ARTICLE

The pro portrait photography tips I wish I’d known when I started...

British Canon Ambassador Rosie Hardy is known for her inventive self-portraits. She, along with fellow professional portrait photographers Lorenzo Agius and David Turecký, shares practical advice for those hoping to become successful portrait shooters. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a Canon EF 35mm f/2 IS USM lens at 1/1600 sec, f/2.5 and ISO800. © Rosie Hardy

What does it take to make it as a portrait photographer? Sometimes it seems like the leading professionals have always been at the top of their game, but everyone started somewhere, and for the most part everyone learnt through trial and error, successes and struggles. We spoke to three Canon Ambassadors – Lorenzo Agius, David Turecký and Rosie Hardy – who specialise in different kinds of portrait photography, and asked them for their practical insights.

Based on their experience, what advice can they give about building a portrait photography business? What do they wish they'd known about equipment, managing assignments, and promoting themselves?

1. Get out there

"There isn't a guidebook on how to become a portrait or celebrity photographer," says renowned fashion and commercial photographer Lorenzo Agius. "It's just a lot of trial and error. Especially in what I do, you really just have to get out there. Once I had a portfolio together, I would go to see publicists, agents, magazines and film companies, and slowly you get to know who's who and the creative side of things."

Lorenzo began his career shooting the iconic images of Ewan McGregor and other cast members of Trainspotting for the film's promotional ad campaign. Since then he's taken portraits of international A-listers including Madonna, Beyoncé and Tom Cruise, and a number of his photos are included in the UK National Portrait Gallery's permanent collection.

"When I got my biggest break, it wasn't like I was the best; in a way it was chance," Lorenzo continues. "People say, 'Well, you're very lucky,' but it's not even luck, it's just constantly knocking on doors. You might be knocking on the wrong door, but that person might say, 'Why don't you see so-and-so? He's working on a campaign you might be good for.' Persistence is the key."

Actor Jude Law folds his arms and gives a quizzical look. Portrait by Lorenzo Agius on a Canon EOS 5DS.
British Canon Ambassador Lorenzo Agius is known for his celebrity portraits, such as this one of Jude Law. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 70mm, 1/200 sec, f/5.0 and ISO500. © Lorenzo Agius
A black and white portrait of a woman holding up a hand to shield her eyes from the sun. Portrait by Lorenzo Agius on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III.
A strikingly simple, and strikingly effective, mono portrait by Lorenzo. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens at 1/250 sec, f/7.1 and ISO400. © Lorenzo Agius
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Similarly, Rosie Hardy points out that personal projects, learning and experimentation can help promote your business. A wedding and portrait photographer who has carved out a unique niche in the portrait world, Rosie commands a sizeable following of over 160,000 on her Instagram account, where she shares the ethereal, magical self-portraits she shoots as personal work. "When I was a teenager, I started a project called 100 Strangers and made it my mission to learn how to approach and photograph absolutely anyone," she says.

"This alone taught me so much – about the different kinds of lighting out there in the natural world, how lighting shapes a portrait, about directing people and putting them at ease. It's a fantastic way to learn – and if people like your portraits, word-of-mouth will do the rest. It's also a great project for other people to follow on social media – a win-win!"

David Turecký has extensive editorial photography experience, having worked with Forbes, Elle, Maxim, Esquire, Wallpaper and Newsweek, among other publications. He also shoots commercially, as part of the photo agency Grove Productions in Prague.

David echoes the advice to get out there, adding that it's useful to stay up-to-date and involved with your industry generally. "It's important to keep track of your competition, following trends, checking magazines and being able to learn from what's out there," he says. "Don't forget to send out your portfolio, [but] try to meet art directors in person."

