You’ve made the decision to set up your own small photographic business and now what? Here’s a guide to some of the things that you’re going to totally need to be on top of from the get go.

IT CAN BE AN EXCITING decision to go it alone and to set up your own small business but it can also be quite a frightening one as well. If you’ve been employed previously then suddenly all of the security that comes with the territory, such as a regular income, PAYE, paid holidays, sick pay and the happy knowledge that someone else is worrying about all the day-to-day stuff, from computer malfunctions through to booking couriers, all disappears in a puff of smoke.

ABOVE: You need to love the business you’re in and that will show through to your clients, but you also have to understand how to run and manage a small business.

If you’re still reading then the assumption must be that you really are serious! And there are obviously lots of benefits, such as the flexibility that comes with being self-employed and the sense of satisfaction that results from being the person who’s single-handedly generating the income that pays the bills. But it is crucial to know what you’re doing and to have a business plan worked out, and to have done your research on your chosen target area and to be one-hundred-per-cent ready for the roller coaster ride that undoubtedly lies ahead of you.

Before you do absolutely anything else you should be talking to people, a lot of people, to get a true feel for what you’re letting yourself in for and, most importantly, to be able to plot the path you want to take and to make sure that you’re headed in the right direction from the moment that you start up.

So, who should you be talking to? The business manager at your bank would be a good place to start and most branches will have someone on hand whose job it is to deal with business customers. They can offer financial advice, talk about which account is best for your needs – and it is a legal requirement to have a separate bank account from your personal one if you’re going to be earning an income – and they might even have special schemes in place, such as overdraft facilities that can kick in to help you out at times when cashflow might be tight.

You should also be talking to others who have already made that step into the world of self-employment, and not necessarily just those who are in the same line of business as the one you’re looking at. Many of the challenges that face those running a small one or two-person business are the same, whether you happen to be a photographer, a plumber or a freelance hairdresser. The fundamentals are the same and you can learn a lot through hearing about how others are managing the day-to-day organisation that’s required.

Talk to other photographers as well, most of whom will be only too happy to share their experiences, and also look at joining one or more of the trade associations, who are all very welcoming and ready to support those fresh to the business. You can avoid all kinds of pitfalls by just listening to what others have been through and it will enable you to piece together more of a structure to your approach before you take the plunge and dive in. When the time comes you’ll be fully prepared, with a clear idea of what you need to have in place.

Advice from the Experts

Coming back to the theme of the common thread that binds so many small businesses together, it can also make a lot of sense to talk to organisations that can offer an impartial overview of self-employment, and there are several to choose from.

The government, for example, offers online advice about setting up a business, which takes on board the fact that businesses can exist at all kinds of levels and one size doesn’t fit all. They even acknowledge that you could effectively be both employed and self-employed at the same time, for example if you work for an employer during the day and for yourself in the evenings or at weekends, as so many wedding photographers might do. They also offer background on what’s involved in being a sole trader and the owner of a limited company, and this is an important decision and one that we’ll come back to this later in this series.

Many small photography set-ups can be family affairs, with perhaps one person running the business with support from their partner or sometimes siblings or off-springs can be involved. Businesswoman Anita Brightly-Hodges founded the Family Business Place in 2008 specifically to offer help and advice to family-run businesses and it’s a place where there’s a real community feel and a sense of support and help provided, not just to those who are established but also those who are just contemplating their first step into self-employment.

ABOVE: There’s nothing like the freedom of running your own business but you need to be well prepared and to have a clear idea about how to set one up that will have the best chance of success.

“We were set up to offer specialist advice to family-run businesses,” says Anita, “and we’re always happy to talk to anyone who would like some impartial feedback about the steps they should be taking if they’re looking to set up their own family-run businesses. I’ve been an entrepreneur myself for 35 years now and have a passion for it and we’ve got a lot of experience that we’re more than happy to share with others as they’re looking to take their first steps.”

Not surprisingly there are a number of dedicated photographic businesses amongst the organisation’s membership and many of them are looking for guidance in terms of how to take things forward.

“One of the most important things is to have a passion for what you’re looking to make a living out of,” says Anita. “You need the skill set of course, but you should also love what you’re doing and that will show through to your customers and earn you business. It’s also important to be willing to collaborate with others. You shouldn’t be thinking about other photographers as being rivals, rather they are people you can network with and share experiences and marketing knowledge.

“You should also be looking at determining what area of photography it is that you’re looking to specialise in and then focus in on that. People need to know what you’re about and it can be confusing to them if you’re trying to establish yourself as a photographer who tackles absolutely everything. Hone it down to where your true interests lie and then set out to establish yourself in that area, build your reputation and become known for it.”

There’s also the possibility of mentoring, which comes at a cost but can prove to be worth every penny since it will give the person who signs up the privilege of benefitting from the contacts in Anita’s little black book and, over the years, she’s made connections with pretty much everyone who could be useful.

