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8 Tips for a Great Photography Portfolio

KISS performs on the Alive/35 World Tour 2009. (TODD OWYOUNG)

Creating a portfolio of one's own work can be a daunting task, but it's an essential part of presenting oneself as a photographer. A top notch book is one of the best ways communicate one's ability and vision, especially when it can be viewed online and around the world.

toddowyoung_portfolio

Here are eight ways to make yourself look good.

  • Keep it short and sweet
  • Show quality
  • Show range
  • Start strong
  • End strong
  • Put the rest in the middle
  • Don't put it to popular vote
  • Keep it fresh

These are my suggestions for building a portfolio with the maximum impact. Let's drill down.

1) Keep It Short & Sweet

With a portfolio, quantity counts for nothing. If the viewer wants to see more, they'll look for it. And if they can't find it, they'll ask. Both of these consequences are good. I usually aim to include 12-20 images in a photography portfolio.

2) Show Quality

Following up to the first tip, only the best images should go into the portfolio. Consistency and distinction in your images should be a key takeaway. Showing anything but the best is often a waste of time; when you have someone's attention, make every image count.

3) Show Range

And aside from quality, each image should speak to some aspect of your vision and ability. In choosing images, ask, “What does this image say about me as a photographer?” If multiple images are competing for the same specific message, consider paring down for the sake of efficiency. Expressing range, however, should not be confused with a lack of focus. Every image should work toward a singular goal of expressing your eye and capabilities as a photographer.

4) Start Strong

Start out with a bang. You want to put your second to best shot up front to catch the viewer's attention. Why the second best? Keep reading.

5) End Strong

With your last image, you want to reinforce everything that has come before and end with the impression of excellence. This position is where your standout image goes, since it's the last image in the set that the viewer will see.With the last piece, your goal is to leave a mark. The viewer made it to the end, so go for the knock out punch.

6) Put The Rest In The Middle

There is no filler in a portfolio, but everything that isn't your absolute best should go in the middle. After the lead off image, gradually decrease in image impact until you get to the middle of the series, and then ramp back up for the strong finish.In other words, the highest impact images should be book ends to the images that establish the tone of your work.

7) Don't Put It To Popular Vote

Bless your friends and family, but portfolios should not be decided by committee; what is popular is not always what makes your eye or execution unique.If need be, I'd suggest paring down a selection of your best images as well as you can and then enlist the keen eye of someone whose taste you trust to make the final selection.

8) Keep It Fresh

Just like seafood, it's better fresh. Once you've established your book, keep it as up to date as possible. Aside from assembling it in the first place, this task is one of the biggest challenges of a great portfolio.As you develop as a photographer and add different elements to your style (or polish it), don't neglect to reflect that growth in the portfolio.

End Notes:

As a condensed representation of a photographer's vision, the portfolio is a highly valuable tool for introducing oneself to an audience, especially with the ease of sending someone a link.

Whether it's used as a sales piece to land clients, an informative statement about one's work and capabilities, or simply a way to succinctly share with friends and family, a portfolio is a great tool for making an effective and lasting impression. If someone is taking the time to look at your work, make it count.

If you want to see if I followed the above eight tips, head over to my portfolio.

My Camera DSLR and Lenses for Concert Photography

Nikon D750:
I use two Nikon D750 for my live music photography. Amazing high ISO performance in a compact body with tons of pro features.
nikon-24-70mm-f28-lens-squareNikon 24-70mm f/2.8:
For most gigs, the 24-70mm is my go-to lens. Exceptional image quality at wide apertures and super-functional range.
Nikon-70-200-squareNikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR:
A perfect pair to the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8, I can basically shoot any job with the midrange and this lens. Superb image quality.
nikon-14-24mm-f28-lens-squareNikon 14-24mm f/2.8:
Ultra-wide perspective, ridiculously sharp even wide open at f/2.8. I love using this lens up-close and personal, where it excels.
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There are 89 comments

Add yours
  1. Todd

    Thanks, Chris. I am going to start writing more how-to articles and I will eventually compile/link up under a tutorials section.

    And thanks for checking out the new portfolio. I had to follow my own advice, after all, and it was time to change it up.

