How To Create A Photography Portfolio
Why you should build a photography portfolio
After you’ve been taking photos for a while, you’ll want to show your work to people you care about. This might be family, loved ones, business clients or strangers on the internet. Your photography portfolio should change depending on who you are displaying work for. Photography portfolios can be physical or digital. A portfolio is simply a collection of your best work. Ever heard of the phrase, “less is more”?
It’s a phrase that is more relevant to portfolios than almost anything else. My music photography portfolio has received just under 10% of my total traffic this year. My blog page received just under 1% of my total traffic. This immediately tells me that people want to see what I feel my best work is. Probably because it’s the quickest way of finding out if they like my work!
Why you should create a portfolio for yourself
It helps you understand your work. Sure, you’re hitting the shutter every time, but how often do you sit back and analyse the work you’re creating? Understanding what type of photographer you are will help you understand your own personal value to others. I previously thought of my own artistic identity much differently. I previously thought a glossy, traditional approach to music photography was what made me, well, me.
When I put an early version of my photography portfolio together, I started to notice some themes in my work that I hadn’t considered before then. I find each time I update my photography portfolio, I learn a little bit more about my work and what I offer as an individual.
Why you should create a portfolio for others
Rather than sifting through thousands of images, having a portfolio will quickly show potential fans what you are all about. I’m sure you’ve been asked by someone at work what your website is. Do you send them to the homepage and hope they find something they like, or do you send them to a specific page with your strongest work?
It’s better to send the person to your strongest work first, because they will then explore further if they like what they see. First impressions really do matter, so building a portfolio to show others when they ask to see your work is a smart move.
Why you should create a portfolio for clients
Clients can be pretty reserved when it comes to agreeing on a price for photography work. Having a portfolio will help them become far more comfortable with agreeing to the price you ask for. Portfolios are proof that you can deliver on what is agreed. Regardless of who you are creating a portfolio for, you need to understand why you are making one, and most importantly, believe in that reason. Only then can you really create something that will impress.
Creating your portfolio
It’s an investment
Before we dig in, you need to see your portfolio as an investment in yourself. It is /not/ a waste of time. It’s your chance to set yourself apart from the pack when it comes to getting work. I’ve been in a number of situations where I’ve been on site working for a client, and someone walks past and asks if I do similar work. They ask me for a card, and say they’ll check out my work.
I have no idea what kind of work they might need, but if I had no portfolio at all, there’s zero chance of me booking a job. Clients are spending money, so they need to know you’re serious about what you’re delivering. A portfolio tells them exactly what you’re serious about and that you’re capable of delivering on their vision with your own. You might only have time to work on your portfolio in the evenings or early morning. The time you have available might not be the best time for you to create your portfolio.
You need to feel creatively fresh and mentally available to make decisions on your work in an honest way. Define the time you are most creative, and commit yourself to the development of your portfolio.
Phases of creation
There’s four phases that every portfolio creation process should include:
First, we need to define the goal of the portfolio. We need to understand why we’re making it, and what we want the viewer to feel when they’re consuming it.
We need to bring our portfolio to life. We take all the photos and make decisions on what achieves the goal in the fewest amount of photos possible.
This step is arguably the easiest, because all the ‘hard’ work is done! But it’s not that straightforward. It never is! Photographers also need to think about /how/ they launch their portfolio.
Once it’s launched, your work is not finished. Unless you’re planning on never taking a photo again, you’re going to improve. Improvement leads to better images that meet your goal of being [insert your vision here]. See how this is all looping together now?
Define – Your vision
When it comes to what your specific vision for the portfolio is, we need to take a pretty wide view of your work. It sounds contradictory, right? Well, we start with a really wide view to consider all of your options so you can better define what the common threads are of your work. But with only one vision, you can get only one result.
A vision needs to be multidimensional and include a breadth of work that shows off diversity without making you look like a jack of all trades. We want to narrow the vision down enough that the viewer knows what you’re all about, but also know that you’re good at taking more than just one photo over and over again with different subjects.
