BUILDING A BETTER PORTFOLIO Step Two: “Spec” Shoots and Trade Shoots


Virtually all aspiring pros face a sort of Catch-22 early in their careers: To gain professional credits, you need to get hired, but you can’t get hired without professional credits. Clients naturally prefer photographers who have already proven themselves in a competitive market, so they tend to favor established veterans over newcomers no matter how promising the latter may be. How can novice photographers acquire a portfolio of images that will impress prospective clients enough to earn their big break?
Triumph Motorcycle Campaign

Oscar Wilde once described one of his characters, a penniless yet impeccably stylish ne’er-do-well, as follows: “He has nothing, but looks everything.” New photographers should practice the same trick in cultivating their public image. Even if you’ve never had a paying gig, act as professionally as if you’ve been in the business for years. That includes crafting a portfolio that emulates those of the major pros as closely as possible.

Ideally, every image in a photographer’s portfolio would have the logo of a major client stamped on it, since such credits impress prospective clients as much (and, in many cases, more) than the pictures themselves. That’s why, at the start of my career, I eagerly pursued promising opportunities for “spec” shoots. A shoot done “on spec” (short for “speculation”) is one in which the photographer agrees to shoot for a client with no upfront fee and no guarantee of acceptance of or payment for the resulting images.

Early on, I did several such shoots in order to contribute stock photography to venues such as and Getty Images. Doing this gave me a great education as a photographer, for these vendors rate each image they receive based on its marketability. Images they deem not commercially viable are not published for sale. was especially helpful, because they gave their reasons for denying each photo they rejected. They called attention to details and areas for improvement that I’d never even noticed before. That kind of feedback is invaluable when it comes to honing your skills and refining your portfolio.

Some companies with limited advertising budgets will also authorize spec shoots. Because they have no cash at risk, they are more willing to take a chance on a relatively new and unknown photographer. After all, who wouldn’t want free marketing images? When I was just starting out, I approached several companies for whom I wanted to work by tracking down their marketing office or press office personnel and providing them with a shoot concept. Once they accepted the concept and style direction I’d proposed, I had actual products to shoot for real advertising campaigns. I’ve obtained a slew of images with company logos on them this way. That’s why I advise new photographers never to turn up their noses at unpaid jobs that could potentially further their careers. Always consider how the resulting images can benefit your Web site portfolio and add to your professional credibility.

Another option for aspiring photographers to cultivate professional-quality images for their portfolio is a “trade shoot.” Even without a sponsoring company, photographers can stage their own shoots to demonstrate their skill at photographing models, clothing, and products. However, hiring models, makeup artists, and stylists for such a shoot can often be prohibitively expensive for a novice photographer.

My makeup artist Debra Johnson working with Michael Imperioli

To keep down the expense, photographers will offer to “trade” the resulting images to the talent in exchange for their services. Aspiring models, makeup artists, and even clothing designers all need images for their own portfolios, and it’s a lot cheaper for them to donate their time to your shoot than to hire an established pro for a private session. If it’s a true collaboration, all the contributors should share in the out-of-pocket costs for the shoot: craft service, shoot location, permits, and so on. If the shoot is more about expressing your personal photographic vision, though, you might have to pay at least a token fee to your team for their effort and expertise.

One warning about trade shoots: Never skimp on your talent! If you settle for average people, you’ll end up with average work. Network to get industry-quality models and the very best hair, makeup, and clothing people you can possibly afford. Ask to see examples of their past work, and if the resulting images don’t yield the results you expect, don’t use them in your portfolio. Consider hiring top-tier artists if you can’t find acceptable volunteers. Remember, it’s as much of an investment in your business as a new lens or camera accessory. You are spending money on marketing materials that will ultimately get you more work. As I stated at the start of this blog series, your portfolio is as important to your success as a professional as your camera.

But what about the images themselves? Now that you’ve got a top-notch crew together for a shoot, what should your content and focus be? We’ll talk about what style of images will best complement your portfolio in “BUILDING A BETTER PORTFOLIO Step Three: Crafting Images that Sell You.”

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