A black and white portrait of Taťána Kuchařová in a basketball court. Portrait by David Turecký on a Canon EOS 6D.
Czech Canon Ambassador David Turecký's portrait of Taťána Kuchařová defies the viewer's expectations of a photo of an actress, model and Miss World winner. Taken on a Canon EOS 6D with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens at 24mm, 1/500 sec, f/4.0 and ISO320. © David Turecký
Designer Barnaba Fornasetti holds a mask with a single, large eye hole in front of his face. Colourful portrait by David Turecký on a Canon EOS 6D.
Designer Barnaba Fornasetti photographed by David. Taken on a Canon EOS 6D with a Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM lens at 40mm, 1/160 sec, f/5.6 and ISO100. © David Turecký

2. Learn from many sources

Should you choose a specialism from the start? Although Lorenzo believes that most photographers know quite early on what they want to pursue as their specialism, he points out that you can still learn a great deal from everything else you do while you're getting started. "I started out doing still life and then got into fashion and portraits, which was a slow transition, but at that point [it was] what I really wanted to do.

"You should be aware of every aspect, really – if you shoot cars, it doesn't mean you wouldn't ever shoot landscapes. I worked with everybody from trade photographers to fashion, car and still life photographers. I learnt a lot that way, as I had quite a broad spectrum of information I could then use in being a photographer."

3. Use good quality equipment

What about your equipment? Are there any essential lenses, for example, that you should invest in from the start? "What I've learnt about equipment is that it's the vision, not the expensive lens or camera, that makes a picture," says Rosie. "That said, it's important to invest in good quality kit. My go-to camera for many years was a Canon EOS 5D Mark II, and I've now upgraded to the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV.

"I've found that having a set of lenses – portrait, wide, zoom – is a good starter kit, as all bases are covered. My first lens was a Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens, which is such a great medium-priced portrait lens. This was followed by a Canon EF-S 24mm f/2.8 STM lens and a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens for weddings. The more experienced I get, the more I like to shoot on the Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM lens and Canon EF-S 24mm f/2.8 STM lens, because they allow me to be up-close and personal with my clients, which I'm comfortable with now."

David agrees that having the right kit – and particularly lenses that suit his work – is crucial. "I like to use the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens most often because of its sharpness and depth. And it's light so it almost feels like you're only holding the body throughout the shoot," he says.

"I like the Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM when I'm trying to incorporate the background. I also often use the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM; it’s an all-rounder with quick autofocus and, thanks to its robust construction, it withstands accidental knocks."

Rosie Hardy appears to lean back on the edge of a cliff. Self-portrait by Rosie Hardy on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II.
Rosie's images involve considerable creativity and post-production to create impossible scenarios. The central portrait image was taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a Canon EF 35mm f/2 IS USM lens at 1/640 sec, f/2.5 and ISO100. © Rosie Hardy
Rosie Hardy stands in a lake with a fishing rod, appearing to be fishing for glowing stars. Self-portrait by Rosie Hardy on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II.
Rosie's style could be described as "magical realist" – scenes of fantasy made to look real. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II at 35mm, 1/400 sec, f/1.8 and ISO160. © Rosie Hardy

4. Cultivate what makes you distinctive

Rosie finds it valuable to present a distinct offering to the world. "It's good to try your hand at everything," she says. "Being able to shoot in every location, under any lighting, and having a lack of control can be really empowering, which is why I'm a fan of trying it all, but keeping your style streamlined in what you put out there.

"On my social media I share my personal work, and client work that aligns with the style of my personal work. But behind the scenes, I'm airbrushing bacon for a hotel hamper shoot, painting someone as a zebra for an album cover or shooting portraits of kids."

5. Let the job determine the equipment

Rosie emphasises that your choice of lens should be down to what result you want to get. For her, "The Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM lens works especially well for portraits, because the depth brings out character in people's faces, especially the eyes. It allows you to maintain a certain distance from your subject, allowing them to feel relaxed, without a camera in their face, while still allowing you up-close and personal portraits."

Lorenzo concurs that it's a question of what's right for the job in hand. "An issue that a lot of photographers have is that they don't feel adequately equipped," he observes. "They feel like they have to have an array of lenses, and that's not really necessary. I've probably got about five or six lenses, but I tend to use only one or two – one for 70% of the time and the other 30% of the time. Occasionally I'll be using a long lens, or a super wide lens. It's about confidence and knowing you're going to get what you want from your lens."

