So you want to be a photographer and do photo shoots with sexy models? Get in line, pal!

Seriously, though, as you can imagine, there’s quite a glut of creative souls out there with the same aspirations. For every Arny Freytag or Russell James, there are likely thousands of men and women armed with DSLRs and portfolios, hoping to get paid to photograph beautiful women for a living. Sure beats digging ditches!

So what does it take to become an elite photographer? Like the counterpart modeling, photography looks deceptively simple. It takes more than having the most expensive camera and knowing how to shoot in manual mode. I don’t proclaim myself some rich, famous or even talented photographer, but I have seen what it takes up-close, both as a photographer and as an art director who has hired other photographers.

To become the best of the best, here are 13 qualities you’ll need:

A Great Eye – It all starts with having an eye for visual art. Any monkey can point a camera and push a button, but photographers, painters, sculptors, etc., all know how to capture something interesting and expressive. If you have a good eye, you are constantly absorbing images from magazines, movies and your environment, soaking it all in and processing it.

Vision – A great eye and vision are not the same. Vision is a creative expression, a talent for transforming the conceptual into something powerful, emotional and tangible. It is having a sense of style and an appreciation for architecture, fashion and theater. You have to be sophisticated enough to realize that a portfolio full of pictures of cheesy strippers in thongs straddling a motorcycle won’t get your work in Vogue or Elle. It’s a knack for presenting something in a different or interesting way, transcending visual clichés. If your portfolio looks exactly like what a client sees in the books of the 20 other photographers who want the job just as badly as you do, why should they hire you in particular?

To Learn the Craft – From learning to retouch in Photoshop to lighting a studio setup, you have to know your stuff. And the quickest, least expensive way is to apprentice under someone who not only does what you want to do, but has, ideally, been successful at it. You can also invest in workshops or experiences like Shoot the Centerfold to learn from the best. When you learn things by trial and error, as I initially did, you gain knowledge and experience at a high cost. I’m a visual learner, so something like is a great way for me to learn as much as possible about Photoshop. When I started, I belonged to a local photography group that had a group library of videos members could check out for a month at a time. I also invested in videos by Charles Lewis, among others. I learned enough to earn more by selling my photography because I became a better, more knowledgeable shooter.

I would say I’ve had several mentors along the way, but it was my great privilege to learn from a retired Air Force officer who served as a military photojournalist. His lessons propelled me to advance in a way that would have taken me far longer. He recognized in me a fellow creative soul, someone who is obsessed with excellence. Hunt for someone willing to share his or her knowledge, but be tactful about it. Don’t march into your town’s portrait studio and announce that you want them to hire you and train you everything they know so you can become their competition and shut them down (which one lady, unbelievably, actually did once). Duh! Which brings me to my next point…

Have People Skills – You can be a genius behind the camera, but if you want to photograph people specifically, you must be able to relate to and empathize with other human beings. The best of the best understand the social aspect, the politics of soft sell persuasion. They know how to build relationships with the models who pose for them, as well as art buyers, editors, etc., who will do the hiring. Being able to schmooze with strangers you meet through others gets you access to amazing locations. It also relays a sense of confidence in your work that makes others feel comfortable. You have to be outgoing enough to share your work with the world. You have to be versed in the art of communication and be able to discuss a variety of topics. You must have a sense of humor too, if you want to make your photo shoots enjoyable. Your goal is to make the best people want to shoot with you. If you have the personality of a piece of driftwood, then you are probably better suited to become a landscape photographer and shoot driftwood for fine-art gallery work.

Work With the Best People You Can Find – Photography, at the highest level, is a team sport. Once you find models, makeup artists and stylists who you click with, be good to them and they’ll make you look good. With models, there’s the debate over whether to test with the pretty girls at your local Hooters or hire an agency-represented model. It’s tough to spend a lot of money for a portfolio shoot, but look at it this way: The better the models in your portfolio, the better they’ll make you look. Others will want acknowledgement that they are beautiful enough to make the cut since you obviously only photograph the most gorgeous models. My suggestion would be to sign up for something like UjENA Bikini Jam where you can affordably shoot a lot of great models in one setting over several days while also vacationing. It’s a good compromise between having a portfolio full of so-so faces and spending a fortune on getting some lower-tier Heidi Klum in your book.

Be Fast, But Good – Time is money on photo shoots. Be the guy (or gal) the client knows will be able to get in there, get a ton of great images and call it a wrap. And always shoot with post-production in mind. It will cost your client money if they have to spend more time correcting your exposure or fixing slight imperfections you were too careless or lazy to fix.

