Why do Photographers Need a Portfolio
The purpose of the ‘portfolio building stage’ of your business is simply to give you a portfolio images to show prospective clients.
And what is a portfolio? Well these days, it’s a website. All you need to get started are a few amazing images on your photography website to show what you are capable of doing and to show the style of photography a prospective client can expect to get from you.
And you don’t need many images! I like to say that all you need in your portfolio is ONE PHOTO. Realistically, you want more, but the concept is this: it really only takes one photo to show people that you know what you are doing. So don’t get stuck in this portfolio building phase for too long!!
Portfolio Building IS:
- Collecting the types of images you want to take professionally so you have something to show prospective clients.
- Creating a body of work to show what you do.
- A great time to practice without great amounts of client expectations/pressure.
- Creating visual content for your website.
What You Should NOT Do When Building Your Photography Portfolio:
Some websites or marketing strategies suggest that you use things like “you’ve been spotted” cards or “free session” marketing materials to bait prospective clients into booking a session with you on the pretense that you’re building a portfolio. Not a good move. Downright sleazy, in fact.
By all means - you can use those cards, but don't pretend that they are doing you a favor only to slam them with surprise prices in the end. If you are offering them a free session with not-free prints, then just say that upfront and be clear about it. But portfolio building isn’t about building a client base or making money. It should ONLY be about building your body of work. Period!
Also, don’t expect your portfolio building clients to become paying clients. After receiving what you are offering for free, they aren’t likely to ever pay you later on.
Psychologically speaking, once you have shown someone that you can work for free, they will forever be locked into the idea that you should work for free. And this goes for their friends. If they know that you worked for free once, there will likely be a knock-on effect of lowered expectations.
You should definitely expect to get some Facebook likes and exposure out of shooting sessions for free during your portfolio building stage, but don’t expect to receive a solid paying client base from those endeavors.
So if these sessions aren’t about gaining clients or making money, but rather about building your experience and body of work, then why not pleasantly surprise the people who have lent you their faces with a gift to say thank you? I’m not talking an expensive canvas. I just mean some web files or an 8×12 print.
Now, I’m not saying that you can’t make money while you’re in the portfolio building stage of your business. Once you have a small portfolio of work, you can continue building that portfolio with portfolio-building-sessions at the same time as accepting paying sessions.
Portfolio Building ISN’T:
- Working until you think you’re ‘good enough’ to be a ‘professional’
- to be used as a bait-and-switch marketing tactic
- Meant to last years
- Going to grow your business. Your portfolio ‘clients’ probably won’t follow you once you start charging.
What You Should Do When Building Your Photography Portfolio:
- Make a Facebook page and get your website going, even if it’s just on a blog platform like WordPress. This is like a soft opening of a store. The grand opening comes later.
- Set your pricing structure. Think that’s for later? No, it’s for now!
- Be confident. Don’t say you’re looking for ‘practice’ or offering ‘free shoots’, but rather say “I am currently building my portfolio”.
- Plan the photos you want to take and release a ‘casting call for models’ of a certain age and you can even be particular about their disposition. For example: “Casting call for model needed. Age 3, girl, long hair. Must enjoy having photo taken”.
- You can offer sessions for free but be clear if prints are to be purchased or offer you can offer one free print (something small-ish). This can also be the perfect time to start practicing your in-home viewing sessions if that’s how you plan to sell your products once you open for business. Do not use these opportunities as bait-and-switch opportunities.
- On your website, you may decide to post your status as "currently building portfolio" and that discounted sessions are only available for those who fit the casting call requirements. Do not allow this to look like a desperate free-for-all. Be calculated about who you shoot and make sure it serves your business.
- Place a date at which your portfolio building will end and state your future prices. You may want to expand your pricing slowly. But always let them know what you expect to charge in the future.
- When you re ready to start charging, update your Facebook page and website to reflect that you’re open for business and “now accepting portrait commissions” or similar wording. Since your photography website & Facebook page have already been up and running since you first started building your portfolio, you will open for business with a few eyes on you and it. This will have built the excitement and anticipation for your grand opening so that when you start charging, people will be ready.
- Only choose ONE photo from each of your sessions to include in your portfolio. The absolute best of the best of the BEST!! This will show that you didn’t just post a bunch of pics from one session, but rather that you have photographed many sessions at many different locations with many types of people. Go ahead and release additional shots on your Facebook page, but reserve your website and gallery for only the best.
- Only show the type of work in your portfolio that you intend on doing as a part of your business. If you are holding yourself out as a children’s portrait photographer, don’t just throw in a random dog picture because you think it’s the best one you ever took.
- I can’t believe I need to say this, but…don’t put pictures in your portfolio you took with your camera phone. I’ve seen it done. Seriously. Just don’t.
Put on your business brain and make every decision based on your future goals. If your goal is to someday charge $500 for a session, work your way up to that but don’t take too much time. People really don’t need to see much to know that you know what you’re doing.