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Tips & Tricks

How To Book Your First Paying Clients When You Don’t Have a Wedding Portfolio

By Guest Contributor on November 13th 2015

Mac: The New Guy

My name is Mac MacDonald, and I’m the new guy. I’ve been shooting weddings for a whopping seven months! My wife is my second shooter and shoots every wedding with me. To date, I’ve shot seven weddings. I’m learning something new every day, it seems. I haven’t established a brand. I haven’t established a blog. Heck, I JUST settled on my kit! Having said all that, I’m sure you’re wondering why a guy like me is writing an article on this website. You’re thinking this guy doesn’t have anything to contribute, and I understand your concern. Really, I do.

The thing is, there are tons of people exactly like me, people trying to get into wedding photography, or people pushing through their first year “in the biz.” Breaking into this industry is difficult. Staying in it is even more difficult. My focus, over the course of several articles, will be to chronicle my adventure into the wedding photography business and share what I’ve learned. If you’re already a “big time wedding photographer” you’ll either dislike or disapprove of every word I type, find a few bits of info you find interesting, or relate to where I am in my journey and feel my pain! So, sit back and enjoy the ride…it’s going to be fun!

[REWIND: THE 5 THINGS WE WOULD DO AGAIN AS FIRST YEAR WEDDING PHOTOGRAPHERS]

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Pre-wedding Photographer Mac

Before shooting weddings, I owned a Nikon D3200. I would wake up early on the weekends and go shoot sunrises on the beach. I loved taking photos and did it just because it got me out of the house and placed me in front of beautiful scenery. When I met my wife, I got into taking pictures of people. She was the most beautiful person I had ever seen, and I wanted to take eleventy-billion photos of her! I started to learn the importance of light and the different qualities of light. I started messing around with flash photography, and my mind began to race with possibilities. It was decided; I wanted to do portrait photography. No particular genre, just whatever people would let me take pictures of them doing. 

Early on, I was convincing friends to do family photo sessions with them. One of my friends was actually about to propose to his girlfriend and agreed to let me capture the moment he asked her to marry him. On these early shoots, I was dragging around a strobe light and stand. I’ll be honest, the results were amateur, but the consequences of failure were minimal as these were friends and non-paying gigs. I was learning….a lot!

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[RELATED: THEN AND NOW | 19 PROFESSIONAL PHOTOGRAPHERS SHARE THEIR BEGINNINGS]

Acquiring Wedding & Engagement Clients without a Wedding Portfolio

After a few months of experimentation, I decided I wanted to shoot weddings, but I had no idea where to start. I was actively reading every ounce of material on wedding photography but didn’t have a wedding portfolio, no second shooter experience, and no leads.  How would I convince someone to let me shoot their wedding if I had never shot one? Craigslist. The answer was Craigslist.

I decided I was going to offer free engagement photos to whoever would accept them. I drafted a post that outlined my intent. Basically, I stated I had been into photography for about two years, wanted to make the switch to wedding photography, and would be willing to provide free engagement sessions in exchange for the experience of learning to shoot couples. I outlined how long the session would last, how many edited photos I would deliver, a link to my Flickr “portfolio,” and hit “submit.”

Within two weeks of posting the ad, I had secured four free engagement sessions. I treated each one as a paid gig. I set-up phone consultations with each “client,” I had them sign $0 photography contracts to cover me legally and to enable me to share their photos. The agreement covered 1.5 hours of photography, unlimited shots, and 25 edited photos.

First Free Engagement Shoot. I had a lot to learn!

First Free Engagement Shoot. I had a lot to learn!

Out of the four free engagement shoots I shot, 3 of them turned into paid weddings. The only reason the 4th one did not convert to a paid wedding is that they were getting married at a resort out of the country and were going to use the photographer at the resort where they were staying. The icing on the cake is that the one couple who did not turn into a wedding referred me to another couple who paid for an engagement shoot and a wedding! Another one of the couples had so much fun with us on their free engagement shoot, they told us they were going to drop their already-booked wedding photographer and go with us!  This was an out-of-state wedding! Of course, they did not get their deposit back from the other photographer (per his contract) but they bonded with my wife and I so much that they didn’t care. This is the power of the free engagement shoot. It is an opportunity to bond with clients and show them that, yes, the photo quality must be there, but there must also be a connection.  We, as wedding photographers, play many roles the day of the wedding, not just photographer.

These free engagement shoots are also important as most of the couples had yet to choose a wedding photographer (75% of my engagement shoots had not!). Being there, photographing the couple, you are provided an opportunity to make a lasting impression regarding your professionalism, character, and personality. You are given a chance to close the deal with an awesome engagement session.

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Second Free Engagement Shoot. This was the book on the spot couple!

Enough with the Freebies, How Do You Book Paid Weddings With a Limited Portfolio

So the weddings I booked from the free engagement shoots were great, but they were quite a ways off in the future. I wanted to shoot a paid wedding NOW! I edited the engagement shoots, loaded them in my portfolio and sat…waiting for an idea that would help me book a paid wedding prior to my free engagement shoot conversions.

