A photographer who is going pro

7 Lessons That Most Photographers Learn the Hard Way

In Portrait by Jim Harmer18 Comments

A photographer who is going pro


Today's article is a guest post by Tommy Holt.  Be sure to check out his portfolio and learn more about his photography.

If you own a DSLR and are learning photography, it is inevitable that you will be asked to do a portrait photography shoot for a friend or a neighbor.  Your first “professional” shoot can be daunting, but there are a few mistakes that you can avoid by learning from my experience as a beginning photographer.  Hopefully you won’t have to learn the hard way like I did!  I hope you can utilize these lessons and possibly avoid some of my mistakes.

#1: Provide an Early Sneak Peek.  Don’t Over-edit.

If you are like me, my first editing step is to weed out photos that did not make the cut and focus on the best photos.  I look at each photo in detail and try different techniques in Photoshop and Lightroom.  With that said, the process of evaluating and critiquing each photo can take a tremendous amount of time!  You may have had the luxury of spending an hour editing every shoot you’ve done for fun, but when you have 1,000 photos from your friend’s wedding, you need to learn how to save time.

While photographers want to save editing time, it is also necessary to balance that need with the  notion that customers want to see their photos soon!  Social media has even increased the demand for instant turnarounds.  My solution is to edit a few photos quickly and show them to the customer as part of a “sneak peek” with only basic edits done to the photos.  That usually excites the customer and gives me time to finish editing the entire batch.  There is a fine line between editing correctly versus editing too much, taking too long and losing your customer.

Marketing your photography

#2: Create a Facebook fan page for your photography 

With social media becoming a focal point of advertising, marketing, etc, I decided to create a Facebook fan page.  I cannot believe the response!  I have already captured many photography opportunities from simply creating a page.  In reading opinions about Facebook fan pages, I have read similar stories how other photographers found more success in “drumming up” business with this technique versus using print ads, newspapers, passing out business cards, etc.  Not only did the Facebook fan page increase the number of my photo shoots, but it also helped to shape my brand (I have my photography logo on there, my website information, and my email address).

#3: Watch for shadows in outdoor shots with the sun

This is going to seem like a “no-brainer”, but it happened to me on one of my first shoots outside.  When performing shoots when the sun is in play, avoid placing the model directly in front of structures such as buildings, fences, etc.  This is especially true when posing someone under a tree, where hot spots of light often peek through and put an unnatural highlight or shadow on the person.  When I did my first outdoor shoot for a client, I was so worried about camera settings and posing that I forgot about this simple problem!  I got home and looked at my shots and most every shot of the model had a large shadow growing out of his/her head!  The most simple solution is to direct the model forward away from the structure until the shadow or highlight is not present.

Photographing kids for a photography business

Change your tactics when photographing kids!

#4: Use continuous mode for toddlers

My early work has been with adults, infants, and teenagers.  With these subjects, I noticed that you could do much more work in preplanning, contemplating different poses, etc.  My first shoot with toddlers was an eye-opening experience.  In contrast to shooting adults, toddlers cannot sit still and usually will not pose for the camera.  My solution during the shoot was to switch my camera to continuous mode (AF-C on Nikon, or AI Servo on Canon) and forgot the idea of posing every shot.  I learned that, when shooting kids, you have to change your tactic from technical shooting to shooting “in the moment” and simply getting proper focus and reacting to what the kid chooses to do.  When I was shooting toddlers while worrying too much about camera settings and the “perfect” single-shot focus, I missed many opportunities for great shots.  

#5: Create a contract and stick to your guns

I heard many many times before shooting my first professional shoot that it was important to have the client sign a contract, but I didn’t do it.  At first, I thought that it was unnecessary to have a contract, but I changed my tune very quickly!  Starting out, photographers are somewhat afraid to sign contracts because it may come across as demanding, rigid, etc.  But, I would recommend it!  Drawing up a contract and having the client sign it is the best way for you and the client to explain your expectations.  Without a contract, that aggressive mother wanting portraits of her child can try to strong-arm you into changing venues, changing appointment times, or even changing prices.  It only takes one experience of dealing with misunderstandings with a client to convince photographers to make the client sign a contract every time.  Are you going to learn this one the hard way?

Fill flash

#6: Utilize Flash in Outdoor Shots

In my early stages of outdoor photo shoots, I rarely utilized flash of any sort.  While I had figured out how to use the flash a little bit, I wasn’t fully confident with it.  I relied solely on the sun for light.  In many cases, this technique will produce unflattering shadows on the subjects’ faces.  I found out that utilizing the sun as my main light source (placing the subject where the sun hits them in a somewhat diagonal direction) and using my flash as a fill flash to correct any shadows on the side opposite the sun is a better technique.

#7: Practice With Reflectors Before Using Them

I read many things about using reflectors to produce more flattering results in regards to light before my first shoot.  I practiced with another photographer at dusk and we used a gold reflector.  Our resulting images were appropriate because a somewhat gold tint was combined with the sun setting.  I thought I had this technique mastered!  Well, I went on a midday shoot where the sun was very prominent.  I tried the same gold reflector and it was way too strong!  The models squinted and the resulting gold tint looked horrible! In reading more about reflectors, many photographers suggest using the white side of a reflector during midday sun (maybe silver, but gold will probably be too harsh).  The moral of my story is the best way to learn reflectors is to practice with the different colors at different times of the day!  Find the different combinations that work for the varying circumstances.

If you like these daily photography tips, be sure to LIKE Improve Photography on Facebook to join the conversation!  It’s the perfect place to get your photography questions answered.

About the Author

Jim Harmer

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Jim Harmer is the founder of Improve Photography, and host of the popular Improve Photography Podcast. More than a million photographers follow him on social media, and he has been listed at #35 in rankings of the most popular photographers in the world. Jim travels the world to shoot with readers of Improve Photography in his series of free photography workshops. See his portfolio here.


  1. The first people that actually asked me to photograph them was a pregnant couple. As we had to make time in the middle of an intensive retreat, we only had the lunch break. It was mid-summer in Southern Oregon, (think California!) it was noon and the sun was right overhead. In most of the photos, the soon-to-be dad had the most dreadful shadows under his eyes making him look kind of evil! I was so focussed on my composition and making sure each pic had a nice background, that I didn’t even notice until I got the pics to the PC. That really sucked because she was due in a matter of weeks and we never got the chance to re-shoot! Still, I got a nice email saying they liked the pics, but I guess there’s no way of telling if they’re just being polite?

  2. When shooting photos of children and animals did you mean change settings to continuous shooting mode and Al Servo? Those are two different settings on my Canon Rebel T3i.

  3. Great tips and I can relate to some of these stumbles. I think the best tip of all is to love what you do, really throw yourself into it!

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