Business + Marketing

How to Build a Successful Portrait Photography Business

June 18, 2022

By Abbey Pleviak

Courtesy of The Portrait System

Many portrait photographers dream of turning their passion into a thriving career. To help in that pursuit, there are countless educational programs catering to photographers…but very few of them cover the business of starting a photography studio.

If you have been contemplating putting out your shingle, there are many factors to take into consideration. Building a successful portrait photography business depends both on mastering the technical aspects of photography and on learning the craft of business. And then you have to take the portraits you and your clients love and sell the heck out of them.

In that vein, The Portrait System, which hosts a library of educational videos covering all aspects of the portrait studio business, has developed two distinct programs that bring together cohorts of eager photographers with seasoned mentors familiar with the ropes. The 90-Day Challenge program aims to lead motivated photographers through the entire process it takes to start up a portrait studio in just 90 days, breaking the process down into 13 steps with a challenge to accomplish for each one. The 12-Month Startup program also goes through all the steps necessary to launch a successful business and accomplishes this by going deeply into each topic over the course of a full year. We break down each category aspiring portrait studio entrepreneurs must master below. 

The Portrait System’s Steps for Starting a Successful Portrait Photography Business

1. Set Your Intention

When you set intentions, you begin to visualize yourself achieving those results. Doubts can hold you back or sabotage your efforts, so it’s important to start by seeing yourself accomplishing your goals. Orienting your mind away from limiting fear helps you understand that your goals are achievable. Then, even when fear and doubt arise, you can refocus on the feeling of accomplishment and begin to take the steps you need to get there.   

Successful Portrait Photography Business with studio setup space
A studio setup doesn’t have to be involved. All you need is a corner, window and some basic tools.

2. Studio Setup

Many people get stuck on the idea that they need the latest gear, expensive lighting setups, a top-of-the-line camera, custom-painted backdrops…but the truth is, you can get started very inexpensively. At a minimum, you need a corner, a window, and some basic tools. While there is no harm in having expensive gear, you can achieve beautiful light diffusion and reflection on the cheap with mesh curtains and foam core, and create backdrops with a painted canvas. The real challenge in setting up your space is knowing what is enough and not going overboard. The faster you get your studio space set up, the faster you can start building a portfolio that you love and can sell.

3. Camera Basics

Before you start seeing clients is the time to master a thorough understanding of your camera and its settings, not after securing a paying job. Take time to figure out all your dials and buttons, and get to know all your settings well so that you can handle your camera like a pro. Why is shooting RAW best? How do aperture, shutter speed, and ISO inter-relate and affect your exposure? How does toggle focus work? How far can you push your ISO in either direction? How far can you drop your shutter speed before getting camera blur? Master these questions and you can put your attention where it matters most—on creating beautiful images for your paying clients.

Posing knowledge is part of a Successful Portrait Photography Business
When it comes to posing, create a variety of looks for your clients to choose from .

4. Posing

Gorgeous posing depends on mastering perspective and creating a variety of enticing looks for your clients to choose from. Women want an hourglass figure. Men want images that express openness and confidence. Study what emotions are evoked by different body positions. Practice posing yourself, so you know how to make your clients feel safe and comfortable enough for them to look great and have a good time in front of your camera. If you want to jump straight to posing, Sue Bryce’s Pose Series covers all the bases.

5. Lighting

Lighting is essential to creating beautiful photography, but learning complicated lighting setups is not necessary. In fact, there are photographers with six-figure businesses who accomplish this with just one type of lighting or with natural light only. Mastering light comes from knowing how to bend, diffuse, and reflect it to create soft, flat beauty lighting. You can do this with just one window, with constant light, and with strobes. When you understand the basic principles of lighting, you can start your own photography business with whatever type of light you happen to have.

retouching with Photoshop
When it comes to retouching, you don’t need to be a Photoshop wizard; you just need to know the basics.

6. Photoshop Hacks

To retouch images, you don’t need to be a Photoshop wizard. The best strategy is to get your images right in camera as you’re shooting. Doing so leads to less time trying to fix images. Instead, you can focus on fine tuning to enhance images. Even if you decide to outsource retouching, it is helpful to understand the Photoshop basics like layers, the healing tool, the clone stamp, and responsible warping. If you want to get in-depth into retouching, The Retouching Series by Pratik Naik is a great resource.

