Sales Tax For Photographers Explainedfor photographers

If you’re a wedding photographer wondering if sales tax applies to you, you’ve landed at the right post. I’ll unpack the rules for prints, books, and delivering photos digitally. Let’s get started.

If you’ve been following me for any length of time, you probably know that my former career was that of a CPA. I may not labor on tax returns and financial statements on the daily, but I still draw on that experience every day running this photo business.

One of the most confusing and oft forgotten aspects of running a photography business is sales tax and how it applies to wedding photography. First off, it’s different for each state, so this post may or may not be helpful depending on your state’s sales tax law. I’m writing from California, but the overall gist of this post should at least make you aware of something you’ve been missing entirely as a photographer.

It’s no secret that California has been hurting for more tax revenue, and with photography moving largely away from a sales-based model (prints, books, etc.) and more and more toward digital delivery (Dropbox, DVDs, flash drives, etc.), there is less and less sales tax being harvested from this corner of the creative world. This also means states are auditing creative-types more and more. I personally know two people who have been hit hard by fines and penalties for not paying sales tax. Trust me, it’s MUCH cheaper to pay the tax than wait for an audit.

Let’s unpack this and figure out what it means for you.

Also, heads up, I’m coming at this from a digital wedding photography angle. Film folk delivering prints using the traditional business model should know to pay sales tax already.


Define photograph for me…

A photograph per California includes “a digital image captured and stored on a transportable data storage medium such as a hard drive, CD, DVD, removable disk, or flash memory.” This means that even if you take a digital photo and deliver it to your client via flash drive, a potentially-taxable photo exists.


OK, so a digital photo is taxable. Do I just charge sales tax on the flash drive, or just the book, or… what do I charge tax on?

This is the part that sucks. California says that labor and service charges are taxable if they result in the creation of a product. That means if you charge $3,000 for wedding photography coverage, and you delivered the digital photos via flash drive, and maybe even a book, you have to charge sales tax on the entire $3,000, plus whatever you’re charging for the book.


Wow, that’s a lot of tax I have to charge clients. Are there any exceptions?

Yep, there are. Some photo-related sales aren’t taxable. These include any photos transferred electronically. This means transferred by either uploading to a service your clients can download from (Dropbox, SmugMug, etc.) or hosting on your site and allowing them to download directly to their computer. However, it’s super important to note, that if you deliver electronically, but then ALSO give your client a copy of their photos on a flash drive (even if it’s their own flash drive), you have to charge sales tax on the entire amount. It’s that physical drive/DVD/thing that tips the tax scale.


Well, OK bummer, I guess I have to pony up the sales tax. How do I pay?

Again, this is different for each state, but should be similar wherever you live. For California, you can go to the state’s Board of Equalization website and register there. You have to create an account for your business and then answer a series of questions. The state will tell you if you have to pay weekly, monthly, quarterly, or annually. We pay annually, which means we have to compute and pay by January 31st of the following year. For example, we pay 2015 taxes on January 31, 2016).

The Board of Equalization has created an entire booklet just for photographers and video professionals. I highly suggest breezing through it. There are different rules depending on what type of photography you do. Commercial photography has an additional set of issues to deal with.

Sales tax is a big bummer. Getting slogged down in years and years of back taxes, fines and penalties because you didn’t know, however, is far worse. If you weren’t paying sales tax before, hopefully this at least made you aware that you’re supposed to be paying it.

I can definitely help answer some questions, but your state’s tax board is usually the best place to go. The folks at California’s Board of Equalization are super helpful and will gladly help you with any questions. Here’s their number >>> 1-800-400-7115

Now go have a beer.

  • Hi,
    Nice article.
    Little question. If you deliver the client only digital media.=> you don't have to add taxe.

    But, if one month after the wedding you wan't to sell the client a photo Album . Can you make a specific contract only for the album , and taxe add the taxe only on the album ? Or should you taxe the entire wedding+ album ?

    • In California you would still have to tax the entire wedding and album in that example :/

  • Joyce Wilson said:

    If I shoot a wedding (or any type of portrait shoot) and only deliver digital images via download:

    I know the digital images are not taxable, is the labor involved (session fee) still taxable?

    "Taking photographs with a digital camera" is listed under "taxable fabrication labor" in the boe guide,

    I just am unclear if you only charge the labor (sesssion fee) tax if you create a tangible product, but it is somehow an exception if no tangible product is made.

    • Right, it's the sale of a tangible item that triggers the need to tax labor involved in the creation of that tangible item. Think of it like... the labor's taxability is held in suspension forever until a taxable event occurs (sale of tangible item). The labor's tax potential may never be realized. Does that help a bit? Digital photography is a weird gray space.

  • Great article! I’m a wedding photographer and curious how you handle sales for clients that are only getting digital transfer of images ( nothing tangible in the collection they book). I feel like I’m losing out on potential future album sales, prints, etc since later on I’d have to charge tax on everything..and let’s be honest no one is going to buy a print if it means hundreds of dollars in tax. I’ve tried charging sales tax up front but then get push back on why there is tax if the collection is all digital.

    • Take a look at my price book on the pricing page. I package books into specific packages and then pay sales tax on the back-end for those. BUT, only when the couple is a California resident, which is 50/50 or so. For prints, I use Pic-Time which is technically a profit-sharing print sales service. So I upload and deliver the photos to Pic-Time, and the Pic-Time sells prints to couples, take out their cut, take out the printing-costs, and then just gives me a share of that revenue. It's a consignment model and in CA, consignment sales don't accrue sales tax.

  • I live in Chicago and so Illinois does not tax the labor (I believe so at least). What if I don't charge the couple and "gift" them a flash drive and few prints packaged nicely in the box (on top of regular pixiset delivery). Am I obligated to collect the tax on these items? And then Can i deduct them as a business expenses later (they were a gift to clients, which may result in promotion of my work)? Thanks for the great write up dude.

    • That's super tricky. If booking is contingent on receiving the gift, then I'd say it's taxable. If you surprise them with a gift that they weren't expecting, then perhaps there's an argument for not charging tax. Does that make sense? Like, if I was a client, and you said that if I book, you'll include a free book, then technically a book is part of the deal and I think would therefore be taxable.