How To Survive The Agonizing Process Of Building A Portfolio

Jan 17, 2014

Andreas Bergmann

Andreas Bergmann is a Copenhagen based photographer working mainly with portraiture, stage arts and commercial photography. That is when he isn’t spending all his time on crazy art projects that he dreams will one day be his main area of work. He writes about all the softer non-technical sides of becoming, and being, a photographer. And can usually be found either on his Facebook page or his website.

How To Survive The Agonizing Process Of Building A Portfolio

Jan 17, 2014

Andreas Bergmann

Andreas Bergmann is a Copenhagen based photographer working mainly with portraiture, stage arts and commercial photography. That is when he isn’t spending all his time on crazy art projects that he dreams will one day be his main area of work. He writes about all the softer non-technical sides of becoming, and being, a photographer. And can usually be found either on his Facebook page or his website.

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

One of the most terrible, important, hard, good, wonderful, and soul-crushing things one has to go through is redoing their personal portfolio. To make things worse, you should fo it on a regular basis. I tend to ignore it a liiiittle too long. And suddenly, I look at my current photo portfolio website and think, “Darn, this isn’t representative of my best 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 a photography portfolio and why I do it that way. I’ll also share some random tidbits and pointers I’ve picked up over time to help you build a strong portfolio.

Screendump of my quick portfolio, almost done!

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 go through the images and basically select “stuff that is good enough to present to the client”. This lets me go back and select all the best shots that I in some way think “work” and are good enough to be seen by anyone besides me. Down the road, this process will form the basis of building my professional photography portfolio.

If I relied on choosing from the “final client pick” images, I’d be missing high-quality photos I really love but that didn’t fit the client’s needs. So, my initial pool for building a photography portfolio is “stuff that is good enough to showcase it to the world.” For reference, I usually end up with between 5 and 20 shots from a portrait shoot. It’s even fewer for PR/branding shoots. It all depends on your photography business and whether you photograph landscapes, pets, wedding photography; or fall under any other niche. Still, don’t overdo it. It may be hard to curate, but picking the 100 best photos from each shoot will make you go through a TON of images down the road. And that, my friend, might not be very… pleasurable.

Getting emotional – the initial selection for building a photography portfolio

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. Here, I basically pick every image that resonates with me in some way. I don’t do technical nitpicking or long inspections; I don’t play around with different color gradings or any such thing. I just go by whether or not the images make me feel SOMETHING when I see them. Well… something besides “How on earth did I end up picking this image? This is utter manure!”. I do it by looking at the images in full-screen mode, 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.

There’s a reason for doing this pass first, and doing it fast and sort of in a winging-it style. I want to pick all the images that have an immediate effect because I want prospective clients looking at my portfolio to react to the images in it. I want them to want to click on the photos, view them in full size, and feel something. If I get bogged down in technical nitpicking or analyzing the images, I’ll lose my initial reaction to them. And it is the initial reaction I’m looking for.

How many images will I end up with after this pass? It is basically a crapshoot, but anything beyond 100 images per category means I do another pass of the same kind. For me, the categories are portraiture, circus, theatre, dance, and music.

Getting democratical – the outsourcing part

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

Now it’s time for a second opinion. And this is still far from “faving” them on social media platforms. i don’t post images to Instagram and Facebook.

After having completed the initial pass, I create a gallery for each category. I upload them online in a password-protected folder on my server. Then, I link this gallery to a select group of people and ask them to pick their favorites. I explicitly tell the viewers 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 to. They include a couple of professional photographers I look immensely up to. And they, for some reason, are willing to help me out with this. There are also 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 who are specific to each category to look at them and provide their feedback. Like… for my circus images, I ask a couple of performing circus artists, circus directors, etc. I then gather all their favorites, which nets me a nice list of images sorted by “most favorites.”

Why I choose specific people to review my portfolio

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 whose portrait I photographed. I need someone ignorant of these connections to look at the images. Beyond that, the specific people are chosen for a specific reason.

  • The photographers I’ve chosen know me, they know what I love about photography, what my aspirations are, and the direction in which I’m headed in my photography career. Being awesome as they are, 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 future clients and as people who look at TONS of photos daily. Therefore, they 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.
  • Choosing specific people for specific categories obviously brings knowledge about what sort of images will a potential client need, use, and pay for within their field. Circus artists and directors know which images they want for their posters, websites, advertisements, etc. And so their opinion on the matter is valuable.

