When starting out as a family photographer, it’s important to photograph lots of families to build your experience and confidence.

Most of us start out photographing our own families: Nieces and nephews, our own kids or our friends’ families. But at some point you have to start working with strangers, because coaxing the best out of grumpy toddlers and stressed parents is a lot trickier when you’ve just met each other for the first time five minutes ago!

Here’s five easy strategies to build your portfolio and develop your skills working with unfamiliar clients.

Ask friends for referrals to their friends

Once you’ve exhausted your inner circle, branch out to friends of friends. Ask your friends to give you a shoutout, explaining that you’re looking for volunteers to practice on, in exchange for free photos.

Set limits on how many families you need, and have your polite reply ready for the inevitable requests for free photos you’ll get once your business is up and running. Something like, “Thanks, but I’ve finished that project now! I’d love to go through the collections I offer with you, and find one that’s right for your family.”

Find a local models group on Facebook

Most areas have a model volunteer group on Facebook, named something like “Sunshine Coast models.” These groups are an excellent resource for finding people to work with. They may be trying to build their own model portfolio, or just want to model in exchange for free professional-quality photos.

Post up a model call with what you are looking for and be specific on your timeline and requirements. For example, “I need a family with kids to photograph on Saturday for two hours at Kings Beach at 4 p.m. I’m offering 30 photos in exchange for your time.”

Run a competition

Giving away photoshoots maintains the value on your work while allowing you to build your portfolio, grow new leads and widen your exposure. My favorite way to do this is to have people comment on a Facebook post by tagging a friend: “Tag someone who you think deserves beautiful photos of their family, and you will BOTH win a photoshoot from me!”

This means the winner will be the commenter and the person they tag (i.e. giving away two photoshoots). You can use a random comment picker to select the winner or base it on whatever other criteria you decide — just remember to be explicit about how you’re selecting.

Don’t forget to set tight limits on when the photoshoot can be claimed: You want people in front of your camera, now! A time limit will help you avoid the pitfalls I discovered when I gave away too many photoshoots.

Always use a model release and photographic license

No matter who you’re working with — be it friends, family, models or paid clients — always get a signed model release for your subjects, and have them agree to a photographic license. For family photographers, generally your license will entail you retaining the copyright to your photographs and licensing them to your subjects for personal use.

A model release gives you the right to use the photographs for your business activities (among other things) — essential, given the purpose is portfolio building! ShootProof includes contracts in their gallery delivery software, making this easy to set up.

Portfolio building doesn’t have to be free work

When you’re first starting out, shoot as much as you can, but work on booking paid clients as well. You can shoot model calls to test out new ideas and strategies at any point in your career, but you can also experiment with your paying clients. Very few clients will refuse if you say at the end of a shoot, “Hey, I have this crazy idea — it might not work, or it might be an amazing photo … want to try it out?”

You can also upsell to people you have shot for free. For example, you could offer 10 photos in exchange for their time, but offer them the option to buy additional images or the whole set at a discount rate. Again, gallery software like ShootProof provides plenty of flexibility to structure this kind of price list. Just be upfront about it when you book the client into your calendar: No one likes to have a hard sell sprung on them.

Deliver the same stellar client experience regardless of whether they are paid clients, competition winners or a model family, and you’ll build connections that will turn into ongoing bookings and referrals.

Need help photographing families? Check out my free photo prompts blog where I share posing tips, photo prompts and tips to deliver stunning results to your clients.