How to Become a Professional Photographer

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Not everyone is cut out to do every job. My father, for example was a factory worker all of his adult life and he loved it. He enjoyed taking snapshots for fun. On the other hand I love being a professional photographer and simply could not stand to be in one spot watching the same part roll by endlessly for the rest of my life. The main point there is that we all need to find something we love and are good at and make that our lives work.

So that brings me to a question I get a lot these days, what does it take and exactly how do you become a professional portrait photographer?

There are, of course some pre requisites on equipment but for the most part it boils down to liking people and being able to deal with people, Some people say it is an education that makes the difference and some people say it is all in who you know that will get you to where you want to go. But the truth of the matter is that even though those things are important, if you are not a people person then this is simply not the right line of work for you.

People Skills

Generally speaking, being a people person is not something that you can acquire. It’s one of those qualities that you either have or don’t have plain and simple. I do know some people that have done pretty well doing portrait photography as their job and they are the last people that you would think of. They hate crowds and are pretty introverted and shy. They have to work hard as being outgoing at photo shoots but for the most part they manage.

I only point that out because even if you have a temper and really would rather walk around people that right through the middle, there is still hope for you if you want it badly enough. If you are not sure if you have the needed skills or if you want to see what you do right and wrong so that you can improve. Maybe you should try video taping an interaction such as a portrait session or a social gathering where you are going to be. You can then look back over the footage and spot what works well for you and what you need to work on. It is a great tool. I sometimes do that to myself just to make sure that I have not slipped into any bad habits.

There are many self help books and courses on the subject but once you realize that you have an issue, you can usually fix the problem yourself with a little diligence.


There is not doubt that you can learn everything that you need to know about being a professional portrait photographer without ever setting foot in a classroom. There is a plethora of educational web sites out there that can give you all of the technical data that you need in order to become a great master of the art form. You will find however that a little formal education never hurts. That is why many professionals from all walks of life and business go back for continuing education courses.

In the business of photography for example, a lot has changed over the last ten to twenty years. When I first was learning the pros and the cons of the business one of the first things I learned to do was work a darkroom so that I knew the correlation of what was on the negative and what ended up on the final print. I learned that if you didn’t want to do a lot of dodging and burning on the final print, you had to learn hope to properly expose the shot.

This was all a pain in the proverbial rear end but it taught me things that I could have never actually learned from a book. Sure I could haven learned the basics and had all of the words that told me what was right and wrong. But until I was actually able to put it in practice, it would have only been meaningless words.

Today with programs such as Photoshop you can do everything – or rather let the computer do everything in the matter of seconds. The things that it used to a skilled hand and someone with a lot of training several hours if not days to achieve in a traditional darkroom working with negatives now are handled in milliseconds.

Another thing that will do you a world of good if you are truly looking to become a professional is to seek out the other pros in your area. Make a phone call to them and make an appointment to go sit down with them and explain that you really love the art of portrait photography and ask about becoming an intern or an apprentice for them. A lot of the insecure photographers out there will turn you down flat but some of them welcome the opportunity to pass on the craft.

Initially that position is going to be a lot of gaffer work. You will be doing set up and tear down and helping set the shots or move the lighting gear from one place to another. But if you watch as you do all this you will catch on to the techniques of composition which is very important in portrait shooting.

As you learn and show the teacher how you pay attention, he or she will eventually allow you to shoot some sessions, when they think you are ready. Don’t ask them; let them approach you about doing it. Trust me; they will know when you are good to start.

At the onset you will likely get the jobs that he feels have a lower importance or low priority on his or her agenda. That is not because you are no good but because the photographer has a reputation to protect and they will teach you through and see what you have learned and where your weak and strong areas are. This is invaluable information and you should hang on every word that they say. They are making a living out of this and they are the ones that know what works and what does not.

