Starting Your Own Photography Business

Charts and Money

So you want to be a professional photographer? You’ve got a camera, a website with some galleries and you’ve even earned a few bucks on the side for your work. You have the passion, now you have a taste for the business. So it’s time to quit the 9-to-5, right? Not so fast. There’s a lot you need to think about first. Sure you can take money under the table, but if you want to be legit, if you want people to take you seriously as a professional then you have to take certain steps.

The first question a lot of beginning photographers struggle with is, how much to charge. There are quite a few sources to turn to for help with this question, but I’m going to save that for a later post.

Before you start charging people, you need to set up your business. The example I am about to provide is for my specific case in my state (Florida). I am not an accountant or attorney, so use this as a guide.

First, you have to decide if you want to operate as a sole proprietor or a corporation. Don’t tell Mitt Romney, but corporations are not people (more on that in a moment). As a sole proprietor you just run your business and pay taxes. A Limited Liability Corporation, as the name implies, gives you protection against debt and lawsuits. If you are a sole proprietor and the business goes bust or you get sued, your personal assets are at stake. Do you really want to lose your car, house and life savings because your photography business didn’t make it? As an LLC, debts and lawsuits are limited to the corporation and not your personal assets. In Florida, it costs $125 to register an LLC and $140 a year to file annual reports.

Speaking of lawsuits, you can buy commercial liability insurance and “errors and omissions” insurance. The first, protects you if someone gets hurt or property is damaged while you’re on a shoot. The latter is bridezilla insurance. Or in the case of one New York studio, a divorced man who wants tens-of-thousands of dollars to re-create his wedding. You can learn more about insurance for photographers from the PPA and ASMP. I got a quote from a company offering a 1-million dollar liability policy, $15,000 in equipment insurance and $25,000 errors and omission protection. The quote was for $625 a year.

Next, you have to get an Employer Identification Number (EIN) from the IRS. This is just a number the IRS uses to identify a business. If you get a W-2 from your employer, you should see the EIN number on the form.

IRS 1040 Tax Form Being Filled Out

Now you’re ready to pay taxes quarterly! Yay! Depending on how much you made and spent on business expenses, you have to estimate how much taxes you owe and send a payment every quarter. Since you work for yourself, you owe self employment tax. The current rate is 13.3% 15.3%.  [UPDATE: Remember the fiscal cliff deal at the end of 2012? Well the 2% holiday on social security deductions went away. So as of Jan. 2013, the rate goes back to 15.3%]

Just like your wages are deducted for social security and medicare, the SE tax deducts 10.4% for social security [now 12.4%] and 2.9% for medicare.  Then there’s income tax. Whatever your tax bracket is gets added to the self employment tax. So in my case, I’m paying 38.3% in tax: 13.3% for self-employment and 25% for income tax. [now 40.3% in tax]

There are, of course, deductions you can take. I pay for my own health insurance, so I can deduct that. If you bought a new lens or camera, that’s a deduction. You can even claim mileage at 55-and-half cents a mile.

[UPDATE 2/7/11]: Check out this post on special tax advice for photographers.

Let’s add it up so far: $125 for the LLC, $625 for insurance and 40% of everything I earn (after legitimate deductions) goes to taxes. Still think you can charge $100 for a photo shoot?

I’ll get more into pricing in the next post. For now I want to leave you with some resources. Check out Photoshelter’s Vimeo page for great videos with the “Tax Ninja” on taxes for photographers and three good videos with John Harrington. Harrington, of course, is the author of “Best Business Practices for Photographers” and the Photo Business blog. I’ll leave you with a video on the “7 Common Tax Mistakes Made by Photographers”.


Photographing Motocross Sports

Dirt Bike in the Air

…and now for something completely different. Every once in a while, I like to push myself out of my comfort level and try something new. A few weeks ago, a photographer friend of mine posted an image on Facebook of a motocross racer and said he wanted to try to shoot something like that. My neighbor’s two kids race their bikes at a track not far from here so I coordinated a shoot during a practice night.

For someone who shoots houses for a living, trying to shoot something that moves very fast is a change of pace, to say the least. I got there just before the sun set and quickly found I had to boost my ISO to at least 800. I knew I wanted to show some motion in the wheels so I thought a shutter speed of 1/125th would work. I was shooting with the 70-200 f/2.8 lens and thought I would start at f/5.6, but that went out the window right away and I was shooting wide open at 2.8 the whole night.

Motocross Rider at Sunset

After the sun set, I had to boost my ISO to “HI” which on my camera body is only 3200. I started shooting in RAW, but switched over to JPEG because at 6.5 frames per second, the buffer time was taking too long. My Compact Flash cards have a 30 Mb/s transfer rate. If I shot sports professionally, I’d probably have the 45 Mb/s cards. One last tip if you’re shooting fast action: make sure you set your camera’s focus drive to “AI Servo” (aka Continuous Focus for Nikon). This tells your camera to track motion.

ATVs Jumping

Despite all the knowledge I brought onto the track, the vast majority of my shots were craptacular! I had trouble nailing the focus in the low light conditions. But hey, that’s what trying something new is all about, right? I might go again…maybe during the day to see if I have better luck. You can see the rest of the gallery HERE.

Must Have Apps for Photographers

There is no shortage of apps for photographers. While most of them focus on actually taking pictures, editing or adding effects with your phone I want to point out a few that are more utilitarian.

sunseeker app

In a previous blog post, I told you about the LightTrac app. I’ve since discovered a similar app that allows you to track the direction and angle of the sun. It’s called Sun Seeker (the lite version is free).  It works similar to the compass on the Iphone. Just hold it up in the direction you want to shoot and you’ll see where the sun is going to be. Now, I don’t like it as much as LightTrac, because just like the compass tool, it’s prone to interference and you’re prompted to wave your phone in a figure eight pattern. Granted, this has happened before with LightTrac, but  it’s more often with Sun Seeker and I also don’t trust the compass 100%; I’ve found the direction can change depending on how I’m holding the phone. The one cool thing about the full version ($4.99) of Sun Seeker is the “augmented reality” feature. Using your phone’s camera, you get a display of the sun’s path.

Sun Seeker augmented reality

Contract Maker Elite is a little pricey at $19.99; but if you’re an on-the-go photographer, you can create and edit contracts right from your phone or tablet. You can then have a client sign it on your device and email it to them as a .pdf, JPEG or both. The app comes with starter templates, including a sales receipt.

Contract Maker Elite App

Easy Release is another time and paper saving app for the on-the-go photographer. If you need a model or property release, this $9.99 app lets you collect all the information you need on your device. You can even take a snapshot of your client and add embed it into the release.  Like Contract Maker, you can also email a .pdf or JPEG of the release.

Easy Release App

Do you know of any other useful apps for photographers? Let me know…

2011 In Review

I just wanted to take a moment to thank everyone who visited my blog in 2011. Some of you came by chance searching for something; others subscribe.

In 2010 the blog had 2,961 visitors. In 2011 that number was 14,793! This may not be as big as some well known photography blogs; but keep in mind, I am not a full time blogger and I make no money from the blog. I do it just because I like sharing what I learn. Honestly, I wish I blogged more often. So if you have any suggestions for topics or questions, please let me know.

Below is a report compiled by WordPress. Take a moment to look through it and remember it wouldn’t have been possible without you.


The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Syndey Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 14,000 times in 2011. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 5 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.