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How to Start a Photography Business With No Money

Updated on April 6, 2017
JohnPLyons profile image

John has been a Professional Social & Commercial Photographer since 2004. He's also a Qualified Business Mentor. He's a "Brain For Hire".

Photograph a baby to emphasise how tiny they are. Parents will often buy these pictures.
Photograph a baby to emphasise how tiny they are. Parents will often buy these pictures. | Source

Avoid Spending Money to Start a Business

Since starting my own photography business in 2004 (Cameraclix Photography) I have seen that a new start-up business is seen as rich pickings for the many "start-up-assistance" businesses that exist throughout the world, whether or not the business needs help. Too many times have I seen start-up businesses buying in external professional help, having graphic designers create spectacular business cards or SEO-rich websites with ongoing contracts to pay. All these services have a cost, which takes the valuable cash reserve out of the fledgling business. Rarely have I seen these expensive services have a significant impact on the start-up's success.

Minimum Requirements for a Photo-Business Startup

This list is the "absolute minimum" that in, my opinion, you need to be able to start a photography business. I will expand on each point below, later in this article.

  • A digital camera and the ability to create pictures of people that your friends like
  • Access to a computer with internet access
  • A telephone
  • Knowledge of what you want to achieve.
  • A positive attitude

Please take some time to think what is NOT on this list? There's no website, no framed prints, no albums, no studio, no office. There's very little in this list that costs you more money, than you might already have at home.

I knew a professional photographer who started trading and getting clients the day after he arrived in the UK from Poland. He didn't have a place to live or his own computer. He was sleeping at a friend's place and using an internet-connected computer at a public library. He didn't have much, hardly spoke any English but needed money to stay living in the UK and he had a lot of drive to succeed. He's still in the UK and still taking photographs today.

Wherever you are reading this article in the world, please take a moment to consider what your local laws are concerning self-trading businesses. In the UK anybody can start a business as a"sole-trader", so long as they tell the tax authorities and pay their taxes. This isn't the case in all countries.

To make money as a photographer you need good people-skills
To make money as a photographer you need good people-skills | Source

Do You Need an Expensive Camera?

For the business model I'm showing here, the start-up photographer is mostly going to be photographing people. This is because they have the money that you want. If you can amuse, entertain and please a person, then they will willingly give you money. This is the role of a Portrait Photographer, to cajole money out of people.

In terms of "sales skills" there is nothing easier than selling to somebody who likes you, trusts you and can laugh with you.

Your camera and how good it, how expensive it is, how many buttons it's got or how many megapixels it produces in each image, is totally irrelevant when all you're trying to do is make a person laugh.

Yes, my camera is very expensive and very complicated. I use a Canon 1Dx, the flag-ship camera of the professional Canon range now. However, this article is about "starting-up with nothing." As a keen photographer, I was photographing long before digital existed and went "Pro" just as digital photography started but without income from paying clients could never have afforded to buy a digital camera at the time. My camera back then was a medium format Bronica, that took only ten pictures for each roll of film I put in the camera. Although a different camera system, the business processes of starting-up are the same then as they are today.

Your people-skills will actually be more important to you than your photography skills.

Do You Need a Lot of Photography Skill?

Again, the answer may be surprising but no, you don't need a high level of skill when you first start out. You do need an element of "confidence" in handling your camera but your photography skills are dependent upon how much experience you've had. When you're just starting out you rarely have as much experience as you might like! This is why the actual "starting out" process can be a little scary, as much as it is exciting!

So long as you have taken photographs of your friends and family that they have liked and talked about then you will be on the right track. Conversely, if you are the only person who actually likes or appreciates your photographs, then you may struggle to find others who want to pay for your services.

Before actually starting up as a "pro", you need to have been "soft-testing" your skills with people you already know. Family and close friends are usually the best people to help you. They will usually let you photograph them, as they normally want you to succeed in areas where you are passionate. However, please remember that they are doing you a favour and don't take them for granted when you ask them to pose for you. Always treat them with the same level of dignity and respect that you would give to a paying client (even though you haven't got any yet).

