A photographer's portfolio can be many things—ranging from a collection of specific types of images, to a sophisticated, comprehensive presentation of a life's work.
You can use your portfolio as a sales tool, to submit images for publication or stock, or for consideration for a juried exhibition or gallery sales. In the end, your portfolio reflects your hard work as a photographer. You must ensure that it effectively communicates your vision with the viewer.
Recently, I had a long discussion about portfolios with another photographer. He has over 30 years of experience as a pro, and much success in commercial and fine-art photography. We reviewed some of my images, and later on, some of his.
We spread out more than 30 prints on a large table. My photography interests are wide-ranging, so we viewed prints of still life, landscape, glamour, and nature images. After a bit of discussion, it became clear that we could divide all of these images into two groups:
- Group 1 included pictures that could be called "recordings." These images are a fairly literal representation of a given subject.
- Group 2 included photographs with strong graphic elements. These images suggested a significant sense of design.
After grouping the prints, the differences among them became even more striking. We saw very clearly that the second group of images showed a stronger sense of style, and could easily differentiate my work from that of another photographer. The emotional impact and visual appeal of the two groups of images were also quite different.
Because I wanted to put together a general portfolio, we organized the finalists by subject.
A week later, I went to the WPPI (Wedding and Portrait Photographers International) Conference and Show. Portfolio case in hand, I went from meeting to meeting, talking with colleagues and potential collaborators in new business ventures.
From time to time, I had an opportunity to show my work. I found that the impact on the viewer was remarkably improved from past experiences. What a great change!
The experience reminded me that a portfolio is at its best when it shows a cohesive body of work, has a sense of style and individuality, and includes only one's strongest images.
Here are some tips for structuring your own portfolio:
Consider creating different types of portfolios. In addition to a general portfolio, you may want to have several portfolios organized by subject, style, and type of prints (color or black-and-white).
Re-structure your portfolio for different types of potential customers. Are you sharing your work with a gallery owner, collector, or a photo editor at a stock agency? Are you trying to attract new wedding or portrait work? Certainly each type of customer has a different set of goals. Carefully matching your images to what you know about their needs can only help you.
Try creating a portfolio that tells a story. Many customers want photographers who know how to visually tell a story, whether it’s about a wedding day, a family’s life, a visit to a certain location, or how a product is made. If you have storytelling skills, demonstrate them in your portfolio.
Ask at least one other person to help you. I'm convinced that most photographers can't see their own work as objectively as they see others’. Perhaps you have an emotional attachment to certain images because you can recall the circumstances in which the image was shot. In any event, getting a second opinion can be worth its weight in gold when you're working on something as important as a portfolio. A second opinion can help you confirm that your portfolio is projecting the type of impression, and level of impact, you want to create.
Your portfolio is your stand-in when you can't be there with the viewer. It's a mirror of your perceptions and style, and can often make or break you with a potential customer. A mentor once told me "it's all about your book."
So, grab your collection of prints, or make some new ones, spread them out on a big table, and experiment with different approaches in communicating what you're all about as a photographer. I think you'll be pleased with the results.