Photography Portfolios - What makes a good photography portfolio?

Photographer's portfolios are something all professional photographers and photography buffs think about. What goes into a professional Photography portfolio? How big should the portfolio case be? How many pictures should be in the photographer's portfolio? What kind of pictures should go into the photography portfolio. All these questions are something you can learn about here...

Recently I received an email from a student of a local art school, asking me "What makes a good portfolio". At first I was a little upset at the gall of a total stranger asking me such a complicated, time consuming question and expecting me spend the substantial time required to write back and answer his question. After a couple days of thinking about the email, I came to realize that this student probably didn't realize just how complicated his question really was. I decided to take the time to write down my thoughts on the subject in an attempt to give something back to the profession that's been so "berry berry good to me". I'd be interested in hearing back from any professional that might take the time to read this so that I get other perspectives on the subject.

It's a tuff question. In my opinion (the only real thing that I am truly an expert at), the question is really three questions in one.

1. Should the photographic portfolio be made up of prints, tear sheets, transparencies and what size should these portfolio elements be?

2. What kind of container should my photography portfolio images be in?

3. What "type" of imagery should be in the photography portfolio?

1. Should the portfolio be made up of prints, tear sheets, transparencies and what size should these portfolio elements be?

The big answer to all of these three questions is? there is no right or wrong, good or bad, it's all too subjective. It's like asking which is the better color, red or black? I know which is the better color, but my wife may (will) not agree. There are trends for portfolios, but does that make it "the way to go"? Right now the trend seems to be multiple large to medium format, board mounted transparencies. A few years back, the rage was laminated prints. Does this mean that one is better than another?? I can't honestly tell you! There are always advantages and disadvantages of one format over another. We could talk about those aspects, but I don't think that the "big issue" lies in the format choice. In my opinion, here's the big issue.

The format of your portfolio should depend on two things, how much money you want to spend, and who you want to impress. A few years ago, I spent well over a thousand hard earned dollars, laminating prints and tear sheets. Now they sit on one of shelves taking up space. Guess what I have now? Yup! Board mounted transparencies! The thousand dollar question is? will the new portfolio format get me more work than the old portfolio format? I sure hope so, but I can't be sure it will. Laminated prints were really impressive. Many a prospect marveled at the beauty of my presentation. And ya know, many still would today if I chose to show that book in stead of my current format. Laminated prints were really impressive. So, why did I change formats? Too much money in my pocket? Naaa. I changed because I had a bunch of new images and I didn't want to sink more money into a dyeing format. I knew that the new "cool" format was no longer laminated prints.

Does "cool" really matter? Ya, I think it does. My intention was to impress some very sophisticated viewers. My target market had seen laminated prints for years now, I thought that my new format might just be the thing to make me appear a little bit "cooler / better" than my competition. I guess it's just an "image thing". It all depends on the sophistication of your viewers. Your mother will love your stuff no matter how poorly you present it. A potential Industrial client that currently hires his cousin Ed to shoot pictures will be very impressed with laminated prints (or anything in focus, for that matter). The top Art Director in the City, who has seen all the best portfolios in the area, may not be too impressed with "old technology". It all depends on your target market. Some times it pays to "appear" progressive / hip / cool / with it / rad. (ask your kids for the term de jour) I guess the bottom line is, don't stand still. Hopefully you portfolio will be changing all the time as you get better and better images. Remember there is no right or wrong, just cool and cooler. If your prospect doesn't know the difference, then it doesn't matter. I guess what worries me is that I don't yet know what is "even cooler". (If anyone can let me know the newest coolest format, I'd be thankful.

Other related questions…

* Is it alright to mix formats?

Yes, I do it all the time. One thing I like to do is have loose transparencies and prints in an envelope. After my normal presentation, if I feel that I haven't "overdone it" already, I'll pull out the envelope explaining that these are some "new" images that I haven't had a chance to mount yet. This has a couple benefits. If I think the extra images won't be beneficial, I won't pull them out to either waist time or dilute an already great presentation. Sometime I even go so far as to mention just how recent an image is so as to suggest that I produce "portfolio quality" shots on a daily basis.

* Do you show tear sheets?

Once you've been in the business for awhile. You don't have to worry about "being published". At that point, you can either include tear sheets or not include tear sheets. Again, it all depends on you viewer. If you have just a coupe "published pieces", chances are they aren't your best work and usually the printer has screwed them up anyway. The bottom line is impressing your prospect. I think a better strategy would be to not include any "substandard" images and just talk your way through the "published" issue by mentioning in conversation some of your clients. If you don't have any published pieces, and the prospected knows you have clients, he assumes that it was your choice to present "pure" images. On the other hand, if you include one or two "crappy" tear sheets, your prospect will either think you are inexperienced, or you suck as a photographer. It's always best to show only your finest work and talk about the "jobs" you've worked on.

