For any visual artist, putting a portfolio of work together can be a daunting task.
After all, that portfolio becomes your “message to the world”, if you will and represents the way you, as an artist, wish to be received and seen.
Step 1: pulling portfolio images
The first step is gathering images you love, images that make you happy, images you are proud of and images you have had a lot of positive feedback about. Choose images that showcase your abilities both technical and creative, and images where you have tried something new. Pull more images than you will need for your final portfolio as you will need to cull your choices as you refine your message.
Step 2: objective evaluation
One of the most challenging parts of choosing images for a portfolio is seeing them through the eyes of the viewer. That often means stepping back from your personal connection with an image and evaluating it objectively.
There are a series of questions to ask yourself that include, but are not limited to the following:
- Is this well exposed?
- What kind of light have I used?
- Have I used the light in an interesting way?
- Where is my subject in the frame (center, to one side, etc)?
- Are there shadows in my subject’s eyes?
- What else is in my frame (what other items can you see)
- Are my horizon lines straight?
- Do my people look blue/green/yellow/red?
- What colors can I see in the images?
- How is my white balance (is it blue in the shade)?
- Is my focus where it should be?
- Does my subject look comfortable and connected to my viewer?
- Is this pose flattering to my subject?
- Did I cut off their toes/fingers or other limbs in an unflattering way?
- What kind of processing is on this image?
- Are the eyes too sharp/white?
- Have I made mistakes with cloning or smoothing?
- Does the processing make my image look better or cover up its flaws?
- Would a stranger feel something when they look at this image?
- Why do I love this image (is it the moment, the person, the light, the place)?
- Did I make this image with intention and, if so, will the viewer see that intention?
Step 3: putting it all together
Once you have taken a good, hard look at your individual images and narrowed down the selection, it’s time to decide what you want this portfolio to say about you and refine the message. Perhaps the objective evaluation revealed a niche or a specialty you had not considered before. Maybe you are especially good at capturing a connection between two people or fostering genuine expressions in your subjects. This is the time to decide what you stand for as an artist and share that with the world through your portfolio.
Take time to look through the images again making note of their commonalities (the way you use light, the way you connect with your subjects, the overall feel of the images, and so on) and note if something stands out to you. Do the images flow together nicely or are there images that would be jarring to a viewer. An example of this might be a portfolio filled with newborn images and one or two extremely sexy boudoir images mixed in – that would feel discordant to the viewer. While a portfolio that blended more of the latter images with the former would not feel that way. In other words, do all the pieces of your portfolio fit together?
Your portfolio should be consistent and cohesive, yet also demonstrate variety. This sounds almost contradictory, but it’s not.
Often confused with cohesiveness, consistency means your work demonstrates you can get repeated results For example, if you consistently get great skin tones, but you have one or two images where they are not as good, the less accurate tones would appear to be an anomaly. If, on the other hand you only show a single backlit image you are not showing that you are able to work with that lighting scenario all the time and the viewer will assume that one example is an exception. Consistency can also demonstrate a lack of proficiency. Perhaps you consistently cut off your subject’s toes or consistently miss focus. Both those items indicate more work needs to be done in composition and focus, even though there might be one or two (or several) images where the toes are intact and the focus is bang on.
A consistent body of work is like a promise to your clients/subjects: it shows them that you can deliver what they are looking for time and again.
In a cohesive portfolio there is something that ties all your images together – there is a common thread that runs through the portfolio as a whole. In other words, your voice and/or intention should come through in your images, rather than a portfolio filled with images highlighting the same light or subject or composition. At the “exceptional” end of the scale, the maker’s voice/intention is so clear these images are instantly recognizable as being made by that photographer. If you think of photographers whose work is held up as exemplary or exceptional, you will see that common thread woven throughout even though subjects, light, composition, etc. may vary.
Your portfolio should showcase what you can do. Are you using light in different ways (soft frontal, back light, rim light, side light, mixed light, etc) or do you use light the same way over and over again? When you compose your images, do you vary the placement of elements in the frame or compose to further the story? Are there different subjects and/or locations in your portfolio? This is not to say you cannot specialize in a certain type of photography, but rather that there is variety within that specialty. The world only has your portfolio to figure out what you can do, so show them.
Step 4: fresh eyes
Once you are satisfied you have pulled the very best of your work together, have other people take a look at it. Find people you trust to tell you the truth, no matter what, and get their perspective on your portfolio. Use a cross section of your community, and try to limit the number of photographers’ opinions. Ideally, you will get the opinions of the people you would like to make photographs of – after all, potential clients/subjects need to trust you can do a great job and they need to love your work.
For some, this process is relatively easy while for others it is excruciating. Regardless, this is an important exercise that we all must undertake at some point. Take your time, it’s worth it.