In your spare time read. I mean read a lot. You need to know everything that you can about exposure settings and focusing and f-stops. In fact the more that you read and learn, the faster you will be on your way to actually making money at your chosen profession.
Some local colleges offer classes that will also specialize in some of these areas and if you can get in on a few of them inexpensively it is well worth the time that you will spend. It will go hand in hand with your internship. That is because most photographers have a set batch of gear that they use. That is great if you want to be using only that gear. But a college generally has access to a lot of the newer things like the cameras and thing that your portrait photographer may not use. So you will be able to diversify more.

One other side benefit of taking the course in college, if you get an actual college ID Card, you can often times go to the college bookshop and get software related to your studies at drastically reduced academic rates. If you have priced some of the high end editing and enhancement software you know that can cost s huge chunk of cash. So if you can learn and save some money as well that should pretty much speak for its self.

Gear to Become a Professional

This is a portion of the article that can end up being very long, very boring and very subjective. Everyone has different goals and everyone has varied amounts of money and time to put into this endeavor. For that reason I am only going to touch on the basic needs that you have and let you make the specific decisions on what is going to work best for you,


Assuming that you are going to go digital because the market is rapidly phasing out the art of film for any type of photography, there are only a couple of rules to guide you towards your choices. We’ll have a more detailed guide to portrait photography cameras later with some good recommendations for you.

First – Make sure that your choice is a well respected brand name. Canon and Nikon are the industry leaders and the ones that all the rest are judged against. Besides giving you the legitimacy in your clients eyes by using a name they recognize, replacements are easy to find and extra add on gear are readily available as your needs grow.

Secondly – resist the temptation of spending a few hundred dollars for a marginal model and try and get the best model that you can with the highest mega pixel you can remotely afford. This will pay dividends in the future because you will not likely outgrow the resolution of the camera and a high resolution camera in the 18 + Mega-pixel range will allow you latitude to crop and enlarge without losing quality. Remember that in portraits, people like large photos on the wall. You’ll never regret having a superb camera — it will pay you back dividends in the future.

Digital cameras are broken down into two kinds: Full Frame and Crop. Full Frame have a larger image sensor which replicated the classic film 35mm cameras. There is no magnification applied to the lens. Crop cameras magnify the image (in the case of Canon’s main line of crop cameras, 1.6 times). Full Frame are better for landscape photography and portrait photography; compared to the crop, the image quality is higher, the blur at low f-stops is more pronounced, and images are wider (no magnification applied). Crop cameras have an advantage for something like wildlife photography where you get a magnification boost because of the crop.

The best camera, if you can afford it, for portrait photography, would be a Full Frame Camera. Both Canon and Nikon offer versions of Full Frame. If you can’t afford a Full Frame, you can certainly take stellar photos with a cheaper, crop camera. Remember, it’s not the camera that takes good images, it’s YOU.


This is an area of the profession that is fairly well cut and dried. You want professional results and it is going to cost you to get good glass between the model and your sensor. It’s important to keep in mind whether you have a full frame camera or a crop camera. If you were to put say a 50mm lens on a full frame, it would give the (roughly) same perspective as a 30mm. Because of this, you’ll need to buy your lenses with the type of camera sensor you have in mind.

Starting out, since you likely spent more money than you truly wanted to spend on the camera, settle on a decent prime lens. If there is enough money, start with a 135 mm short telephoto. It will serve you well in your profession. It will allow you to get a close cropped shot without being right on top of the subject. Canon’s 135 f-2L is a great lens — sharp as a tact with beautiful image quality.

Ideally you will want to stay away from zoom lenses because they are optically slower and there is a tendency to get lazy with them. A good selection of prime lenses will give you great and consistent results time after time. Keep in mind that some photographers like to shoot portrait shots with a telephoto zoom lens because it gives a “flatter” look.

A good stable of prime lenses to shoot for in your collection would be a fast 50 mm lens. Usually an f/1.2, f/1.4 or f/1.8 is a great lens to have in the kit. This is especially true if you are going to be doing any amount of available light portraits. This lens can save your butt.

Next on the wish list is an 85 mm prime. These are great to have for most sessions and a close second to the 135 mm that I mentioned above. This lens will usually work great on small to medium sized groups or families and you should try and find something in or around the f/2.0 area if the funds are there. Canon makes a fantastic portrait 85mm lens; the cost is over $2000 for a new one, but the results deliver. 85mm on a full frame is good for body profile shots and face shots.

