How to Make a Photography Portfolio in 5 Steps
Curating a portfolio of images is tough work. But thankfully there’s a simple process to it. And once you know this process, it gets a whole. Lot. Easier.
We’re going to break it down together step by step so you can create a pitch-ready conservation photography portfolio on repeat with this 5-step process!
- Let's break it down
- Download the free template
- Know your portfolio's purpose
- Start with the wide edit
- Curate the best images in the final edit
- Create a visual flow with the order of your images
- Review and reorder for your polished photography portfolio
- Where to put your photo portfolio: Online and printed portfolios
- How to create an online photography portfolio site
How to Build a Strong Photography Portfolio
Editing a stunning photography portfolio is a tough task, so let's break it down!
You would think after planning, shooting and processing your images, the hard part is over, right?
Actually, one of the most important and difficult steps awaits you.
Polishing your portfolio into a tight, cohesive, effective set of images is an agonizing but vital part of high-quality visual storytelling.
I know that dread. I know it well. You have a new opportunity – a pitch, or an application – and you need to pull together a portfolio of work to go with it.
This portfolio is going to say something big about you. In fact, it says everything about you as a photographer.
No pressure, right?
And icing on the cake… You have hundreds, even thousands of images that need to be whittled down to the dozen or so that will be the key to this door of opportunity.
How are you supposed to pull out only the best?!
The questions start spiralling in your mind:
Which of them even are your best? Which of them go well together, add on one another? How many photos is enough and too much to include? How should you order them? What is your portfolio supposed to say about you?
It's tempting to just slump down in your chair at this point. I know it's not easy… but this is so doable.
You just need a process to tackle this task piece by piece. And I outline that process for you here.
Plus, this can be fun! Let's ease the difficulty by breaking the whole process down into 5 manageable steps.
Step 1. Know your photography portfolio's goals and purpose
Before you get started, you need to know why you're editing your portfolio. Who will ultimately see the portfolio, and what is your goal for how they respond?
- Is it a “best work” professional photography portfolio for your website where potential clients will see it?
- Are you trying to get a stock agency to accept you as a contributor?
- Is this for a grant for a project?
- Are you pitching a story to a magazine editor?
- Is this for a photo essay competition?
Knowing why you're creating a portfolio – whether it is to highlight your specialties and skills as a hobbyist or to attract clients and grow your photography business – will drive the selections you make and the narrative you build when you order your images.
This might seem like a step to quickly brush past.
But when you take the time to really consider who is seeing the work, what you want from them, and what they want to see, you'll enter the entire process with a clear head, and a reference point in case you start to feel lost during the process.
Step 2. Start with the wide edit
Pull in everything that can or should be considered for your edit. Likely, this will be in the range of 40-60 images.
It's helpful to use a tool like Lightroom where you can use things like flags, star-ratings, color labels or other ways to organize the images you want to mull over.
This is your chance to ensure you're truly grabbing your best work – and a diversity of work. If you're creating a photo essay, are you hitting on all the key elements of storytelling? If you're showing your best work, are you including wide shots and detail shots, a range of colors, and the right subject matter?
Pull images that show the range of your skills and style while sticking with an overarching theme.
Step 3. Curate the best images in the final edit
Now we really start to fine tune. This part might be the most painful.
It's critical at this point to refer back to Step 1 and keep your “why” and “who” in mind as you edit. You can't make the correct decisions without knowing your viewer and desired outcome.
In fact, write this out on a post-it and put it next to your computer screen. Every time you feel stuck in narrowing down your selection to the very best images, re-read the post-it.
Start eliminating any image that:
- is redundant of a stronger image in content
- can't hold its own if viewed individually (unless it is a critical part of the story)
- stands out from the others in a jarring way, in terms of style, content or quality
It might be helpful to pull a friend or two into this process. Meet at a coffee shop or (as I mentioned in the episode works for me) pile out on the living room floor with a bottle of wine (or whiskey).
Talk through the pros and cons of certain images, and listen to their input about your work. Really listen. They'll help you look past emotional attachments you may have to certain images and select what is truly your best work.
