How to start a photography business (with no experience?)

I interviewed 3 people who own successful photography businesses, and asked them how to start a photography business.

Updated September 10, 2021

Written by

Benjamin Davis

Contributor

How-to-start.org

Experts interviewed:

Teri Bocko - Owner, Teri B Photography in Los Angeles, CA

Armando Rodriguez – Owner, Zen Studios LA Los Angeles, CA

Lori Dorman, Owner, Lori Dorman & Co Photography in Los Angeles, CA

NOTICE: This is a long article. You can skip directly to the guide if you prefer.

Starting a photography business is a fine way to turn a passion into an income.

I interviewed three people who own successful and well established photography businesses, and asked them a range of questions that will be helpful for anyone considering starting a photography business.

I wanted to understand how they came into the photography business, including what experience was needed, and what the key challenges were along the way and how someone getting started in the business can overcome those challenges.

I first wanted to know what background my three founders came from, so I asked them – how did you get started in the photography business?

How did you get started in the photography business?

did you work professionally as a photographer? or did you just get started on your own?

Teri: I have sort of an unusual path to photography. I came to LA as an actor and actors need a lot of headshots. I didn't quite have the budget at the time for headshots every six months or every year which is what everyone recommends. So, I just started shooting my own pictures and learning about lighting and editing just sort of by trial and error. And then it just kind of started from there. I really started to enjoy. I had always had kind of a knack and an interest in photography but didn't think of pursuing it as a career. And I just started shooting some family friends for their weddings and some candid pictures and really just truly stumbled upon it.

Armando: Well, actually, it's an interesting story. My wife (we were just dating at the time) was modelling. She took me to one of her modelling gigs. And you know, I had a camera. I copied all the settings from the camera, and the lighting was already all set up. All I had to do was just snap a picture of her and obviously, she already had makeup done for the session. So, when I saw it , I was like, "holy cow, I can't believe that came out from the camera image.”! I was pretty amazed with the results. I was like, “Oh, that's amazing.” And then I kept shooting after that day. So, that's kind of how I got started in the photography business.

Lori: It kind of started when I had a birthing business, and women would bring in their photography to me, and it just looked so ridiculous! I wanted to capture something different about women, and more of a sensuality to it. And that's kind of where it all started… I felt really compelled to want to change the look of that time. I mean, we're talking about like in the 90s. And I did it because I had a birthing business. And so, I just had a constant flow of pregnant women – and then pretty soon they were asking me to do it for them, and they were bringing friends in, and they referring people because of this look that I created. And then eventually, I started my own photography studio.

TipYou definitely don't need a background as a professional photographer to get started in the photography business. None of the three founders I spoke to had worked or trained professionally before they got into the business – they just started doing good work, and built a business around it.

It's not uncommon that people start a business in an industry where they have no prior experience or skills. Plenty of creative businesses – like photography – are born from someones passion to do what they love, and earn an income from it that supports their lifestyle.

But the photography business is all about producing great results.

So – should you get professionally trained? Or have some experience before you start?

I asked the three successful founders the question that was at the top of my mind:

Do you need to be a photographer to start a photography business?

can you start a photography business with no experience? or could you start out by hiring other photographers?

Teri: I do think if you want to start a photography business, you should have some understanding of photography. Being someone who is self-taught, I believe that you can learn a lot if you have the right aspirations and if you're driven enough. You can actually learn as you go and absolutely take a non-traditional route, you don't have to go to school for it, but I would say in order to have a successful business in photography, you need to know some basic things about taking pictures.

Armando: Actually, the original idea for me was – I'll hire some photographers, and you know, I'll start the business, they can take the pictures, and I can give them gigs.” That's even before I even picked up a camera. I realized quite quickly that was very difficult without having any prior knowledge of photography. I think it’s definitely doable, but you have to have some basic knowledge of photography first.

Lori: After building my company over 20 years, I've often wondered if I could have started here – with hired photographers. And I don't think so, because I think that you have to build your brand, and you have to put your time, and you have to build your clientele before you start having others create that brand with you.

Tip: I wrote the worlds easiest step-by-step guide on How to Start a Photography Business. You can check it out >here<.

So my three experts all agree – you don't need to be a formally trained photographer to start a photography business.

You just need to take the time to learn the craft, and make sure you're turning out good quality work.

Most people starting a photography business don't have a lot of money to spend, and some people event want to start a photography business with no money.

I asked my three experts how much money you need in order to get started.

How much money do you need to start a photography business? And what equipment do you need to buy?

Can you get started with almost no money? What are the must-have things, and what can wait until later? Can you rent some equipment until you can afford to buy it?

Teri: Based on my experience, I would say you need a minimum – on the low end – of $2,000 to $3,000, and on the high end, up to $8,000 or $9,000 just for the gear that you want and the tools that you need to get you started with. I think that it can be a lower number – but I think if you want to shoot high and you have more to invest in it, a higher number would be a great place to start.

Baseline, you'll need a camera and some kind of quality lens. It could just be one lens. If it's a quality lens, you really only need one to get started. Renting is always an option. And you can always add as you grow and that's sort of what I did, just started small. I really think it's very important to have a quality gear when you're starting. It'll help set you apart immediately.

Armando: I'll break it down into two parts. I think what you need is you need three resources. And you need one of three resources – either money, knowledge, or time. So, if you have one of those resources then you can cut back on the other two. So, I think for to somebody to get started, all they need is a camera. So long as it's a good camera, you don't need more than that to start off – and you can get a decent camera now for around $2,000.

I feel like if you get a really good camera and a lens, that's it – that's all you need to get started.

Lori: You probably could do it for $3,000 if you really wanted to. Literally, somebody can start in their garage, and they can get a kit, and some backdrops, and a few dresses. They can get a nice camera. I would say if you were serious, you could set up a nice little studio with probably $5,000 to $8,000. And that would include your camera, your lenses, a kit, some dresses, some backdrops, some stands.

Tip: In my guide, I show you exactly how you can get up to $12,000 worth of equipment for your photography business with as little as $600. You can check it out >here<.

It's not a very expensive business to get into, and it depends to a large extent on what type of photography you're doing. If you're doing sports photography, you don't need a studio – but you might need to spend a little more on different types of lenses. On the other hand, if you're doing just headshots, your setup is going to be quite simple, and on the lower end of costs – maybe as low as a couple thousand dollars or less.

Once you've got your starting equipment, you'll probably use some of your income to upgrade your gear and get better things as you go.

So – how much exactly could you expect to earn with a photography business?

I asked my three successful founders: 

Is photography a profitable business? Can you earn a good income?

could you expect to replace your full time income with a photography business? can you earn good money?

Teri: I would say that anywhere from $5,000 to $9,000 a month is doing pretty well. It varies with photography. The seasons, the location – there's so many factors that go into it – but I think that's probably a good place to start. Maybe the range is too wide – but I would say between 5K and 9K a month.

Armando: I think it depends on the area and depends on the market. You know, Los Angeles is very competitive, and there's a lot of photographers. I think you can charge more money just because it's a big city – you charge a lot more money. So, as an example, a base rate for me – the absolute minimum is $200. So, if I can do 20 sessions a month working part time, that's a good month, doing at least $4-5k part time.

Lori: Estimating an income range is a very difficult question to answer, because you have people who are doing shoots for $300 per shoot. And then on the other hand you have people who do in-person sales, and they charge a session fee of $300. And they capture $2,000 in sales, or $4,000 in sales. So, if somebody goes into the photography business knowing that they're going to do in-person sales, they're going to probably make on average, at least $5,000 a month.

Tip: The one thing my three photography business owners all said was – make sure you're charging enough! There seems to be a temptation to charge less when you're new – but when you do that, you're telling people you're not valuable. You're better off charging higher, and doing less work in the beginning, than charging less and devaluing your work.

