What you really need to start your photography business
When I arrived in D.C.with my husband in 2012, I had no idea what I was going to do. The plan was for me to go back to “school” and for my husband to find a job that could sustain us both. But as I was trying to figure out what to go back to school to, I started working for a friend of ours who was running an online retail store. I was doing a bit of everything, but then, because I was already a photographer, I was tasked with taking all the shots for the online store, Amazon and social media.
I knew how to use a camera, but photographing products was a whole other thing, so I started watching and reading everything I could about product photography. After a few months and a lot of practice, I was comfortable enough to start my own photography business and soon offering my services to other local businesses, as a side gig.
We didn’t have a lot of money and I didn’t know if I was going to make any money out of this, so I didn’t want to buy fancy equipment or invest in a pricey website. Looking back at it, I love how I was able to bootstrap it on a very lean budget. Let’s dive in and see exactly what you really need to start your own photography business:
An entry level DSLR camera and a tripod
It doesn’t need to be an expensive professional camera: I started with a Canon T4i and it was a perfectly fine for the beginning. But I do believe that you need to shoot using a DSLR; mostly so you can choose your own settings (see my next point), but also because you wouldn’t want to show up to a client’s with your cellphone as your professional camera.
You may also want to get yourself a tripod, especially if you want to shoot product photography and don’t want to invest in lighting right away. You can shoot using natural light, but then you really need a tripod.
The ability to shoot in manual mode and edit your images
As a professional photographer, you do not want to shoot using the auto mode: you need to have full control of your camera settings to create crisp product images and beautiful food photography.
It can seem intimidating at first, but there is a lot of free resources out there if you want to learn or improve your photography skills. If you are actually overwhelmed by the amount of resources (there truly is a lot!), I have listed my favorite ones here.
Do not underestimate the power of editing. I learned to edit with Lightroom when I started my business. Correction. I thought I learned how to edit. But I was really 1/ using very little of the Lightroom capabilities 2/ doing it completely wrong.
Then I took the Lightroom Magic class with Rachel Korinek and it has completely changed the way I use Lightroom and the look of my images. Lightroom is a very powerful tool and you should try to learn it as soon as possible as it will not only help you produce better images but it will change the way you shoot.
A photography contract / Liability insurance
Even if you work for a friend or for free to build your portfolio, you should always have a contract. This is one of the first thing I invested in when I started my photography business.
A contract will make sure yours and your client’s expectations are recorded somewhere, as well as the amount you agreed on, the timeframe and all sorts of details.
Unless you have a background as a lawyer, this is not something you want to bootstrap. You should work with a local lawyer to figure out your needs and what works for you.
If you are going to shoot at your client’s location or if the client will be coming at your studio for the shoot, you need to make sure that you have liability assurance to protect you against any sort of incident or breakage.
Samples of your work gathered on a portfolio / website
When you get started, you don’t necessarily have a lot of images to show for your work. However, unlike portrait or family photographers, you can shoot your own images for your portfolio before you even have clients.
Choose some products you own and shoot them for your portfolio. Or cook a recipe you found online or in a cookbook, and shoot it! You don’t actually need to have clients to start a portfolio for food or products, so take advantage of it!
Another part of this is to actually create a website. It doesn’t need to be very intricate and there are a lot of very easy ways to build a website out there (Squarespace, Wix, Weebly, WordPress – which is really not that complicated – Showit, Adobe Portfolio, the options are endless!)
Clear goals to help you stay on track
If you research ‘how to start your photography business’, you will inevitably find that a lot of blogs tell you to start by creating a business plan. It is not a bad idea, but honestly, unless you need to secure fundings or a bank loan, at first it’s not really necessary and it might even discourage you.
You should however set up some goals for yourself. Even simple goals, like how many clients you want to book this year, or how much money you want to bring in. Start by deciding what are your goals for the year. They need to be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound) in order to be really useful.
Once you have those goals written down (Write them down! Thinking about them is not enough!), you can then decide on smaller, quarterly goals that will help get you to your big yearly plan. Break them down in even smaller monthly projects that you will keep on your calendar. Keep referring to your monthly / quarterly and yearly goals! Goals only work if you actually try to achieve them.
Nice to have
Set yourself a separate bank account for your photography business. Most banks will let you open a business account for free and give a check book and a debit card. Even if you don’t have a lot of cash going in and out yet, it makes tracking your spendings and income very easy and make the dreaded tax return much easier to fill.
Some states or countries require you to have an LLC, but in most case, you can start as a sole entrepreneur. If you are in the US, setting up your LLC is extremely simple and fast, so check out what the process is for your state.
Some counties require a license, especially if you work from your home which is located in a residential neighborhood. Again, in most counties, it is a fairly simple request and can be made online.
What you don’t need
A fancy camera. Wait until you have more clients and some revenue to invest in a professional camera, and if you have no camera at all, you can purchase a rather inexpensive ($300 – $400 camera) that will work great for you at first. I would suggest upgrading the lens though as the kit lenses (the lens that usually come with a camera), are not the best.
My recommendation for your first lens is to get a 50mm prime lens. Both Canon and Nikon have a very nice entry level 50mm, often referred to as the nifty fifty, and it will make a huge difference.
You also don’t need a lot of backdrops or props to get started. If you should food, focus on the food and ingredients. If you shoot products, they are the star! As for your backdrops, you can also make your own backdrops for a very reasonable price and use props you find around your house or bought in thrift stores. This can actually be a great creative exercise.
Whatever you do, take your time. Most food photographers started their business as a side hustle for a few years before going full time. It took me 4 years before I was able to leave my job and even more to actually make a living from my business.
And don’t forget to keep learning!! That means watching tutorials and reading books but also practicing!! If you need ideas or recommendations for classes and tutorials, check my previous blog post here.