Building Your Wedding Photography Portfolio with Integrity

Starting out as a wedding photographer can be challenging. You need a portfolio of work in order to show new clients what you’re capable of and to give them a feel for your style. But if you’ve not worked in the industry before, getting that experience can be challenging.

There are several ways that photographers approach portfolio building, and they all have their pros and cons. In this podcast episode, I give my opinion on what I think it means to build your portfolio with integrity.

Common Challenges When Building a Wedding Photography Portfolio

When crafting a potent portfolio, photographers frequently encounter several obstacles. The essence of these challenges often revolves around creating an impactful array of work that is not only reflective of one’s artistic vision but also attractive to prospective clients. There’s usually a delicate balance to strike between producing creative, stylistically authentic photography and meeting the practical requirements for work that sells. During the podcast, I delve into my personal experiences. I highlight the difficulties of handling requests from other photographers who want to assist with her elopements for free, to fill their portfolios. This, I feel, can tarnish the intimacy of the event and potentially disturb the couple. My experience underlines that building a portfolio is a process that ought to be handled delicately and respectfully.

Listen to the Podcast episode:

Offering Discounts and Shooting for Free

Offering discounts or working for free might seem like an easy way to quickly build up a portfolio, but this approach can have several pitfalls.

Firstly, there’s the risk of under-valuing your work, which can also damage the perceived value of professional photography as a whole. Many photographers struggle with the transition from free (or heavily discounted) to being paid a living wage for their photography, often because neither they or their audience value that service enough to pay the full rate for it.

Furthermore, when the financial incentives for the photographer are low (as well as the financial investment from the clients), the potential for mismatched expectations and disappointment is high. I’ve not only experienced it in my own journey but also coached many photographers who have been in this uncomfortable position. They discounted or shot for free because they thought they would get some great portfolio material, only to be disappointed when the clients’ choices weren’t as “portfolio-worthy” as they hoped.

Respecting Clients & Putting Their Needs First

Call me cynical, but I don’t think someone’s wedding day should be your portfolio-boosting tool.

Beware of the dangers of projecting your expectations onto a client. The heart of any successful client-photographer relationship lies in the respect and prioritization of the client’s needs. Wedding days are highly significant emotional events for couples. When the focus for you as the photographer is more on getting the types of images that you want for your portfolio, you’re projecting your expectations on their wedding day. Perhaps you’ll shoot differently, or prioritize shots that you want without considering their wishes and what they want. Even unconsciously, you might neglect to capture the authenticity of their day if you’ve got a preconceived idea of the types of shots you want.

Does this mean you can’t use a real wedding for your portfolio? Absolutely not. If clients consent to sharing, then you absolutely should. But I don’t believe it’s ethical to take a booking (especially if you discount or misrepresent your experience) just in order to build your portfolio.

Using Styled Shoots In Your Portfolio

Styled shoots are often a topic of much contention in photography groups. These days there are styled shoots as part of workshops, conferences, and even destination portfolio-building workshops.

Styled shoots can be great, whether you’ve been in weddings 10 days or 10 years. They allow you to explore your creativity, perhaps try something new, and also make mistakes, away from the responsibility and pressure of a wedding day. They can also be incredible places to network and collaborate with other people in the wedding industry.

But do styled shoots have a place in a wedding photography portfolio? I think this is where things can get a bit murky and borderline misleading.

Styled shoots don’t take place in an environment that’s comparable to a real wedding or elopement. They are often highly styled and curated. The couples being photographed are often models, or at least are confident enough to put themselves forward for being photographed by a group of photographers. They might allow photographers to demonstrate their creative skills, but could they create work of the same quality on a real wedding day when perhaps the timing is tight, the couple is stressed and the details aren’t so photogenic?

Then there are destination-styled shoots, where a group of photographers travels to a bucket-list destination to create content that they can use for their portfolio and destination wedding marketing. One of the common ways photographers often use these images later on is by creating a blog post that specifically targets that location. While seemingly harmless, sometimes these blog posts are presented as an expert guide, but I have seen them filled with terrible, sometimes incorrect advice based solely on Google research or a single visit to a location.

I think styled shoots can have a place in a photographer’s portfolio, but personally, I think they should be used with full transparency so that there is no doubt as to the genuine experience a photographer has. Pure photographic ability is only a small part of being a wedding photographer. A huge part is learning to make clients comfortable, learning to react and shoot in difficult conditions, and producing a consistent standard of work over a 12-hour plus day and week after week of weddings.

Second Shooting

Second shooting can be a fantastic way to build your portfolio and your real-life experience at the same time. However, just as with styled shoots, it’s important to be upfront about your experience if your portfolio is made up of primarily images that weren’t taken when you were the primary photographer.

When approaching second shooting gigs, it’s vital to clarify with the primary photographer if and how you can use the images for your own portfolio, as every situation is different. Some photographers may be happy to let you use them however you like, but most don’t be surprised if they ask you not to share them for a set amount of time, or give restrictions around how you can use them. In some cases, if you’re being paid to second shoot, you might not be able to use them at all. Get all agreements in writing to avoid any misunderstandings in the future.

On a side note – when approaching photographers to ask about second shooting with them, do some research and put yourself in their, and their client’s shoes. Think about how a second shooter might impact the day and the ability of the photographer to do their job. Especially for smaller weddings and elopements, second shooting isn’t something you’re likely to be able to do, because it can pull focus from what’s important about the day – privacy and simplicity.

Creating Your Own Styled Shoots

Portfolio development is super important for attracting the right clientele and growing as a photographer. This, more often than not, implies creating and curating content that not just showcases your talents, but also aligns with the preferences of your ideal clients.

Rather than discounting or shooting for free, I prefer to maintain complete control over my content creation process and not put that pressure on someone else’s wedding (which I have little control over).

When I went through a rebrand, I chose to create my own styled shoots that were essentially me creating mock-elopement itineraries, and getting couples to come along and test them with me. I photographed the whole thing, and not only got images for my portfolio but was able to test out the whole service I wanted to offer my clients, without using paying clients as guinea pigs.

AI Images

Personally, I don’t believe AI images have any place in a wedding photography portfolio (despite photographers now starting to use them). A portfolio is how you can showcase to potential clients what you can do as a photographer. AI images don’t show your skill. They might showcase what you want your photos to look like, but if you’re not able to produce that work yourself, don’t cheat with AI. It’s misrepresenting your skills and ability and misleading clients.


When it comes to building your portfolio with integrity, at the heart of it, it’s about not misrepresenting your abilities or misleading anyone.

Prioritizing clients’ experiences, avoiding shortcuts, maintaining integrity and not devaluing your work or the industry are key. Challenges will arise, but with respect and care, you can craft a portfolio that truly resonates with your brand. Remember, it’s not just about the shots; it’s about the stories you capture and the connections you build. Keep your photography journey true, and success will follow.

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