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Building A Strong Portfolio From Scratch

by Paul

New photographers face a paradoxical conundrum familiar to many creative professionals: you need a portfolio to win over clients, but you need clients in order to build a portfolio.

Virtually no one will hire a photographer based on potential alone. You may have a strong creative vision, but you need real-world work as evidence and experience to back it up. Even if you are fortunate enough to find someone willing to give you a shot, chances are you won’t be getting paid for your time. When you’re fresh into your career and struggling to make ends meet, the situation may be enough to cause you to question your decision to take pictures for a living.

What’s a budding professional photographer to do?

Shoot for Free

Frankly, if you chose a career in photography thinking you’d make money immediately, reconsider your line of work. Most professional photographers can’t earn a living wage through photography alone for at least the first few months on the job.

Instead, successful photographers grow their businesses in stages, focusing first on creating the images that will attract their target markets. That means that when you offer complimentary services, your primary goal isn’t to convert your early supporters into paying clients; it’s to generate work for your portfolio.

Another thing to keep in mind is that shooting for free is nowhere near as easy as it sounds. Before she became a sought-after photographer and popular blogger, Jasmine Star had to convince (read: bribe) her friends into pretending they were getting engaged so she could practice the skills she would eventually use at, you know, actual weddings.

Take Risks

Once you’ve pleaded with, bought off, or otherwise convinced your friends, acquaintances, co-workers, and family members to let you take their pictures, make the most of the opportunity. Go wild with various angles, focal lengths, techniques, lighting arrangements, and so on. Ask your subjects to try out different poses and expressions.

The same applies to non-human subjects. Whether you’re photographing food, nature, wildlife, or architecture, keep an eye toward variety. A portfolio full of identical shots isn’t just boring to look at, but it indicates to potential clients that you’re afraid to take chances or lack imagination.

Stick to a Theme

This piece of advice may seem to contradict the two paragraphs above, but imagination and thematic focus go hand-in-hand. “Theme” does not mean monotony—rather, it’s about showing off your ability to take different approaches to the same subject matter with discipline, creativity, and consistency.

Ideally, your portfolio should display a broad assortment of work that all fits together thematically or by area of concentration. If you’re a macro photographer, for instance, your portfolio should showcase extreme close-ups of diverse flora and fauna sporting various color palettes and depths of field. Start with your specialty and push the boundaries of your style.


Focus on Quality, Not Quantity

Once you’ve found some image-generating opportunities and filled up your memory card, it’s time to start assembling and organizing your portfolio. If you work in more than one niche, you should create a portfolio for each of your specialties.

Your success hinges on your ability to surpass expectations and produce work that’s much more than “good enough.” When it comes to your portfolio, it’s better to have 100 images that dazzle rather than 500 that are mostly just adequate. Too many unexciting images drag down your other work, and in the context of attracting clients, “too many” could mean as few as 10 or five.

Don’t add all of (or even most of) your images to your portfolio. Be judicious and relentless when picking which ones to feature, and choose only the very best. Standing out is key. Take filmmaker and New York Film Academy School Chair Brian Dilg’s words to heart:

One of the most common business mistakes is trying to show the world that you are a competent photographer. That will not help you; it is a given that anyone worthy of being hired to shoot professionally is competent. … What you must excel at communicating … is what makes you unique and different from every other perfectly competent photographer with a 20+ megapixel camera and some expensive lenses.

Bookend Your Portfolio with Your Best Work

After you’ve identified your best work, take the best of the best and use these images as bookends in your portfolio. I recommend placing your favorite image first and your second-favorite last.

Why? Humans are inclined to remember the beginning and end of a presentation most, and the same holds true for the presentation of your photography. The organization of your images is as important as the images themselves. Lead with something that will compel a visitor to continue browsing through your portfolio, and end with something that will leave them with a lasting impression.

Update Your Portfolio Every So Often

Finally, don’t forget to update your portfolio once it’s live. You won’t need to revise and reorganize your work regularly or frequently, but rather with the natural shifts in your career and areas of concentration as you progress as a photographer.

It might time to update your portfolio if…

– it doesn’t represent what you do anymore
– you’ve raised your rates
– you just wrapped up a life-changing project
– business has slowed or stalled

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