Why Is Having a Phone Essential?

There is a business mantra worth learning:

"People Buy People, before Products or Services"

The most saleable aspect of any business is "You". Photographers tend to think the most important part is the photograph but that is merely the route to payment. Somebody has to "Know, Like and Trust" you before they will ever let you photograph them. Have you ever tried to get a great photograph of somebody who doesn't like you?

You have to talk to people to make money. Photography is a very sociable profession.

Social media and websites will get people talking about you and your work but you have to talk to them, to sell to them and to get them giving you money. Thus the emphasis of all your marketing must be driving people to talk to you, preferably face-to-face but if this is not possible by telephone. Thus having an easily accessible number for people to call and for you to call from, is an essential business requirement. However, it doesn't have to cost a lot. From internet searching find the cheapest call-related package you can get on a cell phone. Perhaps just buy a SIM card and use an old handset. What your phone looks like is irrelevant to your business needs.

If somebody enquires of your services by email or social media chat, encourage them to call you, as you then have more control over the direction of the conversation towards a sale.

The Importance of Having a Business Plan

It has been shown that people who have recognised and thought about what they want to achieve are far more likely to actually achieve it and frequently exceed expectations. Starting a business, you need to be one of these people. You need to have a plan of action before starting to actually trade.

It is entirely in your best interest, to spend some quality time thinking about this, planning and writing down your thoughts in a cohesive "Business Plan." Please believe me; this is time very well spent.

The Business Plan for my business has the following key areas covered

  • Overview of my business, its current position, an assessment of the local competition and how I aim to take some of their business from them or work with them.
  • Business Strategy: tactics I will use to grow, strategic issues & my core values as a business
  • Marketing: An analysis of my business strengths, weaknesses, opportunities for growth and knowledge of what threatens my chance of success. Market research to show I've thought of what people might "want" to buy from me. It's easier to sell something, that my potential customers actually "want". This knowledge can be very valuable to any business and is worth thinking about, to avoid wasting time and energy later.
  • Skills I already have, an awareness of my current experience, training I may need, sources of business or skills advice I already know or may need to source and cost of this.
  • Management systems: an awareness of the mechanisms of my business (other than taking photographs), asset register, expected equipment maintenance, accounting systems
  • Financial Forecast: Cash Flow Forecast

A few hours thinking doesn't cost money...but can save you a lot, later!

You are likely going from a "hobby" to a "business". As a hobby, photography can be very, very expensive. There are so many different things you can spend your money on but as a business, you want to make money and thus avoid spending it where it is not necessary. Your Business Plan will guide your spending and enhance your ability to make a profit.

In the UK, you only pay tax on your profit. Thus, if you don't make a profit in the first few years and invest the money back into the business buying better kit and getting training as you start to earn, you don't pay any tax and your business earning potential gets better and better.

Have you...?

Have you got / Are you going to do...a Business Plan?

See results

What About a Website and Business Cards?

If you're planning to do commercial work from the outset, then business cards may be handy but buy the cheapest possible and do your own simple design. 90%+ of business cards end up in the trash. Don't waste money on them. When you're earning money and have clients, then you may spend a bit more on business cards, but at the start-up stage, I think they are a waste of money.

Also, nowadays, doing predominantly social photography (people, families, portraits, babies) a website is also as essential as it used to be. There are photographers who just conduct their business via social media and a Facebook business page. I do have websites but have never paid anybody else to make them for me. I believe that if you are capable of taking a good digital photograph, then you must have the ability to make websites as the technical skills are very similar. With regard to a start-up business, I would again recommend a free (or extremely cheap) website option with an online builder. Many of my sites have been planned out and used as active sites via Weebly; then if they work well for me, I've rebuilt them using WordPress and a hosting solution.

As a professional "creative", a photographer's portfolio of images and the manner in which they are presented online is expected by our potential client base to change regularly...so I don't believe there is any value in spending a lot of money to have a website designed and built by a third party, when you should be capable of doing it yourself and will regularly want to change its appearance to stay ahead of your competition.

Keep Taking and Showing-off Your Photographs

Your photographs are your products, your services and your success. Show them off.
Your photographs are your products, your services and your success. Show them off. | Source

Use "YouTube" to Prevent Theft of Your Images.

Image theft from websites is becoming a serious problem on the internet for photographers and other creative professionals. It is important to take steps to prevent image theft or to follow the theft and chase the person for copyright infringement after-the-fact.

The easiest way I know to stop image theft is NOT to use static image galleries for your best images on your website. Rather, create a slideshow of your images and upload this to YouTube as a Video (from which it is difficult to capture good quality still-images). Then, embed the YouTube video in your website or social media, as I have shown below:

My Video Portfolio to Prevent Theft - as Described Above

Know the Price of your Success and Measure It

Most people are in business aiming to:

  • Succeed
  • Be their own Boss
  • Make more money than if you worked for somebody else

To stay motivated and positive all the time can be very tiring, so you need something to work towards, something identifiable that you can achieve. It is best if this is something unrelated to your business i.e. NOT a new camera but something with a finite value.

When I was planning my first business, and I received the advice I'm giving here I went off and spent a day in car showrooms looking at the most luxurious cars. Getting into the spirit, I took luxury cars, costing over $100,000 on test-drives until I picked the one that I wanted to own (even though at the time I hadn't enough money). It was a very fancy Range Rover. On a piece of paper, I knew exactly what model I wanted, what colour and which additional extras I wanted fitting. I cut out the car from a brochure and pinned it above the desk where I worked at home. That was what I wanted. That was my goal, and I knew exactly how much I needed to buy it.

Knowing the exact cost of the vehicle I divided it by 12 to know how much money I had to make each month, then divided it by 4 to know how much I needed to make each week, then divided it by 7 to know how much money to aim for each day. By doing this, even though I had no clients and nobody paying me money at the time I did have a goal for each day, week and month which was a finite amount and related to a real, physical "thing" I could buy with that money. Each week I wrote down how much money I'd taken and coloured in parts of my car cut-out as I made money.

In this manner, I had a Goal. The goal marked my Success, and I had a way to Measure it.

In Summary

  • Don't waste money
  • Buy as little as you "actually" need
  • Be sociable. Talk to people.
  • Be creative & shout-out about your work
  • Be confident
  • Be organised. Plan for the hard times. Enjoy the good times.
  • Know the cost of your dream car, house, boat, holiday...whatever.
  • Get started. Make Money. Enjoy being your own Boss!

© 2017 John Lyons

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    • ZoLu Photography profile image

      Rhiannon 3 weeks ago from Blue Ridge, GA

      Choosing photography as a career was the greatest choice of my life. It was articles like this one that showed me how easy it could be!

    • JohnPLyons profile image
      Author

      John Lyons 3 weeks ago from UK & USA

      Thanks! That's great to hear. How long have you been a pro photographer? What type of work/client do you shoot?

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Isaac Weithers 3 weeks ago from The Caribbean

      I've got to read and pay keen attention to your suggestions. I will also forward to my son who would like to make photography his full time business.

    • JohnPLyons profile image
      Author

      John Lyons 3 weeks ago from UK & USA

      Thanks Dora, please feel free to put him in contact with me for a more personal approach to his career choices. I'm easy to contact here or through my website. I'm intending to do a series of articles on this subject over the next couple of weeks. Kind Regards, John

    • Coffeequeeen profile image

      Louise Powles 3 weeks ago from Great Yarmouth

      I do enjoy photography, but don't think I could do it for a living. I enjoy it as a hobby though.

    • Shyron E Shenko profile image

      Shyron E Shenko 3 weeks ago from Texas

      John, fantastic article. Welcome to HP, I wish you much success.

      Blessings

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