Start with thinking about where you want to go. Do you want to be a photojournalist, documenting wars and human trafficking? Do you want to be a food photographer, taking photos for restaurant menus and websites? Knowing where you want to go with photography is the first step in defining your vision. Once you’ve defined your vision, write it down somewhere. Over time, our memory doesn’t preserve the clarity of our vision as much as we’d like it to. Writing it down helps protect it, and also finalises it. My vision is:
Establish myself as a music photographer that captures the energy of music.
That’s pretty out there. Your vision doesn’t need to be quantifiable, or even finite. Mine isn’t. My vision is a goal of where I’d like to be, but most importantly it identifies me as a music photographer, and then tells me what I’d like to communicate with the viewer.
If you’re having trouble thinking about what genre of photography you’d like to focus your professional efforts on, think about who you would like to have your photos used by. Do you like a surfing magazine, a certain musician or an art gallery? You’ll be able to identify who you would like to have your photos used by because we take photos for that very purpose – to be used! Once you have your goal defined, think about how you’re going to get there.
Taking my vision of being a music photographer, I want to capture the energy of live music. A musician singing is not going to create much emotion in the viewer. I need to use photos that show the musician giving their songs everything they have. The more tired or strained they look, the more the photo is going to support my vision. If I had merely stated that my vision is to be a music photographer, I wouldn’t understand my point of difference and I wouldn’t know what vision I need to support. Having an undefined vision will lead to a portfolio that feels like it lacks artistic direction. If my vision was to be a music photographer, I would also have achieved it.
But what keeps me doing it? What do I want to achieve with each shoot I do? That’s where the second part of my vision comes in – to ‘capture the energy of music’. Capturing the energy of music is not unique. I would expect every music photographer to care about the energy that goes into live music. But is that a core focus on what they’re trying to achieve? It is for me, and a huge part of my vision for my work.
Develop – Evaluating your work
Create a shortlist of photos you will be choosing between. This sounds like a big task when you have so many photos to go through. If you’ve been shooting constantly, each year you may have over 10,000 photos. But you won’t have 10,000 photos that will be good enough to make the shortlist. You want your photography portfolio to represent your current skills. That means your most recent year worth of photos is the best place to start.
At most, I would go back to the most recent two years. If you are thinking of photos that fell outside of that period, include them in the shortlist, but I wouldn’t proactively go looking through older catalogues other than your most recent two years. For now, collect images that are in the genre that you want to work within. Choosing a landscape photo for the shortlist when you want to be booking fashion photography jobs will only be wasting your time, because it won’t make the final cut. Choose images for your shortlist that are within the genre that want to work in.
There is no specific number you’re looking to reach through this process. Creating a shortlist is about establishing a starting point for your portfolio curation. You might export your shortlisted images one-by-one, favourite them, or add them to a collection some other way. You might even prefer to print the shortlist in full! The key is to only be left with your shortlist in front of you. No distractions.
If you use Adobe Lightroom CC or Adobe Lightroom Classic, you can create a collection to help you gather your shortlist from your catalogue. On the side panel of the Library module, there’s a Collections panel beneath the Folders panel. Clicking on the plus icon will drop down a few options. Choose ‘Create Collection’. To make things quicker as you’re collecting images, check the ‘Set as target collection’ box and click ‘Create’.
As you go through the photos in your catalogue, press the B key on your keyboard to add it (or then remove it) from your Collection. If you didn’t set the Collection as the target collection, the B key won’t add it to the collection. If you forget to set your Collection as the target collection, you can right click on the collection and click on ‘Set as Target Collection’. After that, your B key shortcut will start to function.
If you use Adobe Lightroom to catalogue your photos and add metadata as you go, this is going to be a lot easier for you. When in the Library module of your Lightroom catalogue, there are filters shown at the top. These are Text, Attribute, Metadata and None. The most useful in filtering your content based on your metadata is the ‘Attribute’ option. Clicking on ‘Attribute’ will extend a menu that will show you all the different attributes you have added to your catalogued photos, such as flagged, ratings and colour codings.
We’re trying to create a shortlist of your best work to choose from, so we will start by selecting only your flagged photos. Next, we want to only see the photos you have edited. Sometimes I flag images that I intend to edit, but I never got around to editing. This will help us only see the photos that you have applied edits to. You can then choose a minimum rating for the photos. If you choose four-star-rated photos, you will only see images that you have flagged as favourites, edited and rated at least four stars. This means images you have rated five stars will show too.
