As experienced, full-time photographers – we’ve gone through the steps ourselves and have learned how to start a photography business legally. With our photography businesses legally registered with the state as Limited Liability Corporations (LLCs) and filing as S-Corps, we know the ins-and-outs and are happy to share our knowledge with you as you pursue starting your own photo business.
While you review this free resource we’ve put together, do just keep in mind that there may be some variation depending on where you live. For example, in the USA, some states do not have sales tax or may not require you to get an annual business license renewal. We do dive into more detailed photography business registration that takes into consideration different state rules in our expansive business course.
Before we dive into this step-by-step guide, we also wanted to touch on some of the most important questions you may be thinking about as you look to legally start your business.
Can you start a photography business legally on your own?
Yes. While it can seem intimidating at first, registering your business is pretty easy to do. In the United States, legal registration takes place through your states registering process – normally a website where you can fill in the necessary information, submit, and receive notification shortly after.
There are many companies out there, such as LegalZoom or even accountant and law firms, that will do this for you. We do not really recommend these as you’ll end up spending 2-3x (or more) for a process that is pretty easy in most cases.
How much does it cost to start a photography business legally?
Every state may have different fees, but to file for an LLC you will expect to spend around $125. Some states may have other fees, such as California which charges for a business license renewal every year on a jurisdictional level.
There are other costs that are not “necessary” for starting a business legally, but that you will incur when operating a photography business. These are start up costs on things like getting professional camera equipment, paying for a website, and similar. We talk about these expected start up expenses in our post How Much Money Can You Make as a Wedding Photographer?
12 Steps for Starting a Legal Photography Business
1). Choose a name for your photography business
Before you can even start the paperwork to legally register your photography business, you’ll need to settle on a name.
For some photographers, this is easy! You can just use your own name and be on to the next steps. For others, it may require more thought and effort – this is especially true if you want to come up with a brand name.
Totally stuck on where to start? Check out our Guide to Choosing a Photography Business Name.
2). Put together a business plan
Having a business plan is not a legal requirement when starting a business, but it is absolutely essential in our opinion. On a very basic level – you need to create a strategy to make your desired level of income. Without a good strategy, you will be registering a business legally that is just being set up to fail.
It’s also important to know that you will need a reasonable amount of earnings after a few years, or the government will view your business as a hobby and come after you for unpaid taxes.
For photographers, this might look like buying camera equipment and never really bringing in a profit, so you end up not paying anything to the government. Ultimately, your business needs to be designed to bring in money so the government recognizes your pursuing earnings, not just a tax break.
A good business plan can make or break a photography business – get in touch with us to learn how we can help you gets yours on the right track today!
3). Check trademarks and other business filings
Once you’ve settled on a name, you will want to check if that name is taken by another company.
The first stop is the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), which has a simple database you can search. You can find that here.
Assuming your name is not trademarked, you will want to search for your business name through your state portal. This is typically an online entity name check tool that is a comprehensive database for your entire state’s registered companies.
In the United States at least, companies within a state cannot have the same name. There are some exceptions to this rule, like if you are in a dramatically different industry (think: medical care vs. photographer).
You will also want to do an open search of the internet to make sure there aren’t other companies with the same name that could easily be misinterpreted as you. For example, if you want to call yourself “Sarah Photography” – even if it’s available to you in your state, it still might not be a good idea since this is a name that can be confused with many other photographers.
4). Register your website domain name
Once you settle on a name, we recommend picking up the website domain name quickly. This will ensure that no one else can get that domain name.
To register a website domain name:
- Check domain name availability with a tool like Name.com
- Purchase the domain name through a domain registrar like Bluehost
Once you’ve created a website and chose a host (like Squarespace, Showit, WordPress, etc.) – you can point your domain name to your website.
Note: You do NOT need a website ready to go to purchase a domain.
5). Register your business with the state
For most photographers, registering your business just requires you to register your business name with your state government. By registering, you create an entity that is separate from you as an individual.
