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Two years ago, I began a family photography business. I didn’t have a large chunk of money to invest in the business. In fact, I started the business as a way to supplement my income as a high school English teacher. My wife and I had a second kid on the way, so she encouraged me to nurture my hobby into something more.

Dipping into my savings account or asking relatives for extra cash wasn’t an option for my new venture. But I found a way to make it work. Now I have a solid client list in two states (I recently moved to Ohio from Maryland), I’ve expanded to senior portraits, weddings, and corporate head shots, and I did it all on a shoestring budget.

Over the course of this article, I’ll detail the inexpensive ways I got my business up and running.

A Few Assumptions

Before I continue, I’ll say again that this article is written from the perspective of someone who began a family photography business. While much of this will apply to all types of photography, keep in mind my perspective is as someone starting in family photography.

Before you begin your photography business, you should have experience in either Lightroom or Photoshop, the two programs generally thought of as the standard for photo editing these days. In fact, I would say that you should prioritize your comfort with Lightroom due to its ability to organize photos and edit batches of photos rather than one at a time, as is the case with Photoshop.

You should also have one decent lens beyond your kit lens. I began my photography business with a Canon 50mm f/1.4 lens. I used it on a Canon T3i body, so the lens functioned much like an 85mm lens. You don’t necessarily need a 50mm to start, but you should have one lens that has a wide aperture, either a constant f/2.8 zoom or a prime with a sub-f/2 aperture. Not only will that wide aperture give you that “professional” look of blurred background bokeh, but chances are you’ll have better overall image quality than your standard kit lens. You don’t need thousands of dollars worth of glass–like I said, I started with just a 50mm lens. But you do need something better than your kit lens.

Lastly, before you begin your business, you should know your camera inside and out. You should know how to use Aperture priority, Shutter priority, and Manual modes. You should be able to change the exposure triangle settings without taking your eye away from the viewfinder. That means you should be able to use the exposure meter in the viewfinder to adjust your exposure. Yes, you can peek at the screen to see what your images look like, but you shouldn’t have to look at the screen or the body to see how you’re changing the settings.

Of course, any good photographer will tell you that you need to know light and composition, but all of that will come with time and practice. You can begin a basic family portrait business without the best grasp of light and composition. I did. Everyone has to start somewhere. And there’s nothing like paying clients to force you to improve.

With the assumption of photo-editing software and decent gear out of the way, let’s begin our start-up costs at $0.00US.

Google Apps

I use the Google applications suite to do most of my client database work. I use Google Docs to save template emails. I use Google Spreadsheets to keep track of client information and track my client workflow.

When it comes to Google Docs, I have the following saved documents that I refer to or use over and over again:

– Pre-written email for “get to know you” questions

– Pre-written email for important information and tips/tricks for the session

– Pre-written email for session preview photos

– Pre-written email for final gallery delivery

– Template for session contracts

I also have the following documents for record keeping and reference:

– Any pricing specials or unique offers I’ve made in the last two years

– Pricing history since I began

– Blog drafting

When it comes to Google Spreadsheets, I have several databases to help keep track of client data and my session workflow.

The first important spreadsheet I have is my “job list,” which includes the following information in columns in this order:

– Date and time of session

– Client name

– Client email

– Client family information (names and ages of family members)

– Location of session

– Type of session package

– Session fee

I “freeze” the first two columns and the first row so that I always see the column titles as well as the date and time of each session as well as the client name. (To freeze rows and columns, you click “View,” then “Freeze,” then choose what you want to freeze.)

Here’s the first part of my job list spreadsheet.

On the same sheet, I then have a series of drop-down menus to keep track of whether or not I have completed the following steps in my client process. Each of the following get a Yes, No, or N/A designation:

– “Getting Started” email (I ask “get to know you” questions early in the process)

– Invoice sent

– Contract sent

– Invoice paid

– Contract signed

– Check-in email (I send an email about a week before the session, checking in and giving some reminders from earlier emails)

– Preview photos sent

– Full gallery sent

– Prints delivered

– Blog post written

I also use conditional formatting to color-code some of this spreadsheet. For the list directly above, “Yes” is colored green, “No” is colored red, and N/A remains white. I also color code my session fees. This year, I colored green any session $200US and above, while any session below $200US was colored red. That way, I could simply glance at that column and see whether or not I had more green or more red. (I want more green, obviously!)

I create a new job list sheet for each calendar year.

Here’s the second part of my job list spreadsheet that helps me track my client workflow.

