Basic Portraits

People have their photographs taken formally for several reasons, but it is usually done at a time in their lives when they feel good about themselves, and they want you to preserve that time for them and their families.

As a photographer, you have a responsibility to know intimately the technical side of your craft so your time with the subject is spent achieving the shot rather than getting overwhelmed with last-minute adjustments to lighting and exposure. Portraiture is about the subject.

Basic portraiture is the bread and butter side of personal photography. If you are going to compete with a Walmart you are going to have to understand how to do the same thing that they do. Look at their business model, and do it better. I have always been surprised at the number of photographers who, when starting, are willing to pass up a steady income flow that will help them establish themselves. No wonder so many fine photographers don’t succeed. This article is to show the new, and perhaps the experienced, photographers that it is possible to support your professional growth using photography instead of packing groceries. This type of income stream will help pay staff, which you will need when you get busy. It is also something that you can train others to do so they can keep your business going while you are off working on your next gallery show (if you should be so lucky!).

Assembly line portrait of a young lady. Subject in front of  a blue painted backdrop.

The basic rules of professional portraiture are simple:

1. Women are beautiful
2. Men have character
3. Kids are happy
4. Babies chortle with delight
5. Families are close
6. Couples are deeply in love
7. Pets are just the cutest little things you have ever met!

If you cannot hold to these rules in your heart, then choose another branch of photography. Technical competence will not be enough.

Assembly Line

We are talking about simple setups. Remember the work is with the subject. If you turn the subject, you do not want to have to change your lighting. If you have two or more people in front of the camera, you want them all to be well-lit. At the same time, you want to have modeling in their faces and highlights in their eyes.

Your subject(s) want something special that they cannot obtain using their camera phone, and you want something that allows you to work with the people without regard to technical details. For real assembly line work, I use three lights and a painted background or ChromaKey. With these backgrounds, you do not have to worry about a background light. Just keep them far enough behind the subject (at least 10 feet) that they receive soft and even illumination from the other lights.

The three basic lights are:

Key Light

The strongest light, is set about 3 meters (10 feet) in front of the subject at about a 45-degree angle. This light is either bounced from an umbrella or diffused through a small softbox. It should be set high so the light comes from about 30 to 45 degrees above the subject. Your exposure is based on this light.

Fill Light

This light is bounced from a large umbrella or a white wall, or diffused through a large softbox, and must be above your camera height. It should be adjusted so the light at the subject is at least 1.5 stops less than the key light. Its function is to boost shadow detail without overwhelming the modeling produced by the key light. It should be placed low enough to produce highlights in the subject’s eyes.

Kicker Light

This light is placed facing the key light with the subject in the middle. Its purpose is to create slight highlights at the edge of the shadow side of the subject’s face. For assembly line work, I bounce this light, but use barn doors to reduce the bounce area and provide some focus. At the subject, it should be about 1 stop less than the key light. To do ID photography, like passports, shut off the kicker light and drop a paper background behind the subject.


Every studio should have a stool. If the subject is taller than you, you want them seated. A seated subject is also less likely to change position and destroy the shot.

A posing bench or table will give the subject a surface to lean on. When I was starting, I put a 1/4-20 threaded aluminum plate on the bottom of a 12″X18″ tabletop and mounted it on a tripod to serve as an adjustable posing table. A selection of remnants from a fabric thrift store allowed me to change the color and texture of the table for variety.

If you intend to photograph infants a table is required, and it should be large enough to keep attendants out of the frame while ensuring the safety of the child. Blankets and cushions can be used to position the child. A similar setup is required for pets.

Be sparing with props. If the client wants something included in a photograph, they will usually bring it. Scenic backgrounds are not recommended unless you can afford a large variety so the client can choose. If the client is not comfortable with the background, they will probably reject even the best photos. Keep the attention on the subject.

An alternative to many backgrounds is Chroma Key. The client has trouble pre-visualizing, but a wide variety of backgrounds can be inserted at will behind your subjects. You can collect your backgrounds as you wander with your camera – that sunset, a stone wall … always keeping in mind the fact that you will be placing someone’s portrait on top of the image you are collecting. Constantly enlarging your collection of background images will keep your eye sharp and help prevent tunnel vision when you are doing other assignments!

How to Make it Happen

Work by appointment!

If you are alone (just starting) and you have a walk-in then “I have an appointment open right now if you are interested.” ID photos for passports etc can be on a walk-in basis, but you have to remember that ‘While you wait’ translates to others as ‘while they wait’. You will do the photos, then you can get to the prints right after you are finished with your next appointment. (Just sign right here. That will be $25.00. How are you paying?) When you grow and get staff, your receptionist will handle juggling clients and will be able to do the ID photos without your involvement.

