How To Survive The Agonizing Process Of Building A Portfolio

Screendump of my quick portfolio, almost done!

Hi there DIYP readers. I’ve been given the aaaawesome honor of writing on a regular basis for the site, so I figured I’d start out with saying Hi! so… Hi! I’m a portrait and commercial photographer out of Copenhagen in Denmark, and I’m going to be writing mostly about the terrible, hilarious, funny, complicated, hard, easy, scary and hopefully immensely satisfying life of freelance photography, and the pitfallsm trials and triblations of said life. For my first official posts here I figured I’d start out with something utterly soul-crushing, so portfolio-building it is!

One of the most terribad, and important, and hard, and good and wonderful and soul-crushing things one has to go through, on a regular basis, is redoing one’s portfolio. I tend to ignore it a liiiittle too long, and suddenly I look at my current website and go “Darn, this isn’t representative of my work at all anymore… time to go through that horrifying exercise in soul-crushing again”. Usually this is encouraged by a “gentle” prodding from my producer.

I’m going to go over how I build portfolios, why I do it that way, and share some random tidbits and pointer I’ve picked up over time.

Before even starting

(Note: I use lightroom for organizing my photos, but this should apply to aperture and bridge too.) Now, whenever I get home from a shoot, I do a pass of the images where I basically select “stuff that is good enough to present to the client”. This basically lets me go back and select all the images that I in some way think “work”, and are good enough to be seen by anyone besides me. Down the road this process forms the basis of my portfolio building.

If I relied on choosing from the “final client pick” images I’d be missing shots I really love, that somehow just didn’t fit the client’s needs, so my initial pool for portfolio building is “stuff that is good enough to show the world”. For reference I usually end up with between 5 and 20 shots from a portrait shoot, and less than that for pr/branding shoots. If you pick 100 shots from each you’ll be going through a TON of images down the road… so that might not be very… pleasurable.

Getting emotional – the initial selection

Instinctive reactions, that is what we're looking for here!

Starting with my initial pool of images from above, I do a very fast, and very rough, pass where I basically pick every image that ressonates with me in some way. I don’t do technical nitpicking, I don’t do long inspections, play around with different color gradings or any such thing, I just go by whether or not the images makes me feel SOMETHING when I see them, well… something besides “How on earth did I end up picking this image? this is utter maneure!”. I do it by basically looking at the images in full screen mode, and quickly tapping the next-image key, and then just pressing the hotkey for “add to collection” whenever I get a reaction to an image. No pausing, no thinking or anything like that.

The reason for doing this pass first, and doing it fast and sort of in a winging-it style, is that I want to pick all the images that has an immediate effect, because obviously I want people looking at my portfolio to react to the images in it. I want them to want to click the images and look at the big image, and I want them to feel something. If I get bogged down in technical nitpickery or analyzing the images I’ll loose my initial reaction to them, and it is the initial reaction I’m looking for.

How many images I end up with after this pass is basically a crapshoot. but anything beyond 100 images per category (for me; portraiture, circus, theathre, dance & music) means I do another pass of the same kind.

Getting democratical – the outsourcing part

How I often imagine people look when helping me sort my portfolio

After having completed the initial pass, I create a gallery for each catergory and throw it online in a password protected folder on my server. I then link this galler to a select group of people and ask them to pick their favorites. I explicitly tell them that I don’t care whether it is 0, 10 or 50 images that are “their favorites”, but that it should only be their favorites. Who these people are is the important part. I have a few people I show all the galleries, a couple of photographers I look immensely up to, who for some reason are willing to help me out with this, a few ADs, and my mother who is a ridiculously good art critic (yes, you may point your finger at me and laugh now. On top of that I also ask people that are specific to each category to look at them. Like… for my circus images I ask a couple of performing circus artists, a couple of circus directors etc. to look at them and so on and so fort. I then gather up all their favorites which nets me a nice list of images sorted by “most favorites”.

