Take a guess: how much do you think it costs to start a photography business?
The answer may surprise you, especially if you take into account the extra costs and fees of setting up a legal business. But the single most important thing you can do as an aspiring professional photographer is being honest about costs. A photography business isn’t unlike a startup business. Financial planning and budgeting before you make any money from photography is the safest bet to make sure you can keep pursuing your passion for as long as possible. In addition, you will need to know your costs of operating a business so you can efficiently calculate the prices and rates you should be charging your clients. More on that later.
The key part about camera gear is to focus on what you need or what you want. You probably want that shiny new Canon 5D Mark IV as much as I do. But do you really need it for your business? Or can you make do with the more affordable Canon 5D Mark III? A choice like this can either save or cost you $1,000, which is a big chunk of change when you’re running your own business.
So think carefully about the camera gear you need. Look at DSLRs and compare them to popular mirrorless cameras. Consider buying used camera gear. Or start out with equipment that is a model or two behind the flagship, but is priced more affordably. Another reason to pace yourself is if you’re still learning photography basics. Don’t worry about buying lighting gear if you haven’t mastered natural lighting yet. Break up your learning into chunks, and the costs will spread themselves out naturally over time.
Why I Shoot Canon
I switched from shooting Nikon to Canon in 2009 for one main reason: I wanted to take advantage of Canon Professional Services (CPS). This program provides members with 24/7 support, expedited and discounted maintenance and repairs on equipment, and even loans you equipment to evaluate before you buy. There’s an annual fee, and you have to own a certain amount of pro-level Canon gear to qualify. However, their support services (namely repairs) have been totally worth it for me. Nikon has its equivalent Nikon Pro Services (NPS) program, but it has historically been a bit harder to qualify for membership, mostly because you need to really prove that you are a full-time professional photographer.
Other camera makers such as Sony are slowly beginning to add their own pro services programs. This is why I recently invested in a Sony a6300 as a mirrorless camera option. But based on other pro reviews, they don’t yet compete at the levels of CPS and NPS.
Bare Minimum Camera Gear
At the very least, every professional photographer needs to own one primary camera body and one backup body in case the first one malfunctions. There is no greater harm to your business than not being able to execute a photo shoot because your equipment doesn’t work. Always have a backup. For lenses, have one or two that you can use comfortably and reliably to capture the shots needed. Lighting-wise, it depends on your photography specialty. Photographers focusing on events, food, and real estate typically need at least one Speedlight flash.
High-end cameras: $2,300 – 1,200
|Canon 5D Mark IV||Canon 5D Mark III||Canon 6D|
|Nikon Version: Nikon D800||Nikon Version: Nikon D750||Nikon Version: Nikon D610|
Mid-range cameras: $1,500 – 500
|Canon 80D||Canon 70D|
|Nikon Version: Nikon D7200||Nikon Version: Nikon D7100|
Entry-level cameras: $700 – 400
|Canon T6i||Canon T5i|
|Nikon Version: Nikon D5500||Nikon Version: Nikon D5200|
Computer hardware and software
As a professional photographer, you need not only camera gear but photo editing tools as well. Apple MacBooks are still the most popular computer option out there, although they’re pricey at around $2,300.00. Windows PCs are gaining traction and are slightly more affordable. Also consider the cost of photo editing software, such as Adobe Creative Cloud which gives you access to both PhotoShop and Lightroom for around $10 per month. Physical backup hard drives and cloud backup software are also important costs for storing your valuable RAW and JPG photos.
|Photo editing tools|
|MacBook Pro Computer||Western Digital 4TB Hard Drive||Adobe Creative Cloud|
Having a website is no longer an option for professional photographers today. My photography website drives 50% of my new business leads. Most of the time, these new clients tell me the main reason they reached out to me was because they were impressed with my website. With this in mind, it’s not wise to use a free website template or service. When it comes to websites, you get what you pay for, so invest in a quality website service or designer. If you need help, check out my beginners’ guide to setting up a photography website to get you up and running.
Website Hosting and Domain: $80 annually
Photography Website Template or Theme: $70 one-time fee
Business Startup Costs
You can’t start a photography business without a license and tax payments. Figuring out the financial and legal obligations of your new business will vary tremendously based on where you are located, not to mention whether you choose to incorporate or not. Here in Washington State, a business license is required, as well as the cost of incorporating as an LLC (recommended for most photographers).
On the financial side, be sure to open a business bank account and keep track of your business expenses. You can then hire a bookkeeper or tax preparer to handle this for you. Or you can pay for online accounting software to help you do it yourself. Again, you get what you pay for, so invest wisely.
Business license and incorporating: $100
Annual Tax Preparing Services: $400
FreshBooks Accounting Subscription: $25 per month
In terms of legal fees, the main consideration is whether you want to hire an attorney to help you write or review your photography contracts. These documents are very important since they protect you and your assets when dealing with clients, so having proper contracts is essential. However, attorneys can be very expensive. I have a photography contract template that you can download for free, although this document hasn’t been reviewed by a legal professional.
To save your resources, consider purchasing contract templates directly from Rachel Brenke, aka The Law Tog. She is a lawyer and photographer who created templates to fit a variety of scenarios.
Depending on the type of photography you do, you may also need to factor in the costs of establishing and running a physical photo studio. This can quickly get messy and pricey since you will need to think of the photo studio like another home. There’s the cost of furnishing and cleaning the space, not to mention monthly utilities and lease fees. As a freelance event and food photographer, my photo shoots always take place in a client’s space, so photo studio costs are not part of my expenses. But they may be a part of yours, especially if you’re a portrait or product photographer.
So what’s the total cost?
As you can probably tell, the total cost of starting a photography business varies greatly. But for the sake of illustration and transparency, I’ve included my breakdown of business start-up costs in the spreadsheet download below. You can also use the spreadsheet as a template to calculate your own start-up costs.
My grand total of average photography business start-up fixed costs came out to $20,172.00. It’s important to note that a lot of these fixed costs were spread out over time; for example, I did not buy all of my camera equipment all at once. I also calculated my on-going average monthly costs, which came out to $1,352.00, or $16,224.00 annually.
What do you think about photography business start-up costs? Do your own costs come close to my estimates, or are yours completely different? Let me know in the comments below. And please share this with any photographers who might find it helpful or interesting.