Building A Portrait Business

Building A Portrait Business

Ask a photographer how they got their start, and you’ll often hear a similar story. “I loved taking photos, and my friends started to ask me to shoot portraits. Soon enough, I started taking portraits for clients, and that launched my career.”

There’s a constant demand for portraits, and an even greater demand for photographers who can take good ones. While high-volume studios churn out lifeless images, a good photographer can capture the spirt of the subject, something that families and individuals can cherish.

Since so many photographers stumble into their careers down this path, they often make some wrong turns when it comes to the important task of preparing for the hard (but fun) job of running a studio or freelance business.

Here’s a primer of business basics if you’re thinking about setting up shop.

Identify Your Niche 

Are you going to cater to businesses (corporate portraits, for instance) or to consumers (family portraits, senior portraits, weddings and so on)? This is a fundamental distinction and likely will shape everything from how you price your services to how you market yourself. Once you’ve identified your niche, you’ll know more about what kind of equipment, office space or studio you’ll need, and you’ll be better able to identify your target market and your ideal customer.

Write A Business Plan

A business plan will help you determine how your business will operate and generally provide a road map to profitability. A business plan is also a must if you’ll be approaching a financier in search of a start-up loan or to fund the purchase of equipment. There are many resources online for developing an effective business plan. The Small Business Administration is particularly helpful, as are local organizations that cater to helping entrepreneurs. A great one is SCORE, a volunteer organization that offers mentoring and all manner of assistance from retired executives who know what it takes to run a successful business.

Think About Pricing

Business-to-consumer photography is often priced less than B2B photography, but there are no standard prices for either market. The key is to determine the range in your market and where your pricing should fit in relation to that. If you’re fresh out of college and still learning, you’re likely going to price yourself lower than someone with 30 years of experience and a highly refined portfolio that caters to a select high-profile clientele.

Commercial assignment photographers can fall back on stock photography agencies such as Getty to determine rates for specific licensing terms or use software such as fotoQuote for much the same purpose. B2C photographers are likely to have better luck by monitoring their local market and asking friends and colleagues what they’ve paid (or what they charge) for similar services.

Don’t forget to factor in the actual cost of doing business. If your studio rent and expenses are $3,000 a month, but you’re only open 20 days each month, then for every day you’re open, you need to make $150 simply to cover your costs.

If you’re just starting out, you don’t necessarily need to rent a studio space right away. Learn how to create a portrait studio on tight budget in your garage or a small room.


Do You Need A Business License?

Business licensing rules vary by state but usually involve a small fee and some basic paperwork. This is also a good time to determine what kind of business structure you’ll have. A sole proprietorship is the most common arrangement for individual business owners, and it does provide some tax benefits and legal flexibility, but it doesn’t insulate the owner from business liabilities. Consult a lawyer to determine if your unique situation may benefit from a limited partnership or incorporation. You may also want to set up your business with the Social Security Administration in order to get a Federal Tax I.D. number. That number, or your own social security number, will be required by many business customers in order to get your invoices paid.

Get Insured

No matter who your customers are, you need insurance. You should probably have your equipment protected since it is, after all, how you make your living. Don’t expect your homeowner’s policy to cover your business equipment, as it’s likely to be explicitly exempt.

You should also protect your business with indemnity and liability insurance in case someone has a fall while visiting your home office or studio, or in case you make a poor judgment that causes damage or injury to a customer. B2B photographers, in particular, regularly need $1 million of liability insurance just to set foot on a customer’s property. Some property managers require proof of that insurance and even may require a formal declaration of their company as explicitly insured before you’ll be allowed to set up shop in their office. These requests often come in at the 11th hour, so if liability insurance wasn’t already in place, there would be no way to meet the client’s request.

Savvy photographers can even play up their business insurance as a selling point when competing with potentially uninsured photographers for an assignment. For some customers, the protection afforded by insurance is invaluable.


How Will You Get Paid? 

Some folks want to pay with cash and check, but a lot more want to pay with credit cards. So, if you can’t accept credit cards, you’re going to limit your ability to accept money, and that’s not good.

The old-school approach is to set up a business banking account—which is still a good idea, by the way, because you want to separate your personal finances from your business finances—and work with your bank to accept credit card payments, then select accounting software that can process those payments.

One of the easiest ways to make your business credit card-ready is to use a service such as Square, which offers a few hardware options including a free smartphone dongle that work with your phone or tablet to accept mobile payments. For a small fee per transaction, your customers can swipe credit cards right on your phone. 

Do you sell prints or other services online? You may want to sign up for PayPal, an easy method for accepting online payments that just about everybody knows. Ultimately, you’ll want to deposit the funds into a dedicated business bank account in order to keep the accounting crystal clear for tax and legal reasons. On this last point, be sure to consult with a qualified professional regarding tax and legal issues when setting up your business so you don’t run into unexpected liabilities later.

