How to Build a Portfolio Without Destroying a Friendship

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Your friends, family, and peers will only take your business efforts seriously if you do. Once they shift from any other role to client, other things must shift, too. As with everything else in your professional capacity, the lead must be you.

Photography is visual. If you’re going to be a photographer, you have to show off your photos. You need a portfolio.

Ideally, your portfolio should contain the type of photos you want to sell. Portraits for portrait photographers, products for product photographers, weddings for… well, you get the idea. But beginners can’t always be choosers, especially if they aren’t even sure of what type of photography they want to specialize.

The important thing is to show off your technical skills, the way you compose your subjects, and the fact that you really are someone who takes photos for money. If you’re able to come up with a cohesive style, even a rudimentary one, that’s even better.

If you’ve gotten to the point of starting your business, you probably have taken a few photos. At least you should have by now. Hopefully, you’ve taken quite a few. Several of those photos are probably even portfolio quality. But are they representative of the clients you’re looking for? All the perfectly focused florals or hummingbird wings frozen in flight won’t do much to get your phone ringing. Hummingbirds don’t even have pockets to carry phones, after all.

It’s true that you sell what you show. That means people. You need to get people in front of your camera.

Behold, the model call

The obvious solution is also the easiest for most people. Invite family and friends to be the smiling faces of your first portfolio. If you’re particularly brave – and if they’re particularly cooperative – they may even be test subjects for your experiments with style and composition.

Sometimes this is not only obvious, but easy. Immediate family or your BFF may be only too happy to help you out. You can take their photographs and they get copies for their own use. Many young mothers fill their portfolios with best shots of their own kids. But let’s admit it, nothing says “beginner” like the same faces showing up again and again. That’s not a portfolio, that’s a family photo album.

Enter more friends, extended family, friends of friends, whatever it takes to get those two dozen or so photos that everyone expects to see on your website. You may be surprised how little effort it takes to bring people out of the woodwork if they know they can get something for little or nothing. Some are happy to help, and happy with a handful of images they can share with their own friends.

Unfortunately, there’s another kind of person that comes out of the woodwork at times like this. Some can only be described as entitled opportunists. These are people who see your offer, and raise you even more than you’re willing to give. They may have their own ideas about the quality, quantity, or – heaven forbid – purpose of the photographs. The worst part is that these people may turn out to be the ones you least expect.

It is not that unusual to hear from photographers asking how to handle one of these model calls gone wrong. One of their Entitled Opportunists is now asking for re-edits because they don’t like the style. Or demanding more photos than originally agreed, because they “know you took more than that”. Maybe your own Entitled Opportunist is complaining behind your back that you’re a clueless beginner, that you were inept during their session, and that the photos are “just awful!” As if any of those situations wasn’t bad enough, what about the absolutely fabulous photo that your model now refuses to let you publish, for whatever reason real or imagined?

It’s almost enough to make you give up your hopes of ever being a successful photographer. If this is what it’s going to be like, no thank you!

Well, there’s good news and there’s bad news. The bad news is that, yes, despite your best efforts, some of your experiences with paid clients will be exactly like this. The good news is that there are ways to not only handle these situations, but to head them off before they even begin.

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You are building more than a portfolio

If you’re going to get started on your photography business, you might as well get started on all of it. You might as well get started the right way, from the very beginning. So…get started!

From the minute you decide to hold yourself out in business, you need to think and act as though that’s exactly what you are. You are a business. And businesses have structure, processes, and policies.

When you decide to take a photograph in your professional capacity, you have taken on a client. Whether that client is your Mother or the Queen of England, the same intake, workflow, and customer service is required. Even if you are not 100% certain what those details might be, developing those processes and habits is every bit as critical as those first photos. Portfolio building is about more than just the photographs you end up with, it’s about the system you build every step along the way.

So what are those steps, and what systems are we building?

It’s easy to call up your friends or your Aunt Alma and tell them what you’re doing and ask them if they’d help. In the real world, that’s called marketing, and hitting up Aunt Alma is prospecting. You’re comfortable with them – or maybe you aren’t, if your confidence is low – but you should still practice being professional. Explain that’s what you’re doing – being professional. You’re not just the kid in the family who grew up to be a pretentious snob. You are building your business skills. This also sets the tone for everything else that follows.

