Steps to Success: What you need to know before PB’ing


Since I’ve seen a lot of related questions coming up here lately, I thought I’d share this piece I wrote over a year ago. Some of you from other groups may remember it. I hope you find it useful!

I want to start off by saying what portfolio building is NOT. It is not a time to learn your camera. It is not a way to make some money so you can buy better/more expensive gear.

Okay, let’s get started! Before you begin PB’ing, here’s what you need to know.

First, don’t try to learn everything at once. It’s overwhelming! You will feel really down and like you’re not getting much of anywhere and then you’ll hit a slump and think you suck and there’s no hope for you and why are you doing this anyway?

Yeah, I’ve been there- can you tell?

Instead, break it into steps.

1. Light is everything
Step 1 is about learning to see the light. Catchlights, light and shadow, frontlighting, backlighting, direct light, reflected light and incident light. Soft light and hard light. Northern light and southern light. Natural light and studio light.The colors of light. What happens when you’re close to a window and far away, and facing it from every position on the clock. At dawn, noon, and dusk.
For a lot of these, you will need a subject who is willing to hold still and can obey simple instructions. You can use a doll if you’re desperate and your husband or kids won’t cooperate.

2. Exposure
Now that you see all this light, learn to use your in-camera meter to read the light. Understand how exposure works- ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. Play with your settings to get the same exposure at different apertures.
Put lighting and exposure together and see why backlighting can be so tricky and how to overcome the silhouette effect and properly meter for backlighting.

3. Focus
Learn how to use your camera’s focus points and when to use single servo vs continuous servo. Why you don’t want to use the Closest Subject setting. Try back button focus and see if you like it. How changing your camera’s aperture – and varying your distance from your subject – affects the focus on the image.
4. Composition
The rule of thirds and when to break it. Getting good in-camera crops that aren’t so tight you can’t print an 8×10 without losing half the image. Vertical vs. horizontal compositions. Leading the eye into the frame. Using negative space.
5. Posing
Triangles for groups, containing active toddlers, folding newborns, slimming adults, showing off pregnant bellies. And making everyone look relaxed and natural. Even if you don’t do formal posing, you need to learn how to position yourself to capture things from the best angle.
6. Editing
What to keep and what to toss when proofing. Learning to use Photoshop (or another editing tool), including actions and batch processing, effectively.
7. Creativity
Now you can concentrate on experimenting and bending and breaking the rules.
Finally, you’re ready!

Portfolio Building
This stage is like an internship, not college or graduate school. This is when you should be developing your style and getting your business started, meaning all those pesky little details like licenses, policies, paperwork, etc. and the fun ones like your branding, marketing, and web site.
If you’ve had your DSLR for less than 6 months and have no prior camera experience, or only shoot on Auto, you are not ready to start PB’ing. If you’ve only ever practiced on your child(ren) you’re not ready to officially PB. Practice at playgroup, your kid’s school, a family reunion, other kids at the park.

You don’t need to have a Master’s to begin PB’ing, but you should be reasonably proficient at the above before starting. At the minimum, your photos should be in sharp focus, and properly exposed.

Don’t take on more than you can handle. That means more sessions in a week than you have time for, or more people in a group than you’re comfortable with (10-11 isn’t too bad, but 15 or more can be really tough), or events. And, under no circumstances, should you ever volunteer to do a wedding for a friend.

If you have a need to try any of these things (except for the overscheduling- just don’t go there, trust me!) then volunteer. Don’t charge, donate your time. Then if something doesn’t go quite right you won’t have to be out of pocket any cash and people will be much easier on you. You don’t want to be the one responsible for delivering all those precious Mother’s Day images a week late because you didn’t know it would take you 10 minutes per photo of editing time and your kids all caught the flu that week, or messing them up completely because you didn’t realize your ISO was set to 1600 instead of 200 or 100 instead of 800 or giving the parents the wrong photo because you didn’t have a system to keep them organized.

If it’s a wedding, find someone to work with as second shooter, even if it’s unpaid. Much less stressful and you can learn a lot (namely whether you really want to do it or not).

Talent gets you a few steps ahead when you’re starting out in photography, but if you don’t work on the basics and understand what makes your best images good it doesn’t help much. It’s like the old saying- it’s 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.

I hope this was helpful! I learned a LOT the hard way, and I still have so much I want to learn.





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