The ABCs of Portrait Photography

The following post will be a collective alphabetic list of 26 aspects of portrait photography that I believe are important to the art, business and mechanics of portraiture.

Artistic Interpretation

In photographing people, one portrait photographer will photograph one person one way and the next photographer will photograph the same person differently most likely. This is the vision that one photographer will have versus another. The artistic interpretation of the photographer will become his trademark, his stamp, his “artistic vision”. Think about the photographers whose work you enjoy. Think about those you dislike. Those who have a name. Those who are well known. They all have artistic vision that helps them create the images in the manner that they envision is best for that subject.

Believe in yourself.

This is important. Many photographers are good but don’t realize it. They look at their work and are too critical. We should photograph our customers the best we can, but if you look at the photographs that most people take of their families and loved ones, it is just awful. Their work doesn’t touch our work. There is no comparison. If you are commissioned to photograph someone’s portrait, be confident in yourself. Believe in yourself. You will do a great job!


We, as photographers, must find the most creative ways to photograph our subjects. We cannot fall into a rut of photographing the same ol’ same ol’. The customer will not go for this. Today’s customers want something unique and different. And though it may not be different from the last customer you just photograph; it must be different from the school picture they got from lifetouch. Creativity can be done in the pose, in the lighting, framing, props, etc. Think about it. Get creative.

Details, Details, Details

This is a huge one. The difference between a photograph and a fine portrait is in the details. Jewellery, clothing, neatness of hands, feet, etc. Is the necklace in the right place? Is the hair out of place? Is the background distracting? Paying attention to details both in the camera and afterwards in post processing can make a huge difference.


What is a portrait without emotion? Nothing more than a documentation and recording of someone’s face. Emotion is what sells portraits. Emotion is what makes mothers cry when they look at photographs of their kids. The ability to go beyond creating a technically and artistically perfect portrait and step into emotionally moving portraiture is one that will give your photography more effect than before. Emotion should be strong and speak volumes when people view your portraits. To obtain emotion in your portraits, you must know how to manipulate your camera technicals to match the emotion and the expression you are trying to bring across to the viewer.


Before you can create portraits that people will buy, you must understand the fundamentals of photography. Not only how to compose your photographs, but how to use your camera’s controls to get your point across while exposing the image properly while keeping your subject in focus. You must understand what you are doing behind the camera in order to make what’s in front of the camera look good. KNOW YOUR CAMERA!


If you are fortunate enough to make it as a portrait photographer, you must be good. And if you’re good enough, then you must enjoy it. And if you are fortunate enough to make it as a photographer professionally, you must be thankful. I say this because there are millions of people on planet earth who would love to be photographers professionally. But the truth is most don’t get to photograph professionally. If you are fortunate enough, be grateful.


Let’s be honest, no matter what you do for a living, every job is still a job. Even with the most appealing careers such as photography, the reality is that it is not all glamour. Sure there are great benefits that most who do photography professionally would not trade for anything, but the truth is, portrait photography has its’ own set of headaches, downsides, letdowns, irritating aspects. There is the business side of it, there is the people side of it. It doesn’t take long to see how there could be some headaches and heartaches in there. It’s not all glamour, even if you are a glamour photographer!


In order to be an effective portrait photographer, you must be able to translate the subject’s character onto the camera. How can you do that if you have no ability to read people. Portrait photography is so much more than photography. It’s about people and you must be able to have a keen sense of who people are, and then instinctively be able to put that into photography. If you feel the need to practice in this area, go somewhere where there are people, somewhere public, and just watch people. Watch and study and then visualize how you would portray each of them individually in a portrait. You must get to know humans just as much as your camera.


If you can’t be silly and make a fool of yourself, most of your subjects will be hard to relax. I find the easiest way to get customers to relax is to be silly. Most people do like to laugh. Most like to be entertained. Learning to let down the prideful barrier of shyness will help any portrait photographer become a better relater to their customers.

Know your business

How can you really run a photography business if you don’t know anything but how to take good pictures? Or how can you shoot a wedding if you don’t know how to do anything but use on camera flash? In order to be successful at portrait photography, you must be a master at your craft and a master at all aspects of your business. You learn as you go but there must be a willingness on the part of you the photographer to be ever learning and coming to a knowledge of the entire world of portrait photography.