Develop A Brand Identity

Your brand becomes your statement to potential customers about who you are and what they can expect from you. For instance, your brand may communicate that you’re young, creative and affordable. Or perhaps you want to create a brand that says you’re experienced, conservative and reliable.

Addressing the branding question begins when you identify your niche, and it’s refined by what sets you apart and what you provide to your customers. The main outward manifestation of your brand is your logo, which will be used on your website, business card, letterhead and any other marketing materials you create. If you want to start your branding journey on the right foot, work with an experienced designer to help you set the right tone. Consider trading services: You design my logo, and I’ll shoot your headshot.

Remember, when you’re positioning yourself, both in your branding and in your marketing materials, you don’t want to come across as a jack-of-all-trades. It’s one thing to cater to a portrait audience and shoot the occasional wedding on the side. It’s entirely another to try to be everything to everyone and muddy your brand with too much variety. Customers want to know who you are and what they can expect when they hire you.

You started this process by identifying a niche, so don’t water that down when it comes to branding. Determine what sets your work apart, what positions you uniquely, and build your brand on that.

Make Sure Others Know Your Brand

This is accomplished with marketing. That means so much more than a website—which requires strategic SEO and likely even paid search advertising in order to get seen by prospects, in addition to active social media accounts.

But what about traditional methods of marketing, like placing ads for your senior portrait business in the back of high-school yearbooks? Or what about sending promotional postcards to the art buyers who may hire you for their next advertising gig? If you did your due diligence when you created your business plan, marketing was a part of it.

If budget is limited, social media offers an affordable and quantifiable marketing vehicle. Use your photographic expertise to harness social media to create content customers will care about. This content marketing approach is ideal for photographers because we’re regularly making pretty pictures—the perfect content to post on social media.

Protecting Your Reputation

Once you have your business up and running, how do you ensure it stays that way? No matter what your niche or who you’re interacting with, behaving unprofessionally is a surefire way to find yourself out of work fast. Pay attention to the details of professionalism, both in how you present yourself and how you interact with potential clients.

You’re going to get a lot of callers who simply ask, “I want to do a photo. What will that cost?” They may not know that all the details matter a lot. Do they want a headshot for Facebook or an architectural shot out of town for the cover of a Fortune 500 company’s annual report? You’ll need to learn to suss out what your customers want without frustrating them with too many questions or, worse, scaring them away by not asking the right questions. This initial call happens on every job, and it’s always the first opportunity to demonstrate your expertise and how effective you’ll be at solving their problems.

When it comes time to talk about money, remember that if you can’t speak about your services and your pricing with confidence, your customers aren’t going to do it for you.

Portrait Posing Guide

The great thing about photography is that there are very few hard and fast rules, especially when it comes to the creative, compositional, aesthetic side of things. But there are definitely guidelines that have proven time and again to lead to better photographs. For instance, there are compositional “rules” that we learn early on—like the rule of thirds or the rule of leading lines. We’ve all probably learned through practice that, yes, in fact, those compositional guidelines often do lead to better pictures.

Along those same lines, there are guidelines for posing a portrait subject. Certain poses are more likely to lead to good pictures, while others are more likely to result in bad ones. 

Seated Or Standing?

For headshot portraits, I usually like to seat the subject on a stool or low-backed chair that offers firm support and a very upright sitting position. This helps to keep them fairly stationary and stable, and you can give them directions to fine-tune the pose pretty easily. I almost always want their shoulders turned toward a 45-degree angle away from the camera in either direction, with their head facing me. Too much shoulder turn, however, can make a thin person all but disappear.

A slight tilt of the head in the direction their shoulders are facing creates a more focused, engaged-looking subject. It’s a stronger look than if the head is tilted away from the direction the subject’s shoulders are facing, which inherently appears softer and more passive—meaning it may sometimes be the perfect head position for the look you’re after.

Many subjects are self-conscious about the appearance of a double chin. Consequently, you’ll find that they often hold their chin up too high. To get their chin down and help hide any hint of a double chin that may appear, ask them to bend forward at the waist. Bending very far, to the extreme, while maintaining eye contact with the lens will demonstrate the principle at play, elongating the neck and avoiding any double chins. You likely don’t want them to lean in that far, but you’ll get the idea of how the chin fix works by asking the subject to exaggerate their lean. A subtle lean-in also helps the subject appear engaged with the viewer. Shooting at an angle slightly above the subject can also be flattering.

Sometimes I’ll place an apple box on the floor in front of my subject and ask them to put a foot up on the box, bringing their knee up in front of them. They can then lean their elbow on their knee, which creates a more casual overall appearance—and almost always positions their torso, shoulders and head in an attractive pose that creates nice lines and angles. It’s a great way to keep a seated portrait from coming across as too stuffy.