The final number of images in your portfolio will depend on your goal.
Typically, a portfolio has between 12-25 images. But the specific number of images you end up with will be based on whether or not you've been given a requirement by a photo editor, grant guidelines, and so on.
Step 4. Create a visual flow with the order of your images
There are several ways to approach ordering your images, again based on your goal. It can be based on story flow, or visual flow.
If you're pitching a story or trying to win a grant, you're probably going to go with a story flow. Consider how you make a great first impression with a “hero” image, introduce the characters, build tension, and provide visual diversity while advancing the plot.
If you're building a “best of” portfolio for your website, stock agency or a potential client, you'll probably go with a visual flow.
With this approach, you'll take into account things like subject matter, color palette, and other aspects of style to move a viewer seamlessly from one image to the next, providing cohesive diversity.
Use a tool like Lightroom Collections to drag and drop images so you can reorder them quickly and easily as you change your mind.
Step 5. Review and reorder for your polished photography portfolio
Once you've completed the ordering, do two things:
- Get honest feedback. Send the portfolio to at least two people who you trust.
- Give your eyes and mind a solid break. Wait at least 3 hours before you look at your portfolio again. Then you can go back in with a fresh outlook and make savvy decisions about swapping out images or changing the order.
And there you have it! A cumbersome and often emotionally difficult process is far easier when you can take it step by step!
Oh — and actually there's one more step in the process: send your amazingly perfect portfolio out and WOW your audience!
Where To Put Your Photo Portfolio: Online and Printed Portfolios
In this digital age, it's essential to showcase your portfolio online. Even a very simple, one-page photography portfolio website can make a big difference for providing a great first impression and way to share your work.
This can be as simple as a dedicated page on your own photography website, or you could use a platform specifically designed for image portfolios.
Websites like Behance, Adobe Portfolio, or 500px are excellent places to display your work in a professional manner. They're also frequented by industry professionals, offering greater exposure if you're looking to boost your photography career.
On the other hand, don't underestimate the impact of a printed photography portfolio. There's something profoundly tangible and personal about flipping through a beautifully printed photo book. It's a classic method that allows for a deeper appreciation of your work's texture and quality.
If you're a professional photographer meeting a potential client or attending a networking event, a printed portfolio can be a game-changer.
Ultimately, the trick is to use both methods.
Online portfolios cast a wider net, making your work accessible to people all around the world. At the same time, printed portfolios add a personal touch and a sense of permanence that digital ones may lack.
So, diversify your approach and make your work available in both online and printed formats. This way, you're ready to wow your audience, whether they're scrolling or flipping through your work!
How to create an online photography portfolio site
Creating an online photography portfolio might sound a bit techy, but fear not – it's simpler than you'd think!
Let's break down setting up a photo portfolio site into easy-to-follow steps.
❂ Choose a Platform
First off, pick a website builder or portfolio platform. Wordpress, Wix, and Squarespace are some popular ones, and they come with some snazzy photography templates that will make your work pop.
❂ Get a Domain
Next, get yourself a custom domain. It's like your internet address, and it helps to make a professional impression. Plus, who doesn't love having their own .com?
❂ Upload Polished Images
Now, it's time for the spotlight – your photos! Upload low-resolution photos that are large enough to display well on a full-sized screen but small enough to load quickly. Slow websites are a bummer for visitors and could mean visitors leave before even seeing your photos because they take too long to load.
❂ Organize Your Work
You'll likely come up with several photography portfolios. Perhaps based on locations, species, or topics you specialize in.
So, organize your shots into different galleries or themes, but remember, this isn't a photo dump. Keep it selective and coherent.
You also want to make sure the different galleries make sense together. It's confusing for a visitor if your galleries make you look like you're a food photographer, a new york fashion photographer, and a wildlife photographer… now you just look confused. So, keep your galleries as cohesive as the portfolios within them.
❂ Include an About Me Page
Don't shy away from sharing a bit about yourself. A good story can make you more relatable and attractive to potential clients.