There are several reasons for doing this. Firstly it is important to get some eyes that aren’t my own on the images. I have emotional connections to all my images; maybe the shoot was particularly awesome to be part of, maybe I made my first big paycheck with the image, maybe I have a secret crush on the person I did a portrait of. I need someone who is ignorant to these connections to look at the images. Beyond that the specific people are chosen for a specific reason.

  • The photographers I’ve chosen knows me, they know what I love about photography, what my aspirations are and the direction in which I’m headed as a photographer. Being awesome people, they are able to look at the images from both a technical photography perspective, and from a “are these images representative of the Andreas I know as a photographer” perspective.
  • The ADs can look at the images from the perspective of both potential clients, and as people who look at TONS of images daily, and therefore both know what is currently happening in the visual art scene, and can draw upon their huge internal database of images for comparison both with regard to impact and quality.
  • The specific people for the categories obviously brings knowledge about what sort of images are needed, used and paid for within their field. Circus artists and directors know which images they want for their posters, websites, advertisements etc. And so their oppinnion on the matter is valuable.

It is important to note that I don’t follow these “votes” or what you might call them blindly. Often I am in agreement with a lot of the picks, and if I am in direct disagreement, it is a very good reason for me to ask people why they picked the photo and reflect on why I wouldn’t pick the image. So besides helping out with the portfolio making, it is also an awesom excuse to get some reflection on my work and opinion done :)

Picking my favorite child – getting rid of look-a-likes

This is how I imagine the inside of my head looking when going through this process

So, this is where it starts getting painful. Usually I have a bunch of picks for my portfolio that are from the same shoot. Some shoots are obviously better than others, and from my best shoots I often end up with 2-5 picks. Unless there is a very very awesome reason for it, I don’t think it is a good idea to have several photos from the same shoot in a portfolio, so I have to get rid of some. This can be excruciatingly hard, but it has to be done, so I just hunker down and get choosin’.

Some things I tend to keep in mind during this part is to make sure that I don’t always pick the same type of crop / composition, to avoid the portfolio consisting of basically the same kinds of images. That I never ever allow an image to stay if I’m going “hmm, is this okay for the portfolio?”, and that, especially for portraits, I don’t have several images of the same client fron different shoots, unless they’re very good images and very different images.

The final countdown – Building the final story

So, after going through all this, I’m usually left with around… 30 odd images for each category, and I reeeeeeeally want to shave it down to around 20. Now, 20 isn’t a magical figure or something, it is just what feels right to me, and a good incentive to cut even more surperfluous stuf from the portfolio. Now, beyond being just a collection of “best images evar that X has made”, a portfolio is also sort of a story. It has to flow from one image to the next, and be a nice experience to go through. This was obviously more important when we only had books, since people click around freely on websites, but it still matters. The visual flow throughout the thunbnail gallery, if you use those, still matters. And the overall appearance of the portfolio still matters. So the task in this final part is twofold, it is both about getting rid of the least good of the best, but it is also about getting rid of the images that down’t fit within the flow of the portfolio, and about ordering the images for the portfolio.

I find it almost impossible to give specific technical advice on ordering your images, because it is really about how it “feels” to go through the images, but there are some pointers I find helpful.

  • Don’t order the images completely after appearance so that you get all the low key tight crops first, then the low key loose crops, then the high key etc… This is a very easy way to do it, and the obsessive compulsive side of me (no, I’m not using that term jokingly, I do have a slight obsessive compulsive disorder with regard to ordering things visually) looooves this idea, but it doesn’t work for telling a story and having a good flow in your portfolio. Instead of being a journey through your images, it becomes a row of boxes filled with the same kind of candy.
  • Don’t put your best images first and your worst images last. This is a very common thing to do the first time people build portfolios, I’ve done it a couple of times, and it is such a bad idea. It basically ends up making people go “oooh, this photographer has skills, wait…” and leaves them remembering your worst images. The reverse is also dumb because people might just stop looking after the first few images. Think about flow and feel instead of front of back loading.
  • Don’t look at your portfolio only by flipping through it, or viewing it as a thumbnail gallery, do both. It needs to work both as a contact sheet and as a book.
  • Don’t hold on to images that you really like, but just doesn’t fit into the portfolio. You’re building a portfolio, not picking your favorite images.

Random tidbits and pointers.

So, I hope that all made sense and was helpful, besides the run-through of how I do it and why, there are some general pointers and rules of thumbI’ve picked up from photographers much better than me, books and other sources. So it isn’t “awesome shit I made up”, I’m just conveying what I’ve been lucky enough to have been taught over the years :)

  • Build your portfolio thinking about the work you want to get, not thinking about what you have done. Whatever it is you have in your portfolio, is what you’re going to get hired for, so if you want to do more commercial stuf, get more commercial looking images into that portfolio. If you have done a lot of conferences and other events, but really hate it, tone it down in your portfolio.
  • Give up on the notion of building the perfect portfolio. It’ll just end up making you spend months upon months going back over it, and it is better to have a slightly flawed portfolio out there, than a perfect one that doesn’t exist.
  • Don’t loose confidence in your own knowledge of who you are as a photographer. You are the single person in the universe who knows exactly what you want to do as a photographer, what inspires you, what satisfies you and so on and so forth. Keep that in mind when building your portfolio, and don’t end up with a design-by-commitee process. Involving other people is an important aspect, but keep in mind that it is YOUR portfolio, and it has to represent YOU.
  • Tag and name all your images in the metadata. This is like… super important, because you really want people to find YOUR image when they google for “bald female punk guitarist” or whatever, and go “oooh, I want to hire THAT photographer”. give them a title, caption and tags in the metadata.

About The Author

Andreas Bergmann is a commercial photographer based in Copenhagen, Denmark. You can follow his work on his blog or his Facebook.

  • Paul Wren

    Hey what a great read. I’ll be taking some of that advice in the future. I have never even thought about asking other people to go through my pictures (although funnily enough I ask other people about my writings). Thanks for the insight into your pain/satisfaction/euphoria etc and thanks immensely for an informative and excellent first write up. All the best for the future and may we see many more from you!

    • Andreas_Bergmann

      Thank you very much for the kind words :) And yeah, the “other people” thing is also something I learned somewhat down the road. But it can really help getting some fresh eyes on things now and then :)

  • Helena

    Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and thoughts on this! I’m in the process of rebranding and building my new portfolio right now (actually have been for the last few months – ha), and your post has been super helpful! I’ve gone through my pictures so many times, I don’t know anymore which ones to choose at all. So will send some to friends/family right now, and then try my best to be really strict with myself and only select what works – even if that means taking out photos I love. Hope it will work 😉 Thanks for your help again!

    • Andreas_Bergmann

      Oh, awesome that it was useful! And believe you me, I know that feeling of staring so much at the same photos over and over again that you almost go blind from it.. it sucks! And hey, if you need someone outside your personal network to look at your images shoot me a mail, I’m usually happy to look over folios unless I’m like.. ridiculously busy!

      • Helena

        Thank you so much for that offer, Andreas! I really appreciate it. Will definitely get in touch once I’ve cut them down a bit more.

  • Sean

    I like the online password gallery part. Never thought of doing that.

    • Andreas_Bergmann

      Yeah, a good colleague pitched the idea, and it is such a nice way of just sort of.. having people go over it.

  • Babs Armour

    Thanks very much for this excellent and useful information. I have been stuck in a re-do of my website and this helps. I’m a fine art photographer but much of what you say applies to me too.

    • Andreas_Bergmann

      It seems that we need to have some sort of website re-do slump clinic running at some point, it is really a common thing to get completely stuck in… I think… or so it seems.