8 Things You Absolutely Need To Start a Portrait Photography Business
So you’re thinking about getting started in photography, you love the idea of it and are thinking about jumping in! But where to begin? Many people ask me this: “If you were starting a portrait business either as side hustle money or as a full-time business, what would you absolutely need to get started?”
You might be wondering the same thing.
When I started in photography, I spent thousands of dollars on new gear. I didn’t know exactly what I needed, so I bought all kinds of lenses, camera bodies, props, and lighting equipment… I was constantly trying something new. Usually within a month or two I felt unsatisfied with the results, and would start the search all over again. It was a never ending pursuit and I spent WAY. TOO. MUCH. MONEY. trying to experiment. Fast forward to this year–I’ve now been a professional portrait photographer for over 15 years. If I had it to do all over again, I know exactly what I would do in hindsight. Instead of wasting all of that money experimenting, I wish I had purchased these items and then worked to better my skills. With minimal gear and a minimal investment, you can achieve beautiful results that will quickly build your reputation and business!
With that in mind, I wanted to make a guide for those of you that are just getting started with your photography business. You don’t need millions of dollars in equipment to get started, but you do need the RIGHT gear and setup to be successful right off the bat.
Ready? Let’s jump in!
1. Have 2 camera bodies
No matter what brand of camera you shoot with, you must have two camera bodies. If you’re an amateur photographer or just photographing your own kiddos, one camera body is plenty… But once you start charging money for your photography (and want to been seen as a professional) you MUST have a second backup camera! Imagine that you have a paying client and a shoot scheduled. The last thing you want is for them to buy clothes, take the afternoon off work, rearrange schedules, do their hair and makeup, drive to the location–and then your camera DIES for some unknown reason. I can’t count how many times I have heard horror stories of a photographer starting a photo shoot only to have their camera fail. You MUST have a backup camera body, even if it’s a used older model camera body. If you need help deciding which cameras to buy, see my article here for help! While we’re on the subject, make sure to have a few fully charged batteries and a few empty SD/CF cards to go on the job with you.
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2. Have 2 lenses
If you are serious about portrait photography, you need to have two lenses. In my opinion, the first should be an 85mm 1.8 portrait lens. This lens will produce super-high-quality images that will immediately set your images apart. I use this lens about 70 percent of the time I’m shooting portraits. It produces BEAUTIFUL images, but lets you stay close enough to your subject to be able to talk easily (and not have to yell because you are soooo far away from them!) Here is the link to the Canon version; here is the link to the Nikon version. These prime lenses are affordable and produce incredible results. The 85 mm length is perfect for portraits (it does not distort a person’s face like a shorter length lens can do), and the 1.8 aperture will produce a desirable blurry background.
While this lens is my absolute favorite for portraits, just having one 85mm portrait lens will not cut it in the real world. There are many times where you absolutely need a zoom lens. If you plan on photographing kids, news flash:KIDS MOVE FAST!!! Having just an 85mm lens on hand can destroy your shoot when the kiddos start moving around as the 85mm cannot zoom in and out to follow them running towards you. You absolutely need a lens that can zoom in and out as the kids zoom around! If you are trying to produce a beautiful portrait, you’ll need a low aperture lens to produce that beautiful blurry background, and you cannot do this with just any lens. My favorite affordable zoom for this look is the Tamron 28-75mm 2.8. See all of my lens recommendations here. These two lenses will get you off to a great start and they are my go-to lenses when I’m on location photographing kids or families!
3. MAKE SURE YOU’RE CONFIDENT IN YOUR SKILLS
Please do not start charging people for photo sessions until you are confident in your skills. In many areas, you do not need a license to call yourself a professional photographer… So the temptation may be there to jump in and start charging people immediately (hey, you gotta pay for that camera somehow, right?) But the last thing you want to do is start a business – and then mess up a bunch of photo shoots. Undoing bad reviews online and bad word of mouth is soooo hard. It’s MUCH smarter to practice, practice, practice… And once you feel confident and are getting great results THEN start charging! There are an abundance of online classes and workshops that you can take (and hey, we’ve got a few for you too.. wink, wink!) These classes will help you become more knowledgeable about your equipment and how to shoot- learn what you feel you are lacking in and then go out and practice those skills! Don’t forget that family and friends are always up for free photo sessions–they can score some great images, and can get some great images for your portfolio and website while practicing your skills.
