Starting a photography business?
Or already have one and you want to make sure you’re legally up to speed?
Then this guide is for you.
We’ve arranged it check-list style, so you can go down the list. By the end, you should feel comfortable that you’ve done due diligence on the legal front for your photography business.
|A few things to note:
We aren’t lawyers. The information in this article is based on research and experience, but it can’t take the place of sound legal counsel.
I’ve had an LLC. And then decided to drop it and just do freelancing work as a sole proprietor. So I’ve experienced both sides, and will share my thoughts in the section below on Photography LLCs vs. Sole Proprietorships for Photography (The “I” here is Zacc Dukowitz, co-founder of Photo Logica.)
Some of this is U.S.-only content. Information on LLCs and sole proprietorships is only for U.S.-based photographers. So is the info on trademarks. As we continue building out content we will create sections for other countries.
The One Thing You Have to Do
Before we get to the checklist, we need to say—there is only one thing you absolutely have to do for starting a photography business legally:
Pay your taxes.
- Federal income and self-employment tax is mandatory.
- State income tax may be required depending on where you live.
- State sales tax may also be required depending on where you live and how much you make.
I ran my own business for several years doing freelance marketing/writing work, and paying taxes is all I did for most of that time. (I did eventually start an LLC, but then realized I didn’t need it—I’ll cover that in the section on LLCs vs. sole proprietorships below.)
In addition to paying taxes, there are several other things you may want to do.
Keep reading for the full checklist.
Your Checklist for Starting a Photography Business Legally
There are a lot of resources out there that say you have to register your photography business, or start an LLC, or get an EIN. And you may want to do all these things—eventually.
But if you’re keeping up with taxes then the rest of these things are really just ideas to consider. If all you do is pay your taxes, you’ll be doing just fine.
(If you were just coming here just to make sure you were legally compliant, you can earmark this page and come back to it once your business is a little bigger.)
Each item in the checklist below links to a complete section with guidance and best practices.
Here’s your checklist for starting a photography business legally:
- Pay your taxes
- Choose a name
- Register your business
- Create contracts
- Get insurance
- Decide to form an LLC or remain a sole proprietorship
How to Think about This Checklist
- If it’s just you and you’re only making income to support yourself, then you’re probably fine only paying taxes and not worrying about anything else on the checklist.*
- If you have employees and you’re trying to grow your business to be more than just a self-sustaining source of revenue to support only you, then you probably want to do the rest of the things on this list.
*Naming your business is the only exception. At first, you may not even have a name. But if you do name your business and start to grow a client base around that name, you’ll want to make sure your name isn’t trademarked. The good news is that if you use your own name as the business name (i.e., Daniel Lopez Perez Wedding Photography), then you don’t have to worry about trademarks. Jump down to learn more about naming and trademarks.
1. Taxes for Photographers
In this section on taxes for photographers we’ll cover all the types of taxes you need to consider.
Here’s what you need to know at a high level:
- Federal taxes. You’ll have to pay self-employment and income tax (this is because you are self-employed, since you own a business).
- State taxes. You will have to pay income tax if your state has income tax. You may also have to pay sales tax. Each state is different, so it’s important to do your research.
Keep reading to dig deeper about tax considerations for photographers, including:
Taxes for Photographers—Best Practices
Here are a few things to make sure you do for your self-employment taxes as a photographer:
- Track your income and expenses. Keep meticulous records of all business-related income and expenses for accurate tax reporting.
- Deduct business expenses. You can deduct legitimate business expenses like equipment, travel, and other costs associated with running your business, which can reduce your taxable income. You can also deduct meals, so long as you follow certain guidelines.
- Don’t forget the home office deduction. This is probably the biggest self-employment tax deduction you’ll get. (It is for me, anyway.)
- File annual tax returns, but pay quarterly. The IRS would like you to pay projected federal taxes every quarter. But you don’t have to, so long as you don’t mind paying a small fine—see my thoughts below.
- Register for sales tax. If your state requires it, register your business with the state tax agency to obtain a sales tax permit. This is usually a straightforward process, which can often be completed entirely online.
- Understand what’s taxable. It’s important to know which parts of your services are taxable. In some states, the photography session itself may not be taxable, but physical products, like prints or albums, will be.
