10 Tips to Create Your Best Photography Portfolio

The lead images when you load my music photography portfolio on toddowyoung.com
The lead images when you load my music photography portfolio on toddowyoung.com

It can be a daunting task to create a portfolio. Choosing the images can feel like a commitment to a precious thing — and while a portfolio is certainly important, the thing to remember is that a portfolio can and should be a living, organic thing. This is especially true with a digital portfolio, where the cost and production of a printed portfolio is a non-factor.

When I set down to create a portfolio of work, I look at a few factors:

1) Understand your audience — and build for them

The most important aspect of your portfolio is who is viewing it. The second is why. To create the most successful photography portfolio, you have to understand your audience, what they want to see and why.

Even before you set to create a portfolio, you should try and identify the types of prospective clients and image buyers you want to sell to and influence. “Sell” here is used with license — even if you're not selling prints or products, the reality is that your portfolio should be designed to sell you as a photographer.

Consider their goals and your own goals. Are they looking to hire photographers on assignment? Commission a commercial job? Book a portrait session or an event? What do they need to know or see in order to make an informed decision? What's the most important aspects for them to see that you do and do well?

2) Only show your best images in a photography portfolio

When you set down to pick images for your online photography portfolio, you should be aiming to show your very best work. If you have 10 great images, show those images. You have to consider that the viewer will not only judge you by your best images, but very likely your worst images as well.

We'll dive more into image selection in the following tips, but remember: A photography portfolio is only as strong as you weakest image.

In my portfolio, I choose to lead off with this image of Steven Tyler of Aerosmith because I feel it's one of my signature images. The pose, subject and direct-to-camera interaction and sheer luck of being in the right place at the right time have made this one of my favorite images for years.
In my portfolio, I choose to lead off with this image of Steven Tyler of Aerosmith because I feel it's one of my signature images. The pose, subject and direct-to-camera interaction and sheer luck of being in the right place at the right time have made this one of my favorite images for years.

3) Start off with your best work

In a print portfolio with a guided or linear experience, where one can be somewhat assured that the viewer will make it to the end, the general wisdom is to start with your second to best piece and to end with a bang in your very best image.

However, with a digital portfolio, where a viewer doesn't necessarily have the same kind of commitment to your work, it pays to front load your portfolio with your best and most impactful images. Unless your viewer comes to your portfolio website with a lot of time and investment, you have to assume that they will not see all of your images. Consider that you only may have a few images to catch their attention before the click on to the next photographer, so make it count.

4) Keep your photo portfolio focused

Beyond quality, there should be no question of what kind of photographer you are and what your speciality is to the viewer of your portfolio. Make sure your main portfolio gallery — the first portfolio a viewer sees or has the option to choose in a website's navigation — is not only your best work, but clearly defines what kind of photographer you are or want to be known for.

If you shoot a range of different subjects, create separate portfolio galleries for each distinct genre. If you shoot dramatically different types of events that have entirely different audiences, you may want to create different portfolio sites for each so that you give the clearest presentation to each audience.

Yoshiki of X Japan photographed at Madison Square Garden.
Yoshiki of X Japan photographed at Madison Square Garden.

5) Show the work you want to be hired to make

This piece of advice seems obvious, but it's easy to get caught up showing work that speaks to what you've done and less to the kind of work you want to do more of. But if you are looking to pivot or focus on a new type of photography in your work, it's important to show that kind of work that you want to pursue for paid commissions and jobs.

Clients, art buyers and photo editors want to see you're capable of making the images they want. The less they have to use their imagination or take a risk, the better your chance of getting hired.

If you're pivoting to a new market and don't have a huge body of work to showcase, it's a good reason to continually update your portfolio as you are able to produce work to support that direction. Moreover, you can work to bolster new focuses by shooting

6) Quantity should be dictated by quality

Aim to include 20-30 images in a tightly edited photography portfolio. The exact quantity depends on the format of the portfolio and the viewer. If you choose a format that dictates a linear experience like a longer horizontal or vertical scroll, fewer images may be more appropriate.

