How To Build A Portfolio Without Clients

How To Build A Portfolio Without Clients



How do you build your portfolio when you don’t have any clients?  This is one of the most common questions I get asked, and it’s a legitimate one. If you want to make money with your photography, you don’t need a résumé, but you do need a good portfolio. Here are some tips about how to do that without clients

1.  Photographing Children. This is the genre in which you will get the models you need for free – use your own children (but they may be your toughest subjects!), your nieces and nephews or your friends’ children.  Does free models mean you photograph them for free? Well, yes, for a while. Just think of it as an investment into your future success.  Practice! Practice! Practice!  You get the opportunity to practice and show your skills (plus your patience) on a variety of subjects.  You get some amazing images to feature on your website.  And your friends get some really cool pictures of their kids. It’s a win-win situation.

If you want to sell your services as a portrait photographer, building your portfolio should not be a problem. Your friends will be thrilled to let you photograph their children in exchange for some images.

2. Photographing High School Seniors. Most of the above tips and benefits apply for shooting senior portraits. They don’t even have to be seniors – any high school or college youth can model for you and no one will know the differences.  Before you go out and shoot, though, look at other successful senior portrait photographers for inspiration, but, as always, let your own style shine.

3.  Photographing Weddings. I don’t recommend you shoot a friend’s wedding if you’ve never done such an event before. You would not want your friend to be left with poorly composed or badly lit wedding pictures. It is risky. If your friend wants you do give it a try, make sure you make it clear that this is your first try and that you cannot guarantee that the photos will meet their expectations. Instead of shooting the entire wedding, you could shoot your own images during the event without getting in the way of the main photographer. Try to capture some detail shots of the flowers and the cake at the reception for example. It will be good practice and no one will get hurt.

Assist a local wedding photographer. This will get you some hands-on experience at the side of a professional  Should you go that route, be aware that some wedding photographers may let you use some of your own images for your portfolio if you work as a second shooter, but many will not. It’s important to read your contract carefully before starting.

Ask a recently married friend if you can photograph her all made up in her wedding dress. Go to a really great location and pretend it’s the big day. Set up some indoor and outdoor shots in a variety of lighting and poses. You really only need a handful of well composed and well lit pictures of the bride to complement your portfolio. Get those detail shots and tell a story.

Attend a wedding photography workshop. You will have the opportunity to photograph a bride and groom who are professional models who know how to pose and look fabulous for your shots, all under the guidance of an instructor who will show you how to capture that special day in a skillful manner. Here again, check with the workshop organizer whether you can use the images for your portfolio.

Practice your skills at a friend's wedding without getting in the way of the hired photographer. Get those detail shots that tell a story. (Photo courtesy of Dyanne Wilson)

4. Photographing Real Estate.  Apply the same strategies. We all know either a real estate agent or a home seller. Ask them if you can practice shooting their property, they get some freebies and you get experience plus images for your portfolio. Again, it’s a win-win situation.

5. Photographing Food.  You don’t need to be a great cook or a talented food stylist to practice these special skills.  Just shoot some nicely presented take out food or pastries from the local bakery. The added bonus is you get to eat it when you’re done shooting!

Bake or buy some pastries at the local bakery and practice photographing food at home.

You can also practice photographing products in your own home or studio.  When I started out, I asked the local beauty salon if I could borrow their line of products (under their own brand). It looked very professional in my new portfolio and, in return, they got some nice product shots for their display.

There are plenty of low-cost, low-risk ways to build a terrific portfolio without a client base.  These are just a few ideas – the list goes on! Be resourceful, creative and professional.  You will soon be replacing those first pictures with client images. Remember to only show your best images. Quality over quantity!

Please share your experiences about how you managed to build a portfolio before your first paying client.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Valerie Jardin I live and breathe in pixels! Photography is more than a passion, it's an obsession, almost an addiction. When I'm not shooting or writing, I spend my time teaching this beautiful craft during photo workshops all over the world! I am also thrilled to be an official X Photographer for Fujifilm USA. Visit my Website Follow me on Facebook , Twitter , Instagram. And listen to my Podcast!

Some Older Comments

  • ray April 25, 2013 05:29 am

    You ever notice that when someone uses the word wedding.Some goes off the deep end.