We talked about the 135 mm so not much else needs to be said here other than try and get one at around f/2.8 and you should be happy as a lark with the results that it gives you in almost any given situation.

The final added lens that I would suggest you keep on the list is a 300 mm f/2.8. While it will likely not get a lot of use in your arsenal, the times that you need one it can be invaluable. It allows you to stay a long ways away from the subject to give them an intimate feeling and you can blur the background nicely to isolate the subject and draw the viewer into the shot. I use these a great deal when shooting high fashion, glamour and nude sessions because I can keep my distance and it makes the model feel much more comfortable.

On a Full Frame:

  • 85mm well suited for studio portraiture to shoot waist up portraits.
  • 135mm well suited for studio portraiture to shoot tight headshots.

On a Crop

  • 50mm is suitable for waist up portraits
  • 85mm is suitable for face shots


If you are going to be shooting portraits for a living you are going to need some lighting equipment to allow you to control the way that your model is illuminated. You will obviously need a lot more things for a studio than you will if you are going to be doing available light location shoots only. So let’s break down those needs for you. Keep in mind that for most professionals just starting the minimum is fine and you can add on as funds avail themselves to you.

This one of the areas of portrait photography that you should pay special attention to and research well so that you can make an informed decision on what will best fit your needs. There is a company that has a decent selection of gear that a lot of beginning and intermediate portrait photographers go to when they are beginning. It is a company called Cowboys and they can be found on the web at They sell direct as well as at a lot of retailers on the Internet and they can give you a lot of bang for that start up dollar.

Available Light System

This one can actually be very simple and you can get some phenomenal results with the bare minimum. That would be a couple of nice reflectors that will allow you to direct the sun where you need it to light things up. Two reflectors make a nice start and as you get going you can add stands and then extra reflectors and even infrared bounce flash units to act as the master and then one for slave.

Studio Light System

You can use the reflectors that you have for your available light system in conjunction with your studio system. You can do a web search and find various systems that can get you basically up and going for a couple of hundred dollars. But if you are actually planning on making a living from portrait photography you should plan on spending a thousand dollars or more for a good set of lights, reflectors, stands and the related goodies that will make it work for you.

A basic system should have at least four lights and reflectors, some sort of background setup which will consist of a pair of stands, a cross brace and then a variety of backdrops to vary your ability. Some form of power pack is also advisable to allow you to power the lights or a master and slave packet to allow the triggering of the various flash units that you might incorporate.

The actual light sources (bulbs) are not too critical as you start out. You need to balance cost with light output. Keep in mind that every digital camera will allow you to do custom white balancing so the actual color temperature of the light is not that critical. I would caution you though, especially when you are just learning to stay with the same type bulbs. The main reason is that you will get used to the light source and so you will be able to make quicker decisions on your critical setting if you use something that you are completely familiar with. That will equate to better portraits with a lot less stress.

Keep in mind that the comfort of your portrait customers needs to be paramount in your mind. A hot and sweaty person sitting under hot lights is rarely going to give you a great portrait unless that person is an athlete. So for that reason you shout consider some of the cooler operating and higher wattage compact fluorescent daylight balanced photo light bulbs. They won’t heat up the room and they are fairly cost effective and balanced for daylight. That is a winning combination in just about anyone’s book.

Technical Things to Remember

Always remember that you focus your lens on your subject, anything at that same distance will also be in focus. Things that are closer to or further from the camera lens will become less sharp. Your camera’s aperture controls this depth-of-field zone. With your camera’s aperture set on its smallest setting, (say f/22), more of the photograph will be in focus.

Keep all of your gear stored away when not in use and clean it regularly. This is especially true right before a session to eliminate problems.

There is one other important note for you. As you start your pathway to becoming the next great portrait photographer. Remember that it is easy to become complacent and get stuck in a rut with your work. Avoid that temptation and look for new ways to challenge yourself as you continue. Find new poses, new lighting techniques etc. It will only bear you greater fruit with time.

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