As an optional extra, you could also choose what colour codes you want to include. This is helpful if you have marked all genres (or other type) a specific colour. For example, you may have marked all your landscape photos as green and your real estate photos as blue. Alternatively, you might have marked all coloured photos green and black and white photos red.
Have you read the above and wish you added metadata to your photos before now? It’s never too late. Adding attribute metadata as you go from today onwards will help you find your best work to update your portfolio when that time comes. After you’ve selected your shortlist, it’s time to reduce it down to your final photography portfolio.
Using your shortlist
Does this photo attract clients I want to deliver work for?
This might seem like a no-brainer, but it’s worth noting. If you take the world’s best corporate headshot, but don’t want to work with corporate photography, don’t include it! What people see in your portfolio is what they will assume you want to do. There isn’t a client out there that will think, “Well, this photographer took this amazing corporate headshot, so let’s hire them to photograph our new food menu”. Include work in your portfolio that represents the photography work you want to do.
This includes separating your hobby photography from your professional photography. For example, I love taking photos of insects. However, I’m not interested in doing insect photography on a freelance basis, and so National Geographic are not going to be considering my portfolio. Including macro photography of insects will not mean anything to a manager of a musician who is considering bringing me on tour to photograph shows.
Have I only shown my favourite work, or have I given a varied look into my skills?
You want to wow the potential client, but you don’t want to only post your one or two tricks to make a great image. Your portfolio should show variation, otherwise you might as well include one photo and call it complete. Your photography portfolio should show your full range of skills within that one niche. A real estate agency will look for a photographer that can make a small house look large, but a large house look cosy.
If you only show photos where you used a fisheye lens to make a small living room look large, the real estate agency may not consider you for bigger properties they have. Potential clients only want to see the end result only in as little time as possible. Unless the client has a personal passion for photography, they will want to see your portfolio, make a decision and move on with the next task.
Is this photo providing variety?
The primary goal of your photography portfolio is to showcase your range of skills within a certain genre or niche. There needs to be differing skills shown off in your portfolio. With only 10 to 15 images shown, each image needs to serve a slightly different purpose to demonstrate your range within the genre.
Imagine you are a wedding photographer. Photographer A offers a portfolio that includes 15 photos of family portraits at the wedding. They’re all really nice photos. Photographer B offers a portfolio with just as nice photos, but there are photos including the cake, the guests, family portraits, behind the scenes preparations and more. Which photographer is more likely to book the photography opportunity? Photographer B, because they demonstrate range, whereas Photographer A only demonstrates ability to take a nice family portrait.
Does this photo fit within the theme and vision I have chosen for myself?
Does the photo you’re considering make sense in the portfolio? Does it give the same feeling as the other photos it sits alongside? This goes deeper than the photography portfolio as a whole. Does the photo make sense directly beside the previous photo and the photo that follows? While you want your photography portfolio to be varied, you want to guide the viewer through the photos on a journey.
The easiest way of doing this is to look for links between the images’ tone, purpose or colour. Keeping with the same example of real estate, pairing internal images alongside internal images before displaying external images will help your portfolio feel even more cohesive.
Does this photo show something different to the other photos?
Is there a reason I am including this photo? If the answer is, “Because it’s good”, you shouldn’t include it. The photos that are included in your photography portfolio should have a greater purpose than that. The photos need to have a reason for being in there.
This could be:
– This photo shows I can take photos in portrait and landscape while still using a composition that includes all the relevant features of the subject
– This photo shows I can create fun photos, while this photo shows I know how to take a portrait with a dynamic contrast.
– This photo shows that I can take a photo that can be used in a variety of aspect ratios, on in both print and web.
For example, a photo that can be used on a magazine cover and allow space for the text and by-lines, but also can be used on webpage banner ads.
Getting a second opinion
You’ve selected your work, but is it impressive? Does it feel cohesive? The best way to check is to ask for a second opinion from someone you trust. The person you trust should either be someone who would need to hire a photographer, or another photographer who has a photography portfolio that successfully lands them work. Try not to lead the person giving you a second opinion, but give the person a scenario. Ask them, “You’re looking for a (genre of photographer) and here’s my portfolio. What are your thoughts? Would you hire me?”
