Learn how to create a striking photography portfolio

We’ve heard your calls for an intro to creating a photography portfolio, so we’ve enlisted the help of folio consultant Christina Force to run through how to create a portfolio that will fit you and your needs. Want to skip to an abridged version of Force's top tips? Click here

We’ve all seen billboards featuring the stunning photos presented in various magazines, but how do photographers get their work under the noses of those who make the decisions on who to hire for one of these shoots? And, even more importantly, how does that successful photographer make their work stand out? 

Various elements can affect the way a photographer sets themselves apart from the others competing for particular jobs, and one very important factor is their photography portfolio. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to creating a portfolio that stands out — a lot of thought and consideration needs to go into what you want to achieve so you can correctly format and style it in a way that will achieve your goals. Christina Force, folio consultant, gives us some insider knowledge into ensuring you design your portfolio to fire your best shot at being plucked from the crowd.

Ross Brown, The Binding Studio

To portfolio or not to portfolio

Whether you’re considering creating a portfolio for your own personal reflection or for potential clients to see, Force recommends that all photographers have some sort of portfolio available for people to peruse — and, with digital increasingly becoming the way of the future, creating one online is essential.

“They should all have a website and feature a portfolio on that — definitely. A printed folio is a bit more specific, and it depends on what they want to achieve and who they want to target,” Force explains.

But, before photographers decide how they would like to present their work, they also need to be incredibly aware of who they are as photographers, and what their preferred style of photography would suit in terms of brands or organizations that they would like to work with.
“You need to decide who you’ll show your portfolio to by how you see your standing point, and what sort of work you want to do. Photographers need to understand who they are as photographers and figure out their look and feel; they need to show their best work without being influenced by anything; they need to be true to themselves,” Force says. 

Sara Orme, portfolio created by The Binding Studio

Styling your portfolio

Once a photographer has established the individual style that represents the work they love to create and who their target audiences will be, plenty of consideration must also be applied to the way the portfolio is presented to ensure it will grasp the attention of those they want to be associated with. 

Force suggests that your intended purpose and audience — whether you want to create works for editorial in magazines, work with corporations, or align yourself with brands (which may have an ad agency) — should affect how you present your portfolio to capture the attention of specific target audiences. 

“For ad agencies, you definitely need a good website first — you won’t get in the door without a strong website” she says. “You don’t need loads and loads and loads of photos on the website, but you do need to keep it consistent, quality, and reflect what you do … [then y]ou’re more likely to get in the door.”

Once you’ve got your foot in that door, consider whether showing your portfolio on an iPad or digital device is the best idea. Although ad agencies might say that showing your portfolio on an iPad is fine, Force says to remember that they’ve probably already looked at your website on their own device, so you may just be showing them the same thing in the same format again: “They’ll probably say, ‘Cool, that’s great’. But if you present a beautifully printed, bound representation of your art, you’re more likely to get more engagement and more likely to be remembered.

“My feeling is that, these days, everyone is more forced towards technology, so it tends to be more special when something is printed. You can make waves, show [that] it’s important and that they have to take a look — it feels special. A print portfolio is tactile, engaging, and emotive.”

Mara Sommer, The Binding Studio

What makes an image worthy?

Selecting the images for a portfolio must stem from what the photographer has established as their individual style and who they would like to create work for.

“The work that they love doing should dictate what they are working on. The two should be aligned, and that’s how they should decide who they are targeting. They should aim to reach their goals and do the work they love and be paid for it,” says Force.

Creating a portfolio that captures attention from the get-go is very important, and, to do this, Force advises the following: “For print portfolios, I always suggest a beautiful cover. Invest your money in a cover — brand it, name it. Create a portfolio where pages can be removed and the order you put your pages in can be changed — then you get more control over what you put in. It’s not so much a photo book — although there is a place for those books — but I’d suggest they’d be more for higher-end commission jobs.”

Providing that instant wow factor is essential for a great-performing portfolio, and, to achieve this, taking time to consider your images and how they work together to give a clear indication of your personal style is important.

