There are going to be quite a number of people over the next couple of years who will find themselves being made redundant, or forced to take early retirement, wondering what to do with themselves.  A number of them might decide that photography is for them and consider starting a small business.  They might already like photography as a hobby; friends, family and wives might say, ‘that’s a lovely picture.  You could sell that’.  And it might be a ‘lovely’ picture for the family at Christmas.  But the question must be – would they pay for it?  Real money I mean, not a tenner or twenty quid, but maybe £100 or more.  Because, to run a business you have to make a profit: unlike a hobby.  So, this article is about starting up as a photographer. 


Before I start, you might be thinking what right has this guy got to say whether I start up as a photographer or not?  Well, I don’t really have any right to advise you against starting as a photographer, and I don’t intend to.  You might be the next best thing in photography since….the last best thing in photography, for all I know.  But I have had some experience in the industry and believe that there are some key issues that should be considered before embarking on a photographic career, especially one in your own business.


My experience has been in photography since 1983, when I left college and worked as an assistant photographer in London.  In 1995 I started in earnest as a freelance photographer based in Edinburgh, where I still live.  (Though I am willing to travel anywhere for the right money to discuss anything photographic to anyone).  I have a degree in Photography, a teaching qualification and ample experience.


So, let’s get started.  You want to be a Photographer.  What does that mean?  I have been on a number of business courses and on one the speaker asked me what I did.  I said that I was a Photographer and he said, ‘Yea, but what do you do?’  And this reply started me thinking.  What is it I do? What is it I’m selling?  It’s a simple, but instrumental question, as it defines where you go, what you do and how you do it.  The term ‘photographer’ is broad and defines nothing, apart that you probably use a camera, but not necessarily. 


The starting point then is to write down what it is you are going to sell.  Are you selling photographs you have already taken?  This could be directly to specific clients or through an agent, gallery, photo-library etc.  Or are you going to find people to take photographs for, i.e. weddings, public relations, editorial, design groups, etc?  Once you have decided on the type of photographer you wish to be, then write down what sort of person you think that type of photographer ought to be.  Then think again!!


Why think again?   Because we have to know where we are coming from to move forward.  Why do you want to be a self-employed photographer?  What were you doing before?  Was it relevant to photography, or for that matter running your own business?  As at the end of the day it doesn’t matter what business you run you still need to ask these questions and assess truthfully (if you can) what your expectations really are.  Let’s ask some questions and dispel some myths.  I will make some broad assumptions here; you have been made redundant and have a lump sum to invest in your future and want to work for yourself so that you are the boss.  Or you might have left school and decided that photography is for you, as there is no need for any qualification and you can live at home and your mum and dad will support you.  Or you have just left college with a degree in photography and the college thought you were great and you do to; so the rest of the world will think so also, and why waste time learning the ropes when you could just start.  Whatever, the question has to be – why do you want to be a photographer?  What are your expectations? 

If you go to a business seminar they will talk about informing the tax office, VAT, USP (Unique Selling Point) and various other mumbo jumbo.  But, maybe you’ve been in full-time employment where you get a monthly income, paid holidays, sickness leave and pension.  These financial considerations are seldom discussed at business seminars.  At work you turn up, you have a regular routine, meetings to attend, a line manager who will discuss your work and future and you might be sent on training days to ensure you are kept up to date with technology and work practice.  You can plan holidays, take sick leave, and assume that on your retirement you will have some money in the bank on a regular basis.  Self-employed people have none of that.  If you don’t work you don’t get paid – Full Stop.  If you are sick, there is no money.  Go on holiday, there is no money.  And unless you pay for your own pension one hundred percent, there is no pension. 


Many people think that being self-employed gives them a sense of freedom.  No longer tied to the office and also away from office politics!  A world where they can decide when they work and who they work for.  Sounds great, but the reality can soon turn sour.  Being self-employed means there is no clocking off, you are always looking for work.  Every contact is a potential new client, however horrible they are to work for.  You work for anyone (usually), and at any time (weekends, evenings) because you don’t know when the next job will come along.  Office politics is still there, it’s just that you’re not included in the discussion; but that doesn’t mean the discussion isn’t about you.  You might have a good friend in a company who can pass work your way, but they are moved on; you don’t know the new person and they have their own friends.  I’ve seen it happen over and over again, as most photographers only have a couple of really good clients providing most of their work and when the key person moves or retires it can be the end for the photographer.


You need to know whether you and any family/partner are willing to put the best part of your redundancy money into a business that, the Association of Photographers say, takes about five years to see a profit.   That is a big commitment.  If you are still keen to give it a go, then let’s continue.


OK, you’re still with me and want to give it a go.  You’ve got a load of money, and friends and family like your photos.  You decide to buy the camera, lights, etc, get business cards and letter head made (we all like that bit), and then what?  You’ve forgotten one major issue.  ‘What’s that?’ you might ask.  WORK!!  You haven’t any, but you have spent a load of money already.  Let’s go back.  You have decided on the field you want to be in.  You need to research it in your area.  Is someone already doing your sort of work?  If so, how are they doing financially?  Is it their main income, or do they also work elsewhere?  You might have spotted a gap in the market or on the other hand, there just isn’t a market for your work in your area.  Would you have to move to another town/city to do the type of photography you wish to work in? 


