Professional You've been taking photos for a while now, right? You've got a lot of great shots of your kids, some beautiful landscapes, some macro images and a handful of photos that are pure art. Your brother wants you to photograph his wedding and now an acquaintance has just asked if you'll take some shots of his newborn son. Photography is starting to look like it isn't just a hobby any more--now it has some pocket-cash potential. What next?
You need a portfolio. If you're considering taking photos for money, or if you'd like to display your work at a local gallery, or if you'd just like to take your photography to a more professional level, a portfolio is an absolute requirement.
So what exactly is a portfolio?
Believe it or not, a portfolio isn't just a collection of all of your best shots in one place. A portfolio is more complicated than that. Remember that you aren't trying to convince anyone that you're a versatile photographer, you're trying to convince them that you're the right photographer for their specific job. Someone hiring you to shoot photos of their kids isn't going to care that you're an awesome landscape photographer. Your portfolio should reflect the work that you want to put forward professionally. It should have a theme and should be a strong reflection of your personal style. That's why you don't just want to take all of your favorite shots, lump them together and call them a portfolio.
Untitled by Flickr user Hani Amir
Hassalien by Flickr user Hani Amir
Chains Are Necessary by Flickr user Hani Amir
A portfolio can be either digital or a traditional printed collection of images. I'm going to go out on a limb and say you should have one of each. A printed collection of images isn't going to be as dynamic as a digital one--that is, it will be more difficult, costly and time consuming to make changes to it--but it's the sort of thing you want to have on hand when meeting a potential client in person. A classic, printed portfolio is more personal and generally more impressive than photos that are simply viewed on a screen. If you do have the option to present a printed portfolio to a potential client, you should take it.
A digital portfolio, on the other hand, can be customized, changed and updated on the fly. If you aren't going to be meeting your potential client in person, you can simply email her a link to your online portfolio. The advantage of a digital portfolio is that you can easily edit it for the specific client you're presenting it to--wedding photos for the engaged couple, baby photos for the couple with a newborn. If you're presenting your work to a gallery, you'll want to include photos that fit within a theme, and you may even need to cater the work in your portfolio to the gallery itself.
Choosing the images
Hopefully if you've gotten this far in your photography you've already begun to specialize. This simply means that you have a common theme or style in your work. As a photographer, you don't need to limit yourself to only photographing weddings or only photographing children--but if you do both you should have a portfolio for each type of work. You also need to make sure that your portfolio(s) reflect your style, and that your style is easy to define when looking at your work. Most importantly, you want this style/theme to continue throughout the portfolio--don't throw in a completely unrelated image just because you think it's cool.
I've already said that you need to keep your client in mind when deciding which images to present. Now ask yourself what emotions you want to convey in those images. For example, if you're trying to get a contract as a wedding photographer, you'll probably want to select images that are beautiful, convey a strong sense of happiness and capture the mood of the wedding.
Times Square at Dusk (New York City) by Flickr user Stuck in Customs
Milan Train Station at Midnight by Flickr user Stuck in Customs
Aurorus Reflectus Colosseo by Flickr user Stuck in Customs
Process of elimination
Choosing portfolio images should be by process of elimination. Once you know which theme you're going to focus on for portfolio number one, you should go through all the images you have in that theme and select the ones that stand out. Then send these images to a cheap photo processing place and have them printed at 4x6. Now spread them out on your living room floor and start being brutal. Take out every image that doesn't strike you as being excellent. Put the rejects to one side and keep going until you have, say, 50 shots that you think best reflect your style, the portfolio's theme and the emotion that you want to convey to the people who look at your portfolio.
But that's not where you'll stop. Fifty shots is way too many for a portfolio. What you'll be doing next is putting your images in some kind of presentable format--a plain photo album should be just fine--and showing them to people who probably have similar opinions to those who will be viewing your portfolio. If your portfolio is full of babies, for example, show the shots to your friends who are parents, especially if they are recent parents. Ask them to tell you which shots they like the best.
Then show the images to more people. A few images will eventually start to emerge as the ones most people are drawn to. They may or may not be your own favorites, but don't let your personal preferences intervene. It's way too hard to make a detached judgment about your own work. You may be emotionally attached to a particular image because it's a photo of your niece and you captured it after a hard-fought hour of trying to get her to stop crying--but just because you love that photo doesn't mean it belongs in your portfolio. If your portfolio testers aren't commenting on that image, leave it out.
Remember that people are people and everyone has a different opinion. The photos you exclude should be the ones that no one seems to notice, not necessarily the ones that so-and-so specifically said he didn't like. If there's a common consensus that a particular photo isn't any good, that might be a reason to exclude it--but if critic A and critic B disagree you don't need to give the image the boot simply because it wasn't universally loved. Even if critic A didn't like it, it still stood out enough that he felt compelled to comment on it. That is a better recommendation than simply ignoring it.
Now that you have even more images in the reject pile, it's time to be brutally honest with yourself. Your portfolio should really have no more than 15 or 20 images in it--most people are going to get bored if you try to show them more images than that, regardless of how wonderful those images are. The 15 photos you do decide on should be the very best that you're capable of producing. Anything that isn't technically perfect should be excluded. Anything that is just OK should be excluded. Remember that your potential clients are going to be far more judgmental of your mediocre images than they will be of your great images. If in doubt, leave it out.
Let's say you didn't end up with a satisfying stack of images when it was all over. Now is the time to revisit that reject pile and see if you discarded something that you should have included. Mix it up a little and reassess. Present the images to your critics again, if they don't mind. And start over from there.
Once you've narrowed it all down, set it aside and come back to it in a week or so. You may find that your opinion has changed. You may find that you love your results. Just be certain of your own opinion before you take that next step--printing and presentation.
If you do decide to go with a printed portfolio, you need to have a good-quality portfolio case to present your images in. Don't just show up to your meeting with a manila folder and a bunch of 4x6 images you got from Shutterfly. You will need high-quality prints on high-quality paper, and they should be large - 8x10 or 9x12. You're proud of your work and your portfolio needs to reflect that.
If you choose an online portfolio, you will also need to make sure your site looks professional. Choose a professional hosting platform (I like SmugMug) or have someone who understands web design help you put together an online portfolio that will impress.
Ashley + Ryan | First Light by Flickr user Sean Molin Photography
Ashley + Ryan | Jealousy by Flickr user Sean Molin Photography
Ashley + Ryan | Gloss by Flickr user Sean Molin Photography
Remember that you're not stuck with your portfolio--you're going to grow as a photographer and your portfolio will grow, too. For now, simply put together the best portfolio you can for this point in your photography career, and then let it evolve from there.
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