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Photo by Annie Spratt

Building Your Portfolio: Tips and Tricks

June 30, 2016

Building a portfolio from scratch isn’t easy. It takes a lot of time and effort, and can represent a very steep learning curve as you throw yourself in at the deep end. By the time you have a finished collection together, you will probably already think that your earlier shots are too low quality to include – and that means working even harder to get those replaced.

But there are a few tips that you can use to make things easier for yourself. These tricks of the trade will help you to build that portfolio faster, get it to a higher quality, and perhaps spend a little less money along the way. The key thing is to start now, and make a concerted effort to do it right, rather than panicking when that potential client asks to see your work and you realise that you don’t have anything together. Get started on building a strong portfolio with these tips and tricks.

1. Learn as much as possible

This is a really important thing that a lot of amateur photographers don’t consider. When you first pick up a camera, you barely know anything beyond the basics, such as how to press the trigger. Words like f-stop and aperture may be total mysteries to you.

You should certainly learn what they mean, and how to use them, rather than just relying on the auto function. But building a good portfolio is about far more than that. It’s not about just knowing how to use your camera – it’s about knowing what makes good art.

Whether you are aiming to be a commercial photographer, capture sports, take family portraits, or become a fine artist, you still need to know the specific art of your genre. How to frame shots, and how they should be edited. What kind of standards are expected within the industry. Who your predecessors are. All of this has to be learned if you want to truly blow people away with your portfolio.

You don’t have to spend a lot of money to achieve this. Sites like CreativeLive showcase photography webinars with industry leaders, teaching you to do everything from shooting to editing to marketing your services. The more you learn, the better your portfolio will turn out.

2. Stage some shots

This is something that you can do really easily, in the comfort of your own home, and at your own leisure. No pressure and no rush – just take your time to get it right. Stage some shots to get the effect that you are after. This is all about taking things from your own possessions, or even picking them up cheaply, and making them part of your portfolio.

Let’s take an example of a wedding photographer. It’s pretty hard to stage a wedding without hiring some models, right? Wrong! Weddings are about the close-ups and details as well as those portraits. Take a portfolio-quality photograph of a pair of white heeled shoes, wedding rings on a pillow, a custom cocktail, a bouquet. You can even order free stationary samples, such as wedding invitations or place cards, to photograph. The important thing is to really sell it – shoot as if you are covering a real wedding and put only your best shots forward in your portfolio.

You don’t have to be friends with models to shoot as if you are. Friends, family members – if you can make these people look glamorous and high-fashion, you can do it with anyone. When you first build your portfolio, you’re also going through the biggest learning curve you will likely ever face, so take advantage and push for as high a quality as you can manage, without the pressure of a client looming over you.

3. Express yourself

Oscar Wilde wrote, “every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter”. This couldn’t be more true in the world of art, and it’s important that you bear this in mind as you create your portfolio. Remember that the body of work you put together should represent you as an artist.

Too many beginners make the mistake of trying to imitate everyone else. It is fine to draw inspiration from others, of course, but this must be tempered with your own style and ideas. If you like a concept and want to recreate it, you must bring your own flair to it as well.

Ultimately, the photographers who are most successful are often those who are able to create a style that is so unique it can be recognised anywhere. If you can put together a body of work that bears your signature, you will find your hire rate going up substantially. What’s more, anyone who sees your work being used elsewhere will know exactly what to expect when they hire you.

It takes time to put a signature together, so don’t panic if it doesn’t come immediately. Your style may adapt and evolve over time, too, so keeping an up-to-date portfolio is essential throughout your career.

4. Make it work for you

Each image in your portfolio should be there for a reason. When you first start out, your pool of images will be small, so you may end up repeating yourself or using images without a purpose. To make it stronger, it’s time to be ruthless.

The first step is making sure that every image in your portfolio represents a specific skill. If you are a fashion photographer, one may show that you are great on location, while another may show your use of studio lighting. You might include lifestyle, editorial, and advertorial styles to show your versatility. An image which demonstrates your ability to take a family portrait, however good it may be, has no place in a fashion portfolio.