Life… get one.

Though most people tend to go to extremes, human nature is one of overdoing everything. There must be a balance in your life. Your entire world cannot revolve around your photography. It’s hard not to do, but if you’re married, you must realize you have a wife. She doesn’t care to hear about your photography every second of her life. If you have a child, take time to be with your child. Sometimes, we love what we do so much that we miss life because we are trying to capture it with our cameras. Live your life.


When it comes down to it, money makes the world go around. So, understand that it takes money to survive and it takes money to live. Sometimes we want to photograph so bad that we’re willing to give away what we could be selling. If you early on get in the habit of giving quality photography away, you’ll get a reputation for that and will have a hard time later charging what your photography is really worth. If you’re good enough, people will pay.

Nail it everytime!

Have you ever bought an album and were excited to listen to it just to find out that there were only three or four good songs and ten filler tracks. You know what I’m talking about. They were just filling up space with mediocrity on two thirds of the album. The few times that you find an artist who can put out a whole album of great hits is truly impressive. We should strive to do the same in our photography. We should not be shooting fillers. Every shot should be an attempt at creating the perfect portrait. Strive hard to make every shot count and that it will wow your customer. That is a hard thing to do but it will keep you from becoming mediocre and getting a reputation for being mediocre. You want to rise above your competition. Do this!


Attitude is everything. I once read an article that when weightlifting you can increase your bench press by ten percent simply by mentally preparing yourself and convincing yourself you can do it. That mentality go across the board. Be positive in your thinking. You want to improve your business, be positive. You want to be better with people, be positive. You want to be better with your photography, be positive. Negativity will only drag you down. Optimism will take you places you never dreamed.


A lot of times, we get so excited we just want to be places that only come to those who wait. Patience is a key in any business. If you are just beginning, realize it takes time to get to a place where you are turning down business. Or that you’ll be able to shoot as good as your photography heroes. Learning patience will help you become content in whatever situation you find yourself in.


If you want people to book you for your photography over and over again, don’t cut corners. Create high quality work. Do you think your customer will appreciate, if they spend hundreds or thousands of dollars, even if you did a good job photographing them and then you hand them prints printed from the local drug stores dye sub printer kiosk…. I don’t think so! Remember QUALITY from start to end!

Service after the sale

Portrait photography is one of those things that if you do a good job the first time, they’ll come back to you next time they need a portrait. So service after the sale is important. Even if they never come back to you, it’s important because you want to make a good impression on them and hopefully they will recommend you to others. If you are willing to go beyond the normal call of duty, it will be noticed and you will be appreciated.

Talk to your customer

While you are photographing your subject, constant encouragement and praise will work wonders in loosening up your subjects. You want your subjects to have natural smiles, praise what they’re doing right, compliment them sincerely, talk, talk, talk. Even the most experienced models feel somewhat self conscience in front of a camera and new photographer. More so when it’s the the Average Joe or Jane sitting in front of you! Talk to your subjects!

Understand what your customer wants

It is very important that you know exactly what your customer is looking for when he/she comes through your doors. A conversation and consultation should take care of that. Get to know them the best you can and straight out ask them, what do you want? What are they intested in. There is no shame in having them even bring in samples and examples so you can be certain you create something that they want and are looking for.

Value your work

Unlike a plumber, customers buy photography based on perceived value and not who can do the same job for the cheapest price. Value the work you do and price it accordingly. Under pricing the competition will only drive prices down and devalue your own work to the customer.

Work Hard.

You will not succeed by being lazy.


If you show your customers you are excited about their pictures when you are photographing them, they will get excited. I guarantee it. Even if it’s not the best thing you’ve ever seen, act like it is. I don’t mean be dishonest or fake it, they’ll see through that, but be excited about what you’re doing and it will rub off on our subjects.

You can do it. If you want it bad enough and you are willing to do the work and you have the determination, you can do it!


Get some sleep. Don’t overwork yourself. It will affect you certainly. Again, you cannot let your life be consumed with one thing. We must learn to be balanced but focused. Sleep is a precious gift that is good for the soul, mind and body.

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