I was doing research online and happened to stumble across a website called Thumbtack. If you haven’t heard of it, it is a place where freelancers bid for jobs. Customers create an account, fill out a form pertaining to their needs, and up to 5 relevant freelancers bid on the job. As a freelancer, you specify what your specialty is, and you receive notifications when relevant jobs are posted. You have to act fast, as bids are locked after five freelancers reply. Bids also cost money, and the cost varies by the type of job being bid.  

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I created a Thumbtack account and began bidding.  The jobs I was bidding on were excessively small budgets, 4-hour wedding blocks for around $400. Within a week, I had landed my first paid wedding. I probably spent $70 in bids to land my first $400 wedding.  I made sure I was completely up-front with the client as to my lack of wedding experience.  I used contracts that clearly defined what I would do during the wedding, how long I would be there, things I would not be responsible for if x, y, or z happened, etc. Basically, the contract was a safety net for both the client and myself.

Over the next month, I booked three more paid weddings on Thumbtack. You read that correctly, a guy with zero weddings in his portfolio was landing weddings. I was updating my portfolio with images from my free engagement shoots, but no weddings were present.  I was always up-front with EVERY new client, but they didn’t seem to mind. These were the last weddings I booked on Thumbtack. I hoped, once I had these weddings in my portfolio, I would not need to resort to the low rates offered on this forum as I would finally have a portfolio and would hopefully get referrals from the weddings I was shooting.

Thumbtack is, for the most part, bargain basement service offerings.  Some photographers, charging $5k per wedding will proclaim that photographers taking these jobs make it harder for them to make a living as a wedding photographer. My response is this: EVERYONE deserves to have the most important day of their lives chronicled, and no one gets to dictate the financial bar one must overcome to get into the “I got my wedding photographed” club. There is a market for $400 weddings. It helps those with smaller budgets get coverage and the guy with a small to non-existent portfolio get a paying gig and experience.

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The Leap of Faith

I’ll be honest, I was not the least bit nervous about shooting a wedding with no experience. I was confident in my abilities and had studied and practiced hours upon hours. I had a second photographer, my wife, so even if I slipped for a second, I knew someone else was taking photos.  This approach may not be best for some photographers, but it worked for me.  Some will suggest you must be a second shooter at weddings then step up to the pros. Being a second shooter was not an option available to me, and I was not going to delay my dreams of becoming a wedding photographer because my path was not the one others deemed appropriate or “right.”  

In my next article, I’ll cover the gear I used on my first wedding (you’re going to run me out of town when you hear what I used) and talk about how I prepared for it, the loop I was thrown for when I arrived, and lessons learned.

About the Guest Contributor

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Mac is a wedding and lifestyle photographer based out of Atlanta, Georgia.  He lives with his supermodel wife and excessively teenage son.  Mac is a Nikon fanboy who loves to eat cake while drinking a kale smoothie.  When not shooting weddings, like a BOSS, Mac enjoys traveling with his wife and slowing things down shooting landscapes and cityscapes.  You can find Mac on Facebook, Instagram, and his website.

If you’re interested in becoming a guest contributor, contact us!

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Jerry Kuan

    It’s Amazing ! I’m actually planned to start up wedding photography too… your post literally stimulate positive energy ! It’s glad and honor for me to read this posting before i going out ! You’re amaze ! Your story and how you actually behave make you perfect ! Thanks Mac

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  2. Janna Slaback

    What a great testimony. I just went over and liked your FB page!

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  3. Lee G

    Nice article!
    I’m interesting to hear what you used on your first wedding and compare to what I used lol. Kit lens and a rented flash.

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  4. Gareth Wignall

    I can’t agree more. Everyone has to start somewhere, for me it was adventure sports – our wedding first couple figured if I could get great images hanging off a rope half way up a cliff, then a wedding should be easy.

    Looking forward to the next…

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  5. Matthew Hyson

    Thanks for the awesome article! I can’t wait for the follow up. Where did you post your ad offering free engagement shoots? I am offering the same thing with no luck.

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  6. Dave Haynie

    Pretty smart moves there…. you’re getting paid, even just a little, to build experience and portfolio.

    I did wedding videography for awhile, and when I started out, of course, I had plenty of chops shooting video, authoring DVDs in creative ways, etc. But no particular reason for someone to give me money to shoot their wedding. I built up a portfolio by giving video as a wedding gift — of course, it only works if you’re in the right social circle, and probably wouldn’t work today, when video is kind of a standard. But I treated each one like a pro shoot, and before long I was shooting paid gigs — even for friends — sometimes in other parts of the country, etc.

