If you’re into photography, earning money from your art is the dream. But before you cash that first check, you have to answer one major question: “How do I get actual clients for my photography business?”
These days, it’s not enough to create high-quality images. You have to work just as hard at marketing yourself.
I’m a commercial photographer and photography writer, and I’ve picked up various awards, including from the American Institute of Architects. But I got started by photographing subjects that interested me.
Since I first got my camera, I’d made small attempts to monetize my passion. But it didn’t click until I made a dedicated — and systematic — attempt at setting up a business.
Let me tell you how I’d approach a new photography business in six steps, if I were starting from square one.
Step #1: Find your niche
Before you can find photography clients, you need to find your niche — the specialized area of photography you want to excel at.
Understand why you need a niche
It’s tempting to photograph everything and everyone, but specialization will help you succeed. Your niche is important for these three reasons:
- It helps you grow your skills far faster and understand your target clients much better
- It has a huge impact on your marketing strategy
- It affects almost every other aspect of your business — down to your equipment
In the photography industry, we typically specialize even more than other creatives. The tools, marketing, and skills you need to take corporate headshots are quite different from what you’d use as a wedding photographer.
Narrow down your niche with the “people or things” test
Want a cheat code for identifying your niche? Ask yourself: Do I like to photograph people or things?
If you like to photograph people
You’re in luck. Many freelance opportunities revolve around photographing your clients, in both personal and business settings.
Niches to consider:
- Family portraits
- Wedding and couples’ photography
- Event photography
- Team and office portraits
If you like to photograph things
Prefer to work with non-human subjects? Categories like product photography and real estate photography are great options for you. There, the focus is on your process and results, rather than managing clients during the shoot.
Niches to consider:
- Food photography
- Product photography
- Real estate photography
Talk to someone in your prospective niche before you commit
Once you’ve identified whether you’d work with people or things, it’s time to drill down a little deeper. To learn more, I’d suggest reaching out to local photographers practicing in your niche.
Ask questions about the niche
Some established photographers may be willing to answer a few questions about their job, or offer tips on getting started.
As them about some of the working conditions that come with a niche, like:
- Working environment
- Typical hours
- Required gear
Scout out second shooting opportunities
Some professional photographers may even be looking for an assistant or second shooter for their jobs.
Second shooting — where you photograph a job alongside the primary — is a great way to build your portfolio (a key step we’ll discuss more later).
Once you’ve got a specific niche in mind — whether it’s “mid-market weddings in the San Diego area” or “e-commerce product photography for small businesses in Philadelphia” — you can move on to understanding your ideal client.
Step #2: Build a mental model of your ideal client
Clients are the key to any successful photography business. Every client has unique wants and needs, of course. But being able to generalize about your target audience can help you target your marketing efforts.
As a new photographer, your first step to doing that is research.
Use research to put yourself in a client’s shoes
There are two ways to kickstart your client research:
- Talk to some potential clients you already know
- Search the internet as if you’re a prospective client
The first option is incredibly helpful for understanding what people are looking for: there’s nothing like hearing it right from the source. But you may not know anyone who’s in the market for a photographer.
You’ll learn a lot by Googling something like “family portrait photography in salt lake city" — exactly the way potential customers would.
Pay attention to what your competitors are trying
While you’re researching, take a few notes on the competition you come across. I’d suggest looking at:
- What their rates are (if they list them)
- What their web presences look like
Here’s what to pay attention to for each.
Rates: Living wage, or race to the bottom?
Do you think the rates you’re seeing are sustainable for a business?
Some niches can be crowded, depending on the area. That can mean having to price yourself low to get ahead of the competition.
Web presence: Portfolio hosting and social media
Pay attention to the competition’s portfolios and how they’re designed — Adobe Portfolio, Squarespace, WordPress, or some other website builder. (More on portfolio design later.)
It's a good idea to keep an eye out for social media as well. Are you being funneled to a particular platform?