Develop – Personality
Since you’re unlikely to be delivering your portfolio by hand, you need to show off your personality in other ways. When you define your brand, you form a stronger sense of identity with your viewer. Your brand can show in the smallest of details, such as colours, design, language used and a lot of other factors.
Your portfolio needs to feel connected with you as a person. A personal brand helps you stand out from the others and instantly makes your portfolio feel more cohesive because it has an application in a scenario that’s bigger than the work itself.
Brainstorming your brand
A common method for brainstorming your personal brand in photography is to compare it to common items you use every day, or interests you have. For example, what is your favourite food? Your favourite thing to do (other than photography)? What’s your favourite colour? What does the colour mean to you? Jotting down some of the first things that come to mind will help you build your personal brand.
Even if the words seem disconnected, write them down. It’s all part of the process and you never know how the pieces might fit together when you look at the brainstorming outcome as a whole. Here’s the brainstorming process I undertook for my personal brand:
You can quickly see that there are a number of recurring themes that pop up. Most are reflective of the music I like and are focused on energy. This gives me a clear idea that a neat portfolio is not going to accurately portray what a viewer can expect from my work. I need to use elements that are dirty, bold and abrasive, since that is the common theme I identified throughout my brainstorming exercise.
A cohesive product is only achievable when all the pieces fit – so your portfolio needs to make sense within your personal brand.
Writing a biography is tough. People who aren’t overly confident will naturally not want to talk about their successes because it can come off self-indulgent. It’s important to remember that a bio is a background of you as a photographer. People are already visiting your portfolio or website, so they want to know more about you.
If someone asked you, “Could you tell me a bit about yourself?” You wouldn’t say, “There’s not much to say.” Whatever your answer to their question would be is what needs to go in your bio. It’s not just about your successes. It’s about your motivation and what inspires you to create work in the individual way that you do. If you’re not good at telling a story about yourself, think back to school with the old ‘who, what, when, where, how’ rule.
*Who?* Who are you? Who do you take photos for?
*What?* What do you do? What do you take photos of?
*When?* When did you start taking photos? When did you realise any personal goals or achievements?
*Where?* Where are you based? Where do you take photos? Where are you willing to travel to?
*How?* How do you take photos? (This is more about the underpinning motivations for taking photos)
Let’s put that into a practical sense, using me as an example. This way you can see that it is possible, because I assure you, I have low confidence and find writing biographies really difficult! First, let’s start with some notes for the above questions we have to ask ourselves:
*Who?* My name is Matt Walter. I work with Australian bands.
*What?* I am a music photographer. I am an understanding person. I am someone who wants to help others. I’ve been published by TIME and Washington Post.
*When?* I started photography in 2010. I started music photography in 2015. I started professionally in 2016. I held an exhibition in 2017 as part of Big Sound.
*Where?* I live in Brisbane, Australia. I travel all along the east coast of Australia and as far west as Adelaide.
*How?* I aim to take photos that display the energy put into music by the artists and the crowd to make nights memorable. I will do whatever it takes to capture that.
Now that we have our skeleton, we can flesh it out with some more conversational pieces, but let’s turn it into third-person.
Matt Walter is an Australian music photographer. Matt has been working with Australian bands since 2016. From 2015, Matt has been documenting the tireless commitment of Australian bands as they tour along the east coast of Australia and beyond. Matt is trusted by some of Australia’s biggest bands to document their journey, including Violent Soho and Dune Rats. Matt continues to collaborate with local bands, both big and small, following their on and off-stage efforts to entertain their fans. Matt has had work published by worldwide publications, such as TIME and The Huffington Post. Big Sound 2017 saw Matt’s work officially presented as part of the well-known festival’s program. The exhibition, “No Pits, Just Pits” presented a body of work at Crowbar Brisbane that the Courier Mail described as a “must-see event” at Big Sound 2017. In 2018, Matt Walter started Filter, a podcast-learning hub hybrid that helps emerging photographers realise their potential sooner. Each episode of the photography podcast answers listener questions, while the Filter website is packed full of video tutorials and free resources, such as Lightroom presets, for photographers to download. Matt is working on a new exhibition, slated for a 2021 launch.
