Licenses for Photographers: Start your business without getting sued!

Ready to be a photographer? Make sure to get your licenses!

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.

29 thoughts on “Licenses for Photographers: Start your business without getting sued!”

  1. Jim,

    I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciated your most recent tutorial (flash photography). I am a busy mom of two, trying to build my skills and business. Your tutorial couldn’t have come at a better time! And in a world where NOTHING is free, thank you for offering invaluable info – for (honestly) no cost! Love your work!

    Thank you for your time & dedication to my favorite craft!


  2. I am looking to start a side job I guess you could say …for.photography I do not have schooling a licence or certificate and not much experience. I have a couple people wanting me to take.photos for.them.but I want to be sure of everything I have to.do before hand. My main question is I live in.MD and.I don’t.know the rules regulations etc. I have tried Google but have not.gotten.far. I called about classes but I was told I had to have a high school diploma …which is not true..
    If there is anyone from MD or knows what I need for my state PLEASE let me know . I need to know basically everything. I need to start at the very beginning. If I don’t need college or t be certified etc to be a photographer it would be easier . also.if.I.do.does anyone know of any free routes..no state grants please. And prefer online I have 2 babies 🙂 thank you

  3. Hi Jim,

    This article is such an eye-opener. I’m starting my photo business and blog, and this has taught me some things I never thought I’d need.

    Love your podcasts and articles. Cheers!


  4. thanks for the article. I just started my photography business NS PHOTOVIDEO and wondering if I need any kind of certificate and permit to photograph people’s weddings.

    Anyway, good article and informative website!



  5. i’m really confused about all this licensing. I thought it would be simple, but digging around for information is complicating.

    So are business tax and business licenses the same or different?
    Do I need both? I live in San Jose, California and I can only find information on business tax, nothing of the latter.

  6. Would someone be able to tell me Who is the author of this article. I see a lot of people saying that they love this article and others written by the same author, but the name of the author is not listed anywhere I can see on here.

  7. Coraline jeningstin

    I was wondering, if you are a teen just trying to make some money to buy like new clothes and shoes and stuff. Will you be fined ? And do you HAVE to be 18 to actually get paid for photography ? By the way love this article it was very useful.

  8. I take a lot of pictures and i want to get my personal license to improve my skills to photography.

  9. Photography is my life but i don’t know the best school to go to.. Does anybody know the best school to go to?

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