Do you go back and forth in your head, thinking to yourself: "Am I actually ready to start my own photography business? When can I start charging for my skills?"
Then you are not alone!
This "When can I charge" question is one I get asked a lot, so that's why today I'm going to walk you through some of the things I personally think you should have in hand before you start your own photography business. My goal is to help you start to think strategically about whether you are ready - and if you aren't, what you can do about it - rather than relying simply on how long you have been photographing or some other arbitrary figure.
That's because there is no hard and fast length of time you need to be shooting for before you start charging. It could be six months, it could a year, or even five. Everyone learns at a different pace, puts in a different amount of time and effort, and has different levels of confidence about taking on paid clients.
What kind of photography business do you want?
There is also the not-so-small matter of what type of photography business you want to have.
Do you want to go for the "bargain basement" level where you get 50 edited images on a disk for $100? (And where I would argue that you are actually paying your customers to let you take their photos)
Or do you want to be a fine art photographer that charges thousands for your images?
Something in between?
There is no right or wrong answer here as there is a place for all levels.
Think of it this way - there are fast food restaurants and there are 5-star, top of the range Michelin starred restaurants. Just because you aren't perhaps in the "5-star quality" bracket doesn't mean that you can't charge for your skills!
I have a caveat here though: you wouldn't expect to walk into a fast food restaurant and for them to serve you raw chicken just because they were cheap, and in my mind, it's the same with photography. I personally believe you should have a few basic skills in hand before you should start charging.
So, let's dig into them shall we?
#1 You understand WHAT you need to do to get great photos
I really think that before you start charging, you should have an understanding of ALL of the key elements of photography, and know exactly how your equipment works.
There are many people who pick up a camera, stick it in all the AUTO modes and start charging from Day 1, and there's nothing inherently wrong with that, provided they are honest about their skill level and people are happy to pay for something that they could do themselves.
However, if you are serious about having a sustainable, ethical business, I suggest you have more skill than that. You don't need to be Annie Lebowitz, but you should have a solid understanding of the following as a minimum:
How to change your white balance (and what a correct white balance looks like!)
How to get the correct exposure for the scene (either in manual mode or AV mode with compensation)
How to get sharp, in focus images
How to use the light around you and where to place your subjects in relation to it so they look good to the naked eye (no shadows in the eyes or hotspots for example)
Simple composition rules (especially for portraits)
How to carry out a simple, clean edit
How to properly size and sharpen images for print.
For me personally, that would be the absolute minimum. Ideally, you might want to have a more skills in your backpack too - much more if you are going for a higher tier of business - but this is definitely enough to start charging at a basic level, as most people paying for photographers don't have this level of skill themselves.
If you didn't give me a "hell, yes, I can do that!" to all of these, then my advice is start investing in your education before you do absolutely ANYTHING else. We go over all of this and more in Auto to Awesome, but if you want to get started today, grab my FREE 90 Day Photography Learning Blueprint, and you can make sure that you have ALL the info you need at your fingertips!
#2 You've done free sessions for experience.
Again, just my personal opinion (again, emphasis on personal opinion!) but before you start charging I think you will want to have some experience under your belt, by doing proper timed "sessions" for free. I have a few reasons why I think this is beneficial...
1) Because it will build up your confidence. It can be really, really, really nerve racking to deal with people you don't know, all the while thinking about light and composition, your camera settings, and all the other little things you need to think about during a shoot, so getting a bit of experience first will make sure that you feel confident charging what you are worth when the time comes.
2) It will help you understand your costs. These free sessions will help you truly understand everything that goes into a paid shoot - how much time you spend with the clients working out the details, how long it takes you to edit your images, and the best way to get photos to your client and so on. This helps make sure you truly understand your costs (more on this in a minute!) so you actually make a profit - and therefore actually have a business
3) You can build up your portfolio. Free sessions are also a great way to build up your portfolio leading up to your paid sessions, so you have more to show prospective PAYING clients than 20 photos of your own children, plus you'll be able to demonstrate that you can work with a variety of people and situations. (If you want help creating your portfolio, or you just want to see what goes into one, check out this post 8 steps to creating a photography portfolio. )
4) You've proved you can do it! Free sessions means you can make sure that you are able to come up with the goods consistently BEFORE you start charging.
Which leads me neatly onto...
#3 You can produce results, consistently
When doing these free sessions, you want to have been able to consistently produce the required amount of photos without having to throw in a few "slightly-out-of-focus-but-let's-hope-they-won't-notice" type shots, or leaving in three near identical photos just to make up the numbers.
Please don't make the mistake of thinking just because you are doing this for free you can get away with just giving them the five "good" photos you took that session! Although they might not mind because it was free, you haven't demonstrated consistency. You want to be taking at least 30 shots for each session that you could feasibly put in their package (assuming this a portrait session and not something like a wedding!) so they can choose from a few.
So before you charge, make sure you cam consistently produce photos that look like your portfolio, and most importantly, get them all in one session.
Remember, your portfolio should be a reflection on what someone can expect if they hire you. It's not fair to take the ten best photos you have taken out of 500 and pop them on your website, and then give someone shots that look nothing like your portfolio because you can't get them on demand yet (and if you can't, that's a skill thing, so it's back to number one on this list for you!)
#4 You understand the cost of doing business
The other element you should be aware BEFORE you start charging of is the true cost of doing business. Even if you choose to make a loss for the first few sessions to get experience and your name out there, you need to understand all your costs, and how much you would need to charge to make a profit.
If you haven't done this yet, start a spreadsheet and start writing down all your costs. The main one will be your time, so make sure you allow time for travelling to and from your destination, the actual shoot, editing the photos and preparing them for print. (Pay yourself a decent hourly rate too!)
You will also have things like equipment deprecation, editing software, website charges, business registrations costs, insurance, marketing materials and whatever other costs I haven't thought about right at this second. You want to assign a portion of these costs to each client.
That cost figure may be higher than you first anticipated, but that's a GOOD thing - I cannot tell you how important it is to understand the TRUE cost of doing business, as that means you can charge the right amount to make a profit.
(And just as an aside, if you are still charging $100 for a session, you are in essence paying your customers to let you take photos of them)
If you are thinking of starting to charge money for your photography skills, then I have a little action plan for you .
STEP ONE: Start by working out the costs of running a photography business, and try not to leave anything out because you are "just starting out". For example, before too long you'll need a website even if you don't have one right now, so factoring in that cost early on is a great idea. And don't be tempted to leave out equipment deprecation - all those shutter clicks wear your camera! Once you have an idea of what your costs are, then work out how much you need to charge to make a profit, and cover your time. This may change after you think of more things to add, and that's fine, this is just to get the ball rolling.
STEP TWO: Now that you have a figure of what you are going to charge, schedule TEN different free sessions for friends and family. Make sure you tell them you are only going to be doing a few sessions to help you build your skills, experience and portfolio, and then what your price will be after that! This helps keep in people's mind that you aren't going to be doing free forever, and this is a limited, one-time offer :) This will also stop you as being seen as the "cheap" girl - it's hard to go from $50 to $500 so get it in their heads early on. It also focuses YOUR mind on getting these to a level that you would feel morally happy about charging that figure for.
STEP THREE: If you still don't have the skills required, or can't get the images you want consistently, then make sure you invest in learning. You can take courses in specific areas where you feel you are falling short, for example posing, or if you feel you are still lacking in some basics skills like tack sharp focus, or shooting in manual mode or getting consistently good images, then check out Auto to Awesome to get a fast track to where you want to be.
You can also download my FREE 90 Day Photography Learning Blueprint and see what it takes to master your camera:
We will always grow - as photographers and in business - so this is simply my opinion of the foundational elements you need to have in place before you are ready to start your own photography business. Start with these and then build on it and you will have a successful, thriving photography business in no time!
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