If I’m photographing someone who might be self-conscious about their weight, I don’t like to seat them. Sitting poses can exaggerate the weight around their face and neck. Instead, I ask them to stand and use many of the same posing guidelines I would if they were seated.

With standing portraits, I still want to avoid a subject squaring their shoulders to the camera. I find that the biggest problem is a subject appearing stiff and uncomfortable. I tell them they look like they’re standing at attention, and we’d rather they look at ease. To accomplish this, putting their weight on one leg or the other changes the dynamics of their pose dramatically. It affects their torso, shoulders and head positions in usually wonderful ways, and you can often see the comfort of the pose reflected in a more relaxed look on their face and in their eyes.

Make Your Subjects Comfortable

Some folks have a hard time getting their weight onto one leg or the other, and it can be quite amusing to watch them lift a foot as they try to determine exactly what I’m getting at. A shortcut to aid their posing can be to give them something to lean on—a wall, the back of a chair or even a tall stool on which they can half-sit. I tend to see scene elements like this as anchors for your subjects, giving them something sturdy to hold on to. It helps avoid the look and feel of a deer in the headlights, not sure exactly where they are or why they’re standing this way. Regardless of how it makes their body appear, it’s sure to be evidenced by a slightly lost look on their face—something almost impossible to overcome unless you can get them into a pose that feels more comfortable.

Be careful of making a pose too comfortable, though. Often you’ll hear feedback from a subject that a pose feels unnatural. I like to tell them that as long as it looks good it doesn’t have to feel good. “After all,” I say, “have you ever seen yourself when you’re really comfortable? You’re probably slouching on the couch. And that probably doesn’t look too good.” We want them just comfortable enough, but not too comfortable.

Hand Placement

The next item in need of attention for your subject is likely their hands. “What do I do with my hands?” they ask. I believe that a subject standing comfortably with their hands at their sides looks calm and confident, strong and powerful—which is probably why nobody seems to stand this way naturally. Watch your subjects clasp their hands in front of them or fold them behind. This is almost always a nervous reaction to not knowing where to put their hands. When in doubt, let them hang comfortably at their sides. They will feel exposed, but they’ll look calm and confident.

A hand in the pocket, hands on hips or arms folded can be perfectly natural and comfortable poses that give your subject something to do with their hands. Watch out for folks who look like they’ve never stood that way before. If a subject isn’t a natural arm folder, you’ll know. They’ll look uncomfortable and unnatural. Don’t force it.

Arms folded can also be a bit of a standoffish pose—a little too authoritarian and a little too tough, unless the casual nature of the rest of the scene, the remainder of the pose and the subject’s expression counteract this. Either way, be wary of overdoing the arms folded pose, as it can become a crutch for when you don’t know what to do with your subject’s hands.

Hands can be tricky, too, if they’re positioned incorrectly. Fingers spread out rarely look good. Folded softly, curled around an imaginary pen, for instance, or shown from the side tend to make more attractive an unobtrusive use of their hands.

Some photographers are fans of resting a chin or a cheek on a subject’s hand. I’m not particularly fond of this technique, though it does have its place. If you do put a hand on the chin or cheek, make sure the subject knows they’re not actually leaning their weight on it. It’s just supposed to create the illusion of support. If they really lean their weight on their hand, they’ll smash their face a bit, which is rarely attractive in portraits.

Get Inspiration From The Pros

When in doubt, watch how celebrities pose for portraits in situations where they aren’t specifically working with a photographer. The red carpet is a great place to see classic posing guidelines in action—hand on hip, slight turn, tilted head, a toe pointed just so in order to create a leading line. You’ll be studying from some of the best.

Similarly, if you get in a rut and find yourself using the same old poses over and over, it can be helpful to consult a “look book” of poses you’ve assembled ahead of time. Mine is comprised of clipped photos from magazines and catalogs, and some simple sketches of poses I’ve found work well. Sometimes all it takes to find the perfect pose is to do something outside your comfort zone.

Look for poses that include full body and close-ups, standing, seated and even laying down—a type of pose that isn’t for everyone, but when it’s appropriate (model headshots or senior portraits, for instance) can be a very flattering look and a unique result. It can be casual or glamorous, light and fun or sexy and sensual. The point is, to pose someone laying down, you’d better have an agenda in mind. This type of pose serves as a reminder that it’s important to choose poses that are appropriate for the subject.

A glamour pose for a corporate boss isn’t likely to be ideal, nor is a power pose going to sit comfortably on a child. Poses, like every other element in a scene, send messages. Choosing them correctly is the only way to ensure you’re sending the message you intend.

Step up your portrait photography with these 5 classic lighting “recipes.”

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