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How to Become a Professional Photographer

Photography: The Difference Between a Hobby and a Profession

(and how to become a professional)

Article Graphic1 How to Become a Professional Photographer

 

What is a professional photographer?

I would define a“professional photographer” as someone who derives income as a photographer. You don’t have to be a full-time photographer to be a professional, but you do have to net money and be set up as a business. You may be a fabulous photographer, but if you’re not earning income doing photography, you have a hobby, not a profession. Of course there’s nothing wrong with being a hobbyist. I want to be clear that the words “hobby” and “profession” have nothing to do with your skill level or the quality of your work. They have everything to do with your finances and legal business status.

If you’re a hobbyist and you are happy with the way things are, that’s great! But if you strive to be a professional and you need help making your hobby a profession, read on!

Before I begin, I want you to have realistic expectations. You cannot become a professional overnight. It took me two years before my business was able to contribute a significant amount of money to my family’s income. Running a successful business is hard work, but it is extremely rewarding. I learned a lot on my journey to becoming a professional and, if you follow my advice, it probably won’t take you as long as it took me.

Once you decide to become a professional photographer…

The first three steps are going to look intimidating. They also tend to be dreadfully dull to artists like us. Rest assured, they are much easier than they look and are very important for running a professional business (hence why they are the first three steps). They involve setting your business up in the eyes of your state and/or country. I’m going to explain the steps I took but I recommend meeting with a local accountant or tax attorney to decide what is best for your business.

1. Register your business with your state
2. Register your business with your state’s tax commission
3. Apply for an EIN with the IRS

1. First I established my business with my state. There are two primary ways to do this: a sole proprietorship or a single-member LLC. Personally, I prefer the protection and credibility you get with a single-member LLC. You can register for your LLC very easily through your secretary of state’s office. In my state, the application fee is $100.

2. Next, I registered my business with my state’s tax commission. When you do this, you’ll receive an account number and, in most states, you will be able to file and pay sales tax electronically. This process is not very difficult and, in my state, the application fee is $20.

3. Finally, you may want to apply for an EIN (employer identification number) with the IRS (or something comparable if outside the US).. Some banks require your registered business to have an EIN in order to open a business checking account. An LLC applies for an EIN by filing Form SS-4, Application for Employer Identification Number on the IRS website. You’ll likely use this number when you pay your quarterly income tax.

Bleh. I’m not going to try to convince you that dealing with government agencies is fun. I couldn’t make it sound fun even if I tried. However, it is necessary to pay both sales tax and income tax if you want to ethically and legally run a business. If you chose to work for another photography business, not start your own, as long as you are a salaried employee, you likely fall under their company.  If you are doing contract assignments, you likely still need steps 1-3.

The last 3 steps are not nearly as painful. They’re not quite as fun as taking pictures, but they’re much better than filling out paperwork and writing checks. They’re also essential for running a profitable business. They are:

4. Create a business plan
5.
Price yourself based on that plan
6. Keep accurate books

4. If you want to be successful, you must make a plan and set reasonable goals. To fail to plan is to plan on failing. The most basic business plan includes a mission statement, target market, goals and a strategy. Everyone’s business plan will look a little different. If you’re detail oriented, you can set monthly or even weekly goals along with your goals for the year.

Make sure and include reasonable financial goals. Remember, in order to reach your goal of being a professional photographer, you must be make a living from your photography.  Set a goal for both revenue and net profit. Base your minimum net profit goal on your living expenses or the minimum amount you would like to contribute to your family income. Having these numbers in mind will help keep you on track. Remember to include estimates for taxes and all of your anticipated expenses.

Revisit your business plan every month.

5. Now you must price yourself based on your goals. Once you set your goals and begin to run the numbers, you may realize (as I did) that your pricing is way too low. Set aside some time to carefully restructure your pricing based on your goals.  When I crunched the numbers and discovered how much I needed to charge in order to meet my minimum goals, I panicked. I was worried that no one would pay those prices. But I knew that if I wanted to do this for a living then I was going to have to actually make a living. That’s when I decided that I must be confident in the quality of my work and confident in my prices. I changed them that day and I never looked back. I’m not going to lie – it was scary. I lost most of my clients and had to rebuild my clientele. But over the next several months, as I slowly rebuilt my clientele, I began to realize that my new clients respected me, my work, and my prices – something I was not used to! I was beginning to tap into my target market!

