observed by Diane » photo journal for those who enjoy vignettes of an ordinary life

Starting Photography as a Business: Mistakes to Avoid

Recently I visited and read posts at two different photography-based discussion groups. I ended up shaking my head in amazement as I read some of the posts in which individuals related experiences they have had with their first photo shoots. So why did I shake my head as I read these posts? What it boils down to is inexperience and lack of business knowledge. I can understand why professional photographers who have either been in the business a long time or have gone to a photography college look down upon those armed with a digital camera who set up shop and try to pass themselves off as professional. A professional in any area of expertise is qualified not necessarily by a college or university degree in the field but by experience, their solid knowledge of business practices, and a service-above-all attitude.

Based on some of these recent posts I’ve read and others I’ve heard about in the past, I thought I’d share a few tips on things to avoid if you or someone you know is about to embark upon setting up as a photographer. Realize that I too am a neophyte in terms of my photography career but I have decades of business experience under my photostrap. It’s that business experience that I rely upon to build my career in photography. The thing I know for certain is that photography is a service business — with bold emphasis on service.


Here then are some of the mistakes I see people making that hold them back or even sabotage their fledgling business as a photographer.

  • Showing up for a photo session without sufficient memory cards plus back up batteries.
  • Your website and/or blog doesn’t spell out how you conduct your business. If you take the time & effort to do so it avoids conflict and misunderstanding. You should have an area that is easily identifiable that states what your goal/philosophy is as a photographer; what the process is (before, during, and after the session); what you charge and what the client receives in return; and any other specifics they may need to know in advance. When you talk to your client at the time of booking ask if they have questions about  the session and let them know you’ll send them a copy of the details in writing (as a courtesy).
  • Failing to get a deposit to hold the date. No explanation required, right?
  • Not having a relationship developed with a professional printer.
  • Never, ever, ever — is this clear — never ever set a specific end-time for the session. Allow a sufficient timeframe for your session and take whatever time is necessary to warm up the client(s), get the shots necessary, and the wind-down. You need a strategy before you show up. Don’t be checking your watch, don’t set a specific time and then that’s it — remember this is a SERVICE business and not a factory where you punch a clock. On your website (or blog) a good way to let the client know how you conduct the session is to let them know that each session is unique (because the people and circumstances are unique) and that it can take up to __X__ hours (personally, I find that it averages up to about 1-1/2 to 2 hours). You will learn from your initial sessions what an average session may take. But never put a specific to-the-minute cut-off time on a session as if you’re working on an assembly line in a unionized factory. They’ll never refer you to their friends/family and they’ll never have you back if you’re more concerned about quitting time than doing the best job you can.
  • Not respecting your clients’ time. This is the other end of the previous point. If you tell the client your sessions are usually say up to 1-1/2 hours or so, don’t go overboard and spend 2-1/2 or 3 hours there. They have a life too and perhaps they have plans. Yes, if you need to spend a bit more time, say an additional 20 minutes or half hour over your stated average that’s not unreasonable — but be respectful of their time as well. There’s a fine balance and you’ll get your time-legs after you’ve done a few sessions. You should practice on friends & family first.
  • Not doing your research BEFORE you begin taking on clients. I know it is easy to stumble upon an unexpected request before you’re ready — that happened to me too. The difference for me when that occurred, is that I have enough business background that I already knew certain things I needed to have at the ready by the time I showed up — so that first paid session ended up putting me in a scramble to get all the paperwork ready before I showed up.
  • Be certain you have the important things in writing (some of that relates to what I mentioned above). A contract setting out the terms of the session, including payment and copyright are key.
  • Do you know who your target market is? How will you market yourself? Do you know how to market yourself? Do you know the difference between marketing and advertising? Will it cost money and do you have the money or expertise for marketing? These are questions to which you should immediately be ready with a definitive answer.
  • Once you begin taking on paying clients, this is no longer simply a hobby. A business is an entirely different animal. Educate yourself in all the business aspects and be prepared. Take a course or workshop in running a home-based or small business for instance. Read some books about how to start a photography or home-based business.
  • Embarking upon paid work without developing a SOLID plan — so a business plan is a must. Thoroughly think it through. Create a plan, write it down, and follow it like any roadmap. To do anything less is setting yourself up for disappointment and a less-than-stellar reputation. {Reputation is what you need to develop in order to build your clientele. A photography business is all about building relationships.}
  • Not knowing the legal aspects. Do you know what is legally required to conduct business in your municipality/state/province? Do you fully understand copyright? Do you need/have a separate business bank account? Do you have to declare your photography income on your income tax? Do you have insurance or do you need insurance for your business? If you don’t know the answers to these questions, you have some homework to do.
  • Remember that a photography business is a combination of art and business — it’s not one or the other; it’s a marriage of the two.

