How To Start a Photography Business

TIPS AND RECOMMENDATIONS FOR SETTING UP A PHOTOGRAPHY BUSINESS AND HOW TO PRICE YOUR WORK

Joel Tjintjelaar portrait

By Joel Tjintjelaar

INTRODUCTION

Over the years I’ve received many requests from people asking for some tips and guidelines how to price their work as a photographer and how to set up your photography business. I use the word work in a very broad sense of the word: from usage licenses for their images to fine art prints, to commissioned work. Even if you’re not a professional photographer but an avid amateur or a semi-professional photographer, at some point many of you have come across a potential buyer of your photographs. I’m going to present to you a few basic rules and guidelines how to price your work and how to generally run your photography business. I’m not going to give you any indicative prices, the part of the pricing and also the whole topic of the business of photography has been discussed extensively in the eBook From Basics to Fine-art that I co-wrote with Julia Anna Gospodarou. Before I go into the different types of photography business that you want to value and price, I will give you a few basic rules on how to set up your photography business and present yourself on the Internet, because that’s how potential clients will find you in this day and age of the Internet. Especially if you target a global market. Im not going to give you tips like ‘dress for success’ or ‘start shooting in raw’ or ‘hire a good accountant’, because these are aspects that are already covered by other websites and if I need to advise you ‘to start shooting in raw’, then you have no business (yet) in this photography business. I will only give you sound and relevant advice based on my own experience as a professional photographer.

BASIC RULES AND GUIDELINES FOR SETTING UP AND STARTING YOUR PHOTOGRAPHY BUSINESS

Set up your own website. Start with that first, before everything else, even Social Media. You could consider your website as your home in the digital world or your workplace. Social media can be seen as your favourite place to hang out with friends, like a bar, maybe even in a shopping mall! Just like real people in real life, most of you have a real home, a real office and after hours you go to the bar to meet up with friends or meet new friends.

“Set up your own website. Start with that first, before everything else.

You don’t live in a bar! Social media like Facebook is a good place to spread the word on your photography business and maybe even do some promotional activities. But just like in real life your friends wouldn’t appreciate it if you talk business only. And real clients prefer to meet up with you in your office, not in a shopping mall or bar. So having a good website is essential for your photography business, it’s your home/office on the web. If I want to do business with you I would like to know who you are, and I always will check if you have a ‘home’ on the web to know more about you if I happen to come across you in one of the social media hangout spots. So I would recommend the following:

Digital Photographer Magazine UK cover photo November 2014 – New York City skyline

PHOTOGRAPHY WEBSITE RECOMMENDATIONS

Set up a website that will express who you are why you do it and what your photography business exactly is. If your website only shows your beautiful photos on the front page, then I would say you want to sell your photos as prints. If you have a wedding photography business then by all means make sure your website expresses just that, on your homepage. Your homepage is your front-door, so make sure that is representative for your business else people will surf away. If you’re in the business of workshops, then don’t start it with a page screaming: “only 2 places left – hurry!” but show them who you are and why people would want to attend a workshop with you. Who you are and why you do it is important. Don’t say you want to make loads of money with it but say something along the lines of ‘you want world peace’ or ‘you like to travel the world and tell a story’ to use a few cliches.

“Your homepage is your front-door, so make sure that is representative for your business.

Anyway, there are better articles than mine on the subject of how to set up your website and how you can be found between millions of homes on the Internet, but my main recommendation is to have a website that shows who you are and why you do it. The more you’re able to separate yourself from the rest, the more unique your point of view, the more you will stand out from the crowd. Don’t focus on your social media only. It is important, but not the most important. Your website, your home and workplace, is. If you have a good website that you maintain on a regular basis with a good use of SEO key-words (I would recommend this SEO-website Semrush.com, to see how well you’re doing and how to improve on your key-words so you can more easily be found on the Internet), then you will be easier to find by potential customers than on social media. One last important thing: if you want to reach a global audience, then the language on your website should be in English. No compromise.

Vision Explorers photography and cinematography experiences website

DIFFERENT KINDS OF WORK REQUIRE DIFFERENT PHOTOGRAPHY PRICE STRATEGIES – A GUIDELINE

Now you have your website and you also hang around on Facebook and perhaps you also try to be heard in the Twitter subway station (no chance!) and now you want to price your photography work. Because at some point, if clients are interested in what you sell, they will approach you, either via email, over the telephone or in real life. And they will ask for a quote. Usually they start like this: “I’ve come across your beautiful work and we want to use it in our magazine/website. Etc.”. If you answered positively this email will usually be followed by a second email for a quote. If not, then chances are close to 100% they don’t want to pay for your photography services. But just want it for free. They will avoid the subject of prices in all sorts of ways possible. Of course you’re free to sell your work or services for free but you will not only disqualify yourself but also other professional photographers who want to make a living out of photography. My advice: DON’T DO THIS. Of course there are exceptions.

