Taxes for Photographers: A Complete Guide [New for 2024] 

In this guide on taxes for photographers we cover all the types of taxes you need to consider. 

[Note: This guide covers U.S. taxes only.]

Taxes, especially sales tax, can be a complex aspect of running a photography business, since the categorization of photography services can vary significantly from state to state. And for that reason it’s understandable to feel a little intimidated.

But don’t worry. The basics are actually really straightforward when it comes to paying taxes as a freelance photographer.

Here are the brass tacks when it comes to paying taxes as a photographer:*

  • Federal taxes. You’ll have to pay self-employment and income tax.
  • State taxes. You may have to pay income tax and you’ll probably have to pay sales tax—it all depends on the laws in your specific state.

*These are taxes you have to pay regardless of whether you file as an LLC or a sole proprietor. More on that below.

Here’s the list of topics covered in this short guide to freelance photographer taxes in case you’d like to jump around:

Photographer Taxes Best Practices

Here are a few things to keep in mind 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 deduction you’ll get. It is for me, anyway.
  • File annual tax returns, but pay quarterly. Report your annual income and expenses on Schedule C and file it along with your Form 1040, but also make sure to pay your projected federal taxes every quarter. (Or not. If you don’t, you get fined a relatively small amount, which may be worth it if you’d rather wait to see how much you made in a year before paying—see my thoughts on this 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.

Federal Taxes for Photographers

If you own a photography business, you’ll be paying self-employment tax. (This is true whether your business is operated as an LLC or sole proprietorship, as noted above.)

And as a self-employed individual, you’re responsible for paying these federal taxes:

  • Self-employment tax (Social Security and Medicare)*
  • Income tax

If you were working as an employee, your employer would pay half of your self-employment taxes. 

But 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.

Bottom line, because you’re paying self-employment tax, you pay more tax than you would if you were working for a company. 

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.

If you don’t pay quarterly, you’ll have to pay a small penalty when you file your taxes. Learn more about making self-employment tax and making estimated payments on the IRS website.

Quick Note—I Pay the Fine Instead of Making Estimated Payments

Full disclosure—I have 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 some self-employment work as a side hustle.

Through all these changes, 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. 

Just that it’s OK to not pay quarterly taxes. And that the fine is really not that bad if you think it’s worth a fine for the luxury of waiting to see how much you actually earned in a given year before paying tax on your income.

For me, the security of waiting until I see how much I actually made that year is worth the pain of paying what is typically a fine of a few hundred dollars.

But that’s just me. You might rather pay taxes up front and get back any overpayments as a refund when you file in April. 

State and Local Taxes for Photographers

Each state has different tax requirements and different ways that it views small businesses.

Below are the three main areas to look out for when it comes to state and local taxes.

1. Income Tax

Does your state have an income tax? If so, you’ll need to pay it.

This map from the Tax Foundation shows rates from 2023:

Related links:

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.

Additional resources:

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.

Additional resources:

Taxes for Photographers: LLC vs Sole Proprietor

First things first: Whether you have an LLC for your photography business or you work as a sole proprietor makes no difference for how you file your taxes.

You’ll report the income as self-employment income and pay self-employment taxes on it, and that’s it.

But you can potentially save money by filing as an LLC. Keep reading for the details on filing and ways you can save money.

Filing Taxes as an LLC vs. Sole Proprietor

Here’s why there’s no difference between the two in how you file:

  • Federal taxes. The federal government views an LLC as a pass-through entity for tax purposes, which means it doesn’t care if you work under an LLC or as yourself (i.e., as a sole proprietor). Either way, the income is reported on your personal tax returns. What counts is that you are accurate in how much you made from self-employment income when you file—not whether you made that money under an LLC or not.
  • State taxes. In most U.S. states—including Tennessee, where I live—LLCs are also viewed as pass-through entities. So, same as federal taxes, you’ll file your photography business income as part of your personal tax return. However—some states impose additional fees or taxes specifically on LLCs. For instance, California has an annual franchise tax for LLCs. So it’s important to know the specific requirements of your state when you file.

Bottom line:

  • You don’t need to worry about the difference between filing as an LLC or as a sole proprietor for federal taxes.
  • You probably don’t need to worry about it for state taxes—just make sure to confirm this with some quick research for your particular state.

Potential Savings by Filing as an LLC 

Filing taxes for your photography business as an LLC can come with big potential benefits. 

But these need to be weighed against your appetite for complexity. Not to mention added costs—for most people, taking advantage of the tax savings you can get with an LLC will require hiring a CPA to navigate the process.

The big way LLCs can save you money on taxes is by filing as an S corporation

By electing S-corp status when filing, LLC owners can pay themselves a reasonable salary and receive remaining profits as dividends. 

Here’s where you save: The salary will be taxed at the higher, self-employment rate than the dividends.

That’s because the salary will be subject to federal self-employment taxes—Social Security and Medicare, as covered above—while the profit you receive as dividends will not. (The profit will still be taxed, just at a lower rate).

Dive deeper:

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