Wednesday, June 28, 2017

How to Build a Killer Portfolio

If I were choosing a portfolio from the images above, I would likely toss out the black and white and the chili pepper shots because they don't flow with the rest of the images.

I love to see other photographers thrive, and a huge part of thriving as an artist is having a stellar portfolio. 

"But," you ask, "What if I don't have a portfolio? Where do I start?" 

Well, that is the point of this article, and perhaps, if you all are interested in knowing more than I can cover here, I can write another Simple Guide to... book. But, lets start here and cover some basics. For the purpose of this article I am going to relate this to photography and photographers, but most of this can apply to traditional artists as well. 

What is a Portfolio and Who Needs One? 

A portfolio is simply a body of work, often with a unifying theme. As simple as that definition is, many people don't understand it, especially the unifying theme portion. A killer portfolio has flow, it works well together. Imagine a gallery display, all the pieces should hang together and be pleasing to the eye. A portfolio is not about showing your diversity, it is about showing your consistency. 

As for who needs a portfolio, personally, I think all artists. Even if you are not interested in doing photography for money or submitting a portfolio in a commercial sense. Having a beautiful portfolio helps you grow and learn as an artist. If an art director or local gallery owner sees your work (on social media, etc) and they are interested in seeing more, it is very nice to have it at the ready. It's even nice to be able to share with friends who appreciate your talents. Don't discount the power of a great portfolio! 

Pull Together Your Best Work 

If you don't have a portfolio, or if you are just beginning to build one, here is where you need a firm foundation. Starting it off well makes it much easier to manage. Likely (if you need a portfolio), you have been taking photos for a while and you have a stash of your best images. Pull them out (you can do this digitally in something like Lightroom), put them all together and really look at them, like you've never seen them before. Like you have no idea of the story behind them. Look at them as a stranger. It helps if you put them into a collage or grid view. Also, having a trusted friend give some honest opinions can be very helpful. 

Now that you have your best images together, ask yourself some tough questions. 

The grid view in Lightroom is a great way to view potential portfolio images so you can see what works well together in regards to style and consistency. You can also use Lighroom's filters by star rating, color tagging, and keywords to help organize and sort images as you work through them.

Define Your Style 

What is my style? This is really hard sometimes, so don't be discouraged. It takes some time to develop and to realize what your style is, and it's something that can keep evolving. As tempting as it is to diversify, it is much better to keep your portfolio to images that have the same style. Why? Because your portfolio is something you show to people who might want to hire you. They want to see examples of what their photos might look like if you take them. If your style is all over the board, they won't have any idea, or be able to visualize their own photos. People like very much to imagine themselves in the images, much like displays in stores that shoppers can imagine in their own homes. This is your display. Make it something they can count on. Toss out the oddball style images from your collage, this will be a process of elimination. 

Eliminate What Doesn't Flow 

Now, with the images you have left, what is the subject you shoot most? Is it flowers, is it people, is it landscapes? Play a game of "What Doesn't Belong" and toss out the images that do not mix well with the others. Remember that consistent style matters more than subject. The more ruthless you are at this stage, the higher quality your portfolio will be! 

Cut Emotional Ties and Keep it Concise 

Keep in mind, that you are not abandoning those images that don't make the portfolio. Early on, I always felt like a traitor when I had to take out an image I loved because it didn't really fit my portfolio. Don't let that derail you. This is simply an exercise in finding your selling points, your look, your visual business card. Only the pertinent info makes it onto a business card. 

Try to keep it somewhere between 10-15 photos. Your portfolio is not your website, per se. You can showcase much more on your website because that is where your fans or people who want to see much more of your work will go. Your portfolio should just be the bait that gets them there and makes them want to see more.

Remember, the people you are going to show it to aren't already your fans, and they are often crunched for time. Show them you respect their time by keeping things concise, simple, and quick. These images should sum up all that is you as a photographer.

