August 13, 2020

How to Make a Photography Portfolio

The first step to getting REAL photography gigs is to hone your craft—by second shooting at weddings for other photographers, asking couples to model for you, and setting up styled shoots. These are the best ways to gain experience behind the camera while also curating your portfolio into a collection of images that will attract the clientele you wish you work with.

Having photos from the locations you want to work and of the types of events you wish to photograph proves to any prospective clients that you are knowledgeable, capable, and prepared to deliver a gallery that meets expectations.

Below, I outline the best ways to curate your portfolio while traveling and how to set up styled shoots wherever you are (including if you are still close to home!) with whatever you have.

Building your portfolio doesn’t have to be costly or stressful—in fact, it can be a lot of fun!

How to Build Your Portfolio While Traveling

1) First, Travel.

If you want to photograph elopements in places other than the area directly surrounding you, you’ll want to know how to travel with your photography gear & take epic photos no matter where you are!

The growth and experience that comes with travel will benefit you exponentially—all of us at Adventure Instead were travelers before we were traveling photographers. As incredible as it is to be able to go somewhere because we’ve been hired to, the best way to begin marketing your images somewhere specific is to have been there! 

Book a trip, bring your camera, follow the steps below, and blog about it.

(Not sure how to travel with your camera & keep it safe? Check out this blog post all about the best camera backpacks for all sorts of travel!) 

There’s simply no substitute for firsthand experience, and that’s what you get by traveling. While you’re there, collect as much information about the place as possible—you have no idea what will come in handy when your blog brings in clients who want to know all about this place that you’re an expert on!

Have Fun & Be Flexible

Something else to keep in mind: nothing ruins a fun vacation faster than unrealistic expectations. We’ve outlined steps below to hopefully make building your portfolio as stress-free as possible, but don’t be upset when life throws a few surprises your way.

Even if Plan A for a shoot doesn’t come together perfectly, be sure to enjoy being wherever you are—being present and flexible will teach you more about a place than if everything went according to plan anyway!

Traveling isn’t just about collecting photos in the same way eloping isn’t just about the pictures—the whole experience matters.

2) Keep it Simple & Use What You Have

The most important thing about portfolio building is simply taking photos! It’s not about having the most ‘fancy’ dress, the most ‘epic’ location, or the most ‘beautiful’ couple. Working with what you have, and not expecting an elusive idea of ‘perfect,’ is going to result in you having more real portfolio content.

There are 3 things you need to create an imagine:

  1. Environment & scenery
  2. Attire & small details
  3. A couple

Anything beyond those things is extra! Yes, having a fancy professional camera is nice. Yes, having fancy clothes, decor, and details can be really beautiful. At the end of the day, working with what you have will always be better than worrying about what you’re missing.

Once you’ve found a location you want to photograph, find a couple. Below, we’ll go over the ways in which you can connect with couples in the places you are already traveling using social media, local connections, and just boldly approaching people. Next, you simply need to make the couple look like whatever style of shoot you’re going for (elopement, adventure session, etc.) You can even ask if the couple modeling for you have clothing they already own that will suit the shoot. 

3) Bring a Dress

As stereotypical as it is—the easiest way to make a photo of a couple look like a photo of a couple getting married is to put at least one of them in a dress! Bring at least one easy-to-pack dress with you on your travels, and your photos will be easily marketed as ‘elopement’ or ‘wedding’ images.

If it’s possible, bring garments that aren’t size-limiting so you can more likely find models who can wear it. Convertible dresses are size-inclusive and closer to one-size-fits-many.  

Things to Google to find a portfolio-building dress for cheap:

  1. “Convertible maxi dress”
  2. “Convertible wrap multi way dress”
  3. “White wrap maxi dress”

You can also check out this post in my Weddings & Wanderlust fb group (free & open to all adventure photographers!) where I shared some of my favorite styled shoot search terms & actual dresses—and you can feel free to add any of your own!

There are many benefits of bringing your own dress to be available for styled shoots while you travel. First, you have more control over what your photos look like because you’ve chosen the attire at least one of your models is wearing. Also, you’re able to remove one of the biggest barriers for someone you ask being willing to model—they don’t have to own or currently have a dress with them. If you’ve already provided everything they need to say ‘yes,’ a couple with the free time to model for you is much more likely to make themselves available. 

4) Bring a Business Card

If you’re going to be traveling overseas or approaching strangers, having printed business cards can help you break the ice. It’s an easy way to say “I’m a professional” without having to access the internet and bring up your website or online portfolio of work. Instead, you can hand out your business card and make it easier for any couple you ask to model for you, so that they can look up your work or contact you. 

Physical business cards seem to be used less frequently in the U.S., and my team & I at Adventure Instead rarely use them as an effective marketing tool for elopement bookings. However, they have been a helpful tool in every single styled shoot I’ve ever done, especially internationally. 

5) Acquire Flowers

Follow Leave No Trace guidelines for this step!

While you don’t need a bouquet for a wedding or elopement, flowers in addition to at least one white dress can really set the scene and turn your otherwise casual shoot into something more marketable within your portfolio. A local farmer’s market, co-op, or even the garden behind your rental make great places to look for flowers. Of course, if you’re going to be acquiring flowers from a bush or garden, please ask the permission of the people who own that land. 

If you get flowers from a store, try to find varieties that grow locally and are not invasive or non-native. Many larger stores will carry imported flowers that really shouldn’t be dropping their seeds in the environment they might be sold in—if possible, do a little research before taking cut flowers out into nature for a photo session.

Want to learn more about how you can implement Leave No Trace ethics into your photography business practice? Check out this free workshop that I did with Anni Graham and Gabi & Brandon Fox of The Foxes Photography—or you can learn more information about the How to Leave No Trace Course for Wedding & Elopement Photographers that the four of us created together in collaboration with the Leave No Trace Center!

How to Find Couples to Model for You

Finding a couple to model for you can be an intimidating part of portfolio-building while traveling. While elopements and weddings often have months’ notice to plan every aspect of the day, you actually don’t have to find a couple to model for you well in advance.

In fact, there are many reasons why it would actually be beneficial or easier to find a couple at the last minute. If you’re traveling to a destination that is popular amongst tourists, the typical avenues for finding couples might not work if you’re asking too far in advance—the couple might not still be planning to be at the destination by the time you’re there. 

If you wait to find a couple to model for you until you arrive at your destination—and you’re available to do a shoot pretty much immediately—you’ll remove several barriers and conflicts that a couple might otherwise experience. We all have busy schedules, and being respectful of that while also not giving a couple a lot of time to become busy with another commitment is the ticket to making these last-minute shoots work.

But, how do you connect with the couples? Well, there are three ways.

Search Location Tags on Instagram

Go to ‘recent’ photos that either hashtagged the location, or used a geotag of your location. Scroll through the photos and search for couples. Send a message saying something along the lines of, “Hey! I’m a photographer currently traveling in XYZ and I came across your account looking at local images. I’m wondering if you and your partner would be interested in getting photographed at XYZ location if you’re still here! Just so you know, I reached out to a few couples in case you’re not available, but I’d love it if you could get back to me if you’re free in the next couple days. Have a great day!”

The more targeted you can be searching on Instagram, the better. Don’t be so general as to search within a country or even a region. If you’re in a certain city, or even on a specific beach, look there! 

Reach Out on Local Facebook Groups

Facebook groups for photographers is a great place to find a couple who might be willing to model for you or even trade shoots (since a lot of photographers are trying to build their portfolios). My Facebook group Weddings & Wanderlust (for adventure photographers!) actually features a #modelcall hashtag & would be a great place to start.

Searching other fb groups that are outdoorsy—hiking, climbing, etc.—is also a great way to find couples who would be willing to go on an adventure for photos!

Local Facebook groups also likely have a good percentage of people who are local to that area or people who travel there often. If you want to reach out ahead of time, this is one of the better avenues for finding a couple because they are more likely to still be present than a tourist could you find using an Instagram hashtag.

Just Walk Up and Ask!

This might be the most inherently terrifying way to find a couple – but we’ve also found it to be the most effective! There’s something to be admired about a person who is willing and able to walk up to strangers and ask to take their photo. No, I don’t mean literally having a styled shoot on the spot right there—but if you see a couple out walking on the same beach as you, it might be worth asking if they are free the next day. If they are, and you think they would fit into the attire you’ve brought along for a shoot, that’s even better!

This is when a business card really comes in handy.

It’s funny how much more credibility is giving to someone with a small piece of paper. But if you have printed cards, it makes walking up to a couple much less scary, because you’re on a mission! You’ve given them your card and now it is on the couple to reach out to you. This can help make them more comfortable, but it can also give them a chance to look you up online and feel confident in their decision to work with you beforehand—they might even become actively excited to get their gallery back from you! 

Want to hear more about how this method can be super effective? In my free “Easy Portfolio-Building While Traveling” video workshop, I tell you exactly how I lined up a styled shoot by just walking up & asking a couple I found in Costa Rica—and you can watch it for free (along with all my other workshops) here!

