Getting Started with Portrait Photography: How to Start

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Portrait photography is an acquired form of photography that while there is nothing terribly difficult to do, does take some special skills in order to do it well. In reality, anyone that takes shots of individuals where they are posing can say that they are a portrait photographer and not be stretching the truth too badly. However, if you want to actually be a good portrait photographer and do it as a way to make great photos and a pretty good living then there are some guidelines that you need to be aware of. As in any situation the guidelines give you the means that get you started on the journey. There are things along that journey that you will change to suit yourself and your particular style but you still need to be aware of what is “accepted” so that you can start off correctly and get good results before you start adapting things to fit your wants, needs and desires.

Equipment That You Need

This is one of those areas where people tend to want to go overboard. They want the best of everything that they can get for the job. Then they look at what the best is going to cost and they either go near bankruptcy setting themselves up, they scale back to something do-able or they give up the dream all together and go back to working at the factory and doing snapshots like they had always doing.

If money is no issue then you should, by all means, get the best gear that you can purchase. While it will not make you a technically better photographer it will eliminate the possibility that your gear will hold you back and cause you to have problems.

The majority of us will look into scaling back what they intend on using to get going and then will upgrade gear as they go along and as the finances allow them to do so. So let’s look first at the basic needs that you have to have to get started and then we will examine the extras that will make it easier and even a little better in the results achieved side of the balance sheet. And make no mistake about it, what you spend against what you get as a net result is a balancing act.

  • Camera – The most important part of your gear is going to logically be your camera because that is what is going to capture the image and give you something worth seeing. Now it stands to reason here that you want the best gear that you can afford. I still on occasion use a 12 mega pixel camera or a 6 mega pixel instead of my top of line gear. You may ask why. Well it’s like this. If I have a shoot that requires something like being out in the weather or hanging out in a precarious position I can use a lower resolution camera and not worry about issues that could damage it I can just shoot. However if I am in total control I use the big boy so that I can get large clear prints even after the cropping stage. The rule of thumb here as far as I am concerned is that a good photographer can get a great shot regardless of the camera but a good camera can not make a bad photo any better. With that being said, look at the end result that you are after for the foreseeable future and buy for that need or better if funds allow. Most stock photo places on the web for example only require 3 mega pixels or above. But if you are going to be doing lots of large prints, then you need a high mega pixel camera. Concentrate on your technique and any camera will give you a great result. Needless to say, you should have a DSLR camera if you do want to take portrait photos. There’s a whole range of different options when you start looking at DSRL’s. My recommendation (if you can afford the best) would be a full frame DSLR camera (I love the Canon 5D Mark 2).


  • Lenses – This is a grey area. I tend to think that most people sink money in to a zoom because it is a catch all for most situations. However you will give up clarity and low light imaging for that luxury. I would much rather just use one really good prime lens than a bag full of zooms when it comes to portrait shooting. In fact, I rarely even open the zooms unless I am busy simply being a tourist or scouting new locations I use the prime lenses exclusively. So get a decent 50 mm and a good 135 mm and you should be good to go, you might consider a wider angle like a 24 mm if you shoot a lot in close quarters or you happen to do a lot of product photography. You might also want to look at a 85mm lens which is great for shoulder to head portrait shots. Whether you have full frame or a crop DSRL will change what lenses you choose as crop cameras maginfy the focal length by 1.5 (in the case of Canon’s crop cameras). This means that a 50mm won’t actually be 50mm but 85mm on a crop. Another word of advice here: Make sure they are made from a good company (Canon or Nikon are the top brands) and get the lowest f stop setting that you can get such as an f/2.0 and f/1.8 are pretty reasonable. The f/2.8 lenses are plentiful and semi cheap. I would also consider trying to get one lens somewhere in either f/1.2 or f/1.4 if you can, you won’t regret it, though you will pay more.
  • Lighting – With today’s digital cameras being able to set white balance quickly and easily, you can get phenomenal results using everyday light reflectors. I am not talking about the cloth photo reflector umbrellas; I am talking about the cheap clamp on lamps that you see on construction sites. They throw a lot of light and are dirt cheap. They certainly don’t look all that great but they do a decent job if you are on a budget. If you take two or three of these and invest in some real photo grade lamps to use in them, you will be the only one that knows it wasn’t a several hundred dollar set up. You need to add some stands to hold them if you wand good control over placement and some way to diffuse the light so that it is soft and even. That means that you will not likely want to use hot lights which cause the studio to get terribly hot and can cause things to ignite but rather use the cooler fluorescent color balanced bulbs.