If you already have a portfolio, now is the time to look at it and closely evaluate it, especially if it isn't getting you jobs. Does it show your style? Is it way too large? Get brutal and toss out what doesn't make the cut. Ask others for opinions. Often we (and I mean me, too) associate images with memories, and we will give extra weight to an image because of sentimentality, but a photo editor is not going to know what a great dinner you had on the beach after you made this photo or how you grew that plant yourself. Cutting the emotional ties to images can be tough! That's where a friend or two can come in handy with 3rd-party, unbiased opinions.

Keep Things Fresh

Don't forget to update your portfolio! If you have a new image that fits what you are showing, add it in, don't wait! Take out the least favorite/best and replace it. That way you can always be sure your best is out there. Your portfolio should be a living, dynamic, ever-better representation of your talents and abilities as you grow and evolve as an artist.

Always trade a new, better image into your portfolio for a lesser one, to keep your best work constantly moving forward.

Tailor to Your Audience

All of the advice above is geared toward creating your general portfolio. Of course (just like with a resume), you can tailor your presentation if you know who your audience will be. For example, if you are interested in working for a gardening magazine, you would want to focus on botanical images and you wouldn't want to send an architectural magazine a portfolio of flowers. But, the most important thing is that it is a consistent body of exceptional work.

Ask for Feedback

Sometimes, we gain great insight into what our best work is by getting feedback from others. If you don't know a professional who would be willing to review your work, ask friends and family. Sharing on social media is also a nice indicator of what images are creating the most interest (just remember to copyright and watermark). You will also want to ask for feedback after you have assembled and created your finished portfolio.

Posting what you think are your best images to social media is a great way to get feedback, rankings on 500px, likes on Facebook, or votes on Viewbug can be very helpful in determining what should go into your portfolio.

Putting it All Together

Now that you have chosen your images, how do you put them together? In this digital age, it is essential that you have a digital portfolio at the ready. Something you can link to for quick inquiries. Remember to keep it simple, clean, professional, and easy to navigate. Fancy page transitions or flashy colors are going to take away from your images. Be sure that the design and layout are complimentary and showcase your work, not distract from or compete with it. You want to make sure your work is memorable for the right reasons, not that your color and design are gaudy, or that your navigation is a nightmare.

To Print, or Not to Print?

It is also very nice to have a printed portfolio, and with all the self-publishing mediums out there, it's easier than ever before to create a very professional physical body of work. As with digital, keep it simple and elegant. Don't skimp on the quality, it will show. Make sure your choose quality paper and a nice cover material. Also, since most everyone has their portfolio in a digital form only, a printed portfolio can make you stand out from the crowd.

Final Tip

Just one last thing to remember is that a quick Google search of your name (if you are on social media, etc.) will turn up images you share online. Posting quality images consistently is a very good thing. Posting poor or mediocre images consistently is not. If you do a photo shoot, choose the best 1-3 for sharing, save the rest for private viewing by clients. By doing this, you keep your online presence at a higher level. Don't post everything you do, be very discerning and step up your game.

Be sure to keep consistent quality in all your social media posts. Only post what you believe are your best images. This shows respect for your followers and is a nice reference for anyone who might want to hire your services.


Portfolio - a body of work (usually with a unifying theme or quality)

Gather your best images where you can see them together (the grid version in Lightroom works well)

Define your style (and to a lesser degree, your subjects)

Keep images that work well together and eliminate the others

Look at images without emotion, like a stranger

Ask for feedback

Keep it small (10-15 images)

Remember that the person looking at it prob has limited time

Taylor specific portfolios if you know the recipient

Make a digital version (keep it simple, clean and professional)

Creating a printed portfolio can help you stand out from the crowd

Keep a quality online presence

I hope I have helped sort out some of the issues or confusion about creating your killer portfolio. There is much more than I have covered here, but I wanted to keep it simple and understandable, especially for those just starting to build one. It can be intimidating if you don't know where to begin.


April Bryant is the author of The Simple Guide to Great Photography and The Simple Guide to Great Composition (available on Amazon), a member of the US Press Association, a Getty Images photographer, and owns and operates and Her work has been published by the Sierra Club as well as several publications local to East Tennessee. Find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram!