Photography Portfolio Tips: 5 Ways To Create an Outstanding Portfolio

If you are trying to break into professional photography, there's no better time than now to build your portfolio. How do you book clients if you don't have a portfolio to show? Simple. You create a portfolio. It's actually not too hard to do once you get your creativity flowing. Here are some ideas to get you on your way to an awesome photo portfolio.

Shoot for Free or Trade

 If you want to quickly build a portfolio of work that you can use to get paid bookings for, the fastest and easiest way to do this is to shoot for free. Now before all the “never work for free” people chime in, let's just acknowledge that at this point your work probably isn’t at the level where you should be charging anyway. If you don't have a firm grasp on your camera settings, you should not be charging for your work, period. <–Click to Tweet

If you are still learning your camera settings, don't be ashamed; many photographers may have an eye for composition but not the technical know-how to make it happen. This can easily and painless be addressed by picking up the ridiculously cheap  (on sale this week for $34.95) and super, super easy to understand via Photography Concentrate's Camera Skills  (aff link) multi-media tutorial which takes about 3 hours. I highly, highly recommend this for anyone wanting to master their camera settings. I'm telling you, I would have saved myself several season  of really and truly learning  my camera way back when had I had access to this kind of visual learning.

Free invitation samples can be ordered online.

If you already know what specialty you want to work in, shoot in that niche. Here are some examples of portfolio building activities

Weddings

Approach some wedding photographers at your local PPA, SmugMug or PUG group. You can also email them, but your chance of success will go way up if you talk to people in person. Let photographers know that you will second shoot  for free if you can use images to build your portfolio.

Spice up your wedding portfolio with staged images. This is actually quite easy to do, and once your creative juices start flowing, you will likely come up with many more ideas:

  • Images like these can easily be staged to add depth to your portfolio.

    A custom martini or even a single glass of champagne

  • Wedding invitations (you can order free samples online)
  • A single wedding favor, up close
  • A veil gently laid out on a bed
  • Have a bouquet made (or make it yourself) and find the best spot to capture it
  • A nice pair of white, ivory or bright colored  high heels arranged artfully
  • A pair of wedding rings, captured in creative ways
  • The front of a beautiful church or venue

If you know what niche you want to get into (like pets) focus on building a portfolio that features that specialty.

Portraits

Let friends and families know you are scheduling some sessions to expand your photography portfolio and you have two or three spots each available for each: families, couples, maternity, pets and kids. Scout out in advance a couple of different locations such as local parks, landmarks, a beach, red brick buildings (I love red brick backgrounds for some reason) main street type setting etc. Let people know upfront what you will give them in exchange; prints, a disc of images, etc. or you can load images onto Shutterfly.com or equivalent to allow people to order their own prints.

 Commercial

Building a commercial and product photography portfolio lends itself perfectly for bartering. You can approach your favorite restaurants, cafes or other small business retailers about a trade for services. Photography in exchange for a credit towards their services, such as a restaurant credit works well for both parties. Before the shoot, discuss the types of images they are looking for and how they want to use them, to guide you in creating the right images.

Once you get started, the creative ideas will start flowing.

Events

Events are a great way to build your photo portfolio because the event organizers are often looking for low cost or no cost photography. Non-profits especially have all sorts of fundraisers that offer great shooting opportunities-everything from family picnics to upscale galas. If you are looking to get into pet photography, find dog shows and horse shows to shoot. 

Once you have a number of shoots or sessions under your belt, it's time to turn that body of work into a portfolio. This is where the hard part comes in.

Only Show Your Very Best Work

After you have finished each session, you want to do a strong edit. This part is going to hurt, but trust me on this. The quality of your work will be judged by your weakest image. You must be ruthless in culling your images. Get rid of everything that is mediocre. Get rid of images that are oh-so-slightly different; pick the best, dump the rest.  For your actual portfolio of work, you will want to limit it to 1-2 images per session, max. I know there are lots of good ones in there, but what I'm talking about is the best one. Period.

Get a Second Opinion

Now that you've got some work you feel proud of, get some opinions. Ask a few trusted friends, family and other photographers to give you honest feedback and critique. Your local photography association is a great resource for this. Most people will say nice things and leave it at that; listen closely to the most critical feedback. This is where you may get some pointers on how to improve.

Online Portfolio Presentation

If you don’t have a professional looking online blog or portfolio, now's the time to get one. As you move into the next stage (charging) you'll want to establish an online presence that is clean and professional (not Flickr). You don't have to invest much to get a nice online site, and the knowledge you gain in putting this together will serve you well down the road.

If you are going to focus on a certain niche, you will want to feature that type of work in your main portfolio, and keep other work separate. It can be quite jarring to see a high fashion editorial type of shot right next to a sweet little baby's face.

Charging for Your Work

Once you have figured out how to create a stunning photography portfolio and mastered your camera, it's time to start charging. Depending on your goals and your skill level, you can determine if you should start small and work your way up or put your business into place and go for it. There are pros and cons to charging appropriate rates (that you can make a living from) from the beginning or to raise your rates over time as your skill level and confidence builds. Personally, I'm in the “go for it” camp, but you must be able to back it up with mastery of your camera settings, composition and lighting.

What other ideas do you have for creating a photography portfolio? What worked well for you?

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