How to make money as a part time portrait photographer – Startup Series, Part 1

by Outlaw Photographer James Michael Taylor on July 9, 2009

in This is Business

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The Part Time Photographer Startup Series:

Part 1: How to make money as a part time portrait photographer

Part 2: What you need to start a part time photography business

Part 3: The legalities of starting a part time photography business

Part 4: What does a successful part time photographer look like?

The introductions are out of the way, so let’s get to some meat and taters of becoming a part time photographer.

The business model I’m going to use throughout PartTimePhoto.com is portraiture: children’s, high school seniors, engagement, bridals, couples, family, maternity, and baby photography. I believe it’s the easiest to imitate, both as a business and artistic endeavor, until you are able to further develop your talents and become an innovator.

Most photographers start out wanting to be artists. They get a digital camera, show their photos to friends and family, and get told “oh wow, you take amazing photos! You should be a professional photographer!”

Artistry and innovation will come with experience and self development. Right now, I want to concentrate on giving you the tools of knowledge you need to practice making saleable portraits and getting paid for them. Art, bless its heart, will come in due time.

Business success will enable your artistic success. Once you get your first few paid shoots under your belt, you’ll have some money to play with – what you do with that money is your business.

That said, investing money and time back into the development of your business will only make your business easier to make money with.

  • Buying better camera equipment will improve the technical quality of your images and open doors to more advanced portraiture techniques like bounce flash and small depth of field.
  • Buying better computer equipment will make the post-processing part of your job more efficient, saving time and frustration.
  • Investing in photography education, through books, online classes, webinars, in-person workshops, professional memberships, magazines, and other training will greatly improve your art, which gives you a much more valuable product. The better your art, the easier it is to get clients, and to get clients to pay what you want.
  • An investment in good marketing is the easiest way to multiply your volume of business, such as through Google AdSense, a more professional web site, graphic design for a new logo and visual identity, or local advertising via print, radio, television, direct mail, mall displays, etc.

I will get into all these aspects of growing your photography business with time. For now, I want to brief you in summary as to how you’re going to make money as a part time portrait photographer.

How to make money as a part time portrait photographer

First, we’re going to keep costs low – in fact, if you’re reading this, odds are you already have everything you’ll need – a camera, computer, Internet access. We’re going to pull a Dave Ramsey and only buy what we can afford – we’re only going to spend money when we make money to spend. We’re going to use the equipment you have, open source software, and free online tools to shoot, process, sell, and market.

Second, we’re going to make it nigh impossible for people to turn you down: no session fees, no minimum orders, buy what you love. That is basically the tagline of my own photography business, and it works just as well during the startup phase as it does 10 years down the road.

Third, we’re going to sell exactly five products: hi-res digital files, 4×6’s, 5×7’s, 8×10’s, and sheets of wallets (8) – nothing over $20. We will expand our product line as money is made and you’re able and desirous to invest in better equipment.

We’re also going to practice three principles of good art and good business:

  • Occam’s Razor – To paraphrase, to do with more what can be done with less is vanity. Simplicity in learning and simplicity in practice is how I will help you grow from enthusiast to paid part time professional photographer.
  • Kaizen – The Japanese philosophy that small improvements over time create huge advantages. We’re going to start where you are, wherever that may be, and improve from there. There is no disadvantage or ignorance in your life that we cannot overcome on our path to you making money with your photography.
  • Patton’s Law – A good plan violently executed today is far and away better than a perfect plan tomorrow. You’re never going to take the first step on this journey if you don’t accept that you’re not perfect. You won’t say the perfect things to a client, you won’t have the perfect marketing materials, you won’t take the perfect set of pictures. Start today with what you have and what you know and we will find ways to improve in some small way every single day.

One of the best parts of the model you will follow with this plan is that it’s guilt-free and no-risk, for you and your clients. They don’t pay a dime until they see their photos, they only buy and spend what they want, and you make money when your clients walk away with photos they are happy with. There is immense wiggle room to screw up and learn from your mistakes, so there’s no pressure.

Use what you have, in equipment and knowledge, and make small improvements every day. With time, you will have a shooting calendar filled with ecstatic clients and your only limit on income will be in choosing how much and when you wish to work.

Been there, done that – now let’s you and I do it together.

Tomorrow in our Startup Series, Part 2, I’ll go over what equipment you’ll need to get started with your photography business.

Next Steps

  • Visit the low-fi portraiture gallery on Flickr.
  • Brainstorm session: From the above gallery, write down all the ways you see photographers making good portraits with inexpensive, low-tech gear. Add to your Brainstorms folder.
  • Read PartTimePhoto.com daily for all the delicious details of how to make good money through part time photography. To make it easy, scroll to the top of any page on this site and click on the “Subscribe” link.
  • What have friends and family told you about your photographs? Have they said you should take up professional photography? Leave a comment below, e-mail me, or call or text me at 830-688-1564.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Marketa March 8, 2010 at 11:03 am

Thanks for the advice to use only what you can afford now. I know that I tend to feel like I need X before I can even take the next step. But reading through everything here I’m encouraged to just go for it and do what I can, as I can.

I put together a blog/website using a free template from ourbloggertemplates.com loaded onto a free Blogger platform. I paid just $10 for my domain name and read up on enough html to customize and make it appear like it’s a hosted site. (I also added code from Google analytics so I can track traffic to the site.) It’s not fancy or flash-based but those sites tend to drive me crazy when they load slowly, anyway. Then I added sample photos to a Picasa web gallery and embedded the slideshow onto one of the pages. Again, not the most perfect way to showcase photos but will definitely work for a business-building phase when I’m not even sure how much I can or want to do.

Also, I know you suggested GIMP and Picasa for editing – there’s also Picnik online that has some interesting editing effects for free (or $25/year for more advanced features including dodge/burn, curves & levels, etc.) Browser based, it does run slowly at times but may still be something for folks to check out. For anyone who has Photoshop or Elements, you can download free Actions from Rita’s CoffeeShop http://coffeeteaphotography.blogspot.com/

Hope this is helpful. Keep the advice coming!

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Stephanie November 5, 2012 at 8:50 am

I get asked alot to photograph my daughter’s teenage friends. My family of course LOVES my work and so do my friends, but they are quite biased.

For me this is about the LOVE of the camera and doing something I enjoy.

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Outlaw Photographer James Taylor December 30, 2012 at 11:31 pm

Let the encouragement you get from friends and family motivate you and keep you energized as you continue to study and practice your art and grow your business – if folks aren’t absolutely shying away from your art, you’re already doing better work than many would-be professionals out there.

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Christi Mays January 4, 2013 at 12:30 pm

Hi. About a year ago a friend of mine asked me to take some photo’s of her, like pin-up style, for her bf for their anniversary. I did. I spent 3 days taking photo’s of her in various places and about 5 hours editing the photo’s. I put the photo’s she wanted on a file disc as well as used my computer to make a slide show presentation for her to give to her bf. I think she paid me $20 for my time. It was the first time I attempted taking photo’s of anyone other than my children. I have a wonderful Nikon camera (that I honestly don’t know how to use out of the basic point and shoot mode).

This Christmas the same friend and bf got engaged. She has asked me to take the wedding photo’s. I am grasping for pricing and even after reading several of the post in this series I am at a loss. Besides the wedding I would love to take photo’s as a part time thing.

My main question is this:

You said to charge just $10 for hi-res digital files. Now does that mean for every single photo I take, just the ones I edit and keep, or is that per file/photo?

My mother, also a savvy business woman, told me that I should tell my friend I charge $20 an hour(since someone will be helping me, and I want to pay them, of course) and offer her the disc with all photo’s, edited, for $50. I am not equipped at the moment to print, but I will be. Does that pricing sound steep? I am in no way professional or even semi-professional.

Thanks in advance for your time. Love your blog!

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Outlaw Photographer James Taylor January 6, 2013 at 4:39 pm

Thank you for your comment Christi! You bring up a lot of great points and questions – forgive me if I riff on them as the thoughts come to me:

I’d certainly encourage you to learn more about your camera and how it works, but never feel inadequate by shooting in point and shoot mode. I’ve mentored photographers whose art amazed me, far better than what I produce, only for them to confide in me that they just shoot in Auto mode. My jaw drops every time. Every artist is different – so long as you’re starting with the moment, the emotion, the personality, the people, and getting that down on “film,” everything else is just improving on the technicals.

It’s way harder for me to get consistently good results in Auto or Program modes than in manual – but that’s me. Never let anyone tell you you “have to” do things a certain way to achieve good, salable, valuable results.

When it comes to Weddings, I advise with gravity that those things are beasts of an entirely different nature in the photography world. There are no do-overs, and you can be held legally liable if anything goes wrong and your photos don’t turn out – at all, or even to the liking of the wedding party. A rock-solid contract can limit your liability, but there’s a reason with things like the PPA Indemnification Trust exist – there wouldn’t be a crisis fund if the crises never happened.

The risk is huge, the time investment is usually great, and even though I’ve shot weddings my entire professional career – 14 years now – I avoid them but for exceptional circumstances. With my per-client averages, I’ll make the same amount on three senior shoots as I will from one wedding, in a fraction of the time and with a fraction of the risk and stress. The value just isn’t there for me as a photographer.

