Tips + Techniques

Want to Shoot Editorial, Commercial, or Fine Art Photography? Here’s How.

February 29, 2024

By Jyotsna Bhamidipati

For those thinking about working in editorial photography, it is important to keep in mind that editorial portraits for brands are usually not your typical golden-hour, people-in-flowy-dresses, styled portraits you would see in portrait photography. But the principle of portraiture is the same.

Portrait is a loose term we use in the photo world and really can comprise anything. Some examples include:

  • a portrait of someone looking into your eyes/camera
  • a portrait that’s taken in someone’s environment
  • a portrait that’s faceless
  • a documentary/photo journalistic approach to a portrait
  • a styled beauty fashion portrait
  • a fine art portrait of an artist or a dancer
  • or a branding, lifestyle portrait for a business owner

These are all examples of portraits for commercial use. By commercial use, we usually mean when you are commissioned to take a portrait for a company or a brand/business. Editorial use just means it’s for use in a digital media space or a printed publication. The paying client is usually not a family (except in cases of dancers for fine art portraits) but an editor or a creative/art director.

© Jyotsna Bhamidipati

In editorial portraits, visuals often tell a story. They can be very fulfilling when you make meaningful portraits either for a cause or because that project (of portraits) is needed to convey a message. You might find editorial portraits in magazines, newspapers, online journals, websites, etc. Although it’s usually a series of images, it can be just a solo portrait, too.  For example, I was recently hired for an editorial piece about a farm here in Lincoln, California. The magazine wrote an article, and I took a series of portraits of the owner and her staff to accompany it.

Commercial portraits are when images are used for advertising and marketing purposes to sell a “product,” a “service,” or a “brand.” Some examples of these would be headshots for realtors and portraits for actors, musicians and models, where they are the product/brand.

Fine art portraits are when you use a certain technique or a specialized skill/post processing creation or something to make the image unique. It could be conceptual or imaginative. For me, I also call myself a fine art photographer because I love the idea of combining storytelling and concepts that bring visuals to life. I would say I am a fine art photographer when I photograph dancers!

© Jyotsna Bhamidipati

What’s the Best Approach?

For editorial portraits, which is what I mostly do, I usually either get a call/inquiry, and then I ask for a brief. The brief is essentially a document that highlights what it is the client wants to see and what the scope of the project/task is. Based on the brief, you may have some freedom to get creative or maybe not so much. It really depends on the client, what you are photographing, and so on.

The process for portraits of dancers is really similar. Ask for the brief, or what it is they are hoping to market. Ask them if you are allowed to be creative. Ask if they need solo and/or group portraits. Do they have specific colors in mind? An inspiration board? Are you required to art direct as well as be the photographer? These are two different things, and hence require different skill sets, although many photographers eventually art direct as well as take photos.

Sometimes the editors don’t have a clue what you are asking. They just know they need portraits and how many by “xyz” date. Based on who you are photographing, you either have that flexibility or not. If you have the flexibility, I do a mood board. Canva is the best. Pull inspirational images from your own collection, colors (ask), research the brand/company or the individual, and based on that prep your mood board. It really helps if you get a head start on what you want to achieve, and it’s also okay if you don’t follow the mood board exactly. It’s just for inspiration. You don’t want to copy someone else’s work, or even your own work, if you are looking to get a bit more creative.

© Jyotsna Bhamidipati

Can You Get Creative in Editorial Portraits for Magazines?

It depends. There certainly is room for creative work in editorial portraiture, but what is crucial is to make sure the visuals convey the message or story that you have been hired to tell. Even if it’s not a commissioned job and just a test shoot or for fun, it’s always good practice to think about the story (storyboarding with mood boards for inspiration and colors) of the message you are conveying. Yes, it’s “just a portrait” — possibly just the face of someone — but that’s the beauty of it! Coming up with a unique way to express that emotion, that authenticity, in portraits while being creative and fun is the challenge!

Creative work happens when you don’t feel pressured to create something that’s extraordinary. Don’t put that pressure on yourself. Creativity flows when you are in that zone — at least for me. I like to let go of all expectations and create in a way that assumes it’s okay to have fun.

© Jyotsna Bhamidipati

Observations can go a long way. Use creative compositions to include in your storytelling portraits. Use shapes around you, lines, colors, and perhaps the outfit of the person you are photographing tells something. Maybe it’s the hair, their energy. What is the vibe you are creating? What is the scene? What does the set look like?

Gear comes in handy when you feel exhausted with your own equipment. I always preach that the best gear is the gear you already own. Do you know your equipment in and out? Have you learned what every dial on your camera does? My 35mm lens was great for my family sessions back in the day, but it’s still great for portrait work, too!

Creativity is really all about exploring the combinations between, like colors and compositions. It can come down to lines, shapes and textures, perhaps movement. It can be bringing emotion and authenticity out of the person you are photographing, observing the surroundings and so much more. Sometimes the stars align, and you have a fantastic portrait with less effort. Sometimes you just have to really work hard at it.

© Jyotsna Bhamidipati

What Kind of Light Do You Need?

Natural light is always the best, and it’s a free resource! Use it to the best of your availability. But learn OCF (off camera flash). I do use an on-camera flash and bounce the light off the walls at times, too, especially if I want more light in the space.

I love using a one light setup mostly — either an A2 or B10X, depending on the situation. A2 is good when I have one individual to photograph (it’s a smaller light). B10X is good for 2-4 people. I use it with the umbrella, or not. I have used both lights together as well (one at an angle to the subject and second from the side) when I want more light on the subject and the surroundings and don’t have a V-flat to bounce the light to fill in shadows.

I keep my lighting simple as I hate carrying huge gear around with me and prefer keeping things easy to use and simple. I don’t want to give an impression to the client that I am hauling 50 lbs just to get there! Profoto lights fit that bill for me.

© Jyotsna Bhamidipati

What Gear Do You Need?

Your camera, any additional lights you might need for on the go/on location, triggers for those lights, any reflectors if you like using those, and any additional “tools” to get a bit creative during the shoot, such as prisms, bubble wrap, scarfs, tulle (for dance shoots), omni wands, gels for the lights, or anything else in your go-to kit to be creative.

Where Can I Find Portrait Commissions?

Portrait commissions come from many places. Editors of magazines, newspapers, blogs, sometimes from community organizations, or simply doing more personal projects can lead to more commissioned portrait work, too.

What’s the Difference between a Headshot and a Portrait?

Headshots are literally just a headshot for the person for corporate work. I would define portraits to be so much more than that. They can really bring out the person’s character, their personality, show the environment they are in, and more.

Jyotsna Bhamidipati will be sharing more tips on Creative Editorial portraits on her WPPI Photo Walk on Wed, March 6. This is an opportunity to create alongside her! She will also be running her second one day Fuel Your Creativity Workshop in SoCal on Editorial portraits in early Fall. Watch her Instagram for an announcement.