The Good Book: top tips for an effective portfolio

Don’t blame your portfolio, fix it. Dos and don’ts. Tips and hints. An unbiased viewpoint. You’ll need expert advice. Here it is.

Let’s begin this discussion with a personal story. It belongs to Terence Patrick, an American photographer with a long list of commercial and editorial clients, and experience as a portfolio reviewer. His story contains a lot of clues about building a great portfolio. “Working with a skilled editor, hiring a proper retoucher, learning how to really articulate one’s vision are the intangible things that can accelerate one’s career in a way that also can’t be replicated so easily by others,” he says.

The portfolio that Patrick had been using for most of his career was a classic leather-bound book with the screw-post plastic sleeves from a vendor in New York called House of Portfolios. “While I got work from that portfolio, the 1990’s-era presentation was in serious need of an upgrade.” He then began working with photography consultant, Beth Taubner, “doing an overhaul edit of my work, going deep into my archive to unify my personal and commissioned work to show clients my brand, and not just what I had previously considered the flavour of the moment to be.” He could see that by relying on advice from other photographers and editors, he had put together edits that reflected current trends and not really who he was or what he was really trying to communicate. “I believe many photographers approach a portfolio from a short-term, sell now, mentality. I suffered from years of trying out new styles that were in vogue and it took me a while to really understand who I am as a photographer,” he states.

© Terence Patrick. Polina Protodyakonova, model. Personal work.
© Terence Patrick. Polina Protodyakonova, model. Personal work.

Patrick’s new book was laid out in Adobe InDesign with the help of a designer and “flows like many coffee table style photography books as opposed to the single image photo print pages I previously used,” he notes. The pair focused on colour combinations of images, the movement of the eye across spreads, negative space, places where one’s eye could rest, and also the emotional relationships between subjects in the photos. Taubner did a lot of the curating. “I had become emotionally attached to, or disgusted by, so many characters or projects I’ve worked on that I often was blind to how others might view them.” Once the layout was completed, the 11x14-inch book was printed at a local book binder in Los Angeles with a hard cover with linen cloth. “Altogether, between the expenses of hiring my consultant, the designer, my retoucher, and the book printing and binding, I could have purchased a medium format digital camera,” Patrick admits. “However, I truly believe that this investment was worth the expense over buying more gear.”

Patrick then attended three portfolio reviews, one in Los Angeles and two in New York, seeing forty-six reviewers in total. “Most raved about the print quality and physical presentation of the book,” he notes. They were also impressed by the fact that Patrick’s portfolio was a physical book. “While I believe that the convergence of motion and still work makes a tablet necessary, the beauty of a well-made book still leaves an impression that is hard to replicate.”

New Zealand photographer’s consultant, Christina Force also favours the printed book, “especially if you’re targeting discerning creative decision-makers, such as advertising creatives, designers, and photo editors,” she says. “It’s essential to understand you are promoting yourself as a unique artist – one who can solve problems, answer a brief, get exceptional results regardless of circumstances, and communicate well.” Show only your part of ad work – the images, she advises. Make your portfolio a tactile experience, a thing of beauty, she adds. “Take your viewers on a journey, give them some respite from their day-to-day madness, and, most importantly, inspire them.” If you are shooting motion and stills, Force suggests a multimedia folio. “Retain the flow, integrate sound, and hire who you need to help you with this – editors, soundscape artists, etc. Think about the whole experience, and don’t throw on some random tune. The entire experience should be well presented. Perhaps keep the full experience off your website, and hold that for people who see you, just so you have that calling card.”

Dos and don’ts

In portfolios, as in any means you use to gain work, there is a range of dos and don’ts. Melbourne-based creative consultant, Sally Brownbill runs the creative directory, The Brownbill Effect. With her expertise as a commercial photographer behind her, for over two decades she’s been helping photographers craft effective portfolios and guiding them along their career paths. Brownbill’s dos are: Include your personal work. Make sure you put the work you want to be shooting into your portfolio. If you are showing the folio in person, have a few good stories to tell about the work. Show your personality in your folio. Don’ts: You can never second-guess what someone else wants to see in your folio, so do not try to please other people with the work you put in. Make sure your portfolio is not too short or too long. About twenty images works well. Don’t try to be like other photographers, be individual. Don’t put your work into sections such as, say, food, people, interiors. You need to create an ebb and flow. Don’t put exactly what you have on your website into your folio. Have 10% of images the same so there is recognition if they have looked at your site.

