Developing Your Portfolio

I bought several books on creating portfolios. I’m going to summarise parts of it here. If anybody knows of any other reference material (books, websites etc etc) please do shout it out. The best book I have bought so far is John Kaplans Photo Portfolio Success and a lot of his tips makes sense. I have summarised some of them here.

The first thing to do is to gather all your best images together. You can do this digitally and view through the monitor but the process is actually better if you make quick prints of your images (besides you will eventually want to make proper prints of them so being able to look at the prints, even quick ones, would help). Once you’ve gathered them all, find a working space where you can spread the prints around (floor, big table etc etc). It goes without saying that all the images must be technically sound. Keep your standards high. No compromise (unless there is some strong photojournalistic content where you may be forgiven but its gotta be one heck of story in the image). Call this step zero.

Step 1- Start Strong
Sometimes, for dramatic effect, we think it better to save the best for last but the opposite is true in this case. Your first image has to be your strongest. In every sense it has to be the page turner. The respond that you want from the viewer is ‘wow, I want to see more’. First impressions really count as remember, the viewer(s) will probably have gone through (or is likely to be going through) many other portfolios. This is the one that makes you stand out and should be your absolute very best. The analogy I like to use it to imagine you’re going on a plane journey. There is no journey if you don’t take off. The better your take off, the easier the rest of the journey will be.

Step 2- End Strong
Again, continuing the journey analogy, if you don’t land that sucker, you’re going to crash and burn. For this, you must remember that this is the final impression you will leave. Psychologically, the viewer would have already made up their minds about you earlier. The final image serves as a confirmation of their decision. Think about it. If you started strongly and had a good middle, the final image should seal it for you. On the other hand, if you started not so strongly and had a so-so middle and suddenly they are presented with a beautifully captured image at the end, then it might make them think twice about saying no (buf of course that wouldn’t happen here as you are going to start strongly ☺ )

Step 3- The Middle ‘must haves’
Begin selecting images that you absolutely cannot leave without. Do this quickly, almost instinctively. It doesn’t matter how many you select here. You don’t even need to justify your selection. Just select them and group them in a pile.

Step 4- The Middle ‘clients wants to see’
After the ‘must-haves’, you have to select images that is required to round of your portfolio. These images may not necessarily be your favourite but they are needed to make your portfolio ‘complete’. For example, you may like photojournalistic and dramatic shots taken at weddings, but your clients also wants to see some ‘formal’ group photo or formal portraits (which you may not like but do so anyway). Pile them is a group.

Step 5- The Middle ‘Eliminate repeats’
This is probably the most difficult part. Eliminating redundant images from the 2 piles that you have. Keep in mind that less is more. You want the ‘wow’ you created in the viewer to be sustained and not diluted by a similar image when he turns the page. If you have 2 similar images, choose the strongest one.

Step 6- The Middle ‘Elimiate so-sos)
Again, a difficult part of the process. You are after perfection and you want to project that perfection. All of us have great images which we think could have been brilliant ‘if only’. ‘If only I waited a few more seconds’, ‘if only I was quicker’, ‘if only the subject turned her head slightly more to the right’, ‘if only I had a reflector’. It does not mean that they are not great images, it just means that you want to show images which are flawless and decisive. And again, eliminate images which are technically ‘off’. By now, you will be looking at everything with a more critical eye.

Step 7- The Middle ‘arrangement’
By now, you should have a set of pretty strong images and you can start arranging them. Keep your opening and closing images in their proper position at the beginning and the end and start putting the rest in the middle. You can either group the images by themes of mix the themes within the portfolio. No fixed rules here. At the end of the day, you have to follow your instincts. Again, some images may not look right. Eliminate them if you find that they ‘bring down’ your portfolio or place them next to a strong image (if you really must have that image in). Make sure your absolute strongest images are well spread out in the middle.

Step 8- Demonstrate versatility
Your portfolio is about to take shape, The structure is there. Its all about arrangment now. Mix the wide angle and the telephoto shots, the tight and wide compositions, black and white with colour, portraits and landscape shots.

Step 9- Success is a function of correction
Now you should have a portfolio of your work. You have to remember, this must always be a work in progress. As you capture more shots and images, you may want to add or replace the images you have selected. Get feedback from friends. Some may be photographers who can give a critical eye, others may just be people who enjoy seeing a good photo. Ask someone you trust to be your portfolio editor (and listen to them). Also, absolutely do not take the portfolio to anyone who will judge your work based on it until you have had some feedback on it.

How may images?
No rule here. Maybe 20 is a good start. Its not the numbers that count. It’s the quality.

Anyway, when I went through this, 2 things happen to me. First, I was able to spot gaps in my photography which I can now fill. I realize that a lot of my images (especially the portraits) are too ‘similar’ and does not reflect variety and diversity (hence a lot of experimenting in my photography recently).

Second, I realize that I still had a heck of a long way to go technically. There were to many near misses, what ifs and if onlys and it was only a matter of time before I find them unacceptable.

Anyway, there you go. So far, this makes sense to me and I hope that it makes sense to some of you too. Even if you are not going to go commercial, you can start his process for your own growth and pleasure.

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