Business Trends
Back To Basics Part 1
How To Get Started In Your Photography Business

My popular request we will take the next few months and look at the basics of getting a photography business started (or restarted, as the case may be). This month we will discuss making the commitment to being in business and the financial and legal issues to get the business started. In February, you will learn how to find out what images to shoot and who will buy them. In March, we will show you how to develop, write, and implement a "plan of action." Whether you have been in business two weeks or 20 years, I hope you will find the information worthwhile and valuable.

The Need For Commitment
If you want to get started making money with your photography, you need to start with a commitment. This dedication has little to do with the images (you already have those). It is in finding the self-motivation, the confidence, and the boldness to act. Contrary to popular belief, it is simple to start and run a business. At least the behavior required is simple. You will use the legal and financial steps discussed here and this creates commitment. You will act bold and motivated and this creates the commitment. By acting confident, clients will trust you and want to work with you and this creates sales.

Every photographer goes through a lot of self-doubt at various points in their career. It is not meant to stop you. It only means you are doing something you have never done before and you don't feel the assertiveness or commitment. Don't wait for the feelings. Take the actions and the feelings will follow!

It is not enough for me to say, "take action"--readers have been asking for specific information. The financial and legal issues discussed here will do two things to create or reinforce your commitment. One, you get the specific steps to create the action that will move you ahead in business. Two, you then get the feeling of confidence that follows taking action.

Getting The Business Started
There are two areas to review to properly start and maintain your photography business, financial and legal.

We cannot cover every possible financial contingency so, to start, please check with an accountant. Preferably, you will be working with one who specializes in working with photography businesses. If not, then at least work with someone who has a focus on professional services and small businesses. There are many tax issues specific to your photography business that accountants in general will not be aware of. The best way to find an accountant is through the local chapter of your professional photography association. For more specific information on photography issues, check out the book by the ASMP (American Society of Media Photographers) ASMP Professional Business Practices in Photography-6th Edition (

In addition, the Small Business Administration and their SCORE (Service Corps Of Retired Executives) programs have proved invaluable to many photographers. Whether you are in start up or restart mode, these are federal agencies designed to assist you. They have local offices all over the US. Check their web site, for more information on their services, publications, and seminars. Keep checking back with them, as they also publish updated information for those of you reinventing your business!

The one critical financial issue for every photographer starting out will be the separation of business and personal finances. Bookkeeping is essentially the recording of money in and money out (think of writing in your checkbook). The Internal Revenue Service asks that you keep your business and personal cash flow separate to maintain your status as a business. As a hobbyist, you will not get the tax deductions and depreciations available to you as a business. Keeping the two separate will also ease your accountant's task of determining your total tax liability. Maintaining a separate business checking account and a personal checking account is even easier with inexpensive software packages such as "Quicken" by Intuit (

As we have already discussed photography pricing in several past columns, for this discussion on financial issues I will just remind you to read Pricing Photography-3rd Edition by Michal Heron and David MacTavish to make sure your pricing practices are up-to-date (

Legal Issues
These are the government entities that, once you are in business, now have an interest in you! Because the laws vary between states, counties, and cities in the US, this is just an overview of what you should be watching for to start and stay in business. After you look at our own check list, check out the book specifically for this topic, Business and Legal Forms for Photographers by Tad Crawford (

This one is easy, as most of you will take the business form of sole-proprietor. In this form of business, you can use your personal social security number for the required "Federal Identification Number." If you plan on hiring employees or simply want the safety of using a different number, you will apply for a Federal ID number that is separate from your social security number. Check your local phone book under "federal offices."

Depending on the state you live in, you may be required to apply for a resale number. This allows you to charge your clients sales tax. Then you collect the sales tax and forward it to the state. Do not confuse this with the entirely separate issue of state income tax! If you are required in your state to charge sales tax on your photography services, get your resale number and be on solid legal ground. Again, check your local phone book under "state offices."

If you use a business name instead of your own name, most counties will require you to file a "DBA" (Doing Business As) registration of the fictitious name. You can first search for the name to be sure it has not been already used and then file directly with the county office of fictitious names or have your local newspaper do the filing for you.

Most cities require a photographer to have a business license. You have several issues to watch for here. Depending on your city, the annual license will be a calendar year (January to December) or anniversary year (12 months from when you apply). Some cities require additional permits for a home-based photography business. The city is usually concerned with disposal of darkroom chemicals (yes, people still have darkrooms!) as well as signage and foot traffic in and out of the home-based business. Call your city hall "office of business licenses" for more information. Finally, I get asked this question in every workshop I give on this topic, "How important is it that a photographer get all these permits, licenses, and deal properly with taxes?" My answer is always the same, "How well do you want to sleep at night?" By getting your financial and legal house in order, you will be able to spend more time, energy, and attention on making images. Isn't that what you wanted to do all along?

Next month we will look at making the images and the areas of photographic specialization you might consider as a vehicle for expanding your business opportunities.