When you’re just starting out, it’s difficult to get the exact type of work you want. People often end up taking whatever they can get, but are left wishing they could do a specific style of shooting. To get that work, you need to build a targeted portfolio that reflects the work you want. The portfolio comes first, then the clients. If you wait for someone to hire you to start doing a certain type of work, it won’t happen. Let’s look at some strategies to help you build the exact portfolio you need.
Figure Out What You Want
The first step is to narrow in on what you want to do. Broad categories such as fashion or portraiture aren’t good enough, you need to get specific. Do you want to do editorial portraiture or commercial? On location or in the studio? Naturally lit or with strobe? Getting really specific will help determine the type of subject you will look for.
Finding a Subject
Once you know what you’re looking for, you’re ready to find subjects to shoot. There are three main approaches to doing this and each of them is best for different types of photography.
Creatives: a ‘creative’ is when a group of people get together to do a shoot for themselves. Usually everyone will have different skill sets and are looking to add to their experience and portfolios. Everyone splits the cost of the shoot (if any) and gets something for their book at the end. This approach works best if you require a team of people with specific technical skills.
Reach out to Friends / Family: If you can do the shoot on your own but need a product or person to photograph, the easiest way is to ask your friends or family. Perhaps they can lend you a really nice product for a shoot or they know the kind of people you’re looking to photograph. If you tell people exactly what you’re looking for, they’re often more than willing to help.
Volunteer: The other option is to volunteer to do a free shoot for someone. Only offer this to charities, non-profits, or other small organizations that wouldn’t normally be able to afford a professional photographer. This way you’re helping out a great cause without undercutting other photographers and setting a bad precedent with companies that normally pay for images.
Real World Examples
By using the approaches above you can build a portfolio for nearly any type of work. Let’s look at some real examples, we’ll start with the desired type of work followed by which strategy to use.
Fashion: Fashion photographers are best known for doing creatives. You contact emerging models (ask modeling agencies), get in touch with young stylists and make-up artists (through sites like modelmayhem.com), and do a shoot together. In the end everyone gets a copy of the images.
Food: Ask friends and family to get you in touch with people who love to cook. Then ask to photograph some of their dishes. You can also contact small independent restaurants and offer to volunteer to photograph their dishes for free if you can do a shoot when they’re normally closed. Only do this a few times.
Car Photography: Ask your friends and family to help you contact people they know that own nice cars. The closer the relationship, the more accommodating people will be. Then find a location and ask to photograph their car there one weekend. Be sure to send a copy of the final image.
Travel / Documentary: Look for non-profits that work in other countries. Volunteer to photograph their work free of charge, if they pay for your travel and lodging expenses. Only do this with small yet legitimate organizations.
I used a similar approach when I wanted to get into editorial portraiture. I knew I wanted to photograph creative individuals doing interesting work and I wanted the images to be on-location and lit with strobe. I contacted a few friends that know interesting people and got them to introduce me. I would then photograph them in their space, at the end of a shoot I would ask them to recommend a few people and so on. After several months I had photographed over 40 people and used those images to build a portfolio that I later showed to photo editors at magazines I wanted to shoot for.
Have you used a similar strategy to break into commercial work? Please share your experiences in the comments.
Image © Eugen Sakhnenko 2008