You need a reception area, with seats (for comfort) and a large mirror (so they can check their appearance before sitting in front of the camera). When the appointment is made, the sitting fee is collected, the names (and contact information) are recorded, and the desired background is chosen. All of this is kept in a docket, very much like in a dentist’s office. An appointment card is issued, and the clients are asked to be at least 15 minutes early. They should also be instructed on what to wear if you intend to use ChromaKey. Discuss what they are thinking about, decide on green or blue, and let them know to avoid the key colors.

Subject in front of a chroma key backdrop.  Substituted background 1.
Subject in front of a chroma key backdrop.  Substituted background 2.

When the clients arrive for their appointment, the receptionist should review the sitting order to make sure it is correct, advise them to take advantage of the mirror to check their appearance and then to have a seat. The docket and an empty memory card go to you the photographer, and you set up everything as you will need it, then collect the clients from the reception. Work efficiently, get the shots, and then ask the clients to wait in reception while the proofs are prepared. (If disaster strikes, you can bring them right back in to redo the shots!)

If you use painted backgrounds, the proofs can generally be printed straight from the camera using PictBridge. Otherwise, plug the memory card into a computer and use the appropriate software. If you are using ChromaKey and inserting backgrounds, they should be inserted before you print the proofs. (Remember with post-processing, you NEVER overwrite your original file. Always ‘Save As’ a copy. If they do not like the background when they see it, you can change the background for a ‘modest re-proofing fee’.) Print the proofs 4-up on 4X6 paper, and use a rubber stamp on the back to put a standard copyright notice, your studio name and contact information, date, and docket number on the proofs.

The clients will likely order before they leave your studio. Whether they do or not, make sure they leave with a blank order form, just in case they want to order more copies. Prints are sold as packages. Use Adobe’s organizer or the equivalent to print the packages on letter-size glossy photo paper, and you charge by the sheet, rather than by the print. (Let them cut the sheets to separate the prints.) One sheet would have either one 8X10, two 5X7, one 5X7 and 4 wallet size … Add a dollar per sheet if you are to use printed framing (fuzzy ovals, patterned borders, etc.)

When they pick up their order, include a coupon for $10 off their next sitting, another for 15% off their next print order, and, of course, another blank order form.

Competing with Walmart

The prices set at Picture This type of franchise are more than adequate to support the type of work that they do. Remember that these places pay a premium to their host for the privilege of using their name, and suffer from coupon fatigue, as they never know when the next flyer will cut into their margins. Find the cheapest in your area (Walmart, Sears, Target ….) and shave 5 cents off of each of their basic prices, and you will be the lowest-priced provider in your area. (Do not offer to accept competitors’ coupons, as their pockets are a lot deeper than yours.)

The staff at these franchises do not receive commissions and most work at or near minimum wage. They have sales quotas they must meet to be assigned enough hours to pay their rent. Upselling is a survival instinct with them, or they lose their jobs. Although clients might be happy with the photos, few are happy with the way they are treated.

Treat your clients with respect. Be happy to see them and encourage them to return. Most cannot afford higher-end portraiture, but they can see that you do it well. In a few years, their children may get married, and you want them to consider your studio for their wedding photography. Some may work in businesses that need a competent photographer, and your display photos may lead to an assignment. Your best advertising is a satisfied customer, particularly one who feels welcome to drop in just to say hello.

Franchise studios began as loss-leaders for department stores, and were placed in the most remote part of the store. Clients would have to pass through most of the store on their many trips to the studio. The stores made their money from the impulse buying that occurred during these trips. This created a large market for inexpensive portraiture. Today the studios are placed at the entrance and are no longer subsidized. They now have to actively compete with you to survive. You must be willing to do the same for the same reason. They are not your competitor, you are theirs!

As you grow, keep an eye on what is happening at the franchises. Pay particular attention to who is working there, and if you see one who is developing a high degree of client loyalty, give them your card and ask to meet with them for coffee after work. View their portfolio, and ask if they would be willing to come to work for you. Remember if you match what they are making, give them regular hours, and a 5% commission, they will be sorely tempted. (Add access to group medical and dental, if you can, and an opportunity to advance as your assistant, and maybe as an independent photographer, and serious photographers will jump at the chance.) If the hiring is successful, take an ad in the consumer section of the local paper announcing to their past clients that they are now working for your studio, and invite their clients to drop in for a visit.

A Professional photographer makes their living from the business of photography. Business supports art.

If you can’t get your head around that one, maybe you should take a job at Walmart.