The plight of a new photographer (or: beware of Craigslist).

10 Feb

At this moment, I’m a photographer caught somewhere between amateur and potential pro. I’ve poured my heart into photographing often, even in the sub-zero temperatures and wind chills we get so often in this lovely Chicago winter. I spend hours reading blogs, Formspring accounts, photojournalism sites, fashion magazines, and Flickr sets for inspiration and guidance. I’ve pretty much put one of my arms (and a leg, too) into starting equipment that is capable in low-light situations. I’ve even bothered my fair share of photographer friends, who are wonderful enough to put up with my non-stop questions and chatter (thanks guys, you know who you are!)

But none of that means much without a portfolio. There’s this terrible in-between place when a photographer doesn’t feel comfortable charging for their time yet, but clients aren’t exactly lining up. In fact, pretty much the only people who are willing to take a chance on such an untested photographer for an engagement shoot are the Craigslist set.

Why is this a big deal? Because it shows. I know it’s not nice to say – after all, I think everyone deserves beautiful photos, even if they don’t have thousands of dollars in their budget, but when you’re looking on Craigslist and for free offers, it usually means photography is not a priority. Sure, maybe there are gems – those people who love photography or are excited about photos but are just that broke – but they’re a rarity.

And to be honest, when you don’t care about your photos, you don’t invest anything into them. It’s like the people who walk around in sweatpants and Uggs all the time with crazy bedhead hair – you don’t look put-together, you look like you just woke up. Off-days around the house are one thing, but judging by the state of my college campus, off-days seem to be everyday for some people.

Why not just bite the bullet and shoot shoot shoot no matter how little someone cares?

Because when a couple looks for a photographer, they often pick those who shoot couples similar to them. I’ll be the first to admit that we did. Our photographer features lots of  diverse couples who aren’t necessarily traditional. Their photos show them in places that mean something to them, and their personalities shine through. Part of that is skill on the photographer’s end, but part of it is the couples’ level of excitement and attachment to the photos. If you’re taking engagement pictures as a way to shut up mom and dad, you’re going to put less into them than if you plan to treasure and display them.

I’ve been trying to find a way around this conundrum for awhile now. Even more challenging is that crazy winter weather that make it kind of dreary and unbearable outside. I flipped back and forth about writing this post, but I’m curious to hear what you all think. If you’re recently married or heading that way, what things did you look for in a photographer? Are there any websites that you scouted most for photogs? And if you are in the industry, how did you get over the initial portfolio hump?


18 Responses to “The plight of a new photographer (or: beware of Craigslist).”

  1. Kimberly February 10, 2011 at 12:18 pm #

    I would try listing your services on the WeddingBee Classified area. I know lots of photographers do this, and you can find couples who are really interested in weddings, styling photo shoots, etc. who won’t show up in Uggs! haha.

    Also, have you considered starting out by taking some photos of your friends? Have them and their significant other be your ‘couple.’

    It took me FOREVER to find our wedding photographers. We were searching for the right price, style and photographer. I searched all over google, WeddingBee, anywhere. I really don’t even remember how I found them! They were a husband and wife team that we fell in LOVE with.

  2. Jessica February 10, 2011 at 2:50 pm #

    Having a good photographer was very important to me when planning a wedding. The first thing I looked at was there website and portfolio and from there I compared prices and what was included in the packages.

    Since we had a destination wedding, a lot of my investigation was online and I’ll be honest, I knew who my photographer was going to be as soon as I clicked to their site. 🙂

    Another we considered was but she was SUPER out of our price range.

