In most jurisdictions in the United States, no professional license is required to run or operate a photography business; however, this is not the case in ALL jurisdictions. For example, the City of Milwaukee requires a professional photographer's license to do many types of photography in the city.
To know for certain whether or not a license is necessary to operate your photography business, you need to make two phone calls. The first is to your state licensing board, and the second is to your local city hall. Making these two quick calls will remove all doubt.
But although you probably won't need a license, there are lots of things you'll need to do to set up your photography business legally. For that, I wrote a very in-depth post about setting up a photography business here.
Even if your state and local governments do not require a license to engage in the business of photography, there are still other licensing issues that photographers commonly forget. Be sure not to neglect these licensing pitfalls or your tiny new photography business could cause major legal problems for you.
Get a Sales Tax License
In every jurisdiction I can think of in the United States, photographers are required to pay sales tax if the state has a sales tax in effect (you're off the hook, Montana and Oregon). While photographers usually think of their work as a service, most states see it as a product whether you deliver physical photos or digital files.
In order to collect sales tax, most states require a sales tax license, more commonly referred to as a sales tax certificate. This is usually a simple 5-minute process. Google “get sales tax number” and the name of your state and you will easily find the information for any state.
The purpose of the sales tax number is merely so the state can see who should be paying sales tax.
I mentioned previously that sales tax is almost always required of photographers, but that is a very simplistic statement. If you travel to a wedding, charge the client for looking at the location before the shoot, do two consultations with the client before and after the shoot, order test prints that don't work before the final order of prints, buy prints that the customer never picks up, etc…. the sales tax questions suddenly pile up. You may not be required to collect sales tax on all money a client pays you for a shoot if you subdivide the bill to the client. For this type of difficult question, you need to seek out an accountant in your local area who knows the state sales tax laws.
In general, if you do not subdivide expenses, you are safe to just collect sales tax on the entire bill. States don't complain very often if you collect sales tax when you didn't need to. It is the inverse of that sentence that causes problems.
For more information about taxes for photographers, check out this article.
Get a Business License or Permit
Most local governments require small businesses to obtain a business license or permit. Local governments use the business permits to raise money, ensure businesses are operating in a properly zoned area, and to annoy photographers and other small business owners (What? It's the truth, right!?!?).
When I have obtained business licenses to operate my photography business in different cities, I did not have to pay anything and the license was usually issued in 2 or 3 days. Most local governments are smart enough to know that getting a new business in the city is a good thing.
Operating your business from your home may obviate the need for a business license depending on your local government regulations. Simply call your city and county and ask the clerk. This is a question they receive many times per day, so the answer is usually very quick.
For more state-by-state information on business permits for photographers, check out this article.
This article is part of a series of articles on this blog about starting, marketing, and running a photography business. Read part two here.
The content of this article should not be deemed to be legal advice. While the author did attend law school and runs his own photography business, the content should be taken under advisement by the reader as a source of information, but not legal advice. Seek the counsel of a competent lawyer in your jurisdiction as well as a CPA before making any significant business decision such as determining licensing requirements.