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Tips for building a strong photography portfolio

As both your home base and your calling card, your portfolio deserves your time and attention. Here are some simple but essential things to consider when putting it together.

Your portfolio is usually the first point of contact that clients and collectors have with your work. But too often, photographers don’t invest the energy into creating one that stands out. A stellar Instagram feed is a good place to start, but every artist needs a solid, independent portfolio or lookbook to bring to job interviews and market themselves online. Here are seven tips that will help you build a strong, eye-catching and memorable portfolio.

1. Decide on your audience

Ask yourself what the purpose of your portfolio is and who your ideal viewer is. For example, if you’re putting together a portfolio of newborn photography images to attract new parents as clients, you might decide on using different images than you would a photography competition. When you have your ideal viewer in mind and think from their perspective, you may choose images that you might have otherwise passed on.

2. Decide on what you want to say with your portfolio

Your voice and purpose need to come through in your portfolio. So it’s important to create cohesion. If you’re building a portfolio with existing work, that cohesion can come from choosing a dominant subject or colour palette. If you’re embarking upon a new portfolio, series, or personal project, then decide on what you want this portfolio to say. This helps you create from a place of intention, fusing cohesion into the portfolio as you go.

“Keep it coherent,” photographer Joseph Ford, author of Invisible Jumpers, advises. “It can be tempting to think you have to try to tick all the boxes, all the time, particularly when you don’t have a clearly defined style. If you show a beauty shot, a portrait, a landscape, a still life, a car shot and a product shot, potential commissioners won’t know what you’re really interested in or what you’re really good at. Showing a clear speciality will help clients know how to use your skills.”

Image by Joseph Ford

3. Present yourself professionally

When building your portfolio, it’s important to invest in a professional-looking website and quality prints. This doesn’t mean that you need to spend a fortune on either. There are plenty of reasonably priced services that help you build beautiful websites, like Squarespace, Zenfolio, and Format—you can read our guide to online portfolio services here. There are also print on-demand services that create quality prints and albums, so don’t skimp on presentation. No matter how good your work is, if the presentation is poor, then it’s likely to turn off potential clients or collectors.

If you are presenting your work at a portfolio review, loose prints are the best way to showcase your work. For casual client meetings, an album or app on your phone or tablet can suffice. Depending on your website host, they might include apps for this purpose or there are apps like Foliobook for iOS and Art Portfolio for Android. If you are presenting a portfolio for a sales meeting with a client, for example, to upsell them on albums or wall prints, it’s always wise to bring samples.

4. Think about your image sequence

Once you have at least 10-20 images that you want to include in your portfolio, it’s time to think about the order you want to display them. Remember to keep your ideal viewer in mind. Start with a strong first impression by leading with the photograph that will be the most impactful to that ideal viewer. What do you consider the second most powerful image? Think about using this one as your last photograph, as the final punctuation on the portfolio.

Once you have your bookends, you need to fill the rest of the portfolio with images that make sense in the context of one another. A great way to do this exercise is to get small prints and tape them up on the wall. Move the images around, swap some in and some out. Eventually, you will find an order that makes sense, with photographs that flow from a colour and composition perspective. If you can create a story within that flow, even better.

“I guess I have two principles I go by when I need a package of, say, 20 images,” photographer Pelle Cass tells us. “I make sure they are the best I have. Not too complicated. But I also try to make them go together harmoniously. A bit more of a push and pull.”

Image by Pelle Cass

5. Tell a stong story

If you can create a narrative in your portfolio, you will keep your viewer engaged. Explore images that have different emotional frequencies within your style to see if they lend themselves to a narrative. This is easier with certain genres, such as wedding photography, because you do things like tell the story of a single day. But other forms of photography, both commercial and fine art, can lend themselves to narratives. Be creative and see where the process takes you. Your “story” doesn’t have to be literal; it can also be formal.

“I’m not a storyteller, so my sequencing ideas are generally formal,” Pelle Cass continues. “I might pair two similar looking photos with a Vee composition but with different colours followed by a pair with opposing diagonals and complementary colours. The goal is always variety, surprise, coherence.”

If you are stuck, fall back to what your original intent was with your portfolio. Ask yourself how each photograph in the portfolio contributes to that overall intention. Does each image contribute something different? Think about them like sentences in a paragraph and use each consecutive photo to build on the previous one, giving more information or depth of understanding for the viewer.

6. Edit ruthlessly

Editing and sequencing are some of the more time-intensive parts of portfolio building. So don’t be afraid of spending a lot of time in this phase. This is where you need to be your own harshest critic and keep an eye out for the weakest links in the portfolio, or photographs that don’t work in the context you’re creating. William Faulkner reportedly remarked that authors should “kill their darlings,” meaning that they should give up the things they love the most and are holding onto selfishly. Photographers should too.

This doesn’t mean cutting your best work. But it does mean being willing to remove the image that, deep in your heart you know doesn’t work, despite it being your favourite photograph. The more critical of an eye you’re able to give to your editing process, the stronger your portfolio will be.

“It’s important to get some distance to your work before beginning the editing process and between the editing phases, as you go ahead and reduce the volume,” photographer Benita Suchodrey says. “It’s crucial to take a pause of a day or two and re-evaluate how important certain shots are. Ultimately, it’s about changing—or rather adjusting—your mind-set from clinging less to analysing more. Think about the big picture, as opposed to obsessing about your attachment to each shot.”

The more critical of an eye you’re able to give to your editing process, the stronger your portfolio will be.

7. Get outside opinions

Though most artists don’t like others to see work that is unfinished, getting an outside opinion of your portfolio while it is in-process can be one of the best things you do for yourself. This doesn’t mean asking your best friend or your Mum what they think. It means inviting either other professionals in or clients you have close relationships with—sitting down with the right reviewer is paramount.

Image by Benita Suchodrev

In conclusion

A portfolio is not a static thing. Over time it will change and grow as your style and client base evolves. Don’t be afraid to revisit it every six months to a year. Add new work that is a current reflection of your style, and discard work that is outdated or not in line with your direction anymore. Though it is an investment of time and energy to create and rework a portfolio, keeping it fresh means that your portfolio is an accurate representation of you as a photographer.

“Your portfolio is a reflection of who you are,” says Benita Suchodrev, “not only of how you click but also of how you tick. It’s all anyone can know about you until you have a chance to tell them more. Until then, whether you like it or not, believe it or not, your work is an expression of your personality through ‘exterior’ means.”

About the contributor

Feature Shoot showcases the work of international emerging and established photographers who are transforming the medium through compelling, cutting-edge projects, with contributing writers from all over the world.