How To Make A Photography Portfolio That Really Shines

So, how to make a photography portfolio that will grab the attention of your clients and propel you on to photographic stardom.

How to go about it depends of course on the areas of photography you’re in, and the purpose of the portfolio, but I’ve listed lots of the tips that have worked really well for me and which should be relevant whatever you do.

1. Great photos

Whatever field you’re in, get the best possible collection of images you can. You don’t necessarily need a vast number, in fact less is more in many cases. 10 stunning shots to show the range of your skills may be just enough.

how to make a photography portfolio

Limit yourself to your very best work

Whoever you’re showing your portfolio too, try not to talk too much and explain the meaning behind the image or how you got it, at least not at first. Just let the photographs do all the talking, and don’t rush from one to the next. Give your client time to really appreciate them. If you’ve kept the number of shots down, this works really well.

To develop your portfolio in the first place, take your time to come up with provocative, imaginative ideas, ask for help, don’t worry if you have to arrange a whole shoot to get a single portfolio image. It might become the best marketing piece you ever have.

If time isn’t on your side, work with what you’ve got in the short term, but keep on coming back until you’ve got something that you are really proud of which I always think of as a good indicator. And keep on updating your portfolio as your work gets better, and in line with changes in your style and what is and isn’t in fashion. The perfect 80s blancmange wedding dress shot isn’t going to get you any new clients, not in this century at least.

2. Shoot for free

If you’re a budding wedding photographer, ring round a few friends to see who’s going to weddings this year, or even if they know any friends of theirs who are.

Offer to shoot the whole day free of charge and send the bride and groom a CD of all the images afterwards. In return, get access to as much of the day as you can, and make sure you can use all the photos for your portfolio or for any other marketing purpose.

In all likelihood, they may already have a photographer. Ask if you can still attend and shoot the day, and promise not to get in the way of the person they’ve hired. This worked really well for me early on. I never assisted a photographer, so it gave me a really good insight in to how to organise myself, where to be, what to expect next, and how to interact with the wedding party. Some photographers I shadowed on the day gave me loads of advice too.

And of course the pressure is off for you to produce every key photo that is normally required, so you can concentrate on areas where your portfolio might be lacking. You can also create some great opportunities that you might just not have time for if you were the lead photographer, shooting the couple walking through the gardens from a high window say, or spending time with a flower girl and pageboy to get that perfect shot. Or you can disappear off with the flowers during the meal and set up a really well composed detail shot.

The same applies to making a photography portfolio, whether you are focusing on portraits, events, photojournalism or other commercial work. Ask friends, family and business colleagues and you’re bound to find people who will be happy to receive photos for free.

For portraits, see if a friend wants some shots of them and their children, ask a couple if they’ll help you practice for an engagement shoot, photograph a party or anniversary, or ask a local charity or the local council if you can cover a PR event. You may get a credit which could lead to work further down the line too.

In many ways, still life and landscape photography portfolio building isn’t so much of an issue in regard to needing help to organize a shoot. Having said that though, if you can get access to a location or vantage point that isn’t open to the public, or to subject matter that is out of the ordinary, you will start to set yourself apart form the crowd.

You may need to talk your portfolio over in an interview or show it to clients, and demonstrating that you will go that extra step for your work cannot but go down well.

3. Charge but not much

In a way, there is not much difference between charging very little and charging nothing at all. The goal is the same; to provide opportunities that otherwise you might not have to develop your portfolio.

Thinking about it though, there is one key difference. Even if you’re not charging much, the relationship between you and the client does become much more professional. Expectations will start to be placed on you, but on the flip side, you will find yourself taken more seriously.

This can be very useful, as I’ve always found that people are more willing to help you get the best shots possible if they are paying at least something. If they don’t, people tend not to associate what you’re doing with something of value. So whether this is your subject being on time for a shoot or indeed turning up at all, arriving looking great, or making sure the product for a still life session is at its best, charging a little will help this along.

And of course, if you’re doing a good job, people will start asking you instead of the other way round. Charging is a good way to ration your services, even at the beginning, and kind of important in the long run too if you want to make a living.

It may feel a bit strange to take those first few commissions; you might find yourself thinking that you’re not a proper photographer yet so you cannot. But if people have seen your work and like it or have heard great reviews, you’re good enough so go for it!

4. Assist

As I said, I’ve never done it myself but it is another great way to develop a portfolio as you learn the ropes from someone more experienced.

I have had one or two assistants in my time though, and if you are looking to do this, the best advice I can give is to ring someone up – email just isn’t trying hard enough – and explain what you can do for them but also ask them what they need.

