Shoot what sells (and a little of what you love, too)

There’s not always an overlap between what you want to shoot and what your client will buy. As always in life and business, there’s a compromise to make.

Imagine a Venn diagram, with ‘what you love to shoot’ in one circle, and ‘what sells’ in the other. I know of many full-time portrait photographers who prefer nothing more than shooting landscapes and wildlife. Unfortunately, they struggled to make a living from them, so they capture portraits as their main source of income and shoot everything else as a hobby.

I’m lucky. It’s always been people that I’ve wanted to photograph. I feel like I’ve got the best job in the world, because I get to spend all day doing what I love. Nevertheless, there’s a little more nuance to it than that.

Miserable award-winners

On the forum, one of our members asked why so many award-winning portraits featured subjects that looked… well, miserable. Indeed, the image that won me Studio Portrait of the Year features a very intent and serious-looking man, explorer Alex Bellini.

When we’re in the salesroom with clients, we know they’ll often skip over or respond negatively to a portrait with an unhappy subject. So why are you more likely to win an award with a portrait that the family probably wouldn’t even buy?

Like many photographers, I almost always prefer enigmatic pictures like this one of Grace. People’s eyes are at their biggest and their cheekbones most defined when their facial expression is sad or neutral. And the narrative of the shot is more intriguing. An image like this draws me in, both to Grace’s beauty and her state-of-mind. I’m wondering, ‘What’s going on in her head? What is she thinking about?

Happy families

However, there’s an exception. There’s one time I really don’t want to see sad or neutral portraits, and that’s when my own family are in them.

When my wife and children are in an image, I want to see them bubbling over with laughter. I don’t need to see big eyes and defined cheekbones. They are already the most beautiful people in the world to me. It worries me as a parent and husband when they look sad, and it satisfies me to see them happy. I don’t want wall art that makes me worry. I want wall art that confirms what I want to believe: what a fab family we are. In my experience, most families feel the same.

So I love this shot of Grace, but it wasn’t a favourite for her family. Happily, it went in their album, but their main wall art is – as you’d expect – a big, happy family portrait.

That’s why shots like this are always a second priority to me, after I’ve captured the ones the family will prefer. I’m appealing to the family primarily, not myself or other photographers. But I do get more enjoyment from shooting and editing the more serious sad-looking shots, so I try to sneak one or two of those in whenever I can, too.

Room Diagram

Camera Settings

  • Focal length: 86mm
  • Aperture: f/1.9
  • Shutter speed: 1/180 sec
  • ISO: 200