I have a whole chapter dedicated to setting your fees in my guide, >available for free or for purchase here.<

When you're getting started, finding your first few fee-paying clients is a big deal.

There's a world of options available to new photographers just getting into the business.

I asked the three successful photography business owners how they got their first few clients, and how they grew their client base from that initial start.

How can you get clients as a new photography business?

what's the best way to do it? should you offer discount deals, or charge full price? where to advertise?

Teri: So, my first paying client job came from using online job search boards like Craigslist and just sort of offering deals… My number 1 goal wasn't necessarily getting the work, it was really more about getting the portfolio. If I got paid for it, that was great, but it was really important to me to build and curate a wonderful portfolio so that I could get more customers based on the work I was already doing.

Armando: I actually advertised on Groupon, and those were my first clients who came and got the package. In hindsight looking back, I think it's not so great for service based businesses because Groupon takes a 40% cut, but then you're getting the exposure which is what you'r paying for. So it was good, because it brought me my first clients.

Lori: I had a built-in clientele, because I already had the birthing business, so I was busy right away as soon as I started offering photoshoots.

Two of the three founders didn't have any client base to start with – they started in the same way that you might be considering starting. Advertising online – craigslist, etc, and then running offers on the deal sites.

Those sites can be a great way to get some work, and build your portfolio, but pay particular attention to how you setup the deal to make sure you're not taking on too much work. Being over-booked will give your first clients a bad experience, and you don't want to kick things off with 1-star reviews!

So once the phone starts ringing, how can you make sure the clients are booking you, instead of someone else?

What do customers really care about when they're booking a photographer?

I asked my trio of successful founders:

How do customers choose a photography business?

what do they care most about? is it price and fees? is it availability? or is it something else?

Teri: I think when people are choosing a photographer, they fall in love with an image or a style. The work you put out is usually what clientele you will attract. I’ve been a big believer in that, and I see that a lot. I work with wonderful couples and families and I’d like to think what I put out is what attracts the right type of person but, yeah, I think it's as easy as falling in love with one picture and that's how the decision to hire you is made – even before they call you.

Armando: For my specific type of photography, I think they want to know that they're going to be taken care of. They're coming to you because they want to solve a problem, which is they need a headshot, and they want to be comfortable in front of the camera to get the best shots. So, for me, I'll help them get a good headshot in a comfortable professional environment, and they can sense that coming in.

Lori: I know that in our market – what we've developed is definitely brand associated, and it's very competitive online with the other women that we compete with in our marketplace. For example – we've got 180,000 followers on Instagram. I think that we've developed a reputation in the industry and a brand – our company offers customers a really exclusive experience and it's really different from what most companies will offer, and we have amazing customer service, and we have really great quality photography.

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As you're getting started in the photography business, you'll be confronted with opportunities in all different industries, and opportunities to shoot a huge range of different types of sessions.

The three founders said it's important to find a niche, and get known for one thing – rather than trying to be everything to everyone.

I asked my three industry experts – what type of niches should you consider, and how do you find something to focus on?

How should a new photography business choose a niche?

is a wide service offering the best way? or should you focus on one type of photography only?

Teri: My advice would be – do not do too much in the beginning. Focus on what you're good at and also what you're passionate about shooting. I would say never go for a niche just because of its profitability. If you hate shooting weddings, it'll show in your work and then it becomes a disservice to the couples and also to yourself as an artist. Don't go for something just because of dollar signs. I always do ask photographers what they like to shoot, why they like to shoot it and then it encourage people to go in the direction of things that they're really passionate about.

It really depends on what type of person you are. You know yourself best. If you know that you don't deal well with children, you probably shouldn't go the family portrait route. I know, for myself, personally, I’m not very passionate about sports. So, sports photography, I knew in the beginning, was not my avenue to go down.

