Putting together a portfolio

If you’re serious about getting photography work, you’ll need a portfolio. There may be less need for them now that more clients are commissioning photographers based on websites, but there are still more than enough people wanting to see folios to make it a necessity. You can’t beat the look of a great print – an image is always going to look more impressive on paper than on a screen. Showing a client your portfolio has the added benefit of giving you the chance to discuss your work and allow them to get to know something about your motivations and interests.

What sort of portfolio should you go for?

There was a time when it was the done thing to present your work as mounted 10×8 transparencies in a box. This could look great, but is now something of the past. By far the most popular format amongst photographers these days is to present your work in a book format (possibly why your portfolio is often referred to as your ‘book’). This often takes the form of a leather-bound folio containing plastic sleeves that you can slide your prints into. It’s common to have your name embossed on the front and to present the whole thing in a nice bag. These can look fantastic, though it’s worth paying some attention to the plastic pages and make sure they’re not too thick as they can create nasty reflections and get scratched.

An increasingly popular book format is to get something printed on demand. It’s getting more common to find companies offering to print digital books on an individual or very small print-run basis, and if you can find one that uses colour profiling and good paper then you can get a very nice coffee-table style portfolio made for a fairly reasonable price.

What should you put in your portfolio?

To establish this, it’s first necessary to ask yourself what you’re trying to achieve with your portfolio. Presumably you’re going to show it to potential clients – but depending on who those clients are, the content of your book needs to vary accordingly. It’s even possible that if you’re looking to carry out different types of photography, you’ll have a number of different portfolios – one for editorial work, one for pr, one for corporate for example. And within those portfolios you should tweak your work according to who exactly it is who’s going to be seeing your work. Some design groups or advertising agencies, for example, may prefer to see a unique personal style. In which case you’ll want to dedicate the majority of your folio to personal work, and have tearsheets (if you’ve got any) and examples of commissioned work maybe two-to a page at the end. Ad agencies in particular can get quite snooty about their competitors’ work. If you’ve photographed an ad for a rival agency and display it full page in your book, it’s possible the first thing the agency will look at is the design of the advert rather than your photography within it – so it’s often best just to show the image on its own, and maybe the whole advert as an afterthought at the back. This is of course all assuming that you’ve been lucky enough to have landed a nice advertising job in the first place…

On the other hand, if you’re going to see an end-client direct, it’s quite possible that they’re going to have less ‘vision’ than an agency and will want to know that they can trust you by seeing more examples of commissioned work. In this instance you’ll want to play it safer by putting less of your personal work in, and more images that serve as examples of the sort of thing you know they’re already after.

This is where a portfolio with removable pages (as opposed to a printed hardback book) can be an advantage, as it can be tweaked accordingly for each meeting.

How many images should you have in your folio?

You should always bear in mind the advice ‘if in doubt, leave it out’ and ‘less is more’. Especially when starting out, your natural inclination will be to put as much stuff as possible in your folio. This isn’t always a good idea. You could easily ruin the impact of ten great prints by then having five average ones. Obviously you don’t want to show a book that has next to nothing in it, but people will understand that you’re at the start of your career and won’t necessarily have a huge amount of work to show. You’re much better off being ruthless and weeding out average work to show just a few great shots than trying to flesh out some good work with other images that dilute their effect. Ideally, you’ll want to have somewhere around 20-30 good shots in your book – you shouldn’t really go over this. But if you don’t have this many good shots, don’t worry – just show off your best work. One issue you might face is that you might get so familiar with your work that you can lose a sense of objectivity as to its quality. This is why it can sometimes be useful to ask friends or family to review your portfolio as ruthlessly as possible and weed out anything that they think is weak.

Work on your portfolio

Especially when you’re starting out, you should be aiming to create new striking work to add to your book. Set yourself targets. If you’re interested in fashion photography, maybe try to put together a test shoot once a month. Team up with other people – make-up artists, stylists who are also testing and pool your skills. If you’re interested in still life, do the same sort of thing – maybe try to get hold of a nice looking product and spend time lighting it and experimenting until you get something you’re proud of. There’s nothing like setting yourself goalposts to get new work done. Apart from anything else, this is a great way to learn by experimentation – which will then give you more confidence when it comes to shooting something for a commission. Read the article on personal projects for more on this.

Be proud of your book!

Your folio is something that should display your individual take on photography. What you’re creating is something unique and special – not necessarily just something to help you get work. Put love and passion into your portfolio and the results will speak for themselves.

Further Information

Plastic Sandwich are offering Photoassist premium members a 10% discount on portfolios and pages and a 50% discount on embossing your name on the portfolio. See www.plasticsandwich.co.uk for more information.

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