I have a separate spreadsheet for accounting purposes. My accounting spreadsheet has three different sheets: 1. Business checking account, 2. Business credit card, 3. Car mileage. The first two sheets are just my way of double-checking what I see in my online banking software. I can also provide more detail about each line item (i. e., what was purchased, who was involved, etc.) The third sheet is how I track the mileage on my car in relation to my business. Whether I run to the photo store or drive to Maryland from Ohio, if it’s related to the business, it’s mileage that I track for a tax deduction.

Here’s the feedback survey I send to each client.

I also use Google Forms for a simple, three-question survey that I send to clients when I deliver their photo galleries. The responses are tracked in a separate spreadsheet.

Google apps are free, so start-up costs at this point are still $0.00US

Build a Website

A website should be your first major business investment. However, it doesn’t take much to build a website and start your web presence. I use Wix. The podcasts are often sponsored by Squarespace. Look at their templates and their pricing, then choose what works for you.

When I started, I paid less than $200 for my domain name, the Wix platform without ad banners, and an email address to match the web domain. Here is a step where you might be tempted to cut expenses. You can save money by allowing an ad banner like “This website is brought to you by Wix.com,” or by not purchasing the email address to match your domain. Don’t do it! Nothing says amateur more than a generic email address (like an @gmail or @yahoo address) and ad banners on your website. Spend the extra money to have an ad-free website and a professional email address.

My company’s email is run on the Google app platform, so it’s easy to use Gmail, Docs, Spreadsheets, and the rest of Google’s application suite.

You’ll need to spend some time designing your website. Don’t rush this process. You also don’t need to spend money on professional web design during the infancy of your business–with a platform like Wix or Squarespace, you can easily create your own website. The most important thing to showcase is your portfolio. Nothing will take the place of a solid portfolio.

To summarize, at this point you have a database, word processor, spreadsheets, email, and a website. Start-up costs at this point are $200.00US.

Library and Books

As you get your business up and running, don’t stop learning. I am always reading a book about some aspect of photography. Why books first and not websites or podcasts or videos? Because books have been written and edited by professionals. A team of people have spent time and money curating and creating the content. Anyone can publish on the Internet (including yours truly), but not everyone will publish a book.

To save money, use your public library system to read books that you don’t necessarily want to buy. My public library system allows me to borrow books from any library in the state. I may have to wait a few weeks for a book to arrive at my local library from somewhere out of town, but I do get the book eventually. And it’s free!

Here are some of the books that helped me get better early in my new business:

– Nick Fancher’s Studio Anywhere and Studio Anywhere 2

– Scott Kelby’s The Digital Photography Book series

– Roberto Valenzuela’s Picture Perfect Practice and Picture Perfect Posing

If you use your public library, your start-up costs are still $200.00US.

(If you’d like to read my review of Nick Fancher’s Studio Anywhere 2, click here.)

Rent, Don’t Buy

I have run my photography business with a fairly sparse set of gear. In fact, for the first year of my business, I only used a kit lens and a 50mm f/1.4. (The kit lens was used for the first wedding I photographed.) As my client list grew, I was also being hired for more than just family portraits. When the job was more complicated than my current gear could handle, I didn’t panic, and I didn’t buy anything. Instead, I rented. When I needed a 70mm-200mm f/2.8 for a wedding, I didn’t spend the entire wedding fee on a new lens; I spent $50 to rent the lens for the weekend. When I needed a lens wider than my 50mm for  a reception, I didn’t go out and buy a 35mm f/1.4 lens; instead, I rented it for the weekend for $40.

While it may be tempting to use every penny you earn from photography to buy gear, don’t do it! Spend the money on other things like education, mentoring, workshops, business tools, or yourself. If you live in a big city, chances are there’s a camera shop with rental gear. I rent from Midwest Photo Exchange in Columbus, Ohio. If you don’t live close to a camera shop with a robust rental inventory, then check out Brent Rents Lenses. He’s a frequent supporter of Improve Photography and its media network.

Other companies like Borrow Lenses and Lens Rentals are also a great place to read about gear. I often go to a rental site for lens reviews because they’ll have a professional give a quick take on the lens as well as a comparison to similar lenses.

Perhaps you’ll budget in $150.00US for rentals as you start. Now the start-up costs are $350.00US.

Social Media

I use both my personal and business Facebook pages to promote my business. I have a much greater reach on my personal page than on my business page. Most of the time, my social media pages are a place to showcase my latest sessions before I’ve written a blog post or a place to get some instant positive feedback about my photos. Sometimes I post messages about special offers or scheduling sessions.

Of slightly greater value are Facebook groups, specifically local buy/sell/trade groups and parenting groups. Every now and then, I post a special on those chat groups. I’ll get a handful of inquiries from those posts.

I don’t make my social media presence a big priority in my business. I spend more effort on my photography itself and on cultivating the real relationships with my clients. In the two years since I started my business, nothing has gotten me more business than positive word-of-mouth support from past clients. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, and maybe I need to take a course or two on social media for businesses. But thankfully, I’m busy enough as it is without finely-tuned social media tactics.

Facebook and Instagram are free, so your start-up costs are still $350.00US.

Electronic Contracts and Signatures

As my business grew, I got tired of printing and scanning contracts. I searched through many digital signature platforms and ended up choosing SignNow.com. The platform is simple to use. I simply upload a PDF file of each contract, add various fields for the client to address (signature, date, initials, address, phone number, etc.), and then use the platform to email the contract to my clients. SignNow also archives your contracts and can resend the email if your client forgets to sign.

I have been using SignNow since August of 2016, and I love it. Clients have found it simple to use, and I no longer waste unnecessary time printing, scanning, or hunting down contracts.

A full year of SignNow’s basic subscription (perfect for my small business) is only $60.00US. The start-up costs are now $410.00US.

Banking and Invoicing

At some point, you will want to become an LLC. The main reason I became an LLC was to separate my personal assets from my business assets. As a homeowner with two children, I just couldn’t risk losing anything personal to a possible business lawsuit. To become an LLC in Ohio, I spent around $140.00US on the registration and vendor licensing.

I mention becoming an LLC because as an LCC I can open a business checking account and take advantage of many more banking applications. My business checking account links to banking software that allows me to send digital invoices and collect payments online. Sending digital invoices and online payments are a must these days.

I have chosen to use my business checking account rather than an application like Square or PayPal due to the fees associated with those applications.

My business checking account software allows me to track and collect money in and out, send invoices, and track a business credit card. As long as I carry a certain balance, I can use the basic business functions for free. To compare, payment solutions like Square or PayPal collect a percentage of each purchase (somewhere around 3%) plus a flat fee per transaction. With my level of business, my business bank solution saves me money compared to the services of a company like Square or PayPal.

The downside to my business bank account software is that I cannot accept credit cards, only client bank account information. For some of my clients, they’d prefer a credit card option. They just end up paying by personal check instead.

If you got lost in the financial talk of this section, the basic point is that I registered with my state as an LLC and used my LLC status to open a business checking account for online invoicing and payments. These two steps cost me $140.00US.

Total start-up costs are now $550.00US.

Improve Photography

The last suggestion I have is to start where I started: this website. I discovered Improve Photography during the winter of 2015. The amount of free or inexpensive content available on Improve Photography is mind-boggling. The articles, podcasts, and video courses were instrumental in getting me to where I am today.

If I had to choose two paid features to begin with, I would do the following:

– Buy the photography contracts for $15.00US.

– Purchase a portfolio review for $54.99US.

The photography contracts will give you a great place to start when creating your own contracts specific to your needs. The portfolio review will give you concrete, actionable feedback to help you improve your photography. (You could even purchases the full review for $69.99US and request me as your reviewer–yes, I’m a portfolio reviewer, too!)

You might also take a look at joining Improve Photography Plus, the premium service you can subscribe to monthly for access to all classes and resources, additional mentoring, and early access to workshops.

Finally, go back and listen to the podcast archives. I do not know where I would be without the amazing weekly advice from Jim, Nick, Jeff, Erica, Connor, Brian, and all of the other amazing podcast hosts. Start with Portrait Session and listen from the beginning. I would not be the photographer I am today without Portrait Session.

If we add the contracts and a portfolio review to the start-up costs, we come to $620.00US. In what other business can you begin for such a small amount of money? To give you some perspective, I made almost $7,000.00US during my first year. That means less than 10% of my photography income went to start-up costs. Not too shabby, I’d say.

If you’re reading this in a part of the world where winter has begun, there’s no better time to start your business, design your website, practice your craft, and be ready for spring photo sessions.

(Here are ten more business tips for your photography business. #6 is really important! Also, to learn the in’s and out’s of my camera and Lightroom, I also spent some time on the website Photography Concentrate. In fact, I purchased three of their tutorials before I discovered Improve Photography.)

The post How to Begin a Photography Business with No Start-Up Money appeared first on Improve Photography.

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