Become a Portrait Photographer: Career Guide

Research the requirements to become a portrait photographer. Learn about the job description and duties, and read the step-by-step process to start a career in portrait photography.

Do I Want to Be a Portrait Photographer?

Portrait photographers take pictures of people, either individually or in groups. They may specialize in specific types of portraiture, like weddings, events or senior portraits for high school students. Commonly, portrait photographers also edit and print the photos they take for clients.

Photographers are often self-employed and may work in their own studios or on location. This means they often need to sell themselves by building up a strong professional portfolio. It also means that their schedules are flexible, but work may fluctuate based on the time of year. For example, there is a huge need for wedding portrait photographers in the summer, but not as much demand in February.

Job Requirements

This profession requires strong artistic and technical ability, which many photographers earn through postsecondary education; however, such formal training is not mandatory. If photographers do choose to pursue a major, they often earn a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Photography. The following table outlines common requirements to become a portrait photographer, as reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS):

Common Requirements
Degree Level No degree required, though taking classes or earning a bachelor's degree may improve job prospects
Degree Field Photography
Experience Entry-level experience as an assistant photographer is common
Key Skills Creativity, sharp eye for detail, interpersonal and customer service skills, strong grasp of artistic elements, like color, composition and lighting
Computer Skills Proficiency in photo editing software, high-quality printers and storage devices like memory cards and flash drives
Technical Skills Expertise operating digital cameras, studio lighting equipment and other photography tools
Additional Requirements Business and marketing skills

Step 1: Learn Technical Skills

Aspiring portrait photographers should learn to use technical tools such as digital cameras, lenses and lighting equipment. Most images are edited using computer programs, so knowledge of editing software is essential. Students can learn these skills at vocational schools, art schools or 4-year universities. Photography is a common major, and some schools also offer concentrations and certificate programs in portraiture. Photography students typically take courses in lighting, studio photography and color, as well as completing studio work and internships.

Success Tips:

  • Take business courses. Studio photographers who are self-employed must know how to bill clients, track invoices and hire employees. Since photography studios are run like small businesses, aspiring photographers may find it helpful to take education courses in business, finance and management.
  • Take marketing courses. Taking marketing electives can help an aspiring portrait photographer learn how to effectively market his or her services to the public. Knowledge of basic marketing is essential for securing customers and reliable income.
  • Develop a portfolio. All professional photographers need portfolios demonstrating the best examples of their work. Aspiring photographers can begin to build their portfolios during school to help increase their chances of employment upon graduation. Many photographers post their portfolios online for easy access by employers.

Step 2: Gain Experience

Some people gain experience by applying for employment as photo assistants. Photo assistants provide technical and administrative support to established photographers. These positions are often available in the form of internships. Job duties may entail editing photos, transporting equipment, providing assistance during photo shoots and performing photo shoots independently. This role enables people who are just starting out to gain experience and make contacts in the field. Over time, photographers can improve their talents by experimenting with different poses, lighting effects and camera settings.

Success Tip:

  • Continue building a portfolio. As a portrait photographer begins to hone his or her skills and gain experience in the field, he or she should also continue to develop a portfolio. The portfolio should stay up-to-date with the photographer's skills and demonstrate expertise in a variety of photographic types and elements, like wedding portraiture and studio lighting.

Step 3: Obtain Certification

Portrait photographers usually work in studio settings and often run their own businesses. In fact, the BLS reports more than 60% of all photographers were self-employed in 2010. One way to demonstrate professionalism and attract potential clients is to obtain certification. The Professional Photographic Certification Commission administers the Certified Professional Photographer certification. Earning this certification involves passage of an exam and submission of a 6-image portfolio.

Step 4: Continue Your Education

Portrait photographers receive long-term on-the-job training throughout their careers, but taking continuing education courses may also be beneficial. Continuing education courses can help a photographer learn about technological advances in digital cameras and editing software, business/marketing skills specifically related to photography and new techniques from other professionals in the field. Continuing education options can be found through one-day workshops, seminars or through classes offered by other photographers, schools or photography associations.

Success Tip:

  • Become a member of a professional organization. Joining a professional organization, such as the Professional Photographers of America, can provide access to a variety of continuing education options, including workshops and online classes. Other benefits of membership include insurance options, professional listings and slideshow management services.

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