© Brett Price. Car lot, Port Melbourne. Layout designed by Sally Brownbill.
© Brett Price. Car lot, Port Melbourne. Layout designed by Sally Brownbill.

Chris Orwig is a Californian photographer, educator, author, and reviewer. He’s a regular on Creative Live and has created over 100 courses online. Orwig’s dos are: Be true to yourself. People who are aligned most closely to their portfolios always do better, he says. “If you have a full-sleeve tatt and an edgy look, it’s going to feel false if your portfolio has a Martha Stewart look and feel.” Show the work you want to get. You will only ever get the work you show, so weight your portfolio to reflect the photographer you want to be. Don’t fill your portfolio with wedding photos if you want to be a Rock ‘n’ Roll photographer. Create and show work you really love; shoot for your portfolio; don’t short-change yourself. “If you’re into surfing photography, hire a professional surfer – don’t just shoot your buddies. And have a vision to which you build your portfolio, don’t just “put it together”. Take the time needed to make your portfolio great. Don’ts: Don’t show too much. “People get so in love with their work that they forget the basics – the viewer is not in love with your work, nor does he care about your time and effort. He just wants to know that you can do the job.” The most elegant and expensive brands always show less, he notes. “Less adds value.” Don’t overshadow your work with its presentation. That, he adds, includes how you present moving images. “People won’t sit with you while you show them a three-minute movie.” Nor is he a fan of adding extra bells and whistles, like music and graphics. In fact, Orwig recommends showing a pitch deck so that people can see your input, rather the team result.

Christina Force’s dos are: Know your very best work and build your folio around it. Make sure it’s consistent and has flow. Start and finish very strong – the first and last pages should be memorable. Ensure there is plenty of strong personal work. Include strong commissioned work that fits the style and feel of your best work. Show work to inspire, not work you think they’ll like. Know your target market – who are you going to show it to? Make it a quality investment. Use the best paper, the best binding, and seek help if necessary. It really is worth the investment. These days you only need one folio, so make it the best it can be. You may only get one chance. Make sure your website is up to scratch before making folio meetings. Don’ts: Don’t show a bit of everything, unless it is all in one strong style. Don’t show compromised work you’ve shot for clients just to prove you can do it. It smells of desperation and will let your other work down. Don’t be a cheapskate. Visually discerning clients are fussy. Don’t give them an excuse to not use you. Avoid cheap printing, paper that’s too lightweight or messy, and unconsidered layouts. If you are not a wedding photographer, don’t make a printed folio like a wedding album. Avoid those hard pages that look like a two-year-old’s story book. Don’t try to book folio meetings before your website looks good. It will be a waste of your time as they will judge you on your website, and if it’s not great, you’ll find it hard to get a meeting.

A double page spread from Sara Orme’s folio. Designed by Christina Force, Orme printed the work herself and had Auckland-based The Binding Studio create the cover and do the binding.
A double page spread from Sara Orme’s folio. Designed by Christina Force, Orme printed the work herself and had Auckland-based The Binding Studio create the cover and do the binding.

Telling stories

For Brownbill, the most important element of an effective portfolio is to take the viewer on a journey and tell a story about who you are as a photographer. “You are the only point of difference between you and the next photographer. So how you see things and how you shoot them are the most important messages to get across when putting a folio together,” she says.

A portfolio, Brownbill adds, “is not so much about how you display your work, but what makes you feel comfortable, and what suits the story you are trying to tell at that point in time.” She recommends having a couple of different ways to show your work – a printed portfolio, for wow factor (“We are all so sick of looking at screens,” she notes), and to take to meetings with you, and a digital portfolio to send to people, for example. The design of each might need to differ. If you send a digital folio, you are not there to talk and build a relationship, so the folio has to do that for you. There are no rules when choosing the folio, Brownbill says, and plenty of choices – a bound book like those offered by Momento Pro, a folio with customised binding like Irwin and McLaren’s, one made with saddle or Japanese stitching to emulate a magazine, or a fully bound folio with sleeves to place the images in are all options. Boxes with individual boards of images could be another alternative, she adds.

When it comes to how you put your portfolio together, Orwig is likewise less concerned about the materials used than the images. Your online presence is important, but printed cards are also effective, he says. Printed books can be beautiful, with their leather covers and special papers, but you will also need an iPad version these days. However, he stresses, most people just want to get to the pictures. “If you show me your work in a hand-made frame on a gallery, I’ll want to see that photo out of the frame.”