- Get an EIN OR use your social security number. Despite a lot of what you read out there on other photography blogs, you don’t need an EIN unless you are trying to grow your business (that is, if you’re in that second group of business owners we mentioned above). I’ve always just filed my self-employment taxes under my social security number.
Federal Taxes for Photographers
If you own a photography business then you are self-employed for tax purposes. (This is true whether your business is operated as an LLC or sole proprietorship.)
As a self-employed individual, you’re responsible for paying these federal taxes:
- Self-employment tax (Social Security and Medicare)
- Income tax
Because you’re self-employed, you pay more tax than you would if you were working for a company, since your employer would be paying half of your self-employment taxes.
Since you work for yourself, you pay the full burden—12.4% for Social Security and 2.9% for Medicare. (Learn more about self-employment taxes on the IRS website.)
A note on the timing of paying your federal taxes:
If you were working for a company, it would deduct your tax payments from every paycheck. Since you work for yourself, you have to pay the federal government every quarter based on projections of your self-employment income, as we noted above.
If you don’t pay quarterly, you’ll have to pay a small penalty when you file your taxes. Learn more about self-employment tax and making estimated payments on the IRS website.
Quick Note—I Pay the Fine Instead of Paying Quarterly
I’ve been doing freelancing work for years (i.e., I make self-employment income) and I don’t pay quarterly taxes.
There have been years where I worked completely for myself under an LLC I owned and made all my income through self-employment, and years where I just did self-employment work as a side hustle while holding down a full-time job.
Through all these scenarios, I have never made quarterly estimated payments. I’ve always paid the fine instead.
Now, I’m not saying you should do what I do.
But for me, the security of waiting until I see how much I made is worth the pain of paying what is typically a fine of a few hundred dollars.
State Taxes for Photographers
Each state has different tax requirements, so you’ll have to do your own research.
Here are the three things to research:
1. Income Tax
If your state has income tax, you’ll have to pay it.
2. Sales Tax
If your state has sales tax, you may have to pay it.
Here’s what you need to know:
- Small businesses may be exempt. If your business isn’t bringing in very much money you may not have to pay sales tax. Many states have sales tax exemptions for small businesses that fall beneath certain thresholds of revenue.
- Service vs. retail classification. Some states may classify your photography work as a service, and others as retail. You’ll need to do your research to know which applies in your state so you can be sure to pay correctly.
- State-by-state sales tax analysis.
- Sales tax 101.
- Sales tax calculator (let’s you plug in your state and see your rate)
3. Unique State Laws
A few states have unique tax requirements. As we mentioned above, California has unique taxes for LLCs, and you might face other unique tax situations depending on where you live.
Make sure to do your research into the specific laws in your state for those running their own businesses, and you’ll be good to go.
- Search for your state here to see all the small business tax requirements where you live
2. Choose a Name and Make Sure It Isn’t Trademarked
If you want to establish and grow your photography business, you’re going to want to name it.
And you’ll also want to make sure your name isn’t trademarked.
Many photographers just use their own name. For example, our co-founder Daniel Lopez Perez, a high-end wedding photographer based in Antigua, Guatemala, named his business Daniel Lopez Perez Wedding Photography.
Dani knew he wanted to focus only on wedding photography, so he zeroed in on that niche in his name. But you could also just use “YOUR NAME Photography.”
On the trademark topic, the good news is that you own the rights to your name. Even if someone else already has a trademarked business with the same exact name, you should be OK with using it.
But if you choose another name, then you need to make sure it’s not trademarked. Doing this will help you avoid any legal issues down the road.
How to Make Sure Your Photography Business Name Isn’t Trademarked
Here’s how to make sure the name you want to use for your photography business isn’t trademarked. (These steps apply for U.S. businesses only, though they are likely similar for other countries too.)
Step 1—Check Trademarked Names
Here’s the step-by-step:
- Go to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) website
- Click the green button that reads “Trademark search system”
- Search for your proposed name AND for similar names*
- If nothing comes up, great! But if there’s a match, too bad—you’ll need to go back to the drawing board.
*Why search for similar names? Because owners of trademarks can sue those who use similar names the same as those who use exact-match names. So you want to avoid both.
