When you are first starting out as a photographer, switching gears into a new niche, or even moving cities, you may find yourself at square one without a solid portfolio. And that’s ok! I’ve been shooting for 7 years and I found myself in this position multiple times–when I very first picked up a camera, when I switched my focus from family shoots to weddings, when I rebranded after my move to Savannah, and again when I started shooting brand photography just last year.
I’ve learned a thing or two along the way about building a portfolio, and I want to share it all with you! So Part Two of our three week series on Big Scary Questions is going to tackle how exactly to build a portfolio to attract your dream clients.
And friends, I dug some photos out of the vault just for you, to show exactly when I applied these tips throughout my career so far…so get excited for entirely too many “vintage” filters (such a bad idea, but I thought it was cool at the time) and some less-than-stellar editing, but hey–we all start somewhere!
In every one of those scenarios I mentioned above, I’ve shot for free in order to build a portfolio I’m proud of, and I’m not ashamed to admit it! Because if you don’t have proof you can do something, how on earth will you convince someone to pay you to do it?
Before I EVER had paying clients, I let my friends know I wanted to practice photography, and a few took me up on it! My first shoot was a maternity shoot, and I went on to shoot a free engagement shoot and a few other freebies before I started charging.
2009: This was my very first shoot EVER!
2010: And this was the first engagement shoot I photographed!
Then when I wanted to start shooting weddings, I second-shot a ton of weddings for free, in exchange for being able to use the photos in my portfolio. It was the perfect way to get my feet wet in the wedding world and to build my portfolio at the same time!
2010: I took this photo second-shooting for Lindsey Tropf in Gainesville, FL.
2014: I asked my friends if I could photograph them because I had changed my editing style along with my rebrand.
And this past year, when I wanted to start doing brand photography with my brandography partners in crime, Flourish Collaborative, we set up a handful of pro bono shoots for the purpose of building our portfolio. We knew we could do these kinds of shoots, but we needed PROOF.
2016: This brandography shoot for the Bare Bride was done pro bono, because we loved her company’s mission, the aesthetic of her brand, and we wanted to have photos for her brand in our portfolio.
But, here’s the kicker…you can’t and shouldn’t shoot for free for very long. But that’s a whole other story, so I’ll talk more about how and when to raise your prices on Facebook Live at 12:30pm today on the Apt. B page!
Years ago when I lived in Gainesville, my friend Sarah and I started a group called “For the Love”—it was a short-lived meet-up of other newbie photographers who just wanted to talk shop and shoot for fun. We would wander around downtown taking each others’ photos, and it was the perfect way to practice in a no-pressure situation. And we could learn from each other, which is a bonus! Because #communityovercompetition, right?!
2010: This photo was taken at a For the Love meet up, and now I take Debra’s family photos every year when I visit Gainesville.
Then when I wanted to re-establish my style and dive back into weddings after a year of second-shooting in Savannah, again I looked for practice opportunities. I attended a local shootout—I believe it was a meeting of our local SmugMug chapter, and I saw it was open to anyone. There were three sets of models to shoot, and we all got to take turns. Again, no pressure, and I actually used a photo from that shoot as one of the header images on my site while I worked on building a wedding portfolio of actual clients. (And crazy side note—when that girl got engaged, she inquired with me! But I was booked on her date. 🙁 Still, that goes back to getting out there and DOING things in order to find clients!)
2014: I remember clearly asking Caroline to stand here so I could get this shot for my portfolio. I had a vision for my style and brand, and I took the opportunity to capture it.
This one is along the lines of being willing to shoot for free, but setting up your own shoots is more active and more specific. Set up shoots that are very tailored to what you want to shoot, both in niche and in style, so you are showing exactly the kind of work you want to do and the kind of clients you want to book.
2010: This was my very first attempt at setting up a shoot that was aligned with my style. And at the time, it absolutely was a great example of how I was shooting and the kind of creative shoots I wanted to book. Huge props to my co-workers for letting me put feathered headbands on them and shoot in a creepy parking garage!
2010: I asked two other co-workers if they would be willing do a trash the dress shoot in Blue Springs, and I got to refine my style even further and stock my portfolio full of dreamy, watery images.
2011: I set this shoot up along with two other photographers, and we styled it entirely ourselves. We scouted the location, used items from my apartment, and I coerced even more co-workers to let me photograph them.
2014: When I knew I wanted to re-launch my brand and target my dream clients here in Savannah, I set up a shoot with even MORE co-workers (seriously, maybe that’s why I needed a full-time job all those years — to meet my models!). I knew I wanted a flower crown and suspenders, dreamy light and some balloons, and I loved how the images turned out so much that I had some of them on my site header until early last year when I refined my portfolio even more.
2014: I traveled to Costa Rica with my dear friend Jimena, and I knew I wanted to do a shoot there to broaden my portfolio into international destinations.
If you want to shoot weddings, share weddings! Don’t share newborns or families—those aren’t your target client. I completely understand needing to pay bills, and sometimes taking on shoots outside of your niche is necessary. (In fact, I still do this, guys! It’s very hard to resist an opportunity to make money, especially in the slow time between wedding seasons.) But I rarelyyyyy share a shoot that’s not a wedding or a couple, because my primary business is wedding photography.
2016: I take photos for the Emerson family almost every year, but I don’t always share them on Facebook and Instagram–not because I don’t LOVE their photos, because I really do, but because I’m not focusing on booking family clients.
I learned this lesson from Jasmine Star many many moons ago, and it’s stuck with me ever since. Even if your first few shoots or weddings aren’t exactly your target client, THAT’S OK. Why? Because you should always be shooting both for yourself and for the client.
For example, if you are doing a newborn shoot, but you really want to shoot weddings, ask the couple if you can take a couple photos of just the two of them without the baby. They will probably be excited to have those photos, and boom—you just got a picture of a couple to share. Or if you are shooting a wedding that just isn’t the style you want to shoot all the time (maybe it’s more boho chic and you want to shoot classic and glamorous, or vice versa), focus on the parts of it you can market under your style—maybe it’s a closeup of the bride and groom’s hands intertwined. Or a shot of the dad tearing up as his daughter says her vows. Look just beyond the surface, and I bet you can find SO much to shoot and share that’s exactly aligned with your brand.
2015: This photo was actually taken at a family shoot, but I made sure to get a few of the mom and dad together without the kiddos. Then I had a shot to share that would align with who I wanted to book specifically–couples!
So there you have it! Five ways you can start building a portfolio that will attract the clients you want to book. But honestly, these aren’t the only five ways to do it, and I thought of two more just while I was formatting this post. So I’ll be sharing two bonus ways to build your portfolio when I chat with you on Facebook Live today at 12:30pm! (YAY!) And don’t sweat it if you can’t catch it live, because it stays on the Apt. B Facebook page afterward. (Woo!)
Happy Monday, friend!!
P.S. You might also be interested in 5 Ways to Find Clients–and there’s a really weird analogy in there you shouldn’t miss!
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Great article! Especially where you talk about shooting for free. As a professional photographer, I too started as an intern it really helps me to build my confidence and portfolio.
Thank you so much! I too have shot a few weddings for free. It indeed was a great learning experience.