Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Part 1: Starting Out

Today is day 1 of my series documenting what I learned and what I wish I'd known starting my own small business in photography. I hope this is helpful to some and interesting to others. I am happy to answer any additional specific questions you may have if you don't see it covered or would like another post about it. Just let me know in the comments!

shameless selfie

Part 1: Starting out
Before you quit the job you have to become a photographer (or any small business owner), I've heard it's good to have 6 months worth of wages (the minimum recommended is 3 month's wages but of course, 6 is better). I have to say 'I've heard' because when I left grad school, I had no savings. I definitely wouldn't recommend that. 

Licenses and Registration: You'll want to get your business registered where it needs to be registered, whatever licenses your state may require and figure out how much to put aside for taxes (usually between 25-30% of everything you make). Do this early. Avoid late fees or worse.

Health insurance: There's not much I can say about this except get some. And take care of yourself. Know where the nearest hospital that takes your insurance is and make sure to be aware of that even when you're traveling. And again, take care of yourself. It helps to have dentist in the family :)

Retirement: Start saving for retirement NOW. No one else is doing it for you.

To be a professional outdoor (i.e. not getting into studio portraiture) photographer, you'll at least need...
1) A professional camera body (expect to pay between $1500-$3000 for a new camera body)

I'm a Nikon girl but more by inheritance than anything else as I always got my dad's old cameras growing up and they were always Nikon. If you're going pro, Nikon or Canon are the most popular and probably your best bet. There's lots of competition between them but I doubt that if anyone showed me a stunning shot, I'd be able to tell whether it was taken with a Nikon or Canon. Buying a used camera body is not a bad idea but always read the description (why are they getting rid of it? How long have they had it? Did they use it professionally (if so, it's probably been used more but taken care of better)), look at the pictures carefully (are there any scratches, does it look worn?) and ask the seller what the actuation count is (which is the number of pictures that camera body has taken because believe it or not, every camera does have a lifespan. You can look up the expected lifetime of each type of camera online). 

2) Professional lenses (expect to pay between $1200-$2400 for new lenses) 
For every single job I do, I use my Nikon 85mm, 1.4 fixed lens.
my baby

It has an exceptionally narrow-depth of field, which is what makes those images where a person's face is in focus but the background is delightfully blurred. To answer your question in yesterday's comments Jessica, this is definitely what I'd recommend for adding to your lenses. If you're wanting to get pictures of your kids as they play, this is best. If you want to get pictures of your kids up close, you may want something closer than 85mm.
In addition to this staple lens, when going to a newborn session, I also bring a macro lens (pictured above) - for getting their little eyelashes and fingernails! - and a standard 24-70mm (pictured below) -for getting pictures of more than one subject like mom and baby or little brother and his newborn sister). 
24-70mm (i.e. standard)
For weddings, I bring all three of the lenses I just listed… Macro lens for the wedding ring shot, 24-70mm lens for the group/family shots, fixed 1.4 lens for most everything else and I also bring my wide angle lens for the fun dancing shots!
16-35mm wide angle

3) Memory cards (expect to pay about $50-$100 depending on the brand and storage size, per card)
I feel nervous deleting photos off of a card before I've delivered the photos to the client so I generally have about 5 memory cards (between 16 and 32 MB each) that I rotate through. I would be able to get by with 2 or 3 and anything more than 8 would be superfluous for my needs.

4) Camera Batteries + charger (expect to pay around $35 for each battery and $20-$60 for a charger)
I think I have 3 but I only know where two are at any given moment and that's all I take with me for any job. If it's a wedding, there's always somewhere to plug in the battery I'm not using and I've never had a family or baby session go so long that I run out of even one battery.