Armando: I think the very first thing that people need to be clear on is – what they don't want to do, and then avoid doing that. Don't do something you hate because of the money. That's a big mistake.

Like for me personally – I don't like working with actors. It's not enjoyable. It's a very different type of headshot. It takes a lot more energy to get them comfortable.

So the best advice is – find what you like working on, and do that. If you love real estate and then you're really going to enjoy taking pictures of houses. You really enjoy kids, then book with taking pictures of kids.

There's no right or wrong. I think that's the best advice because if you do that, it's not gonna feel like work, it's just gonna be more enjoyable to the whole process.

Lori: I think it's personal preference. I think what's more important than anything is that you find a niche for yourself. Like you cannot go out and become everything – the wedding photographer, the sports photographer, the headshot photographer. If you try to do that you're probably not going to do real well. You can't wear every hat – you'll lose business doing that.

Tip: In addition to choosing a niche, it's helpful to know how to avoid bad customers. Some people just cannot be pleased, doesn't matter what you do. It's best to avoid them entirely. I wrote a whole chapter on 'how to avoid bad customers and unfair reviews' in my guide, available >here<.

Once you're starting to get established, you'll probably start upgrading your gear.

You might also start experimenting with new things, new ways, and new tools.

Some of those things might turn out to be a complete waste of money.

I asked my three successful founders what they regretted spending money on, and if they had any advice for someone starting out.

What is the biggest waste of money for a new photography business?

what things should you avoid? things that might look like a good idea, but are really just useless?

Teri: I think buying camera gear brand new when you're starting out is probably one of the biggest wastes – unless you're buying something that's truly state of the art or just launched and you want to get your hands on it. I learned in the beginning to save a lot of money by purchasing used gear from reputable camera stores or eBay or Craigslist and found a lot of that really helped me in the beginning. You don't need to buy a brand-new lens. There are plenty of used ones that will do the exact same thing.

Armando: In the very beginning, I thought I needed somebody to help me manage the business, when I didn't even have a business yet. So, for me, it was a waste of money hiring somebody – when I didn't have a good idea of my own business, because nobody else can help you until you figure it out first.

Lori: I decided at one point to do a sitter collection of clothing and little dresses – to use as props. And so, I went out, I probably bought what would be 50, 60, 70 beautiful little sitter dresses and it was a complete bomb. I just bought too many and too many colors. You just don't need that many. It was just, yeah – a waste. So now we have this one closet that never gets used.

This can absolutely be a low-cost business to get into, if you buy things slowly instead of all in a rush at once.

I wondered what a typical day is like for someone who owns a successful photography business.

I asked my three experts:

What is a typical day like, once you're established in the photography business?

are they days long? is it still enjoyable? is there enough time to slow down?

Teri: So, for example – on a shoot day for a wedding, typically, I get to sleep in or use it to travel to the location. I usually grab a tea, I’ll spend some time scouting, looking at the weather to see sort of what the conditions will be throughout the day. And then once my shoot time begins, for the couple, I pretty much just strap in and hold on, and just keep shooting. Shooting a wedding is a ride, for sure, and I’m sort of here for it. These are very big events that are scheduled sometimes a year or two in advance. So, I’m very respectful of the things that they have planned and I just sort of find where I can to be efficient and also artistic and creative to help. I’m part of the flow of the day, not an obstruction to it.

Armando: I think in the first five years, I was just putting in every single minute trying to figure everything out, you know, just learning photography, learning the business, learning everything. So, I did spend 40, 50, 60 hours a week just learning and working. And now it's very different. Now, you know, I blocked days off where I don't work, or I blocked days where I shoot, and then I have days where I work on content and content creation, and email handling and all that. So, it really depends, because I still have another job too. I have a little bit more laid-back approach, now.

Lori: I am still behind the camera several times a month – but because we do have six other photographers, they take on the bulk of the work. We shoot probably anywhere from 8 to 15 shoots a week. And I mostly work with celebrities or on collaborations. And I work behind the scenes. I probably go to the studio twice a week, and work a few hours there. I'm more of the vision now. I bring in new ideas. I do the purchasing for those ideas. But as far as all the standard workflows that happened within the company, and all the positions – that's all managed internally now.

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Each of the three industry experts manages their day-to-day a little differently – which really just goes to show that this industry can be whatever you want it to be. If you want a big business, you can build one. If you want a side hustle to double your income, you can do build that too.

However – for all the glitz and glamour, it seems like the photography business has the opportunity to attract it's share of controversy.

I asked my three photography business founders – what have you seen happening in the industry that is wrong, and shouldn't be happening?

What are some of the craziest things that photography businesses get wrong?

what are the bad habits and bad practices in the industry? what should you avoid if you wish to build a good reputation?

Teri: It's just photographers that are photographing things that they're not passionate about. I think that is the craziest thing to me. I’ve met wedding photographers in my years of doing this and meeting people and hearing their stories – that they absolutely hate shooting weddings and they only do it for the money but are just absolutely miserable. To me, that is crazy – like why would you put yourself through that. That's the one thing that I can't comprehend, why you would waste your time doing something that you're not passionate about. We have such a short amount of time. It's not helping anybody if you're not passionate about what you're doing.

Armando: Trying to shoot everything. Like, I seeing websites where they shoot babies, and then they do actors, and they do glam, and they do – I don't know, architecture – it's all over the place. So, I don't think it’s good because, you aren't known for one single thing. So, I think somebody that's looking for, you know – maternity photos – they tend to go with only somebody that shoots type of thing, and they tend to be way better than somebody that shoots everything.

Lori: Hands down – craziest thing is charging $300 for a photoshoot. And not valuing your work. And when you don't value your work, you tell people your value. Nobody comes along and says, “Wow, that person is so amazing.” We tell the public are worth. And that number one thing is what people don't understand. People expect customers to put the value on to them, and that's not the way it works. The reason that people can command the amount of money they command is because they set their value.

Pretty clear advice here from the trio – make sure you're really clear about what niche you want to work in, and don't do the work for the sake of the money. It's one of those businesses where the art has to live first, and the business is the way you pay the bills. And – as the final of the three points out – you're going to pay your bills much easier if you're charging enough!


I wanted to know if the industry was competitive – are people trying to charge less to win work?

I asked the experts:

What is the best way for a photography business to compete against others?

is it cutthroat? or, are you better off just doing good work, and charging a fair price?

Teri: I do compete with other photographers – but only for SEO rankings so that I can be found on Google. That's probably the most important way that I compete with other photographers. For the most part for everything else, I always had a pretty strong sense of who I am and my brand. And in that regard, I don't really see a point of competing too much with other photographers because I know what I bring is so unique and I’ve always been really proud of what I bring as an artist. So, there's no sense in, like, changing who I am to be like somebody else. That being said, if it is about price, sometimes I’ll try to work with the couple where I can. If they say flat out it's a price thing, I’ll try to match them to what I’m comfortable with but I’m not actively thinking about other photographers too much. I just stay in my own lane and it's worked alright for me so far.

Armando: It's tough, with a lot of competition, of course being in Los Angeles. But I don't really see them as, you know, a threat. I sometimes gauge what they're doing, but I don't compare myself to them. I used to, but not anymore. I just work more on my own business. I’m trying to get better, get better results for my customers, more than looking at other photographers. Like, I really don't care what they're doing now. You know what I mean? Like, I care about how I'm going to get better results for my clients. And provide a better service.

Lori: No, never. We don't put out a competitive bid. Nothing like that. We're not trying to be better priced than our competition. Like, I think it's a very exclusive small pond – when you get to a certain level, there's a handful of people that are all kind of doing the same high-end work. And there's plenty enough to go around for everybody. We don't try to compete with anybody.

The age old wisdom of just 'doing good work' seems to win the day in the photography business too.

