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Create a Professional Photography Portfolio

Create a Professional Photography Portfolio
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You have some great work. How do you show it to people and how do you get people to look at it? The editors at Yankee have asked me to write about creating a portfolio of your work…and I’m embarrassed to admit that I don’t have one, either. This is hard!

What is a photography portfolio?

A portfolio is a concise collection of your photos created to show people your best work. Its purpose is usually to get a photography gig. Whether you want to do weddings, portraits, commercial jobs, or to work for an environmental group to save a piece of the earth, a portfolio is the tool that shows a customer your capabilities.

Why should you have a photography portfolio?

You’re standing at a fall festival, watching your kids decorate their pumpkins, and you strike up a conversation with another parent. You find out that this person is an art editor at your favorite magazine — and you’d love to do some work for them. You try to convince her that you’re a great photographer but you see her eyes glaze over because she’s heard this a thousand times, and she just wants to watch her kids. You tell stories about your photo-shoots and list the places you’ve been published. She tries to escape, but you follow her to the ladies room. You chase her around desperately. Oh no, this may be your only chance, but you’re not making any brownie points!!! It would be so much easier to give her your business card with your URL. Even better, get her e-mail address and send her a short, friendly note with a link to your portfolio.

Other scenarios—you’re at a business breakfast or a baby shower or a friend introduces you to someone who needs photography work done. A portfolio is a way to show this person that you’re the one to do the job. Or you’re applying to a photo workshop, and they need a sample of your work to recommend a course.

What should be in a photography portfolio?

Some experts say that a portfolio is a printed presentation of your best work until now, showing the breadth of your skills. Some say a portfolio should be tailored to the customer you’re approaching. If your portfolio is a traditional folder of printed photographs, it will be much less dynamic than an online gallery could be. If you’re just starting out, you’ll want to add your latest great stuff often, so choose a medium that’s easy to update.

Consider your audience. If you want to do weddings, your portfolio would contain portraits of couples, groups, wedding events like getting ready throwing the bouquet, and still-life shots including flowers, rings, and invitations. If you want to work for a conservation group, you’ll need landscapes, activities such as clean-up days, close-ups of special plants or animals found in their area, and maybe a portrait of the founder. DO YOUR RESEARCH! Know your prospective customer’s needs and show that you can fill them

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What kind of pictures should you include in your portfolio?

Pick a theme. There’s nothing more jarring than seeing a crisp black & white architectural shot next to a soft, dreamy, pastel bridal portrait. If you can do both styles, separate them in your portfolio. A theme could be “Having fun”, “Orange”, “10k Races”, or “My garden”. The theme can unite otherwise unrelated pictures. Choose a variety of subjects and styles. Include viewpoints that are overview, medium distance, and close.

How many pictures and what should you include in your portfolio?

Here’s the killer: your portfolio should contain only 8 to 12 pictures. Photo buyers are busy people. The worst thing you can do is to swamp them with photos that are redundant. You might be the best rose photographer in the world, but showing 35 pictures of roses will mark you as an amateur. Think first: What are you good at? I am good at landscapes, architecture, and flowers, and I can come up with a few decent people-pictures. My portfolio would target buyers who want landscape and nature photos rather than urban street scenes or baby portraits. I would include varied viewpoints of New England scenes, details like stone walls and weather vanes, macro flowers, and people as compositional elements in the landscape. I would not show a portfolio of portraits, because it would imply that I do this type of work very well—a falsehood that I can’t deliver on. A portfolio can include your aspirations as well as your accomplishments, but you must be able to do the type of work you’re looking for.

How do you get images for a portfolio?

Shoot free and shoot cheap. Many of the images in a wedding portfolio are still-life pictures that can be created without a wedding. Get some flowers and practice macro photography. Shoot your own wedding ring. Create evocative portraits of family members and friends. Practice using different styles — photojournalism, romantic, fun. Photograph local buildings to illustrate that you can do architecture. I recently viewed the website of a photographer who did great architectural photos of a Dunkin’ Donuts.
I shot my first wedding for a friend, who agreed to pay for half of my film costs. What a bargain for both of us! I also had a friend in politics, and shot political portraits for his campaign. And somewhere I met the owner of an exercise business and shot her facility and staff after hours. These free photos were used by the people in them, and gave me invaluable experience. (NOTE WELL: When you present your pictures to your customer, show them only the really good ones and edit out the duds.) The brochures and prints from these sessions were an important part of my portfolio for years.

How should you present your portfolio? Presentation is important! Photo buyers are often artists or designers who are trained to be sensitive to composition, aesthetics, and flow. You may have a great collection of pictures, but if you simply toss them into an old manila folder, you’re not doing yourself any favors. Package your prints attractively. Use a consistent medium — don’t mix prints with slides plus a website address.

If you’re showing prints, consider including your original shots plus the finished product—brochures or magazine pages that used your stuff. Get GOOD (not drugstore) prints, perhaps on special paper. Make your portfolio stand out because of its quality, not because of irrelevant gimmicks. Prints are often enclosed in a leather folder. Or consider a self-published book from Lulu or Blurb

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If your portfolio will be online, choose a portfolio site such as Smugmug or Zenfolio. These services provide you with a way to upload photos into galleries with themes that you can choose. Make sure the theme doesn’t overwhelm your images. Consider adding music or creative text to personalize your portfolio. And try to organize a way to show the depth of your work as well as the breadth. I would design a portfolio with a dozen images showing my range: landscapes, seascapes, flowers, villages, harbors, beaches, sunrise, seasons. If a buyer wanted to see more, she could click on one of the portfolio images to see more examples of each category. But keep it concise! My current Photoshelter website with 3700 images is not a portfolio, it’s an avalanche. Note: Each photo hosting site uses compression to store images efficiently. This compression often ruins the subtle tones of your beautiful images, and makes them look very different from the version on your computer. You might need to make a copy of your original image and tweak the color so it looks good online. This copy will probably not look good on your screen—too neon or too bright.

Who will look at your portfolio?

Well, no one. Portfolios don’t go out and find people. The fact that you have created a stunning showcase of your work won’t bring in one customer. You can create keywords or tags, title your images to maximize web-search results, and tell all your friends to go look at your new site. But finding people to look at your portfolio is your next job. Print some business cards and go network with buyers. Develop an e-mail list and send monthly newsletters and announcements. Be the junk-mailer that you hate. Network, network, network.

Don’ts for Photography Portfolios:

  • Don’t include redundant images. If you have only rose pictures, you may not be ready to work with a paying customer. Or find a gardening magazine and take some pictures of gardening tools, gloves, and an overview of its design to give your collection some variety.
  • Don’t get bogged down trying to find your 8 best images of all time. You can re-do it next year.
  • Don’t wait until you have the ultimate portfolio. If you’re reading this, you need to take some baby steps first.

The next time you’re at a fall festival talking to an art director, you can just slip her a card and try to get her e-mail address.

Resources—If you read all sites, you’ll get conflicting information. Choose what resonates with you.

All photos © Susan Cole Kelly.

Susan Cole Kelly is a compulsive shutterbug based in Boston and downeast Maine. You can see more of her work at http://susancolekelly.photoshelter.com/

Please Note: This article was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

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2 Responses to Create a Professional Photography Portfolio

  1. Dennis March 15, 2014 at 6:10 pm #

    Great advice. I am planning on getting a few pictures taken and your tips really helped.

  2. Jo June 4, 2014 at 4:26 pm #

    really great im just starting out and fingers crossed will all go well your ideas and tips and advice have helped me a lot thank you Jo, london, england

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