As the more astute of you may have noticed, I recently redesigned my site. I had a number of tasks and goals related to the redesign of the site, not least of which was curating a new portfolio. My old portfolio was cobbled together years ago, though I added a few photos since. In hindsight, adding to a pre-existing portfolio is not how I should have done things. So I started from scratch to create a new one. I’ve been doing this for years, so I knew exactly what I was getting into. But as I was going through the process, I almost had to remind myself of some key aspects of the process. There are a lot of things to consider when curating your own portfolio. So I thought I’d share with you some of the things that strike me as important.
As a brief sidebar, before I go on: I chose to write an introduction to my portfolio this time around. It ended with a simple thought that I feel is pertinent to anyone creating their own portfolio:
A portfolio should always be changing. It should be refreshed, occasionally, to include more current works. But it should also be curated so that the collection continues to tell your story: As your story evolves, so must the portfolio.
A portfolio of any kind should never be too large. It is going to be your first introduction to many potential clients, fans or followers. So it shouldn’t take anyone more than a few minutes to browse the entire thing. You want enough photos to demonstrate your range of skills. But you don’t want it so large that it can be overwhelming. Or worse, you don’t want someone to think you are can’t curate a cohesive presentation. Curating is, after all, an essential skill of any photographer. Your portfolio is proof that you can do it.
That said, I aim to have about thirty photos in my overall portfolio. My overall portfolio is exactly thirty photos. But it’s worth considering having additional portfolios ready for specific purposes. I also have two smaller versions of my portfolio:
- Professional Only Work: This portfolio is only about twenty photos. It does not contain any of my street photography. The reason being is that I want to show off the work that I can reasonably charge for (You can’t legally charge for street photography without getting written consent from all identifiable subjects.). While I did not necessarily make money off of all the photos in this iteration of my portfolio, the point is that I could charge for these photos. This version exists exclusively for marketing purposes for the business.
- The “Pub Chat” Version: Imagine you’re at a social gathering (like a pub) and you get into a conversation about “what you do”. Everyone, regardless of what they do, should have some sort of short “Pub Speech”, a very brief introduction explaining what you do for a living. It should be rehearsed and you should be able to reflexively rattle it off. But I digress into a topic for a different day. Back to the point: In the world of content creators (as are photographers), you should also have something to show off what you can do. As the idiom goes: A picture is worth a thousand words. So I keep a very small version of my portfolio on my phone and tablet at all times. This version is only five photographs and contains my absolute best photos; photos with great stories that I could talk about at length, if the opportunity arises. But even if the other person just looks at my Pub Chat Portfolio, it’s already worth about 5,000 words.
Depending on your needs, you may have several iterations of your portfolio. But i don’t see a need for your overall portfolio to exceed 30 photos.
What to Include
Figuring out what to include in your portfolio is no easy task. I expect that you have literally taken hundreds of photos. How do you narrow it down to just a handful? Honestly, it will be a several stage process. Everyone handles this a little differently, but here’s my process:
- Get all of your works together and pick out all of the ones that you feel are good quality images. Try to be honest with yourself. And try to not be swayed by the technical aspects behind a photo or the amount of effort involved behind it. Everyone has that photo that took hours of effort, but it fails in composition. Don’t include those type of images.
- Organize the photos into categories. But try to keep it simple. My portfolio has only about four categories: Architecture, Landscape, Street and Still Shots. The long-term goal is to identify the photos that best represent you, o you want a well-rounded set of images. There are some categories you don’t want to represent (sure, I shoot portraits, but I don’t love it). This step can reveal a few things:
- You may have a category that has far more images than the others. If this is in your primary category of focus, that’s fine. You’ll probably end up with more from this category. But it shouldn’t completely dominate the portfolio.
- You may find a category or two that is deficient. You may want to add a few at this time to ensure that category is getting it’s place in the end product.
- Rank the photos in each category from best-to-worst. This is both a subjective and an objective process. There are some that may be so-imperfect-it’s-art (the photo that is just out of focus, over-saturated, or the photo that is a little too grainy). These might be “cool” among the art community. But they don’t belong in a portfolio unless it’s obvious that it’s intentional or that it is indicative of your style. If you have the technically imperfect photos like this, they go to the bottom of that category.
- Start eliminating: There is always one or two categories that I want to highlight more (mine is more focused on Architecture). I will allow each of those to have one or two more photos than the rest. Then I’ll set a goal for each category based on that. Then I start eliminating those at the bottom ranks of each category. The hope is that you have eliminated enough that you have about the number of photos you ultimately want (again, 30 for me). But don’t forget about the rejects just yet.
- Regroup the remaining photos and assess as a whole: When you re-integrate the categories, you may find some other patterns that you want to avoid. For example, I often find I don’t have enough color in my initial draft. It makes sense, I shoot in monochrome a lot. But I want to make sure that my color work is well represented. So I found myself pulling some monochromes this time around to incorporate some color photos I had previously eliminated in the step before.
- Re-order the images in an order that makes sense if viewed in sequence. Chances are, someone will view them in the order that are presented. So you want to jump around to keep things interesting. You don’t want to have similar compositions next to each other, you don’t want all of the monochrome first and you don’t want to throw someone off-kilter (eg: don’t put your creepiest photo of an actor in monster makeup immediately after a happy baby portrait, it just seems odd). The first photo should be the most well-rounded. Your last photo should be the discussion-piece: It should be striking and unique. I usually put my absolute best photo last.
- Take it for a test drive: Once I think I figured it all out, I’ll put it aside for a day or two and come back to it. I’ll look through it all again with a fresh mind and confirm that I still feel the same about it. I’ll show it to friends or family and get their thoughts. If you can, it’s always good to get it in front of another photographer.
It’s Never Finished
Your portfolio will constantly evolve. Be prepared to make slow, incremental tweaks over the years. Every once in a while, you’ll need to start from scratch again. Some photos that didn’t make earlier cuts may compliment newer photos. So as you improve, you may be revisiting some of the photos you rejected on a previous iteration. So be prepared to revisit your portfolio many times.
The presentation is a key component. I’m still a little old-school, so I tend to have printed versions of my portfolio on hand. But the number of people calling for printed portfolios is fewer and farther between. So I have digital versions as well: On my website, on my phone and in PDF format. The online version needs to be handled carefully. The gallery app that you use will matter to the experience. So don’t be afraid to evaluate a number of gallery apps. The same can be said for the copy you carry around on your phone. I’ve actually installed a whole new gallery tool simply because of the way it looks and feels on my phone. The more natural the interface looks and feels, the better the impression it leaves behind.
Show It Off
So that’s basically it. You’ve got it all together in a nice presentation. It does you nothing if you don’t show it off. Keep it on hand, keep it on your phone, make it easy to find on your website. Get it out there and show it off. You earned it…you deserve the compliments that your new portfolio will bring you.