, budgeting, or insurance? Let us know! Your feedback will help us determine which topics we should explore in-depth in a future article.

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