For argument sake, let’s just say you have decided to do wedding photography.  Every year there are loads of weddings in your area and you’ve checked out the local wedding photography rates.  The local wedding guy/s is charging about £1000 per wedding depending on the package.  It sounds good.  Fifty-two weeks in the year, you should be able to get one wedding a week, meaning a turnover of £52,000 per year.  You’d be happy with that (maybe).   What happens if you don’t get one wedding a week?  Very few photographers do.  One a month might be closer to it, so it’s a turnover of £12000 per year and that’s on the assumption you can charge a £1000 per wedding – not so good!  So can you realistically charge the same amount as the other photographers when you start out?  They have years of experience, know the ropes and have contacts.  You have nothing, no previous work, no contacts with hotel, restaurant, pub owners, the local vicar/minister, etc.  How do you get known?  The other photographers might have a high street presence, shop front, website, and advertising in the local press.  This can cost a great deal of money. You decide that you have to be cheaper than all the other photographers (that’s going to be your USP).  Is that wise?  No, as it means less money for you, probably a poorer quality of work and you still have fixed costs to cover.  No bad thing to keep those costs down though.


Fixed costs:                                                                             None fixed costs:

                            Not in any order of importance


Mortgage/rent                                                                                     Car

Rates/community charge                                                                     Holiday/s

Heating                                                                                               Sickness

Electricity                                                                                            Advertising

Water                                                                                                  Food

Telephone                                                                                            LIFE

Insurance (car, cameras, Personal Liability, house etc)


The list could go on depending on your life style



Are you still with me?  Or have I put you off? 


So, how do we work out our charges?  We have worked out our basic fixed costs, so we know the minimum we need.  The next aspect will depend somewhat on the field of photography we work in.  If you decide to sell prints, then your costs will include printing, framing, delivering and exhibiting.  This might be done by you alone, or in conjunction with a gallery or other supplier.  Outside suppliers of your work might dictate your percentage of return per sale on each image and then you can work out how many prints you need to sell per year/day/hour etc to cover your costs and make a profit.  Fairly straightforward in fact. 


Editorial work is usually paid as a set fee by the publisher (depends on the publisher as to how much that will be) for a specific shot.  The more separate shots the more money.  Some newspapers work on a day rate or period of day rate, set by them.  You have to take it or leave it, they don’t care. 


Advertising and design usually works on a day or half-day rate, plus expenses. 


Weddings and family, kids photos etc, are paid per job and might be different for each client.  You might have different packages to allow for time and income differences.  The chances are you won’t do more than one job per day.


Working out your rates then is usually sold on the basis of working out your fixed costs, adding some in for unfixed costs, and an amount on top as income.  Divide that amount by working ours and you have your hourly rate.  Multiply by working hours in the day gives you a day rate, etc.  


Other factors will have to be taken into account, of course.  Things like your holiday, weekends, bank holidays, clients holidays, etc.  Very few photographers work every day, or week, of the year.  Of 52 weeks, maybe 42 could be considered as working weeks by the time holidays are taken into account.  Then again few photographers work every day of the week, as in paid work.  Much of your week will be spent seeing new clients, book keeping, post-production and managing your life, as well as waiting for work to come in.


So any fee budgeting has to include down time, and for some photographers new photography time (unpaid until the shot is sold).  For many photographers payment after the work is completed can take months (I’ve had to wait six months in the past for payment of an invoice), but you still have bills to pay and be able to continue working.


The average salary in Britain is around £21,000, so I believe.  For anybody in business you have to have a higher turn-over than that to earn that salary, obviously.  Tax, National Insurance, various expenditures, (pension, Public Liability, Health cover, etc) has to be stripped out of that before you can pay yourself any money.  Plus there has to be enough for a rainy day; the car might break down on the way to a job or equipment failure, you need enough to cover for any eventuality. 


I personally believe that it is best to assume that in the photography business three times your taxable salary is needed in turn-over – at least.  I know a great many sole-traders are on less or have a much less turn-over and appear to be doing OK.  But I have also known photographers who appear to be doing well, but have no equipment insurance, pension, Public Liability Insurance, etc., and I don’t advise that as a way of working.  You are then always working into the lowest common denominator – that being cost, and that is not the best way to work.  Keeping costs down is sensible, but there are sensible costs that should be paid no matter what.  If you can’t afford those costs you are either charging too little, or there is no market for your work.  


I have known photographers to have had all their camera kit stolen from their car, but thought they were saving money by not having insurance cover.  They weren’t!!   I have known photographers to mistake turn-over for profit and make losses – in one case where they couldn’t pay staff at the end of the month and had to get an expensive loan to continue operating.  Many photographers quote turn-over when talking about the success of the company.  It doesn’t always equate that a big turn-over equals big profit.  I knew a photographer with a business with a very good turn-over, running into hundreds of thousands of pounds and was able, by offsetting as much as he could against tax, bring his taxable income down to £15,000.  This was fine, until he wanted a loan from the bank and they asked to see his past three year’s tax returns – he had a job getting the loan he wanted.


Photography is a relatively expensive business to be in, requiring regular equipment investment, insurance, and marketing.  A cheaper business is writing.  All you need is a low cost Netbook computer and away you go.  Sell your novel for a million pounds and nearly all the money is clear profit.


Therefore, if you still want to start a photography business, you need to consider a great many things.  The type of photography you might wish to do – this could be a number of different ones, but must be feasible in your area.  How much do you need to earn as a living and is it possible in your area of photography and region where you live, to earn that amount.  Remember, Turn-over must be greater than taxable income by a large margin.  You need to have enough money coming in from one job to keep you going until you get paid from the next job, and that amount has to cover for work already done.  Cash flow (or rather the lack of cash flow) kills most small companies.  We think we will get work quicker than we do and that we will be paid more quickly than we are.  You need to have large amount of money to fall back on – or very rich parents!!  One photographer I worked for advised marrying a rich woman (he had) and her family money helped cover the poor periods in his business.


This is the end of the first section of my discussion on setting up a business.  If you wish to read on, click to Section 2.- You and Your Personality