I know this is a scary step – believe me. But I encourage you to do it as soon as possible. Increasing your prices gradually will only draw out the process. It will be more painful that way. It’s best to just rip off the band-aid. Do it once and get it over with. Take it from someone who has been there before.

If you don’t hit your goals in your first year, don’t panic. It may take a few years to build your clientele and your credibility. Don’t give up. If necessary, continue to work another full or part-time job while your photography business grows.

6. And lastly, it is vitally important to keep accurate books. You need to know exactly how much money is coming into your business and how much is going out. In order to do this, you must keep your business finances completely separate from your personal finances by opening a business checking account. Personally, I use QuickBooks Online to manage my business finances. If you’re not ready for financial planning software yet, create and keep track of your finances on a spreadsheet. Meticulously keep track of every dollar that comes in and every dollar that goes out. I guarantee that this will help you be much more thoughtful with your purchases, which will keep you on track for reaching your goals.

 

headshot6 How to Become a Professional Photographer


About the Author:
Ann Bennett is the owner of Ann Bennett Photography in Tulsa, OK. She specializes in high school senior pictures and lifestyle family photography. For more information, visit her website www.annbennettphoto.com or Facebook page www.facebook.com/annbennettphotography.

 

 

 

 

 How to Become a Professional Photographer

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14 Comments

  1. 1
    Riquise Barley says:

    Thank you for this post. I am just starting out as a photographer and trying to get my portfolio built. I was curious as to what point you start trying to make money at this? I have been charging a small fee just for my time and work but when do I need to become legal? Were you shooting and making money before you got your business license?

  2. 2

    Excellent advice not only for photographers but for anyone wanting to make their hobby a business. Thank you!

  3. 3
    Alice says:

    I’m sorry, but the economy doesn’t define if I’m a professional photographer. I work two jobs to pay for my bills. I have a LLC, and therefore according to the State, I’m in business and a professional photographer. If you’re doing everything legal and people are paying you, YOU ARE A PROFESSIONAL.

  4. 4
    Casie says:

    I have to say I agree with Alice. I understood what you were saying between being a professional or hobbyist, but I found it a little offensive. I consider myself a professional photographer, but I don’t make enough to pay all my family’s bills because I that’s what I chose for my business. I choose to stay at home and be a mom because I have that option. Your definition was a little like saying my job as a mom isn’t a real job because I don’t pay the bills where being a SAHM is extremely hard and challenging and much harder than any job you do get paid for, especially when you want to be at work (say as a photographer) but you sacrifice your wants for your family’s needs. There was good advice in this post, but it bothered me the way it started.

    • 4.1
      Julie Kirby says:

      I completely agree with you. Actually, the first paragraph in this article was so inacurrate that I think it discredited the rest of the info & I read it with a scoff. It’s the same old battle that we hear repeatedly in the photography world. My opinion? Stop caring so much about what other photographers are doing & trying to define the occupation, & let me shoot!

  5. 5
    Michelle says:

    I find it offensive as well and agree with Casie and Alice.

  6. 6
    Tosha says:

    I may not be contributing fully to my household, yet, but that doesnt make me any less professional than someone who is living off of their photography income. I shoot. I get paid. I pay taxes. I have expenses. I am set up legally in my state. Therefore, I am a professional. This article is upsetting and off putting to me.

  7. 7
    Holly says:

    MCP! I’m disappointed in this post. To me, you are saying that all of us who pay our business taxes are not professional photographers. I’m also a stay-at-home mom. I shoot on the weekends and surely, it does not contribute fully to my household as well. According to state, I am in business and a professional photographer. This article is just a personal opinion. MCP, you should know better to post an article such as this. I really feel like I should not buy any of your services again in the future. It really upset me.

    • 7.1

      This is a guest article and based on feedback, I have lightly reworded it to fall in line with my opinions too. I do feel strongly that you need to be set up in the eyes of the law as a business (based on whatever state and country you live in). And you need to get some income/money from the work. I do not personally feel that you need to support for your family and do feel that you can do this part time and still be a pro. I have lightly altered the post to reflect that. I am sorry this upset you. That was not the intent.

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