When you have managed to make each photograph work, it’s time to refine things further and really start cutting things out. Make sure not to repeat yourself. If one image shows your location skills, then the next location photograph needs to demonstrate something different. It’s not good enough to show one thing over and over – this makes you look like a one-trick pony.

Think carefully about the gaps in your portfolio, too. If there is something missing, make it your mission to fill it up. You can put together a test shoot or stage the images to showcase those skills.

5. Be flexible

Unless every client you want is the same, you should have a flexible approach to your portfolio which allows you to include or exclude images depending on the intended viewer. To stick with our fashion example, you might have different portfolios for menswear and womenswear, for example.

Being able to personalise your portfolio to the client is not always possible right at the start when you don’t have many images. This is why it’s so important to shoot in high quantities when you are first building that portfolio. Call out models on test shoots, arrange staged shots for still life, get your own friends and family to pose – whatever it takes. Every good photograph you take is a step towards a more professional understanding of how to use your camera, and every outstanding shot could find a place in your portfolio. This is how you build up the volume required to have more flexibility.

Be careful, though – volume does not mean quality. Don’t let sub-standard shots creep in just to get the numbers up. You’re only as good as the worst image in your portfolio!

6. Research your specific industry

Just looking into building a “photography portfolio” isn’t good enough, not if you want to really excel. There are different standards and protocols for fashion photographers than there are for family portrait photographers. A fashion house may expect to see your work printed in a custom-made leather case, while a mother of two may be looking to quickly browse your website and see a bright, cleanly-presented gallery.

Presentation is important when meeting a client in person as well as on your website. Does your work look better on black or white backgrounds? Can you get away with showing your work on a tablet, or does your client expect something printed?

Much of this may be guesswork or learned through experience, but it’s a good idea to get a firm footing through research.

7. Never play it safe

When you are shooting for the purpose of creating a portfolio, it’s not enough just to get good shots. You might be able to include a beautiful portrait, and that’s wonderful – but it’s not likely to turn any heads. Push boundaries and break rules – make people gasp out loud when they look at your work.

It could be something time-heavy, like spending a few days making oversized props by hand to add punch to your fashion editorial. It could mean spending just a little bit more to get a professional retoucher handle the post-production for you. It may even be in the presentation, such as having your architectural shots loaded onto a projector which can showcase them almost life-sized on a blank wall. Your imagination is the only limit.

The same applies when looking over your images and choosing what goes into your portfolio. You should only include things that really have that “wow” factor. If it’s not there, you’re presenting a mediocre portfolio at best – and you may not get as much work as you would like.

8. Get outside advice

Your best bet for getting a real critique of your portfolio is to find someone who does it for a living, but if you don’t want to pay, there are other options. Show it to a fellow photographer if you want  to know what they think of it from a technical viewpoint, but don’t put too much stock in their opinion – after all, they are not the target audience you are looking to impress.

Show it to friends and family, or even just to casual acquaintances if you want an honest opinion from someone who knows little about photography. Everyone sees images day in and day out, even if they don’t know how they were created, and this means that they will have an idea of what makes a photograph good or bad. They can also pick up on little things that may not occur to other professionals.

An important rule of thumb to go by is that if you have to explain an image, it’s not worth keeping. Unless you are a fine artist trying to create images that confuse and beguile, the work should speak for itself.

9. Never stop

The most essential thing to remember about a portfolio is that your work will never be done. You will never stop building your portfolio, and it will never be “finished”. It exists in a constant state of evolution, as your work progresses and you add more images to your overall library.

Keep updating your portfolio, at least every six months if you can. More often is better. If you have something significant happen – like a published image in a magazine or an ad campaign going live – add it as soon as you can. If there is ever a shift in your style or your focus, overhaul your portfolio completely and make sure it stays true to the kind of work that you want to produce.

Building a portfolio isn’t just for beginners. Remember that as you move forward, and always make sure to hold your work to the same strict standards – it’s easy to get lazy and just start including everything. If a piece of work in your portfolio is more than 3 years old, make sure you have a really good reason for including it!


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