There is extensive business advice out there, grants, preferential loans and all kinds of resources that can be tapped into if you know where to go, and the benefit of joining an organisation such as Family Business Place is that you’ll be pointed in the right direction rather than having to do everything yourself.

We’ll be looking more at the nuts and bolts of setting up a business next month, including the legal implications of going it alone, how to register a company name and the importance of creating a sensational website that will serve as your shop window. Stay tuned and get ready to go it alone!

Further Information :

As a commercial photographer it is my job to create distinct and brandspecific images that will help my clients to sell a product or service. Nine times out of ten I will work to a supplied brief and occasionally I could be employed for my personal style. Mostly, however, I’ll be expected to use my technical and creative ability to interpret a client’s vision. Here’s how my typical day might pan out.

Catching up with emails

The first job of the day and I try to get back to everyone as quickly as I can, even if it’s just a note saying I’m on a shoot and will reply later. There’s a lot of competition in this industry and it’s important to be reliable and efficient and to communicate effectively. Emails might include requests for quotes, replies from model agencies, hire studios or queries from current clients, and nobody likes to wait days for a reply. If you’re tardy you could lose a job.

Upcoming shoot

I have to be highly organised and always thinking ahead. This morning I need to make plans for an upcoming lifestyle and product shoot that I’ve got planned in for a client that wants to promote a new haircare brand. It’s quite a large and complex shoot which will include models, and I’ll be shooting stills, video and animated gifs. We’ve spent the last two months trying to define a photographic style, choose and book models and make-up artists, select a studio and create a storyboard for the videos. My task this morning is to finish putting together a schedule of shooting that will then need to be sent out to all parties, and this will outline what needs to be shot on which day, and we’ll also create a mood board so that everyone is aware of the timings.

Job Quote

I’ve received an enquiry from a PR agency to shoot lifestyle videos of models. I email them back asking for a more specific brief as I need to know more about the backgrounds required, the number of models, MUAs and anything else that will affect the quote.

When I quote for a job, I break it down into my day rate and any other expenses, such as travel, make-up artists, assistants, props or stylists. Budgets are very important to the client, so I try to be crystal clear about what the full cost might be. This is especially important when working with new brands, since they might not have worked with a photographer before.


A product shoot I quoted on a few weeks ago has been approved, so I now need to draw up a contract. This will be legally binding and will protect both myself and my client, and these days we work with an online version so that it’s easy for everyone to see and to electronically sign with a digitally certified signature.

This will outline the responsibilities of both parties, such as the quantity of shots expected, delivery times, payment terms and who will pay for what. I prefer clients to pay for such things as model agency costs direct since these can run into the thousands and the last thing a small business needs is to be worrying about cashflow or late or unpaid bills.

Product Shoot

I have a simple product shoot for a new face cream coming up this afternoon. Before every shoot I check all my strobes and LED panels then make sure my camera is functioning and there are no unwanted marks lurking on the sensor. I also check my laptop is tethering ok with my software and I’ll have a set of spare, fully charged batteries ready to go.

I have a basic checklist of what I need for every type of shoot and this includes such things as strobes, lenses, tripod, stands, gels, lighting modifiers as well as specific items that might be related to the shoot. For product shoots this could include a selection of backgrounds and small prop up boxes. I also carry all the ancillary equipment, such as extension leads, sensor cleaner, sandbags, Blu Tack and so on.

For today’s shoot I’ve hired out a studio. I don’t own my own since my work tends to be varied and I’m often on location, so it wouldn’t be viable to run a space full time. I do, however, have a home office as well as a spare room that I can quickly convert to a studio as and when I need to shoot small set-ups. Today, however, there are two people from the brand in attendance plus two representatives from the advertising agency and so hiring is the way to go.

I usually shoot tethered to my laptop when I can. This makes it easier for the client to approve shots, while it’s useful in terms of me being able to see to adjust focus and lighting. For a small job like this I will usually work on my own, with an assistant hired in should I happen to be tackling anything bigger.

Backing Up

As soon as I’m home I’ll back up all of my images to a separate drive. Depending on the brief I’ve been given I use Lightroom to pick out the best shots and I’ll then convert these to low res JPEGs and send them over to the client for approval. As soon as I get the green light I can make a start on the retouching.

Making sure you send your invoices in on time is vital to the cashflow of your business. I like to make sure that my client is 100% happy with my images or video, however, before I send mine over and I’m lucky in that I find I rarely need to chase these up.


Marketing is something that you can’t ignore. Agencies and especially art directors are usually bombarded with fresh images every single day, so you can easily disappear into the ether if you stop communicating or don’t market yourself.

Apart from the usual methods of emailing, sending postcards and your portfolio, I find entering competitions to be a great way of proving your worth and gaining attention from both past and potential clients. My very first award gave me a big boost early on in my career and led to a contract with The Image Bank, a large stock agency of the day. This year I was awarded first place in the Advertising section of The International Color Awards, which gave me a great marketing asset to promote to commissioners.