4. Have a few good options for locations
If at all possible, find a few local parks or historical sites that have some shaded areas that you can suggest to your friends or clients for shoots. We have a little historical park close to us that I love using: it’s free, it’s safe, and there are many little cabins and buildings with shaded steps that kiddos can sit on for photos. Before you agree to meet someone there, be sure to go and walk around and get acquainted with the specific location. It’s nerve racking enough to do a photo shoot when you’re just starting out. If you show up and have no earthly idea where you’re going to take them or what areas look good you will be super stressed and it will show. Take time to stop by and walk around another day before your actual photo shoot. Try to go at the same time of day (for instance early evening) as your shoot so you’re sure the lighting will be similar. If you can’t go at the same time of day (or it’s cloudy), pull out your phone and use the handy dandy compass to see where the sun will be. Hint: morning will be in the East or South East, evenings it will be in the West or South West 😉
5. Be able to run Photoshop and/or Lightroom
You’ll need a powerful laptop or desktop computer that is capable of running a photo editing program like Photoshop or Lightroom. You can take decent photos in-camera, but you’ll need editing software in order to really put that finishing touch on them. Some people use a combination of Lightroom (for color and lighting edits) and Photoshop CC for additional retouching. I personally prefer to do everything in Photoshop; I edit color and exposure in Adobe Camera Raw, and then retouch in Photoshop CC. I just prefer to stay in one program so that the process is simplified but many people use both. If you simply take photos with your camera and do no editing, your photos will stay so-so. Pull your photos into Photoshop and color correct and enhance, and you will add that WOW factor to your photos! Here’s a link to an article on purchasing Adobe Photoshop CC. Also, here’s a link to an article on my favorite Photoshop fixes for beginners (or watch the youtube video here).
6. Use online accounting software
Once you start charging, I think it’s a must have to setup accounting software. Many of you might be saying, well, I can just Venmo my clients and then keep paper receipts, and then add ’em up at the end of the year. I’m going to give you a little tough love here: It is not 1980!!!! Get that accounting setup online and forget those paper receipts my friend. It’s INFINITELY easier to set this up before you have a thriving business. Early on, I made the mistake of not setting up software and it turned into a paper trail nightmare when I went to do my taxes later that year. I spend weeks trying to dig up receipts and papers that I had forgotten to print out or had lost. So set it up as soon as you decide to start charging– You and your accountant will thank me later! I use and highly recommend Intuit Quickbooks mainly because most accountants are very familiar with Quickbooks, and my clients trust paying through it. (I personally use it with a combination of Google Calendar and Drive to manage all client tasks). If you plan on growing your business, Quickbooks also currently is the most scale-able as it offers automated payroll services and more, which many others do not offer. Some other great all-inclusive options include Shoot Proof, Honeybooks, 17hats, and Studio Ninja. Basically, anything is better than nothing when it comes to bookkeeping and accounting so find the program that fits your needs and budget and go from there! 🙂
7. Make sure you know your tax and reporting obligations
Reporting requirements vary from state to state, so be sure to check with your local Chamber of Commerce or IRS office. (I know, this is the least glamorous part of running a business, but you must follow the rules and report correctly to avoid getting into legal or tax trouble!)
8. invest in a reflector
Reflectors can make a GIGANTIC difference in the end quality of your photos! Naturally, the sky is bright and the ground below your subject is darker, and this forces UGLY shadows under someone’s eyes. You can fix this several ways (which I teach in my courses) but in general a reflector helps IMMENSELY! I use a reflector probably 90% of the time I’m doing family photos. Simply popping a white reflector at chest level or just laying it on the ground in front of a subject will bounce light back up into their eyes. This greatly reduces shadows under a subject’s eyes and puts a gorgeous catch light in the bottom of their eyes. I don’t go anywhere without my reflector, and honestly, I think it is a MUST have for portrait photography. My favorites are extra large foldable reflectors in silver or white for maximum light reflection. You can find some very affordable ones here.
I hope you found this guide helpful! To my colleagues–anything you’d like to add or suggest for the newbies out there? Let me know in the comments.
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Krista Lee is a Nashville, TN based portrait and wedding photographer. See her work and professional site at www.kristaleephotography.com