How to build your photography portfolio (and when to open for business)

Q. “I read a lot about “portfolio building” and while I am in the process of shooting different people/children other than my own, what other details does this entail?”

A. Excellent question! Portfolio building is one of those elusive things that JSO (just starting out) photographers get stuck in and sometimes can’t find their way out.

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

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’re charging.

The purpose of the ‘portfolio building stage’ of your business is simply to give you a portfolio. And what is a portfolio? Well these days, it’s a website. All you need to get you going are a few amazing images on your website to show what you are capable of doing and the style of photography a prospective client can expect to get from you. And you don’t need many! 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’re doing. So don’t get stuck in this phase for too long.

Some websites or marketing strategies might 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 -use those cards- but not to pretend that they’re doing you a favor only to slam them with surprise prices in the end. If you’re 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’s about building your body of work. Period.

On that note, 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. So by all means, 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- 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 a whopping huge 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 this phase 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. More on that below.

This is what I recommend:

  • Make a Facebook page and get a 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.
  • 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. Exe: “Casting call for model needed. Age 3, girl, long hair. Must enjoy having her photo taken.”
  • You can offer the session for free but be clear if prints are to be purchased or 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. But don’t 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. Don’t allow this to look like a desperate free-for-all. Be calculated about who you shoot and make sure it serves your business, too. Not just the people you’re shooting.
  • 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 to expect in the future.
  • When you’re ready to start trading, update your Facebook page and website to reflect that you’re open for business and “now accepting portrait commissions” or similar wording. Since your 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 trading, 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’ve done many sessions with many different locations and types of people. By all means continue to release shots on your Facebook wall. 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 trading as a children’s portrait photographer, don’t just throw in a random dog picture just 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.


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  • Becky

    Thank you for this! I’ve had these questions in the back of my mind ever since I started seriously thinking about starting my business. As I’m just in the beginning stages of building my portfolio now, this is a huge help! I was going to wait to start my Facebook page and website, instead, I think I’ll tackle that this week!

  • Neda

    Blog already made and ready to host some flicks! 
    Thanks a lot! :)

  • Amyrwriting

    Thank you Elizabeth!  I’ve had many of these questions in my mind too.  What an excellent way to explain this process.  What do you think about including photos of your own children, not to overdo it, in your portfolio building?  

  • Anonymous

    I do!

  • Melissastottmann

    Easy as Pie Pricing is a must – especially for new photographers!

  • Nancy @ A Rural Journal

    Great information for anyone considering taking photography to the next level. Thank you. 

  • Bambaphotography

    whoooo that was really needed! thank you!

  • Ana

    Thank you very much for your advice.  I am now on the process of building my website and have already starred working.  I know it was a little backwards but I needed the money for the site. 
    I have one question: on my website I will put different categories of photos, not just portraiture but would also like to do the same in a physical portfolio (I want to carry one around with me). 
    In each category, is there a format I need to follow? I read that the portfolio must be presented almost as “a story”, with a flow to it?!


  • Samuel

    Huge thanks. Great advice and info – just what I needed

  • This is so helpful! But where do you suggest finding people for the casting call? 

  • Californialove3

    Should I have my models sign a model release since I’ll be using them in my portfolio even though I’m doing it for free?

  • elizabethhalford

    absoLUtely! If there’s a camera involved, there should be a contract involved.

  • really awesome information, thank you!

  • Charlie

    I have a problem. NO ONE WANTS TO BE PHOTOGRAPHED EVEN IF ITS FOR FREE! I asked everyone I know, posted a simple message on my personal facebook asking if anyone was interested and even posted something on craigslist just stating I was looking to build my portfolio 3 seperate times and haven’t gotten responses for anything. Not even friends and family want to be bothered. So what now?

  • elizabethhalford

    Oh wow that’s difficult. Perhaps they don’t like your photography? The elephant in the room oftentimes is that many photographers aren’t yet up to scratch enough for people to want them. Which is hard because how do you practice unless you have someone to practice on?

    If you still need to learn your craft, don’t consider these portfolio building sessions but, rather, just practice :)

  • Marc

    Very very useful advices! Thank you!

  • Sita

    I so needed this!! thank you! So well explained :)

  • Peter

    Pretty good advice I was just wondering what to put on an ad I have tried various types of ad for model calls with no luck I have had one or two contact me then then no response.

  • Alex

    This has been so useful, thank you much!