The 7 habits of highly successful portrait photographers

The 7 habits of highly successful portrait photographers

Portrait photography can be many things – frustrating, exasperating, rewarding, career-changing – but it’s never dull. It covers a wide range of subjects and approaches, but here are seven quick tips to ensure that you enjoy being a people person when it comes to photography.

1) Be nice and get the subject on your side

Maybe a portrait legend like David Bailey or Helmut Newton can get away with being grumpy now and then, but for the rest of us, it’s a killer. Even if your subject is in a bad mood, you’ve got to remain calm, proactive and keep smiling.

Top news photographer Cathal McNaughton managed to take an unforgettable portrait of snooker player Alex Higgins in the last stages of cancer, even though the subject wasn’t exactly being helpful.

Depending on how much time your subject has, maybe begin the day with a cup of coffee and a chat to break the ice. Ask them about their lives and hobbies though, rather than just superficial chit chat.

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2) Build trust

Successful portrait photography is about building a relationship, and it’s crucial your subject trusts you.

Staying calm and organised in front of them helps, obviously, but if you’re intending to take portraits of children or families, you’ll need to get clearance for working with kids and display it prominently – on your site if you can, and definitely in your studio.

Getting a distinction from a nationally recognised body such as the Royal Photographic Society or the SWPP will help build trust and credibility too, particularly when you’re starting off.

3) Deliver on time and budget

Managing expectations in the portrait photography business is crucial – don’t agree to a crazy deadline if you can’t meet it, just to get the job.

Missing a deadline could torpedo your reputation; the corollary of this is that delivering the edited images even just a day EARLY can really build your credibility.

Agree the fee beforehand and avoid charging extra for ‘unforeseen circumstances’ after the event as it make you look unprofessional.

4) Be a storyteller

When working with younger subjects, it’s well worth drawing up a rough storyboard for a shoot beforehand, particularly if you are working on location. Or, think of a ‘theme’ to follow.

Family portrait photographer Andrea Denniss is an expert at this, drawing inspiration from children’s literature such as Swallows and Amazons, or famous movies.

She also swears by an old tin bathtub, which makes a great prop – kids love to play in it and she gets more spontaneous images.

A good stock of creative props is a necessity for any serious portrait photographer.

5) Consider clothes

While some portrait photographers don’t like to be too prescriptive about dress codes, you probably don’t want one family member wearing loud tartan while the person next door sports psychedelic paisley.

Clashing colours can cause problems, too, so discuss this beforehand. Less confident and older sitters are more likely to want guidance on what to wear, so give them some examples beforehand.

If you don’t have the budget for a stylist, make sure you’ve got some basic grooming items handy.

6) Be open to change

If a location isn’t working, or the weather turns bad, you need a plan B for the day. Also, if a child subject really isn’t into being photographed that day, don’t push it and make everybody tense and miserable.

The same goes for travel photography – you tend to get the best results in foreign locations if you’re open about wanting to make a portrait with somebody, rather than doing it on the sly.

Gestures and smiles can cross the language barrier and be patient. Often the subject will want to pose: get these shots out of the way, then hang around.

Usually the subject will get bored and get back to their business and it’s THEN you’ll get more natural-looking shots.

7) Be a marketeer

Running a portrait business is like running any other business. Once you’ve sorted out your core offering, you need to market it.

So, identify and then target potential markets, using the full range of resources – local ads, flyers, shopping mall stands, email marketing and social media.

Encourage satisfied clients to ‘like’ you on Facebook or recommend you on Twitter. Start to build up an email database of potential clients too.

People will usually give your their email address in return for free stuff, eg PDFs on getting great family portraits or avoiding disasters. Finally, don’t undersell yourself.

Consider offering a higher margin ‘premium product’, and aggressively market yourself to affluent potential customers in affluent areas.


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