The most important thing to think about when it comes to social: your target market needs to be active on the channels you choose. For example, someone looking to get company headshots done is more likely to hang out on LinkedIn than TikTok.
Instagram is probably the most universal option for finding new photography clients. But even here, finding the proper hashtags is key.
Choosing effective hashtags can be more of an art than a science. But broadly, aim for a mix of location and genre-specific hashtags. Tags like #DallasWedding or #FourSeasonsMaui will help you connect with your specific audience. But #portrait will get lost in a sea of beautiful images.
Distill your research down to your ideal client’s #1 need
What do you think your client is looking for? This might be:
- Quality of results
- An “experience”
Broadly speaking, customers in the more business-focused niches will look for price and consistency. On the other hand, people looking for personal photography — like family portraits, maternity shoots, pets, and weddings — focus more on trends, style, and a positive experience on the shoot.
Bottom line: Your mental model of your customer doesn’t have to be perfect. But it should be fleshed out enough to work as a starting point for your marketing efforts. As you land more clients and have more conversations, build it out to accommodate what you learn.
Step #3: Establish your web presence
After you’ve built an understanding of your client, it’s time to create — or build out — your web presence.
Reuse your existing accounts if you can
If your photography already has a following on a social media platform, or if you have an established website, try to pivot into your new focus. This can give you a great head start — but only if they’ll actually be interested in your new, niche-specific content.
You can cross-promote your photography on your personal social media — especially if you’ve been posting photography content all along. Still, having a dedicated account is best. That's because it:
- Helps you segment your audience, so people only interested in personal updates can opt out
- Unlocks some dedicated, business-friendly tools on accounts like Instagram
Create a website
In my opinion, every photographer needs a website.
Some have gotten by with social media platforms alone. But with a website of your own, you’re fully in control of your content. You aren’t subject to the latest algorithm change on Instagram. And you’re far less limited by things like gallery sizes and aspect ratios.
Write off your website costs as business expenses
These days, it’s easy to build a basic website with tools like Wix or Squarespace. For a few dollars more, I prefer to also own my own domain. Having your own .com URL makes it easy to market on everything, including:
- Business cards
- QR codes
As a bonus, all the costs of setting up your own website are tax-deductible as advertising expenses. That includes:
- 📛 Domain name registration
- 🌐 Web hosting
- 🖥️ Design tools like Squarespace
For an automated approach to finding those tax savings, give Keeper a try. Photography businesses have plenty of opportunities to save with these marketing write-offs. In addition, we get to deduct:
- 📷 Our expensive camera gear
- 🖱️Computer equipment
- 🧰 Other useful tools, like photo editing software
(For more examples of expenses you can deduct, look at this list of write-offs for freelance photographers.)
If you’d rather spend more behind the camera and less time digging around in tax documents, Keeper can streamline all those tasks.
Sign up for social media accounts preemptively
As one last step, I’d suggest grabbing the same (or similar) usernames on every popular social media platform — even if you don’t want to use them right away.
That way, no one else has a chance to steal them away, and you’ll have the option of using them in the future.
Step #4: Find creative ways to build your portfolio
You might be thinking, "How am I supposed to fill a portfolio with photos before I’ve even gotten my first client?" The answer to that: Fake it till you make it.
Take a few images for free
Depending on your niche, you can get your first portfolio images from free mini-sessions you host for friends and family members. (These can also be great opportunities to practice your skills with both clients and your gear.)
Some other options include:
- Working with local models
- Setting up a styled shoot with other businesses in your niche — like florists or wedding venues
If it costs you any money to do this, you can write off these expenses as marketing costs! Just remember, these events need to be for promoting or marketing your business — not personal events.
Start with a couple of free shoots
You won’t need dozens of shoots just to get your portfolio started. One or two good sessions should provide the 10 or so images you need to get started.
You can get away with a smaller number of images if your niche is very specific — or if it relies on images that look similar, like headshots.