    • Grace

      Hey,
      I’m an aspired photographer and there is a camp I am looking to attend for photography. To attend this camp, I must supply a portfolio. Could you please give me some tips on what type of pictures should be in it, if all of them should be black and white, how I should set it up, and if all of them should follow the same theme.
      Thank You,
      Grace

  2. Carrie Whitelaw

    I am absolutely blown away by your work as well as Chris’. You give me inspiration for my passion of photography. I may not be as skilled as yall, but you give great inspiration. I know I may still be a virgin at it, but i did Leah’s wedding and hope to aspire as well as you and your brother……My favorite photo i have taken? Walking along the side walk of your parents house, and shooting their bamboo garden. The lines are great. Hope all is well with your family.

  3. Todd

    Hey Carrie! How’s it going? It’s good to hear from you, it’s cool to hear you’re doing photography as well. I’d be interested in seeing that shot of the bamboo, too.

    Hope all is well!

  4. Richard

    Really good tips! There’s so many places to create a free portfolio now too! I recently started using Viewbook..It’s a lot better than most other sites i’ve tried..That’s my portfolio tip;)

  5. Rhyss

    Hey thanks for the tips, i like the refrence that you use saying that the two best shots should be like the book ends because this is where my portfolio has failed for i have put my most in depth and meaning full shots at the front and gradually went downhill thanks again

  6. Bob - Trainee music Tog

    Hey Todd,

    Great artical and finding it was great timing as I’m just putting together my portfolio for Gig photography in Scotland.
    I tend to think of a portfolio like I think of a set list. You need to start strong with a couple of crackers, put a few strong/biggies in the middle when interest is starting to drift off and then gradually ramp up to a spectacular finish. Your artical pretty much confirms that.
    Love the site.

    See you in the Charts!

    Bob

  7. Todd

    Hey Bob, thanks for the comment. You’re exactly right, a portfolio is in many ways simply a visual performance, with different movements. Great analogy.

  8. peter

    Hey, Todd!

    Thanks for these useful tips!
    Could you please tell your thoughts about positioning photographs of different subjects in one portfolio? If, for example, I would like to include Portraits, Travel, Blia-Bla and Bla-Bla-Bla ?

    Thank you!
    Peter

  9. Todd

    Hi Peter, glad you found the tips helpful. If you have different subjects such as portraits and travel, I would suggest creating separate portfolios for each image set. I think that this would be the best solution so that each set has the most individual impact.

  10. Todd

    You should! In spite of all these tips, the task of creating a portfolio doesn’t have to be intimidating.

    The process of putting together your best shots should be fun, too, after all. It’s a chance to reevaluate your progress as a photographer and to express your vision.

    In fact, working on a portfolio can help a photographer identify patterns, tendencies, and stylistic elements that make his/her work unique, which in itself is a very valuable bit of knowledge.

    • TJ McDowell

      I think showing your unique style should be one of the goals of your portfolio, and I think that’s one of the reasons you can’t put your portfolio to a popular vote. Nobody knows what kind of work you want to represent you as an artist except for you.

  11. Irina

    Great guide, Todd! Love all the info you so selflessly give here. I have a question… how do you get your copyright info consistently the same size on each image? What program do you use and how do you deal with cropped images with different dimensions?

    Again, thank you :)

    • Todd

      Hey Irina, thanks, glad to hear you enjoyed the guide.

      Regarding the watermark, I have an action setup in Photoshop that automatically applies the watermark during my save-for-web routine. The action is setup to align to the bottom right of the image, so the orientation doesn’t matter. Hope this helps.

  12. Irina

    Thank you Todd, that was very helpful! Using actions is much more consistent with size (and faster) than my previous drag and drop method. Cheers! ~irina

  13. Lisa

    Thanks again for your great tips! I have an interview tomorrow and they’ve asked me to bring a portfolio. I guess it’s time to put one together. ;)

  14. Manal

    Hello,
    Thanks for the tips, they are really helpful and informative. I’m thinking of creating my own online portfolio, but I’m researching first so I’ll be able to create something great!
    Manal Ali.

  15. Sarah

    Thanks for the tute, twas very helpful. I need some guidence as to whether there should be a particular point you’re trying to make through the series of photos when you create a portfolio. Should I be telling a story??? Im a very lost little girl!!!!!!!

  16. Todd

    Hey Sarah, glad to hear this was helpful, thanks for the comment.

    Ultimately, I think you should be telling a story of sorts with a portfolio. At the most basic, it’s a narrative of yourself as a photographer – showing depth, vision, and ability.

  17. chris

    hey, I’m trying to make a photographic portfolio. i was wondering what programs u can use to create them. any particular adobe programs? cheers, Chris.

