The Business of Becoming a Family Portrait Photographer

The Business of Becoming a Family Portrait Photographer
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Don’t Quit Your Day Job … Yet

Just because you love taking photographs and have a talent at doing this job, it does not mean you are ready to start your own business as a family portrait photographer yet. There are a lot of areas you need to understand before making this jump.

The first thing you need to understand is that you can’t just quit your day job and jump into the world of independent photography and expect to make a living. If you try this method, you will wind up broke and probably end up despising the occupation you previously loved. A day job, one that has nothing to do with photography, will actually help you in two areas when it comes to starting your own business.

The first positive from keeping your day job comes in continuing to earn a solid income while attempting to get your studio off the ground. With money coming in from another source, you can focus your attention on what you really love and that is taking pictures.

The second area your day job can help is by allowing you to overcome the biggest obstacle a beginning photographer faces. When you start trying to get your business off the ground, you have a lot of competition, whether it is specialty studios or your local department store. You have no clients and have no way to get your name out there. That is where co-workers come into play.

Let the people you work with know about your side venture. Make flyers and business cards and, if your boss allows, post a flyer in your break room at work. Let everyone know what you are doing and what you charge. Then offer a discount to your co-workers. When they see the savings they are receiving, they might be willing to give you the chance. If you impress them, their word-of-mouth is the best advertising you can get. Soon, if you deliver solid enough work, you will finally get your business off the ground.

Light ‘Em Up

When dealing with the intricacies of being a family portrait photographer, there are a number of things to keep in mind when framing your subjects to allow the best possible photographs. The first thing is, regardless of whether you have your own studio space or will be shooting in private locations, bring the best lighting possible. It is of the utmost importance to understand the effects of studio lighting to get the best portraits possible.

Most photographers use either hot lights or strobes. It is better not to use flash photography because you have little control over the effects caused by it and can’t see how it turned out until after you take the shot. Using controlled lighting means you can see what the photo will look like before ever snapping a shot.

With that said, here are some lighting techniques to use when taking portraits.

  1. Broad Lighting: The light is set up to illuminate the side of the subject’s faces, while turned towards the camera. This makes faces appear wider and de-emphasizes facial features.
  2. Short Lighting: This also illuminates the side of the subject’s faces but is instead the side away from the camera. This light emphasizes the facial features and helps thin out a plump face.
  3. Butterfly Lighting: This technique positions the light directly in front of the subject and is adjusted up or down to produce a slight shadow under the nose. This is the style most used in glamour photography.

Once the lighting for the family is chosen, based on what will make the individuals look right, it is time to start thinking about backgrounds.

Choosing a Background


Normally, the customers will want to choose their own backgrounds but it is the job of the family portrait photographer to know what backgrounds should be avoided and be able to explain to the customers why something might or might not work with their specific photographs.

If the members of the family you are shooting have dark hair, light backgrounds need to be suggested. Alternatively, if the subjects have light hair, find dark backgrounds. If you are just starting out, you may not be able to afford numerous backgrounds so it is a good idea to start with two, one light and one dark, and build your inventory from there. Always keep an even number of each style on hand to satisfy all customers.

Also make sure you have stools on hand to place in front of the backgrounds for the subjects to sit. Once you have the lighting in place and the background set, snap a variety of shots including head and shoulder shots, full body shots and various angles to allow your customers plenty of alternatives to choose from.


It is extremely important to get the contracts in line for your business to protect your investment in the work. Set up a contract with a customer that allows you to sell them a specific number of photos after the sitting. Have the contract state they cannot make duplicates of the photographs without your written consent. There is no way to ensure this does not happen with the advent of self-help photography machines but it might slow down the act of copying your work for free.

Another way to ensure you receive the proper compensation for your work is to offer the photographs to the customer on a CD with a release form from you allowing them to make as many copies as they want. This allows you to receive a premium price for the photos and allows the customer to do what they want with them.

Finally, have a third contract ready in case you want to use some of the photographs for your personal advertising. You must get the customer to sign this personal release form if you want to use the photographs in this manner because, although you created the work, the subjects must release their images to be used. This is an important step in promoting your business and bringing in more clients.


Image under “Getting Started” used from Wikimedia Commons (Berthold Werner)

“Choosing a Background” image from