  • Software – You should bite the bullet here and buy a copy of Photoshop. It really is the standard in the industry and once you learn it you can do things with and to your photos that will make them much more interesting and useable. However if the funds are not there go to and check out the free software that they offer. It gives you a lot of the capabilities of Photoshop and did I mention that it is free? So that makes it really affordable to get and use. No, it does not have the clout of saying I use Adobe Photoshop CS5.5 Extended. But the money that you have left over in your wallet from the savings will likely buy you a good used prime lens.

And that my friend, is truly all that you will need to get down to the business of taking portrait photos and getting decent quality as a result. There are certainly some add on things that you could consider that will make life easier and result in better quality shots. You can avail yourself of natural lighting as much as possible and use locations around your home or on location that will make nice backdrops for your shots.

Things such as a portrait background stand will allow you to use seamless paper or some other type of monochromatic background to make them look less cluttered and more professional. You can hit garage sales and look for interesting and colorful props for models to use to add depth and interest to your shoots without spending a lot of your money.

Finding Models

Start out by shooting your family and your friends. It will give you free subject matter and they usually won’t mind if you give them copies and it will allow you to hone your shooting and posing skills. At some point in time though you are going to get bored looking at the people that you see every day so you will want to get some new subjects.

The first and most obvious thing to do is to hire someone to come and model for you. This will give you the complete rights to the photos and puts you in control of the session but you will shell out some hard earned cash for the privilege. In some instances this is a good option but when you are just starting out, I would hang on to the money and keep reading along here.

There is a thing known in the professional circles as TFP or TFCD shoots. That is Trade for Print or Trade For CD. That means that you agree to shoot and edit the session in exchange for the shooting the model gets copies of the shots to use in their portfolios and you get copies to use in yours. That way you can build your portfolio to help you to drum up more business because people want to be able to see what you can do before they will hire you and pay you cash to do so.

The first thing that you will want to do is get yourself a couple of things printed, get yourself some great glitzy looking and highly glossy business cards done on heavy stock and then get a color flier printed with some examples of your work. Put these in a portfolio binder and go for a walk around your community.

When you see a person or people that you think would be great subjects for a photo shoot walk over and introduce yourself handing them a card and a flyer. Be honest. Tell them that you have recently switched your photographic interests from landscaping, or animals, or whatever it is that you used to shoot. And that you are trying to build a portfolio of portraits. Let this subject know that you think that they would be a good subject to shoot and you would do so for free and give them copies of the final product.

Doing so will likely get you some rejections. That’s okay that is common. People have a natural fear in today’s society of strangers and they distrust people. Take the rejection in stride. Tell them to at least keep the business card and think it over. Some of them will eventually call and some of them will throw the card away. But it’s worth the try. Stay away from anyone that looks like they are under twenty five. You don’t need to get into the underage thing and in some communities you can attract too much bad attention. The one caveat here is parents of young children that you may see in the park. They usually love the idea of having photos of the kids and when you mention free, a light goes off in their heads.

Slowly the law of averages will swing around and you will get some models. If you have done your learning well then you should be able to get some great shots to add to your working portfolio. Be sure that you give them what you promise and that you deliver when you promise. In addition to your portfolio you are also building your reputation as a photographer. Word of mouth is a strong advertising tool and if you do good and live up to your words, your free session model may recommend tat people that he or she know give you a call for a paid session.

You can increase the odds of this happening by offering to give the model that you shot for free a “commission” on any booked and paid sessions that he or she refers to you. Let’s face it, if the photos were good, the model got free shots done and then he or she can get a ten percent commission on people that they send your way, which is a huge incentive to get the word of mouth thing moving.

Session Demeanor

You need to remember that almost everyone that is coming in to your studio to have a portrait done is going to be pretty much a stranger to you. You could be the greatest guy in the world but these people don’t know you as such and you have to work to build the issue of trust between you and them. If you do not do so, then you will have really bad and stagnant photos that won’t do you or the client any good.

Make them feel at ease. Keep the temperature in the room comfortable. Not too cold and not too warm. It might be hard to do since the photo lights and the body heat will tend to raise the ambient temperature in the room. But keeping it bearable will reap huge rewards when you see the final shots.

Have water, soda and / or coffee available for them to sip on. It will help to break the ice and let them know that you genuinely care about the comfort level and that you are good at your job.

You should have pre-planned the session so that your lights, cameras and such should all be basically set up where you want them, batteries should all be charged and loaded and the back drops chosen and pulled down and in place. Any props that you intend on using should be close by and ready to go and cleaned if need be. In short, the client should be able to walk in and you should be able to start shooting at that moment.

