From Hobbyist to Professional: Step 4. Building Your Portfolio

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From Hobbyist to Professional: Step 4. Building Your Portfolio

Ahhhh … building your portfolio.

It doesn’t have to be difficult, you know? You’ve just got to know how to walk the line.

Do not be arrogant. Do not be a pushover. There’s the fine line. A fine line that can also be confusing. When to say yes, when to say no??? Here’s my best advice: say yes a lot, say no even more.

Building your portfolio can be tricky to do. You want people to take you seriously, to respect you and your work and to also understand what you’re doing: “Building your portfolio.” That is language that as photographers we are totally familiar with; others not so much.

I was far from doing everything right, but I learned a ton. Today, I hope I can help some of you in that awkward place of “portfolio building” (which can also equal client building, too!).

There’s nothing worse than the “professional” photographer that launches their website with the fancy logo and fancy language and have obviously only done two sessions (or have galleries only filled with their own children). These sites always stick out like a sore thumb and I promise potential clients can tell, too. If you are ready to launch a website, then you are ready to be called a professional. If you are ready to be called a professional then you are ready to example competence on all levels.

Like I said earlier it’s a fine line to not be arrogant and also to not be a pushover. You have paid for your education. You have paid for your gear. You are in the process of becoming a legal business. Bottom line: you have invested in this business. You are in the beginning stages of deserving money. How do you do that without expecting too much and not accepting too little?

1. Treat every session during your portfolio-building season exactly as a session you were charging $2,000 for.

Be totally clear of your intentions and expectations of the shoot even if it’s for free. Allow your client (most likely a friend or family member) to help plan the shoot. Pick a location and a time to meet just as you would a typical session. Upload their photos to a proofing gallery so that they can share with friends. Have them (even if their your best friend!) sign a model release and copyright release if the digital images are being handed over. As long as you treat the session just as you plan to do in the future your clients will respect you and your business.

When I was first getting started I bought Angie Monson’s marketing pack (part of tomorrow’s giveaway!). When I set-up a session I would send them an information packet in the mail along with a “Getting to Know You” sheet (I designed myself) and a model release. I would coach them on what to wear, what to expect and how to prepare. When I delivered their final CD to them I sent it with a customized (albeit a bit elementary) label in a case with business cards and wrapped with ribbon.

My clients (which were all friends or friends of friends) knew my every intention even though the session was entirely free. I made sure to be very clear that the session would be free to them as long as I could, in exchange, use the photos in my portfolio, have the opportunity to build my confidence and trust that they would spread the word.

Many times I received print orders and some were quite large. This only helped me to continue to invest in my business.

2. Set dates.

When you perform sessions like this word will spread like wildfire. This is where you have to be prepared to say no. You are not a volunteer photographer. Even though you are taking pictures for free you are doing it for very intentional reasons. When you start getting calls from friends of friends because they’ve seen your work and want to get in on the free session do not fear to say no if it’s not a good fit for you. You do not want to take pictures of a newborn to put on your website if you have no intentions of shooting newborns.

When you feel ready, set a date for when you plan to start charging. For instance, if you begin to build your portfolio in January let everyone know that come April 1 you are going to start your introductory pricing. You can still give discounts, deals, etc. That is up to you. Setting dates continues to let everyone know your intentions and keeps you accountable. Taking photographs for free forever will never make you money. Plus, your time is too valuable to work for free forever. Can I get an Amen?!

3. Not every photo has to go on your website.

Taking pictures of any and everything is always great practice. And, you can never have enough of that when you are first starting. I seriously feel that with every click of the shutter your confidence is boosted. With every download of a memory card you learn something new. These types of things are invaluable.

This does not mean that everything has to go on your website (or blog). I strongly encourage you to only show the work you are not only proud of, but also want to shoot more of. Taking pictures at a friend’s baby shower is great practice, but if you don’t want to shoot baby showers in the future do not post them to your blog.

This holds true when you start to make money. Some shoots are great to do simply because you want and need the money. This does not mean you have to showcase them on your blog or website. Be selective.

4. Kill the awkwardness that will come with friends when you start charging.

Friends can always expect photos for free. It’s up to you to know where to draw that line. Personally, I have a separate pricing guide for friends and family. I’ve designed it so that I still get compensated for my time. I don’t make as much money, but the money I make is still worth it for me.

This works well for me because when a friend emails to see if I can shoot (enter you name it here) I say, “Absolutely! I’d love to. I’ve attached my friends and family pricing guide for you. :)” I don’t ever feel guilty about this and I don’t ever apologize. My time is too valuable to work for free. Amen? Amen!

5. Shoot. A lot.

Don’t be so eager to get your site live that you launch it with 10 photos in it. Have a good selection and show your potential clients that you are for real. The day I launched my site I looked like a seasoned pro. Not necessarily the quality of my photos, but the amount of different sessions I had done was obvious. I think this is a huge reason why I quickly started to get calls.

6. And, finally … What are you waiting for?! Jump!

If you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product then you’ve launched too late – Jeff Bezos,CEO of

It’s not about perfection. It’s about preparation. And you, my friend, are prepared.

Jessica, our guest writer for this series on going from Hobbyist to Professional Photographer, is the photographer behind 503 photography and the owner and creator of 503 |online| workshops for adults and now, KIDS AND TEENS!

p.s. Sign your chid up for one of our kid/teen workshops and use code MCP503 for $50 off. Offer ends May 23rd.