As with any business, it's always easier to get more from your existing customers than it is to find new customers.

I asked my three experts what other services they can offer, in addition to just photography, to increase revenue and profits?

What additional services can a photography business offer?

often, a business can earn more from add-ons and extras than their main business

Teri: Yeah, the extras that I do are prints. And in albums, I do custom designed album books. Those are the only two main ones outside of the actual shooting and shooting day coverage.

Armando: For my specific business, doing headshots, I say probably retouching photos. Some people order that. I don't see it as a goldmine. It's just a little bit of add-on. That's about it – it's not going to produce a huge amount of income.

Lori: As an add-on, I would say hair and makeup. 100%. That's a game changer. And people are definitely interested in having that extra. And for an upsell, we have different packages that people purchase. So, there's that for the upsell is. The upsell is and it starts at six images, and then it goes to 12. And then it goes to, this next package has a book, and then the next package has a nicer book with or Folio Case, and you get outtakes. And then the big, big package has, you know, the largest folio package, the largest Folio case, and the largest hardcover book and hard pages. And so, and those are the way that we upsell, and those are absolutely necessary to get the client into the largest package. Definitely.

Tip: Knowing exactly when and how to offer an extra, an add-on, or an up-sell can mean the difference between almost nobody saying yes, and almost EVERYBODY saying yes. I have dedicated an entire section in my guide to the topic of selling the easy way – you can check it out >here<.

Advice for starting a new photography business, from industry experts

the three successful founders share their keys to success in this industry, based on their own experiences

Teri: Firstly, I would say invest in great gear.

Secondly, I would say when building a portfolio, shoot what you want to shoot more of.

And lastly, I would say no one will work harder for yourself than you will. If you want it, really go for it.

Research what you want, go read up on some things, watch some videos. You can go test out equipment. Almost any city has some sort of camera store that'll let you either rent out equipment or just go look at it in the store and practice shooting actually in the store itself. Just getting your hands on the equipment is good but I think in research, you can't just look at a brochure and be like “That's the one I want.” You definitely have to do a few more steps to figure out what gear is going to work best for you and then give you also those great results in your business.

Photography is about artistry and, you have the opportunity to create your own opportunities.

Armando: Number one investment is on yourself. That's the biggest one – more important than marketing, more than you anything, it’s investing in yourself. You know, personal development.

And – if you're going to start a business start from day one, open up an account for that specific business and start treating it like a real business. So, meaning you can't open an account and go buy food and go, go drink beers in the same account because it becomes a huge mess.

I think in the end having your own business is a vehicle for you to have free time, like, do what you love to do and also enjoy the rewards, not just work, work, work.

Lori: The two most important things are to value your own time, and value your own work. Understand your value and price it accordingly.

And secondly – do in person sales, don't release your images over the internet. And when you do that, you will take a sale, that would be, you know, $1,000 and you will create a sale, that's $4,00. It's so important. And people pay what it's worth. I've set the tone now of what it's worth, and I would never be able to capture that if I put those digital images online.

And finally, from an artist point of view – you got to do what you love. Like you got to be passionate about your artistry, and don't follow trends. I would not and still to this day, I don't follow other artists. And I do that on purpose because when you go out and you start looking at Instagram and people's websites, all you do is walk away feeling horrible about yourself. You'll never feel good enough.

I think everybody out there is just copying each other so much and the artistry is lost. In order to be successful, you got to wake up every day and be excited about what you're doing. And really passionate, and excited about trying new ideas. This is a favorite part of my job, coming up with something new to do.

Without needing too much money, it seems possible that anyone can start a photography business if they have the time to put into learning and researching and understanding what they need to do.

The biggest thing that the three photography industry experts kept repeating to me over and over again was that you need to do your research, and you need to choose a niche to specialize in!

I have spent over 100 hours learning everything there is to know about the photography business, by talking to industry experts and photographers. I have compiled it into the worlds most useful guide, How to Start a Photography Business. You can check it out here.

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