Step 2—Check on Google
After checking on the USPTO website, do the same search on Google for both exact-match and similar names.
Why search on Google? Because use itself can earn a business the status of a trademark.
That’s right. Even if a business name isn’t officially trademarked, simply having an established presence and brand can mean the company owns the name and has it trademarked. So it’s worth searching to make sure this isn’t the case.
On the same note, if a business has set up an LLC but not trademarked its name, just registering the LLC could also give it trademark rights.
Step 3—Get Your Domain
This last step isn’t part of the trademark due diligence process, but rather about locking in the ideal for your photography business.
While you’re doing research, check to see if the domain that corresponds with your name is available. To do this, just type in the domain on your internet browser and see if it goes to a website or not.
If the domain seems to be available, we’d recommend going ahead and buying it.* To do this, use a service like:
*You can’t permanently buy a domain, but rather pay to own it for a period of time.
What Can I Do If I’m in Love with a Name That’s Taken?
If you’re absolutely determined to use a specific name and find that it’s trademarked, you can try checking whether the business is still active, and reaching out to the owner to see if they’re open to giving up the name.
But this will cost money and time—two things you may be short on if you’re just starting a photography business.
3. Do I Need to Register My Photography Business?
It doesn’t hurt. But it’s also not something you absolutely have to do.
Here we would recommend applying the criteria mentioned above—if you’re working for yourself and have no employees, you probably don’t need to register your business. But if you have employees and want to grow, then you probably do want to register.
Here’s what you need to know:
- Federal registration. Most small businesses don’t need to do anything special to register their business except get a federal tax ID (also called an EIN, or Employer Identification Number). But if you’re filing as a sole proprietor you don’t need a tax ID/EIN—you’ll just use your social security number. (You can also file using your social as an LLC.)
- State registration. According to the Small Business Administration, for most small businesses, registering your business is as simple as registering your business name. You can do that here.
Why You Might Want to Register Your Photography Business
Here are some things to think about on the topic of registering your business:
- Legal compliance. Registering your business can be a legal requirement in some instances. It’s a formal recognition of your business by state and local authorities, allowing you to operate legally within your jurisdiction.
- Professional credibility. Registered businesses are generally viewed as more professional and trustworthy by clients and partners.
- Financial and tax benefits. Registering your business can make it possible to open a business bank account, get a business credit card, and potentially get beneficial tax treatment.
- Personal liability. In some business structures, like sole proprietorships and general partnerships, the business owner(s) and the business are considered the same legal entity. This means that if your business faces legal issues or debts, your personal assets could be at risk. Registering your business as a separate legal entity, such as an LLC or corporation, can provide a crucial layer of personal asset protection.
So Should You Register?
A helpful way to look at the registration question is—how big is your business?
If you’re working for yourself, have no employees, and you have no plans for growing aggressively, then you probably don’t need to register.
On the other hand, if you’re growing quickly and you want to hire people, and the structure of your business is starting to matter, then you probably will want to register your business.
I personally never registered my freelance writing and marketing business. But I’ve also never hired anyone or wanted to grow.
Most likely, if you are trying to grow, you’re going to be looking into questions of structure and seeking advice from lawyers and/or CPAs anyway—so my advice is to defer to their judgment on the question of whether to register.
4. Photography Contracts—Do You Need Them?
You do not have to use contracts as a freelance photographer. But we strongly recommend that you do.
If you’re worried that a contract may make a potential client walk away, the truth is that you probably don’t want to work with that client anyway.
But we get it—when you’re just getting started, it can feel intimidating to ask potential clients to do anything extra. You’re just glad they’re willing to hire you.
Here are some reasons to consider using contracts in your photography work:
- Legal protection. Contracts define your working relationship, detailing rights and responsibilities. Without a contract, you may find yourself vulnerable to scope creep, late payments, or even legal disputes.
- Clarity and expectation setting. A well-drafted contract outlines the scope of work, delivery timelines, payment terms, and any other specific requirements. This clarity helps prevent misunderstandings and disputes—and if a disagreement arises, you’ll have a written document to refer back to clearly outlining what you signed up to do.
- Professionalism. Using contracts reflects professionalism. While there are clients who won’t want them—again, probably ones you wouldn’t want to work with anyway—many others will actually require them.