Some photographers choose not to register their business, and by default end up operating as sole proprietors. While this is perfectly legal, we do not recommend this as it is the business class that is the most vulnerable to things like lawsuits since there isn’t a clearly defined separation of assets.
In general, photographers should look to register as a Limited Liability Company (LLC) for the legal protections it provides.
The details of registering your business will be similar, but different, depending on what state you live in. As a general expectation, you will likely be charged a nominal fee (usually around $100 or so), fill out a form with some basic information (your contact information, business name, business owners/partners, etc.), and await confirmation it’s been accepted.
6). Get a business license
One area that is easy to get confused when looking to start a photography business legally is what’s required for your business license.
For some photographers, the only business license you will need is your state registration. This is the case for us in Pennsylvania.
For photographers in other states, there may be other requirements. For examples, that state registration needs to be updated annually in California to stay licensed. Photographers who rent studios or use their homes for business may also have other license requirements.
7). Get an IRS issued EIN#
Next, you will need to get an Employer Identification Number (EIN). In the USA, this is the equivalent of a social security number – but for your business. It’s a unique number that will be collected so you can pay taxes as a business, open up bank accounts, etc.
Fortunately, getting an EIN# is very easy and free.
To get an EIN#, go to IRS.gov and follow the application steps.
8). Open a business bank account and line of credit
After your business is legally registered with the state and federal government agencies, your goal will be to create more separation between your business and your personal finances.
Having this separation is a requirement to running a successful business, and will help you in unfortunate scenarios like being audited by the IRS or facing a lawsuit by a client.
To open a business bank account and line of credit, you will typically need:
- Business registration documents from the state
- Operating agreement (if you’re a partnership or have multiple members of your business)
- Credit history
Every bank may have slightly different requirements, so it’s always best to check with the specific financial institutions you’re looking at for what they need.
9). Establish bookkeeping practices
To go along with your new business bank account and credit card, you will need to start accounting for your sales and expenses through your business. Bookkeeping is a requirement for filing taxes and creating an audit trail of your business’ finances. It also adds another layer of separation between your personal life and business life.
New photography businesses can get away with keeping a log of sales and expenses in a spreadsheet but will typically outgrow this quickly. We recommend using a platform like Quickbooks to make bookkeeping easy.
10). Register for business insurance
Business insurance is not a legal requirement for most businesses, in most locations, however it is a good thing to get.
For photographers, the benefits of business insurance:
- Cover the cost of your equipment if it is broken, stolen or lost
- Protect you from lawsuits by former clients
- Provide wedding venues with proof of insurance when required
- Cover loss of business due to injury, acts of god, etc.
To learn more about the different types of business insurances and see our recommended insurance companies for photographers, check out our post INSURANCE FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS.
11). Get contracts in place with your clients
While many photographers choose to not get contracts in place with their clients (and often have issues down the line), we believe having solid contracts are the basis for running a photography business legally.
Contracts will protect you and your clients in the event things don’t work out as originally planned. Since photography is often a subjective art, contracts can also help set expectations with your clients on what they can expect when working with you.
You can consult with a lawyer to have contracts custom created for your business, or purchase contract templates online through a resource such as The Legal Paige. We recommend The Legal Paige since their templates are lawyer reviewed and approved, with contract expertise specific to the photography industry.
Want to learn more about contracts? Read 20 Things You Should Have in Your Wedding Photography Contracts.
12). Hire professional help when needed
But you said we shouldn’t pay someone to register our photo business?
While we don’t recommend paying someone to help you register your business because this is something you can do very easily yourself, we do suggest seeking professional help when you need it to get a better understanding of your financial and legal situation as a business owner.
Accountants and lawyers can be great tools for more expertise to help you save money in the long run.
As a SEO and blogging agency for photographers, we can also help you use organic, search engine focused marketing to attract a bigger audience who want to pay you for your photography services. Contact us today to get started!
Chris is a SEO professional with a passion for helping photography businesses succeed online. With years of experience in the industry, he has a proven track record of increasing website traffic, improving search rankings, and driving revenue growth for his clients.