    Anyone that books you as a photographer would be lucky, you have more talent in your pinky toe than so many professional’s that I’ve seen (including my sisters wedding, eek!) — If I’m ever in Chicago, I’m looking you up and making you do a shoot with me and the hubs. 😉

  3. Megan February 10, 2011 at 3:24 pm #

    First let me tell you from what I’ve seen, you do fabulous work. Second, this is just an idea, take it if you want, but something that one of my girlfriends is doing to get clientel is doing a “dirty formal” session with some of her friends. She asked a few girlfriends to put on bridesmaids dresses that they will never wear again and they went out in the woods and took photos in them. I believe she charged them each a $25 sitting fee or something and that was it. Then they posted the photos to their blogs, fb, etc and more people were like, ooo I want to do that. She also does “boudoir parties.” I know that sounsd werid, but I went to one and it was actually fun. About 5 of us got together, put on cute clothes, drank boatloads of wine, laughed and took pics. Nothing scandalous of course (we are too shy!), but cute. It was $250, so $50 a girl and Sarah provided pizza and wine and we had a ball. Just an idea. HUGS!!!

  4. Layla February 10, 2011 at 3:24 pm #

    The first we thing we considered was cost, because we had to. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a lot to spend on photography….and you’re right…it shows. She was new, trying to build her portfolio, had an okay portfolio of very vanilla photos, but promised she could hang with the more photojournalistic quality we wanted. She had no idea what she was doing. She screwed our pics up. We wasted our money. I loathe her.

    Because, really, in the end…she was just a chick with an expensive digital camera and some photo editing software. NOT a photographer. No more than owning a car makes me a mechanic. I didn’t realize there was a difference, and I do believe (now) that the difference lies in the cost. It just so happens that although photography was a big priority for us ,with a $5k budget for our wedding in a metro area….we just couldn’t afford more than we spent.

    If you want to build your portfolio, I say offer to do things for friends and family for free first. Offer to do them for co-workers, friends of friends – things that can be redone and paid for if they want. And if you want to charge – advertise at a discounted rate for weddings – there are people out there that need quality photographers that really can’t afford them, especially in this market. It doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t interested in their photos. It could really help you both.

  5. Jessica @ One Shiny Star February 10, 2011 at 3:51 pm #

    Two things:

    1. That awkward feeling applies to every skill! When I first started interpreting I felt like a thief accepting money. You could always consider offering a money-back guarantee for a while, until you are confident. So if you take pictures, and the people aren’t satisfied, or you don’t get enough usable pictures… then you can give them their money back.

    2. Photography was important to me at my wedding, but my budget was really small. I ended up paying on of my photographers $80. Essentially I paid to rent the lens that she wanted to use (she is in as similar situation as you). She did a great job, and what was nice (for me) is that she gave me a disc and said it was fine if I wanted to re-edit the pictures.

    So that is another option, just charging for whatever equipment you might need to rent based on the situation (my wedding was at night in a low-light situation, which is why we rented a specific lens.

  6. Christine February 10, 2011 at 9:24 pm #

    We picked ours by looking at websites. I will say that offering prices on the websites is a major plus because we eliminated some people because they “looked” expensive based on their photos and the quality of their website. We initially planned to go with a less expensive photographer who was looking to build her portfolio. She wanted $1000 for the engagement session, 8 hours the day of with two shooters, 100 prints and rights to the pics with a hi-res CD. The plan was that she’d do the engagement session and that’s how we would make sure that we liked her and would be confident she’d do a acceptable job at the wedding. We had an out of town wedding and she wound up flaking on us on our wedding planning trip to Florida that was our only chance to take our engagement pics. We wound up going back to the drawing board and paying 250 more for 6 hours with one photographer and a CD of all the pics and going with a person that our wedding planner had used before and highly recommended. I would say another important thing to do is to see if you can network with wedding planners and try to get the word out about your services that way. Our photographer took the pictures on my wedding planner’s site as well as some of the promotional pics our florist used. Even in a big city, it can be a small industry where word gets around.

    Ok, this last part may sound lame but I’ll ask anyway. I live in Chicago. Have you done boudoir pics before? Would you in the future? I’m looking for someone to do them. My wedding is about 3 months away so I’ve got some time. I promise I’m not a creepy craigslister (though I did meet my fiance on Craigslist!) You’ve got my email if you’re interested 🙂


  7. Cole February 10, 2011 at 9:37 pm #

    We got lucky because our photog was willing to cut a deal with us. I styled the shoot and promised we’d get her published on a wedding blog & Green Wedding Shoes accepted us right away!
    I agree about the Weddingbee classifieds, I’ve seen photogs offer free stuff there.
    Also, if you need models we’re only 2 1/2 hours away 🙂 And, I’m working with a couple who is getting married in July and has a low budget but we’re trying to find a good photographer but are having trouble. Let me know if you’d be interested!