Your portfolio’s greatest asset

“The most crucial element to building a folio is actually knowing what images are going into it,” Force states. “Photographers often ask me what size, format, paper, and layout they should use, and sometimes they’ve already gone ahead and purchased a cover, without knowing exactly what’s going to be in it. The starting point for everything is to identify your best images and then curate them into an order. Once this is done roughly, most of the questions can be answered, since it’s the folio’s job to make those images look fabulous.”

© Chris Orwig. Rachel at Sunset in Santa Barbara, California.
© Chris Orwig. Rachel at Sunset in Santa Barbara, California.

How you present, Orwig adds, is also important. “Photography is becoming more casual, more relational. Presenting should be more about trying to connect with the viewer, and less about posturing.” Be interested in the viewer, he adds. “Ask them questions. They want to know you, to know your vibe, your sensitivities as a person. Be relaxed. If you’re tense and anxious, the viewer will wonder if you can handle stress on the job.”

This belief is echoed by Patrick. “One of the areas I worked on, but still needs improvement, is in verbal presentation of my portfolio. I used to believe that the work should speak for itself, but have come to see that knowing how to discuss the work can really add value to the meeting, especially when the person on the other side of the table is savvy about photography,” he notes. “Previously I would talk about the “whats” of the book – name dropping the celebrity subjects, describing what the person was already seeing, or trying to tell funny anecdotes about particular shoots. But I recently changed my approach and began discussing the “whys” of my viewpoint and style, and noticed the reviewers or clients becoming more open to dialogue and discussion.”

© Marcus Thomson. Cows in the city. Layout designed by Sally Brownbill.
© Marcus Thomson. Cows in the city. Layout designed by Sally Brownbill.

To review?

Should you invest in a portfolio review? Absolutely, Brownbill states. Having a second set of ears and eyes is, she believes, essential. “In my experience, nearly all photographers I work with over-think things and get wound up in indecision.” Having a review with someone allows that person to see their work in a new light, look at what is in front of them, and make decisions based on photography, and not on emotions. Orwig agrees wholeheartedly on the value of a review. Several reviews, in fact. “Each reviewer comes from a distinct perspective. Reviewers give you an insight into what’s wanted by their kind of publication or genre. Don’t be crushed if yours doesn’t go well. Know that every review may be different.” Reviews help you to learn about yourself and the industry, and work out the publications or genres you want to target, he adds.

A portfolio needs to change as you change. The folio you have today is not going represent you in twelve to eighteen months’ time, and having a fresh portfolio gives you an opportunity to get out there and show your work again. “Your folio and website will never be perfect. They’re always a work in progress, so when they’re 90% there, accept that those shots you’re doing now can go in later, rather than constantly waiting for the perfect scenario,” Force notes. “The minute you turn a page and wish that image wasn’t there, it’s time to rejig the folio,” Brownbill adds. Reviews need to be redone at intervals too, Orwig adds, “at different seasons of your professional life, and because professional photography evolves over time.”

© Chris Orwig. “The multitalented Ben Moon, captured in New York City. Ben is a photographer, film maker, director, rock climber, surfer, cancer survivor, and so much more.”
© Chris Orwig. “The multitalented Ben Moon, captured in New York City. Ben is a photographer, film maker, director, rock climber, surfer, cancer survivor, and so much more.”

A good portfolio can be let down by inadequate support – your website and Instagram account, for example. These need regular maintenance too. “The website is where clients want to do a deep dive into a photographer’s portfolio,” Patrick explains. “And clients often pull images from them for pitches to their teams or clients. Instagram is also a platform on which clients and audiences spend so much time that I’m ashamed to say I often neglect to really devote a lot of time to it. Instagram is the new editorial, and the goal of every working photographer, myself included, is to make work that sings on that platform, rather than make covers for magazines.” For Patrick, being able to see how many people have viewed and engaged with an image, where they come from, know what they’re really interested in, and where they found him is also incredibly useful. “I’m certain most of the images on my Instagram feed have been seen by more people than anything I’ve shot for a magazine,” he notes.

Portfolios win and lose jobs every day. If yours doesn’t say, “My work is fabulous,” let it go. And get a better one.



Get more stories like this delivered
free to your inbox. Sign up here.