Your portfolio is an essential tool for your career as a photographer. It’s your business card, it’s the ultimate proof of your skill and an exhibition you can literally carry around with you and show to potential customers. That’s why it’s very important to carefully choose and properly organise your best pictures. In this article, we’ll explain in detail what a photographic portfolio is and give you some useful suggestions for creating your own portfolio with your best photos.
Taking a lot of pictures is relatively easy. The challenging part comes later, when you have to choose the best shots from the many you took. As funny as it may sound, it’s easier to select other people’s work than your own. That’s because when we think of our own, there’s an emotional factor getting in the way and it’s not always easy to overcome. But there’s no avoiding it: if you want to enter the world of professional photography, get through the exclusive selection process for a photography school or maybe even win a major photography competition, you need to carefully organise your work into a photo portfolio.
What is a photo portfolio?
First things first: a photo portfolio is a collection of pictures in sequence, organised according to precise aesthetic and conceptual criteria. It serves a dual purpose: it presents your best pictures but it also demonstrates your skill in showcasing them once you have developed them. Your portfolio shows your potential customers what you can do. It doesn’t matter whether you want to be a wedding photographer or a food photographer, if you want to work in fashion or advertising, if you want to be a photo journalist or artist, you are going to need a portfolio highlighting your very best work.
Creating your own photo portfolio
Selecting your pictures
The most challenging part of creating a portfolio is selecting the pictures. Although it becomes easier with experience, even seasoned photographers can struggle with this process. The quality of a portfolio depends on the pictures you keep and the ones you discard. A photographer is seldom the best judge of their own work, because they can’t put enough distance between themselves and the effort and emotion they put into their pictures. But selection is an essential phase in a photographer’s workflow, like editing for a film director. To put together a good selection, you need experience and a solid knowledge of photography.
When working on film, you can create a contact sheet of the whole negative in the roll. This gives you an overview of all the pictures you took and the information you need to choose the best negatives to print. You can mark the most interesting shots with a marker or a coloured pencil.
In digital photography, you can use software like Adobe Bridge or Adobe Lightroom. It’s useful look at the thumbnails first and then enlarge the ones you pick out.
After a first selection, it’s worth printing the pictures as thumbnails and laying them down on a surface like a whiteboard or a desk. This way you’ll get a wider overview compared to a computer screen, and altering the picture sequence to will be easier.
Become the best judge of your own work
It’s important to become an objective judge of your own pictures. If a shot is really good, it should jump out of the frame and provoke a strong emotion in you. Don’t ask for suggestions via social networks: other people seldom understand your vision and goals. If you need to ask someone, ask a professional, a fellow photographer or an editor you know, but remember: the final choice is up to you, and you alone.
Who’s your photo portfolio aimed at?
If you want your portfolio to be effective, you need to consider who you’re submitting it to. When you create your photo portfolio, you need to know the requirements of your target audience and show that you can satisfy them with your pictures. If you want to be a wedding photographer, for example, your future customers will be future spouses. They will want to see pictures of marriages you took in the past to give themselves an idea of how you would work with them. Only after having seen photos of other people’s weddings, will your future customers be sure they want you to be the photographer at theirs.
Keep your portfolio simple
A good portfolio is dedicated to a single, specific theme. A coherent body of work is clearly better than a bunch of randomly selected pictures. Choosing a theme means having a common thread connecting your work: your future customer will understand there is a consistent and recognisable theme. It’s important to have something to say and to say it in a distinctive voice that stands out from other photographers.
The best sequence for your pictures
In addition to a coherent selection, you need to consider the sequence of your pictures. If your portfolio follows a well-thought-out order, it can be enjoyed effortlessly, because the human brain loves coherence and rhythm, be it musical or visual. The single pictures in your portfolio, together with the criteria you used to organise them, show your communicational intent, which must be as clear as possible in delivering your message. Every single picture in your portfolio has a precise meaning, but as an effective sequence, they take on additional meanings that improve their expressive power.
The pictures selected must tell a story. The best should be positioned at the beginning, in the middle and at the end of your portfolio. The first picture must suck the viewer into your photo portfolio and make them want to look at the rest, while the last should serve as a fitting epilogue to an unforgettable story.
In a well-designed photo portfolio, every picture adds some meaning to its predecessors, and together they form a clear path towards a precise idea. The portfolio must have a title that properly represents its content, along with a summary description of what it’s about. But remember: none of these elements must steal the limelight from the pictures. The text can provide a good introduction, but your photos must speak for themselves.
Choose quality over quantity
How many pictures should a good portfolio contain? Focus on quality first. Select your best shots only; if they are really good, it doesn’t matter if there aren’t many of them. The purpose of your photo portfolio is to showcase your skill. It must be a sample of the best you can do. Keeping this in mind, your selection should help your customer to evaluate your work without boring them. An effective portfolio might contain about 15-20 pictures.
Making your photo portfolio stand out
Just like a CV or a business card, which, in a sense, is what a portfolio is, your photographic portfolio should look professional, sober and refined in every detail. Be careful when creating the cover and choosing the size and paper. If you design your portfolio as a traditional folder of pictures, it maybe the best choice to promote an exhibition, but it will be less vibrant than an online gallery.
If it’s your first portfolio, we suggest you create one you can update frequently. If you are an experienced photographer and you want to emphasise your professionalism, your best option might be to create a book or a series of single prints of your best pictures. But avoid going overboard: your portfolio is supposed to be easy to keep with you and carry around.
And remember, it’s wise to keep an online portfolio that’s easy to show to your customers. This way you will also have the advantage of being able to instantly submit it via e-mail or social networks.