    The one trap I set for myself — I did a very nice job on a few of the videos, in terms of presentation, the psychology of how to break things up into different sections (eg, no one wants to sit for a two-hour video + reception more than perhaps once), doing the whole “wedding as a documentary” thing… it eventually got to the point where it was not practical as a part-time thing if I really kept it going, and not lucrative enough to be a full-time thing. So I went back to taking gigs for special clients only, where I’m motivated by the art as much as the cash.

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  7. Rob Gorsline

    Very nice article, looking forward to reading more!

    As someone who is considering taking my photography hobby to the next level, is there any way you could provide us with a copy of the contract you used for your “free” engagement portrait shoots? It would be great reference for me as I was thinking of doing the same thing that you did (craigslist), not necessarily to get into wedding photography but as a way to help build my portfolio and to get some experience taking portraits and working with complete strangers.

    Thank you!

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  8. nita wright

    WOW. I was called CRAZY but at least if I”m crazy, I have Mac to be crazy with. My FIRST wedding ever was also booked from offering a free engagement session to practice. I said we both win. If you would allow me to use some of your photos on my upcoming website and into the future, I’ll give you a free session. You’re not paying so even if they came out horrible, you haven’t lost anything because I’m going to make taking them a fun experience for us both. They booked ON THE SPOT. My second shooter is my now business partner who just happens to be “my best friend”. What a duo we make now and we even laugh about our start. We used to take photos on vacation, perfecting landscape shots and saying… we could totally make money doing this. Amazingly, I’m the one who craves photography, she just happened to have this gift of making every photo look fabulous and natural and didn’t’ even know it. We tag team every wedding and learned together over the years. Now, the Yin to my yang, we photographed 6 weddings in 8 months our first year. Not bad for the blind. LOL Thank you for sharing your story. I so appreciate your honesty as it hits home in my own life.

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  9. Sudeshna Banks

    Your openness about the step-by-step transition to being established in the wedding photography market is refreshing and helpful.
    Please share some insight about creating a portfolio – online or in print? Criteria for choosing the photos (beside the obvious …) – beginning and the end..
    All the best!

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    • Mac MacDonald

      Thanks for the kind words, Sudeshna! I will talk about my struggles with culling (selecting the best photos to edit) and my love/hate relationship with my portfolio in the 3rd article. Have an awesome week!

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  10. Gustav Neumann

    Thanks so much for sharing Mac! Really appreciate you being open and I think this can be a huge help/push for someone looking to get started. All the best!

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  11. John Havord

    Really looking forward to these series of articles. Well done that man and of course woman.

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  12. Aziz Garuba

    Mac, I’m in a similar position and really appreciate you sharing your beginnings. Really encouraging. I’ve done a second shooter at one wedding and hoping for more in the new year and finally my own solo.

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  13. Michael Henson

    Great write up! I’m at that launch point myself so this article, your insights, and your fresh perspective are exciting! Thanks for taking the time to write this up!

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    • Mac MacDonald

      Keep at it. No matter how slow it gets. Persistence pays off. They say “life is 90% just showing-up.” Show-up everyday and it will pay off! You’ve got this!!!

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  14. Stefan Simonsen

    I did my first full day wedding for around 480$ (450€) . I came from photojournalism with day rates around 200€ (240$) and was glad to get double the money as usual for a day, not recognizing that there will be a week more of work to do after the wedding day ;-)

    BUT I was totally honest to the clients and told them that I for sure would knew all about the technics and physics to make good shots but didn’t have any experiences how to accompany a wedding day…

    Finally they were very happy with the pictures and a blog post about them (http://simonsenphoto.com/bilderblog/2012/08/28/hochzeitsfotograf-koblenz-hochzeitsreportage-festung-koblenz-ehrenbreitstein/) led to several more weddings.

    Over time I evolved my own style and raised the rates over the last three years to around 600% as my quality and knowledge increased…

    You have to start somewhere. When you’re honest to your clients you can’t loose!

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    • Mac MacDonald

      Amen! I never hid anything from them. They needed a photographer and had little to no money. I needed to build my portfolio and was willing to shoot for a discounted rate. Just because I didn’t have a protrusile didn’t mean I didn’t know how to run a camera, it just meant I didn’t have photos of people in a dress and a tuxedo.

      It’s been a fun ride so far. I really love shooting weddings. All of my clients have been amazing and a few of them have even become friends!

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    • Andy & Amii Kauth

      Love to see where people came from … enjoyed taking a look at your ‘site as well.

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    • Mac MacDonald

      “protrusile ” = portfolio. Auto-correct strikes again!

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  15. Kim Farrelly

    Perfect lesson in “if you want to do something, do it & don’t mess about”. Best of luck

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  16. Andy & Amii Kauth

    Cool write up, Mac. Like how you put yourself and your story out here. Everyone can learn something from others’ experiences and stories. Looking forward to reading more!

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    • Mac MacDonald

      Thanks! I am sure I will get trashed by a few “haters” , but this type of honest “walking the path” information needs to be out there! The Internet is all about information and sharing and I’m all in! :)

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