Suggestions for starting a small event photography business?
August 15, 2009 8:34 PM   Subscribe

Considering freelance event photography as a sideline. The kind where you take the photos, and then sell them later online. Any advice - including talking me out of this - is appreciated.

I'm considering doing something in addition to my 9-5 job in order to bring in some extra income, or maybe just have some fun trying. My main concerns are low up-front cost, and nothing that will commit me too heavily in case it doesn't work out or I decide I don't like what I'm doing.

Photography has been a hobby of mine for a while, and although I'm nowhere near professional-quality, I've taken some great shots and learned a lot about exposure and some tricks of the trade.

I'd like to stay away from art or stock photography, and focus on shooting events and the people in attendance. I don't think I can commit to doing this work for hire, like a wedding photographer. Instead I'd like to do what I've seen some others do on the web - show up at an event that's open to the public, shoot the event, and hand out cards telling people where to look for their pictures to order prints or downloads. I might consider taking shots of opportunity for stock or to sell to a news agency, but my main focus would be on individual sales. The nice part about this is that I can be flexible about when, where, and how often I want to work.

How feasible is this, and what do I need to get started? More specific questions and details below, but really I'm trying to keep this open-ended. Any and all advice or warnings would be very helpful.

Occupational Licensing:
I'm in unincorporated Orange County, Florida. IIRC, you can make X amount of dollars per year before it stops becoming a hobby and requires a business license. Can I wait until I hit X before applying? Any problems with going sole proprietorship to keep things simple? I know my personal assets can be subject to business liability this way, but how much am I really exposed to risk? Will I have to charge sales tax, even when it's still a hobby?

Website Hosting / Sales Operation:
My main career is in running UNIX(ish) servers, and I've dabbled in website design and programming enough to know I can take care of that end of things, if I have to. I'm fully willing to design my own website, upload sample watermarked versions of the images, set up PayPal, even have the printing and mailing done myself. However, I know there are services out there that will do much of this for you. Any particular hosts of this type that are good or bad in your experience? How much of this work can I offload, and how cheaply can I do so?

Getting into the events themselves:
How easy is it to get permissions to photograph and market at events? Do I have a chance at getting into children's athletic club events, school-sponsored events, festivals, etc? What's the best way to keep up-to-date about things coming up that I might be interested in shooting?

Practical considerations:
How will I know how to set my rates? How can I protect my gear? Will I encounter problem people while "in the field"? What kinds of legal risks might I encounter?

Thanks in advance for your advice.
posted by tkolstee to Work & Money (19 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: I've been doing a little more research on image hosting, and have identified four companies in which I might be interested:
  • SmugMug - $150/year
  • PrintRoom - Pricing tiers from $0 - $20/month
  • InstaProofs - no setup fees
  • ZenFolio - $25 - $100/year with very nice list of features
  • Any experiences with using one of these services?

posted by tkolstee at 8:52 PM on August 15, 2009 [2 favorites]

Okay, I guess starting off you're gonna have to decide how much you wanna go for this. You talk about being a sole proprietor in the same way you talk about it being a hobby. You have to decide this. Being a professional photographer is not a hobby. You have to decide how much you wanna deal with this, because it's generally much harder than you think it's gonna be.
posted by girlmightlive at 12:15 AM on August 16, 2009

Don't be that annoying pushy person. I have a really funny memento of my highschool grad- a photo of startled me and my dad (deer in headlights look) just before we walked in, with the name of our school miss-spelled across the top of the still-dripping print. Heh.

Be polite, funny, unobtrusive, not stalkerish either. Hand out business cards. Maybe have a display at the end with a computer showing the best shots? Maybe even sell shots to people on CDs, so you get that right-then-there impulse buy.

Consider hiring/roping in an assistant. Then you can focus on getting good profitable shots rather then worrying about your gear.

Make friends with the organizers- then you won't be some random turning up. (especially for more exclusive sort of events.)
posted by titanium_geek at 12:20 AM on August 16, 2009

Make friends with the organizers- then you won't be some random turning up.

I would say that this is compulsory and the least you should do. For a start all the sports events my boyfriend and I participate in (in a different country) all have commercial event photographers associated with them and I imagine someone else turning up would be escorted off the premises right smart. There are also safety issues involved in things like races on public property, the marshals are busy making sure the entrants aren't being run over and won't be thrilled with other people getting in the mix. I don't know if the same goes for your area but it's something to consider.

In your position the first thing I'd do is google for the kind of events you're interested in covering and check if there is a photographer already mentioned. Is there actually a gap in the market there? That will also give you contact details for the organisers of these events, talking to them would be the second step (assuming it's worth going forward). Once you know if there are opportunities actually available to you and have some idea of what the organisers would expect then work on the equipment and website and whatever. As an aside if there is an organisation already doing this in your area you might be able to work for them instead, solving a lot of your 'how to' worries.

