Starting a Successful Photography Business

Starting a Successful Photography Business

There's more to being a successful photographer than taking good pictures.

After hiring Shannon Evans to photograph her August 2007 nuptials, Brooklyn resident Tia B. Coachman said she was compelled to help her Howard University classmate focus on her creativity while building her business. Coachman also wanted a business of her own but preferred to work behind the scenes. Joining forces with Evans would allow her to do both. “I wanted to help Shannon use her talents to create a solid company built around more than just taking photos of someone’s wedding. We linked up a few months later and started to make it happen,” says Coachman, 26.

In March 2009, the duo decided to work on their digital wedding and portrait venture, Sevan Photography, on a full-time basis. “I really try to figure out who people are and get that to come across when I shoot them,” says 26-year-old Evans, who started out by shooting head shots for models.  A blend of photojournalism, art, and fashion, Evans’ innovative shooting style has landed her high-profile events such as Russell Simmons’ Hip Hop Inaugural Ball, concerts with rappers Common and Dead Prez, and editorial work, netting Sevan $25,000 in revenue in 2009. “We offer something our clients haven’t found in other photographers and that’s the main reason they come to us,” Coachman says.

Though talent is a necessary ingredient for being a successful photographer, training and experience are essential, says Susan Michal, owner of Jacksonville, Florida-based Susan Michal Portrait Studio and board member of the Professional Photographers Association.  Years of study and practice are required to master variables like lighting, uncooperative subjects, and equipment failure. “Anybody can buy a $700 camera and call themselves a photographer,” explains Michal. “But what happens when you’re working a wedding and your camera breaks or you miss an important moment? There’s no redo at a wedding, and there’s nothing like an unhappy bride.”

Hoover’s Business Research estimates that photo studios and commercial photography is a $7 billion industry made up of 14,400 U.S.-owned businesses. The Sevan team hopes to stand above the crowd by holding consultations over tea or cocktails and offering gallery showings of bridal snapshots in lieu of photo albums. “We’re trying to deliver value in ways no one’s thought about before,” Evans explains.

Fronting $5,000 of her own money, Washington, D.C. native Evans launched Sevan in 2005 and gradually purchased cameras, lenses, photo software, and web hosting. The digital photography studio charges about $175 an hour for events, $225 an hour for portrait sessions, and wedding packages start at $2,500. As the principal shooter, Evans often edits photos while traveling, whereas 26-year-old Coachman manages client meetings, handles bookkeeping, and manages an apprentice from her home. The pair work together virtually, using free online chat and voice over Internet programs (VOIP) and renting studio space when necessary.

Evans and Coachman expect to make $50,000 in 2010, which they plan to use to buy a permanent office and studio space, as well as to expand their apprentice program. “We want to be the best photography studio in the world, and we’re going to do it our way,” says Evans.

Picture This–Tips for being a successful photographer

Get your business mind right. Too often, Michal says, photographers think of themselves as artists first and entrepreneurs second. “You have to consider things like sales tax, equipment costs, bookkeeping, and the time it takes to sustain a business. At the end of the day, this is a business,” she says.

Invest in the right equipment. Michal says outfitting a photography business is expensive and new gadgets come out every day. Only buy the best camera and lenses you can afford along with a professional photo editing program like Adobe Photoshop to get started, she advises.

The proof is in your (online) portfolio. The best way for clients to see your work is via an online portfolio. At the bare minimum, post your photos along with contact information to a blog or online photo album. “If you don’t have an online portfolio, you don’t have a business,” says Michal.