Social Media

I usually end my day checking my social media, responding to comments and creating posts as well as writing blogs for my website. Every day and every shoot is completely different. One day I could be in a buzzing studio full of models, art directors, stylists and make-up artists, the next I could be at home shooting small products with only my dog for company! That is why I totally love what I do: never mind the hard work, irregular hours and days of self doubt, I genuinely couldn’t be happier.

More information:

MPB Used Kit List

If you’re looking to take up a career as a commercial photographer here are some suggestions and pricings for suitable kit from MPB’s resident pricing expert Marc Reid.

Nikon D810 – £1099,
Good Condition

+ Nikon AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8G IF-ED (£609, Good Condition) + Nikon AF-S 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED VR Micro (£554, Excellent Condition) The impressive full frame sensor of the Nikon D810 allows you to capture every scene in complete clarity and to print to a large scale. Its outstanding low light performance makes it the perfect camera for a professional that might be looking for a reliable body to keep up with their busy schedules.

Sony a7R II – £1079, Good Condition

+ Sony Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar T* FE 24-
70mm f/4 ZA OSS (£424, Excellent Condition) + Sony FE 90mm f/2.8 Macro G OSS (£809, Excellent Condition) The Sony a7R Mark II features the world’s first back-illuminated full-frame 42.4 MP
Exmor R CMOS sensor, which delivers high resolution and high sensitivity. Combining this camera with a matching quick zoom and macro lens will help you capture the moment with perfect clarity.

Canon 5D III – £899, Good Condition

+ Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8 L USM (£604, Good Condition) + Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 L IS USM Macro (£709, Excellent Condition) The Canon EOS 5D Mark III offers impressive specifications, allowing you to make the jump into the professional market. The added advantage of being weatherproof allows you to take the camera anywhere, knowing it will rise to the challenge.

IN JULY 2019 Instagram and Facebook had an outage that lasted almost a day and, whilst that may not seem significant in the general scheme of things, the impact that it had on businesses and advertisers was huge. It also served to highlight a major problem for many companies.

The fact is that you cannot, and should not, be relying solely on social media platforms to build your business. Yes, the impact they have on your ability to reach new audiences is enormous, but you should also be focusing on owning the direct relationships you have with your potential customers as well.

We also shouldn’t be forgetting that Facebook has an unfortunate habit of closing down and suspending accounts on a whim, so you must focus on ensuring that you’re building sustainable relationships with your customers directly, so that you have a contingency plan in place should you ever happen to find yourself languishing in Facebook jail.
One of my favourite things to say to clients is ‘don’t build your business on rented land,’ and by this I mean that you should be focusing on building your brand using your own website and your own fully-vetted email list. But surely, you say, you’ve heard that email is dead? I’m here to tell you that this is certainly not the case and it can have a crucial role to play in your marketing mix.

Making Connections

You also need to learn to be clever to acquire those all-important email addresses. It’s no longer enough to simply ask people to sign up for your regular digital newsletter. No one, and I genuinely mean no one, is going to get excited about a newsletter, but what can actually fire them up is interesting, relevant and useful information or offers that keep them invested in you and your services. This doesn’t mean talking about yourself all the time, but rather you need content that’s inspiring and which will encourage people to be moved to action. Ultimately that’s the job of marketing: to get potential customers to want to spend money with you.

Once you have an email address you need to think carefully about what you might send to that person to keep them involved. Perhaps think about offering photography hints and tips, how to take portraits, or how to get ready for a photo shoot. Trust me when I tell you that freely sharing information with them won’t mean that they’ll not book you for their photoshoot because they now have all that
they need to do it themselves. Rather it means that they are more likely to become a regular customer because you’ve communicated with them and, by doing so, have established your credibility.

Last week I got this reply from someone on my regular email list: “I always mean to message you and say I like your emails. I’m always really bought in: I think it might be useful to have a strategic marketing session with you at some point!’ Now this kind of response is pure gold because it means that when they are ready, or I make a sales offer of some sort, they already know me and the value I’m offering. And that’s what you need to be aiming for.

Email Marketing will help your business in the following ways

  • Build brand awareness and reinforce your core values. With so many brands competing for attention these days, any brand awareness you can build with your website visitors will fade extremely quickly if you don’t keep in touch with your audience.
  • Build trust in your brand. Email reminds your customers that you haven’t forgotten about them. As well as offering them valuable content, it also allows you to share your success stories, it keeps them abreast of new developments and products that you’re offering and it even allows you to share the testimonies of other satisfied customers.
  • Overcome objections and show your value. Every prospective customer will raise objections in their heads while perusing your website. Bargain conscious customers will want to know they’re getting the best value before they commit to buy. Your emails can help to give them the assurances they need by pre-empting and answering their objections and reasserting faith in your brand.

There are many different ways to cover email list building and we’ll be covering this in next month’s column. But for now, remember it’s never just about simply growing a list. Rather it should be about building a relationship with those people who have signed up and then keeping them engaged.

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