Thinking about doing some freelance photography...looking for advice.

I got a DSLR a while back (Canon Rebel XS, with the stock 18-55 lens) and have been having lots of fun taking pictures. A few weeks ago, my sister had a baby, and I got to play with portrait photography. I found that I loved it and I think the photos came out pretty good.

I’m toying with the idea of putting an add on Craigslist as an amateur portrait photographer looking to build a portfolio, at maybe $50 for an hour photo shoot. I was thinking for that, the customers would get a CD with all the usable images to print as they see fit.

Here are some of my favorite portraits taken with the camera. I’d really like honest feedback–if you don’t think they’re good enough for someone to pay for, I’d like to know that. I know the SDMB is excellent at brutal honesty. :slight_smile:

A few questions:

Anyone done anything like this? Is this price reasonable?

I want another lens. Any suggestions?

I’m leaning toward doing the sessions “on location” at people’s homes or whatever. Good idea, or recipe for disaster? What sorts of things would I need to bring with me?

Any book suggestions?

Am I crazy?

Also, I’ve dabbled in photoshop in the past, but I’d need to brush up on my skills. None of the above photos are touched up, beyond a bit of cropping and occasional lighting adjustment.

I already have a website set up for my painting business, so I’d probably just add a photography section to that if I decide to go through with this.

Thanks in advance for any advice.

Good luck. In every creative field it’s a sacred tradition to dive in and do things you may not be completely qualified to do. Go for it.

A traditional “next lens after the kit zoom” is a 50mm 1.8. They are very cheap ($100) and will let you shoot available light (non-flash) picture in many situations. AND they are great portrait lenses. Shoot at about f2.2 and they will be adequately sharp, while still throwing the background out of focus.

–An out-of-focus background is one of the keys to a good portrait (alto there are exceptions to every rule.)
–Another rule for good portraits is soft light from one side with enough fill light from other directions to soften the shadows. Your pictures of the baby lying on its side have very nice light. To get soft light you need a big light source. Professionals often use a flash shot through a white umbrella or bounced off a light-colored wall.

Another piece of standard portrait advice is to make the background simple and uncluttered. The picture of the dog on the couch should have had the items removed from the table. (And the colors could be cooled down a little in a retouch program.)

Finally, some of the pix have a split-in-two layout that is not ideal. For example the shot of the infant in the crib where the upper half is filled with sunflowers. Have a single center of interest, and try not to have dead space right in the middle.

I haven’t looked at the photos you posted yet, but I did check out your painting site. Gotta say, your paintings are really, really good!

I look forward to any advice you get via this thread.

Thanks, Baal and sparky!

I ordered that lens ($100, yay! I was going to have trouble justifying an expensive lens.) Can’t wait to try it out.

Hi Renee,

The first skill you must develop as a photographer is the ability to determine whether a photo is ‘good’ (for lack of a better word) or not. If you are considering charging for your photos - and the images you linked to are your best - then you need to acquire this skill. Your photos are nice, but there are multiple flaws and they are nowhere near pro level. If I may be blunt, you don’t know (yet) what a good photo is.

I went through the same thing. Back in the day, I thought my photography was, at least, very good. I was very wrong. I look at some of my early work now and I cringe.

If you want detailed criticism, pick out your 2 or 3 favorites and I’ll be happy to tell you what I think are the positives and the negatives.

In the meantime, the internet offers a world of photography education for free. I learned the most at The Photo Forum (though I think its gone downhill lately), but there are tons of resources available.

Good luck!


I have a friend who is a professional ( photojournalist, does events and weddings on the side ) and it is a rough field to break into or make much money in ( unless you are pretty elite ). Lots of good photographers scrabbling after ever fewer dollars. For example apparently the stock photography business model has largely collapsed as a horde of amateurs have flooded the net with such a volume of work that even if only 1 in a thousand shots is good enough by happenstance, that’s more than enough.

And while good photography skills easily trumps equipment, there is a reason pros use the expensive stuff. You get a much higher percentage of professional looking shots, especially in the area of portraiture, with a full frame camera and a fast pro-quality lens due to issues like depth of field and quality bokeh ( however subjective that latter may be ).

I’m not particularly skilled myself, so I don’t consider myself in anyway qualified to judge the quality of your photos ( other than I like some of them :slight_smile: ). But be prepared for some possibly rough handling by the pros and advanced amateurs - not necessarily out of meanness, but you may be due for a reality check.

Of course I was reading just a little while ago about someone who started basically like you and within a couple of years had developed a tidy little business doing pet portraits. So it’s possible to do. Just hard.

ETA: There are a number of photography-oriented boards like the dpreview forums where folks may be willing to critique your work. Just, as I said, be prepared for possibly strong criticism. Some of those folks aren’t diplomats ;).

Your photos are fine, but nowhere near as good as your paintings, which are really beautiful. Why are you interested in switching? Just curious.

Thanks, Brynda. I’m not actually looking to switch, I just wanted to play around with it as a side business, bring in a bit of extra money. Mostly, I get bored with painting, and it seemed like a fun thing to do. I still think it does, but I agree that I need to put in more time actually becoming a better photographer first.

Mean Mr. Mustard, thanks for the tactful criticism. I was going back through the shots, and I can pick out lots of flaws myself, so that’s probably not a good sign.:smiley:

In this one, for instance, the background hand is distracting, and the lighting could be more interesting. (For reference, lets call this one “Girl”)

This oneis out of focus, although I love the shot. (“Just Born”)

I do likethis onea lot, and would be interested in hearing critiques on it. (“3 days”)

Baby looks unhappy/sick/stoned. I find this photo disturbing.

lol, he was 3 days old. They all look stoned at that age.

Some critique on the photos - wish I could give professional advice but I am thus far 100% amateur. (I can do photography all right, it’s the marketing part where I fail.)

I quite like this one too. The lighting is really nice and it naturally leads your eye to the baby because the baby is right in focus and you’ve gotten in nice and close so the baby is filling up the frame. I think for the most part with portraits you should try not to cut off your subject but you should also try to make sure your subject is filling up most of the frame.

A lot of your photos seem to be blurry. If you’re shooting indoors you might want to turn up the ISO (light sensitivity) setting on your camera. I’d go with grainy over blurry any day. Also I have no idea whether you’re using it or not but I always use autofocus rather than manual focus for portraits just to make sure the details are sharp.

The lighting and color often looks a little flat in some of these. I usually take care of that stuff in postprocessing. Do you have any photo editing software? The free software (iPhoto) on Mac is really nice; I have Photoshop CS4 but a lot of the time I get great results just in iPhoto. If so, are you shooting RAW? You might want to, because the files will store more information about the light that has entered the camera, making exposure and white balance much easier to edit. The main downside to RAW is the files are huge.

What is the new lens that you’re getting? Large-aperture (low f-number) is fantastic for portraiture… Also yes, $100 is totally reasonable and in fact rather cheap for a DSLR lens.

Missed the edit window but I just saw you said in the original post that you were using software to do editing. I think my post is also riddled with typos and run-on sentences. I will blame sleep deprivation and sickness. :o


Here are my thoughts, FWIW:

Girl – Very cute girl with a nice smile. The photo is overexposed, to the point of being ‘blown out’ where the skin on her back shows (blown out means all detail is lost due to overexposure). The background – not just the hand, but everything else – is extremely distracting. The image could use a boost in color saturation. The focus is good (the eyes must be tack-sharp, and these are). The hair clip thingy is another distraction. There are too many fly-away hairs. You chopped the top of her head off; in general, you should fit the entire head in the frame, though this ‘rule’ is flexible and often broken by pros. Finally, some might say her pose is a bit awkward, shooting straight-on at her side (but I think it works fine here).

Just Born – Not good. Just a snapshot, and a bad one, at that. The baby is horribly out of focus. There is a huge red chair in the background with a toy or something on it. The hair in the woman’s face is driving me crazy. Her mouth is open (and what is she looking up at?). The bright blob under her chin is overexposed. The composition is all wrong (the baby should be the focal point, but you have to look around to find him; your eye should be drawn to him naturally). The image is de-saturated. Most of the woman’s head is chopped off. And, oh yeah: she looks naked (the adult, not the baby).

3 Days – The background, again, is a mess. The black area left of baby’s head is underexposed and, along with the black part above the head, looks like Mickey Mouse ears. The composition is not bad, except a little more room at the top is needed, above his arm. Speaking of the arm, it looks very awkward in that position. All the stray fuzzy strings are making me itchy and have to go (the one left of his eye, the ones in front of his forehead, the ones he is clutching in his hand). The shadow on his chest should not be there. His expression makes him look like a monster is approaching. His eyes are too dark and not sharp enough.

Some of these things can be fixed in post-processing, some cannot. Please don’t get discouraged; photography is very difficult to learn and to do well.

The 50mm 1.8 lens you bought is fun to play around with, but most portraits are better suited to a longer focal length; also, with such a wide aperture, your focus must be very accurate because there is much less room for error (very narrow depth of field).

Here is my sole book recommendation: “Understanding Exposure” by Bryan Peterson.

Finally, if you want to take good photos, you must learn how to process them. I highly recommend Lightroom 3 software (you don’t need Photoshop). You can get LR3 for around $100 if you can get the academic discount. If not, and money is an issue, you can get by fine with LR2 for much less.

Keep shooting!


Hello Mr. Mustard,

I recommended the lens to Renee, so I’m going to comment on your comment.

On the DSLR she owns the 50mm is equivalent to an 80mm on a 35mm film camera. If you’re shooting pure head and shoulder portraits something closer to a 65mm lens might be better than a 50. But if you’re shooting casual portraits then getting the chest and more of the environment might be better. Cropping down is very easy.

And getting good focus isn’t hard with modern DSLRs, even with big apertures. Adjust the active sensor to the one that will be near the closest eye, focus on the eye, spend an instant recomposing and fire. Or do the recomposing when you crop the image on your computer.

I recommended shooting at 2.2, because the Canon and Nikon 1.8 lenses start getting sharp right around there. With the Canon, f2.5 might be noticeable sharper, but it depends on the lens.

However, (Renee) when your lens arrives you should shoot some test shots to make sure the lens and camera match up for focus. Not every lens focuses correctly with every camera. I’ve got a Nikon 18-70 lens that consistently focuses 3 or 4 inches too far back.

The only extra advice I would give is Ive seen people get told their shots are bad online who seem to have no problems selling them. Use it as a process for improving shots rather than as a real guide to whether they’ll be viable or not for the kind of service you’re thinking about.

The real thing you’re selling is getting a picture of your own kid or whatever.


Fair enough. I’ve found that 80-135mm works best for portraits; you tend to get a more flattering image from this perspective, and being a bit further away from the subject makes you less ‘in-their-face’. Even the experts - which I am not claiming to be - disagree on this to some extent.

I mentioned the narrow depth of field because, honestly, many of Renee’s photos are already soft (not in a good way) with whatever aperture she is now using. Opening it up to 2.2, she will most definitely need to improve her focusing skills.

I guess I don’t totally disagree with this. For me, though, I wouldn’t feel comfortable charging for work that I know is sub-par. I would rather learn the skills first; then I can feel confident that I am not taking advantage of folks (whether they know they’re being taken advantage of or not).


That’s basically the one I saw the most promise in. Good lighting, good focus, decent composition (I’d give it more “air” at the top of the frame) – the only thing it’s missing is a really good moment/expression. I’d like to see more from this sequence. You did shoot more than one or two, right? If not, stick with it and shoot through the situation. Don’t be satisfied when you think you have a good shot–there might be a better one a few seconds or minutes later if you just have some patience.

Otherwise, in the other photos I see a lot of compositional and technical isues that need to be addressed–focus being one of them, and unnecessary chopping off of limbs being and other body parts being another one. There’s nothing wrong with cropping out an arm or leg or whatever here and there, but they way you do it is haphazard and looks careless, rather than intentional.

“I guess I don’t totally disagree with this. For me, though, I wouldn’t feel comfortable charging for work that I know is sub-par.”

I dont view online as a particularly useful medium to decide whats ‘on par’ or not though.

To me in the end the easiest measure is whether the client is happy with the product at the price asked. You can always charge more when you get better after all, or less if noone is buying it. With such a flooded market, I dont think theres really that much to fear about people paying thousands for happy snaps.


Mean Mr. Mustard and I seem to totally disagree on lenses, so let me clarify my points a bit:

I’m one of those people who likes getting up in people’s faces to take pictures of them, so that’s where I’m coming from with my approval of the shorter lens. It’s true something like the 80-135 would be good if you want to do more candid shots or ‘action’ portraits.

I have a Nikon but I’ve gotten very good results using the autofocus at large apertures. Wiki tells me the Rebel XS has seven focus points as opposed to three on my D60, so that should require even less use of the autofocus lock than my own photos do.

And personally I think portraits with a small depth of field can be quite beautiful

You’re not the only one. Shallow depth of field is pretty much what most photographers go for in a headshot/facial portrait. I’m rarely stopped down more than f/2.8 for normal portraits. Where it does get tricky is when you have multiple subjects on different focal planes. Then you have to make a decision on whether you want one in focus, move them so their eyes are on the same focal plane, or stop down to get both in focus.

As for portrait lenses, my favorite is the 85mm f/1.4 lens (on a full frame dSLR or 35mm film camera). 85mm, 105mm, and 135mm are all good. I will often use my 70-200 f/2.8 at 200mm as well to compress foreground and background. (Longer lenses foreshorten/compress distance visually, while wide lenses stretch it out.) A 50mm is okay, but just a bit boring. I like a little foreshortening in my portraits. Anything wider doesn’t work for me, except for environmental portraits. Even when I take group shots–which I do with a 24-70mm f/2.8 lens–I do my best to move back and try to shoot at 70mm, not get close and shoot at 24mm. It looks better, and background-foreground separation is better.