Add to your portfolio over time
Your portfolio should grow with your skills, while also representing your best work. That means that, as you shoot more, you should add more images and remove the older, weaker ones.
Repurpose your portfolio shots on social media
You can use these same images for your first posts on your new social media accounts. Just be sure to tailor your approach to each platform. For example, you can:
- Post behind-the-scenes shots and clips as carousel and story posts on Instagram
- Tag your client’s profile in finished shots
Bootstrapping your portfolio is hard work, but don’t get discouraged. With a bit of creativity and hustle, you’ll find great opportunities to create strong images in your existing network!
Step #5: Experiment with paid ads
Don’t be afraid of paid advertising. It can be an effective way to trade a few marketing dollars for a lot of potential clients. (You can write off what you spend on ads.)
When to invest in paid ads
I suggest only looking at paid marketing once you’ve gotten the following under your belt:
- Your niche
- Your portfolio
- Your first few clients under your belt
At that point, it can boost your business to the next level. Here are the paid advertising options to consider:
- Google Search
Why paid ads can be worth it
For photographers, promoting your posts on Facebook and Instagram is one of the best ways to grow a following.
If you’re already finding organic success on these platforms, paid ads can put your work in front of a new audience of your choosing — for example:
- People in a particular demographic
- Residents in the nearby town
If you’re just getting started, paid ads are a powerful tool for getting an audience fast. For best results, use them in combination with rich, organic content.
Whatever you do, put effort into an authentic presence on the platform. At the end of the day, your social media presence should represent your unique style – the brand identity you want for your photography services.
That way, clients understand exactly what they get by booking with you.
Step #6: Be local
Most of the previous steps have focused on websites, social media, and your overall online presence. But don’t forget to be local.
When you’re starting out, some of your best clients will be just one or two steps removed from your existing social circle. Community events and hubs offer great opportunities to network with potential clients. So don’t ignore:
- Coffee shops
- Community organizations
How to market in your local community
Keep a few business cards in your pocket. Don’t be afraid to spread them around.
Near me, some small businesses have cork boards where local vendors display their business cards. These can be great places to offer little incentives, like:
- Free digital copies
- Bonus 4x6s with any order
- Other small and low-cost promotions
How to ask for a business to post your marketing materials
Asking a local business to put out some business cards or a little marketing sheet can feel awkward, but it really isn’t tricky.
Approach the manager or owner with a simple, concrete ask, and you’ll get great results. Here’s a script to use:
“Hi! I’m [Name], and I’m a local portrait photographer. A lot of my friends and clients like to come in for coffee here, and I’d love to put out some business cards. Would you be okay with me setting out a little stack of cards?”
Step #7: Keep your marketing efforts sustainable
When I say “sustainable,” I don’t mean the eco-conscious sense (although that’s always a good thing). I’m talking about setting up practices that you can keep going into the future.
Texting or DMing every friend and follower, every day, isn’t sustainable. Instead, find a more efficient way to make use of your network. For example, you can:
- Concentrate on people who fit your “ideal client” model
- Focus your energy on upcoming events
Building a sustainable business also requires taking steps now that will only pay off in the future. Consider a typical business year when you’re first starting out. You might:
- Invest in your new website
- Land your first bookings
- Buy some new lenses
- Drive around to the venues
As a freelancer, you can write off the expenses you incur doing any of that. But to claim those write-offs at tax time, you’ll have to keep track of what you’re spending throughout the year.
It’s never fun to think about your taxes — especially when it takes time away from the creative work of photography. But it’s worth it to get your ducks in a row in the early days of your business. That way, you’ll have habits that serve you well throughout your photography career.
Luckily, tax software like Keeper lets you limit the mental energy you spend on your finances, leaving you with more time for the fun part.
I hope this guide offers some inspiration for starting your photography business and finding your first clients! It can be a slow start, but the payoff is worth it.
Break your marketing plan into small steps, and make a continued effort to network. You’ll find your first clients and expand your business in no time.
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