Occasionally, you’ll come across a selfie taken on a smartphone that makes you think, “Wow, that looks like a professional headshot!” But if you’re anything like me, you often find out that those “selfies” were actually done by a professional with high-end gear. This does highlight one truth: The demand for portrait photography (and portrait photographers) is higher than ever. 

In this guide, we’ll take a closer look at what portrait photography is, the types of portrait photography jobs that you can get, and how to turn your hobby into a full-time career. 

What Is Portrait Photography?

man in boxing place
Portrait photography can be done in any setting—from an office to a boxing studio.

First things first: What is a portrait photographer? According to Wikipedia, portrait photography is a type of art aimed toward capturing the personality of a person or group of people by using effective lighting, backdrops, and poses. Additionally, its history dates back to the 19th century, when photography subjects got tired of sitting for long periods just for someone to paint an image of them. 

Neat, right? But you came here to learn how to become a portrait photographer. Let’s discuss.

How to Become a Professional Portrait Photographer

Like most types of photography, the barrier to entry is fairly low for anyone with a sincere interest in learning how to become a portrait photographer. According to Skillshare instructor James Clark, there are three things to focus on as you discover more about portrait photography:

  1. Get the right gear: While you don’t need to spend an unseemly amount of money on gear, you should have a few essentials at your disposal. Later in this guide, you’ll find a shopping list to help you get started.
  2. Invest in quality education: You could start shooting portraits as soon as you buy your gear, but you’ll set yourself apart from the competition if you learn a few of the ins and outs of your trade, either by taking online classes or shadowing more experienced photographers.
  3. Keep shooting. Nobody has ever created a perfect portfolio of portraits without shooting a few duds. Clark suggests that you should always be shooting photos and learning from the mistakes you make.

Professional Portrait Photography

There are several options for folks looking for professional certificates in portrait photography. If you don’t have the time to attend an in-person course, you’ll find online courses at some of the most recognized universities on the planet, including one sponsored by Cornell.

Freelance Portrait Photography

A large majority of portrait photographers operate as freelance portrait photographers or small business owners. Many of them generate their business from their personal website or social media profiles or through word of mouth. 

Typically, a freelance portrait photographer works with families seeking portraits at a variety of events, from weddings to senior portraits, or with corporate clients.

Studio Portrait Photography

While this is somewhat less common these days, you’ll also come across portrait photographers who work from a professional portrait studio. 

These studio photography spaces are outfitted with a variety of backdrops, lights, and an assortment of props to help capture quality portraits in a more controlled environment.

Types of Professional Portrait Photography

Family Portraits

Many families hire family portrait photographers to grab pictures to commemorate important events, such as holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries, and to track the family’s evolution over time. (The last holiday card that my family sent out was shot on a variety of smartphones—and it showed that we could have used some help from family portrait photographers.)


posing for a photo
Here are two examples of headshots that a portrait photographer might be asked to capture.

There are all kinds of reasons people might hire a headshot photographer. Professional-quality headshots are popular among business executives looking to spruce up their company website or LinkedIn profiles. Real estate agents, financial advisors, dentists, and doctors often want headshots to add a friendly face to their marketing materials. And of course, actors and musicians need them, too. (Fun fact: I once had professional headshots done for a musical I performed in during college.) 

Senior Portraits

Many high schools offer portrait services to seniors who are interested in having professional photos of themselves taken. Additionally, many families hire senior portrait photographers to take additional portraits that they’ll hang in their homes or use for graduation announcements.

Bridal Portraits

I often joke that our wedding photographer was more important than, well, me. From bridal portraits to end-of-the-night dance floor shots, wedding photographers are hired to capture moments that’ll help the newlyweds reminisce over their big day forever. 

Outdoor Portrait Photography

lady in sunset
Shooting outdoors isn’t easy, but it helps you capture amazing shots like this.

We alluded to this earlier, but while many portraits are taken from the controlled environment of a studio, many others are taken in outdoor settings. 

This presents unique challenges in terms of lighting and other environmental factors but is an easy way to set yourself apart as a photographer—especially if you’re looking to become one of the top artistic portrait photographers (think Instagram-famous Brandon Woelfel).

Tools You Need to be a Photographer

New photographers often think they need to spend thousands of dollars in gear, but that’s certainly not the case. While the list below is admittedly short, you don’t need much else beyond these tools to be a successful portrait photographer, at least while you’re first getting started and finding your style:

  • The right camera: I know: There are an overwhelming number of choices out there. So before you set foot in a camera store, check out this in-depth walkthrough of some of the top options, curated by Skillshare instructor and photographer Aaron Alpert.
  • Tripod: Especially in a studio setting, a tripod is key to taking crisp, clear shots. 
  • Lenses: Every portrait photographer should have a few lenses on hand. Need some help choosing? Portrait photographer and Skillshare instructor Indeana Underhill shares her favorites in this class.
  • Editing software: Knowing how to expertly retouch and edit photos is part of any photographer’s job—but it’s especially crucial for portrait photographers. Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom are the most commonly used programs by the pros.

And that’s it: everything you need to know about how to become a portrait photographer. Now grab a few friends, and get started on your first photoshoot!

Shoot More Dramatic Portraits

Fundamentals of Portrait Photography: Using Natural Light to Create Drama

Written by:

Richard Moy