How to Build Your Portfolio When Starting out as a Photographer
One hurdle that every new photographer faces is how to build a portfolio. You can’t bring in new clients if you don’t have photos to show them.
I sometimes see new photographers using stock images in their welcome guides because they don’t have any images of their own to use, and while I understand that the effort is sincere, this is not something you should necessarily be doing.
For example, what if a potential client asks where a photo was taken or they request that a similar photo be taken for them. Would you be able to deliver? Your portfolio is one of your biggest assets as a photographer and is essentially the product that you’re selling. If you were in a store, your portfolio would be your physical products but since you’re selling a service, your potential customers will be looking at your portfolio when deciding whether to hire you or not.
Your portfolio is of course not the only thing that affects a client’s decision to hire you but it can make a huge difference. When a prospect visits your website, your portfolio is what creates a first impression and could mean the difference between a client contacting you or not. It’s also something that can help you attract your ideal customers.
Now that we’ve established just how important your portfolio is, let’s look at some ways to start building one. Building a portfolio is not a difficult task but it does require some proper attention.
Here are a few ideas to get you started.
- Start with what you already have. Using friends and family to build your portfolio is an ideal way to get started, only if they represent your ideal target audience that is. The type of photography that you’ll be marketing will also play a role. For example, when I first started out as a wedding photographer and was meeting with potential clients, I didn’t have any images to show them. The only examples that I had of my work were a few shots that I took during my internship at a newspaper, which was clearly not going to resonate with them. I had to make use of the resources I already had. I got my daughter to put on a cute flower girl dress and pose for some shots. I also used my own wedding rings for some detail shots.
- Shoot for free. Before you get upset about the thought of working for free, keep in mind that I said “shoot for free”, not give them everything for free. This is an approach that a lot of new photographers take when starting out. Tell the people that you’re willing to give your time for free and that the images will be available for purchase afterwards. After the shoot, be sure to schedule an in-person sales session so that you can sell, sell, sell. If you need tips on how to have a successful in-person sales session click here. Taking this approach is like having an opt-in trip wire in your business. Think about the restaurants that have specials that let kids eat for free. It’s a way to get customers through the door and chances are, the parents will end up ordering too.
As a side note, I often see a lot of wedding photographers say they’ll get a request from a dream client to shoot a destination wedding and because they want this in their portfolio, they’ll offer to do it for free. Personally, I don’t think that this is a good idea, because the couple may take you for granted and you’ll probably end up regretting it later. A better approach would be to find out what’s most important to the couple such as having a big, beautiful album, and offering that to them for free instead, on the condition that they book you. You could even offer to waive the travel costs for the wedding or you’ll shoot their wedding if they pay your travel expenses. This way they’re at least still paying you something. After the shoot, the usual upsell then applies. If a couple has only paid for your travel expenses, don’t include prints or albums in the final agreement, rather have them pay for these after the event.
- Hire models. If you’re going to go this route, I wouldn’t recommend using websites where models exchange time for prints, they’re usually not that professional. Rather approach a professional modelling agency and look through their portfolio in order to find someone who fits in with your target audience. There is no need to pay for an entire day of work either. If the model is truly professional, they’ll already know how to pose, and will possibly also do their own hair and makeup, which saves you time and money. If you’re going to go to the effort of hiring a pro model though, I would make sure that their hair, makeup & clothing will be professionally styled too. The money you invest will come back to you many times over if you do this right. Ensure that the model has a few different changes of clothing available and that you have the option to shoot in a few different locations. These photos are great for your online portfolio but you should also look at using them as sample canvases, in your ads and on social media.
- Attend a workshop. If you’re starting out as a professional photographer, chances are you’re going to be attending a few workshops in order to improve your skills. A photographer never stops learning. Workshops are also amazing for networking so choose your workshops wisely. Choose workshops that include a shootout or a model photo session but make sure that you ask ahead of time whether you’ll be able to use these images in your portfolio, or submit them for publication in magazines to make it worth your while. Some photographers might argue that if they use these images in their portfolio, people will see similar images on other photographer sites and know they’re from a workshop. My answer to this is that it doesn’t matter because it shows that you’re honing your photography skills and that you’re capable of taking good shots. If you’re still concerned, try and attend workshops outside your immediate area. For example, here in Arizona we have two workshops, The Amberguys and Amy and Jordan.
- Run a contest or model search. I’ve seen a number of senior photographers use this technique when searching for senior reps but you can use this in pretty much any genre. Make it fun and market the fact that you’re having a model search. People could submit photos and a brief paragraph on why they want to model for your photography business. If you want them to answer more specific questions then you can always give them a form to fill out. Don’t forget to ask them for their contact details too. Another great approach is to run a targeted Facebook ad that will reach your ideal customer. Target specific areas, places and interests. You might also want to use a client avatar so that you know what type of person you want to market to. Once you have chosen a winner, send out an email to all entrants, announcing the winners. You can also offer all entrants a discount coupon for their next photo shoot with you. This way you’ll benefit from upselling the winner so that you can cover your Facebook advertising costs and you’ll have a list of potential clients you can market to in the future. It’s important to create some hype about the contest on all your social media platforms and also promote the winner in order to attract new customers.
- Have a cop-op or styled shoot. Make this a win-win for everything. Reach out to vendors that compliment your business and have everyone donate something that relates to their business. For example, if you’re a child or baby photographer, reach out to a local children’s boutique store and ask them to donate a few items of clothing for the children to model in. A salon could donate some time to style the kids hair and you could even approach a resort about using their venue as a shoot location. After the shoot, you’ll have some great images for your portfolio but you’ll also have made some great connections for future shoots and marketing. When using the images, make sure that you credit and tag all of the businesses that were involved. You could even put a cute welcome guide together for your business and only include the images from that shoot along with some info on all the vendors involved. Give a few copies to the relevant businesses to display in their stores in order to upscale your marketing efforts.
Bonus Tip: One thing you’ll want to do for all the above is have everyone fill out a model release form stating that you have their permission to use their images in your portfolio. If it’s a regularly paying client this release should already be built into your contract.