How to Build Your Portfolio Where You Live

Building your portfolio where you live can look a lot like building your portfolio while traveling—the same rules apply for acquiring useful gear, but you’re actually more flexible because you’re not restricted to the short window of time you’re present somewhere.

You also likely have a community where you live, and connections with those who can help you build your portfolio, either as vendors or models.

Portfolio building where you live also lends itself to networking amongst other wedding vendors in the area and setting up styled shoots that have more facets than a simple portfolio-building shoot while traveling.

How to Set Up Styled Shoots

Styled shoots can be as simple or as complicated as you want them to be. You can use only the 3 things mentioned above—scenery, attire, and models. Or, you can connect with other local vendors to provide decor, stationary, food, drink, etc.

The benefit of setting up a styled shoot that has more vendors can be that you might build up your backlink profile alongside your photography portfolio. Backlinks are the key to strong SEO (Search Engine Optimization), which is how people find your website on Google. If you work with other vendors on a styled shoot, they might give you a backlink by linking to your website in any of your images they use in future promotional work. In exchange, you can link to them in any photos that have their craft visible.  

How to Find Models

Finding models for styled shoots is very similar to finding models for portfolio-building while traveling. Utilize social media, and you can always approach strangers if you think they would be good models for the shoot you are envisioning. You can also ask friends, coworkers, or friends-of-friends to consider modeling for you!

Things to Consider While Portfolio Building

Create Images that Reflect Your Real Work

If you’re specializing in elopements, photographs from bigger weddings with lots of guests might not be the ideal kind body of work to put in your portfolio. Building experience is essential, and you might find yourself second shooting for larger weddings, but be selective about what you post. Instead of photos from the reception, choose to post the couples portraits from earlier in the day. Or, if possible, you can even crop in on photos to make a larger wedding feel more intimate. Whatever photos you use in your portfolio—be intentional about creating a body of work that not only showcases what you’ve done but also shows what you want to do.

The same goes for environments. If you want to photograph on mountaintops, try and curate a portfolio that shows you can hike up the mountain with couples who want that kind of experience. If you’re moving from the desert to the coast and want to work more at the beach, use images that closer reflect your new surroundings.

The key is building a body of work that not only showcases where you’ve been but supports where you want to go. Hiring a photographer is a very personal choice that is largely based on the images couples have seen you post or market, especially because it is such a visual art. You want to be able to deliver what has been promised, and a portfolio is a kind of promise about the quality of your work and the kind of work you can do.

Diversity & Tokenizing 

Diversity is an essential part of a body of work if you are an inclusive photographer. Depending on where you live, it might be somewhat harder to build diversity into your portfolio naturally through inquiries, but that’s where styled shoots can come in handy. Instead of waiting for a diversity of clients to send inquiries, you can proactively show that you are an inclusive vendor by going the extra mile and finding couples to model who are Black, indigenous, people of color (BIPOC), and members of the LGBTQIA+ community.

However, there is a line between intentionally showcasing diversity and tokenizing people. Tokenizing is when you use a couple of a certain race or orientation to make yourself look like an inclusive business—‘using’ a couple is very different from diversifying for the true purpose of showing support. Ways you can avoid tokenizing include paying BIPOC and/or LGBTQIA+ models, working with multiple diverse couples, and taking the opportunity to elevate the experience of diverse couples. Increasing diversity involves going the extra mile to ensure these couples are having a positive experience modeling for you.

So What Happens Next?

Let’s say that you just finished photographing the most gorgeous couple in a stunning place—now what? Where do the photos go?

The Elopement Photographer Course breaks down all the exact marketing strategies that Adventure Instead uses to get 150+ inquiries per month—and there are three main platforms I usually recommend to photographers for marketing: Instagram, Pinterest, and Facebook/Facebook Ads.

Something important to note about Instagram is that your photos do not exist in isolation—and understanding how to write super-effective captions to go along with your photos is a great way to connect with your audience on a deeper level!

So if you’re at a loss on how to write an Instagram caption that gets comments, likes, & shares, don’t worry—I did a free video workshop on How to Write Engaging Instagram Captions which you can access (along with all my other free workshops!) here!

Or if you want to learn more about how Pinterest can best be utilized for photographers, check out this blog post!

Written by

Maddie Mae

Award-winning Destination Elopement Photographer + Business & Marketing Coach

Founder of @adventureinstead

I help wedding and elopement photographers discover what sets them apart—and make that their “secret sauce” to building a thriving business.

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