RULE OF THUMB

Use this rule of thumb: the more money your client makes by using your photographs or services and the more he requires from you (in terms of real labour and intellectual rights), the more the need to be paid and the higher your fee, when you offer your photographs or your photography services. For a charity for example, I would license my images for free, sometimes auction my prints with all profits going to the charity. If your client is a small locally operating business then your rates/fees will be lower than for a world wide operating brand like BMW or Nike who want to use your work for a global advertisement.

“The more money your client makes by using your photographs or services and the more he requires from you (in terms of real labour and intellectual rights), the more the need to be paid and the higher your fee.

If you want good indicative prices then I would recommend reading the last section of the book From Basics to Fine-art where you will find tables with various indicative prices per type of photography business.

Ferrari 275 GTB – for FourWheels Calendar

Ferrari 275 GTB – one of 13 photos for a Calendar commission for a client from the German automotive industry.

Basically the following types of photography work can be distinguished:

  • 1. Selling your photos as fine-art prints

    The most basic form of photography business

  • 2. Selling usage licenses for your photographs, including selling all your rights

    What to do if a potential client wants to use your images?

  • 3. Commissioned work

    How should I price my work and services for commissioned work?

SELLING YOUR PHOTOS AS FINE ART PHOTOGRAPHY PRINTS

This is the most basic form of photography business. Every serious photographer at some point wants to sell his work as fine art prints and will try to sell his work via his website. This is the easiest way to sell your photos, and also the least successful. Either you print it and ship it yourself – in that case you should make sure that your prints have the highest quality print. Use a specific fine art printer like the Epson 3880 series – or you let a printing lab do the printing and you ship it. Or you can use a specialised website like SmugMug that will print and ship your prints and takes care of the Webshop part. Usually you can ask anything you want for your prints. Or you could even make it more exclusive by selling limited edition signed off prints with certificates.

“The only way to seriously sell prints is still to find a real life gallery that will represent you and your work.

But online selling is not the way to really sell your prints. Of course there are a few exceptions who can make a lot of money by selling their prints over the web. Probably just a handful of artists in the world. The only way to seriously sell prints is still to find a real life gallery that will represent you and your work. Preferably a well-known gallery. Even in this day and age of the Internet, there’s nothing that surpasses the feeling of having a real life, masterfully crafted print in your hands and the experience how much more the emotional connection can be: there’s no hiding behind a compressed online jpeg picture – just the look and feel of the texture of the paper, the size, the inks on the paper and the frame. Subtle tonal nuances, gradations, intricate details or unwanted halos and banding you didn’t see online, really everything that is good and bad will be revealed on a print. That’s the beauty of it. Nothing can beat that feeling. Online selling prints will not work. But you can try if you want.

JT_Image_Pantheon_HigherRez

(C) Rotella Gallery – Joel Tjintjelaar’s fine art print coming out of the Epson 11880 large format fine art printer

Galleries always assume, again there are exceptions, the artist to take care of the printing and the mounting and framing himself. The gallery will only represent you and sell your work, and in 99% of the cases will ask for a 50% cut. Whatever effort you have put in it, you as an artist get 50% and the gallery gets 50%. That’s the default. But don’t underestimate the selling and promotional power of a gallery. A good gallery will sell more of your prints in a year than you can ever do online in your whole life. Unless your name is Trey Ratcliff who can sell everything online. Unfortunately finding a good gallery that will represent you is the hardest part. You can just wait till they find you, or better yet, you go after them and bring your portfolio.

SELLING USAGE LICENSES ON YOUR PHOTOS

This is something that most of us will be confronted with: a client wants to buy your photos to use in a magazine, on their website or in a advertisement campaign. Most of the times they will approach you and they indicate they want to use your photos and in the second encounter, hopefully, they indicate they would want to buy your photos. What do they mean by that: buying my photos? It’s my experience that there are a lot of potential clients out there who don’t even know that themselves. Unless it’s a Nike or BMW who have their own professional marketing agencies or departments, in those cases they will come straight to the point and want to do concrete business with you.

“You need to educate and inform the client

They know what they’re talking about. But in most cases, small businesses, just don’t know it. You need to educate and inform the client. What they usually want is to buy usage licenses on your images. If they buy usage licenses on your image you will give them the right to use your photos for a specifically described usage, on a specifically described medium for a specifically described time. For example: a client wants to have a 3 year unlimited usage for a specific medium, exclusive license. Or they want to have a non-exclusive free license for one year. What does that mean?

