October 1, 2023

Sales Tax For Photographers Explained


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 often 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 away from a physical delivery (prints, books, CD, flash drives, etc) and more and more toward digital delivery (Pic-Time, Pixieset, etc), there is less and less sales tax being harvested from photographers. 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.

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.


Wonderful post! Thank you for the helpful links as well. I have a NUANCED situation i would appreciate your input on.

I am working with a friend who is a california photog. I am a michigan resident eloping to Italy. My CA friend is providing the photography for my event in italy without charging for labor. I am only covering her travel expenses and materials (ie film). She will deliver only a digital album for our direct download. If we decide to purchase photos through her website (pic-time), will she be required to collect sales tax on the travel and material charges? Is there a period we need to wait for before ordering photos?

This one is really confusing me as there are no labor charges and there are multi state and nations involved. Any insight or resources would be much appreciated!

Thanks for the kind words! I’ll DM you the reply 🙂

HI I came across your site about sales tax and was curious to know if i only DELIVER digital images via(i use pixieset.com) and have no tangible or physical product im giving them, only digital downloads of the images i took of their event, do i need to file state sales tax? Im confused on if the labor and service INVOLVED in taking the digital photos of their event is state sales taxable or not? PLease let me know. thanks

Yo! You’re all good and in CA wouldn’t need to file sales tax. In California, it’s called the load-and-leave method and other states most likely have a similar exception available. Regarding your second question, again in CA, if a couple books your services with the expectation of receiving physical goods – for example, your wedding package for $5K includes a book – then the entire $5K is taxable. If they book your hypothetical $5K package that doesn’t include any physical deliverable, and several months later they come back and decide to order a book for Christmas, lets say, only the book is taxable, not the $5K in services rendered months before. Does that make sense?

It is good thing as a photographer using Tax for wedding photography to charge a customer very well.

This is crazy helpful, would you ever consider teaching something like this through a YouTube format??

Yep! Follow along via my instagram to keep up to date on when that’ll roll out.

Hi Brandon! Thank you for this article. Super helpful. I had a timing question. As a wedding photographer Every now and then I receive payment in full for a wedding prior to delivery of the actual tangible goods. Does it matter if I pay sales tax at the time of payment in full or the time of delivery of the tangible products?

Appreciate your time!


Hey hey! Glad it helps! Did the payment include sales tax you withheld (aka charged)? If so, remit it at the same pace you receive it. Does that makes sense?

If you itemize your invoice by breaking the album away from the total package price, and list it as its own item lets say $1500 and the rest of the package is listed as the services, because you have separated them on the invoice, does that qualify to only tax the taxable item listed, in this case the album or will California still screw you and ask for the tax on the full package price?

Afraid to be the bearer of bad news, but the book is taxable in it’s own right, since it’s tangible – we know this – but the wedding service is too since it was required to make the book in the first place. In other words, the book wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the wedding photos being taken. Sucks… but make sense?

Hi Brandon,
Thanks so much for this article! Came across it by chance when I was trying to explain sales tax to my husband/ business partner. Your work is beautiful and LOVE your copy/words!
Melanie Soleil Mishler

Hi Nice Article. very informative.

However i don’t think this is correct on the last part : ” 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)”

According to the booklet you provided above, if you transfer the copy to the client’s computer, it is so-called “load and leave” and sales tax does not applied.

“If you transfer a photograph by FTP or download
it to your customer’s computer directly from your computer, a CD, or another storage medium that you keep (the“load and leave” method), you should document the transfer in your records.

Right, except that load-and-leave, and only load-and-leave, exempts you from sales tax. In other words, load-and-leave + physical goods = sales tax. Load-and-leave only = no sales tax. The flash drive or other storage medium is permissible but you, the photographer, must retain the flash drive after it’s used to load onto your client’s computer. If you give the flash drive to the client to keep, it’s a sales tax event. Make sense? It’s nuanced.

Nice article!! I normally shoot for commercial clients (where it’s usually all electronic delivery), but I might be shooting a wedding for a friend in California and am wondering how to handle the taxes. The couple live in Texas (as do i), but will be having their wedding in California. Initially all photos will be electronic delivery via my website. However, there’s a chance they might want prints or an album later. In that case, would I ever need to pay any California Sales/Use tax? Or would I need to pay taxes on the entire amount to Texas (where all photography – even electronic delivery – is taxable)?

Hey Mark! Multi-state tax questions are a bit tricky to answer. Most CPAs in big states like CA and TX don’t tend to do much work outside of those states, so we’re experts in the state we live in, but pretty newb when it comes to knowing details about other states, especially less dealt-with taxes like sales tax. CPAs in states like Mass or any other in that cluster of small New England states, by contrast, might know much more about neighboring sales tax law since they usually have clients living in a variety of nearby states. Anyway, that being said, I don’t know a whole lot about Texas sales tax law, but do know that they have a PDF similar to California’s talking all about how sales tax fits into a photographer’s tax profile. California is always after whatever revenue it can manage to attain, so knowing what I know about California sales tax, my un-researched guess would be that you might find yourself owing sales tax in California as a result of that job. My advice would be to reach out the CDTFA (California’s sales tax agency) and simply ask them. They’re super kind and very helpful. 1-800-400-7115

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.

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.

Hi Brandon,
Thanks so much for this article! Came across it by chance when I was trying to explain sales tax to my husband/ business partner. Your work is beautiful and LOVE your copy/words!
Melanie Soleil Mishler

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.

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 :/