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How to Become a Portrait Photographer

10 min read

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Professional Portrait Photographer in her Captivating Studio.
Quick summary

Portrait photography is an exciting genre with many interesting possibilities. From traditional portrait photography to artistic fine art, there are many options to choose from. Follow our tips to boost your confidence as a portrait photographer and get a better idea of all the requirements that come with this genre.

If you’re looking for tips on how to become a portrait photographer, you’re in the right place! First of all, congratulations on embarking on this journey. Being a portrait photographer is very exciting and fulfilling.

Every photography genre comes with its obstacles. If you’re not sure where to start, how to communicate with models, or how to edit photographs, you’re not alone.

Fortunately, we have all the tips you need to get started with confidence.

Before you start, keep in mind that everybody’s journey is different. As you follow these tips, you’ll discover techniques and approaches that will help you build your own unique portfolio.

The more experience you have, the easier it will be to find your style and attract the right clients to your work. Let’s go over the most important parts together.

studio portrait photography.

Sub-Genres in Professional Portrait Photography

Before we dive into the “how” and “why” behind portrait photography, let’s take a look at some of the most popular (and profitable) portrait photography jobs or sub-genres.

A sub-genre is a niche within an industry. Portrait photography is made up of many different types of photography. They all involve human subjects, but they have different approaches.

If you want to pursue photography on a professional level, it’s important to pick a genre to specialise in. This will help you find the perfect clients for your job. If you’re a hobbyist, it might also help to pick a few genres to specialise in.

However, keep in mind that your decisions aren’t set in stone. Many photographers switch to different genres at some point in their lives. Follow your intuition and pursue a genre that speaks to you now.

editorial fashion portrait.

Fashion Photography

Fashion photography is a separate genre of its own, but it’s worth considering if you want to focus on clothing in your images.

This genre involves photographing people in different outfits. You can use natural or artificial light to take fashion portraits. There’s also flexibility when it comes to location; some photographers shoot outdoors, while others take photos in a studio environment.

family portrait photo taken during golden hour.

Family Photography & Couple Photography

Couple and/or family photography involves taking photos of families either indoors or outdoors. Family photos usually have a candid feeling to them. Many families want their personalities to shine in their images, so authenticity is key.

Family or couple photography may also include taking baby pictures, couple portraits, or proposal photos.

wide shot of wedding couple outdoors.

Wedding Photography

Wedding photography isn’t considered traditional portrait photography. However, it can be a fantastic way to improve your skills and take a variety of photos for your portrait photography portfolio.

Wedding photography can be time-consuming and challenging. On the other hand, it can boost your confidence by exposing you to different types of portrait photography, including group photography and candid photography.

The social aspect of wedding photography can also help you find new clients for your business.

senior portrait photo.

Senior Photography

Most popular in the US, senior photography involves taking high school senior portraits. Like wedding photography, this kind of work is seasonal. This means that senior photography isn’t needed all year round.

At the right time of year, it can provide you with a plethora of photo opportunities.

Senior photographs are traditional portraits, often taken outdoors, that reflect the model’s personality or future goals. Common outfits include clothes with university logos or graduation hats. Some models choose to dress casually.

self-portrait taken in mirror.

Self-Portrait Photography

Self-portrait photography offers unique challenges. As a self-portrait photographer, you need to be in charge of lighting techniques, posing, camera settings, and more.

If you’d like to improve your self-portrait photography skills indoors using budget-friendly items, join our course today! We’ll teach you how to take outstanding photos of yourself without spending thousands of dollars on camera gear or lighting equipment.

conceptual portrait shot taken indoors.

Conceptual Portrait Photography

Conceptual photography is one of the most creative forms of portrait photography. This genre usually requires advanced editing skills. If you need inspiration, check out the photographs of Joel Robison, Alexandra Benetel, or Silvia Travieso.

Things like levitation, fantasy-themed objects, and unusual colours are popular in this genre. This kind of photography is perfect for creative commercial projects or personal expression.

traditional portrait photography example.

Traditional Portrait Photography

Last but not least: traditional portraits. Some people just want to have their photos taken for themselves or for social media.

There are two options to choose from:

This is a great place to start if you want to build a portrait photography career. As you take traditional portrait photos, you’ll find it easy to figure out if you truly love this genre or not.

students applauding their lecturer in a learning environment.

