So, you're ready to start? Lets do this
The information in this article is NOT to be taken as legal advice. My goal is to simply break down the process of how to start a photography business to the best of my knowledge and experience. Please do your work and talk to a professional if you need help. Also note that these were the steps I took AND I reside in NC. Steps may be different in your state.
Before I begin, I want to preface by saying this is a lot of information. Don’t get overwhelmed. Take one step at a time. I was very overwhelmed at the beginning like most people are, but take it slow.
Overwhelmed by the choices like Ella? lol
1) Business Structure
First things first, you’ll want to figure out what kind of business you want to start out as. Keep in mind you can always change this later. These choices are if you are a “one women/man show.” This is not if you already have employees.
If you’re just getting started with your photography side-hustle, operating as a Sole Proprietorship is a great option.
What’s nice about this option is you’re automatically considered to be a Sole Proprietorship if you don’t register as any other business structure. It also doesn’t cost anything. (You’ll still want to file your Assumed Business Name Certificate, also known as a DBA. More on that below.)
The downside of operating as a Sole Proprietorship is that you’re personally responsible for all of the debts and liabilities of your business, which means if you happen to get involved in a lawsuit, creditors could go after personal possessions (savings account, car, house, etc.) This scared me too much.
Limited Liability Company
As an LLC, your personal assets are differentiated from your business assets, which means it may offer limited personal liability.
My business has always been a LLC because not only did I want to protect my family, I wanted that verification that I was serious about my business. Just my 2 cents.
Information on beginning the process: NC Department of Revenue
Filling out your online forms: NC Department of Revenue Online Business Registration.
When deciding between operating as a Sole Proprietorship or an LLC, consider how self-employment tax (Medicare and Social Security taxes) factors into the equation.
Whether you’re a Sole Proprietorship or a single-member LLC, you’re required to pay self-employment taxes on your entire net income.
But this is where operating as an LLC can provide a big tax advantage over being a Sole Proprietorship.
As an LLC, you have the option of filing your taxes as an S-Corporation. If you file as an S-Corporation, you only pay Social Security and Medicare tax on the salary you pay yourself, not the entire net income of your business.
Keep in mind, operating as an LLC involves more paperwork and regulation. For example, you’re required by law to file an annual report for your business, which costs $200. You’ll also need to keep your personal and business bank accounts separate to avoid any implications. If you’re overwhelmed or confused by any of this, please consult a tax professional or accountant for help deciding what’s best for your business. The Business Link North Carolina team is a good place to start if you have any questions. Their services are free and they’re an incredibly helpful resource. Also check out any local programs that are offered to new businesses. CVCC offers an amazing program for free to help you get started. This is where I first went for help.
To file as an LLC, complete and submit the Articles of Organization form. Just choose “Limited Liability Companies” under the “For” dropdown list.
Don’t let the term “Articles of Organization” intimidate you. Just do it. One step at a time.
The cost to submit your Articles of Organization is $125. You can do it here: NC Secretary of State.
*I’m going to pause here and remind you to keep a copy of everything and how much you’ve paid because later when you have to file taxes…all of these things can be written off and save you money. *
2) File Your DBA
Once you’ve chosen to be a LLC or Sole Proprietor, you’ll need to file your DBA, which stands for “Doing Business As.”
A DBA is required if you want to operate under a name that’s different than your own (Ex: Mine is KRJ Photography, LLC ).
It’s important to know that you’ll still need a DBA even if you only want to omit the word “LLC” from your business name. For example, I didn’t want to have “KRJ Photography LLC” on my website and all my marketing materials you would need to file for a DBA so that you could simply use “KRJ Photography” instead.
Print and fill out the Assumed Business Name Certificate (Form A) found on the Secretary of State website (don’t forget to check that the name isn’t taken) and bring it to your local Register of Deeds office.
If you don’t want to submit the form in-person, you can submit the form online at NC Secretary of state business.
The fee to file the DBA is $26.
3) File for your EIN (Employer Identification Number)
If you choose to operate as a Sole Proprietorship, you’re not required to have an EIN (also known as Federal Tax Identification Number) since you can use your social security number instead.
However, if you register your business as an LLC, you ARE required to have an EIN to open a business bank account, or if you hire employees.
Some companies will try and charge you a $75 “filing fee” to do this for you. SAVE YOUR MONEY!
This process is super quick and does not cost anything.
Head to this page of the IRS website and click on “Begin Application.” Follow the steps to complete your application, and once you submit it, you’ll immediately receive your EIN via email.
4) Get Your State Sales Tax ID
Hear me now: Even if you don't offer any physical products (only digitals/dowloads) you still still have to charge sales tax.
Whether you’re selling physical prints or digital images, you still have to charge sales tax. Source here: NC Department of Revenue.
Charging Sales Tax
When it comes to charging sales tax, you have two options:
Charge your clients your rate + sales tax
Include sales tax as part of your rate
For example: I live in Catawba County, where sales tax is 7%, and my portrait session rates start at $600.