❂ Optimize for SEO
And last but not least, sprinkle some SEO magic. Use relevant keywords in your descriptions, tags, and headers to make your portfolio more discoverable on search engines.
And voila! You're now the proud owner of a shiny, new online photography portfolio.
🔥 Pro Tip: Your portfolio is a living, breathing thing – update it regularly to keep it fresh and relevant.
Here are the common questions I get asked as a photo editor by photographers building their first portfolios.
❂ Should a photographer have a portfolio?
Without a shadow of doubt, every photographer needs a portfolio.
Think of it as a curated gallery of your top-notch shots that mirror your distinct style and prowess.
It's more than just a collection — it's a visually appealing resume giving future clients and potential employers a peek into your photographic capabilities. A finely-tuned portfolio can become a magnet for attracting potential clients, making a compelling statement about what you as a nature photographer bring to the table. I
But, a portfolio isn't just for professional photographers. Even if you're a hobbyist nature photographer, you'll greatly benefit. It's a way for you to highlight your skills and knowledge, which could open the door to really fun collaborations, volunteer opportunities, and even getting published.
It's your golden chance to display the caliber, ingenuity, and range of your work, thereby becoming a critical instrument for photographers aiming to climb the career ladder.
❂ What makes an effective photography portfolio?
An effective photography portfolio seamlessly combines a variety of elements to reflect the photographer's unique vision and talent.
Firstly, it showcases professional photography, demonstrating the photographer's technical skills, artistic insight, and ability to produce high-quality images consistently.
It's important to remember that a portfolio is not a place to dump all your work.
The inclusion of too many images often dilutes the impact of your portfolio.
Instead, it would help if you aimed to include only your best photos that represent your work aptly.
Moreover, maintaining a consistent style across your portfolio is vital. Consistency not only in the theme but also in aspects such as color grading, subjects, and composition can help demonstrate your unique photographic style and voice.
A potent photography portfolio is one that leaves your viewers with a clear understanding of your photographic capabilities and a strong impression of your artistic voice.
❂ How many photos do I need for a photography portfolio?
Typically, an impressive portfolio could contain anywhere between 12 to 25 of your most stunning photos.
The number of photos you should include in your photography portfolio really depends on your purpose.
If you're creating a portfolio for an exhibition or to showcase your work to potential employers, 12-15 images might suffice.
However, if you wish to build a more comprehensive portfolio that reflects the depth and versatility of your work, aim to include up to 25-30 images.
Episode 003: How to Make a Photography Portfolio in 5 Steps
(Digitally transcribed, please forgive any typos)
Jaymi Heimbuch: Let me set the scene. You sit down to your laptop on a mission. You're gonna pull together a selection of your past work for someone. Let's say it's an editor who's interested in seeing more from a story that you're working on or it's a potential client, and they're considering you for this really cool opportunity.
You sit down and you pull up your catalogue of images and WHAM! Brick wall.
There are thousands of images in there. How are you supposed to pull out the best? Which of them even are your best? Which of them go well together and add to one another? How many photos is enough and too much to include? How should you order them? What is your portfolio supposed to say about you?
You slowly close your laptop and walk away.
Curating a portfolio of images for whatever reason, is tough. There is no two ways about it, but there's a process to it. And once you know this process, it gets a whole lot easier. We're gonna break it down together right now.
Welcome to Impact: the conservation photography podcast. I'm your host, Jaymi Heimbuch, and if you are a visual storyteller with a love for all things wild, then you're in the right place. From conservation to creativity, from business to marketing and everything in between, this podcast is for you conservation visual storyteller who is ready to make an impact. Let's dive in.
You would think that after all the planning and the shooting and the processing of your images, that the hard part's over, right? Actually, one of the most important and difficult steps still awaits you, polishing your portfolio into a tight, cohesive, effective set of images. Oh, it's agonizing, but it is a vital part of high quality visual storytelling.
And trust me, it may be tough work, but it is so very much worth the time and the effort. Plus, it can be fun.
I remember one of the most enjoyable nights that I've ever had at a conference was after everything ended, a group of maybe five or six of us went back to a hotel room, and one of us was trying to pull together a portfolio of images and was struggling. So we had a bottle of whiskey and all of us sat around and we just through in our two cents and we worked on reorganizing and we said, Well, what about this image over that one? No no no. Keep that one and back and forth and back and forth and it was a blast, and that person polished up a portfolio, turned it in, and she got the exact response that she was hoping to get for this portfolio.
So the work can be a blast, especially when you involve a group of creative, opinionated friends and a bottle of whiskey. But inhibitions lowered or not, we can ease the difficulty by breaking the whole process down into five manageable steps.
Also, I have something special for you when you're going through the process. It's really easy to get lost in the weeds, so I made you a free downloadable worksheet that guides you through the steps that we're going to go over right now. It's so helpful to print that out and have it next to you as you go through the portfolio editing process so that you stay focused and you stay out of all of the overwhelmed so you can grab that free download at JaymiH.com/3. That's J A Y M I H dot com forward slash three Just the number three for this episode. You'll find this link in the show notes, too.
All right, let's dive into those five steps.
The first step in editing a perfect portfolio is to know your portfolios purpose. So before you even get started on any of the image stuff, you need to know why you are editing your portfolio. Who will ultimately see this portfolio and what is your goal for how that person responds. So is it a fast work portfolio that you're gonna put on your website where potential clients could see it? Or are you trying to get a stock agency to accept you as a contributor? Or is this a photo portfolio that will go with a grant application? Are you pitching a story to a magazine editor, or is this a photo essay for a competition?
Knowing why you are creating a portfolio will drive the selections that you make and the narrative that you build when you order your images. So it might seem like this is the stuff that you just quickly want to brush past. But when you take the time to really consider who is seeing the work and what you want from them. Then you'll enter the entire process with a clear head and a reference point in case you start to feel lost in the weeds during the process.
Step two is the wide edit. So in this step, you're just pulling in everything that can or should be considered for your portfolio. And likely this is gonna be in the range of maybe 40 to 60 images. You might actually start out with closer to 100 then try and get it down to around 60.
It's really helpful to use a tool like lightroom, where you can use features like flags or star ratings or color labels or other ways to organize your images that you want to mull over in the wide edit. This is your chance to ensure that you're truly grabbing your best work and a diversity of work. So if you're creating a photo essay, are you hitting all the key elements of storytelling? If you're showing your best work, are you including wide shots and detail shots and a range of colors and the right subject matter?
You want to start with that wide edit to make sure that you are pulling in everything that could be a really solid contributor to your final portfolio. Pull images that show the range of your skills and your style while sticking with an overarching theme. And that overarching theme is what you have determined in step number one, your portfolio’s purpose.
Step number three is your final at it. So this is where you really start to fine-tune. And trust me, I know this part might be painful. It is critical at this point to refer back to your portfolios purpose and keep your Why and your Who in mind as you edit. You can't make the correct decisions on which images to include without knowing your viewer and your desired outcome.
And in fact, go ahead and write this out on a post it note and put it next to your computer screen. Or download that free worksheet that I have for you and write it out on that and put it next to you at your computer as you go through this final edit, because every time you feel stuck in narrowing down your selection to the very best images re reading that who and that why is gonna help refocus you.
So as you go through that, all those images that you pulled in the maybe 60 images or so that you pulled in from your wide at it well, you're going to do is start eliminating any image that is redundant of a stronger image in content. So if you have several images that are really similar, maybe they're near frames or the content is really similar. You're gonna take the best of that and keep it and anything that is the weaker of these redundant images. Those get booted out.
You're also going to eliminate any image that cannot hold its own if it is viewed on its own. So unless it is a very critical part of the story, any image that if you were to just come across that image randomly in a public place and you're like, uh huh, then that one gets booted out, you want images that are strong in and of themselves and will contribute to the overall portfolio.
You'll also eliminate any image that stands out from the others in a really jarring way, and that might be in terms of style or content. or quality anything that really is like a sore thumb in your portfolio. For whatever reason, it might be a strong image on its own, but it doesn't play nice with the other images. Those get eliminated.