Kingsize Studios, The Binding Studio

“Often, I’ll suggest that you need to have a great hero image or showpiece. Show specific images that have been nicely edited. You need to make people want to see [your portfolio] and back it up with quality work,” Force says.

“You need to show a collection of your work, create a customized book — but don’t make it until you know what shots to include. For example, why would you make a portrait book if all the images you end up choosing are landscape?”

And ensure it’s set out in a way that makes it easy for your clients to understand: “You don’t want them having to figure out some mathematical equation to be able to get past the cover — ensure there is ease of access for them.” 

Portfolio prerequisites

However, as Force advises, it doesn’t matter how experienced a photographer is, everyone goes off track and forgets who they are. It’s important to understand that you can’t do it all on your own, and it’s OK to call on the help of someone else — a folio consultant or otherwise. 
“But, whoever you choose, make sure they are incredibly successful,” she cautions. “If it’s a photographer, make sure they are well established. You don’t want to be misguided. With every image, there is so much emotional baggage that comes with any photo. People like me see the image for what it is — we weren’t there to smell and taste the cake you’ve captured, and we weren’t there to experience the beautiful day. All I can know is what I see — and the client will be the same. You need objective opinions, and relying on your partner or friends isn’t always the best idea.”

Emily Hlavac Green, portfolio created by The Binding Studio

Understanding that a career in photography is not all about taking photographs is vital to being able to ensure your masterfully created portfolio transitions into paid opportunities. 
“Talent is only a small part. You need to be able to communicate in a world that has high expectations. There’s this view about ad photographers, that they get paid and that’s not fair, but there is so much work that goes into the acquisition of these jobs, the treatments, and showing you can do what the client wants, compared to editorial, where you get a lot more say and responsibility. With ads, you have to double-check, and have it approved by the agency, as well as every man and his dog,” Force explains.

And, last but by no means least, to get those all-important real-world skills, Force says that photographers should align themselves with a successful photographer in their area of interest, and assist: “They’ll be able to teach them good habits, business skills, provide experience in working, and see a side of things that are crucial … No one’s really bad; it’s just about experience. There are always gems of wonderfulness, but you really need personality and work experience.”

Ross Brown, The Binding Studio

The portfolio process

Sometimes it’s nice to tick things off a checklist, so we asked Force to put together her top tips on how to create a portfolio that is perfect for your specific requirements.

  • Define your best work and the most dominant style.
  • Define your personal and professional goals — where you would like to be based, what kind of team you like working with, etc.
  • Define which clients/brands will be most likely to pay you to shoot assignments in your style, and which fit with your goals.
  • Ensure this is reflected in your website — build a folio of work that reflects your goals and style and is accessible to your target clients.
  • Build a print folio only when you’ve done these things and have established what your target client wants to see in a printed folio, if anything.
  • Start by selecting the key images (or get someone else who understands your target market to do this for you).
  • Collate them in a way that flows well — use theme, tone and colour, and composition to connect each page.
  • Use this as a guide as to how to assemble your folio in terms of format, layout, and size.
  • Lay up pages and use a PDF or something similar to replicate the flow and see how it looks before printing.
  • Research and test papers: what texture best enhances your shots? Also, make sure you take into account the type of binding you’ll use (mounted or not?).
  • Talk to a binder about your options. A good binder will be able to help you with your page preparation and will also make you a custom cover. Decide on the branding, finish, size, etc., of your cover using your images, page size, paper type, and layout as a guide.
  • Print out your shots (if you’re not using tear sheets) on the paper you’ve selected, using a reputable printer (person, or your own machine).
  • Do a final edit of your work once it’s printed to make sure the flow is still working. Be prepared to move shots around, replace them, or even throw them out if they don’t look as good in print or if the quality isn’t good enough.

This article featured in the June–July 2016 issue of D-Photo magazine, and you can collect a print copy or a digital copy of the issue below: