Your photography portfolio is often the first point of contact for a potential client. A strong portfolio establishes your style, your range, and your skills—it is your entire brand on display.
Putting one together is (and should be) an intensive process, but the beauty of a well-thought-out portfolio is that it gives people a clear idea of who you are, as well as rewards you with work.
Here are ten tips to guide you in the building of your own photography portfolio.
These days, if you’re hoping to attract clients, you can’t not have an online presence. While you might already have an active Facebook or Instagram account where you post some of your work (amongst other daily stuff), remember that not everyone is on social media. It also makes a difference to have a dedicated page that features only the best of your work.
You can easily create a professional-looking online portfolio with sites like Squarespace, Wix, Pixpa, Format, or PhotoShelter, that offer a range of services from image hosting to licensing or selling prints; all of which are available on a monthly plan.
The idea of printing your photos and carrying them around seems almost quaint because we do most of our transactions online nowadays, but it never hurts to have a hardcopy of your portfolio, especially for those times when you have a face-to-face meeting with a prospective client. In any case, seeing your photos in glorious analog detail will also help a creative director envision how your final work will appear when published.
If you’re just beginning to build your portfolio, find out the rates of others in your field and charge at the lower end in order to attract initial clients. You can also ask friends (including their children or even their pets) to model for you, or approach owners of new businesses to let you shoot their products in exchange for photos.
Just remember not to shortchange yourself for too long. Veteran photographers always advise those newer to the profession to never accept unpaid jobs because it devalues their work as well as the wider industry. Photography is a business, and at the end of the day, photographers have bills to pay.
You may be equally adept at shooting both weddings and fashion editorials while doing corporate events on the side, but to a potential client or editor, a too-broad portfolio can look disorganized and unfocused. Pick a specialty—or two—that you are most passionate about, considering how you would like to be defined as a photographer. In your portfolio, categorize them into separate sections to keep things organized.
Style can be anything from the way you light your subjects to how you post-process your photos. Ideally, it should reveal something about your personality and highlight what makes your work different from that of other photographers.
Even though it may take months (or even years) of shooting to figure out, it’s important to develop your own artistic style, so that your portfolio isn’t just a mishmash of experimental techniques and borrowed aesthetics. A strong visual identity will also show clients if your work is what they’re looking for.
Deciding which your strongest pictures are is bound to be a difficult process. Some photos that you love may be technically weak; others may be perfectly exposed but are just blah. Don’t include them. It may be painful for you to “kill your darlings,” but when cutting photos down, you must do so with an unsentimental eye. After a big culling session, sleep on it for a day or two and come back with fresh eyes.
Expert advice will also be of great help—ask a professional photographer, photo editor, or mentor to go through your selections. If these people aren’t available, get the opinion of someone you trust who falls in your target market.
You want to show that you’ve covered conflict in Afghanistan, or captured extreme close-ups of Justin Bieber from the front row of his concert, or an elusive polar bear in the Arctic. That’s fine, but if the photos are not up to par, then you’re only doing yourself a disservice. A poor photo of a fascinating subject, celebrity, or place is still a poor photo, and it will take away from the experience of your ordinary-but-great photos. Be critical about what you do (and don’t) include in your portfolio.
Similarly, don’t get attached to photos you worked really hard on but just didn’t turn out right. You might have dangled from a helicopter, gone 100 feet underwater, or risked frostbite, but having to explain the lengths you went through to get that shot will not make it a better photo.
Once you’ve whittled down your photos to the best of the best, it’s time to lay them out. It might help to have small printouts of your photos, so you can physically rearrange them on a flat surface.
You can take several approaches when sequencing photos. For instance, you can arrange them by mood, color, composition, and movement, or a combination thereof. Switch things around until your photos flow seamlessly.
Ultimately, the idea is to let a narrative emerge from the first picture to the last. Viewers, as they scroll through the photos on the website (or flip through pages in a book), should feel an emotional experience and leave your work feeling moved—to hire you! If you’re familiar with film theory, you’ll know how powerful montage can be.
The first image someone browsing your site sees should be one of the strongest. It should represent who you are as a photographer, yet be enigmatic enough to pull the viewer in and make them want to keep on looking.
The final photo has to make an impact as well—it should mark the end of the journey but leave a lasting memory.
You may be using the slickest website or the most premium photo paper, but a portfolio is really only as good as its photographs. As you grow in your profession and client base, your portfolio should reflect that too. Keep updating your site or reprinting your collection as needed, remembering the essential rules of editing and sequencing to get the most out of your images.