7 Lessons That Most Photographers Learn the Hard Way

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.

18 thoughts on “7 Lessons That Most Photographers Learn the Hard Way”

  1. Have a back up plan while shooting portraiture of small children. I started shooting professionally with small children (under 18 months), and quickly learned that they are most likely not going to sit and pose. My initial plan was to shot a small child on a beautiful quilt while she looked at a book. (Wrong!) I solved this by using whatever my venue proved. This included a slide, field to run in, a mother’s purse (with permission), and even a rock provided entertainment. As a photographer, I had to learn to adapt to the situation, and not get frustrated that my shot of the day wasn’t the one that I had visualized.

  2. I definitely made #3 my first shoot. Thankfully this one was for my portfolio and not for profit and still had a lot of shots I was happy with.
    I’m still trying to speed up the weeding process after the fact. I think it comes down to not being so trigger happy and trusting that six shots are as likely to get me a sharp shot as 12.
    I just purchased a flash (an SB-700 for my D90), so want to work on mastering my use of that.
    Also, I learned very early to use a contract/model release when I submitted a photo for a local calendar contest and was required to provide a hard copy of a model release when it was chosen.
    All in all, I found shooting a lot of different families for free in order to build a portfolio was the most helpful in learning from my mistakes without the added pressure of creating an unhappy customer. Though I’ve been in business for 6 months now, I still like to do these free shoots for friends in order to try different and more challenging locations and times of day where I’m likely to make mistakes to hone my skills and learn from my mistakes.

  3. If there could be a number 8, I’d add ‘Keep Your Portfolio Up To Date’. It doesn’t matter if it’s a print book, an iPad sampler, a Facebook page, a web site, or some combination thereof. Keep it current with samples of your latest work and a few bests from recent projects. When someone wants to see your work, you’ll be ready.

  4. Once again simple, but great info. When you are shooting a lot, and can’t wait for perfect light. Flash outside is a must. It great increases your chance at having perfect shots.

    With Kids and families, start with the posed and set shots then work towards the more fun, lifestyle shots. Once you have the set shot in the bag, you will feel more free to explore the less traditional.

  5. Just curious, what is a normal turn around time from session to gallery for clients to expect? I do give sneak peeks and finish editing, etc within two weeks.

  6. I know I’ve certainly made the mistake of the outdoor natural light without flash – although in some instances I’ve actually like the results of the shadows on faces…especially with little ones. I suppose it just depends on what you’re going for. Thank you for the post.

  7. #3 is absolutely a good rule, but one that is made for bending. Most portraits with shadows dancing around the subjects face are horrible, but some of the most amazing ones feature a multitude of little shadows all over the face.

  8. Thanks for all the great advice. I always learn from my mistakes, and usually remember not to it a second, third, or fourth time. It is always a great idea to practice.

  9. Great idea for a post! I’ve made (and learned from) lots of mistakes in my photography. Some really stand out…

    + Really, really check your batteries and memory card space. There’s nothing worse than going to take that winning photograph and finding the camera unresponsive. You won’t get much sympathy!

    + Watch your backgrounds. It’s useful to think of your scene in layers; don’t just pay attention to your subject, but think also of what’s in front and behind them that may interfere with the simplicity of the picture.

    + Check your ISO. It’s quite easy to set your ISO to its highest setting while shooting in low light, then forget to reset it in the morning. This unnecessarily adds noise and degrades image quality. I always set the camera back to its base ISO and auto white balance before putting the camera away.

    Hope these help you avoid making the same mistakes!

    Ben @ EnglishPhotographer.com

  10. These were definitely some lessons I have learned the hard way. 🙂

    Learning to “see” through your lens is one of the biggest things I’ve learned. The human eye easily compensates when it sees a face with harsh shadows and may not give it a second thought. We perceive everything three-dimensionally, so it’s difficult to put our minds into a two-dimensional frame of reference. Your camera really is an eye, it just needs help adjusting to truly “see” the image that you do.

    Another thing…get to KNOW your camera. Does it have focus-assist? I have been in business for about two years now, and I JUST found out that I have focus-assist. Using my tripod and my Rokinon 85mm f1.4, I am able to take some of the most crisp photos I have ever shot and cut down on “waste” photos because of focus-assist.

    Another thing…when I do headshots for business professionals or senior photos, I try to engage the model in conversation while I’m taking photos. I find that they become much more comfortable in front of the camera, and in return I capture some great candid smiles and expressions that I may not have got otherwise.

    Whew. Ok. I hope that helps! 🙂

    Lavender Bouquet Photography
    Seattle, WA

  11. 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?

  12. 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.

  13. 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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