Be really efficient and do exactly what you’ve agreed to do, from meeting up at the right time to organizing outfits or props for a shoot. People are generally happy to share their knowledge if you do your bit in return.

You might also want to check out this article on how to become a photographer’s assistant for some more info.

5. Be Flexible

When you are thinking about how to build a photography portfolio, don’t get too stuck in the mindset of having a single set of images that carries the name ‘My Portfolio’.

Different clients are going to need different samples of your work depending on their requirements, so be prepared to take out one or two of your best pieces if they conflict with the preferences of your client, or even start again from scratch.

6. Set up a good archive for your work

Being able to quickly make a photography portfolio to suite differing circumstances means you need to be really well organized.

You will shoot 1000s of images in different settings and styles, and it doesn’t take long before you forget some of the good ones if you’re not careful, or at least forget where on earth they are.

We could have a big discussion on archiving, but I’m only going to say here that you need some kind of system in place. You might want to purchase archive software, especially if you’re business is stock photography, or you produce huge quantities of images. This makes it much easier to categorise and then search for what you need.

If you’re business is portrait or weddings, you might only need to keep a set of folders on your computer for best shots of couples, brides, detail shots, family portraits, whatever. Once you’ve completed a job, include in your workflow a few minutes to copy across your best photos to this collection. This saves an enormous amount of time wading through ancient commissions in the hope of finding a single shot you’ve got in mind.

Make sure that the file name you give your favourite images allows you to reference its source and location and so on. And finally, make sure of course that everything is backed up as well, firstly to an external hard drive but also off site (either on another hard drive or on disc).

7. Excellent presentation

When you are considering how to make a photography portfolio that truly shines out from the competition, presentation is absolutely vital.

I’m a great believer in letting the images do the talking, so I make sure they are presented very simply but very well. If you a preparing a box of board mounted photographs, make sure the mounting is done to the best professional standards. White or black mounts only as well so they don’t distract from the image.

Almost every photographer now uses a website in conjunction with a studio, or on its own, as the main shop front for the business. It depends on your style of photography, but having a website to complement your images in the best possible way is so important. You might want to go for a very elegant minimal look, something understated but very high end, think Tiffany, or something brash, contemporary and cutting edge like Diesel or a mixture of both like Armani.

Whether you are presenting your portfolio in an album format, or printing to poster size, get the presentation right. As well as making your work look amazing, it also tells your client that you have, well, great presentation skills, which is pretty important if they’re buying expensive framed photographs or an album from you.

One way I show wedding clients my portfolio is with a slideshow, to music that really complements the feel of a day. The music you choose can make a massive difference to the overall impact of the images. I start with something elegant and romantic (not cheesy!) for the ceremony, then on to more fun and bubbly for the drinks reception, and really upbeat for the dancing.

In terms of the photos I choose, going for your best 10 in this format isn’t right I don’t think. Instead, I select around 150 of my best shots of each element of a wedding day, from the bride getting ready to the dancing, and run these in chronological sequence. I choose from lots of weddings though so there is plenty of variety. Once it’s run through for the potential client, I let the music fade off, and just pause for a few seconds to let it all sink in.

Overall, this works incredibly well. It’s a wonderful feeling when you see the bride getting all emotional during the slideshow, imagining her day when she sees your photos.

In the end, photography is as much about the experience you’re giving the client as the quality of the images themselves, so if you get the presentation right you really are half way there.

8. Quality

To finish off where we started, along with presentation a good portfolio is all about having superb images and knowing who your client is, what they want and giving them just that.

Certainly, get feedback on your portfolio from friends and family, from your professional photographic association if you’re a member, and from your peers. Be prepared to receive a lot of conflicting advice though – the nature of the job means that people’s opinions really are just that.

Sure, there are specific criteria that will win you awards, but I’ve heard plenty of photographers moan that some of their most loved and favourite work never gets a look in at competition. A blurry out of focus shot can convey much more emotion and energy than a razor sharp alternative. An overexposed bridal portrait can look stunning but not get any votes. But as you’re not discussing the wedding, portrait session or commercial job with the judges, to an extent who cares. If the client is happy, you’re in business.

Any questions or ideas?

If there’s anything you’d like to share or discuss about how to make a great portfolio for photography clients you want to impress, please leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you.

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2 Responses to “How To Make A Photography Portfolio That Really Shines”

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  1. mohammad farid jalil says:

    I click good photos be it portraits,birds,animals,landscape,sports. I have not been able to decide which kind of photography i should go for. Please help

    • Stefan says:

      Hi Mohammad, are you shooting for fun or are you thinking of setting up a business. Either way, what do you enjoy the most, and what do you think you are best at? Cheers, Stefan

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