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.

Should I Become 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. They promote their business by showing potential clients their photography portfolio. Freelance photographers have flexible schedules, 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 much demand in February.

Career Requirements

Degree LevelNo degree required, though taking classes or earning a bachelor's degree might improve job prospects
Degree FieldPhotography
ExperienceEntry-level experience as an assistant photographer
Key SkillsCreativity; sharp eye for detail; interpersonal and customer service skills; strong grasp of color, composition and lighting; proficiency with photo editing software, high-quality printers and storage devices like memory cards and flash drives; expertise operating digital cameras, studio lighting equipment and other photography tools
Salary (2014)$30,490 per year (Median salary for all photographers)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

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. These skills are taught at vocational schools, art schools and four-year universities. Photography is a common major, and some schools also offer concentrations and certificate programs in portraiture. Photography students take courses in lighting, studio photography and color. They also complete 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 courses in business, finance and management.
  • Take marketing courses. Taking marketing electives helps aspiring portrait photographers learn how to effectively market their 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 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 can 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 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 portrait photographers begin to hone their skills and acquire experience in the field, they must continue to develop a portfolio. The up-to-date portfolio should display 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. One way to demonstrate professionalism and attract potential clients is to obtain certification. Professional Photographers of America administers the Certified Professional Photographer certification. Earning this certification involves passage of an exam and submission of a portfolio containing 15 images.

Step 4: Continue Your Education for Career Advancement

Portrait photographers receive long-term on-the-job training throughout their careers, but taking continuing education courses may also be beneficial. Continuing education courses keep photographers informed about technological advances in digital cameras and editing software. Photographers can also stay current on photography business and marketing strategies and learn about new techniques from other professionals in the field. Continuing education options are found through one-day workshops, seminars and 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, provides access to a variety of continuing education opportunities, including workshops and online classes. Other benefits of membership include insurance options, professional listings and slideshow management services.

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