How to start a photography business legally

So, you’re ready to open a photography business!                                                                                                                      First off — congratulations! Running a business is one of the most exciting and fun things you’ll ever, ever do — and I’m so proud of you.

However, the United States makes running a business a lil’ complicated… and, as a photographer, it’s your job to do your due diligence to make sure you’re running your photography business legally and correctly.

Now, I’m not a lawyer, and this isn’t legal advice. But, I’ve learned a lot running Art of Her for the last decade, and I know that running a photography business legally is key to staying *in* business. 

What you need to legally run your photography business

See, your photography business is a business. A real one. That means you have obligations to the IRS, to your state, and to your clients. The key? Covering all of those obligations legally, whether it’s through how you define your business structure or how you protect your services.

Wondering how to legally start and run your photography business? I have you covered with this quick primer.

1. Choose your business structure.


Ooh, the fun stuff (rolls eyes). Uncle Sam, and his BFF the IRS, want you to define a structure for your business, and it’s important for a number of reasons. From tax purposes all the way to protecting your business, you need to choose which one works best for you. For a lot of photographers, being a sole proprietorship is totally fine, especially at first. For some — especially if you hire help — you may want to look into becoming an LLC or a S-Corp.

And, just to make it more complicated, different states really benefit you in different business structures. To make sure you’re choosing the right structure for your photography business, do your research with your state.

Here’s a quick breakdown, though:

  • Sole proprietorships:  Essentially, sole proprietorships are just businesses that are run by one person. To have a sole proprietorship you don’t need to file a bunch of extra things with your state, and you’ll pay personal income tax on your sole proprietorship. This is going to be great if you don’t run a massive photography business or if you’re just starting out, and it’s a simple, high-control method of running your photography business.
  • LLC (limited liability corporation): When you create a LLC, you’re creating a business structure that can help to protect you from liability and some lawsuits — and the idea is that your personal assets aren’t going to be at stake if something goes wrong in your business. I’d recommend going the LLC route if you’re doing expensive shoots, offering commercial release, or generally wanting to really scale your business.
  • S-Corp: S-Corps — or S Corporations — are one of those things that your accountant might tell you to do, since it really can help you at tax time. You’ll file with the IRS (not just with your state), and this may be a good choice if you’re hiring multiple employees or have a complicated payment structure.
  • Partnership: If you’re in business with one or more other people, a partnership is likely your best bet for forming your business. It’s the simplest method for forming a business with partners, and passes your profits through to personal tax returns (similar to a sole proprietorship).
running a photography business legally

2. Register Your Business.


No matter where you’re located, you need to make sure that the government knows you’re doing business in order to be legal. Often, newbie or hobby photographers forget this step — and, while no one many ever notice, they could… and that’s reason enough to do it, and quickly. 

To do this, first make sure you’re not operating under the same name as someone else, because it’s *the* easiest way to get sued, my friend. You can find out other business entity names via your state, and most states have super easy databases that let you run your name ideas through. You don’t have to trademark your business name (though it might not be a bad idea) — and there’s typically “common law” protections in place that can keep your business protected.

Next, you NEED (yes, NEED) to file a DBA — or a “Doing Business As” — with your state, especially if you’re a sole proprietor. If you’ve already filed as a LLC or S-Corp, you 

 may not need to file a separate DBA… unless you’re operating your business under a different name than your LLC. For example, if I was operating under Jess Kornacki, LLC, I’d need to file a DBA under Art of Her.

It’s a lot. I know.

However, it’s not hard to file a DBA — and it’s usually only around $25. It can be done through your state’s Secretary of State Office, and is a much easier process than all the rest. Promise. 

And, just to add another level of legalese to your business, you may also need a photography permit to do business legally. Yet again, this is going to be through your state or even through your county — and can be different depending on where you’re located and where you’re rendering services. These aren’t usually expensive, but it’s always a good idea to have your bases covered.

how to start a personal branding photography business
how to legal start in personal branding photography

3. Get a biz bank account (and a separate one for taxes!)


Once you have all of your paperwork in place and your business structure right, head right on over to your nearest bank and set up a business bank account. While you could (technically) keep everything with your personal bank account — at least as a sole proprietor — it isn’t recommended for a number of reasons. Using your social security number or your government-assigned EIN, having a business bank account is the best way to:

  • Keep an eye on how much money you’re making.
  • Itemize any deductions.
  • Boost your credibility.
  • Protect your business assets.
  • Start a credit history for your business.

While you’re at it, go ahead and set up a business savings account for your taxes, too — and get immediately in the habit of setting aside at least 25% of every piece of photography income you get. Self-employment taxes are reaaaaaaal, and you do not want to be taken aback by a massive tax bill at the end of the year. You also may want to file quarterly taxes, depending on how much you’re making. 

My best advice, though? Consult an accountant, even if it’s just to set up a few things. It’ll save you so much money and so many headaches.

get started In personal branding photography

4. Get some rock. solid. contracts. in place.


As a photographer, you’re providing a service to clients — and, regardless of how great those clients may be, you NEED to have rock solid, unbreakable contracts in place. Contracts are key to protecting your business, to making sure you get paid, and to protecting you against things like cancelled shoots and copyright infringement. 

There are a few ways to build out really great contracts for your business, from consulting with a lawyer to buying lawyer-written contracts from the internet (like from The Contract Shop or The Legal Paige). 

At a minimum, though, your contracts need:

  • An in-depth breakdown of deliverables and pricing.
  • Your payment schedule.
  • Copyright ownership, transfer of use rights, and release options. 
  • Good ole’ liability limitations.
  • Cancellation/deposit requirements.
  • Any extra fees outside of your scope of work.
  • Any additional limitations/additional requirements.

This is why I always, always recommend that you go through a lawyer or a lawyer-based shop like I mentioned above — while the upfront cost may be higher, the protection could be priceless.

While the legal stuff might not be the most fun piece of running your photography business, I can promise you that it’s really, really important — and so worth it. By making sure that you’re covered on all fronts, you can protect yourself, protect your clients, and grow your business the right way.

After all, what’s better than that?
In the meantime, download my free legal checklist for starting your photography business here. You’ve got this!

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