Have you ever captured a portrait and thought, “I could do this for a living?”
I remember that moment vividly. I was in high school, photographing a girl who was interested in becoming a model. The photos turned out so well that it dawned on me: I could actually make money doing something I love.
But let’s be real: the journey from amateur to professional isn’t a cakewalk. I had no mentors, no internet resources (this was the 1980s, after all), just a stack of library books on photography and a burning desire to turn my passion into my profession.
Now, years later – after capturing countless weddings, family portraits, and empowering boudoir sessions – I can tell you that the road to becoming a professional portrait photographer is both challenging and incredibly rewarding. Plus, despite its difficulties, going pro is probably easier now than ever before.
In this post, I want to talk about some basic skills you’ll need if you want to make the leap. I’ve been there, and over the years, I’ve become the mentor I wish I had when first starting out.
So without further ado, here are some of the most important skills I encourage photographers to acquire on their journey to going pro!
Are you more of a visual learner? Then check out this video, which explains how to become a professional portrait photographer in detail:
The technical side of things
You’re going to need some basic technical skills if you’re serious about portrait photography. The good news? You don’t have to be a master right from the start. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the technical things you should become familiar with:
- Understanding the basics: Get comfortable with your camera and learn about the exposure triangle. In other words, learn how exposure works and know what your setup’s ISO, aperture, and shutter speed do.
- Composition: Techniques like the rule of thirds and s-curves aren’t just buzzwords; they can make or break a portrait.
- Lighting and flash photography: Whether you’re a fan of natural light or prefer the controlled environment of a studio, understanding lighting is non-negotiable. And don’t underestimate the power of flash photography; it can be a game-changer. (I offer several popular resources on lighting, including my course, Flash Photography for Portraits.)
- Post-processing: Lightroom and Photoshop are your friends, not foes. You don’t have to be an expert at portrait editing and retouching, but a basic understanding will go a long way.
The art of seeing
Developing an eye for what makes a compelling portrait is one of the differences between a snap-shooter and a pro. Here’s how you can cultivate that:
- Study the masters: Take some time to analyze the work of great portrait photographers. This can be an education in itself. Check out books or look up their work online. I would focus not only on contemporary artists but also on the work of portraitists from the late 1800s through the 1970s.
- Practice constantly: The more you shoot, the better you get. It’s that simple. Over time, you’ll develop a relationship with the art of portraiture that reveals your own unique style.
- Stay updated but be yourself: Trends come and go, but your style is your own. Don’t lose it while trying to be someone you’re not.
Soft skills: portrait photography is about people
Capturing a portrait is more than just clicking the shutter; it’s about creating a connection with the person in front of your lens. I’ve had many sessions that started off with the typical looks, body language, and expressions – elements that would probably fail to make any real connection with the viewer.
However, given a little time, my clients become so comfortable and have so much fun with the portraiture process that their personalities start to shine through. Authenticity, open communication, and a touch of empathy can go a long way in making your subject feel at ease.
- Building trust: The comfort level between you and your subject will be obvious in the final image. Build that trust, and it will naturally reflect in your portraits.
- Guidance and posing: You don’t have to be an expert in posing to get a good shot. A few well-practiced, natural poses can make all the difference. Guide your subjects in these poses, and you’ll find the results to be more organic and flattering.
- Adaptability: In the world of portrait photography, not everything goes as planned. Being prepared to pivot and tackle unforeseen challenges is just part of the job. This also reassures your subject that they’re in good, competent hands, as you’ll be able to create compelling portraits even when conditions are less than favorable.
Marketing and career growth: the other side of the lens
Turning a hobby into a full-time career involves more than just technical skills and an artistic eye; it requires a knack for business. Believe it or not, the business side of photography can be just as creative and fulfilling as the art itself. There’s a lot to learn about going pro and building a thriving portrait business!
Here are some things that you’ll want to get a handle on:
- How to curate a portfolio: Your portfolio is your visual resume. Make it compelling, and you’ll draw in the right types of clients.
- Networking and collaboration: The power of a strong network can’t be overstated. Create connections with fellow photographers and potential clients. You never know when a collaboration could lead to your next big opportunity.
- Pricing and packages: Know your market and tailor your packages accordingly. Offering value is key to attracting and retaining clients.
- Client relationship management: A happy client is not just a repeat customer but also a walking advertisement for your services. Listen to their feedback and aim for excellence in every project you take on.
- How to master the art of selling: Let’s face it, many of us aren’t born salespeople. But the good news is that selling is a skill that can be learned. Whether it’s booking sessions or upselling packages, a little training can go a long way.
Fortunately, there are good resources available to help you get started down this path. My Portrait Photography Business Course is a comprehensive guide that will teach you how to build a thriving portrait business.
Note: For a limited time, Digital Photography School readers can purchase the Portrait Photography Business Course for 70% off the normal price. Just make sure to use this link to secure your discount. But don’t dawdle; the deal only lasts until 11:59 PM CT on Monday, November 6th!
Going pro is worth it
The journey from amateur to professional portrait photographer is more than just mastering the technicalities; it’s a combination of artistry, interpersonal skills, and business savvy. I’ve walked this path, from the days of poring over library books to now teaching photographers all over the world, and can honestly say that the rewards are huge.
Not only do you get to turn your passion into your profession, but you also gain the unparalleled freedom and satisfaction that come from being your own boss. With today’s wealth of resources, achieving this dream is more possible than ever. So why wait? If becoming a professional photographer is something you’d like to try, there’s no better time than now!
Remember, for the next six days, Digital Photography School readers can purchase the Portrait Photography Business Course for 70% off the normal price. So click here to secure your discount – and to take the first steps toward becoming a portrait photography professional!