Even though you are ready to go, you should not actually start the moment they get there because they may need time to decompress. Traffic, problems from the day, etc will all show in the final shots if you don’t allow them to dissipate before the shutter starts.

So take the time to engage in some idle chit chat with them about what you hope to accomplish in the photos and ask if they have any specific needs or concerns. This will let them know that you care about the final shots and that you are not simply about the money and it will involve them and relax them at the same time.

Another concern to people coming into a strange setting like this is they worry about who or what you are. I typically use an assistant – not that I need one but it puts people at ease. I have a young lady that comes over and helps set shots. She is a model and I trade her services for some free shots. Something about a woman at the session makes people feel at ease.

Children like to see a younger girl on the set and obviously if the subject is a single female then having another female at the session is a huge plus and the guys just like having a pretty face to look at. They tend to model a little more masculine with an attractive female in attendance.

So think it over and try to look at things from the upcoming person’s perspective and decide if you think having an assistant is a good idea for you or not. I would say that nine out of ten times I have used my female assistant, the client has commented on how professional the shooting session felt.

Keep things light and flowing. If you have some ideas of poses and the model is less than experienced, it might a good idea to find some similar prints online and print them out so that he or she can visualize what you are after in kind of a story board feel. It will help to keep the session rolling along and keep everyone focused as well. A lot of beginning photographers print these in advance in small sizes so that they can refer to them when they are shooting. They keep them small enough and placed so that the model can’t see them but they can truly help boost the productivity as you are learning.

Also, one thing that I can not stress enough, never touch the model. They feel vulnerable enough up there in front of the camera lens and posing in front of someone that they only just recently met. So let me state that rule one more time never, ever touch your model in any manner. If the pose is too difficult for he or she to grasp and do then move along and keep the momentum flowing.

Suggestive Shooting

Most people understand that sex sells. That can be applied to a portrait session in small doses. But unless you are paying the model to do so, so not expect that he or she could or should disrobe for you in any manner. If this is the direction that the shoot is going to take, make sure that the model understands that when the session is scheduled. Even modeling in bathing suits or underwear can be cause for concern for some models so always make your intentions crystal clear when setting up the session and do not wait until they arrive to let them know that they may be taking of some clothing for some of the shots. That never ends up well.

Also bear in mind that once you get to a point that people pose with less and less clothing or in more suggestive poses or ones with implied nudity, you have to have an assistant of that person’s sex present. It will help to protect you against the model claiming that something inappropriate happened during the shoot.

Doing the Paperwork

Yes I know, you’re a photographer and you don’t want to get caught up in paperwork. But guess what? If you ever want to make money and want to protect yourself from being sued, then you need to cover a few bases.

Get a contract. It doesn’t matter if it’s a trade for services shoot or one where you pay them or one where the model is paying you. Draft up a contract that states what is going to happen, when it is going to happen and how much cash – if any –will be exchanged and when that is to happen. Then no arguments can exist that can’t be handled in a court if it gets sticky.

Model Releases, are another thing that you have to have. There are specific ones for regular modeling, nudes, and underage. In fact there is even a release if you are using property that can be recognized like a building. Laws very and this is not a legal advice article so take the time to learn the law in your area so you stay out of trouble.

When I was starting out I shot a really cool shot in an old graveyard of two tombstones. The dates showed that they had been dead over 100 years and yet when I attempted to sell this to a client; his attorney said he needed a property release or they could not buy it. I had to search for the cemetery caretaker and he had to find the records of the families and I had to go to them and get a release to use the photos of the headstone from 125 years ago. So do yourself a favor and remember to get the model or property release when and where you shoot the photo. It will save you headaches and a lot of undue stress.

The releases are signed after the shoot is over and after remuneration is given or received. That way they can’t say they signed a release before the shots and had they known what the shots were they would not have signed them. Also, your assistant or someone else needs to witness the signing to make them legal.

The release will give you the exclusive rights to the photos so that you can use them when and where you want without further approval from the model. I typically also add in the release to the model allowing them to use them in their portfolios and any non-commercial uses. That wording is intentional, that way they can not sell the image to someone else without my permission. I literally own the photo even though it is his or her image. Technically they can reproduce it for their own usage but if someone wants to purchase it for a magazine story or something, they have to go through me.


Make sure that you get down a system of how you do it. Find the model, get them in and shoot the session, get a model release signed that specifies everything and you’ll be good to go. It will eventually become second nature to you and you will do the steps in order like clockwork. But until such time as that happens, use a checklist to make sure that you cover all the bases.

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