Investing In Your Business

Investing In Your Business

As photographers, we’re constantly re-crafting our portfolios, building new work, and (hopefully) growing as artists. Along the way, many of us will face challenges, get burnt out on locations, and ultimately feel in a rut. Through time and education, we invest so much into our portfolios, however the best advice I can give is to invest financially too.

A few years ago, I was living in Michigan, photographing various models and subjects as often as I could. I had been doing that for a few years and honestly, I was getting incredible bored with it. Lake Michigan is gorgeous, the models were exciting, but the days felt all the same to me. Rather than being discouraged with my work, and describe my career as in a rut, I decided to invest more into my portfolio, but this time…I decided to invest financially.

I moved to New Mexico. I didn't move there because of anyone, or anything in particular. I moved there because it was something I was in no way familiar with. Certainly, I have spoke of this before, but perhaps not in this light. When I moved here, I found a plethora of new faces, of new scenes, of mountains (finally), and a new rush of work. My portfolio and general body of work improved 10 fold in the course of 12 months. Not because I learned some new technique for skin retouching, or learned how to properly add contrast to my images - but because I had an entirely new body of diversified work. People from Michigan looked through my portfolio and wondered where I found vast open spaces of desert, with plateaus sitting comfortably in the background. People from New Mexico wondered where I found gorgeous and green fields, lakes, and deep forests.

Certainly I’m not suggesting you move to find a new outlook - that is only for the extreme cases. However, too often we look at amazing and interesting subject and locations, hundreds of miles away and think “Man, I’d love to shoot there someday”. Well I’m here to ask you, what’s stopping you?

A month or so ago, I decided that I missed beaches in my portfolio, and decided I wanted to travel to Los Angeles to set up a couple photo sessions with the local models of Los Angeles. Not only is Los Angeles the home of some gorgeous locations, but its where some of the top talent for models and actors in the world also reside. I contacted local talent there, and agreed to test shoots, where no one would have any financial gain from the shoot, and then I booked a flight to L.A. My inspiration for this was nothing more than just knowing of an amazing beach in Malibu that I've seen photographer friends take advantage of, that I've always had an interest in shooting at.

For about $300, I was able to get to and from L.A., and by staying with a fellow photographer friend, I was able to make the entire trip fall under $500 in total expenses. In those three and a half days, I was able to shoot on the beach with talent I wouldn't be able to work with in Albuquerque, putting three or four solid new photos into my portfolio, only to help my business grow - as now my portfolio is different from everyone else in my main market.

And $500 is a small chunk of change to be able to diversify your portfolio with oceans, and deserts side by side. For very little money, I'm able to make my portfolio look radically different than everyone else in my market, and able to attract more business because of that. Before having this new train of thought, I'd spend $900 on a lens that wasn't going to drastically improve my work. I'd invest in getting a new brand of strobes, because they were built better. I was convinced that in order to make my work and portfolio better, I needed gear, not vacations. I couldn't have been further from the truth.

What I'm preaching here is that in order to find success, you need to financially invest into your portfolio. Too often, we decide that we either need to be getting paid for our sessions, or that we need to have a good piece of inspiration to work for trade. But rarely do we take the time to invest in ourselves and the work we create. By bank rolling your own shoots, you're able to remove any limitations you may have otherwise. Want to shoot at that ridiculous bridge in the Pacific Northwest? You can for just a few hundred dollars. Is there a model in Miami that you've been wanted to collaborate with for years now? Why haven't you?

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Zach Sutton's picture

Zach Sutton is an award-winning and internationally published commercial and headshot photographer based out of Los Angeles, CA. His work highlights environmental portraiture, blending landscapes and scenes with portrait photography. Zach writes for various publications on the topic of photography and retouching.

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How did you find quality models to collaborate with for only images as compensation when you were out of state, did you already know people out there? I am curious to learn your strategy for this. (This is a serious question, not to sound sarcastic)

It really depends. I've used ModelMayhem before (ugh), but I've also contacted friends in those areas, spoke with agencies, spoke with other photographers and even joined Facebook groups in local areas.

Thanks for the tips, I also just moved my business across the country so I definitely can relate to your situation and the points you made in your article. I've always believed in bank rolling your own work to get more work. Im planning a few test shoots here, but its always been a little overwhelming to think about shoots in other states unless you can fly out models you know. I really appreciate this article!

I modeled for 8 years before starting in photography. It should be mentioned that if the model isn't in need of the particular photos from the test shoot, the photographer will have to pay the model their rate to photograph them. Trades are easier to workout with more up & coming models as opposed to those who are more established.

NEVER pay for models if there is no commercial use for these images. Models who don't test and want money from photographers are just unprofessional in fact most of these models aren't even agency listed.

What is the benefit for the model to let you photograph them? If you call up Tom Cruise & said you want to take his headshot for your portfolio, he's not going to do it for free.
Use your same sentence and replace "model" with "photographer".. you wouldn't agree to it. "Never pay a photographer if there is no commercial use for these images."

What's in it for the model?

High End work for their Portfolio.
These non commercial shots are supposed to be a win win situation for
every one. But well if ypu are Tom Cruise I'm pretty shure your
portfolio is complete so there is no need for that.

And one final thing about your qoute: "Never pay photographers if there is no commercial use for these images.

often seen people walking around with a similar attitude: Never pay
photographers even if there is a commercial use, just tell them there
will be follow up jobs and just use their work for free or find someone
who is desperate enough to do so.

This article isn't really about paying's about paying for travel to diversify your portfolio...

Any business must invest in itself to be successful. We are artists but we are also a business. I have been an accountant and business owner for the past 10 years, specializing in getting businesses off the ground. The #1 reason every business I worked with that ended up failing was the unwillingness or inability of the owner to invest in the business. I shut the doors to one of my own businesses because I could not invest the time in the business without getting income from it at that point. That turning point usually happens ironically when the business grows because you can't operate without certain expenses but you can't afford them either.

I get a lot of flak from local full time photographers because I'm not a full time photographer right now and I don't plan on it for 5 years (apparently I'm a momtographer in spite of my art school education and distinct lack of babies in buckets in my portfolio). My priority is being able to pay my bills first and foremost. Money earned from photography goes back into photography along with whatever I want to invest out of my income from my day job. I gave myself that 5 years because the investment is so important to succeed.

The only models I pay are the people I know who are figure models at the local schools for art classes. Inexperienced fashion/commercial models will test for the experience of working with different photographers and build their portfolio.

Zach if you are ever doing a shoot back in michigan again I would love to help out.

Sure thing. I might be back up there in the first week of July to teach a two day workshop. Keep a lookout for that!

Great article Zach, I really need to invest in my portfolio. I live in ABQ too and I dreaded moving here, but the more I get out and shoot…the better this place gets!

We'll have to grab coffee or a beer sometime Chris :-)

Sounds good, hit me up at and pay no attention my nonexistent portfolio, its a work in progress starting

One thing that I'm finding incredibly helpful is seeking out serious critique and consulting. I've been blown away with how helpful using the services over at have been. It's not "cheap" but sometimes having an objective kick in the pants without the standard internet bluster free-for-all can do a lot to help with focus and trying new things.


Hi Zach, great article! Definitely got me thinking on investing. If I were to do something like this, what would be your gear recommendation? Should I bring everything and a cat or pack light like travel photography? Thanks,