So You Want to Take Portraits?

I'm going to make a startling statement. You are NOT a portrait photographer because you own a camera. Being able to pick up a lens does not put you in business. I see this mentality too often. It seems portrait photographers are "a dime a dozen" nowadays. Everyone is doing it, and anybody can get started.

Yet of all the forms of photography out there - wildlife, landscape, travel, astrophotography, sports photography, etc. - taking portraits (and by extension, weddings) is the one that requires the most accuracy. You HAVE to know what you are doing. There is no "barely getting by".

From the consumer perspective, someone who wants to hire a photographer, there is also a requirement of knowledge. The consumer should spend time learning more about portrait photography, its requirements. The fact is, the more you know, the more pleased you will be with your choice of photographer and in the end, with his results.

The Photographer

Here is another amazing statement. In order to call yourself a "portrait photographer", in order to put your name out there as someone who semi-professionally takes people photographs, you must first know something about the basics of photography. A serious photographer should be able to recite the rules of photography (ISO, aperture, shutter speed) and thereby use more of the camera than its Auto function. If you've just gotten started in photography and are still struggling to remember how each of these, the trifecta, we'll call them, affects the other, then you are NOT ready to take people photographs.

"Everyone must start somewhere," you say. Yes, that is true. However, start with your dog or your own child. Most importantly, give yourself time to learn! No one hands a baby a recipe and tells them to bake a cake. They might one day become the best baker out there, but first they learned to walk, to talk, and to read. Skill is developed over time.

Skill also only comes to those who are willing to admit they don't know everything. If you think you have a handle on it all, then you're not ready to photograph people. People are the hardest subjects to please. Photographing people requires a good attitude, the ability to adapt, and a LOT of patience. Your best work may not be what they want at all. You have to be able to handle rejection.


Portrait photography is always a bit romantic. It seems to be such a wonderful thing to do - adorable smiling babies, lovely families all decked out in their Sunday best. I think this is why it appeals to so many. However, the romance will definitely end when you come head-to-head with that one person who cannot be pleased. The fact is that the insects I photograph never complain to me that I caught "their bad side". They simply "are what they are".

A portrait photographer must develop an eye for good exposure. He must know when a photograph is under or over-exposed. (Believe it or not, I have seen "professionals" who don't have a clue their photographs are incorrectly exposed.) THE most important object in a portrait is the person's skin. Skin tones must be correct. There is simply no way around it. You cannot rely on post-editing to correct your mistakes, or on filters to "make it all go away". Turning a color photograph into a black and white does not make the picture better. Actually, relying on filter effects is an enormous sign that you don't know what you're doing!

This brings me to my last point - the logo. People love to share new images online. You should always do your part to make their results available to them. However, it is important as well to protect them from possible digital theft. For this reason, many photographers choose to use some form of logo or watermark across the image. There is nothing wrong with branding your images with a maker's mark. However, be tasteful. Your logo should never detract from the main subjects of the photograph, the people themselves. In the eyes of the buyer, it is a photograph of them, not an advertisement for your services. Should the buyer request to see a photograph minus your watermark, be willing to provide it. Never make it hard for those who are paying you to have exactly what they want.


The Consumer

So maybe you're not a photographer, yet these same thoughts also apply to you. Any time you are hiring someone else to perform a service for you, there must be some care taken in choosing. As I've already said, portrait photographers are everywhere. All you have to do ask and you'll have plenty of volunteers. But you don't want just anyone taking your pictures, especially since you are the one paying. When it's all over, you, the consumer, should get exactly what you want.

Take the time beforehand to view the photographer's work, and look for a more complete portfolio, one taken over many days or years, in different lights, at alternating locations, with changeable styles . The more well-rounded the photographer is the more likely they'll be willing to do what you desire, and ultimately the less stress there will be on you. However, remember, photographers do not have control of everything, like the weather, but they SHOULD know what to do to adapt themselves. Ask all your "what ifs" in advance then listen for their confidence in answering. You can tell a lot about their experience from their response.

It also doesn't hurt for you to learn something about photography. The more you know, the better you can gauge their results. This also prevents photographer/consumer break down - where the photographer becomes frustrated by his inability to communicate with you. It averts your asking the impossible as well, something he either cannot do, doesn't know how to do, or is uncomfortable doing. I would never ask a horse jockey to rope cows. He may know how to ride a horse, but have an extreme inability to lasso anything.

Additionally, it is a good idea to look at the work of other portrait photographers. Sometimes you'll see something in the work of another photographer that you particularly like and want to use, or perhaps something you don't like and don't want to do. Even if it's not someone in your area who you could physically hire, you can still reap benefits.


Never settle for second best, either as a photographer or as a consumer. A photographer should have the humility to admit they continue to learn and at the same time contain confidence about what they do. A consumer should acquire sufficient knowledge and refuse to settle for "Joe Blow" over there who only a week ago bought a camera. When each one takes the time to study and to learn, in the end both will create the memories they desire. That is, after all, what it is really all about.


Suzanne Williams is a native Floridian, wife, and mother, with a penchant for spelling anything, who happens to love photography.