Additional benefit

It is important to note that I don’t blindly follow these “votes” or what you might call them. I often agree with a lot of the picks. But if I don’t, it is a very good reason for me to ask people why they picked the photo and reflect on why I wouldn’t pick it. So aside from helping out with the portfolio making, it is also an awesome excuse to get some reflection and insight 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. I usually have a bunch of picks for my online photography portfolio that are from the same shoot. Some shoots are obviously better than others, and from my best ones, I often end up with 2-5 picks. Unless there is a very, very big 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, no matter if you’re a hobbyist or a professional photographer. 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. Then, I never, ever allow an image to stay if I’m going “Hmm, is this okay for the portfolio?” Finally, especially for portraits, I don’t have several images of the same client from different shoots. I only break this rule if the photos are really good, or very different.

The final touch of building the photography portfolio

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 superfluous stuff from my photo portfolio site.

Now, beyond being just a collection of “best images ever 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 pleasant experience to go through. You also have to have your site visitors and target audience in mind. This was obviously more important when we only had printed portfolio, since people click around freely on websites. But it still matters. The layout and the visual flow throughout the thumbnail gallery, if you use those, still matter. And the overall appearance of online portfolios still matters, too.

So the task in this final part is twofold… It’s both about getting rid of the least good of the best, but also about getting rid of the images that don’t fit within the flow of the portfolio. It’s also about choosing the best order of photos for the photography portfolio website.

Some practical tips for finalizing the photography portfolio look

I find it almost impossible to give specific technical advice on ordering your images. After all, it’s really about how it “feels” to go through the images. Still, here 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 looooves this idea. However, 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. And I’m not even using the OCD term jokingly, I do have a slight obsessive-compulsive disorder with regard to ordering things visually.
  • 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 photography 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 talent and knows his skill… Oh wait…” and leaves them remembering your worst images. The reverse is also foolish because people might just stop looking after the first few images. Think about flow and feel instead of front or 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 that just don’t fit into the portfolio. You’re building a photography portfolio, not picking your favorite images. Stay objective!

Random tidbits and pointers.

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

Extra tips for building a photographyportfolio

  • Building a photography portfolio is thinking about the work you want to get, not about what you have done. Whatever you have in your portfolio, it’s what you’re going to get hired for. So, if you want to do more commercial stuff, get more commercial-looking images there. If you have done a lot of conferences and other events, but really hate it, tone them down in your portfolio.
  • Give up on the idea that you’ll build the perfect portfolio. It’ll just end up making you spend months upon months going back over it. And it’s better to have a slightly flawed portfolio out there than a perfect one that doesn’t exist.
  • Don’t lose 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. Keep that in mind when building a photography 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 super-important because you really want people to find YOUR image when they google “bald female punk guitarist” or whatever. And then you want them to go “Oooh, I want to hire THAT photographer.” Give them a title, caption, and tags in the metadata.

FAQ

What should a photography portfolio include?

Ditch the “best first” mentality. Showcase high-quality, relevant images that flow as a story, not just a collection. Target your audience, choose around 20-30 photos per category, and include contact info and a brief “about me.”

How do I make my own photography portfolio?

Build your story, not just your collection. Start with tons of images you personally connect with, then get objective feedback to curate around 20-30 photos per category that showcase your unique style and flow seamlessly. Think narrative, target audience, and quality and cohesion.

How many photos do I need for a photography portfolio?

Choose a wide range of images you personally connect with, regardless of technical aspects. This could be anywhere from 50-100+ images per category. Then, get feedback from others and ruthlessly cut images that don’t fit the portfolio’s narrative or target audience. Aim for around 20-30 images per category. Remember: It’s not about the number, but about strong storytelling and showcasing your unique style. Focus on quality, relevance, and flow over a specific number.

How should I organize my photography portfolio?

Craft a flowing narrative with your images, avoiding “best first” traps. Cater to your audience’s needs over personal favorites, and seek feedback to curate ruthlessly. Think contact sheet AND visual story, and remember, it’s all about showcasing your unique style and target market.

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About Andreas Bergmann

Andreas Bergmann is a Copenhagen-based photographer working mainly in portraiture, stage arts, and commercial photography. That is when he isn’t spending all his time on crazy art projects that he dreams will one day be his main area of work. He writes about all the softer, non-technical sides of becoming and being a photographer. He can usually be found either on his Facebook page or his website.

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

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9 responses to “How To Survive The Agonizing Process Of Building A Portfolio”

  1. Paul Wren Avatar
    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!

    1. Andreas_Bergmann Avatar
      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 :)

  2. Helena Avatar
    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!

    1. Andreas_Bergmann Avatar
      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!

      1. Helena Avatar
        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.

  3. Sean Avatar
    Sean

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

    1. Andreas_Bergmann Avatar
      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.

  4. Babs Armour Avatar
    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.

    1. Andreas_Bergmann Avatar
      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.