When your child was old enough to start playing sports you ran out to the nearest big box store and picked up the latest camera kit. As the kids grew into their sports so did your photography. You started to get more and more keepers and other parents started asking you to take pictures of their kids. Maybe it is time to think about selling your images? How do I do that and should I even consider jumping into such an endeavor?
Before we go much further let me just say that everything I say is based on my experience and what worked for my situation. There are many great articles on Improve Photography about the business of photography. I strongly recommend you read through these articles as well as consult an accountant and/or Lawyer before hanging your shingle as a business owner.
To Start or Not To Start
The greatest feeling is when people compliment your images. It is the artist inside of us that needs the positive feedback. It is also what can get us into trouble. The parents on your kids teams are great ego boosters but they are not sustainable customers.
I will be quite frank, there is no real money in action sports photography. I have spoken with a number of photographers around the country and for the most part this market has disappeared. There are a few areas that can still sustain a business model of action sports photography but these are pretty rare. After all what has all 4 of my articles covered? Yup, how to take better sports pictures of your kids and that is something more and more parents are doing as the cost of the DSLR continues to drop.
10 years ago every summer tournament I went to with my kids teams there was always an onsite photographer. This photographer would run from field to field taking pictures then bring the cards back to a tent. The tent would be full of monitors where participants would select the images they liked and purchase prints. Over the years these photographers have slowly disappeared.
I didn’t let this scare me off and I jumped right in by formed an LLC. I figured I would offer a completely different package for sports teams. I would offer custom packages where for a small fee I would attend games and then post the pictures online for families to purchase. It all sounded great but then after a couple of bookings reality set in. The lack of sales after each shoot was not allowing me to break even and I had to start thinking about this as a business if I wanted to continue.
Business is Business
Whether it is sports, wedding, newborn, or family photography the first thing needed is to understand how much money we need to make a business run. I worked backwards by figuring out how much profit I wanted to make. I set my goal kind of low because really all I wanted was a new lens the Sigma 120-300 f2.8 to be exact. Now I knew how much profit I needed so I figured out my costs and that told me how many sessions I needed to book to reach my goal. It was actually a lot of sessions so I had to figure out how I was going to get that lens.
The Cost of Doing Business (CODB)
It's been 18 months and I still do not have my new lens. I do have lot's of great portrait gear such as many speedlights, modifiers, light stands and 2 great portrait lenses but still no new sports lens. Those are only a few items you need to consider when figuring out the costs.
Insurance – After the business license Insurance should be the first purchase you make. There are a few insurance companies out there that have photography specific business policies. Simply Google/Bing “photography insurance” and you will find a few options. I joined the Professionals Photographers Association (PPA.com) and purchased an OK insurance plan at a discounted rate. I figure my job as a photographer was going to have me within a few feet of athletes who don't really care that you are sitting on the sidelines. All it takes is for an athlete to get injured running into you trying to get the ball or make the catch to see why liability insurance is so important. A common mistake many beginning professional photographers make is they assume their homeowners insurance will cover any incidents. That is not true. Once you become professional by forming a business and selling your images your homeowners insurance will not cover any issues that come up based on photography. That would include theft/damage of equipment as well as any liability issues.
Gear – When you are getting paid to shoot an game or an event such as a weekend tournament you have to be sure you can finish the event. This means extra gear such as a spare camera body, a spare similar lens. If you are doing Team and Individual Pictures you will need a full second set of lights. All it takes is for you to be in the middle off a shoot and have something break like a camera body freeze up (happened to me once already) or a light stand to get knocked over and the speedlight breaks and you lose all credibility when you have to cancel the rest of the shoot.
Driving – Gas, tolls (if you have any in your area), wear and tear on the vehicle, all these add up. In most cases at the end of the year you can deduct the mileage from your taxes that still does not put the cash back into your pocket right now when needed. A small piece should be included in the calculation of your CODB.
Website – Every Photographer will need some kind of online presence. This cost has gone down over the years but it is still a monthly expense. I use a combination of SmugMug Pro and an externally hosted blog so my costs are approx. $50 month in online fees. Yes, there are free options such as Social Media products like Facebook and Instagram but they are starting to change their business models as well and it does cost since business now need to pay to boost posts to get better exposure.
Taxes – Every business in the United States must pay taxes. How much and what type are all based on your location and how you form your business. I won't begin to guess this for anyone since this is such a variable item. I highly recommend you consult a Certified Public Accountant when setting up your business. Otherwise at the end of your first year you could find yourself in debt because you didn't set aside enough money to pay taxes. You can always efile and save time and money, but business taxes are vastly different compared to personal taxes (especially for a beginner). While it may cost more, enlisting the help of a CPA can prevent a major IRS headache in the end.
Time – Probably the biggest overlooked item by new professional photographers is Time. It is hard to put a value on time but this is something that must be part of CODB. Let's use a simple scenario as an example. A team pays you $50 just to show up to shoot their game with the idea you would make additional money afterwards when the families purchase prints. Right away you apply $5 towards new gear funds, $5 for insurance, $5 to vehicle expense fund, $5 towards a website, and say %20 towards Business and Operations/Sales Taxes (which is $10) leaving $20. OK so you will make $20 in profit from this whether or not anyone buys any images. Not really because now you have to factor in Time. Again lets keep this simple and assume the game you are shooting is an hour long. Once you get home you have approximately 300 – 350 images to cull and about 75 keepers to edit. About 90 minutes of editing time which adds up to 150 minutes plus the round trip time of (again keep the math simple) 30 min for a grand total of 180 minutes (3 hours). Now take that $20 and divide it by 3 hours and you are making $6.67 an hour.
That is a bit of a reality check and one I personally had a hard time with when it hit home after my first couple of paid shoots. After all shooting sports is my passion but if I wanted to be successful in business then something had to change.
Once reality sank in that taking action pictures was not a sustainable business model in my market I turned to the next best thing – Team and Individual (T&I) pictures for sports clubs and leagues. T&I is a low margin high volume business model and it works very well if run correctly. I make a small but decent profit off of every sale and I shoot clubs with 50 – 75 teams with about a %70 participation.
In my area we don’t book leagues but we book with the individual clubs. I was able to book a couple large soccer clubs, football program and a volleyball club in my first year. After reinvesting back into gear this last 12 months the next 12 months should finally allow me to reach my original goal of that new Sports Lens.
Interested in Team and Individual Pictures as a business? Watch for my next two articles as I discuss how to run a profitable T&I shoot followed by an interview with a few very successful photographers that make T&I their business.