Do I Need to Go to University to Become a Successful Photographer?

Many professional portrait photographers have a bachelor’s degree in photography. However, based on our photography interviews for Great Big Photography World Podcast, we’ve determined that there are just as many photographers who are self-taught.

Formal education is important, but it can be achieved in multiple ways. If a college education is out of your reach, you can join online classes. Many classes, including the ones on our website, offer certifications that can boost your reputation and improve your skills.

person browsing through portrait photos in editing program.

How Much Money Will I Get as a Portrait Photographer?

In the US, the average annual salary of a portrait photographer ranges between $20,000 and $80,000. This is a very rough estimate.

If you look at specific genres, you’ll find different statistics:

  • Wedding photographer: between $50,000 and $60,000
  • Fashion photographer: between $40,000 and $50,000

This depends on your level of experience, your rates, how often you take photos, and how well you market yourself. To get a more realistic idea of your potential salary, take a look at what local photographers charge per hour.

close-up of money.

How Do Portrait Photographers Get Paid?

Whether you’re a freelance or professional portrait photographer, you may have to charge on an hourly basis. The average hourly rate of a portrait photographer in the US is between $50 and $500.

You can also offer package deals. If you photograph a wedding, you can charge a fixed amount for a specific amount of hours. Wedding photographers are usually paid a portion of the money in advance. (This is also known as a deposit.)

This approach can be used in traditional portrait photography, too. Freelance portrait photographers also offer package deals, especially when working with the same model multiple times. You can offer group discounts or referral discounts. Feel free to get creative!

black and white shot of photographer.

Can You Make a Living as a Portrait Photographer?

Like any industry, portrait photography requires a significant amount of time and effort. If you want to start a portrait photography business, you need to use the right networking and photography techniques to succeed.

There are many professional photographers who have succeeded in this industry. Learning from these people and building an outstanding portfolio will increase your chances of succeeding, too.

What Does it Take To Become a Portrait Photographer?

So what do you actually need to become a portrait photographer? Let’s dive into the most important factors you need to consider before pursuing portrait photography.

wedding photographer taking photos of bride and groom.

1. Know Your Niche

Whether you want to build a business or create a website for your portfolio, it might help to lean on a niche. Go back to the list of portrait photography sub-genres above. Which one makes you want to pick up your camera and start shooting right away?

If you’re interested in several genres, you might be a generalist. Generalist photographers, such as Joe McNally and Julia Wimmerlin, take incredible photographs of people, landscapes, animals, and the list goes on. For example, as a portrait photography generalist, you might be interested in taking fashion, family, wedding, and traditional photos.

Once you know your preferences, you’ll get a better understanding of the following:

  • Your business or personal photography goals
  • Your target audience
  • Camera gear or accessory requirements (e.g., studio lighting equipment, special lenses, etc.)
photographer.

2. Invest in Portrait Photography Equipment

There are a few lenses and cameras that portrait photographers use to improve image quality and produce amazing portraits. You don’t need to purchase equipment that everyone uses, but it’s important to have lenses with the right focal length to get that soft-focused “portrait photography look”.

There are many budget-friendly alternatives out there, so don’t feel discouraged if you can’t invest in the latest equipment.

Mirrorless and DSLR cameras are both suitable for portrait photography. Some popular portrait photography cameras are:

  • Sony a7 III
  • Sony a7R III
  • Canon 5D Mark IV
  • Canon 6D Mark II
  • Nikon D610
  • Nikon D3500

When looking for lenses, pay attention to prime lenses and zoom lenses, as they’re very popular in this genre. Make sure that your desired lens can help you achieve a soft-focused effect in your portraits. The smaller the aperture number, the softer your backgrounds will be.

Here are the types of portrait lenses you can use:

  • 35mm
  • 50mm
  • 85mm
  • 105mm
  • 135mm

Your widest aperture can range from f/1.2 to f/2.8, but you can use a more narrow aperture if necessary.

Keep in mind that these are just guidelines, not rules. Some photographers use very different cameras or lenses to take unique portraits. We recommend borrowing or renting lenses to get an idea of what works best for your style and budget.

Other important things to keep in mind, especially if you want to shoot in a portrait studio, is lighting equipment:

  • Tripod
  • Lightbox
  • Reflector
  • Backdrops
  • Diffuser
  • Strobe lights
portrait photographer interacting with model.