Be Able to Take Critiques Without Falling Apart – We all have moments as artists when we look at someone else’s best and feel that we fall short. Other times, we have a hyper inflated sense of our own talent and abilities. Never stop learning and seeking to improve. If you are too sensitive, you will give up or get bent out of shape anytime your creative choices are criticized. Accept that you don’t know it all and try to learn something rather than getting in a huff about it.

Pay Your Dues – Get up before dawn to shoot that spectacular sunrise. Take initiative to set up or break down your mentor’s gear. Stay in and edit rather than going out and partying. Put in the time it takes to get seen and make connections. You’ve heard the expression “It’s who you know…” To some degree, it’s true. When I was the editor of, part of my job was hiring photographers. I recall an earnest guy in Miami who pestered the shit out of me, but his polite persistence finally paid off. A tip I learned from Dean Collins: Be especially nice to receptionists at ad agencies and similar client locations. They are often the gatekeepers who filter out who even gets seen by the people who will do the hiring.

Have Dedication – You must adopt a workaholic attitude and force yourself to do the things you have to do — not merely the things you WANT to do. That’s the key to success in any job. You can’t get complacent or lazy. Not when there are so many people who would snatch your dream job away from you in a heartbeat if given the chance.

Project a Professional Image – Take a moment to look at yourself. Are you well-groomed? Are you physically fit? Do you keep your studio clean and organized? Does your logo express amateur hour or sophistication? Little things matter. First impressions especially matter! People treat you differently based on how you present yourself. I know one photographer who was obese, but he lost a lot of weight and bought stylish new clothes, now he gets access to shoot leggy supermodels in Miami and Beverly Hills. He fits into their world now, whereas before, he was something more suited for a comic book store.

Act Like a Pro – If you are a second-generation photographer known in the fashion world, perhaps you can get away with scoundrel behavior like Terry Richardson. If you are Joe Blow from Everytown, USA, you have to build a reputation from scratch. A reputation is a delicate thing. Like a bridge, it can take months or years to build and seconds to destroy. Professionalism is more than keeping your hands off the models even if they throw themselves at you. It means not screwing anyone over. Saying what you mean and doing what you promise. For models, in particular, to fully trust you, you must produce work that reassures them that you aren’t some hack who is just trying to get beautiful young girls naked so you can get a peep show. Respect boundaries and keep it in your pants, guys.

Proximity – Less so today with the rise of the Internet, but still to a large degree, photographers must be where the clients are. You don’t get hired to shoot New York Fashion Week from Kansas. If you do, let me know how you do it. As I tell models in Alabama, no agency is going to farm work to the girl who has to drive two hours if there are 100 other girls who live within 20 minutes of a gig.

Luck – Yeah, it sucks, but you can be and do all of the above and still fail in getting selected to shoot the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. That’s life. But even if you don’t reach that final destination, you can still produce work of excellence along the way and feel a sense of great pride that you’ve realized at least some of your dreams.

These are the things that guide me in my own pursuit of excellence. If you share my dream, perhaps we can collaborate and help each other succeed.

Since we are on the topic, check out this video story profiling Russell James…

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  1. When they invented the wheel it seemed so obvious, we have great ability to complicate and loose things. Your clear and concise guidelines are refreshingly direct and straight forward. Its so easy to think I do that anyway but if we are honest who among us completes the entire package . (or even part of it).The acid test is do we get the work.

  2. I enjoyed your message very much. I have always loved photography and enjoyed doing it while not having to make a living at it. Now, the recession has changed that and I find myself struggling everyday to believe I can survive financially and create the art for my clients to believe in me. I feel I am trying to do a lot of your advise, yet still seeing the wholes in my plan. Your comments were so simple to see that the vision can be more than I may be able to achieve at 51. But if I try hard to employ as much of it as I can, I will go to sleep at night enjoying ideas how I can improve tomorrow. Recently a I have made two friends, one who is brilliant in Landscape, and one who is brilliant in Portrait. They both have been kind to me since they see a desire in me to learn and grow, and not to tear down and steel from the beauty that artist like they want to see continued. The one has said I need to get rid of the cheap sybolism of my business name, he is right, but spending more right now is tough to correct a wrong turn. Your advise was profound and this morning I shall ponder it going forward so hopefully one day I can say I understand and utilize such as your talent. It’s Saturday now, but the 13th truly gave me good. Thank You!

    • Randall,
      I know what you mean. You have a few years on me, but I’m no new kid on the block either. Even if I never fulfill all of my dreams, the point is I HAVE goals, dreams and crave to constantly better myself. When I am an old man, if nothing else, I’ll have a lot of great memories when I look over my portfolio. Reach for the stars and take it as far as you can!

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