How to Build a Successful Photography Business

July 22nd, 2021
family portrait at the beach

Maybe it’s the lure of the flexibility that comes with self-employment. Maybe you love the idea of taking control of your income. Maybe it’s simply about your love for the art of photography. There are so many different “why’s” potentially at play, but one thing is certain: building a successful photography business, though attractive, is potentially overwhelming.  

The good news is that if you’ve come this far and you’re at home reading a photography blog in your jammies, trying to learn more when you could be binging Friends re-runs – you’re halfway there. Hold tight and I’ll share some tried and true advice for you on how to start your photography business and go  from zero to “successful” faster than your shutter speed on a super sunny day. (Sorry, I had to.) 

1. Know Your Craft, and Master Manual

Nobody ever really succeeded by winging it. You might get lucky from time to time, but at the end of the day, real success demands that you know your camera like the back of your hand. Your camera has automatic settings – yes – but it can’t read your mind to see your artistic vision. You need to be able to manipulate the light and your camera to get the images you want. Not quite sure where to start with all that? We have some tips to get you started, but one of the best things you can do to be successful in your photography business is find a mentor, and practice, practice, practice. 

parents hugging with three children running around them
Photo credit: Elizabeth Tate Photography
family and dog posing beside pool
Photo credit: Elizabeth Tate Photography
family holding hands while walking
Photo credit: Elizabeth Tate Photography

Oh, how I love marketing psychology and the subtle swaying power of a font, color, or design! But even more than the aesthetics, I love thoughtful, accurate, and effective branding that comes alive in a website, and clearly develops a solid foundation for a successful photography business. If your website is your voice, then your brand is the heartbeat behind it. These will be at the core of how you advertise your photography business. To have one without the other is to lose the powerhouse effect they can have together. Your website and brand need to be beautifully in sync, they need to embody your “why,” and in doing so, they will draw the right people. 

What does she mean by “draw the right people”? Super glad you asked. Here’s a pretty cool, pretty freeing perspective for you: you are not the right photographer for everyone (GASP), which also means that not every client is right for you. And so I ask: Who are you? Who is your ideal client? Thoughtful branding takes a lot of heart work and soul searching (and usually the guidance of a branding pro), so get to it! Get a clear idea of the brand you want to be, both philosophically and strategically, then set about developing that new logo and website.

parents each holding a newborn twin
Photo credit: Elizabeth Tate Photography

3. Social Media – Be Active, Be Involved

If you’re like me, you’ve got a love-hate relationship with social media. I’ve got a husband and three year old twins, but social media is, quite frankly, a necessary evil in my life. If I were a doctor or a lawyer or a CPA or a firewoman or a yoga teacher or quite literally anything else, I would have kissed social media goodbye 3 years ago when the little people were born. However, we picked a career path that demands a social media presence. Potential clients want to see a steady streaming of your best work, and they want to see that you’re still current. Practically speaking, Facebook and Instagram are wonderful tools (and completely free, I might add) for marketing; it’s silly not to use them. 

BUT, I have a disclaimer that you may like: Being successful in your photography business does not mean you have to post all the time… people generally just want to know what they can expect from you, and their stamp of approval will come when you’re consistent in that. Me? I’m quite open about my life being chaos. I’ve got little people calling the shots and making messes and I live in a 100% self-employed household and I don’t have time to worry about catching everyone’s eye as some Instagram Influencer. As a film photographer of newborns and families, I draw the right client for my business by being honest about life, and being consistent in that message. It works, because, remember? Not every client is my client. So, take a deep breath, get on social media, and set your boundaries clearly.

4. Client Experience – It’s More Than Show up and Shoot

Go ahead and transform your mindset from “I just need to take good pictures for these clients”, to, “I need them to feel SO good about this whole experience from the first impression to the last”. (Breathe, it’s okay). 

Now, how do we do that? Feel free to take notes: 

  • Communicate well and be prompt in your replies. 
  • Have a legit website. 
  • Have an investment guide with helpful, concrete information that outlines clear boundaries and expectations. 
  • Utilize booking software that makes paying for your services as seamless as checking out on Amazon. 

On session day, show up with your equipment charged and ready to go, smile, and speak clearly as you direct and pose your clients. Make smalltalk with them, treat them like humans who you care about outside of the business exchange. Deliver images promptly (per whatever expectations you set in previous communication), and always encourage their feedback. In a nutshell, your clients should be treated as “high touch” clients, which means that they’re never wondering where you are (did he get my email response?), what’s next (I wonder when my images will be ready?), what they should do (she didn’t say how she wanted to be paid…). To be successful in your photography business, your client experience should be clear and seamless. 

couple holding ultrasound photograph
Photo credit: Elizabeth Tate Photography
couple helping each other hold newborn baby
Photo credit: Elizabeth Tate Photography
pregnant woman holding hands with partner
Photo credit: Elizabeth Tate Photography

5. Stay in Your Lane – Be Consistent 

After you’ve mastered your craft, branded yourself, established your style, and set expectations for your clients, my biggest piece of advice is this: stay in your lane. We as photographers often draw inspiration from other artists, but it’s a mistake to borrow their style when it’s not in line with who you are and what you’re selling. It’s so easy to be distracted by work that you truly admire, but it’s incredibly important to be consistent in your choices and your images. This can actually be a big issue for newer photographers in the post-processing workflow and gallery delivery as they’re drawing inspiration from so many different places in learning their craft. 

If that’s you, here’s a pro-tip: Scroll each and every gallery before you press “send”, and check for image consistency. Learn to literally drop images if they don’t sit beautifully in a gallery because they’re of a different style, tone, or feel (ie, the dark, contrast-y, moody images in a sea of light and airy images). If you are missing that consistency consistently (ha), chances are you’re trying to morph your edits to accommodate different lighting scenarios on a per image basis, or you’re not married to one specific editing style, and you need to be. This isn’t to say that your style will be the same forever as you grow as a photographer; but it is important to stay consistent once you establish one. Potential clients need to know exactly what to expect from you if you’re going to be a successful photography business, so be extra picky with this one.

6. Industry Relationships – Be Involved

You don’t need to have any experience when starting a photography business. However, networking is crucial to growing recognition for your brand, and establishing positive vendor relationships is a key part in the process. In my experience from the wedding industry, great vendors look out for each other. They serve each other, they work as a team, they share information when appropriate for the good of the client, they always go above and beyond to accommodate each other. At the end of the day they’re the ones who’ll send you a client referral because they love working with a team player. There’s a saying in the industry, “Community over competition” – when it comes to working with other vendors (photographers included), drop your competitive edge, and opt to establish healthy relationships instead. You all make each other look good, so, be a team player. Be involved, be a servant, and watch those relationships grow right alongside your business.

couple smiling at each other and holding happy baby
Photo credit: Elizabeth Tate Photography

7. Stay Hungry – There’s Always More to Learn

Finally, building a successful photography business requires that you acknowledge that there’s always room to grow, and always more to learn. “Requires” seems like a strong word. Yup, it is, but 1: It’s true, you’ll probably never know all there is to know about photography, and 2: More importantly, it’s a mindset – keep the passion, keep the interest, and don’t allow yourself to become bored. Be teachable, be humble, and be generous with the information you encounter with those who are also hungry to learn. At the very core of your business is a flame that burns for photography, and staying hungry will ensure that the flame doesn’t slowly die with time.

You know the best part of all of this? I mentioned “formal education” or “expensive gear” zero times (really, go back and count – ZERO). This means that growing a successful photography business is pretty attainable to anyone with the work ethic and the passion to do it. I hope you’re encouraged by that. Here’s my big action item to get you started: take inventory of where you are today with these 7 things – literally, make a list of where you fall short – and create action items on what you can do to take steps towards success.

Elizabeth has been with a camera in her hand since she graduated with her degree in Photojournalism from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2011. She currently lives in North Carolina, where she photographs Families, Births, and Newborns all over the state. Her work has been featured in various publications including The Fount Collective, Style Me Pretty Living, Southern Weddings Magazine, PDN, and Pursuit Magazine. She enjoys shooting Medium Format Film alongside digital, and when she’s not photographing families and little ones, she loves spending time outdoors with her husband and 3-year old twins.