  • Richard Bell December 16, 2012 09:25 pm

    I shoot all my friends weddings. I have no interest in becoming a wedding photographer. I stay out of the way of the pro's and do my thing. Never has anyone complained, I do get some great shots, and I share them freely with my friends. I guess that makes me a happy amateur. I say shoot ,

  • David Burckhard September 19, 2012 06:55 am

    I agreed to shoot a friend's wedding having never shot one before. However, having some experience as a journalist drove me to have lots, and I mean lots, of coverage. Back in the day I burned through dozens of rolls of film and went through several sets of AA cells. At the last moment, the groom, leery that a noob was shooting the wedding, hired a pro the night before. I still had plenty of time with the bride and groom who wanted some shots during the morning of their evening wedding. I was able to get plenty of shots in the park under wonderfully overcast skies. I yielded to the pro when he arrived at the ceremony but still continued to shoot from different angles and in different locations.

    In the end, the couple, especially the bride preferred my set of photos saying they were more intimate and personal. Missing out on shooting the posed "formal" shots did little to take away from the bride's enthusiasm who showed her favorite images to friends. Within two months I had three requests to shoot weddings.

    The moral of the story: Shoot "practice" shots as if they were money assignments. Coverage can be as important as getting the one perfect shot. Shoot and shoot again. Deliver on time. Act like the professional you want to become.

    Dave Burckhard
    PicturePoint On-line

  • Alex September 16, 2012 04:19 pm

    A long, long time ago a friend at work was admiring my pictures. He was getting married on the cheap, at the bride's home, and the family could not afford a photographer. He asked me to take pictures, but I lacked a strobe. So, he bought me the one I wanted, as payment. I used a Mamiyaflex, a Rollie strobe and Ektachrome. I took posed pictures of the bride and groom getting ready. I took pictures of the guests randomly. The rabbi told me no pictures during the ceremony and I took some anyway. Every flash picture was perfectly exposed and some of them were composed just beautifully perfect, much to my pleasure and surprise. I had all the film processed by a pro wedding lab and proofs given with the negatives to the family. They were more than happy and when I think about it, I wish I had made some prints for myself. I was proud of that work and if I had been serious about pro photography, I certainly would have used those pictures in my portfolio. If you get the chance and explain the limitations, doing a wedding for someone who has no option is a good option for you.

  • Valerie Jardin September 15, 2012 02:47 am

    @Elise Print portfolio are becoming a thing of the past, especially for portraiture (unless you have a studio and you want to show books to your clients for example). People will look at your work on your website or blog.
    As far as spending money on a studio set up, I would say wait until you actually sell you work before investing. you can rent some studio equipment to practice or make do with things you already have and be creative. Don't forget to use window light and reflectors, the best light is free! (You just can't control it.)

    @Mark. It's better to show 5 or 6 amazing images in your portfolio than mix them among 25 average ones. Definitely quality over quantity.

    I hope this helps!

  • Mark September 15, 2012 12:37 am

    Great advice for a beginner like me.

    One question though, how many pics ahould be IN your portfolio?? Have various images that i have shot over this year, and would loke to put a portfolio together

  • Stuart September 14, 2012 10:16 pm

    I am a father in law. I dabble a bit with my camera, which is only a D80. I like to think that I take the occasional decent photograph. I was asked - ordered - to do sons wedding. They only wanted me. I obviously thought it was to make me feel good, but as their story didn't change I realised I would have to do some research. First some apps on the phone. Them look at some good wedding albums. Then look in at a photographer on the day. I took it seriously. The only real issue I had was low light and no flash allowed. I bought a better lens for that, but it was still hard to get it right. Next problem was likely to be colour cast from the deep coloured decor at the venue. I did my best but it was one nerve wracking experience. I would do it again.
    I had problems on the day moving people around and trying to make the blue rinses and the trendies with iPhones allow me access first, but as I was the official photographer it was a little easier, plus I had my wife to help with logistics.
    It was hard. It was hard work. Never let anyone tell you they did a fantastic job with no practice and no warming. The most important thing is preparation.
    I had to Lightroom and PS some of the pics, but presented them with a shot that I had posed on a 30" canvas, with the background black and whited out. It was good. They were both very happy with it.
    I also did an online photo book in journalistic style with some posed and they have ordered extra copies for other family members.
    They were ecstatic about the whole thing.
    I am STILL not completely happy with a lot of what I did and can still see many ways I could have improved, perhaps with some one to one from an experienced photographer.
    I enjoyed the article and would probably agree with most of it. It made me feel a little better about what I did. Thank you.

  • Elise September 14, 2012 08:55 pm

    I thought it was great advice! I am currently working on a practice portfolio and can’t wait to further my skills to be able to work as a professional! I am lucky I have access to hundreds of brides as my husband runs a function centre. I was considering asking some brides if I could co shoot just for experience, by co shoot I mean I would explain to my bride that I am only armature and I’m just there for experience and so I would ask her to get the ok from her photographer before turning up with my camera gear on the day.
    Can I ask some advice on presenting a portfolio to clients? I have noticed that Facebook and websites are wonderful ways to show off your work, but I’m also wondering is it the done thing to print a portfolio?? Or is it usually digital these days?
    Also wondering about studio requirements! I don’t have a studio but I have a few friends expecting new babies in the coming months and have asked them if I can practice newborn photography on their babies...of course like you say above they are thrilled to have their little one photographed for free. I don’t have a studio or any gear like a newborn posing pod or backdrop stand and I’m wondering if I can still get good results without the gear? I was considering using the end of a bed for the baby to pose on and placing pillows piled high behind to place my back drop blanket over...

  • Lee September 14, 2012 09:16 am

    My first wedding was in Black and White many years ago and was due to a friend at work not being able to afford a professional photographer. I was hesitant to do it but if I didn't do it they would have only had 'box brownie' snapshots from the 'Aunty Flo' brigade. It was nerve wracking but the photos came out pretty well and they were extremely grateful - I gave them the negatives and didn't charge anything. My payment was 'the experience' - win win for the both of us.
    My suggestion to anyone is keep shooting and if you don't really know what you are doing do not say that you do and risk ruining anyone's once in a lifetime event (such as a wedding). I have done a lot of weddings (mostly video in recent years) and bless them - the relatives that have their little cameras smothering all your good positions and getting in the way - it is the reality of these types of events and you just have to learn to deal with it. Keeping other people from spoiling your good work is half the battle.

  • Dana September 14, 2012 07:31 am

    I had a similar experience to Sally, 2nd wedding, no fuss, but they were content to let the guests get all their photos, I knew this was going to make her unhappy no matter what she SAID, so I begged to do it for free, playing on my inexperience to let me try at least, I did it all, presented them with an album and she bawled when she saw it, made me feel fantastic because she also saw her idea of other ppl getting snapshots wouldve missed stuff, and the bonus - they appreciated it so much, they paid me! I think if I get another opportunity ( i live really rural and theres no way the "local" photographer would let me tag along) I might offer to do the photos, and if they like the images, they can pay me or not, its all experience for me!

  • RichGreen September 14, 2012 06:29 am

    Now that the world has gone digital just about everyone can take a well exposed, in focus picture. Because of that fact many more people are contributing images to the story of mankind; and this is a very good thing.

    However, we should not discount the value of professional photographers and their work. I have witness people at weddings take over once the professional has arranged a shot. Suddenly people are everywhere. Taking pictures and redirecting the subjects.

    This is going too far. Where is the respect for the couple? Maybe your shot will be a good one? Or maybe it won't? What is the motivation for the BUM RUSH? Are we going to make free gifts to the couple? Saving them money that they would pay the professional? Or selfishly grabbing what we want at that moment?

    The right thing to do is to let professionals work and everyone else stay back and settle for candid photographs. If you want to become a professional photographer and have a true gift then you should study and learn what to do and when to do it.

    Pay money in school or pay with your time as an assistant. This is the professional way. Granted some couples cannot afford professionals and then the rest of us can join in and present our best images. We all appreciate a cheerful giver. Just make sure you are not preventing the couple from getting what they paid for because of your unbridled enthusiasm.

    Lets all try to get better at photography and good manners. Keep seeing, keep contributing to the story, keep shooting.


  • EnergizedAV September 12, 2012 11:30 pm

    Terrific article! Defining your area of photography first, then following this advice can be very profitable. Workshops, and assisting are a good way to go when that expert is right there to catch your mistakes and give proper instruction. Practicing on family and friends also allows them to give you feedback. How did they feel about your approach, attention to detail, comfort level etc. I don't see any problem with after the wedding wedding pictures. I think it's a great idea. You are showing what you can do.
    Thanks Valerie

  • Jason September 12, 2012 03:10 pm

    The perils and pitfalls of shooting a wedding, even in the shadows of others, is that while you may not think you are in the way, you really are...workshops, observing, and the like are good tips, but I would be hesitant to recommend the approach of hiring models to "act" like its a wedding because that then presents a portfolio like you have shot weddings and you haven't

  • Annemarie September 12, 2012 03:02 pm

    I am also very hesitant with wedding photography, although I would love to gain some experience in that field. I got really lucky when a friend's daughter got married and wanted me as a secondary photographer. Although I might not have been super happy with the results, they definitely were. Especially since the paid photographer hardly snapped any pictures during the reception and I did.
    I will get another chance next year when my friend is getting married and asked me to be a secondary photographer as well. They will have a paid photographer and I will just be a spectator with a camera.

