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Four Key Skills Of A Successful Photographer

By Hanssie on June 29th 2016

When it comes to being a photographer, our overall mission is to create consistently incredible imagery. But to become a successful photographer, there are four key skills you must acquire. These four skills fall into two categories: hard skills and soft skills. The hard skills are the technical ones that come from being able to use your gear creatively, come up with new ideas, and know how to find and create light, post processing, etc.  The soft skills involve the ability to properly communicate with your clients and understand what they want and need.


Many successful photographers you may come across in the industry aren’t necessarily the best artists, but they have fantastic technical skills. Or you may find some that are incredibly successful because they’ve mastered the soft skills of client relationships and communication, but are not necessarily as technical or artistic.

If you want to become a successful photographer, it’s important to have all four key skills, with a balance between the four.

25% Hard Skills

The hard skills can be referred to as internal skills because you can improve on these skills by simply studying and practicing on your own. These are very important but they’re not the sole means to success. Hard skills encompass the technical side and the artistic side, and should make up about 25% of a successful photographer.


1. Hard Skill: Technical

As stated above, hard skills are easy to teach and learn. Our numerous workshops cover the many aspects of the technical side. On the technical side, there is camera, composition, and exposure control. This is all Photography 101 course content. Then there’s mastery of lighting and light modification from our Lighting 101, 201 and soon-to-be released 301 courses. You’ll need post production skills and for this we’ve created three entire courses on Lightroom editing in the Lightroom Workshop Collection. And then there’s posing, which is one part hard skill, one part soft skill, both of which is taught in the Natural Light Couples Photography Workshop. Posing and directing is also covered with Caroline Tran in the Light & Love Workshop.


2. Hard Skill: Artistic

The artistic side covers artistic camera, composition, and exposure control which is, again, discussed in all of the courses listed above. Technical and artistic are two very different hard skills. Think about some of the photographers that you know, or even yourself. Would you classify yourself as a technical photographer or as an artistic photographer? There are so many incredible photographers who are absolutely amazing artistically; they can create images that are breathtaking, yet they don’t really know much about the technical components of what they’re doing.

On the flip side, do you know photographers that are incredibly technical? They know their lighting ratios, everything there is to know about aperture, maximum dynamic range, about optimal shutter speeds, etcetera, yet there’s always seems to be something missing from their photographs? These are technical photographers. Generally, most of us are going to have a balance between these two but it might be weighted on one side.

A  photographer strives to have a good balance of the technical and the artistic and this makes up what we call the skilled photographer. It is only a small fraction of what it takes to be a successful photographer. The bulk of comes from the soft skills side.

75% Soft Skills

The soft skills are labeled, “external skills” because these need to be practiced with people. These soft skills are a greater part of the process therefore these soft skills are more important and weighted more in the balance of being a successful photographer.



Communication is key to building a relationship. Being able to communicate with people and discuss their interests, backgrounds, and anything other than photography is an extremely important soft skill. It involves smiling, being genuine, and being interested in what others have to say. You’d be surprised how much this could do for you. It’s the ability to use positive and reinforcing words as well as provide positive solutions to your client’s sometimes random requests.

When it comes to posing, as we mentioned above, there’s a technical side but much of posing comes down to communication and how you guide and direct your clients. You can have the know-how of what makes a good pose, but you need to have the ability to communicate and guide your clients through it.

4. Soft Skill: Understanding

Being able to ask targeted questions is part of communication, but a major component for the soft skill of understanding. While communication is about your words, how you speak them and how you communicate your vision to your clients is critical. And understanding involves talking less, listening more and asking targeted questions so you know what their vision is.

When you seek to understand your clients’ wants, needs, and concerns, as well as having the ability to address and resolve those concerns, it will show that you are present in the moment.

Having the ability to communicate clearly and understand people makes you an empathetic communicator, able to understand their vision and share your own vision effectively.

[REWIND: Tips on Client Satisfaction, Reviews and Testimonials]

External Soft Skills vs. Internal Hard Skills

The combination of skilled photographer and the empathic communicator is what makes a successful photographer.


Throughout the entire process, almost every touchpoint will draw on your external soft skills. From understanding the vision, tailoring expectations, proper planning, and exceeding expectations, communication and understanding are required. Only when you get to the shoot execution do you use those external hard skills, but even then on shoot day, both soft and hard skills are incorporated.

In the process of creating consistently incredible images with every single client, the vast majority of your interaction and the process itself relies on your soft skills and your ability to communicate and understand, versus your technical and artistic ability. You need both sides, and all four skill sets to succeed.

You can learn more on developing and using these skills in part 1 of the Wedding Workshop. Gain access to the workshop and so much more by becoming an SLR Lounge Premium Member here.

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Hanssie is a Southern California-based writer and sometimes portrait and wedding photographer. In her free time, she homeschools, works out, rescues dogs and works in marketing for SLR Lounge. She also blogs about her adventures and about fitness when she’s not sick of writing so much. Check out her work and her blog at Follow her on Instagram

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Ralph Hightower

    Great article.
    For the soft skills, I recommend Toastmasters. I’ve been a member for several years and stepped out of my comfort zone as an introvert and served as an area governor and a division governor.

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  2. Paul Wynn

    Good overview and of course, beautiful images as ever. Thank you.

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  3. William Irwin

    Good post. I recently looked back over some of my film negatives and got to thinking about when I first started doing photography. I was extremely shy or what you would call painfully shy due to my Deafness.

    I started breaking out of that shyness and acquiring the skills that enable me to do what I do today. Many of the soft skills did not come easy to me early on. That has changed. The one area I still have trouble with is some areas of communication. This is more a limitation that I have to learn to deal with and work around. For example, I am great working with Customers via text or email and can often close the sale for a shoot this way.

    When it comes to talking to Customers on the phone I still struggle with this since I communicate through Video Relay Service. Its often the Customer perception problem or my inability to articulate properly through ASL interpreters that kills my sales. My primary language is English not ASL so I am not 100% comfortable communicating this way. I have no choice as my hearing aids broke recently and have not been able to replace them yet since it will cost me $2500+.

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