Whether you operate your photography business as a sole trader or through a limited company, it’s important to make sure you’re claiming all the tax relief on business expenses you’re entitled to.

The rules can seem complicated, especially for things like utilities and phone bills, but they’re actually fairly straightforward when you understand the underlying principles.

We offer a range of accounting services for photographers and tax advice covering exactly this kind of thing is just one of them. Read on for our run-down of the expenses you can and can’t claim.

Wholly and exclusively

If you’re operating as a sole trader, you need to demonstrate, if challenged by HMRC, that something you’ve put through as a business expense was “wholly and exclusively” for the purposes of your trade.

What that’s really about is preventing people claiming something like a new TV which, even if they occasionally employ it for work, was really purchased so the family could watch Netflix on it every evening.

Cameras and photography equipment are just the kind of thing that might raise red flags in any other profession but as a photographer, the purchase of a camera, even a top-end piece of kit, isn’t likely to prompt any queries. The link to your core business is crystal clear.

Even if you did use the camera outside work, on a private project, you’d probably be able to make a good case for that being part and parcel of your ongoing professional development.

There’s a subtle difference if you’ve set up a limited company for your photographic studio or agency. In that case, anything claimed by an employee as a business expense has to be “wholly, exclusively and necessarily in the performance of the duties of the employment”.

‘Necessarily’ in this context means that anybody doing the same job would need to incur the same expense. In other words, it can’t be because of a personal preference or special requirements.

Let’s say you’re employed by a studio which uses Nikon equipment but you prefer to work with Canon – you couldn’t buy a new camera from your favoured manufacturer and claim relief on it as a business expense.

Can you claim premises costs?

If you rent a commercial property to operate out of – a photographic studio or shop – you can claim that as a business expense, along with business and water rates, utility bills and property insurance.

You can also usually claim against the costs of any security measures – handy if you’ve got a cupboard full of expensive cameras, lenses and so on, and need a heavy-grade shutter or alarm service.

If you’re working from home, as many photographers do, you can still claim for certain property-related costs but have to undertake additional calculations.

For example, you can claim a reasonable portion of your electricity bill as a business expense. You just need to work out how much of each bill is down to the electricity used while you’re working, taking into account the high energy usage of studio lighting.

In our experience, as long as there’s evidence that you’ve acted in good faith, HMRC gives a decent amount of leeway for sensible estimates. Just make sure you keep records of your calculations, along with all the original bills, in case they do have any queries.

The same principle applies to telephone bills, mobile contracts, and even gas and heating.

Which equipment can be claimed?

The chances are that you’ll be able to make a justifiable claim for most of the hardware associated with a photographic business, such as cameras, tripods, carrying cases, filters, lights, reflectors and so on.

Smaller associated items are also usually claimable: memory cards, spare batteries, hard drives or – if you’re a traditionalist – film.

You’ll probably also be able to claim for computers and licences for software used for photo editing, cataloguing, video production or anything else directly linked to your work.

This should all be fairly uncontroversial as long as it is all really for professional use.

Travelling for photoshoots

Most photographers spend a large chunk of their time on the road, whether they’re shooting weddings or other events, or working with stock libraries or picture agencies in mind.

In general, travel expenses for work are allowable as business expenses – everything from train tickets to petrol, via hotels and meals on overnight trips.

One common pitfall to avoid is the temptation to tack a weekend break onto the end of a out-of-town or overseas shoot and put the whole thing through as a business expense.

Investing in yourself and your brand

There are certain things associated with professional development that photographers can claim, though many don’t realise it.

If you go on training courses, for example – perhaps to learn a new photographic technique, some new editing software or just to hone your skills in a field such as food photography – that can be claimed as a business expense.

It’s good in this case to be able to demonstrate that it is driven by the needs of your business, perhaps with a view to opening up new revenue streams.

Claiming clothing as a business expense is strictly frowned upon but if it makes sense for you to wear a uniform with your name and business logo, that can be claimed as uniform.

The same goes for protective equipment or workwear you might need depending on the type of photography you specialise in – warzone photographers being perhaps the most extreme example.

Subscriptions to professional magazines and journals, which contribute to your professional development and help you stay on top of trends and technical developments, are also typically fine to claim.

Keeping good records with FreeAgent

The most important thing is to make sure that any claims you make are supported by clear, comprehensive records. Keep every receipt and invoice, ideally with supporting notes.

Fortunately, that’s a lot easier than it used to be, with no need for file-boxes full of scraps of paper or bulging wallets and purses thanks to the arrival of app-based cloud accounting software.

For one-person businesses, we recommend FreeAgent, which has a streamlined feature set and works brilliantly on mobile devices for those often out on the road.

Talk to us about business expense claims for your photography business.