- Financial security. Contracts can include terms for deposits, cancellation fees, and payment schedules, ensuring that you are compensated for your work and time, even if the project scope changes or is terminated prematurely.
How to Frame the Use of Contracts to Clients
When introducing contracts to clients, frame them as a tool that benefits you both.
Emphasize that your contract was made to protect both parties and ensure a smooth, transparent working relationship. Explain that the contract clarifies expectations and provides a roadmap for the project, which helps you deliver the best possible results for them.
When first introducing your contract to the client, walk them through the key points, and be open to questions. This not only helps build trust, but also serves to establish your professionalism and ensures they fully understand what they’re being asked to sign.
Photography Contract Best Practices
- Make sure your contracts are fair and understandable.
- Avoid overly complex legal jargon.
- Each contract should be tailored to the specific project, reflecting any unique aspects or requirements.
- When you’re creating your first standard contract, you may want to get legal advice to make sure it covers you in all the ways you want—and to surface ways you may not think of.
- 10 free starter contract templates for photographers (free)
- Rocket Lawyer’s customizable photography contract (paid)
5. Photography Business Insurance
Like contracts, we also recommend that you get insurance for your photography businesses.
While it might seem like an additional expense, the right insurance can protect you from lost equipment, and from potential lawsuits.
We recommend getting:
- Liability insurance. Protects you from people suing you for injuries or property damage that happens while they’re working with you.
- Equipment insurance. Provides financial protection for the loss, theft, damage, or breakdown of valuable equipment and assets, such as cameras, lenses, and other gear you might use in a photography business.
1. Liability Insurance
In our opinion, liability insurance is a must-have for any freelance photographer.
Why? Because if someone gets hurt or their property gets damaged while they’re working with you, they could sue you to make you pay the medical bills or the replacement costs for the damaged items.
For example, if someone trips over your tripod and gets injured during a shoot, liability insurance can cover legal fees and damages.
Also, some venues where you might shoot, like wedding halls or corporate event spaces, often require photographers to have liability insurance. Further, higher-end clients will see you having liability insurance as a sign of professionalism.
Here’s what to look for in liability insurance:
- Coverage limit. How much will you be covered for? How much do you think you might possibly need based on the type of work you do, and the types of clients you work with?
- Property damage. Are you covered if someone’s property is damaged while you’re working?
- Bodily injury. Are you covered if someone is injured while you’re working?
2. Equipment Insurance
As a photographer, your equipment is your lifeline. Without it, you can’t work.
Equipment insurance protects your cameras, lenses, lighting gear, and other accessories from theft, damage, or loss. Considering the investment you make in your gear, we think equipment insurance is crucial.
Imagine you’re at an outdoor shoot and a sudden storm damages your equipment, or your camera gets stolen while on assignment. Equipment insurance can cover the costs of replacement or repairs, helping you stay in business.
Here’s what to look for in equipment insurance:
- Coverage limit. Assess the value of your gear and make sure the coverage covers that amount.
- Look at the fine print. Check the policy details regarding claims for damages under different circumstances (e.g., theft, accidental damage, or loss) and make sure you’re covered for all the scenarios you imagine might apply to your work.
Photography Insurance Best Practices
Here are some things to keep in mind when choosing your insurance:
- Assess your needs. Your insurance needs depend on the nature and scale of your photography business. For example, a wedding photographer might need more comprehensive coverage compared to someone specializing in studio portraits. Also, if you’re just getting started, you may want to opt for the cheapest plan, but as your business grows you may want to get more coverage to protect yourself.
- Shop around. Compare quotes and policies from different insurance providers. Look for insurers who specialize or are familiar with the photography industry.
- Read the fine print. Understand the deductibles, policy limits, and exclusions. Know what’s covered and what’s not.
- Regular reviews. As your business grows and your equipment inventory changes, regularly review and update your insurance coverage.
Here are some insurance companies that provide packages specifically for photographers:
- Professional Photographers of America
- Hill & Usher—Package Choice for Photographers
- The Hartford—business liability insurance for photographers
6. Choosing Between a Photography LLC and a Sole Proprietorship
The main reason people set up LLCs is to protect themselves.