That said, I am not a “wedding photographer” – the good wedding photographers, the best, are built for that kind of client and situation. They have the passion for it, the interest, the desire, they have fun with it, and their stress only drives them to create amazing photos and experiences for their clients. I begrudge them not a penny of their pay, because they earn it, and I truly believe it takes a special person to do it well and enjoy the ride.

It’s one thing to be a friend of the family who brings his or her camera and snaps photos at the wedding – but I highly, highly recommend not placing yourself in the position of the sole or lead photographer. The responsibility is just too great unless you are practiced and prepared for what a wedding photography job entails.

When I do shoot weddings, I charge a flat rate for a certain amount of time and provide all good images processed on DVD within two weeks of the wedding. So I don’t charge per photo for weddings.

For portraiture clients (the vast bulk of my business), I charge by the hi-res, fully processed file on CD. So for example, I may shoot 300 photos, cull down to the best 50-100 to lightly process and show the client, then sell 10 – or 20, or a CD with all those 50-100 best photos at a discounted price. I only do full processing and touch-ups on purchased images.

As far as what to charge for shooting your friend’s wedding, I have three suggestions:

1. Don’t do it.

2. If you’re going to do it, do it for free – make it clear you are not a professional, and you’re happy to take photos of their wedding, but that you can’t accept the full responsibility of being the sole or lead photographer. If they choose not to hire an experienced professional to take that role, then that is their choice.

3. If I can’t ward you off the job, I’ll certainly encourage you to get paid what you think is far. My pricing philosophy is to get paid at least a minimum amount of in-pocket cash (after taxes, expenses) per hour of time you invest in the job (from setup, to shoot, to processing, to sales and follow-up) that makes you grin. That’s different for every single photographer – could be $7.25 an hour, could be $725 an hour. Needless to say, price according to the value you provide (based on the art you produce and the experience you create for your clients) – as you indicate you’re on the start-up side of the market, price yourself accordingly.

But do be sure you’re getting paid properly for your time – it sounds like from your first shoot (three days, five hours of processing, for $20) that you didn’t get anywhere near even minimum wage. I tend to lean toward the policy that if you’re going to charge too little “for a friend”, then don’t charge anything at all – make it a gift, and give yourself the freedom to really focus on your art and practice your photography to get the most out of the shoot. If you’re going to charge, charge enough to show value and respect for your time – even if that’s minimum wage, if you’re earning it by providing that value, don’t be fearful or ashamed to ask for fair compensation. Unless you’re price yourself far beyond the value you provide, anyone who tells you you cost too much is a client you don’t want to work with anyway – often the ones who haggle on price are the hardest clients to please, ironically.

I hope this helps! Please do keep me posted on your decision, and on your successes and adventures in 2013!

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Shelbie Collins June 24, 2014 at 11:14 am

In response to having the 5 products, where do you have your images printed? Do you do them yourself, or can you offer a reasonably priced website to use for prints?

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Outlaw Photographer James Michael Taylor June 24, 2014 at 2:12 pm

Thank you for your comment Shelbie!

I personally use Miller’s Imaging up in Kansas for all of my printing. All the ‘big names’ give great service: White House Custom Color, Miller’s, AdoramaPix (really loving their online work for photographers right now, blog, social, contests, etc.), Simply Canvas, and so on.

Having a good relationship with your local lab is invaluable as well. Hilmy Productions out of San Antonio jumped onto my radar earlier this year, and I’ve watched them do so many things to serve and benefit the local professional photography community.

Working well with your local lab can get you great discounts, referrals, emergency printing, emergency equipment rentals and loaners, access to second shooters and assistants, and lots of great networking opportunities. Never discount the value of friends in the right places.

I hope this helps! Thank you again!

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Cindy Scott July 11, 2015 at 11:58 pm

Hi James,

Thank you SO MUCH for sharing your experience with newbies like us! Just found your site and have spent the last three hours devouring every article. I’m looking to transition from 30 years in the corporate world to photography entrepreneurship over the next 18 months and this information is invaluable. I’m so excited to start this journey and can’t wait to see what the future holds!

Just wanted you to know that what you do makes a difference.

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Outlaw Photographer James Michael Taylor July 13, 2015 at 8:31 am

Thank you for your kind words Cindy!

After 30 years in corporate, you’re going to bring a wonderful amount of experience, perspectives, ideas, and gratitude to your photography startup.

What’s your 18-month plan look like for your shift to photography? Are you looking to go full time? Are you trying to replace your day job income, or do you have a lower goal to start with? Are you redesigning your lifestyle to afford you the best chances of success as you shift to full time photography?

I’d love to hear your story! How did you get started on your photography journey?

Thank you again for your readership Cindy! Please do keep me posted on your successes and adventures!

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