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  1. May 17, 2010 at 5:33 pm —

    Fantabulous post! So, question… How many photos would you say is enough in a gallery? And, do you think there is something to be said for having too many photos??

  2. May 17, 2010 at 4:16 pm —

    Great article! Thank you 🙂

  3. May 17, 2010 at 4:14 pm —

    This is a great article. I especially like the idea of setting a date and letting everyone know when you will start charging for your services.

  4. May 17, 2010 at 2:41 pm —

    @Amy If you are contemplating raising your prices I would (again) highly suggest purchasing Alicia’s Easy as Pie Pricing Guide. She gives great advice on how and when to do that and if I share it here I will only be stealing her expertise. ; )

    As for how to keep past clients – simply take care of them AND keep them updated. Send out newsletters, postcards in the mail (with discounts), write letters/emails just to say hi. I purchased some little albums from J. Lee Albums and put little albums of wallet-sized photos together for past clients as a way to say “Merry Christmas!” Basically, just stay in their lives and they’ll stay in yours. ; )

  5. Denise G.
    May 17, 2010 at 1:26 pm —

    This is so great! I’m a fairly new reader and budding photographer and the whole “How in the heck do I build a portfolio?” question was on my mind this weekend. I’ve still got plenty to learn, but his blog is invaluable and has such useful information. Thanks for the wonderful tips!

  6. May 17, 2010 at 1:17 pm —

    I have been hanging onto and absorbing every ounce of this series. But, this post has given me that “Ah ha!” moment. While I’ve always guessed that people worked for free for a time to build their portfolio, I haven’t been able to figure out exactly how you prepare people for the fact that their future sessions would be charged. This article gives a pretty clear strategy, which I‘m looking forward to implementing.

  7. Michelle m'belle
    May 17, 2010 at 12:52 pm —

    This is great advice. Especially because it shows me what I’m doing that doesn’t seem very professional. This absolutely gives me guidelines to changing my online image.
    Thanks Jodi!

  8. simone
    May 17, 2010 at 10:23 am —

    awesome! it was so good to read this! than you thank you thank you! Amern, Amen, Amen!!!

  9. Stacey Allison
    May 17, 2010 at 10:18 am —

    I am thoroughly enjoying your series, and yes, even the days where there are no contests. Smile. Today’s article was extremely informational and helpful. Thanks.

  10. May 17, 2010 at 10:03 am —

    Excellent EXCELLENT Post! The best one of the series yet. Very helpful, especially for the stage I’m in. THANK YOU!!!!

  11. May 17, 2010 at 9:57 am —

    Geez can I just go back in time and do this! Is it too late to implement this if I’ve done EVERYTHING wrong on the list! Oh well…

  12. Amy C
    May 17, 2010 at 9:43 am —

    Jessica, I just adore you!!! And this series is so valuable!! Thank you so much Jessica and MCP!

  13. May 17, 2010 at 9:34 am —

    Great advice. I too, have put together a little friends and family pricing sheet. It’s small but it packs a great discount for those closest to me.

    And as for not posting what I don’t want to be shooting…You’re right. My girlfriend asked me to do a newborn shoot for her and that is something that I believe takes a talent of its own and I much prefer them when they’re a little older. But I didn’t want to say “no” to her. She’s one of my dearest and oldest friends.

    I love this series of articles and I have learned so much! I haven’t officially “launched” anything. I just have my site so that if someone does stumble upon it, I am there if they want me. Once the confidence level is up there, there will be some heavy marketing from me!

  14. May 17, 2010 at 9:25 am —

    This is a really great article. Thank you for the advice! As someone who has only been in business for a couple of months & is now beyond the stage of doing free sessions, I love your tip about having a friends & family pricing guide as well as all your other tips mentioned!

  15. May 17, 2010 at 9:24 am —

    Another great post. Some valid points — if you don’t take yourself seriously from the get go, then why should others ? I like the “Friends and Family” pricing idea too (at least to cover your costs and whatever amount on top).

    Thanks for the valuable info.

  16. Amy
    May 17, 2010 at 9:23 am —

    Darn! Love the idea of the friends and family response! I needed that! 🙂 I would love to hear your advice on how to handle when you raise prices, I am over my year mark as a professional and feel that it is time to charge a little more based on my growth and new knowledge. I am also changing over from CD’s to prints. How do you go about notifying past clients? And tricks on how to keep them?

  17. May 17, 2010 at 9:22 am —

    Hi Jessica, nice to read, very helpful for many I think. It all starts with the right attitude, good work …

  18. May 17, 2010 at 9:19 am —

    I wish I would have read something like this before I started and started by having 6 moths or year worth of portfolio building. I didn’t, but I did a lot of work for someone else, so I was always working, but b/c the pictures weren’t for me, I can’t sue them and although I have loads of great work to show, I can’t and my site looks a little too bare for my liking. So this year, I am stepping back and restarting and it really seems to be paying off. Great articles. I look forward to each of them and hope to catch one of your workshops soon!!

  19. kimberly
    May 17, 2010 at 9:12 am —

    i’m not a professional and don’t plan on being one…but this was REALLY interesting. you photographer’s put A LOT of work! as a mom who takes a lot of pictures, but still takes her kids on photo shoots, i don’t mind paying the big bucks for really good pictures!

  20. May 17, 2010 at 9:12 am —

    AMEN!! Thanks for the great article, so many takeaways here.

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From Hobbyist to Professional: Step 4. Building Your Portfolio