The following types of licenses and subtypes can be identified:

  • Non- exclusive or exclusive: this refers to exclusivity for the client only. If you sell an exclusive license to a client you are not allowed to sell the usage license of that specific image to another. Obviously exclusive licenses come with a higher price than non-exclusive licenses
  • Limited or unlimited: this can refer to medium usage and time. For example you can sell an unlimited usage license for use on website, magazine, brochures, etc. This unlimited usage license can be limited to a time-period of 3 years for example. Basically this is a ‘free license’. If you want to limit the usage to website only this should be clearly mentioned in the usage license contract. Usually you don’t sell your licenses for an unlimited time. I would recommend not doing that, or ask an exorbitant amount of money for it, because basically their request is disproportional as well.
  • Free license for a specific time: Client can use your images for any kind of use on any kind of medium. Be sure to limit the time! These are the most expensive types of licenses.

To come back to the question, what does a client mean if he wants to buy your photos? Ask him what he wants: limited, unlimited, what kind of usage, for what time period and if it’s exclusive or not. Sometimes he will say: we don’t know how long yet so we want unrestricted usage for an unlimited time. Don’t reject that immediately or scare him off with an exorbitantly high price. If a client asks that to me I will do the following: I will present him a quote consisting of several options in a spreadsheet/powerpoint.

“Never, ever sell your copyrights. Never do that.

I will show him clearly in that quote that if he goes for the option of limited usage for 3 years, that it will cost him considerably less than going for an unlimited usage for an unlimited time, because then he’s basically saying he wants to buy all your rights, forever! Never, ever sell your copyrights. Never do that. Unless you don’t care about your artistic creation and unless you want to see your client win a competition with your images! Still there are clients who just want to buy your copyrights. What to ask then? Again I will present him several affordable options and then just indicate a ridiculously high amount of money for the copyright ownership. Because it’s a ridiculous request that will not serve their real needs. Keep in mind that most clients need to be educated and just don’t know what they really need. Most of the times an unlimited usage for 3 years will do for most clients. That’s what they really need. The most sold usage licenses in my own experience are:

  • 1, 2, 3 or 5 year licenses, never for an unlimited time
  • Unlimited usage for a specific time and non-exclusive

You can download an example of a usage license contract that I use myself here

TIP

Do some research and find out with what type of client you’re dealing with. If they operate on a global scale, or if they’re just a local starting entrepreneur. Maybe they are a charity. The price, your fees should depend on that too.

COMMISSIONED WORK

This type of photography business is a little less frequent than the selling of fine art photographs or photography usage licenses. An example for car photography assignment: a client is impressed and wants you to shoot his new line of cars in front of some beautiful architectural background and it’s in a country you’ve never been before. He needs it soon, of course, and he asks for a quote. What to do now?

“First you need to break down the assignment in quantifiable items

First you need to break down the assignment in quantifiable items but a basic rule is that the more labour involved and the more inconvenience for you, the higher the rate:

  • Days of labour shooting on location. Indicate a rate per day. Domestic labor is usually against a lower rate than when you need to travel the world for an assignment. Make this clear in your calculation! E.g. 3 days of shooting: $1,000 per day if domestic, $1,500 if outside your home country.
  • Days of labour behind your computer post processing the images. Usually this is at a lower rate than shooting on location.
  • Usage licenses. See the previous section.
  • Travel expenses, costs for food/accommodation. Don’t exaggerate, an economy class flight and a good enough 3 star hotel will do.
“Most of the times clients don’t know what they really want and don’t know what kind of effort is needed to come up with the desired result. You will have to make that clear

All of the above need to be specified clearly per unit in a spreadsheet or powerpoint presentation, whatever you prefer. Why? If you just give a number a client will laugh at you for the ridiculous price you ask for the assignment but if you make it clear how this quote has been built up, they will respond in a reasonable way and they will try to come to an agreement and not run away to the competition right from the start. Again: most of the times clients don’t know what they really want and don’t know what kind of effort is needed to come up with the desired result. You will have to make that clear. It’s far more easy to negotiate if their offer is far below your quote by showing them what that means for the calculation if for example the number of images have to drop or the location should be domestic if they want you to meet halfway their offer.

CONCLUSION

When starting a photography business, on the side or full time, then start setting up your website. When a client approaches you, be prepared to ask what he really wants and don’t be afraid to discuss if he really needs it. Remember that only very few will pay the price you asked for (because really, the client can ask for quite a lot as well) but you can get close to what you initially asked for if you educate and inform the client that there are cheaper options (limited time usage licenses instead of a unlimited time unlimited usage license for example) that might suit his needs better. Always do this by providing him clearly specified and detailed calculations. Don’t just name a price. He will respond in an equally short way as your response by saying, no sorry, that’s too expensive. Every little detail you mention to justify the price, is in your advantage in the negotiation process.

I could tell more about this topic and I didn’t come up with indicative prices, because that would require 10 or more pages to do that. Not really the scope of this already extensive article. If you want to know more and would like to get an indication of prices per day, per usage license, then I can recommend the book From Basics to Fine-art where you can find various tables with price ranges or just contact me!

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