I can choose to invoice my client for $642 ($600 + 7% tax) OR I can invoice them for just $600 and pay the $42 tax myself.
There’s nothing wrong with either option, as long as you’re collecting and remitting sales tax to the state. If you do decide to include the sales tax in your fee structure, the law requires you to state that plainly in your place of business or on your website.
When do I send my sales tax?
Now that you know you need to charge and send in sales tax, let’s talk about when you need to remit payment.
Sales taxes must be filed either quarterly or monthly, depending on how much tax liability you expect every month.
According to the North Carolina Department of Revenue site:
“If your tax liability is consistently more than $100 but less than $20,000 per month, you should file a return monthly and pay taxes on or before the 20th day of each month for all taxes due for the preceding calendar month.
If your tax liability is consistently less than $100 per month, you should file a return quarterly and pay taxes due on or before the last day of the month for all taxes due for the preceding calendar quarter.”
Quarterly returns are due on or before the last day of January, April, July, and October for the preceding three-month period. This is what I do. So lets say I book sessions during January, February, and March and obtain a sales tax for each one of those sessions. I save all that sales tax income that I’ve charged for those 3 months, and pay it back before the last day in April. Keep in mind, if you’re late paying, you will be financially penalized.
Frequently asked questions on sales tax in NC: NC Department of Revenue.
Are you starting to see why photographers charge what they do?
5) Your state Privilege License
I find this specific requirement so ridiculous, but it’s gonna be done because it’s the law.
While the state of North Carolina does not require a general business license, photographers are still required to pay a $50 state privilege license tax every year.
Here’s how to do it: NCDOR. You complete it, bring it to your local department of revenue office. Don’t forget to bring $50 with your application.
Your city or county may have zoning and permit requirements that restrict or ban specific types of businesses from operating in a certain area.
For example, if you plan on photographing a client in your home studio, your local government might consider you a home-based business and require you to have a Home Occupation Permit.
Check with your city zoning office and ask if they require any permits. You can find their contact information by Googling your city and the word “zoning” together.
Another example: I had a session in Charlotte and for that specific location I wanted to use, I needed a specific permit due to zoning.
7) Business Insurance
Don’t skip having insurance. I know it is expensive, but what if all your gear was stolen? What if you were sued? You just never know.
There are two types of insurance you need if you want peace of mind for your photography business: equipment insurance and liability insurance.
As a photographer, you have valuable gear that you need to protect from damage and theft. Depending on your equipment insurance coverage, you can replace your equipment at partial or full value.
General liability insurance protects you from those”oh crap” events, covering things like bodily injury, property damage, and like libel or slander. I want to really really stress the importance of this insurance. I know of a local photographer where slander has been occurring and they are currently dealing with court issues as we speak. I can’t imagine what she is going trough. That is a entirely different blog post.
So, who I do use? The Hartford
I will tell you this is no cheap, but a best business practice.
I pay $550 a year for the piece of mind.
8) Hire a Tax Professional
I will tell you that when I first started out, I needed help. I was terrified I was going to do something wrong with taxes/fees and I reached out to a CPA. Now that I’ve been in business for 7 years, I do all my own record keeping and even do my taxes myself each year.
If you can afford it, consider hiring a bookkeeper or CPA to help manage your business finances. Some bookkeepers offer services like filing your monthly sales tax and annual report for you, saving you a ton of time and effort so you can focus on growing your business.
Don’t wait until the last minute to talk to a tax professional. Talking to a professional throughout the year will help you make decisions that give you the biggest tax breaks.
Where are the best places to find one? Your own contacts. Put a FB post out requesting referrals, ask your business owner friends, and don’t forget the best way to find something you need, is word of mouth.
Do they have experience working with small-business owners?
What do their services include besides general bookkeeping or preparing your taxes?
How frequently do they communicate with you, and by what means?
TRUST ME, I know. I was there. Like I said before, take it one step at a time. I was just talking to a friend the other day when I said “After working for myself for 7 years, I’m not sure I could ever work for anyone else now.”
Owning your own business is one of the proudest things I have ever done, but also the most stressful. Starting small and building your business one day at a time is the way to not get burnt out.
Additional resources I use
There are thousands of programs, classes, tutorials to make a photographer’s life easier, but these are what I have personally used.
I use Neat to keep up with all my business & home documents. I scan receipts, important tax information, and about everything else to this site so I have a detailed list at the end of the year. It’s the only way I’ve been able to do our own taxes each year.
The next class on my ‘to do’ list is
Even seasoned photographers need to little kick in the butt at times, and starting out with pricing is the best way to make sure you’re getting not only a paycheck, but that you’re actually seeing revenue for all your hard work.
Would you rather have a person to walk you through this in person?
I’ve been playing around with having one on one mentoring for a long time now, and there is no time like the present 🙂 If you would like information on mentoring, feel free to contact me here: Contact