Portfolio. Gosh that can be a scary word. When you have to compile a greatest hits of your photography life and future commissions and your career can depend on it, getting it right is a big deal.
There is a lot of advice out there. But which advice should you take and what should you jettison? I’ve read through the books that I own (by authors and photographers including Demetrius Fordham, Haje Jan Kamps, and Lara Jade) and trawled the net and put together a summary. You can think of it as a portfolio of portfolios, if you like.
Hardcopy or digital?
Your first portfolio question is going to be ‘Hardcopy or digital format?’ Almost every source that I have consulted suggests that if you’re serious about photography as a profession, you need both. This means a clean, easily accessible and navigable online version and a smart, bound copy. Demetrius Fordham also recommends having a PDF portfolio that can be emailed to potential clients, as well as an online offering.
We’ll get to layout and presentation in a bit. Before then, we need to talk about what goes into your portfolio.
Choose your best images
This sounds so obvious, doesn’t it? It’s also true. Furthermore, these need to be your best images as judged objectively. So that’s not your favourite images, or the images that your dad thinks are your best (unless your dad happens to be one of your fiercest critics and supporters), but your best images as judged by people who are firm, fair, and supportive.
How many images?
Reasonably, no one was prepared to set down a firm number of images to include in a portfolio. The general consensus was, though, that fewer is better than many. Remember, it’s very easy to become ‘image-blind’, so making a strong statement with a precisely curated selection of images is going to be far more effective than boring a potential client with a wall of photos.
I think that the statement by photo editor Stella Kramer, in the Photoshelter Guide to Creating a Successful Photography Portfolio, puts it best: ‘I think it’s better to have less and make people want to see more.’
If you need some figures to help you along, aim for between 25 and 40 images.
Project your style and brand
Your portfolio is intended to showcase your best photos and to reflect your style and brand. You need a consistent theme or narrative running through your portfolio, not just a random collection of your best images. Your portfolio is there to tell your potential clients what type of photographer you are; they shouldn’t have to figure this out for themselves from an array of different genres.
If you’re a family portrait photographer, then your portfolio should reflect that. It shouldn’t be a few family portraits interspersed with some landscapes, the odd insect macro, and a couple of travel photos. Not only should your portfolio be all family portraits, but they should be identifiably, recognisably yours. It doesn’t matter where they’re shot, if it’s a multigenerational shoot or a newborn with parents, there needs to be something about it that marks it out as unmistakably yours.
What do you want to shoot?
This question was repeated again and again by lots of different people. The idea behind it is that you should use your portfolio as a platform to secure the kinds of commissions that you want to shoot. If your portfolio is a collection of portraits when what you really want to pursue is travel photography, it won’t inspire a commissioning editor to hire you. She or he isn’t going to be convinced that you can deliver what’s needed, however delicious your portraits are. Use your portfolio as a representation of your goals, so that you can go forth and attain them.
You need to balance consistency with variety
I touched on this idea in the point about projecting your style and brand, so let’s consider it in a little more depth. Whatever your genre, your portfolio needs to be a dazzling collection that displays your capabilities. This means that while they are all stamped with your brand and are identifiably yours, they have a variety about them which conveys your talent and means that your audience doesn’t get bored.
If you’re a travel photographer, you want a portfolio that includes people and food as well as a landscapes and monuments. A wedding photographer’s portfolio shouldn’t be just bridal couples shot at eye-level. Give your clients the full experience: old and young; up high and down low; sunny and overcast; romantic and fun. Your client needs to feel confident that whatever the situation or conditions, you can deliver.
What should you portfolio look like?
The photos need to do the talking. If someone remembers the design of your portfolio before they recall the images, then you’ve lost. If someone is frustrated by the layout or the navigation of your portfolio before they have the opportunity to admire your photos, then you’ve lost. If someone isn’t really sure what they’re looking at because you use idiosyncratic labels or caption your images poorly, then you’ve lost. If someone cannot get in touch with you because you hide away your contact details or only use a contact form, then you’ve lost. (Always provide an email as well as a contact form. It can be important for people getting in touch with you to have a record of what was sent, and when.) And if someone doesn’t get in touch with you because they don’t know where you’re based, then you’ve lost.
Your images need to do the talking. Your portfolio needs to open with a striking photo that kits the viewer between the eyes and it needs to close with an stunning image that lingers long in the memory.
Remember: your portfolio is a live document
Your portfolio is never going to be the finished article. It will bend and change and develop as you grow and explore and progress. As much as you might think that you’ve created the perfect portfolio, in six months’ time, a year’s time, it will need to be reassessed, culled, and reconstructed.