From PREP to PRINT
I have been working as a professional photographer for over twenty years. I always wanted to be an artist, I painted and had a couple of solo and group exhibitions, I have been taking pictures since I was a kid as a hobby and it grew into an almost 25-year career. If you count the pictures I took when I was very young and first experimenting with photography then I’ve easily taken tens of thousands of shoots by now. However, when I show my work to advertising clients or magazine editors to get jobs I try and select only my best images, the top of the top.
The curated collection of what I consider my best photographs is called a portfolio. It’s a slimmed-down selection of what I feel represents what I do best.
This can be completely digital or presented in print. There is absolutely no denying the power of a portfolio website, but in this article, I will be focusing on the importance of creating a photography portfolio book or album.
Whether you’re a photographer with a book full of tests, looking for advertising work, or even a wedding photographer showing your work to a bride & potential future customer, you’ll want to present the work you’ve spent hours slaving over in the best way possible. The time I’ve spent revamping my portfolio through the years has been a learning experience, to say the least. Every time I show my work, I learn something new. What I’m going to share in this blog was all molded on personal experience, so it doesn’t work for everyone. However- I will say that those years of both rejection and acceptance have helped me grow as a photographer.
Now, a lot of people are introduced to my work through my website. Initially, it’s a great way to share your work with a massive audience and it doesn’t require much work. Links are easily swapped. However, when it comes to personal one-on-one meetings with potential clients, I prefer to show my work in a printed book.
“My website makes the initial connection with clients. It’s the gateway whether they call your book in to see if they want to bid with you. It all depends on the job though. Sometimes I’ve gotten the job based on my website, which is why I invested so much into it.
Having the whole package ready is crucial for clients’ screening for quality. If your book comes in and that print doesn’t match the quality displayed on your site, it could cost you the job. Web quality only goes so far. Many times they want to see your final work in print. Art buyers want to see that you put as much care into your book as you do in your work. The book is a craft in itself. You’re advertising to people who create advertising on a daily basis for big brands. They want to see your brand is tight, and the quality follows through on all your touchpoint. Your printed portfolio is the final sell. “
Why? It’s physical, it’s real… you have to flip through the thing. I have always felt like the photograph is complete when it’s printed out on paper. When I’ve done post-processing an image, sometimes I print it out just to look at it and see how it feels. Personally, I don’t like doing meetings on laptops or iPads, but I’m not fully against them. I’ve seen other photographers use those and succeed with them as a means of displaying their work. I’m not a purest in any way, but perhaps just this once I will join those annoying artist-types who preach “you know man… there’s just something about seeing it printed on paper.” (Okay, but just this once.) To make it short- I’m trying to get hired for jobs in which the final output will be printed, so why not display the result I’m trying to pitch for? Even if I can’t be there to show someone what I do in person, I would prefer potential clients to see my hardcover portfolio over anything.
How it works
In the advertising world, when there’s a job on the table, typically the process is this:
1) You or an agent has a meeting with a potential client. Art buyers, art directors, producers, music labels, etc
2) You share your portfolio. If they like the work and feel it fits the projects/accounts they work in, perhaps they will remember to call you when a new opportunity pops up
3) Time passes. You twiddle your thumbs
4) A job comes up that suits your style, the client calls for a book to show their colleagues and compare it with other photographer’s books they are considering. They may call in several other portfolios to make a top choice
5) You or your agent submit an estimate. This may include production budget, photographer’s fees based on day rate and usage, assistant fees, travel expenses, post-processing, etc
6) If both the estimate works, and your portfolio is their favorite of the bunch, then you got the job
7) The portfolios are returned via post (whether you get the job or not.)
During this process, I don’t want to just link them to my site… It’s just not the same. How do I know every screen that sees my work is calibrated? All those hours I spent making the color and tones exactly the way I wanted could be spoiled on a bad monitor. When I send a printed book, I can ensure the quality in which the work is displayed.
What’s in a good, successful photography portfolio?
Your strongest images that show a cohesive, yet a diverse body of work
An advertising client is looking for a specialist. You wouldn’t go to an eye doctor for an ear infection, and someone is not going to hire an automotive photographer for a job requiring portraits. Cohesive photographers fulfill a niche. Your images in your portfolio should have a stylistic unison. This way, photographers typically get hired for shooting the stuff they’re good at or have proven themselves in.
Yes, there absolutely needs to be variation and freshness to each individual picture… But the trick is to not be good at shooting everything… Be amazing at one thing.