  • Paul Deveaux September 12, 2012 02:19 pm

    There is nothing saying that you need to have a client to hire models and make up artists to do a shoot. Work with your good looking friends and stage lifestyle shoots (if you want to shoot lifestyle). Get your friend that loves to cook and do a bunch of food shoots (if you want to shoot food). Talk to a wedding photographer that you admire and offer to assist/second shoot (if you want to be a wedding photographer).

  • Orlando Uy September 12, 2012 02:04 pm

    I've never tried shooting a wedding; maybe I should, just for the experience. Thanks for sharing, Valerie.

  • Sally September 12, 2012 01:50 pm

    I shot a friends wedding - found out a couple of days before that she was having NO photographer (not her first wedding) so offered.

    She so happy with the results - she got lots enlarged (not too big) and they are all hanging in their living room.

    I can see where I could have improved, but was basically reasonable happy with the results - a mid winter wedding, but it was a stunning sunny day which did help.

    I would never have offered (didn't think I was good enough), but I thought it was a shame not to have some wedding photos. ... All worked out in the end even though it was a stressful afternoon (on my part)

    Subsequently I was asked to photograph a 30th wedding renew of vows. Again a bit stressful, but all came together in the end. They did the ceremony in a local park and then went home for a reception. I downloaded & post-processed in the car, raced to the shop to have a few printed, plus got one enlarged. Stuck the photos into an album I had previously purchased, leaving room for the guests to write messages for the couple. We arrived at the reception about 30 mins behind everyone else and presented the couple with the album & enlarged photo - they were amazed and loved it.

  • Matt September 12, 2012 12:06 pm

    ...this kind of work...not "think"

  • Matt September 12, 2012 12:05 pm

    Another option that should be considered is Time For Print/CD work. There are quite a few sites that can be used to find models that are looking for this kind of think., is one that I know of in Australia. I believe that, is a largely used site in the States.

    Just something else to consider....

  • Cramer Imaging September 12, 2012 08:57 am

    My first paying client came at the recommendation of a friend of a friend. I had done a free shoot for some church girls for Father's Day and used one of the images for my ad. I passed out some flyers that made it to my customer. I still have as yet to get a paying wedding. I've shot four, one with 3 hours notice and another bailing out a student photographer, but none of them have been accompanied by money. I did get some good pics out of them all. You never know where those paying clients come from.

    I've been doing several different types of photography to supplement my portfolio including landscapes, animals, and family. I also recommend doing some research, online or otherwise, to learn more about how to take good wedding shots and portraits. Such skills can come into practice in other types of photography too.

  • Valerie Jardin September 12, 2012 08:34 am

    @Brian, thing that either you missed something or misread the #3 tip, as stated: I don’t recommend you shoot a friend’s wedding if you’ve never done such an event before. Yet, people do it all the time and it often helps the wedding party if they are on a budget and cannot afford a $5,000/day photographer. That said, yes, as I explained, it can be damaging.
    As far as shooting your own pictures at a wedding without getting in the way of the hired photographer. Why not? The key word here is: WITHOUT getting in the way. What difference does it make whether guests make their own snapshots with an iPhone or with a dslr?
    Yes, wedding workshops are great but not always affordable and not usually a real experience either. Most photographers have to start with assisting, which is the best way to find out if this is something they can handle or not.

  • Juan September 12, 2012 08:25 am

    Very helpful post. Thank you.

  • Brian September 12, 2012 07:48 am

    I can appreciate you have good intentions, and all blog's need pageviews, however...

    I'm sorry but #3, the wedding tip, is horrible. Once in a lifetime moments should not be left up to chance and practice.

    Uncle Bobbing the wedding "without getting in the way" of the actual photographer is either mildly better (than unskillfully shooting it yourself) or decidedly worse advice, depending on the realities of the situation.

    A lot of these tips are dubious at best, really -- the only really solid advice given was to attend workshops, learn from your peers (both online and in real life), and "practice" in situations where you actually aren't damaging anything.