Getting a good photograph from an event can make the whole thing so much cooler, so if you can make this work then do it. Here's an example of the kind of website and company we're used to dealing with, to give you some ideas. (yes, that's me, I'm not photogenic at the best of times, heh)
posted by shelleycat at 2:31 AM on August 16, 2009

Best answer: Oh and I forgot to mention, being officially linked with the vent means the organisers send round an email a couple of weeks later telling people the photos are up and it's time to order. That kind of direct marketing is way better than giving stuff out at events, right after a race is not when I want to be grabbing business cards or remembering website addresses. Being part of the event rather than just turning up will benefit your sales and I think is what you should be aiming for.
posted by shelleycat at 2:33 AM on August 16, 2009

Best answer: From a consumer point of view, make sure your image gallery doesn't suck. If I have to look through 200 pictures of OTHER people to see if I'm in any of them, it better be quick and painless, or else I quit after the first 20 or so, and you don't get a sale.
posted by toekneebullard at 4:35 AM on August 16, 2009

Be aware of the legal issues. If you take photos of people who are clearly identifiable and you sell their photos for profit, you may need to get a release from them. I don't know all the details but the sports photography book I have says that "you need a person's permission before you can use a likeness of him or her for purposes of trade or advertising."
posted by qmechanic at 7:09 AM on August 16, 2009

I’m going to suggest a different approach if you were willing to sacrifice the rates in the beginning.

Can you sign up to be one of the many photographers with an organization such as MarathonFoto for sporting events? I recently participated in a bike century, and this organization had several dozen photographers lined up at points along the route and they took pictures as you – rode into town X, finished the event, etc. Later, by email (to sign up for the ride, I had given the ride organizers ride $ and my email) , you received an email with link to the website offering pictures of you (matched by your number on your helmet and bike) and a chance to buy the picture. Anyway, if you had a few events like that under your belt, you sure would have a few great samples plus listing “photographer for whatever event.” You will also see the rates that they charge to give you a ball park idea as to a rate you could charge.

THEN you could approach local schools, adult sport clubs, gyms, etc., and offer to be a photographer – if you cooperated with them, they would be likely to let you in the door. Maybe they would let you have access to email (maybe not) - you would obviously need to discuss this with the organization.

Regardless, when you post online you could have the person enter their number (or their family member’s number) and then they could see the pictures of just that person.

I’d be careful as to what sort of events you attended – this is just me but if stranger appeared and started handing out cards to see his or her pictures online (and the pictures are available for sale), I would be really annoyed and depending on the event, angry (ie, are you going to do this at weddings? Reunions?). That’s just me, though.

As other posters suggest, I think there are several potential problems here (especially the legal issues). If you don't want to start by working through another organization as a photographer, then I would go get free business counseling through SCORE. They have experts in every particular business domain and I would be willing to bet they could even refer you to someone who had their own photography business (either at their local office or even an online mentor).

Also, in your case, I would splurge and pay for a lawyer to help you form a business - you probably need help with contracts and maybe to find out as others suggest - if you sell those pictures online, are there potiential problems.
posted by Wolfster at 7:34 AM on August 16, 2009

Get your hands on a copy of the ASMP's Professional Business Practices in Photography.
posted by gyusan at 8:49 AM on August 16, 2009

Best answer: A couple of parents I know have a side-business going to the smaller high-school sports events (boy's and girl's soccer, cross-country,etc.) and shooting candids of players in action. They hand-out business cards to parents at the games and post low-rez versions of the shots on a website. The intent, of course, is to get parents to purchase high-rez prints of their kids. It, apparently, works to some degree. Though, it certainly isn't bringing in the cash to call it a career.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:39 AM on August 16, 2009

Response by poster: Some good suggestions here, but... Wow. I don't think I communicated myself very well. I think I gave the impression that this is a bigger project than I was planning. I hear some people saying that I don't sound committed enough, and others making suggestions that are way more involved than I was intending. I've known plenty of people who've started small businesses that pay the bills. I've also seen people who make handmade things to sell at craft fairs or online. I'm looking at something like the latter; a FEW extra bucks here and there.

I don't want to fill all my spare time with this; it would be an occasional thing. Think of it as a hobby that I want to make a few bucks from above and beyond the cost of doing it. I'm not sure yet if this will make any money at all, or whether or not I'm going to like it. I sometimes have to work odd hours with little notice at my regular job. My rule is that if it makes a little money and I'm having fun, or if it makes more than a little and I'm not hating it, I'll keep going.