This is why since I am not quite a specialist, I am more of a generalist, I have multiple portfolios for different bodies of work, I have a Portrait Portfolio, an Advertising Portfolio, and a Fashion & Beauty Portfolio for example.
Your portfolio should fit together like a good album, a collection of songs.
Your collection of images should have a “flow” to it. When I say flow, I am referring to the images flowing into one another as you turn each page. You can do this by means of subject matter, light, and color.
Example 1: Subject matter – Your portfolio will be easier to follow when your images are grouped into stories or sections. Depending on what you shoot, within the same book, you could have music, fashion, entertainment, and advertising in sequence, for example.
Earlier in my carer, my portfolio was broken up like this: The themes of the images should not be scattered and mashed together, it should take the viewer on a “guided tour” of your work. One of the major problems I had with my older portfolios was the separation between my personal and commercial work. Even though stylistically sometimes the stuff I shot in Mozambique is similar to my commissioned work, the subject matter is very different. For some reason, a portrait of kids and a favela in Rio de Janeiro just didn’t flow into a picture of the musician Rui Veloso.
The solution I came up with was actually separating my work into three books. Simply keeping one section at the front of the book and the other at the back was not enough. No matter what, when the package is sent out the client always gets a package with three books, however, there is separation.
Suppose my book goes out for a Luxury brand job photographing some high-end watchmakers. The art director might take interest in my personal work for the light and technical treatment, but the brand itself may only be interested in seeing more commercial portraits and advertisements. Showing too much of one thing could spook either party, so I leave it up to them which book matches their interests and what exactly they will present to their colleagues.
Example 2: Color Tone – if I have a very warm image with lots of red and orange tones, immediately when I flip the page I don’t like seeing an image with opposite colors, such as a cool image with a lot of blue tones. As the images progress, I want them to sort of blend together. Those warm red tones may fade to earth tones, then something neutral, then finally something blue. It seems outrageous, but try arranging your photos in this way… In my opinion, it’s just a lot nicer to look at.
It’s a conversation piece. Make it interesting
Let’s keep in mind the whole concept of a portfolio meeting. When you show your work to a potential future customer, you are selling yourself. You may only have 10-15 minutes to convince them… So why not make the portfolio a conversation piece?
Start out with a bang. Make the first picture something that begs questions- “Where was this taken? What was this for?” Have your answer ready so a dialogue about your work can begin, and continue throughout the entire meeting. It’s likely that the people you’re showing your work to see many photographers a week, you want to be remembered.
Find what works for you and what works best for the style of photography you create, not all types of paper will work for all images.
In the early days when I started out, I had one portfolio. Let’s be honest- it was a piece of crap. The images were both horizontal and landscape, the prints were made by Blurb, even before that I was just printing at Fnac, again it wasn’t great. Today, I actually own 5 copies of my new upgraded portfolio. Two books are in my agent’s office in Amsterdam, ready for mailing to clients around Europe, and two books are in the New York office for North America, also I keep one at home.
There are a lot of nice pre-made portfolio books available, or customizable templates to begin with. These come ready to slide your prints in. My portfolio is 100% custom, meaning the materials that make it are not mass-produced. It was designed by myself and the folks at KOYLAB. Koylab took care of making the leather covers, the bespoke box, and the logo stamping on the cover to the exact measurements. They did an incredible job, the quality provided and the price was awesome. I highly recommend them. If you’re looking for a custom portfolio, it’s going to be quite a lot more expensive than buying one ready at a shop, but in my opinion, it’s worth every penny. It all depends on your goals.
I have three same-size portfolios. One portfolio holds my commissioned work, one for my fashion and beauty work, and the other holds my portrait work. Each one contains about 35-40 images. I opted for using the same size portfolios but using unique covers for each of my different styles of photography and using Portrait and Landscape layouts for both books. For example, my Portrait Portfolio reads vertically as a magazine would and my advertising and fashion books are landscape, I used a solid black leather for my Portrait book, a white cover with my logo embossed for my advertising, and a gold cover for my fashion book. They all have the same size but have at least one thing that was unique to each of them.
If you spend all your time perfecting your craft and all your hard-earned cash buying photography gear to get your pictures to the next level, there’s no reason to neglect the way it is presented. The final output of your work reflects the entire process. I’m still adding and crafting my portfolio with every shoot that I do. It slowly changes and progresses in time as I develop different tastes as a photographer.