Whether you know the photo you want to end up with, or if you want to give Aunt Alma more of what she prefers, take the lead in setting these expectations. Just saying “I want to take some photos” is very open ended. “I was thinking about a portrait of you and Uncle Alan. I’ve got some ideas for posing I’d like to try. What do you think?” This is a discussion you will have with every person who contacts you, whether they book as a client or not. This is part of your consultation process. Knowing what the client wants and what you are willing and able to provide is where the agreement starts.

It’s not likely that you’ll be taking retainers or booking fees from these first portfolio models. Even so, you have a responsibility to get them committed to keeping their appointment with you. Nothing will make you feel more taken for granted than waiting at that perfect spot with your camera, while your BFF made other plans at the last minute, knowing that “you’d understand” because you’re friends, after all! That “Where are you?” text is a painful thing to send, never mind the potential replies. Explain that you appreciate anyone willing to work with you, but that this is a serious thing for you and they should only accept if they are willing to commit and take it just as seriously.

Get it in writing

Some photographers boast that they have been in business for decades and never had a client sign a contract. Others demand signatures on a Memorandum of Understanding before the details are even discussed. While you don’t need to drown your portfolio models in ink, you still need at least a very basic agreement – in writing – to outline a few key details about your project. This can be as simple as a followup email that recaps what you offered, the times, dates, and terms involved from both you and your model. The message that your model sees as a handy reference point and reminder, is actually the blueprint you will both work to. Any future misunderstandings can be straightened out by pointing back the agreement.

Getting your agreements in writing is a habit you must perfect from the very beginning. The more you work, the details you add over time, the fewer problems you have along the way. Anyone who feels that putting agreements into writing threatens their client relationship is in for a very unpleasant surprise down the road, or even sooner.

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Dealing with the devils in the details

Remember those Enlightened Opportunists? Wouldn’t it be lovely if there was a way to address almost all those examples calmly, confidently, and professionally? It’s amazing how many problems never even happen once you are very clear in the terms of your offer.

The model who doesn’t like the edits
The purpose of the photos is to demonstrate the style you plan to provide future clients. That means you will edit them to your preference, not the model’s.

The person who wants all the photos, not just the ones you like
List the exact number and quality of photos your models get in return for their service. Whether that means one fully edited, heirloom quality print, three individual photos of different poses, or half a dozen nicely edited digital images, be clear that the point is to produce your finished product, and not every photo is meant for that purpose.

That unhappy soul telling the world what a poseur you are
Reminding people of the purpose of your photos can go a long way as you’re finding your feet in your new business. This is especially true if you are experimenting with your technique or style. Anti-disparagement is the agreement your client makes to not trash talk their experience. You should include this in your terms. While it won’t protect you against a client speaking factually about their experience, it gives options for handling people who exaggerate negatives, express negative opinions as fact, or outright lie in an effort to harm you or your new business.

The person only too happy to share your work all over social media, but who then forbids you from using it yourself
The entire point of portfolio building is to have photos for your portfolio. This means you must be clear with your models that their photo will be shared with the world. The exchange of rights you give one another has a value. Legally, to use your model’s photo (“likeness”, in legal terms), you will need permission. This is where model releases come in. While the model has the right to their likeness, you have rights to your photo. Obviously, your agreement should allow for your use of the photo. You can even go so far as to clarify that the model may not withdraw consent in the future. What it all boils down to is that you both may use the photo. If one of you withdraws a right, then the other can do the same. In other words, if you can’t show off the photo, neither can your model.

There are countless other scenarios that could pop up along your portfolio building journey. While you can’t predict them all, you’ll get better at covering your bases the more experience and education you have. The biggest cause of disagreements between photographer and client is a failure to manage expectations. Both sides of the transaction need to clearly understand the details of the offer.

This includes free or reduced price work for friends and family.

There is a difference between taking you up on your offer and taking advantage of you. Misunderstandings can cost friendships and make family reunions awkward.

Your friends, family, and peers will only take your business efforts seriously if you do. Once they shift from any other role to client, other things must shift, too. As with everything else in your professional capacity, the lead must be you.

Building a business means building not only a product, but a set of processes, standards and professional behaviors across every project, every client. You might as well start from the beginning.

Take the lead. That’s part of the job. Alway be the professional. Not only will you have a beautiful portfolio, you’ll also still have your friends.