The Perfect Portfolio: A Photographer's Guide

By Jim Colton

1. Be Original: There’s nothing worse than having a portfolio that looks like every other portfolio. You want to be remembered! You want to leave a lasting impression. While it is useful to study other portfolios and web sites, imitation is NOT the sincerest form of flattery. Show some creativity in your thought process and reflect it in your work.

2. Content is King: Your portfolio is your calling card. It represents what is most important to you. Play to your strengths. Your portfolio is a sales pitch. Make sure the product you are selling is quality work that you stand behind. No one wants to buy an inferior product.

3. Editing: There’s an old adage that says, “Your portfolio is only as good as your weakest picture!” Show only your best work. No clunkers! Editing is critical. Be objective. Don’t get too emotionally attached to your work. Learn to kill your darlings. If you think a picture is weak, it probably is. Lead with your best shot. Be wise in your sequencing and don’t be repetitive. When a prospective client is finished viewing your portfolio they should feel like the same photographer took all the images!

Get other opinions when deciding what to put in your portfolio. Yes, photography is subjective and opinions will vary. But a consensus opinion will be apparent. If a majority of people object to a particular image, there’s probably a good reason. Use that information wisely.

4. Quality:  No out-of-focus, under-exposed or over-exposed images.Make sure your prints or digital images are of the highest quality possible. It must be well-organized, cleanly design and presented in a way consistent with work and ethics.

5. Personal Project or Story: A story or personal project will tell a reviewer a lot about you and your capabilities. Single images are fine but they give no indication of how you approached your assignment. Including a story shows a reviewer you understand and can execute visual storytelling. Does your story have a beginning (opener), a middle (transit images) and an end (a closer)? Did you vary your perspectives? Did you shoot tight as well as wide? Did your pictures take the viewer on a journey?

6. Portraits: The one thing that all media outlets need is good portraiture. News, sports, business, lifestyle…it doesn’t matter. If you have a cohesive collection of portraits, you will get work. But they must be stylistically the same and represent your vision. Mixing and matching studio lit, environmental and illustrative portraits may send mixed signals. Create a body of work that feels the same. Tonality and continuity are selling points.

7. Clips:  Include PDFs of your published work either at the end of your portfolio or as handouts. Editors and art buyers keep them as reference if your work is similar to the type of photography they publish.

8. Promo Cards: Absolutely essential! Have a good variety of promo cards which highlight your best work. List your name, website, phone numbers and email address on the promo cards. Also include your location. Don’t expect the reviewer to translate your area code to figure out where you are based.  A resume is something you might want to have handy as well, if applicable.

9. Digital vs. Print Portfolio: It’s not one or the other anymore. You must have both! Design your website in a similar style as your portfolio. Large single image home pages are very effective. Do not overdesign! The cleaner the look, the stronger the impact. Create easily navigable links to your galleries, published work, and contact information. Avoid slides shows that don’t allow the viewer to easily control the flow. Most viewers want to browse at their own pace.

10. Keep It Current: Update your portfolio regularly. Add new work as you finish new assignments. Keep your images fresh, current and topical. Remove older images and clips as they will make your portfolio look dated.

Final Thoughts

Do your homework. Study the publication you are submitting your portfolio to and make sure it is consistent with what they publish. Know your audience. Be willing to tailor your content based on who will be reviewing it. The closer it is to what they publish, the better your chances of being assigned.

Part Two: Tips From Winners