3. Have Great Interpersonal Skills

Interpersonal skills are also known as social skills. How well do you communicate with others? Do you enjoy meeting new people?

This doesn’t mean that you need to be an extrovert. There are many popular introverted photographers who have found great success in the industry. If you’re not confident in your social skills now, remember that you can work on them later. The more shoots you have, the more experienced you’ll be.

portrait photographer during a portrait photoshoot during sunset.

4. Learn How to Guide Your Models

Even when you work with professional models, you need to guide them to get the best results. You can start by practicing with your close friends and family.

Taking pictures of your loved ones will provide you with invaluable experience. Use this as an opportunity to experiment with different lighting techniques, poses, and expressions. Your test subjects will help you start building an outstanding portfolio that reflects your unique style.

If any of your models are camera shy, encourage them with compliments and extra guidance. It’s important to work with a variety of people to boost your social skills and confidence.

5. Build a Strong Portrait Photography Portfolio

When you know your niche, develop your social skills, learn how to guide your models, and invest in the right equipment, you’ll be much closer to building a strong portfolio as a portrait photographer.

The key is to practice consistently and embrace failure. Work on your technical skills, but don’t forget about your creativity. When you find your style, continue to develop it by taking photos in different locations and using a variety of models.

To strengthen your creativity, challenge yourself by experimenting with different photography styles. Use foregrounds, shoot in black & white, use the recommended camera settings, and take photos from different angles to make the most of your location.

portrait photography retouching before and after.

6. Work on Your Editing Skills

Most portrait photographers edit their photographs. To create professional images, you need to have an understanding of colour correction and retouching.

You don’t need to be a Photoshop guru to master this. If you’re new to editing, all you need is a photography program like Adobe Lightroom, GIMP, or Adobe Photoshop. When it comes to retouching, there are many free resources you can use to make your models’ skin look perfect in minutes.

When you expand your business, you can hire someone to take over the editing process for you.

male portrait photographer taking pictures of women outdoors.

7. Network with Other Portrait Photographers

In the world of photography, networking is your best friend. Even if you’re a beginner, connect with established photographers both online and offline. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice, request constructive criticism, and compliment others.

This will help you build your own network and learn from more experienced people. Other photographers might have helpful resources for you. At the very least, they’ll provide you with expert advice and potentially lifelong friendships.

Join our online photography community to find inspiration and new friends. In our community, you’ll find a diverse range of premium courses and a supportive group of international photographers.

If you want to join an offline community, look for a local photo club, collaborate with a local portrait photographer, or attend a photography workshop.

woman looking for books in a library.

8. Be a Lifelong Learner

As a portrait photographer, one of the most valuable things you can do is pursue knowledge. Invest in high-quality education. Join online courses that can help you boost your skills in portrait photography and beyond.

Studying photography will not only make you more confident but will also improve the quality of your images significantly.

The key is to focus on photography in general. Here are a few things you can start with:

  • Learn how to take photos in a studio setting by watching videos.
  • Purchase a career guide to get a better understanding of how your business could grow sustainably.
  • Work with modeling agencies to photograph different portrait subjects and improve your interpersonal skills.
  • Buy a few books for learning portrait photography.
  • Watch editing tutorials to master your editing software.
  • Read your camera manual to make the most of your gear.
  • Regularly reach out to experienced portrait photographers and ask questions.
photographer taking photos using analogue camera outdoors.

Conclusion

Shooting portraits doesn’t have to be difficult or unpredictable. If you want to become a portrait photographer, make sure to learn new things consistently, invest in the right equipment, practice with different models, and collaborate with professional photographers.

Be patient with yourself, and before you know it, you’ll have an amazing portrait photography portfolio of your own.

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Taya Iv is a portrait photographer, 500px ambassador, and host of Great Big Photography World podcast.
Taya Iv is a portrait photographer, 500px ambassador, and host of Great Big Photography World podcast.
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  1. I recently bought a Canon EOS Rebel T7, I got a Canon EF 50mm 1:1.8 and Canon EF 75-300mm f/4-5.6 III Lens
    Is this set up ok for starting some simple Portrait photography

    1. Perfect! I used the Canon 50mm 1.8 for many years. It’s still with me today. 🙂 I think it’s one of the best lenses for portrait photography and any other kind of photography as well. Enjoy it!

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