I realize this post focused on what not to do, but it seems so many hobby photographers jump into the realm of being a paid photographer without thinking, planning, or being prepared. Avoid these things and you’re already taking a positive step. If you do the necessary research and planning, you may decide that you aren’t necessarily prepared to do what it takes to be a professional photographer. There is nothing wrong with that. There are many hobby photographers who do so their entire lives and receive great joy in doing so. Enjoy it; relish it. It’s important to give considerable, detailed thought and planning before jumping over that line from hobby to professional, whether you do it full time or part time.

TIP: One great tip for something you can do before starting up a photography business: Shadow a professional. Locate a professional photographer in your area who specializes in the same type of photography you are interested in pursuing (weddings, children, commercial, natural light or studio, for example) and offer your services as an assistant for a few photo shoots — at no fee. You’ll be their assistant, yet paying close attention watching & learning  how they conduct themselves, prepare for & run a session, handle the business end, and other great lessons.

Make yourself a pot of tea (or preferred refreshment), sit down with your thinking cap plus a pen and paper, and begin to develop a plan. That’s the first step towards success and avoiding drastic mistakes.

If you have any additional tips to share on what to avoid, please include them in your comments. We can all learn from your tips.

The Photographer’s Survival Guide: How to Build and Grow a Successful Business
The Business of Studio Photography: How to Start and Run a Successful Photography Business
Business and Legal Forms for Photographers (with CD-ROM)
Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable

  • Check with your local Chamber of Commerce for business start-up workshops.
  • Join a professional photography association, attend the meetings, and become involved. It’s a great way to learn from the pros.
  • Take an online course such as “The Business of Photography” or “Making Money with Your Photography” at BetterPhoto.com

Diane is a lifestyle photographer serving Grande Prairie & Northern Alberta. Visit Diane Schuller Photography.

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sherri - May 26, 2009 - 11:51 pm

This would be lovely framed and hanging in a country style kitchen. Looks like home:-)

romine - May 27, 2009 - 2:05 am

the shot is great, as usual. i read with great attention your text even thought i’m not a professional photographer or with plans to become one.. but you never know.. i found it really anchored in reality and well documented. quite educative. thank you

Bogdan - May 27, 2009 - 4:16 am

Now..this is very useful for me diane! Very very useful, as i want to start making some money with my photography! i don’t know if i’ll ever be a professional photographer, but i want to give it a try, and these advices are great for someone like me!

I just wanna thank you!

Toni - May 27, 2009 - 4:20 pm

Excellent post, Diane. That first one was me! But it doesn’t really count, since it was a gift for a neighbor. What size CF card do you recommend. Mine holds about 200 RAW images, and I took twice that amount (had to go home and upload to the computer – bad, I know). Even though this is a gift, I have a model release, price list and print release for him so he can print the photos wherever he wants. I’ll come back and read and absorb more later. Lots of good info.

DesignTies - May 27, 2009 - 11:24 pm

These are great tips for starting any business. I just received my vendor’s permit and my company name is officially registered, but I have lot to learn about running a business.

Thanks for sharing your list of what to do/what not to do.


P.S. I can apparently post comments here now!!

Mike - May 27, 2009 - 11:31 pm

Diane; this is very helpful … thanks for the wisdom. Of course the teapot is stunning!

Jean M Fogle - May 29, 2009 - 8:07 am

Great advice for newcomers, and dont we all need advice when we are first starting out!

shelli - mama of letters - May 30, 2009 - 8:39 pm

Thank you so much for this. I think I’m going to print it out and read it in bed because I’m getting too tired to keep looking at this computer!!

shelli - mama of letters - May 31, 2009 - 7:21 am

Diane, I read this last night, and it’s got so much good information. Thank you for taking the time to spell it all out!

Suvarna - June 4, 2009 - 10:59 pm

Thanks so much for this most excellent advice. I would eventually like to turn this hobby into a business. Lots to chew on here.

Sebrina - July 25, 2009 - 1:36 pm

Wonderful wonderful advise!!!

Barbara Yasuhara - September 25, 2010 - 2:28 pm

Great post! And love the yummy image!