Your (almost) perfect portfolio in 11 steps

Zoe_WhishawZoe Whishaw is a independent commercial photography consultant and mentor. She works with photographers on a one-to-one basis and runs seminars and workshops in and around London.

Marketing your work needs a variety of approaches. Depending on who your end clients are, a physical portfolio will be a must-have in your toolkit.

We are all accustomed to the fact that social media is a very powerful means to get noticed, get connected and to garner information. But given that this all-absorbing digital environment envelops many of us much of the time, nothing touches a potential client quite like a physical portfolio to disrupt this new norm. This may sound a little old-fashioned to some, but it’s true to say that many art buyers, art directors, gallery curators and photo editors crave the tactile and immediacy of beautifully printed pictures on high quality paper given how commonplace the more speedy and practical nature of iPads has become.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a place for a range of platforms to show your work and indeed it may well be that for your particular photography business where you want to demonstrate your skills in motion or you want to show an alternative group of images to those in your standard portfolio, or a more in-depth look at a project, the iPad or a printed book may be preferable. If you’re shooting mainly editorial work, your website is likely to do most of the work.

Whether you are a wedding photographer wanting to impress your clients with an unforgettable, cherished item or one wanting to demonstrate the potential and perfection in enlarging your prints to an advertising agency, a physical, tangible book will be a priority.

It will represent you and be memorable.

A portfolio is an investment – be realistic from the outset about what you can afford to spend. Determining what the design, materials, size, etc should look like will depend on your budget, overall brand and is of course a personal decision. The choices available enable you to create on the one hand a striking, sophisticated yet classic leather-bound book or something that is more characterful and unique and speaks to your own approach and genre of work….and everything in between. Think about what describes your style and consider materials and design that support this element of your brand.

But what of the contents…the all-important lure into you and where your creative passions lie?

Your book needs to have a focus and consistency. If you shoot a wide range of subjects you might decide you need to have more than one book to separate your specialties.

When defining a gallery of work, many seasoned editors like to use both editing software (at the start of the process) as well as tangible small prints (in the latter stages).

Here’s my outline guide to getting to that all-important tight selection of work.

Incidentally, this will be just as relevant to you if you are creating an online portfolio or series of image galleries.

As a starting point, get yourself in the right frame of mind: know it’s going to take time and that you’ll need several breaks away from the process to keep your mind fresh and as objective as possible in what can be an emotionally draining process. These breaks may vary from an hour or two to entire days.

  1. Gather together your favourite images from the last few years of shooting into one master gallery. This group may be as large as 500 or more images. Try to gather images from your personal work, with a sprinkling from commissions if you believe them to be amongst your best.
  2. Whilst I take for granted that you love all these images, now you have to start the ruthless process of throwing out the ones you love least. If you find there is repetition, delete the least strong shot…if you’re keeping in a few to show your range, but you know they aren’t the strongest and you aren’t particularly keen to develop this area, take them out. Try to get your gallery down to around 300. Now take a break – perhaps even wait until the following day.
  3. Do the process again and cull your images down to 100 and then finally to between 40 and 60. Keep the core of a series if you feel you need a sequence. Remember, you’re not trying to show all your work, you’re trying to show the essence of your vision.
  4. Print out these pictures using an inexpensive printer – perhaps 4-up to an A4 page and cut them out.
  5. Find an area you can use to stick these pictures to a wall or lay them out on a large flat surface – that you can leave and come back to and doesn’t need to be cleared away.
  6. Can you identify your 2-4 strongest, most striking images? These may form the start and end of your folio.
  7. Get some perspective and step back – decide which pictures sit naturally well together in terms of colour, style, composition, subject matter, short series. Which images seem to stand alone and not ‘fit’ with the rest? You’re now trying to get to a final set of between 20 and 40 images…so some of these are going to have to be let go.
  8. Start to rearrange the pictures so you start to feel a flow from left to right. Look for pairings of pictures that work together as spreads. Even if you decide to show your work as loose prints, there needs to be a beginning, middle and end to the sequence you present.
  9. Keep removing the images that simply don’t fit or jar with you. You will need to grit your teeth at this point and just do it. I said it would be tough and this is the hardest part! It is better to have an edit that is short and sweet with every page having the ‘wow’ factor that risk a potential client skipping past a great shot.
  10. Try to get some honest feedback at this state from people who have a level of objectivity you can trust and may even provide professional insight. Listen to what they say however painful that might be. Hear common threads from different people and make the changes you now know you need to make.
  11. It’s unlikely to feel perfect – the gaps will tell you where you need to focus your activities going forwards.

The portfolio at this point should represent You and where you are now. You’ll need to revisit the contents several times a year and not feel precious about keeping it as is.

Now that you have your portfolio, you need to get it out there and for it to be seen.

Nothing beats you being present with your book – a potential client can get a much better measure of whether you are likely to be able to help solve their imagery needs. I’ll be talking about those all-important client meetings in my next blog post.


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