8 Things You Absolutely Need To Start a Portrait Photography Business

8 things you need to start a portrait photography business

Many people ask me this: “If you were starting a portrait business either as side hustle money or as a full-time business, what gear would you recommend?”

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 a variety 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! 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 gear 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 to achieve great results 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 have to 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. 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. 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!

things you need to start a photography business, 2 lenses including a Tamron 2.8 28-75 lens

3.  Get 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. While a reflector may not fix the problem 100%, popping a 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.

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 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 try to start booking shoots, be sure to find a few local parks that you can offer prospective clients as possible options.

5. Be able to run Photoshop and/or Lightroom

You’ll need a powerful laptop or desktop computer that is capable of running these programs. 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. Without these programs, your photos will stay so-so. Pull your photos into Photoshop and color correct and enhance, and you 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

You must have 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!!!! For the love please get with the times! You and your accountant will thank me later. You need to keep your invoices and receipts in an online accounting system all of the time. This will help tremendously with organization and will save you so much time. Your year-end reports are super easy to pull when you use accounting software. Your clients also appreciate an emailed receipt and/or a way to pay online. I use and highly recommend Intuit Quickbooks (I personally use it with a combination of Google Docs and Drive to manage all client tasks). There are other accounting softwares out there, but Quickbooks is the software that most clients and accountants are familiar with. If you plan on growing your business, Quickbooks also currently is the most scale-able as it offers automated payroll services and more. Some other great all-inclusive options include Shoot Proof, Honeybooks, 17hats, and Studio Ninja.

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. Make sure you’re confident in your skills

Please don’t start charging people for portrait photography when you aren’t fully confident with your camera! You do not need a license to call yourself a professional photographer, but be sure that you’ve taken classes or practiced enough with it that you are confident in your skills. The last thing you want to do is start a business – and then mess up a bunch of photo shoots. There is an abundance of online classes and workshops that you can take that will help you become more knowledgeable about your equipment, which will help you grow more confident in your skills.  Don’t forget that family and friends are always up for free photo sessions–they can score some great images, and you can practice!

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

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