7. Makeup and Hair

Including hair and makeup can remove stress for your clients and add value to your brand. Knowing a professional will make sure they look fabulous can help your clients relax about their investment. And the experience itself can be therapeutic, helping them get into a great mood for their shoot.

8. Confidence and Networking

Taking great portraits is one half of your business equation. The other part is developing the confidence and ability to get people excited to work with you. As a photographer, you can create images for businesses and individuals that help them in many ways, such as improving their online presence. For businesspeople, that is money in the bank. Whenever you approach someone new—whether you are building your portfolio, or looking for paying clients—remember that no matter who they are or what they do, what you offer is valuable to them. You need to embody that mindset when you share who you are and what your service provides.

9. Pricing and Product

Before you begin selling your work, you need to decide exactly what to sell and for how much. Keep this simple. Don’t offer too many options. Focus on products that you love so that you are excited to sell them. When you set your prices, be sure to account for all your time and expenses. Many photographers charge a low, flat fee for a photo session and all the digital files, including retouching. These photographers are making less than minimum wage. If you want to have a professional photography studio that offers great service and products, be sure you are charging sustainable prices, so that you can maintain your business and don’t burn out working too hard for too little.

10. Creating a Cohesive Brand

Create a cohesive look and feel for your print material, social media, and website. When someone moves from one to the other, they should feel the continuity of your presentation in all these places. Superficially, this is about colors, fonts, and images. On a deeper level, this is about your messaging. Show the types of portraits you want to center your portrait photography business around. It’s fine to accept other types of clients, but it’s wise to show what you feel most passionate about. What sparks your enthusiasm? Center your business around creating the kind of work you truly love. That will make it easier for you to sell and bring you excitement that gives longevity to your career.

marketing pieces help start your photo business
Your marketing pieces can include gift certificates, vouchers, magazines and more.

11. Marketing

Your marketing talks about you, your product, and your client experience. It involves the words you speak to potential clients, as well as the print and electronic materials you produce that share information about your business. This includes business cards, gift certificates, vouchers, and magazines. In developing these materials, refine the words that best identify your brand. Get succinct about who you are and what you offer. Think about your ideal client. What struggles do they have? How can you help make their lives better? For example, almost everyone is on social media, and the posts that get the most engagement are portraits of the poster. Because you can provide a wide selection of varied portraits, you help people overcome the problem of what to post. You can provide them with content to use throughout the whole year! Develop scripts about what you offer that you can practice until you can say them with full confidence and no hesitation.

12. Sales

Selling with confidence depends on overcoming fear. If you have blocks around accepting or keeping money, it’s very important to address them so they don’t get in the way of having a successful portrait photography business. At every stage you have contact with your client, you can educate them about your product and pricing at levels that are appropriate for that encounter. From pitch to consultation to photoshoot to reveal, you can continuously educate about your product and pricing. Then, your client will be prepared to make informed choices about what they want to purchase, and they won’t flinch when you ask, “How would you like to pay for that?”

13. Launch

There are many launch points in the building of your portrait photography business. Launch can mean signing a lease on your own studio. It can mean completing your portfolio and being ready to charge for portraits. You can launch new products, a new website, and new pricing structures. Business is always a process of evolving and refining your practices and your systems. It is a state of mind where you are stepping into owning your identity as a professional portrait photographer, a small business owner, and an entrepreneur.

90=Day Challenge with The Portrait System

Build Your Successful Portrait Photography Business with The Portrait System’s 90-Day Challenge

You can access all the educational videos and downloads included in the 90-Day Challenge at any time with a Portrait System membership, along with all of its educational content on the craft and business of photography. The 12-Month Startup will run as a live, mentored event once per year with its videos also available to members throughout the year. You can join up with the Challenge and the Startup Program at any point in their duration, but if you want to catch the 12-Month Startup from the beginning and take advantage of live mentoring, be advised that this new program launches on January 3, 2023. 

In the 12-Month Startup, photographers will receive in-depth trainings into select topics on a monthly basis, followed up with support from breakthrough coaches Cat Ford-Coates and Saray Taylor-Roman, both of whom began learning with Portrait System founder Sue Bryce in 2015 and have subsequently built six-figure portrait studio businesses.  

All the learning in the 12-Month Startup is also supported by The Portrait System’s Members Only Facebook Group and their Accountability Group, where photographers can interact with a global community of peers and can match up with an accountability partner to provide each other support throughout the Startup program. In the Members Facebook Group, photographers share their questions, successes and failures, and make lifelong friends. Learn more about the 12-Month Startup.