Things I Learned From My First Paid Portrait Photo Session

I’ve been doing some freelance web development and photography and I was recently contacted by an acquaintance who’s looking to start her own real estate office.

As part of a custom website design, she wanted some business shots for her online bio as well as a headshot for her business card. I’ve done work for her husband in the past, and our arrangement was informal.

I was honest about my experience level with professional portrait photography (little to none) and made sure her expectations and my price were set realistically.

Shooting was on-location at the client’s place of business, and we had nice afternoon light so I suggested we keep things outdoors. I brought a lot of equipment but really only ended up using my Godox AD200 with a modifier to fill in the subject and balance the strong directional natural light, which I placed to the side and behind.

Overall, the shoot was okay, and I got several pictures that I think will work after some post-processing.

Observations and Takeaways

Here are some of my observations and takeaways from the first paid shoot:

1. Managing the Client’s Emotions. I knew going in that this is a lot of what real portrait pros get paid for: putting people at ease, making them feel confident, and taking their minds off the awkwardness of having a camera pointed at their faces. I give myself really poor marks here. I could tell she had put a lot of time and effort into her appearance but was still very self-conscious. She made several remarks about hating how she looked and I wasn’t really coming up with ways to reassure her that didn’t sound cheesy or fake. I tried to keep the conversation ambling along but it’s so difficult to do when you’re trying to assess light and focus and exposure and wind and clouds and sun…

2. Pace: Photoshoots With People Move Fast. I’m used to shooting dishes of food or dining rooms for restaurant clients, or landscapes when I’m out hiking… real live people are a whole new level of pressure. I found myself rushing through shots erratically, not checking the things I’d normally check, afraid to keep her waiting while I fiddled with angle or lighting. Due to this, I lost a few of the poses we shot because the pictures weren’t exposed or focused or framed correctly.

3. Posing the Subject. I know the location in question and did some research to get an idea of the poses I’d want to use. Even so, posing someone naturally is very difficult. I’d give a direction like “Try crossing your arms” and she’d assume a very rigid, symmetrical pose that looked awkward. I needed to find the right words to get her to pose in a way that didn’t look like she was concentrating on holding a pose, and just saying “relax” doesn’t work. That just makes people more self-conscious. Eventually, though, we did start to understand each other and I’d tell her to shift her weight so that she was popping one hip or one shoulder, making things look more natural.

4. Expressions Were Another Semi-fail. In post, I’m realizing that this client really looks better and more natural when she’s not forcing an open-mouthed smile. I regret not asking for a variety of expressions for each shot and pose.

5. Hair. Another issue that I didn’t even consider until I started editing the photos was hair. This was a big-time fail for me. As a guy with shorter hair, I can usually “set it and forget it”. But shooting a female with longer, styled hair, worn down, outside, with a breeze should have meant that we’d take periodic breaks to allow her to get her ‘do looking good… but I wasn’t cognizant of that. Quite a lot of photos have fly-aways and stray locks that I couldn’t see in the viewfinder on a sunny day, which I’m now having to edit in post.

What I’d Do Differently

Next time – if there is a next time – here’s what I’d do differently:

1. Planning Session. I’d schedule a planning session with the client on location, especially if the job was contractual (which I’d insist on for most other scenarios). Break the ice a little bit and maybe do a low-stress dry run of some poses. Get an idea of things to watch out for, expressions that work better than others, etc. During the planning session, I’d be very insistent that on the day of the shoot, I plan on taking my time and making sure we nail a scene/pose/expression/angle before moving on to another.

2. Shot List. I’d be more deliberate with a shot list. At the minimum, I’d have a list of locations, a list of poses, and a list of expressions for each pose.

3. Manage Time Expectations. I’d manage expectations by letting the client know to block out plenty of time for the shoot so that neither of us is rushing.

4. Slow Down. I’d slow way, way down. Talk the client through the process of what I’m doing, and let them know if I need to take some test shots, finagle lighting, etc. Make sure we nail a scene/pose/expression/angle before moving on to another.

5. Have a Mirror. I’d have a mirror on hand, and I’d give the client plenty of opportunities to use it, especially if we’re shooting outside.

Mostly though, I need to be more confident in my own process. The client definitely senses hesitation or nervousness in the photographer. They need to feel like they’re in capable hands, which I’m really not able to do yet.

Overall, I learned a ton and hopefully came away with some shots that the client will like, even if I flubbed a few shots.

About the author: Bob Rockley is a software engineer by day and a photography enthusiast by night.