Simple Truths To Building A Strong Photography Portfolio
A strong portfolio is one of the most important assets you can have.
Having a strong and engaging portfolio is crucial in the world of commercial photography. It is your primary tool for showing your abilities, style, and unique approach to making photos. This is a competitive business, and believe me when I say it can be very unkind to those who do not keep up.
Keeping up means staying on top.
On top of your business.
On top of your work.
On top of your portfolio.
On top of the minds of your clients.
There is no substitute for a solid body of work that continuously grows and expands to fit the ever-changing needs of brands and clients.
Understanding Your Market
Who is it that you think you should be working for?
What types of clients hire photographers who do what you do?
Where do you see your work being used — both literally and in your expectations?
This is understanding your market.
And it is understanding THE market.
Without knowing who it is that uses the kind of work that you do, all that is happening is that you are burning through money faster than a trust-fund kid from Stanford with an idea for a new emoji.
Research your competition.
Do a deep dive into the portfolios of successful shooters in your market. Who is shooting what for whom? Where are the biggest clients finding their photographers?
How can you compete if you don’t know what’s going on?
Here’s a plan for starting to build that portfolio correctly. And when I say correctly, I mean with a deliberate and focused purpose. A good portfolio is not a mishmash of photos taken over a couple of years and cobbled together on some Squarespace website.
A great portfolio is planned and executed with purpose.
[My student Ken Lamb (Phoenix) created this portfolio in the 30-Day Portfolio Slam built on this structure. It brought in a huge job in the first week after he showed it to clients.]
Focus on the type of imagery that you believe will make you stand out from the competition.
And make a plan to do a lot of that kind of work in a short amount of time.
Create an avatar for your ideal client. Who are they, and what are they looking for?
Make a list.
What kind of work would you do for them? How would they use your best work?
Now create a shot list and get to work.
In my 30-Day Portfolio Slam, I have photographers do this work before they begin to make their images.
We know what they are going to shoot.
We know when they are going to shoot.
We have a shot list, a layout, and sketches of the images so we can see how they flow.
This is all-important. You MUST develop the new portfolio with a final goal in mind.
In other words, you know where this portfolio is going, rather than ending up somewhere else by randomly shooting seemingly random subjects.
Schedule the sessions. Just like they were real clients.
Because they are.
[Member Carla McMahon (South Africa) worked carefully and deliberately toward having a unique look in her South African market. So far the jobs have ranged from local to international brands.]
Your business is the client, one you can no longer ignore or put on the back burner.
When you are shooting, do as many different approaches to the subject as you can.
For instance, say you have blocked out the afternoon to do a burger shoot for your new portfolio.
Sketch it out… with variations. No, it doesn’t matter how well you draw, no one is going to see these but you. (Unless you put them on Facebook for some reason… stop the hard stuff at night, ya know.) They will help you plan the angle, the lighting, and the set.
Blackwing pencils and a nice drawing tablet: $20 at Amazon.
Then, when you have the shot you want, change it up. Do a lay-flat of it, try shooting up at it, put the camera on the table, change lenses, add a kicker light… just PLAY with the elements of the shoot before you end the session.
Yes, this is me telling you to play with your food.
Remember to take alternate angles.
Remember to bracket focus (2.8, 4, 5.6, 8 etc…) so you can have a choice of DoF to work with. You don’t have to do them all, but do a couple of variations at least.
Remember to focus stack after you shoot normal focus. Having that option is really nice.
Remember to get some motion. I define motion as 5–8 second clips. Slide, crawl, zoom, or simply have the action happen in front of the still video camera. (An example would be a slow-motion french fry dropping on to a stack of fries next to the burger.)
Make sure you leave room for your composition. Shooting right to the edge of your frame is an unforced error. If you find the composition doesn’t work, you may not be able to correct it in post. Always leave crop room around your image.
Do your preliminary checks to make sure the images are sharp, focused, clean, and show what you wanted to show.
But do not start the post process yet.
Just keep shooting.
Once you are wrapped with the shoot and have made the photos you need, sit down to edit out the best images.
We do this as a group edit so we can see how all of the different shots can boost the shots around them. Choose the images that you love, even if there are several from each session.
In fact, we NEED to have close-ups, mid-shots, and long-shots (well, long for the studio in the case of food) to work with. Having a variety of good photos to choose from in the final edit is going to make it so much easier.
If you start post-processing at the beginning of the shoot, chances are you will drift from style to style as you continue to on.
Waiting for the post means you can see the images as a unit, develop the looks you want, and make sure they are applied across the entire portfolio.
[My mentorship member, food photographer Jennifer Arce (Miami), wanted to add a beverage portfolio to her book. With deliberate planning and a system to fit in the creative work while being super busy, she created a really stunning set of images in less than a month.]
Get Some Eyes on Your Work
It is always good to have others see what you have done and offer opinions, comments, suggestions, and choices.
Opinions, however, are not all equal. Your mom is gonna love all of them. Your competitor is going to pick out the worst of them.
Find someone you can trust and who you believe has your best interest at heart, and have them take a look at the work with you. You may consider hiring an outside pair of eyes who has experience in working with portfolios. Those folks are out there.
Write down comments that are strongly held. You can use this information even if you don’t necessarily follow the suggestions.
Once you have your images, test different ones with different approaches to post-processing. When you know you have just the right look, process all of the keepers… yes, you will have some redundancy but that is very good. We WANT those similar images that we can use for other forms of marketing.
Now we have our collection of images and we must start making choices.
Print them all out at some cheap printer.
Walmart in the US, for instance.
With prints in hand, we begin to ‘sequence’ our images. Even if we are using a non-sequence website like a mosaic gallery, sequencing is an important part of getting the images together for our book.
Spend time with this part. Put all of them on the floor and sit on a stool looking down. Choose the ones that jump out at you, and discard the ones that don’t make you smile.
Remember: close, medium, farther away. Make sure your selection has rhythm.
Spend at least a few days doing this. You will be surprised to find that one day this image doesn't make the cut, and the next day it does.
In the end, you will have your 32 images, and the portfolio will be very well put together, tight, and exceptionally powerful.
Have a sweet and forbidden treat — you did good.
Tomorrow you will start putting together that cool architecture portfolio you have been wanting to do.
I am a photographer, designer, and creative educator specializing in working with new talent wanting to jump-start their careers. You can find me on my website, or on my Substack blog.