If you’re working as a sole proprietor—that is, just for yourself, with no formal registration in place—a client can sue you and go after your personal money.
But if you’re working under an LLC, they can only sue the LLC and go after its money. Your personal money and other assets are protected.
But before we go any further, let’s define our terms.
- An LLC (Limited Liability Company) is a U.S. business structure in the United States that provides personal liability protection to its owners (known as members) while allowing profits and losses to be passed through to their personal income without facing corporate taxes. This structure combines elements of both a corporation and a partnership or sole proprietorship.
- A sole proprietorship is essentially an unincorporated business owned and run by one individual, where there is no legal distinction between the owner and the business. For photographers, this means your business earnings are your personal earnings, and you’re responsible for all aspects of the business.
How to Choose
Here’s a general way to think about choosing between forming an LLC or working as a sole proprietorship:
- LLCs are best suited for photographers who are scaling their business, hiring employees, or seeking more significant financial investments.
- Sole proprietorships are best suited for photographers who are just starting out or operating on a smaller scale, where personal liability risks are lower.
As I mentioned earlier in this guide, I had an LLC for a number of years but then got rid of it.
Why? Because I realized I just didn’t need it. I was doing freelance marketing and writing work from home, and there was no chance anyone would ever sue me.
Also, keeping the LLC required an annual fee of $300 (I live in Tennessee—fees vary by state) and annual submission of paperwork. All for something I didn’t really need.
However, photography work is different. You’re out in the field, at venues and other locations where damage could accidentally occur. If you’re at all worried about the possibility of being sued, an LLC is a good way to separate your personal finances from those in your business, and protect yourself.
Tax Implications for LLCs vs. Sole Proprietorships
There is almost no difference between the two when it comes to taxes.
For both, you can file taxes using your social security number. That’s because the federal government and state governments view your LLC as a pass-through entity—that is, it doesn’t matter in the eyes of the government for tax implications.
If you’d like, you can also file your taxes with an EIN if you’ve received one. But again, there is essentially no difference. Either way you’ll be filing as a self-employed individual, as we’ve covered in the section on taxes above.
Pros and Cons of LLCs and Sole Proprietorships
Here are the main benefits for each type of structure for your photography business.
Sole Proprietorship Pros and Cons
- Pro—It’s easy to set up and manage. You don’t have to do anything to set up a sole proprietorship—it’s just a designation in how you file your taxes. So it’s an incredibly easy way to structure your business.
- Pro—Taxes are also easy. Also, taxes are easy to file this way because you’re just filing under your own name and social security number.
- Pro—It’s free. Also, you don’t have to pay anything to set up a sole proprietorship. Aan LLC will cost you an annual fee, which will vary depending on your state—in Tennessee, where I live, the cost is $300 a year plus $50 per additional member.
- Con—personal asset exposure. If something happens to someone’s property or person while you’re working for them, your personal assets could be exposed if they decide to sue you.
LLC Pros and Cons
- Pro—Liability protection. An LLC acts as a shield for your personal assets against business liabilities, providing a layer of financial security.
- Pro—Tax flexibility. LLCs can use pass-through taxation (meaning, you just pay taxes as yourself, with your own social security number, with the LLC’s revenue passing through to you). But you can also choose corporate taxation if it’s more beneficial—to understand which option is best for your business, we’d recommend talking to a good CPA.
- Pro—Banking and investment benefits. LLCs can get EINs and create business bank accounts, business loans, and pursue investors, all of which can be hard to do as a sole proprietor.
- Pro—Credibility and professionalism. Operating under an LLC can enhance your professional image, potentially attracting more clients and business opportunities.
- Pro—Structural flexibility. Unlike corporations, LLCs are not required to have a board of directors or annual meetings, offering more flexibility in management.
- Pro—banking be
- Con—Cost and complexity. Setting up an LLC is more costly and complex than operating as a sole proprietor. There are initial formation fees, annual state fees, and potential for more intricate bookkeeping and legal requirements.
- Con—State-by-state variance. Regulations and fees for LLCs can vary significantly by state, adding to the complexity of setup and maintenance.
The truth is, it doesn’t matter too much at first which way you go. What matters is that you take action.
Just make a choice and get out there and start getting work. You can always revisit this decision in a few months.