I get a lot of questions from photographers who are considering the move from hobbyist to professional.  Although the thought of making money doing something you love is incredible, there are a lot of things to consider before charging for your services.  In my opinion, you really should have your ducks in a row before hanging out your shingle.  So many photography ventures fail every year because people underestimate the importance of the business side of things.

When you’re just starting out, there are some things that you really need to invest in.  Things that help give your business a professional appearance, which is vital to the long-term success of your business.  Here is my list of non-negotiables – things that need to be taken care of and invested in before you jump into business.  These things are long-term investments and will help your chances of building a successful, long-term photography business.

1.  Professional-grade gear – If you are charging money for your professional photography services, you need to have professional-grade gear.  While I understand that the gear doesn’t make the photographer, the fact of the matter is that professional-grade gear will make a difference in the quality of your work.  So before you start charging for your services, upgrade to a non-consumer body and invest in some great lenses.  This is a long-term investment in your business and something that will help you produce consistently beautiful work for your clients.

2.  A professional-looking website – When you’re first starting out, there is no need to hire a designer to create a custom website immediately.  Chances are, you are still defining your business + your brand.  However, you do need to create a professional website for your business.  This means investing in a customizable template website, at the very least.  No ad-littered free websites, please.  That just screams unprofessional.  Invest in your professional online presentation and it will do wonders for your business + the types of clients you attract.

3.  Legal forms – This is really important!  You need to have, at minimum, a contract + model release.  I highly recommend having a lawyer look over them, too.  Each state is different and you want to make sure your bases are covered.  You can find generic legal forms online, but take the time to personalize them and add your branding to them to create a cohesive experience for your clients.

4.  Sample products – If you are offering custom products to your clients, you will want to have sample products available for them to see + touch in person.  Before ordering sample products, it’s wise to sit down and decide what you want to offer your clients.  The less variety, the better.  You want to make ordering easy for your clients.  Therefore, choose only one or two types of paper for your prints.  Choose one album type and limit the options.  Trust me – this makes things so much easier for you + your clients.  Once you’ve decided on what to offer, order sample products and show your clients what you want them to buy.  I suggest investing in a sample of each product you offer with the exception of prints.  You really don’t need to have sample prints unless you are printing on funky paper – and in that case, get a sample!

5.  Education + training – Investing in your education + training is ongoing and vital to running a successful business.  There is plenty of free education available, but there are also some great workshops out there.  Do your research and commit to at least one conference or workshop each year.  It will help keep you inspired and teach you new things!

6.  Marketing Collateral – At a minimum, you should have nice business cards on hand to give to potential clients + vendors.  I’ve personally found that my best marketing strategy comes through word of mouth, so I don’t do much traditional marketing.  I blog often + network with local pet-friendly businesses, so having good relationships + nice business cards and post cards are what have worked for me.

7.  Professional editing software – As a professional photographer, you need to invest in the best editing software available.  Most photographers use Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop.  Some use Aperture.  Either way, investing in a good editing program is a must and will make your life so much easier.

8.  A fast computer + plenty of external storage – Again, you need to have a fast computer with lots of memory, RAM and a fast processor so you can edit images quickly + efficiently for your clients.  You’ll also need to invest in a ton of external storage + backup for your clients’ images.  Hard drives fail all the time, so images should ALWAYS be stored in two different places.  Trust me, having a hard drive fail with no backup is horrible – and I can imagine it is an even worse conversation to have with your clients if you lose their images.  How unprofessional would that make you look?  Like it or not, photographers spend a lot of time on the computer and so having the latest technology + a good storage process is vital.

9.  A dot-com domain name – This might be personal preference, but I think “.net” domain names look less professional than “.com” domains.  You might have to get creative with a “.com” domain depending on what’s available, but in the end, I think investing in a “.com” URL is the best way to go.

10. A domain-specific email address – Nothing bugs me more than photographers who use a Gmail or Yahoo email address.  It just screams unprofessional to me.  Maybe I’m a snob, but I would bet potential clients feel the same way.  Most hosting companies will give you the option to set up an email account through your domain.  So you can create an email address like info@barkphoto.com instead of using something like barkphoto@gmail.com.  See the difference?  One looks more professional than the other and let’s be honest – the success of our business relies heavily on the professional appearance we put out there.

So there you have it.  A list of the top 10 things I think all photographers should invest in before launching their photography business.  I’m sure there are more things out there that I’m missing, so I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Also, please note that a lot of this is based on my personal opinion and/or experience and is not meant to offend anyone out there.  I’m really just here to share and try to help those who want or need it.  Thanks for reading!!