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Freya Dowson is an international documentary photographer based in Dubai.

About Freya

I guess it goes without saying that the portfolio is one of the most important things when it comes to being a fledgling or even a professional photographer. It’s not just about showing what you can do, it shows what you enjoy and also what you specialise in. Not all photographers are amazing at shooting everything – it’s fun to try out different styles but eventually you find what you love and grow in that direction.

I grew my portfolio through my first job (which I talked about here), but like I said in that post there are many different ways to grow a body of work and each person’s path will look different depending on the various opportunities you get and create for yourself.

My portfolio has gone through so many different changes though. It used to be all lifestyle because that’s what I wanted to focus on, lifestyle with an element of travel. I wanted to shoot for magazines such as Kinfolk and Cereal and I really looked up to the photographers that shot in a minimalist style with muted tones. But it quickly became apparent to me that I could never make it shooting purely fashion and editorial stories because… I just didn’t enjoy it. I found it really challenging and I didn’t lose myself in my work as much as I did when I was photographing a documentary story – I was too much in my head and comparing myself to others.

So I think before you decide exactly the kind of photographic style you want to pursue, it’s important to try out lots of different things and focus on one, or a few. For example, the bulk of my work is documentary but I also shoot travel stories, some editorial and even some lifestyle still because I’ve found the kind of lifestyle work I enjoy.

If I hadn’t taken that path that I have to get to where I am today, here’s what I would do:

1) Go out and shoot a whole lot of different things to see what really gets you excited to work and learn exactly what kind of photography you truly lose myself in. I chose lifestyle at first because I enjoyed looking at it – I thought I wanted to be a lifestyle photographer… but truthfully I didn’t really know. I needed to try it out for myself.

2) Send yourself on assignment. Figure out where your passion lies, look for stories in your own life to document. If it’s documentary work you’re looking for, focus on documenting the stories around you that speak to you. Maybe it’s something gritty like drug abuse or homelessness in your local area, the pregnancy of a close friend, I mean even moving house can be documented in an interesting way! Maybe it’s something lighthearted like the behind the scenes of a friend’s creative business, or a pastry chef, or pretend you’re shooting some marketing photos for a coffee shop. The more you challenge yourself and photograph out of your comfort zone, the better you become. It really is about putting in those 1000 hours.

3) Treat every opportunity like it’s a work assignment. For example, every holiday you take, every weekend away or every fun shoot you get to do with friends – be professional about it as if someone is paying you to do it and get really serious. I mean, have fun as well, but if you’re overseas and you want to be shooting travel photography, don’t waste the opportunity! Or better yet, save up and go traveling yourself, even if it means you have to work like crazy for a year at a job you don’t particularly love. For people wanting to get into overseas documentary photography, I always suggest you try it out first for yourself on your own terms, because the reality isn’t pretty and it’s not aways an adventure – it can be really hard, emotionally and physically challenging, and sometimes it can really suck… you need to see if you love it enough to stick to it.

4) Once you have a body of work you love and you think would speak to the kind of people you want to work with, build a website! I use squarespace which I really like, but just choose a platform that allows you to showcase your work at its best. Think about who you want to hire you… would they like to see stories? Would they like to see an album of select portraits? How would they like it categorised? To some extent you can only guess, but put things together in a way that looks good to you but also is functional for someone who may only be glancing at it for a second. Sometimes a second is all you have to show off your best work – always put your best photos first.

5) Start sending your portfolio out to people who may be interested. Pitching is a whole other post in itself, but I will say that working for free is rarely a good idea for so many reasons. When someone asks you to shoot in exchange for product (if you’re growing a social media presence this is probably more relevant), or asks you to shoot in exchange for experience… you may do it but it always feels a bit icky. Doing a shoot right is a lot of work, and walking away from days or weeks of work with only experience and exposure to show for it can make you feel really gross. I’ve been there. That’s not to say that every opportunity should be a no, it just means you should be really careful in setting a precedence in working for free – it’s so rare for something like that to turn into paid work. Having said that however… it does happen! And some work-for-free opportunities have launched amazing careers, it’s just about being really careful and trusting your gut. Always set boundaries on your time and your work – if you think you’re worth hiring, you are worth being paid.

6) Another way to build a client list or get experience is partnering with friends who are also growing a small business – I once shot a prototype for a friend who was launching her own sustainable fashion brand. It allowed me to put a brand and an editorial album in my portfolio, and she had a few photos to use in launching her website. Again you have to be careful though, because I’ve tried to do this a few times and almost every time they’ve come back to me again and again asking for more free photos – it can kind of destroy friendships.

The aim all of this is to help you focus your mind on the direction you want to be heading in your career. I hate starting out on things and realising half way through that I actually don’t enjoy it (like styled photography, flatlays, or lifestyle blogging in my case), I get really stubborn and pursue things for much longer than I should because I don’t want to just give up. But using the building of your portfolio as an excuse to test the water in any given direction allows you to say yes to some things and no to others – no photographer specialises in everything!

Once you have a collection of photos, albums or stories that you are proud of then you can start using that site to look for clients. Every year you’ll want to refresh your portfolio as you grow, but once you’ve got one started then it’s just a matter of putting yourself out there!

I’ll talk about what to do with your portfolio in other posts, but if there is anything you would like me to talk more about or explain in detail, put it in a comment below!

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