Create a Salable
By Tom Ray
learned from a mentor that enabled me to go from an
amateur photographer to a professional portrait
photographer in very specific steps is something I like
to pass on. Rather than spending countless hours in
classes learning every possible detail about
photography, I learned just the necessary specifics to
get started in the business and now I work out of my
home part-time earning a full-time income and have been
in business for over 17 years; but I started out with
practically nothing, just an interest in photography and
the need to earn more money.
One of the things that my mentor taught me was the Three
Classic Elements to produce “salable portraits.”
"Salable" is an industry term every photographer quickly
becomes familiar with to distinguish between the
everyday reality of making money versus creating those
“artistic competition” or “award winning prints” which
don't earn the money.
I've been in the business for over 17 years now and I'm
still amazed that:
People don't buy the award winning prints that you see
wearing many of the ribbons at professional photography
When my clients are faced with the choice of buying an
artistic pose of their child being demure and not
looking directly into the camera or buying a pose
smiling close-up straight into the camera, they buy the
smiling close-up every time.
Not very original, but I'm telling you now so take note:
Happy people whose faces you can readily see are the
most salable prints.
They'll never tell you this at a photography workshop,
seminar, Annual Convention or at a photography institute
because their job is to create award winning photo
artists rather than people whom simply make a living,
if you haven't learned all the fancy lighting
techniques, then you've saved time because the most
important thing about light is having enough to keep the
face out of the shadows.
People prefer any kind of light, as long as there is
enough of it to light the face and eyes so you can get a
good look at the person!
The quality of light people prefer for portraits is soft
light, whether it be from an artificial source like a
flash umbrella or a natural source from the sky at
sunset, but other than a soft quality of light they want
enough of it to SEE the face of the person you're
photographing, even if it is a flat almost straight on
You may not win any competitions or awards this way, but
if you get plenty of light on the faces you'll create
This leads me to talk about fill flash. There are times
outdoors when you'll need a flash on your camera to fill
in dark shadow areas mostly in the eye sockets. Just use
one f stop less flash than the existing ambient light
calls for. That's enough light to fill the shadows and
don't worry about not lugging around a portable umbrella
to get the perfect modeling technique.
My mentor is right again: there is no change in the
sale. The customer pays for well lit faces, not perfect
modeling. I've tried it both ways and the customer buys
the same amount of pictures in the same sizes no matter
what you do.
Element number Two: Body Positioning.
This is a little more detailed area, but it is
important, believe me.
My basic education from my mentor began with the same
advice I'll pass on to you:
You should rarely photograph anyone straight on.
The exception to this rule will be for family and large
groups, which for reasons of body placement will often
break this rule. But for individuals or smaller groups
of people this rule applies.
Now, when you're not just photographing a head and
shoulders close-up you'll have to understand other
aspects of body positioning that makes people want to
buy their pictures. Hands. They should always be turned
slightly so they are seen from the edge with fingers
together, or hide the hands altogether behind your
subject or somebody else next to them. Never position
hands straight on with open fingers.
Simply put, anything that minimizes how much hand you
see works to make it a better portrait. This is always
more flattering in a portrait and you'll see they are
the ones people buy.
Crossing legs at the ankles refines the pose and
minimizes this area of the
body making it more appealing.
Look at it this way, what's less of a distraction: two
legs leading to two ankles leading to two feet -- or two
legs blending into one ankle section with blended feet?
Surely it's the latter.
When standing, one cannot simply cross their ankles
unless they have something to lean against, so I will
have one foot in front of the other in such a way that
they taper into one general unit. Have them place their
weight on the back leg (remember, they are at a slight
3/4 angle) and bring the front leg forward and slightly
tilt the foot to face out toward the camera.
Whenever I'd show my mentor my portraits that I was just
unsure of, it was these recurring themes that he
patiently pointed out to me.
As I began to look for these simple things during my
my pictures got better!