If your prefer a design that has a “masonry grid” of image thumbnails as the mai/initialn presentation, where a viewer can choose more freely where the start and what they see, a larger number of images may be appropriate.

Ultimately, the quantity of the images in your portfolio should be based on the images that you feel are your very best work.

7) Great images > famous subjects

While it's tempting to include images of famous subjects just for their celebrity, the reality is that a weak image of a great subject doesn't make it a great image. At worst, it will appear as though you don't have enough great images to fill out your book. Whether it's famous monuments or landscape features, famous subjects, this holds true.

The exception to this advice is when you have extraordinary access and have the ability to show images that have value due to the rarity of the occasion or their historic value. The privilege of access can be its own kind of testimonial, but it may only get you so far, and may not be reason enough to include these sorts of images in your portfolio.

For the people starting their journey of photography or dipping into a new genre, this piece of advice should also give you confidence to present your work without feeling the pressure to only show well known subjects. Your clients should and will be hiring you for what you can demonstrate and promise, not just what you've done.

Oh hey, it's me — music photographer Todd Owyoung. This is the headshot that I use on my portfolio website. People who are spending money (hiring a photographer) like to see who they're giving it to. It's just human psychology — we seek out connection. If you can build a rapport and give people a sense of who you are, it's only going to work in your favor.

8) Give them a sense of who you are

Beyond the images, your photography portfolio should give viewers, buyers and potential clients a sense of you as a photographer and as a person. Your portfolio website is not the place to build an air of mystery.

Create a bio page that clearly identifies where you live and work, if you are available for travel, links to your social media accounts, past clients or accolades, and at the very least how best to contact you. These are not only practical considerations, but they are elements of building trust and allowing potential clients to build a connection to you beyond your images.

9) Reduce duplicates as much as possible

Along the lines of showing quality with focus, aim to reduce duplicates as much as possible. Including multiple images of the same subjects without dramatically different context may not only reduce the impact of the best images, it can give the impression of being put in as filler content without the benefit of showing any more depth.

As an example with music photography, it's a faux pas to include multiple images for a single artist from a single concert. While there are exceptions to this advice (dramatically different treatments, scale, etc), you have to consider the story you're telling to the viewer of your portfolio and how they will perceive your work as a whole.

I shoot shows. It's what I do.

10) Be a master of one thing over a jack of all trades

While it's tempting to showcase absolutely everything you can do as a photographer, it's essential that you present yourself as singularly as possible within a related set of genres or specialties.

When you're craving a specific type of food and looking to eat out, you're going to go to a restaurant that specializes in what you want. You're probably not going to go to a buffet or the combo pizza-sushi place. Photo buyers are no different. Unless budget is a massive priority, clients and buyers want a specialist rather than a generalist in almost all situations.

Like so many of these tips, this consideration goes to your primary audience for your photography portfolio — AND what action you want them to take.

Summary

If there's one takeaway from this article, it's to very carefully your target audience and to tailor your portfolio as critically as possible to them.

Beyond all these suggestions for creating a photography portfolio, the most important aspect is not to obsess and agonize over it, but simply to do it. This advice is particularly critical if this is your first portfolio.

As someone well into their second decade of photography, your photography portfolio is forever a work in progress. It will be updated and refreshed and rebuilt continuously over the years. It will never be finished or completed, and even if you stopped making images, you may well create new versions to represent yourself.

Your photography portfolio is an opportunity to express yourself and showcase yourself. While it can be a daunting challenge, it's also an immense opportunity that will shift and evolve with you throughout your career as an image maker. Good luck and have fun.

Want more tips? Check out my photography tutorials and see my first article on creating a photography portfolio:

My Camera DSLR and Lenses for Concert Photography

Nikon Z 7:
I use two Nikon Z 7 for my live music photography. A true do-it-all mirrorless camera with amazing AF, great speed and fantastic resolution.

nikon-24-70mm-f28-lens-square

Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8S:
The 24-70mm is my go-to lens. The range is ideal for stage front photography and the image quality is superb.

Nikon-70-200-square

Nikon 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-square

Nikon 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.

See My Full Kit for Concert Photography

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