I figured I might be able to get away with just a hosting service that would handle payments and fulfillment, some cards, and a business license. If I were planning on making this my primary income, or even doing this every weekend, the discussion of lawyers, corporations, etc. would be way more on the mark. If it HAS to be THAT complicated, I'd rather not do it at all.
posted by tkolstee at 11:03 AM on August 16, 2009

Response by poster: On not-preview: Thorzdad is talking about exactly what I'm looking for.
posted by tkolstee at 11:04 AM on August 16, 2009

Response by poster: gmechanic: I did a little reading on releases, and it seems that the release is required if the photo is intended for publication, use in a commercial advertising campaign, etc. The release is required by the publishers/users of these photos, because they need to protect themselves. The information I found specifically mentioned that photographers selling prints of photos taken in a public place, even of people, is not considered publication, and that the photographer him/herself has very little exposure to liability. I can't find where I originally saw this information, and intend to look for more confirmation. If you have a reference to the source of your comment, it would be greatly appreciated.
posted by tkolstee at 11:19 AM on August 16, 2009

You absolutely do not need a release for this. I would be careful about photographing kids, but in general you do not need a release unless you are selling the pictures for advertising.

You can check that but I'm pretty sure that's 100% right.

You should check I used them, they worked reasonably.
posted by sully75 at 12:23 PM on August 16, 2009

tkolstee: That's why I said I wasn't completely sure about the legal issues. But I did think you should look into it. The book I have is called Sports Photography by Peter Skinner. I think the key is how do you interpret the word "trade." Most of the examples the author gave were where you are going to use the person's image in an advertising campaign or put the photo on a stock website where a company might buy it. It didn't discuss selling photos to individuals (as opposed to corporations).
I did a bit more research and the ASMP has a good FAQ.
If I photograph a large group of people and plan to sell the picture, would I need model releases from every person?
If you just want to sell fine art prints, or even posters, you should be OK without releases. If you license the picture for use in a book, you should be OK without any releases as long as you don't allow the publisher to put the photo on the cover of the book or use it in promotional materials. If you put it on coffee mugs or allow its use in any way that would be considered purposes of trade or advertising, you are probably going to be liable for the invasion someone's right of privacy unless you have gotten releases from every person who is recognizable in the photo. A bank once made a photo of about 300 of its own employees standing in one of its lobbies. When the picture ran in an ad campaign, some of the employees sued the bank, and won.
So it looks like you're right.
posted by qmechanic at 1:09 PM on August 16, 2009

As for selling photos to people, I feel like photos are an impulse buy (especially in this economy). If you could setup a table with a laptop and show people photos shortly after you taken them, I think your sales would be much better. My hockey team goes to tournaments where pro photographers work. The photographer who showed the photos at a table on monitors was much more successful than the one who posted the photos two weeks later on a website.
posted by qmechanic at 1:12 PM on August 16, 2009

I started to respond early on in this thread, but didn't. Since then I've read your subsequent posts. If this is something you want to do as a way to expand your photographic horizons and have a good time, more power to you.

If your intention is to actually make money, I fear you'll be disappointed. Even if you do this on the most minimal level, by the time you add up all of the time you'll have into it, I think you will at best be looking at a net return of a couple of dollars for every hour you have into it.

You'll get to learn about the joys of collecting sales tax, the associated bookkeeping, and reporting it and paying it to the state in which you live. Remember that you'll also most likely have to file an IRS 1040 Schedule C and it's associated supporting schedules, etc. Unless you are far more accomplished at this kind of thing than I am, having this side business, and operating in a manner to take full advantage of the US tax law's deductions for a small business, you may be looking at needing a good tax advisory firm to prepare your returns if you are not doing so currently.

My point is that I think you will find that you will spend considerably more time with the administrative of this side business than you will actually shooting pictures, and you will have expenses that you do not anticipate.

In your original post you say that "I'm nowhere near professional-quality..." In my original response I was going to suggest that before you embark on this, you first work toward bringing your work more toward "professional-quality" prior to proceeding.

I love photography and have been in the business for over 30 years. I have never loved it more than back when I did it solely for personal pleasure.
posted by imjustsaying at 4:11 PM on August 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Seriously. Don't bother. It's not something you could just do once in a while. BTDT.
posted by Lukenlogs at 7:00 PM on August 23, 2009

A site like SmugMug, only free, is PhotoReflect. They just charge a percentage of what you make and you can set all your own prices. When you get started, you make your webpage and join with a local lab, and you can see what the lab is going to charge you for a print, then take in mind the percentage that PhotoReflect is going to charge, and set your prices at a profit according to that.

As far as events, have you thought about local bars and clubs? Just ask the manager beforehand, and perhaps you could take group shots of people out for the night. I work at a concert venue, and a local company sets up an area for photos at the entrance of the venue, and then hands out a card so you can buy your prints from them online. I always thought that was a cool idea, but you would have to make sure you have the proper equipment to actually get some good shots. has tons of forums that you can participate in for help on this topic.

As far as protecting your gear and stuff, I think you can get insurance for gear through PPA.
posted by Bazoo at 4:51 PM on October 23, 2009

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