Even in the digital age, a printed portfolio is a necessity for every professional photographer. Advertising and stock photographer Inti St. Clair explains, “A print portfolio is a highly curated group of images that has to show the depth and breadth of your work, demonstrate your capabilities, hit all the target markets you’re trying to hit and flow well together. This can be quite the challenge when you shoot a variety of things. A well-sequenced book is absolutely crucial and can be very challenging—even more than a website, where you have a somewhat endless amount of ‘room’.”
No matter how good a photographer might be, we typically have a terrible time when it comes to choosing which images to include in our portfolios. Perhaps it’s simply that we’re too close to our own work, seeing all the effort that went into a shoot rather than the final product alone.
“Editing a new portfolio is so hard!” St. Clair says. “Editing for the website is easier because on there I can have categories, and have a lot more photos. The ‘book’ is a super tight edit of all the subjects I shoot, which makes it really challenging to get the flow and sequencing right.” To make a strong portfolio, St Clair employs some smart techniques.
1. Keep A File Of Favorites
As standard operating procedure, St. Clair maintains a Lightroom catalog containing favorites from her many stock and advertising shoots throughout the year. She’s a prolific photographer, so having specific themed folders of favorites is especially important when it comes time to narrow down for the portfolio.
“When setting out to redo my print portfolio,” St. Clair says, “I generally start by going through the catalog of images I’ve created over the years that has my favorites from every shoot I’ve done. I would think everyone does this. And yes, I think everyone should! I currently have 18 folders in my Portfolio catalog. I have Babies, Kids, Teens, Seniors, Family, Pets, Travel, Travel Lifestyle, Portraits, Business, Medical, Country… and so on. But I don't have all those on my site.”
“I go through in thumbnail view and tag my favorites,” she explains. “At this point I’ll think about the work I’m trying to get, and then put the images into corresponding folders. Next I’ll look over these folders, and determine if I think there’s anything missing, and cull the ones that I think aren’t good enough, or that really just don’t work.”
2. Have A Target In Mind
Most photographers are familiar with the adage, show the type of work you want more of. Whether the goal is to do more studio work or get out more on location, to land bigger editorial clients or to enter the world of lifestyle advertising, it’s important to keep this in mind when editing images for a portfolio. Even if the goal is more subtle—say, to increase the number of assignments that rely on a unique sense of humor or quirky lighting style—the images shown in the portfolio must reinforce this concept. And so it’s essential to set that concept in mind, whatever it may be, and ensure with every eliminated image the portfolio is moving closer to the ideal.
“I’m constantly thinking about not only which market segments I’m trying to target,” St. Clair says, “but also assessing for variety. Variety means many things including what the people are doing in the images, the locations of the images—inside, outside, home, business—ages and ethnicities of the people in the images, and so on.”
“Variety is good,” she continues, “especially for me. Lifestyle is crazy competitive. I would argue the most competitive genre in photography. Also, clients really do want to see what they want you to shoot. For example, if you don't have any babies or seniors in your portfolio, you won't get hired to shoots involving them. This is super frustrating, but it’s very much how it works.”
“This can be a lengthy process that sometimes has me re-working color on images, or going back to shoots and pulling other shots that come to mind," St. Clair says. "I also find myself deleting some during this process as well. I try and get to a point where I’m only including a couple images from any given shoot. If there are more, they need to be truly stellar, or hit a target (market or niche) I want to hit.”
“I then put everything back into a single folder,” she says, “and go through another round or two of culling from the overall group. Anything that doesn’t fit with the markets I’m trying to get work in gets taken out, as do the images that now seem not as good, I don’t love, or don’t fit stylistically with the rest.”
3. Get A Second Opinion
One of the simplest, smartest things any photographer can do when making a portfolio edit is to ask for help. And not just any help, but the input of a qualified professional who understands the intended audience and the importance of an appropriate edit.
“I really think it’s essential to get some outside help,” St. Clair says. “Often we photographers can become too emotionally attached to our images, and the reality is that sometimes the images we love the most just don’t belong in our books.”
“I now have a rep,” she continues. “She helped me instead of hiring a freelance photo editor. Having her input is truly invaluable. She has worked in the industry a long time and really knows what’s going to make me stand out and get the work I want. Usually at this point we’re still looking at hundreds of images and we start working on sequencing.”
“It’s quite the process,” agrees St. Clair’s rep, Shannon McMillan. “Not every photographer is good at editing their work so I think photographers should always get together with someone—a photo consultant, an art director, a rep—to help them edit.”