I can't stress enough how basic, but important, it is to
watch for these details.
I have people come to me who went to the contract
photographer for their High School Senior yearbook
portrait and disliked their picture. They want me to
take one that they can proudly give out to friends and
family. Usually the problem with the pictures I've seen
is that the photography school graduate “intern” who
works for the contract photographer took the photo
without paying attention to some minor detail. I get it
right and my reputation grows from “fixing” the contract
The techniques for salable body positioning are what you
look for in any pose you try whether close-up or full
When photographing people full body standing, seated or
reclining on the ground, noticing body angle, hands and
feet is the way to “fine tune” your portrait and
distinguish it from just a “snapshot”.
Lastly, I must share my favorite body positioning tool
that makes it so easy to make a better portrait than
someone who doesn't really know what they're doing: the
A woman alone tilts her head just slightly in either
direction to make a more stunning portrait. A man's head
can stay straight up or tilt slightly away in the
opposite direction from his most forward shoulder but
never back towards his most forward shoulder.
Element number Three: Salable Composition
There are many compositional techniques in many books,
but it doesn't take all that knowledge to make portrait
compositions that are what the typical consumer
considers good enough to call professional.
Once you know what the consumer considers salable, you
will be able to reproduce it again and again for other
clients. You also will thank me for saving you from
thinking that in order to be good enough to sell
portrait photography you have to create grand artistic
images. You just have to know what works and be able to
repeat it for the friends of your clients whom will be
getting your business cards by way of referral.
When photographing one individual person, it's so simple
I don't think you need too much input for that. In fact,
I believe you know the naive simplicity with which you
thought “hey, I can do this for a living” after taking
some portraits of a friend or family member. Yet it
truly gets challenging when there is more than one
I know of a local professional who has referred family
portrait clients to me as she specializes in children
outdoors. Do you know what that really means? It means
she's intimidated by having to do groupings, but that's
okay, most people are.
So here's the rule of salable composition:
Keep everybody's head at a different level.
Like I told you, I didn't have a fancy College degree so
my mentor had to keep it simple enough for me. In some
cases, you will recognize that it's not possible, but if
you do your best to stagger head height from individual
to individual, you will be creating professional looking
You will stand some people, seat some in chairs, seat
some on the arms of chairs, seat some on the floor,
kneel some, crouch some, lay some down, but you will
achieve staggered head heights and salable compositions.
Tip heads inward toward one another for unity when
photographing a family group.
Note that men are usually positioned higher than women.
No, I'm not aware of being a chauvinist pig, but I am
aware that this is what usually sells. Not the images
where mom's higher than dad but where dad (even if he's
actually shorter!) is positioned just a head or so above
Once you understand the rules, you can bend them where
you need to in order to make a portrait work; but people
will see that you know what you're doing as you position
them for a good composition and especially when they see
your finished work.
My mentor critiqued my work time and time again over
several years as I brought images and questions to him.
It almost always boiled down to my understanding these
most simple aspects that I've shared with you.
I know it's not customary to learn photography on such
simplistic terms, but trust me; I've had exposure over
the years to many different photography educational
venues such as classes, workshops, conventions, guest
speakers, lectures, teaching videos and books but never
have any of the teachers been willing to simply say
“look, there are just a few rules to follow and people
will be happy with their pictures”. Never have I
received more helpful advice than I received from my
mentor. This is the reason I've written "Professional
Photography: Success Without School." Not because
schools have no place in the lives of photographer
hopefuls, it's just that they are not the only way to
guarantee success in the business.
I guess if I could sum up the philosophy my mentor
embodied in word form I'd say it was rather like this:
“Not everybody wants a masterpiece. Most people just
want to remember their loved ones as happy. It's not
hard to capture that with your camera, just don't stand
them in hard sunlight, standing in a straight line
facing straight toward the camera.”
-Tom Ray is a Certified Professional Photographer
through the Professional Photographers of America. If
you are interested in his full story please go to: