How to Be a Pro Like a Pro: Part 2
Taking Care of Business
In Part 1 of How to Be a Pro Like a Pro, we talked about the social aspect of pro photography, from your interactions with potential clients to the many ways you can connect with other pros in your community (and across the world!). We’re not stopping there, though. No matter how good you are at networking or attracting clients, if your business practices aren’t completely aboveboard you still have a ways to go before you can truly call yourself a professional.
Whether you’re freelancing part-time or going all in, you need to be legitimate. Are you a business legally or in name only? Are you risking a pile of back taxes in the years to come by trying to fly under the radar? It can all seem a little overwhelming when you’re still getting your feet wet, so we’re here to help. Here we’ll break down some of the main steps for a fledgling pro photographer into manageable, less daunting tasks so you can close that filing cabinet and get to work!
How to Make It Official
Just because you’re working for yourself doesn’t mean the paperwork is optional. Whether you remain a sole proprietor or form an LLC, there are plenty of legal responsibilities to keep you busy when you’re not out shooting.
Keep Things on the Up-and-Up
Now you’re a step closer to pro status, but there are still some things to consider. You could be opening yourself up to a world of complications if you don’t get the legal side of things organized right off the bat. The best course of action can vary quite a bit depending on where you’re located, but there are some standard measures you’ll want to take, beginning with naming your business.
If you’re using your own name for your business or operating exclusively as a freelancer, you’re in the clear. You own the rights to your own name. If you’re going with something a little more creative, however, you’ll need to confirm with the United States Patent and Trademark Office that the name is neither taken nor too close that of another business. Fortunately it’s as easy as using the search bar right on their website. It’s also a good rule of thumb to Google the name before registering it, since a more established business could still try and claim a trademark to their name, even if you are registered and they are not.
There’s not much sense in having a name if you don’t have a place to work from, so put some thought into a business address. If you’ll be primarily working out of your home, first of all you need to confirm that you are doing so legally. Zoning ordinances may be in place, or there may be restrictions if you live in a condo or belong to a homeowners association. Keep safety in mind as well. For some, it may give pause to hand a personal address out every time you take on a client, but a PO box doesn’t always convey the professionalism you may be looking for. If this is you, look into a business mailbox service that will allow you to receive business mail and packages at an actual street address without giving out your personal information.
Speaking of protecting your identity, another step to consider is applying for an Employer Identification Number (EIN). While you can use your social security number as a sole proprietor (you’ll definitely want an EIN if you set up an LLC), a separate tax identification number can protect your privacy, give you an air of credibility, and is a great first step for setting up a plan to pay the appropriate taxes.
You may even be required to have an EIN if you set up a business banking account. A separate banking account from your personal one (again, this is especially important for an LLC) is a good idea even if you are not doing a lot of business yet. If your personal and business finances get all mixed together it can be a very special kind of headache to get them straightened back out come tax season.
If you’re accepting payments via PayPal or PayPal Here (more about this later), you could consider the PayPal Business Debit Card as an alternative to a traditional business bank account. The requirements are simple, there’s no annual fee, and it’s accepted anywhere you can use a Mastercard because it is a Mastercard. By the way, depending on what kind of work you’re doing, you may be required to pay sales tax. Though you are providing a service by taking and editing the photos, the prints and digital files you supply your clients with can be considered products which you are—you guessed it—selling. This is another thing that varies by state and you’ll want to know for sure where yours stands on the issue.
In addition to this, per the IRS website: “As a self-employed individual, generally you are required to file an annual return and pay estimated tax quarterly.” So be sure that you have your tax-related ducks in a row to avoid penalties and other general pains down the road.
Protect Your Investments
So now that your identity is safe, let’s think about your assets. If you are starting out with low-end equipment and low-profile jobs, insurance may not really be all that helpful. Once you’ve hit your stride though, you may find yourself in a place where, if all of your equipment fell prey to theft, accident, or some unforeseen event, you’d really be up a creek financially.
As a sole proprietor, if you are starting to take on higher-profile gigs with higher stakes, you are particularly vulnerable to lawsuits. Whether to obtain insurance or not is something only you can decide, and you may feel the need to reassess semi-regularly in the early stages of your photography career.
