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How to build a photography portfolio without clients

Do you believe in magic? I do! But unfortunately inquiries in your inbox don’t just magically appear there… Simply announcing on social media that you’re a photographer available for hire is not enough (I wish it was haha). You need to SHOW what you’re capable of (your photography skills, knowledge, experience, vision), NOT TELL. That’s why you need to build a portfolio. You might be thinking that you need to have clients in order to build a body of work, and it seems like a never ending circle… So today I will share some effective ways of how to build a photography portfolio without clients or when you’re starting out .

Studio portraits of a young woman. Studio portrait session, portrait photographer Birmingham UK. Professional photographer Birmingham and West Midlands. How to build photography portfolio without clients.

How to build a photography portfolio without clients

If you want a quick answer, it can be summarised in one concept – styled shoots. (Fake it until you make it!)

Do you want to shoot fashion? Or are you drawn to movement and dance photography? Is it weddings that you’re dreaming of shooting? Decide on what you want to be booked for and start shooting it right away, even if it means working for free, collaborating, testing, taking images of friends and family, etc. Fill your portfolio with work you WANT to be booked for. If people like what they see in your portfolio, they will book you. No-one will ever question whether it was a styled photoshoot or a paying client (When you order clothes online, do you question whether or not the model was paid?).

The truth is you can build a strong body of portfolio work without actually ‘working’. So let’s look at some creative ways of building a photography portfolio without clients:

1. Photograph your friends & family

The easiest way to create a body of work is to ask your friends and family members to model for you. (My husband must be sick of me asking him to pose for me every time I want to test a concept or new lighting technique). Offer them new photos for their social media or LinkedIn profile and most likely they will say ‘yes’.

Shoot as much as you can until you get more confident directing and working with people as well as produce quality work for your photography portfolio.

2. Collaborate

Generally speaking, a collaboration is a cooperation with other creatives to produce images that will benefit portfolios of all parties involved.

You have probably asked your friends to model for you for a few shots… Let me guess, it was a simple portrait session, right? Think about collaboration as a step further and a way to take your portfolio to another level with makeup and hair, cool wardrobe, props. Getting an expert on board will significantly improve the quality of final images and raise production value of your work. Team up with other creatives in the industry and let your imagination do it’s thing. Models, makeup artists, hair and wardrobe stylists, vendors – the more people you can get on board the more creative your photoshoot will get and the more outstanding the results will be.

The beauty of collaboration is no money changes hands. So if you’re starting out with your photography on a small budget, or with none at all, collaboration is the way to build a stunning portfolio without breaking a bank.

Check out my previous blog post on why you should collaborate.

3. Test shoot

Do you want to practice a new creative photography technique you just saw in Vogue magazine (i.e. portraits with a slow-sync shutter, backlit portraits, portraits in the rain…)? Or maybe you have just purchased new lighting equipment and want to get comfortable using it. Set up a test shoot!

Similarly to a collaboration, you can find a creative team and plan a test shoot together. It’s very important to educate your team beforehand about your vision and what to expect from a photoshoot. Be honest and tell them if it’s an experiment.

Test shoots are a safe environment where you can try and fail without being judged. I wouldn’t recommend testing with a client, as they won’t be happy to pay you if the experiment didn’t work out and they wasted their time.

4. Work for ‘free’

Even though there’s no such thing as ‘free’, let’s talk about when it’s appropriate to ‘work’ without being paid.

It’s not always a bad thing to shoot for ‘free’: just make sure it benefits you in one way or another. It can be an exchange (as a photographer you can team up with another photographer and take each other’s professional headshots); learning experience (assisting or second shooting); acquiring practical knowledge when diving into a new photography genre.

Unfortunately the photography industry is so competitive these days that many photographers will go as far as shooting for free to get exposure, or a recognisable ‘name’ in their portfolio – whether it’s for models, brands, designers, you name it. I would really encourage you NOT TO offer free shoots but instead, be selective in whether accepting ‘free’ work to enhance your portfolio.

And here’s a bonus tip:

Build a portfolio you love

You can’t sell something you’re not truly in love with – people will sense it. On the other hand if you’re passionate, excited, and proud to showcase and talk about your work, it’s contagious and others will feel the same way.

Also make sure what you shoot is what you want to get booked for, because you sell what you show. When I was starting out, I filled my website with street photography hoping to book portrait clients. Is there any logic? No, I don’t think so.

This is all for this week. Thanks for checking out my blog, it means a lot. If you have any questions on how to build your photography portfolio without clients, drop them in the comment section below and I’ll be happy to answer them.

Stay safe!

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