I think that covers it well. I decided to leave out certain things that I outlined in my notes because it was getting pretty long as it was. You can see how long it can get with just a few notes. If the above fails and you just can’t get started, ask a friend to write it from your notes for you. A good friend who thinks a lot of you will write something effortlessly when you can’t seem to find the words. It’s funny how that works.
Launch – How should your portfolio be presented?
There are two ways you can present your photography portfolio; printed or digital. There’s benefits and setbacks for each, but in the end, it might be worth having both.
Printed photography portfolios
There’s something beautiful about photography portfolios that are printed. If you have never printed your work before, I highly recommend you try it. There’s something special about holding what you’ve created in your hands. It makes it feel real.
A lot of photographers who have had their work printed say the same thing – it makes you slow down and appreciate the art for what it is. Digital work is so easily consumed at a rapid rate.
We go from one website to the next, rarely appreciating the time taken to create the work we’re looking at. I think that the reason for that is because the printed work feels like more of a commitment from the artist. That is not necessarily true, but in the eyes of the viewer, the feeling of holding something makes it feel more real and conclusive. It also sets you apart from all the digital photography portfolios out there.
If you choose to print a photography portfolio, you have to think about the way you’re going to store and transport them. Photographers often have a portfolio that looks a little like a briefcase. When you buy one, make sure you buy one that is big enough to carry whatever your print sizes will be. I prefer to print in A2, which allows me to carry prints in A3 too if I need to slim down the budget a little.
I seal each print in a Krystal Seal bag. These are perfect for archival purposes, too. When I sell prints, I ship them in these, too. They’re great for anything and protect your prints.
Bound portfolios or photography books
An interesting way to present your portfolio is to create a book. Blurb is one of the most popular book printers, and ship worldwide. Blurb offer software to help design your book, or you can use Adobe InDesign if you have the skills.
If you go the InDesign route, Blurb offer a free plugin that allows you to upload your book to Blurb directly from Adobe InDesign. I’ve used Blurb before to create books, and while it can be expensive to produce less than five at a time, the results are very impressive.
The paper choices are vast, the cover choices are just as varied, and you can really make the book feel like your own product. You can even remove the Blurb logo and add your own! The same as printed work can be impressive as prints, making a collection of photos in a book format is that cherry on top of an already delicious cake. You need to do more work to make it feel professional, but if you nail it, you really knock it out of the pack – and blow the minds of whoever is viewing your portfolio.
Digital photography portfolios
Digital photography portfolios are almost compulsory for a photographer that wants their work to be seen. People can access your portfolio while you’re sleeping, you don’t need to travel to show them, and it’s far cheaper than printing your photos each time you want to make a change.
Since your photos are not going to be held, you need to think about what background they are going to be displayed against. Common colours to use are white, dark grey, or black. The common link between all of them is that they are all shades, not colours.
When you introduce colours to your portfolio, you are competing with the photos within it. You want your image to pop off the background and be the only thing competing for the viewer’s attention. If you’re not displaying photos full screen within the web browser, use a white, grey or black background.
Squarespace is one of the most popular portfolio options for photographers. You’ve probably heard of its name on whatever photography podcast you listen to, no matter what you subscribe to. It feels like they sponsor everything! Once you open your Squarespace account, you will need to choose a template to display your work in, and add your bio we worked on previously.
Find a template that fits the work you’re displaying. Think about the visual design of the templates. A template with cursive writing and pastel colours is going to suit a wedding photography portfolio a lot more than a street photography portfolio. You can pay a little bit extra to have the ‘*.squarespace.com’ part of your URL removed. The less text in your URL, the better, so I would recommend you pony up that extra few dollars for that. After all, you want to look after your brand.
WordPress is the most customisable solution, and is really flexible when it comes to optimising your portfolio for search engine optimisation (SEO). After you install WordPress to your server, you can install a template (commonly called a theme on WordPress). There are thousands of themes available on Themeforest. That’s where I got the WordPress theme you’re reading this photography portfolio tutorial on.
Part of the learning curve with building a photography portfolio on WordPress is that you need to optimise everything yourself. With great power, comes great responsibility, or something like that… If you upload a 10mb photo, that’s going to display as a 10mb photo. Squarespace and Wix automatically resize images, and while WordPress says it does that, it doesn’t do a great job. Image resizing is just one example of the manual work you need to do with WordPress to benefit from its other options that are more flexible than Squarespace and Wix.
Wix is very similar to Squarespace in a lot of ways, but I find the templates it offers seem a little less impressive than what Squarespace offers.
Adobe Portfolio arrived later to the portfolio party, but it does have some nice templates to adopt. What makes Adobe Portfolio different is that it is built into the Creative Cloud suite of apps. Rather than exporting your images to your desktop, then uploading them in your web browser, you can quickly and easily send them from Lightroom or Photoshop to your Adobe Portfolio website.
Revisit – How often should you update your photography portfolio?
I’ll start by saying that there isn’t a specific time interval you need to revisit your photography portfolio. Three months, six months, 12 months… If you review your portfolio inconsistently, you will most likely find you favour your new images because they are new to you.
You won’t be looking at your portfolio with your viewer’s eyes, you are looking at it with your own eyes. Which is great! But it’s not your viewer’s eyes, and the viewer’s eyes are the eyes that matter for your portfolio. Your portfolio will be entirely new to the people you are presenting it to. That means whether you put one new photo in and took one out, it makes no difference to them. Bias towards your new work is inevitable, but your work is always weighted the same in the eyes of a new viewer. Don’t fall for the trick of favouring your new work and losing sight of your portfolio’s purpose. Set yourself a review interval that you can stay consistent with.
I recommend three month intervals at the least, and 12 months at the most. There isn’t a correct review interval, but consistency will stop you from agonising over choices, and reduce the fatigue on the portfolio review process. Trust me, it can become tiring and a consistent review interval will help. It’s time to go back to shortlisting. The good news is, you have far fewer photos to consider adding to a shortlist than you had previously, because you are now doing the review at certain intervals. So if it’s been six months since your last portfolio review, you only have six months worth of photos to work through. It should be much quicker than your initial shortlisting process. Once you have your shortlisted images, shuffle in your existing portfolio. This will help you stay neutral towards your new and old work and look at it with the bigger goal in mind.
Look at each photo and go through the original set of questions you asked yourself when creating the portfolio.
1. Does this photo attract clients I want to deliver work for?
2. Have I only shown my favourite work, or have I given a varied look into my skills?
3. Is this photo providing variety?
4. Does this photo fit within the theme and vision I have chosen for myself?
5. Does this photo show something different to the other photos?
And most importantly, get a second opinion from someone you trust, always.
What your photography needs to include
Photography portfolios can be hard to create because you have to shortlist your own work to make something effective. Sometimes you have to choose between two photos you love because you know that there’s no benefit to including both. There’s no easy way to shortlist your work, but later in this course we’ll take a look at the things you should consider. Regardless of what choices you make when you consider what to include, there are three things that I think every portfolio needs to include – cohesive work, selections of your best work, and a clear style.
Selecting your best work
Selecting your best work to display rather than showing every photo you’ve taken is not selling yourself short. It’s giving the viewer a taste of what you do. When you go to an art gallery, you’ll find a couple of paintings from each artist. We know that the artist has created more than just two paintings, but there are only the two on display because they’re the most popular or compliment each other in some kind of way.
Photographers live and die off their style. This might seem dramatic, but your success is solely hinged on your identity as a photographer. It’s fine to be inspired by another photographer’s work, but your portfolio needs to include your own. This doesn’t mean reinventing the whole concept of photography – it simply is the common thread that makes your work your own. Photography is based on one’s perception of the world. Creativity is what makes the photograph unique.
The work you select must feel like it belongs together. Each time the viewer turns the page or moves onto the next image, you want them to feel like it makes sense within the expectations set by the previous image. This is one of the more difficult aspects of creating a portfolio because each image can be vastly different. Just like a book about short stories you would read as a child, the collection needs to make sense together. You wouldn’t find a short story about romance in a book titled “Spooky Stories”.
Similarly, your portfolio needs to have a common theme so the expectation of the viewer isn’t broken. Portfolios that aren’t cohesive feel mismanaged and can make the photographer look like they are confused about their work. Having a cohesive portfolio makes you stand out from those with broad portfolios and are often taken more seriously as a professional. Viewers can tell which portfolios have had time and effort invested in them.