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How Building a Portfolio Career as a Photographer Can Earn You Money


When you’re starting in business as a photographer, it can be tough to find a reliable income. Often jobs will be unpredictable as to when they come in – and getting paid can be even more of a guessing game! Building a portfolio career is one way that you can counteract the unpredictability of being a freelance photographer.

Diversifying your revenue streams right from the start is a way to build a more predictable income. By having multiple diverse but related sources of income, you can mitigate ups and downs in each revenue stream while having a photographic career that allows you the freedom to shoot several different subjects.

building a portfolio career

ISO400, 35mm (50mm equiv.), f4, 1/80th sec

Lay the foundation

Start by mind-mapping around the fields of photography that you love.

Try to think of every possible source of photographic income that those fields might have, no matter how big or small. All of these could contribute to building a portfolio career.

Out of everything you’ve written down, highlight all of the income sources that could be done on a regular contract for someone else. The first income stream that you need to provide a solid foundation for is one that is both regular and guaranteed.

Ideally, this regular, but potentially low paid work will cover all of your essential bills. And when I say essential, I mean putting an extra jumper on and eating beans on toast all month.

building a portfolio career

ISO200, 35mm (50mm equiv.), f4, 1/80th sec

You could consider jobs like real estate photography, nightclub photography, or in-house product photography. None of these options will set your creative soul on fire, but they will still provide a stable foundation for you to start to build your career.

Build the walls

Now you start to do the kind of photography that you want to do. You’re looking for options in your mind-map of ideas that could be regular but might not be quite as reliable as your foundation income.

This might be where you consider incomes like freelance product photography, portraits, or weddings.

All these income streams can be a little unpredictable, at least for the first few years of your career. On top of that, some kinds of photography, like weddings, can be quite seasonal.

Image: Headshots have been a reasonably reliable income for me over the past five or six years. They...

Headshots have been a reasonably reliable income for me over the past five or six years. They’re great because I can do them either at home or on location, and I can be available at reasonably short notice!
ISO400, 100mm, f3.5, 1/125th sec, natural window light

Over time, this income can become more regular. You’ll find that clients come back again and again if they love the pictures and the service! Eventually, you’ll be able to drop the initial low-paid but regular work that you sought in favor of this better-paid income stream.

Put the roof on

Between your foundations and the walls, you’ve got the beginnings of a significant portfolio career. Now you want to look at the well-paid occasional jobs that buy the luxuries like foreign holidays or serious gear upgrades.

Look back at your mind-map once again and think about what large, one-off gigs there might be available to you with your current skillset. You might be able to offer portrait photography at a large business conference, for example, or be on a list of photographers who shoot portraits for magazine interviews.

You’re looking for the high-ticket jobs that are sporadic. They can’t provide a reliable income because of the very nature of the work, but they can offer you good-sized cash injections now and again. It could be a yearly job or one that comes up every few months. But the unpredictability means that you shouldn’t count it as part of your regular income.

building a portfolio career

Each month I try to set a day aside to create unique and creative stock imagery for use on book covers and the like. It doesn’t provide regular sales, but when these images do sell, they pay well!
Both images shot with a beauty dish in the studio.

Business networking meetings can be an excellent place to find these jobs that will help with building a portfolio career. Often you’ll talk to someone and hand over a business card, and you’ll hear nothing for months. But when they do eventually call, it can be for a sizable job, so make sure you have some sample quotes and an idea of what you might charge for different scenarios.

You don’t have to think of every possible situation and make a fantasy quote for it, but have a few that you can adapt with a couple of days notice for the kind of jobs you’d like to do.

Start a nest-egg

Once you’ve established a good income, it’s time to make your photos work harder and build a long-term passive income. You can start to look at options such as stock photography to assist you in building a portfolio career.

For almost the last fifteen years, I’ve been building up collections with various stock libraries. It is a slow process, but worth it when you start to see regular payouts a few years down the line.

You can shoot images specifically for stock libraries if you have some spare time to fill. Many libraries will regularly publish lists of the kind of content that they’re looking to obtain from photographers. If you shoot what’s on the list, you should start to see an income quite quickly. If they’re asking for various subjects, it means that clients are asking for them!

Image: These two images were shot back in 2007 and are amongst my best earners in all that time! The...

These two images were shot back in 2007 and are amongst my best earners in all that time! They consistently make me small but regular sales and have always done so. Both of these images were shot on my Mum’s kitchen table – just showing you can earn anywhere!

You can also reuse images from other shoots that you’ve done, sending them to the stock libraries once you’ve completed the job. Be sure to check your contract, or check with the client if they’re okay with you doing this, but people rarely say no.

An example might be that if you are booked to shoot a fantastic local food market, the client might also allow you to upload these images to stock libraries. You might then look into a specialist food stock agency if you’re shooting this kind of content regularly. In time, you’ll become well-known as a photographer in this field.

Above all, just get started

You can only start your photographic career if you’re willing to put yourself out there and start looking for work. The most important thing is to start somewhere, even if you’re not quite sure where the best place to start is. You can work out the details later.

Try to look for income streams in all of the brackets above. That way, you won’t be putting all of your eggs in one basket. You’ll be protected if one income streams dries up unexpectedly for a while.

Image: ISO200, 35mm (50mm equiv.), f2, 1/600th sec

ISO200, 35mm (50mm equiv.), f2, 1/600th sec


This approach to a photographic portfolio career has enabled me to alternatively increase and scale back my income as and when required. It also helped me to build a solid base that wasn’t tied to any particular location, which means I can work from almost anywhere in the world!

If you’re thinking about building a portfolio career for yourself in photography, tell us about what your specialisms will be in the comments below. We’d love to hear about your plans!

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Charlie Moss
Charlie Moss

is UK based photography journalist with experience shooting everything from historically inspired portraits to e-commerce photography. Her passion is history of art, especially contemporary culture and photography. You can follow her on Instagram or catch her over at Patreon to find more of her teaching and mentoring resources!

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