  8. Mrs. JYW February 11, 2011 at 8:25 am #

    This is one area that we wanted to spend the money. I was originally going to fly out my brother’s friend from NYC who has been in the industry for a few years. But, in the end, the travel+costs were totally out of our price range.

    So I shopped around online for local photographers. My brother’s friend was nice enough to give me opinions and feedback on what he thought of each MI photographer. It just so happened that our photogs who were #1 on my list, were the ones that he recommended as well.

    Our engagements pics were PERFECT. Our wedding pics (for the most part) were PERFECT.

    The one regret I have is that I have only a few pics of me and my girls and in the midst of the crazy day; we didn’t do portraits of just me, or just the hubby.

    We might do a bridal shoot this year around our 1 year to makeup for it…

    Anni, I wish I lived in Chicago so that I could hire to do my bridals, boudoir, THE WORKS!!!!!

    I think if you’re already out there on all of the sites, the next step is through word of mouth referrals and craigslist, since your just starting out. Also – if you have any weddings to go to, you could offer to take photos for free (in addition to their photographer) to build your portfolio and get your site going!

  9. Anni February 11, 2011 at 10:42 am #

    Thank you all so much for your thoughts – they’re really helpful and I will definitely keep coming back to them as I progress. I’d love it if you all would continue to follow my progress (the blog should be up in early March, yay!) and let me know if you have any more thoughts or suggestions.

    • Coltin January 7, 2015 at 12:49 am #

      Well I guess I don’t have to spend the weekend fiingrug this one out!

  10. smtty February 11, 2011 at 2:10 pm #

    {My internet’s back on, so I can finally read this!}

    First, I agree with Jessica…that awkwardness applies to every new skill. It took me forever to get up the courage to launch b.CAUSE designs. I was afraid that with so many people now offering blog design makeovers, no one would ever even hear of me. I think the best thing to do is what you’ve been doing: taking pictures. The more you can build up a portfolio, the better. Maybe you don’t goo-goo-gah-gah love every single one of them, but at least potential clients can see the progress in your skill. No one wants a photographer that isn’t always learning, you know?

    When we booked our photographer, I told myself I wouldn’t even consider anyone that 1) didn’t have a website and 2) didn’t have a portfolio. Photography was important to us, though, so I felt I could be that picky. 🙂

    I can NOT wait to see the launch of your new photography site! SO EXCITING!

  11. Gogo February 11, 2011 at 5:05 pm #

    So exciting to start a fledgling business!

    We (I) found our photographer by scrolling through pages and pages of Project Wedding photographer profiles for our area. I eliminated lots really quickly based on price point (we are on a BUDGET), website appeal, and a scroll through their blog. The last two indicating wether I thought they were talented and had a style we both would like. I found two options, both photographers fairly new in the business. I ended up going with the ones that had more experience, but it was more about the quantity of pictures they had in their portfolio so we could sense their style and capabilities. Additionally, they were more active on their blog and were clearly serious about making this a serious gig for themselves (reaching out to others in the industry – photogs and planners) and they handled the email/get to know you stage so excellently. The best part is that we absolutely love the work they do.

    So, for me, websites and portfolios were big in the decision factor. Also, unless I jaw-dropping loved someone’s pictures I did not bother to email about pricing. Instead I was super bugged by anyone who didn’t even offer an average price point for reference on their site and eliminated some of them out of hand even if they took good photos.

  12. Lauren February 12, 2011 at 7:38 am #

    It really does stink trying to build without a “proper” portfolio. There’s the feeling that you’re constantly making excuses for things you haven’t done yet. I’ve avoided Craigslist just because… well, Craigslist scares me. I agree with Kim on the WB classifieds, try that! Go for it, shoot everything you can in the meantime. (Yes, been said 20384 times, but it’s true.) Street photography, another option. One of my (least) favorite photography assignments was to go up to people on the street, ask about their day, their job, etc., and then ask to photograph them. On the spot. Scary, but sort of exhilarating. (I swear I thought my prof was just trying to mess with us!)