Denzel Washington stands against a distressed orange wall. Portrait by Lorenzo Agius on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III.
Another characterful celebrity portrait by Lorenzo, this time of movie star Denzel Washington. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens at 1/160 sec, f/5.6 and ISO1250. © Lorenzo Agius
Stan Lee sits at a table gesturing with his hands as if telling a story. Portrait by Lorenzo Agius on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III.
Lorenzo captures the late Stan Lee, who was never known to switch off when a camera was pointed at him. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM lens at 1/125 sec, f/6.3 and ISO200. © Lorenzo Agius

6. Adapt shoots to suit your subject

How do you know what sort of shots you're going to want? David recommends doing some preparation to work that out. "Before the shoot, try to establish if your subject is an introvert or an extrovert and choose how you will handle the shoot accordingly.

"If you can, it's always good to have a meeting or phone call with the person prior to the shoot where you can talk about your vision. If they're public figures, study previous interviews and photographs. And never try to start with the cover shoot, because people are usually a bit stiff to start with – apart from supermodels!"

Rosie echoes the idea of establishing a connection with your subject. "For me, it's important to take photographs which are flattering as well portraits that tell stories," she says.

"In a social media world, feeling self-conscious and out of control when someone takes your photo are emotions that my clients and friends tell me they feel all the time. I need my subjects to trust me to tell their story, to capture something which represents them well, that they would want to treasure and look back on for years."

A black and white portrait of José Mourinho covering part of his face with his hands, in disappointment. Portrait by David Turecký on a Canon EOS 6D.
David's portrait of football manager José Mourinho is not just about capturing a likeness but communicating something about the subject's character. Taken on a Canon EOS 6D with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM lens at 1/125 sec, f/6.3 and ISO100. © David Turecký
Martin Šonka stands in an aircraft hangar beside a small plane. Portrait by David Turecký on a Canon EOS 6D.
David's photo of Czech aerobatics pilot Martin Šonka is all about atmospheric storytelling, showing him in the environment he loves. Taken on a Canon EOS 6D with a Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM lens at 33mm, 1/160 sec, f/9, ISO100. © David Turecký

7. Follow the editorial brief

David adds that a good portrait photographer must keep the shoot's editorial requirements in mind, if there are any. "When styling a shoot, I always try to find a location that will enhance and complement the theme. For example, if the interview is with an actor but the theme is his love of cars, I won't do the shoot in the theatre, but rather find an old garage or racing course depot.

"You also have to have in mind the mood of the theme – whether it is a happy or sad shoot, for example."

8. Keep the connection

"The most important thing is that you don't want to break the run of the shoot," says Lorenzo. "For that reason, a zoom lens works brilliantly. If I'm shooting with a big actor such as Will Smith and I've got a limited amount of time, I want to get the attention of my subject, connect with them and just shoot away. You don't want to be going, 'Hold on, let me just change my lens,' as it kills the flow and energy of the shoot.

"I tend to use the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens a great deal, because the range is amazing and the quality is the best. It can be your go-to lens most of the time because it gives you so many options."

Rosie Hardy lies in long grass. Self portrait by Rosie Hardy on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II.
Rosie says that social media should be used to build real connections, not to fish for likes. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a Canon EF 35mm f/2 IS USM lens at 1/200 sec, f/1.6 and ISO640. © Rosie Hardy

9. Promote yourself on social media

Rosie Hardy leaps along the brow of a hill.

Rosie Hardy on how to grow your business through social media

Wedding and self-portrait photographer Rosie Hardy spills the beans on how she's used social media to grow her brand.

Is it enough just to do the work? How important is your social media presence, compared to local networking or word-of-mouth? "Social media is a very real source of business marketing, along with having a website and producing cards," says Lorenzo. "A lot of people, myself included, don't spend enough time doing things like Instagram, so your content is constantly out there. You should be expressing yourself with your pictures and your lifestyle, so people get an idea of who you are as a person, as well as your work.

