What I learned from a mentor that enabled me to go from an amateur
photographer to a professional portrait photographer in very specific
steps is something I like to pass on. Rather than spending countless
hours in classes learning every possible detail, I learned just the
necessary specifics and now I work out of my home full time and have
been in business for over 17 years, but I started out with practically
nothing; just an interest in photography and the need to earn more
For one thing, my mentor taught me the Three Classic Elements to
produce "salable portraits."
"Salable" is an industry term every photographer quickly becomes
familiar with to distinguish between the everyday reality of making
money versus creating those "artistic competition" or "award winning
prints" which don't earn the money.
I've been in the business for over 17 years now and I'm still amazed that:
People don't buy the award winning prints that you see wearing many of
the ribbons at professional photography conventions.
When my clients are faced with the choice of buying an artistic pose of
their child being demure and not looking directly into the camera or
buying a pose smiling close-up straight into the camera, they buy the
smiling close-up every time.
Not very original, but I'm telling you now so take note:
Happy people whose faces you can readily see are the most salable
They'll never tell you this at a photography workshop, seminar, Annual
Convention or at a photography institute because their job is to create
award winning photo artists rather than people whom simply make a
if you haven't learned all the fancy lighting techniques, then you've
saved time because the most important thing about light is having
enough to keep the face out of the shadows.
People prefer any kind of light, as long as there is enough of it to light
the face and eyes so you can get a good look at the person!
The quality of light people prefer for portraits is soft light, whether it be
from an artificial source like a flash umbrella or a natural source from the
sky at sunset, but other than a soft quality of light they want enough of it
to SEE the face of the person you're photographing, even if it is a flat
almost straight on technique.
You may not win any competitions or awards this way, but if you get
plenty of light on the faces you'll create salable prints.
This leads me to talk about fill flash. There are times outdoors when
you'll need a flash on your camera to fill in dark shadow areas mostly in
the eye sockets. Just use one f stop less flash than the existing ambient
light calls for. That's enough light to fill the shadows and don't worry
about not lugging around a portable umbrella to get the perfect
My mentor is right again: there is no change in the sale. The customer
pays for well lit faces, not perfect modeling. I've tried it both ways and
the customer buys the same amount of pictures in the same sizes no
matter what you do.
Element number Two: Body Positioning.
This is a little more detailed area, but it is important, believe me.
My basic education from my mentor began with the same advice I'll pass
on to you:
You should rarely photograph anyone straight on.
The exception to this rule will be for family and large groups, which for
reasons of body placement will often break this rule. But for individuals
or smaller groups of people this rule applies.
Now, when you're not just photographing a head and shoulders close-
up you'll have to understand other aspects of body positioning that
makes people want to buy their pictures. Hands. They should always be
turned slightly so they are seen from the edge with fingers together, or
hide the hands altogether behind your subject or somebody else next to
them. Never position hands straight on with open fingers.
Simply put, anything that minimizes how much hand you see works to
make it a better portrait. This is always more flattering in a portrait and
you'll see they are the ones people buy.
Crossing legs at the ankles refines the pose and minimizes this area of
body making it more appealing.
Look at it this way, what's less of a distraction: two legs leading to two
ankles leading to two feet -- or two legs blending into one ankle section
with blended feet? Surely it's the latter.
When standing, one cannot simply cross their ankles unless they have
something to lean against, so I will have one foot in front of the other in
such a way that they taper into one general unit. Have them place their
weight on the back leg (remember, they are at a slight 3/4 angle) and
bring the front leg forward and slightly tilt the foot to face out toward the
Whenever I'd show my mentor my portraits that I was just unsure of, it
was these recurring themes that he patiently pointed out to me.
As I began to look for these simple things during my portrait sessions,
my pictures got better!
I can't stress enough how basic, but important, it is to watch for these
I have people come to me who went to the contract photographer for
their High School Senior yearbook portrait and disliked their picture.
They want me to take one that they can proudly give out to friends and
family. Usually the problem with the pictures I've seen is that the
photography school graduate "intern" who works for the contract
photographer took the photo without paying attention to some minor
detail. I get it right and my reputation grows from "fixing" the contract
The techniques for salable body positioning are what you look for in any
pose you try whether close-up or full body.
When photographing people full body standing, seated or reclining on
the ground, noticing body angle, hands and feet is the way to "fine tune"
your portrait and distinguish it from just a "snapshot".
Lastly, I must share my favorite body positioning tool that makes it so
easy to make a better portrait than someone who doesn't really know
what they're doing: the head tilt.
A woman alone tilts her head just slightly in either direction to make a
more stunning portrait. A man's head can stay straight up or tilt slightly
away in the opposite direction from his most forward shoulder but never
back towards his most forward shoulder.
Element number Three: Salable Composition
There are many compositional techniques in many books, but it doesn't
take all that knowledge to make portrait compositions that are what the
typical consumer considers good enough to call professional.
Once you know what the consumer considers salable, you will be able
to reproduce it again and again for other clients. You also will thank me
for saving you from thinking that in order to be good enough to sell
portrait photography you have to create grand artistic images. You just
have to know what works and be able to repeat it for the friends of your
clients whom will be getting your business cards by way of referral.
When photographing one individual person, it's so simple I don't think
you need too much input for that. In fact, I believe you know the naive
simplicity with which you thought "hey, I can do this for a living" after
taking some portraits of a friend or family member. Yet it truly gets
challenging when there is more than one person involved.
I know of a local professional who has referred family portrait clients to
me as she specializes in children outdoors. Do you know what that
really means? It means she's intimidated by having to do groupings, but
that's okay, most people are.
So here's the rule of salable composition:
Keep everybody's head at a different level.
Like I told you, I didn't have a fancy College degree so my mentor had to
keep it simple enough for me. In some cases, you will recognize that it's
not possible, but if you do your best to stagger head height from
individual to individual, you will be creating professional looking
You will stand some people, seat some in chairs, seat some on the arms
of chairs, seat some on the floor, kneel some, crouch some, lay some
down, but you will achieve staggered head heights and salable
Tip heads inward toward one another for unity when photographing a
Note that men are usually positioned higher than women.
No, I'm not aware of being a chauvinist pig, but I am aware that this is
what usually sells. Not the images where mom's higher than dad but
where dad (even if he's actually shorter!) is positioned just a head or so
Once you understand the rules, you can bend them where you need to
in order to make a portrait work; but people will see that you know what
you're doing as you position them for a good composition and especially
when they see your finished work.
My mentor critiqued my work time and time again over several years as I
brought images and questions to him. It almost always boiled down to
my understanding these most simple aspects that I've shared with you.
I know it's not customary to learn photography on such simplistic terms,
but trust me; I've had exposure over the years to many different
photography educational venues such as classes, workshops,
conventions, guest speakers, lectures, teaching videos and books but
never have any of the teachers been willing to simply say "look, there
are just a few rules to follow and people will be happy with their
pictures". Never have I received more helpful advice than I received
from my mentor.
I guess if I could sum up the philosophy he embodied in word form I'd
say it was rather like this:
"Not everybody wants a masterpiece. Most people just want to
remember their loved ones as happy. It's not hard to capture that with
your camera, just don't stand them in hard sunlight, standing in a straight
line facing straight toward the camera."
Tom Ray is a Certified Professional Photographer through the
Professional Photographers of America. If you are interested in his full
story please go to: Professional
Photography: Success Without School