Another significant step you’ll need to take is to put together contracts for each type of photography job you do and have a client sign one every time. You can very easily type one up by yourself for free, and often this is all a photographer needs in the beginning. However there are a lot of subtleties to the language in a contract that you just can’t be expected to know about without some kind of legal expertise. There are a number of templates to be found online, but be sure to confirm that you’re downloading from a trustworthy source. This general photography contract from attorney and Improve Photography founder Jim Harmer is a good place to start.
You can, of course, also have one professionally drawn up. It will be an expense for sure, but you’ll have more peace of mind and the advantage of having your contract(s) written by a legal professional who knows your exact situation. Whichever route you choose, don’t forget to include copyright information and a model release so your clients are aware that you can use these images in publications or for marketing purposes.
Know Your Copyright Laws
Let’s talk a little more about copyrights. First of all, you own the copyright to the images you create, unless you specifically sign these rights over to your client. Do not expect your clients to know this. Put clear language about copyrights in your contract so that your clients understand what they can (and can’t) do to (and with) your photos. Double up by using a distinctive watermark any and every time you post your work on social media or send out sneak peaks. Ideally you would make your watermarks unobtrusive and aesthetically pleasing – more of an advertisement than a copyright reminder. If you start to notice clients doing their own editing on your images though or posting them without digital rights or a photo credit, you might consider placing your logo a little more aggressively. You can adjust its opacity so that your image is visible beneath it, but if it can’t be cropped out you are more likely to get proper credit for your hard work.
Although it’s not practical to do with every single image you own, you may consider officially registering certain images or collections. You do not need to register your work for it to be copyrighted, but it makes a huge difference in the unfortunate event that you should have to pursue legal action.
Square Up with Your Local Government
All of this leads up to probably the most-asked question: “Do I need a license?” The answer is not particularly helpful: “It depends on your location.” Your city hall is a great resource for these questions and should be able to direct you to the right place if they are not directly responsible for these things where you live. You may or may not have to pay a fee for this, but compared to your equipment costs, said fee should be negligible.
Pro To-Do List:
- Choose a name for your photography endeavors and register it.
- Confirm that you can run a business out of your residence, if applicable.
- Secure an appropriate address to send and receive business mail.
- Set up a dedicated bank account. (You may need to obtain an EIN.)
- Decide if you want to purchase insurance.
- Prepare contracts and model releases, and use them!
- Obtain a license or permit if required by your local government.
How to Make Money as a Professional Photographer
You probably got into photography for a love of the craft, but hopefully you’re not planning to work for free! If you’ve made it this far into the process, you’re serious about seeing a return on the precious time and money you’ve put towards a career in this field. Here’s what you can do to turn that investment into a return.
Choose Your Services
It can be tricky deciding when you’re going to really call yourself a professional photographer. If you get too eager and start promoting yourself before you have a good handle on your basics, you may be courting dissatisfied clients and a lackluster portfolio. If you wait too long, you could be missing out on experience and revenue.
But before you should worry about whether or not you are a photographer, you’ll need to have an idea of what kind of photographer you’re going to be. It seems these days that most people get their feet wet with portrait photography and stay there, assuming the next step is to start their own portrait business. Many—though certainly not all—of those people go on to become wildly successful and find deep fulfillment right there in that niche. But is that the only path available to a hobbyist going pro? Not at all.
The real estate market is rich with opportunities, probably right where you are. A listing needs quality photos to market a property to its best advantage, and sellers frequently discover that capturing a small bedroom or a poorly-lit living area and turning it into an attractive and salesworthy image is more challenging than they expected. Partnerships with local brokers can lead to a steady stream of business, and adding drone shots to your list of services could make you very competitive with larger properties.
If you prefer to stray a little further from home, travel photography just seems to keep getting bigger and bigger. Or you could take the camera out of the equation entirely and make your way as a photo editor. Many photographers outsource their post-processing to focus on marketing, booking, and shooting. Once you’ve gained some quality repeat clients, you can work from pretty much anywhere at any hours you please. It’s the ideal middle ground for image-loving introverts.
Make sure that your portfolio reflects the work you actually want to do and don’t be afraid to customize for specific clients. There’s no rule that says you have to show the same work every single time!
Perfect Your Portfolio and Package Deals
Putting together a portfolio and deciding which services you would like to offer go hand in hand. You can always be flexible if an unusual opportunity pops up that appeals to you, but in most cases it’s good to have a set idea of how you’re going to market yourself.
You’ll need to determine whether you want to offer some of your services and/or products as package deals or everything on an a la carte model. Most importantly, you’ll need to know what you’re going to charge for it. For many making the jump from enthusiast to pro, it’s a sticking point that keeps them in portfolio-building limbo long after they could have been making a profit.
This tends to be especially common for those who rely too heavily on their friends, family, and word of mouth. You do family portraits for a high school friend, who gives one of the prints to her parents as a gift. Then her mother has a friend who needs a headshot for work, then that friend recommends you to their nephew, who wants engagement portraits with his fiancé but doesn’t have a budget on top of all the wedding expenses. At a certain point in the social politics of it, you’ll have to make a cutoff and people are going to wonder why you’re asking for an initial payment when you photographed their friend for free.
You can save yourself a lot of frustration by wording your intentions carefully when making a call to action on social media. If you make a post asking if anyone would let you take their portraits, you give the impression that they are doing you a favor by even showing up. Post instead that you are looking for models with any level of experience. You can offer a certain number of digital files or prints in exchange for their time. This language makes it clear that you are working on a professional project rather than asking for help.
Participating in or heading up styled shoots will allow you to collaborate with other artists and flesh out the concepts in your portfolio. Images from those sessions are also fantastic for submitting to publications or contests to really get your name out there and you will meet other non-photography professionals (for example, florists, designers, and boutique owners) that you may work alongside for paid projects in the future.
When it comes to hard and fast numbers, it’s up to you whether you want to publish pricing on your website or have customers inquire. Many casual lookers will move on quickly if you don’t have your price range front and center, but more serious potential clients will usually contact you if they like what they see from your online presence.
When you decide on your fees, take the local market into account. Do some research into your competitors and map out how much you could realistically take on at a time, and how much you would need to make for it to be worth your while. If you undercut by too much, you may put yourself out of business by not being able to take on enough work to keep up with your equipment and travel expenses. If you overcharge, you may hear crickets for months at a time. You can always change your prices, but be wary of doing this too often. Give a new system time to catch up before you give up on it completely.
Now for maybe the greatest question of all: “How will my clients pay me?” Even in 2018, checks somehow manage to remain a favorite. Sadly it is all too easy to write a check with insufficient funds and usually by the time a check bounces, your client has as well.
Fortunately, checks aren’t your only option. Facebook Messenger and Google Pay are two easy ways to accept payment, but they can be difficult to walk less tech-savvy clients through and many people are hesitant to try them out.
If you have a smartphone, your customers can pay with their debit or credit card with little to no hassle for either of you. This is the method of choice for many as it not only cuts repeated trips to the bank out of the picture, it just looks and feels more professional.
Through Square or PayPal Here, you can get an easy-to-set-up card reader and pay a small, percentage-based fee for each payment, just like a brick and mortar storefront. You might consider a small fee for card payments to offset this or simply calculate it into your prices from the get-go. You can also email an invoice to your clients through either of those services (or a similar one) and have them pay you from the relative privacy of their home computer.
If you accept cash, keep a meticulous account of it. Give a receipt on the spot every time and deposit each cash payment individually so that when you look at your banking statement you can differentiate it from other large deposits. It’s best to only accept cash payments from clients you can trust implicitly as it’s practically impossible to create a reliable paper trail with them.
Pro To-Do List:
- Determine which areas of photography you excel at and what you actually enjoy working on.
- Decide which services you will offer. If you plan to provide packages for certain services, decide how that will be set up.
- Research the local market and your own projected expenses. Set your prices accordingly.
- Set up a reliable way to accept payment.
Now Get Out There!
Though by no means exhaustive, the information in these articles should give you a jumping-off point and answer some of the most asked questions of new pro photographers. If you’re feeling a little overwhelmed, start with taxes and work your way back. Make yourself legit, set up reliable methods of receiving payment, and make a plan for managing your taxes and you’ll be amazed how all of the other details fall into place!
For more information about putting your best foot forward with potential clients and the foolproof ways to get involved in the photography community, take a look at How to Be a Pro Like a Pro, Part 1.