So it might be helpful right now to pull in a friend or two into this process. You can meet at a coffee shop or, as I mentioned, works for me. You guys pile out at a coffee table with a bottle of whiskey, whatever it is that works for, you talk through the pros and the cons of certain images and listen to their input about your work. And I mean really listen. They're gonna help you look past the emotional attachments that you might have to certain images and select what is truly your best work.
And when I say pull in friends into this process, they don't have to be photographers. In fact, it's great if they aren't because they can really critically look at an image and whether it speaks to them or not, and give some really insightful, honest feedback that could be super helpful.
The final number of images in your portfolio is going to depend on your goal, so typically, a portfolio has between 12 to 25 images. But the specific number of images that you'll end up with will be based on whether or not you've been given a requirement by a photo editor or grant guidelines or so on. So just decide what it is that works best for you. But typically you're looking at narrowing this down to 12 to 25 images.
Step number four after you've narrowed it down to that number of images is to order your images. So there are several ways to approach ordering your images. And again, it's based on your ultimate goal. So that's why step number one... man, that is a critical stop. Don't blow past that one.
So it can be based on story flow or on visual flow.
If you're pitching a story or you're trying to win a grant, you're probably gonna go with a story flow. You'll consider how you make a great first impression with a bold What I call a hero image at the beginning, like this is a a bold, really interesting, engaging image that kind of sums up what will come later in the rest of the portfolio you might introduce the characters, and then you'll build tension and you'll provide visual diversity throughout your portfolio while continuing to advance that plot or that story flow.
On the other hand, if you are building a best of portfolio for your website or for a stock agency or a potential client, you're probably gonna go with ordering your images with a visual flow. And with this approach, you're going to take into account things like subject matter, color palette and other aspects of style. That move of you were really seamlessly from one image to the next, providing what I call cohesive diversity. So it's gonna be a flow where it makes a lot of sense visually to move from one image to the next, and you still might choose maybe a softer, more calm image. And then you'll follow that up with something that might be more bold or interesting, to create that kind of emotional diversity of reaction and also in a way that shows the diversity of style.
So as you build your flow, you're not gonna put five images that all look really similar together, and then all of a sudden, boom, we're looking at five images that are of a very different style. You want to mix everything up into a visual flow. Use a tool like Lightroom collections to drag and drop your images, and you can reorder them super quickly and easily as you change your mind throughout this process.
Step number five is to review and reorder. So once you've completed the ordering of your images that initial ordering and step for you're gonna do two things. One is you're going to get honest feedback. So send the portfolio, as you've ordered it, to at least two people who you trust to give you honest feedback and step number two is you're going to give your eyes and mind a break like a really solid break. Wait at least three hours and honestly, I'd say 24 hours before you look at your portfolio again because you're gonna want to go back in with a fresh outlook and make really savvy decisions about swapping. The images are changing the order. You want to really give your mind in your eyes a breather. Fresh eyes are really important.
And there you have it. A cumbersome and often emotionally difficult process is far easier when you can take it step by step. So let's review those steps again.
Step number one is you're gonna look at your portfolios purpose. Why are you creating it? Who's going to see it and what do you want as a reaction from them?
Step number two is your wide at it, so you'll pull together anything that should be considered for that final portfolio, which is usually 60 images or so.
Step number three is your final edit, so you're going to select only the best of the best and narrow it down to maybe 12 to 25 images.
Step number four is to order those images and based on your portfolios purpose. You are looking at ordering it and either a story flow or a visual flow.
And step number five is to review and reorder based on honest feedback from people who you trust to give you true, even if it is tough love feedback but true and honest feedback. And after you have given your eyes in your mind a break.
Easy as pie, right?
Now remember, you can grab that free downloadable worksheet that will help walk you through this process and Trust me, it is so much easier when you have something to refer back to during what can be an overwhelming and arduous task. You can grab that free download in the show notes here. Or you can go to Jaymi, J A Y M I dot com forward slash three. Thank you so much for tuning in, and I will talk to you next week.
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