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5 Tips for Building Your Photography Portfolio

building your photography portfolio tips

In this tutorial Hawaii photographer Natalie Norton offers 5 tips to building your photography portfolio from the ground up.

Recently I walked into a friend’s house and saw, framed prominently on her wall, an image I took back when I was building my portfolio. Though the family is absolutely lovely. . .the image. . . yeah, not so much, and I was horrified to say the very least. I kept thinking, “Oh PLEASE NEVER, NEVER EVER tell anyone I took that photo!”

Here’s a type of “What I wish I’d known back then” guide to building your photography portfolio.

1. Shoot for free.

This is completely obvious, so if you haven’t thought of it, please knock yourself in the head with a hockey stick compliments of yours truly. When you’re working to build your portfolio, you need subjects to shoot. Chances are pretty good that you’re working to build said portfolio in hopes that you will be able to get more clients, meaning simply that you don’t necessarily have subjects knocking down your door at this point. So offer your services to select friends and family for free.

2. Charge a minimal fee.

Once you’ve started to get a little buzz around your work with all the probono jazz, start to charge a minimal fee. You’ll get to the point where you’re drowning in shoots because you are the right price. . . $0, and that is how you’ll know it’s time to charge.

Be prepared to feel slightly uncomfortable at first accepting money for your services. I had an exceptionally hard time with this for a million reasons. Just remind yourself that you’re worth it, and then prove yourself right. Now that my sitting fee is 8 times the fee I charged in the beginning . . . I get a big kick out of how difficult it was for me to accept that measly $50.

3. Do a hard edit.

Always, always, always edit down. This is the mistake I used to make. I’d shoot like a bat outta hell, determined to get at least a handful of great shots from each sitting, then I’d deliver nearly all the images to my client on a disk. Thus the hideous image framed on my friend’s wall. The image was poorly lit, poorly composed and just plain YUCK. It’s an image that never should have seen the world beyond my computer. Period.

Remember that once those images have been delivered, they’re out there. 10 years from now, when you’re the best photographer the world has ever known, those images may still be gracing people’s walls. . . a very poor representation of your work and perhaps a hindrance to gaining future clients.

Maintain control over your portfolio by remembering that it extends beyond just what you compile in a portfolio album, blog or website.

4. Keep files well organized.

I’m a mom with 3 small boys (yes, I had my third child a month after my first turned 3. . . you do the math, but no matter how you add it up it equals crazy).  When you’ve got kids to bathe, meals to prepare, homework to check, laundry to tackle, errands to run and clients to shoot, you have to work very hard to keep things in order. A fail proof system I’ve found for organizing my portfolio goes as follows: from each shoot, pull the images that you feel may be portfolio worthy into a separate file and an external hard drive for back up. Label both the file on your computer and the external drive with the same name. Within the file on your computer (and the one on the external drive if you wish) have sub files categorized by type of photography, ie. portraits, family sessions, weddings, landscape, maternity. . . bla bla bla, you get the picture. Then when you’re ready to compile your best images for a portfolio. . . guess what? It’s done already.  Imagine that!

I didn’t do this from the beginning. And trust you me, it is a huge pain not to have a favorites file. . . digging through thousands of files to pick your best work once it comes time to say build a website, does not equal a pleasing way to spend the weekend. And I don’t need to mention the terror and dismay you’d experience should your computer crash without you being backed up!

5. Get an expert’s opinion . . . then be prepared to throw it out.

It’s good to get another respected photographer’s opinion for 2 reasons. 1. They can help you improve by telling you where your images may fall short. 2. They can help you gain confidence because they may see things in certain images that you did not. They may love what you didn’t allow yourself to for whatever reason. It goes back to that whole “we are our own worst critic” thing. Be prepared for the criticism, and be prepared to process it in a healthy, productive way.

Yet, also be prepared to throw it out. I spent a lot of time vying for the approval of certain respected photographer friends, only to find that sometimes their well meaning criticism hindered my ability to identify and define my own style (which is still evolving every day). Now, I have aspiring photographers sending me their work all the time asking me for my opinion, and I always tell them the same thing. “It doesn’t matter what I think.” And ultimately, that is 100,000% true. I will still give photographers my opinion but I always always try to make sure that they understand that ultimately it’s their art. It’s their passion. No one else can define it for them.

So, in the end, it doesn’t matter what I think, or what Annie Leibowitz thinks for that matter, it matter’s what your client thinks, and just as importantly, if not more so, what you yourself think. Always ask yourself this question: “am I proud of this shot?” if the answer is “yes” then it doesn’t matter what anyone else says.

This list is just a handful of ideas from my own experience. Do you have tips for building a photography portfolio? Great, please comment below.

Good luck and happy shooting!

Natalie Norton lives and shoots on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii. You can see more of her images and tutorials on her popular blog Pics and Kicks at www.natalienortonphoto.com.

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Natalie Norton
Natalie Norton

is a writer and a lifestyle wedding and portrait photographer who shoots across the globe. She is based off of the North Shore of Oahu and out of Gilbert, Arizona. Enjoy more of her photography and writing at www.natalienortonblog.com. You can also connect with Natalie via Twitter or on Facebook.

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