“Photographers need to put their egos aside and work with somebody,” she adds. “I’ve met with people and said, ‘the content is here, the work is here, you just need to organize it.’”
St. Clair says she also asked her favorite producer, Nicole Lloyd, to offer feedback on the portfolio edit.
“My reasoning was not only did she know me, my work and my style,” St. Clair says, “she’d also actually worked on more shoots, with a greater variety of clients, than I had and therefore had a broader, more accurate perspective on what they want in the current market. She definitely made some of the same pairings we did, but also chose some images and made some sequences we hadn’t. Obviously there can be a point where there are ‘too many cooks in the kitchen’, but I definitely believe getting feedback from some other qualified people is key in ending up with a portfolio that’s truly great.”
4. Make Physical Prints
There are unique advantages to using physical prints over just the ethereal digital files. One is our brain’s ability to see things differently when we perceive them as physical objects. Another is the simple ability to manipulate images in physical space, seeing the order of photographs and how they work together better approximates the impact the physical portfolio will eventually have, and it helps you see how your images work together in a way you can’t quite replicate on screen.
“This most recent round of editing for my new portfolio,” St. Clair says, “I printed out the images as cheap drugstore 4x6 prints and used those to help sequence. This was immensely helpful. The tactile, visual nature of prints was great and it made it even easier to rearrange and try out different sequences. I would take photos of groupings I liked, and then toss them all back into the heap and start over. Try putting different images next to each other. Shannon did the same thing. When we both created the same groupings we really knew it worked.”
“What she did was genius,” adds McMillan. “She went and got her files and sent them to Walgreens and did little 4x6 prints and we laid them out in her office and just did an add this, add that, take this, move this here session. That really helped as far as putting the edit together. It’s that tangible thing of seeing it in front of you and being able to take a step back and see collectively what you’ve got. The process is so much easier because you can move everything around. And then once you make the sequence then you can make that sequence in digital form to click through it to get the perspective of flipping through a book.”
5. Get In Sequence
Which images to include is just one hurdle. The order in which those images appear, their sequence, also has a massive impact on the book.
“In your portfolio,” St. Clair says, “you need to be able to put images next to each other from different shoots and have them still seem like ‘you’ and not be too jarring to the viewer when they’re flipping through from one image to the next. It’s tricky to make images with different subjects, moods, color and tone work together. I make shorter sequences and then put them together. There are many things that make both mini sequences and the sequence of the book as a whole work. Some of those things are subject matter, mood and color tonality. You also need to take layout into consideration too. What is the size of the book? Will an image need to be cropped? How many vertical and horizontal images do you have and how will they look on the page?”
“It’s different every time,” says McMillan, “because everyone’s work is different. But you need to start strong. That’s something I learned when I was going to school to be an art director. You want to come off that page the first time that person sees your work. You want to start strong and you want to end strong and then carry the weight throughout. I always like to tell a story, and with lifestyle photography it’s easier to do that. The color sequence helps as well. Even doing some portraits with certain backgrounds, or a certain shade, or sometimes I like strong contrast. What are you looking at? There’s got to be some kind of consistency with the look and feel of it all. And always show the work you want to get more of.”
In the end, you may be on the fence with certain images, having a hard time throwing out favorites, for instance, to be replaced by images that better serve the agenda. St. Clair says it’s important to trust your mission above all and know that reinforcing your visual brand will serve you better in the long run.
“The end was really the hardest,” St. Clair says. “Yes, of course you want to only show the very best of the best, but sometimes images just don’t work with the flow and must be eliminated, no matter how great they are. Getting down to that final 48 for my print book meant giving up some shots that I really love in order to make it all work. Sometimes I go with an image I don't love as much if I think it will be more likely to get me the work I'm trying to get, or it sequences better.”
In the end there’s the payoff as St. Clair explains in the context of her latest portfolio. “I've never been happier with a portfolio. Of course I've shot a ton since then and will likely have to go through the process again before too long, but at this point I can say I truly love my new book and feel it’s the best I’ve ever done.”
About the author:
William Sawalich made his first darkroom print at age ten. He earned a Master's Degree from The Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California. Along with portraiture, still life and assignment photography, Sawalich is an avid writer. He has written hundreds of equipment reviews, how-to articles and profiles of world-class photographers. He heads up the photo department at Barlow Productions in St. Louis.