5) A flash (expect to pay between $400 and $800)
While I much prefer natural lighting, eventually the dancing starts at a wedding and the lights go dim or you're working in a home with very few windows or it's a dark and stormy day. Or sometimes, you need a flash to counteract the shadows that the midday sun will cast on someone's face. You can be a natural light photographer all you want but you should still have (and know how to use) a quality flash. And NOT the one built into your camera. Those are always so awful! It's like the peanut butter & jelly mixed and sold in one jar. 
*Always keep spare AA (or whatever your flash takes) on hand. And I mean literally on hand. I ran out of batteries during an awards ceremony where I was instructed to take a picture of each person receiving their award. Thank goodness I had spare batteries in my pocket, instead of in my camera bag across the room (or not having any at all). It was already painfully awkward to hold up the awards ceremony for 15 seconds while I switched out the batteries, I can't imagine if I had to run across the room to my camera bag (or not had any at all!).

6) A computer (price varies)
I'm Mac all the way on this one. I have worked with PCs at various jobs I've had and consider myself proficient in using them but Macs are just so easy to work with and I don't need extra hassle when I'm editing. Plus, they've been really geared towards the artsy types with many of the best music, photo and video applications designed specifically for Mac. I have a laptop now, which is great for getting to take my work on the go (I edit while Boyfriend is driving and while on the plane, bus or train) and also it allows you to have a moveable office (sometimes it's so nice to work at a coffee shop to see other people and just get out of the house). Someday, I'd love to have a desktop. I dream of the big screen for editing blemishes and having an actual mouse instead of just dragging my finger around. 

7) Editing software (expect to pay around $500 or more if you're not a student)
I use Lightroom and Photoshop. Both are pricey but both will pay for themselves when you've gone through a few photo sessions and you won't make it far with any free editing application. There's just no comparison.  

There isn't a category I've made in this post for this nugget of wisdom but it's applicable to editing so I'll say it now… SHOOT IN RAW. It makes a WORLD of difference having the option to edit a RAW photo instead of a JPEG. Even the most professional professional has taken directed and composed a 'perfect' shot, only to find that their settings were not changed from a previous lighting situation. With a JPEG, that's a live-and-learn moment. With a RAW file, that's a live-and-learn-but-you've-still-got-that-photo! moment. A picture is worth a thousand words, right? So let me show you an example…. When I arrived at a client's house, I had not yet changed my settings from the last photoshoot so one of the first photos I took looked like this…

For the sake of this example, I converted that RAW image unedited into a JPEG and tried to fix it. This was the best I could do.

Now, this is what I could do with the RAW file...

Note: It's not the world's greatest photo in any which way but I didn't want to use one that shows anyone's face.

8) External Harddrives (expect to pay between $125 to $300)
Do back up everything you do on more than one harddrive (I don't always save the RAW files from every shoot, but I do always back up the edited images in two places)
Don't keep both hard drives in the same place (best case is to keep one at home and one at work) 
I get mine at Costco and they're extremely reasonably priced.

9) A hosting website (I pay $120/year)
If your business website can host all of your client's galleries, great. If you're like me, you'll have one website for showcasing your work, etc and another that's for hosting the finished images for the clients. Each client I work with gets their own password-protected gallery of images where they can order prints (or in some cases digital negatives) from directly without me lifting a finger. Once they place their order, it goes straight to MPIX (my favorite online printing company) and it's delivered right to their door. The hosting site I useI use Zenfolio which allows me to set price lists (pick and choose which prints and products are available and how much they're marked up), create coupons/discounts and create slideshows from (there are many more features but those are the most useful for me). 

Whew! That's a lot. It's definitely an investment and I'm not even listing off things like lighting equipment and backdrops for indoor studio portraiture! If you're interested in that, I'd be happy to get into it, just let me know!

Stay tuned! Tomorrow is about establishing your pricing!


  1. So interesting! And thanks for talking about all the lenses. Also, that is some crazy editing you did with the baby feet. I am super impressed.

  2. I just wanted to tell you that I got a new lens this weekend. I thought I wanted an 85mm after what you said, then researching it online. Well, I went into a camera shop and they were out, so they had me playing with a bunch of other lenses, none of which I was particularly impressed with. And the guy had me convinced out of the 85mm because I already have the 50mm (which I love and since the 85mm had such glowing online reviews, I thought I would love it even more). Anyway, long story short, I ended up with a 24-70mm. It's a Canon L series and my first L series (pro) lens. The workers said bumping up to the L series, I will notice much crisper pictures. I am super excited!


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