    Good luck, lady.

  13. Married in Chicago February 12, 2011 at 9:26 am #

    I read this post yesterday morning and I was so excited to comment but, then life got in the way. Sorry I’m a bit late!

    I wanted to say a whole bunch of things . . .

    I think part of the allure of booking a wedding photographer is that feeling like “wow, my wedding could look as awesome as this one!” And so I completely agree with you that while the skill of the photographer is obviously important, you gotta have some good material to work with! You can make lemons into lemonade, but you can’t make them into a fabulously gorgeous and detailed wedding.

    What about instead of shooting people for free from craigslist you organize shoots for people who really want pictures? When you are all up and running you probably won’t be finding your clients on craigslist, right? So try and work with people from the same population you will be drawing your future clients from.

    I was imagining something like this – If you shoot for free than the couple has to put time and energy into styling the shoot etc., OR perhaps you put the time and energy into it and then they pay you a fee that makes sense? I can speak for myself and say I would totally be interested in an arrangement like this. I know my husband and I loved our wedding pictures so much that we plan to do another photo shoot for our one year anniversary.

    I guess this wouldn’t be as easy for actual weddings, but it would work great for bumping up your engagement/duet pictures! And then this might in turn help you get the weddings you want?

    Or, if you want to be kind of sneaky (or smart!) – you could ask a bride friend to put her wedding dress back on and organize some of her bridesmaids together who still have their dresses and go out one day and have a little shoot! If they pay to get flowers and get all gussied up, you could plan the shoot and do the pictures for free (or on the cheap -whatever). This way you can craft the sort of pictures that will attract the people you want!

  14. spindlephotography February 16, 2011 at 9:58 pm #

    I second shot and assisted a lot (a lot a lot) before I was really solidly booking my own work. It takes a while for people to know you exist. Creating a professional website and blog was huge for me, even when I was second shooting and openly posting that the images were from jobs where I assisted, I started getting recognition.

    Make a facebook page; facebook does promotions for free advertising every now and then so I know my first $50 in ads was free. If you want to have some giveaways that you use to build your portfolio that’s a great place to advertise it. Become friends with photographers who are also new. When they get booked they can refer you for the dates they can’t shoot.

    facebook is the new craigslist. at least there are photos of the creepy people 🙂

  15. Emily February 19, 2011 at 8:29 pm #

    Hey! I just wanted to comment on this, too. Like most of the others here, I did my search based on websites. My mom used to laugh at me because I could tell her within three seconds of the site opening whether or not I would consider them. But it’s true. I was looking for a professional quality to their site as well as an artistic quality. If the website looked pleasing, I assumed the photographer had an eye for design, not just wedding photography. I was also looking for more modern/untraditional photography, so if the website looked outdated or traditional, they were off the list.

    Also you might want to consider photographing other events to build your portfolio. Anyone you knowing having an over-the-top party where you could get some detail shots? I’m planning a carnival-themed bday party for my husband this spring where I plan to have lots of little details (which you’re welcome to come photograph! hehe). But seriously, there are lots of other events that you could be at anyways where great shots might happen. Birthdays, family gatherings, holidays, etc. All those could help as well.

    One last thing, my husband and I are a biracial/bicultural couple so that was also one thing I looked for. If it looked like the photographer only worked with white couples, I was more hesitant to pursue that photographer. In the end, we went with a photographer who has an incredibly diverse portfolio. That wasn’t the main selling point, but I definitely appreciated that.

  16. Liz February 27, 2011 at 1:55 pm #

    oh no finding a photographer is my #1 and only excitement in wedding planning…you can read about it at (

    I was told by many to stay away from studios…
    This finding the right photographer is a process…the city has way too many good ones to offer! Narrowing down is so hard!


  1. Photography Update « Lincoln Park on a Lark - May 6, 2011

    […] ago, I wrote this post detailing my frustrations with building a portfolio and how to get my name out there. That post […]

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