Tips: Running a Successful
Photo Business

Working in a creative industry like ours can be rewarding and fun but also anxiety-inducing if we’re not treating our business — well, like a business! Here are some tips on how to run a successful photo business, assuming you already have the skills, equipment and software you need to do your job well.

1. Have Confidence in Your Pricing

I can’t stress this one enough. No matter what kind of photography you do, you must ask a potential client to pay you what you actually want to be paid — what you know you deserve to be paid — not what you think the client is willing to pay you. Do the latter and you’ll likely end up stressed, overworked, underpaid and out of business in no time.

I often see photographers underpricing themselves because they’re worried their fees will scare away clients. I’ve felt this way myself. I understand this temptation to lower your price.

But what I’ve learned over the years is that for most clients, price is one factor of many in whether or not they hire a photographer. They’re also looking at the quality of your photos, how well you write captions (if your client needs captions), how quickly you can turn around the photos, how well you communicate, whether or not you will be easy to work with and other factors. I know this is true because editors and communications managers I’ve worked with at NGOs have told me this and also because I used to work on staff at an organization where I hired and managed freelance photographers. Price was one hiring factor for me but never the main factor. In fact, sometimes I hired photographers and raised their rate for the job because I couldn’t fathom paying them so little.

You may say, “I’m not a humanitarian photographer like you but a family/wedding/pet photographer. I know for a fact no one will pay me what I want them to pay me.”

Are you sure? Have you tried?

I used to shoot weddings on the side. One year I decided to double my minimum package from $2,000 to $4,000. I wanted to work only with clients who truly appreciated photography, not price-conscious clients. Was I worried no one would hire me? Of course! Did people hire me at my new price? Yes! And boy was I happy about it.

If, after reading this you still feel nervous about asking to be paid what you know you’re worth, then try this: send in your price quote with the note, “How does this work with your budget?” Don’t caveat or add extra words like “because I’m willing to go lower.” No. Stick to this sentence, which lets the potential client know you’re willing to discuss the numbers. Then, you may be pleasantly surprised — as I have been on many occasions — when the potential client replies with a simple, “That’s fine.”

Unsure what to charge in the first place? Take a look at this FAQ I wrote about being a humanitarian photographer and scroll down to the bottom for information on how I price my work. Even if you’re not a humanitarian photographer, some of this may apply to you.

2. Invest in Accounting Software

When I began freelancing, I kept track of my income and expenses on an Excel sheet. Not even a fancy one since I didn’t know how to create Excel formulas. Looking back, this wasn’t the most efficient or professional way to track my business finances, but at least I had the excuse that this was before cloud accounting software became cheap and prolific.

I now use FreshBooks and I honestly can’t imagine running my business without it. In addition to tracking my income and expenses I also:

  • Input and categorize expenses

  • Upload photos of receipts via the phone app

  • Send and track estimates

  • Send and track invoices

  • Track time worked on a project

  • Create profit-loss statements

I swear FreshBooks doesn’t pay me to tout its services. I’m just a happy customer of 8+ years. I pay $300 a year for the Plus plan with a 10% discount for paying for 12 months upfront. (If you want to try FreshBooks, feel free to use my FreshBooks affiliate link — I get a $25 gift card if you end up paying for a plan.)

If FreshBooks isn’t for you, there are many other similar cloud accounting programs out there. These are some of the ones that I know other photographers use and are happy with: QuickBooks, Wave, Harvest and 17 Hats.

3. Create Multiple Income Streams

Many photography businesses have a slow time, also known as the time you watch your bank account balance dwindle and you start worrying that no one will ever hire you again. I know how you feel. This is why I have multiple income streams: I shoot and edit video, I write journalism-style stories for NGOs, I produce and edit podcasts, I consult with NGOs on ethical storytelling issues and I sometimes teach.

Stuck for ideas on creating multiple income streams? Check out this detailed article from Shutha on all kinds of photo-related income ideas.

4. Always Sign a Contract

There was a time when a client wanted to fly me to a certain country for a three-day assignment. I told them multiple times that I needed to get a visa ahead of time. They insisted I didn’t and booked my plane ticket for me.

The first leg of the flight was domestic, so I was fine. For the second leg, I wasn’t allowed to board because I didn’t have a visa. I did what I could to obtain a visa at the last minute (this involved a $200 cab ride and a frenzy of phone calls) but couldn’t get one.

The client ended up cancelling the assignment yet paying me for all of my creative fees and expenses because our contract said that if they cancelled the assignment for any reason within 7 days of the start date, they still had to pay me 100% of everything.

Thank goodness for the contract.

Some of the most awful photography business stories I’ve heard involve a photographer working without a signed contract. Sure, maybe legally you don’t technically need a contract to shoot mini-sessions with families, for example. But it’s always better to have one because then both you and the client will understand what to expect of each other and what steps to take if one of you is unhappy with the other’s work or behavior or both.

Are you already in a situation where you worked without a contract? This blog post from The LawTog explains what you can do.

5. Make Photographer Friends

Running your own business, especially if you’re a solopreneur, can be daunting and lonely. You need friends who understand exactly what you’re going through — other photographers.

For me, that person is Crystal Randazzo. I feel completely comfortable talking with her about my failures, my client problems and my contract and pricing issues. In fact, just this morning I texted her to see if she had a few minutes to talk through a new pricing structure I was putting together for a client. Within 15 minutes, we were discussing my issue. She helped me create a better estimate than I would have done on my own (plus we got to catch up on life stuff). Crystal’s always there when I need her and vice versa.

I met Crystal by chance because we lived in the same city and knew some people in common. When I lived in Washington, DC, I made a lot of photo friends by joining the Women Photojournalists of Washington, so joining a professional organization can be a great way to meet people. You can also try Instagram, Meetup and Facebook groups.