Perhaps surprisingly, given her social media prominence, Rosie cautions that using social media is not a guarantee of success. You need to be genuine in your self-promotion, she says. "Social media is as much about building connections and relationships as real-life networking. I think many people don't understand that social media is just being social, on a media platform. Things like asking people to follow you on a comment is so weird – nobody in real life would go up to a stranger and ask for them to follow their work! Networking should be genuine, not just to build up your numbers.

"A sustainable business is one where someone is passionate about doing what they're doing – no amount of social media tips or networking can replace excitement, enthusiasm and passion for what you do," Rosie says.

10. Make time to keep the fire burning

Rosie emphasises the importance of maintaining your enthusiasm. "The main thing I've learnt about doing photography as a business is that, for me, it really needs to remain a hobby before anything else. I make time for my personal work at least twice a month. Any less and I think the joy would be at risk of being sucked out of it for me.

"I've learnt that being a business owner means chasing payments, endless emails and admin. I accept that now, even though I've had to be dragged kicking and screaming to this point. Many photographers are artists, and the admin side of things can kill their creativity, so I can't stress enough how important it is to make time for your own personal work."

Written by Lucy Fulford


A portrait photographer's kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their portrait photographs

Canon camera kit is arranged, including a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark II, a Canon Speedlite and a Canon lenses.

Cameras

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

This full-frame 30.4MP DSLR captures incredible detail, even in extreme contrast. Continuous 7fps shooting helps when chasing the perfect moment.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III

A full-frame 22.3MP DSLR with 61-point autofocus and 6fps continuous shooting, this camera offers manual control over everything, plus a built-in HDR mode.

Canon EOS 5DS

Combine fast, instinctive DSLR handling with 50.6-megapixel resolution, and capture exquisite detail in every moment. The EOS 5DS will transform the way you look at the world.

Canon EOS 6D

A 20.2-megapixel DSLR featuring a full-frame sensor and compact design. Ideal for portrait photography and travel, offering tight control over depth of field and a large choice of wide-angle EF lenses.

Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark II

With a 1.0 type sensor, bright f/1.8-2.8 Canon lens and superior DIGIC 7 processing this pocket-sized, large sensor compact offers DSLR-like creativity in both stills and Full HD movies.

Lenses

Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM

With its fast maximum aperture and rapid focusing system, this compact, high-performance standard lens can be relied on for superb quality in any field of photography. "I like to use this lens most often because of its sharpness and depth," says David Turecký. "And it's so light, it almost feels like you're only holding the body throughout the shoot."

Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM

This professional-quality standard zoom lens offers outstanding image sharpness and a robust L-series build. Its constant f/2.8 aperture enables you to take superb photos even in low light, and to control depth of field with ease. "The range is amazing and the quality is the best," says Lorenzo Agius. "It can be your go-to lens most of the time because it gives you so many options."

Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM

With a large aperture, this L-series short telephoto lens is ideal for low-light shooting and creative effects with extremely shallow depth of field and smooth background blur. "It works especially well for portraits, because the depth brings out character in people's faces, especially the eyes," says Rosie Hardy.

Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM

A true modern classic: a standard wide-angle lens beloved by reportage photographers for its natural perspective, low-light capability and extraordinary optical performance. "I like to shoot on the Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM lens because it allows me to be up-close and personal with my clients," says Rosie.

Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM

An ultra wide-angle zoom lens that offers excellent image quality and a constant maximum aperture. Its compact, lightweight body makes it an ideal travelling companion. "I like the Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM when I'm trying to incorporate the background.” says David.

Canon EF 20mm f/2.8 USM

With its wide angle of view and extended depth of field, the EF 20mm f/2.8 is a great choice for photographers shooting landscapes, architecture or reportage. A lens that can be used almost anywhere.

Accessory

Canon Speedlite 600EX II-RT

The Speedlite 600EX II-RT is engineered for fast frame-rate shooting, and performs in the most demanding situations. Used off-camera or in the hotshoe, its versatility allows you to take complete control over lighting.

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