  18. Laura

    Thanks for the tips! I’m putting together my first portfolio for a university interview and this guide has definiately helped

  19. Graeme Meyer

    Thanks for the tips Todd,
    I took up photography a few years ago and got into the pit for my first major festival this summer, the Common Ground Music Festival, and I haven’t stopped this summer I’m actually going to prince edward island, Cavendish Beech Music Festival, to take pictures. I just wanted to thank you for this website, everything I learned about concert photography came from here. I’m putting together a portfolio for a scholarship app. for college and I love how this is short and to the point.
    Thanks again,
    Graeme

  20. Sarah Myers

    Hi Todd,
    this is really useful information, thank you.
    I have university interviews coming up in a few months as im choosing to do BA(Hons)Photography. My teacher doesn’t have a clue about what size my portfolio should be and my photos etc.
    I also don’t know whether printing my photos in matt or gloss is better.
    If you could email me that would be great!
    Thank you, Sarah :)

    • Todd

      Hey Sarah,

      Glad to hear you found this article useful, thanks for the comment. Regarding prints, I think it depends on the work. I think matte or satin finishes can be good for some work where less contrast and punch is necessary, while there are other images that require that extra wow of a slick glossy print.

      As for the size, I would say print as large a size that can be easily transported or mailed. Keep in mind that you should be matting your prints as well so that they’re easy to view. Alternatively, you could take the route of having a portfolio with sleeves so it’s easy to flip through.

  21. Liz

    this is probably a really stupid question
    but what do you put it in? just a nice binder or should I get a smaller art portfolio.
    otherwise this was very helpful, thank you so much.

  22. Cynthia

    Hi Todd!

    Thanks so much for this lovely article and for sharing your knowledge with us! These tips are exactly what I needed to finally get my portfolio together.

    Of course, I viewed your work – it’s brilliant!

    Rock ‘n roll!

    Cynthia~

  23. Sue M.

    Can you suggest to me what I should use to attach my photographs to my 11×17 portfolio? Is there a certain type of acid free tape that would be best? I want to be able to change them out fairly easily without ruining the paper or the photograph.

  24. Wedding Photographer Surrey

    Todd,

    This is an excellent article and well written. As a professional full time photographer I know the power a good portfolio can have. I recently changed my portfolio and have seen around 30% improvement in closing business.

    You article provides some great tips. I would also add that having a hook, or something unique that flows through the portfolio is also good to make yourself stand out.

    Keep it up

  25. Sandra

    Hi Todd,

    I’ve been on your site for hours reading your articles and tips and I must say they’re really helpful, especially since I’m just starting out as a music photographer and have a long way ahead of me. I’m trying my best to learn as much as I can, as fast as possible; the only fast lens I’ve got at the moment is a 50mm f/1.8 but I’ve been doing my best with what I have.

    Anyways, I decided to put together a quick portfolio as soon as I read this article. I tried to follow your 8 tips here, but I was wondering if you’d be willing to take a look at it for me, suggest a few I should take out (if any) and how to best order it, and if possible maybe take a look at some of my work and give me any advice possible (composition-wise, and anything it seems like I can improve on while shooting). The portfolio is here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/s_chen/sets/72157628694412719/with/6540015929/ and I’d truly appreciate anyone else’s feedback in addition to Todd’s! Thanks!

    Sandra

  26. Timo

    Hi Todd,
    I totally agree to your Tips – especially Nr 1, 2 and 7 are often overlooked. The problem with asking your familiy and friends is that just the question pushes them to form a intelligent answer – and that way you’ll never get the real impression they have as a feeling. And of course it should be your clients who like your portfolio.

    And if you wan’t to showcase your portfolio on iPads or such you can try foliodock.com. It connects to your already existing online-portolio (wordpress, indexhibit, slideshowpro…) and creates a web-app for you.

    Best, Timo

  27. Claude SCHMITT

    Hi Todd,
    I read your portofolio tips as I plan to present some of my Iceland’s best shots soon ; and I read quite the same on a french blog : this one cheated ! No it was just a translation…so I read it twice !
    One question though : do you think that each shot in portofolio is worth a title and a short description/comment ; does it add value ?
    Thanks and congratulations for your work !

  28. Leahcxoxox

    I’m working on a portfolio to send to SCAD and Ringling. I take abstract and nature pictures, mostly flowers. I’m working on new ways of photographing flowers by using a black backdrop. What type of pictures should I put in my portfolio?


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