* What size boards / laminations?

I have chosen 11x14 as my portfolio size. I find it has several advantages over other formats. 8x10 boards are just too small to mount multiple transparencies on. 16x20 seems too large and heavy to carry around. Also, Fed-x also makes an box that fits my portfolio cases perfectly. That comes in handy.

* Do you show 35mm slides?

No, I hardly ever shoot 35mm, so it's never really been an issue.

* How many images do you show?

I usually show 12-20 boards. You don't want to dilute your impression with your average work and on the other hand, you have to show enough to make it appear you are not a "one trick" pony.

2. What kind of container should my portfolio images be in?

I have a really cool portfolio case. It cost me about 350 bucks and I truly think that it was worth every penny. I'll give you "newbes" here some really great, related advice. Before you open your portfolio in an interview, it's a good idea to just sit there and talk to the prospect and try to develop a rapport. Often times your relationship with the prospect will be as, if not, more important than your portfolio. Trust me. So, as you're sitting there shooting the bull, what's your client glancing at? The portfolio case. Don't get me wrong, your case won't make up for a crappy book, but a "cool" case heightens the anticipation of your prospect. At least that's what I tell my wife when she asks me about the $350 visa charge. Ya gotta waste money to make money, right? Wait, something's wrong here?

3. What "type" of imagery should be in the portfolio?

This is the BIG question. I'm not really sure that I've resolved this

for myself yet. So far, this is what I've come up with. If you know what the client needs, give it to him. If you don't know what he needs, show him your best stuff. You don't go into Heinz with your "Nude" portfolio. And if all you have is a "Nude" portfolio, don't bother calling Heinz in the first place. You're wasting everyone's time. Sounds pretty simple, but I still make similar mistakes from time to time. Being a generalist, as I am, I sometimes take my generalist portfolio on interviews where I know that the prospect usually hires specialists. I'd be much better off finding someone I know is willing to hire generalist. The ideal strategy for a generalist, like myself, is to develop separate "specialty" portfolios for those prospects that require a particular type of photographer. I currently have two entire presentations / portfolios. I have a "food" book and I have a "people" book. Sometimes I will take both portfolios on an interview. Before I open either book, I will decide which book to open and which to keep closed. Sometime I'll show both. Here are some rules of thumb about what to show.

* When in doubt, leave it out.

If you're not excited about the image, your prospect probably won't be either. And, if he is he probably has bad taste.

* The more sophisticated you prospect, the more likely he is to by from a specialist.

If he buys a lot of photography, he probably knows good from bad. He also knows that a specialist doesn't have to reinvent the wheel. Many of your portrait skills may apply to shooting food, but there will some aspects of the food shoot you haven't a clue about. Clients don't like surprises. They know that if they see a nice waffle shot in your book, and they just happen to need a waffle photographed, You're the guy. No risk, no stress, no reshoot. On the other hand, If you show your book to the prospect and your nudes and he says "Hot damn! Des is da best damn pitchers I ever did see." You know you're in?

* Leave the nudes at home. (or email them to me)

Leave out any type of controversial shots involving sex, guns, religion (that kind of stuff) You know your luck, your prospect will end up being bisexual, anti-gun, pro-life, Voodooist from Cleveland. When in doubt, leave it out. Some people don't have a sense of humor.

* Make a phone call to the receptionist.

Again, this falls under the heading of interview, but it's still a good idea. What type of photography does your prospect buy? Sometimes it's obvious (Heinz), sometimes it's not (BD&E). If you're dealing with an agency, It's a good idea to call the company and tell the receptionist that you are coming in to see "Joe" and you are curious to know what accounts he works on. They will tell you! Bingo, when you meet Joe, you don't look like an idiot! I hate to look like an idiot.

There is one BIG thing that I forgot.

It doesn't matter if you have a portfolio of laminated prints, transparencies, or Laser copies, no matter if you have an expensive case or just a shopping bag, what do you think is THE most important aspect of your portfolio?

Visibility! You have to take it out and show it to prospects! Very few of us show our portfolio enough. We spend all this money, and then it sits in a corner somewhere. Even a mediocre portfolio will get you work, if you show it to the right people.

P o r t f o l i o: These images are from Michael's portfolio. Click on any one of them to take you to see his on-line food photographer's portfolio.


© Michael Ray 2008