How to Make Your Photography Portfolio Stand Out from the Competition

Most photographers stumble when it comes to the question of how to make a photography portfolio. It can be difficult to know what you should include, how to present your work,  how your work compares to others, and what a photography portfolio is even supposed to be for. However, if you are a photographer, regardless of your ability, you should create a portfolio for a number of reasons, not least to help put up a good fight against the competition.

Photography is one of the most competitive career paths in the creative industries and a professionally constructed portfolio is crucial to helping you progress. A well constructed portfolio will elevate the work that’s in it and make you look more professional. This article will help you understand what a photography portfolio is, what it is for, and how you should put it together to ensure it stands out from the pack.

3 photogrpahers

Don’t follow the pack, make your photography portfolio stand out from the competition. Image by muha.

What is a photography portfolio?

Most beginner photographers think a good portfolio is a selection of their best photographs. If you are in the process of doing this you should stop. Yes your selection should contain great photographs that showcase your talent and technical ability, but the work presented in your portfolio should be centred on a single theme, style or method. Proving you can keep a sustained practice will be more likely to persuade others that you are a capable photographer that can follow set briefs, and not just the owner of a camera that has taken a couple of lucky shots.

Why Should you Put Together a photography Portfolio?

There are a number of reasons why you might create a portfolio:

To improve your chances of employment

Any photography job that is advertised will require every prospective employee to submit a portfolio of their work. The work will not just be considered on the grounds of technical ability but will also show potential employers that you have what it takes. As many professional photographers are self-employed, a portfolio is an example of the work they can do and will be used to attract potential clients.

To help you gain entry to a photography course

Many photography courses, including the online BA (Hons) Photography and MA Photography (Visual Communication) courses delivered by IDI in partnership with the University of Hertfordshire, require applicants to submit a portfolio of work to see if they are up to the standard required by the course of study. Enrolling on a photography course is also a great way to put together a portfolio, with expert guidance from tutors and encouragement from your fellow students. All IDI Photography students work towards creating a portfolio that showcases the best of their ability with the aim of improving their chances of a professional career.

To improve your chances of being exhibited in a gallery

Gallery curators and owners will often ask to see a portfolio of your work before they consider selecting your photographs for exhibition. A good portfolio will help create a trusting relationship with galleries built on mutual respect, and they will be more likely to exhibit your work again or recommend you to others in the industry. If you are submitting a portfolio for potential exhibition, be sure to visit the gallery space and assemble a collection of your photographs that suits the exhibition space.

Read more about how to exhibit your work with IDI tutor John Maloney…

To organise your work

As a digital photographer, you will often find your hard drive is clogged up with thousands of random photographs. Arranging your work into portfolios with set styles and themes will help organise this mess and will also help you consider the direction you want to take with your work in the future.

 lots of photographers on stairs

With so many photographers around, a good portfolio will help you stand out as a professional. Image by Jonathan McIntosh.

A few PRELIMINARY questions

Before you get to work shooting and compiling your photographs with a portfolio in mind, there are a few questions you should ask yourself.

Who is the audience for the work?

Who are you trying to reach with your portfolio? This might seem like a simple question but carefully consider what the intended audience will feel like when they look over your shots. If you have been given a brief, read it over again and make sure your photographs match what is being asked for. Once you have a clear picture of who your audience are you will have a better understanding of your potential theme and you might even come up with some original photography portfolio ideas.

What is your theme?

This is simply the type of images you include in your portfolio and, as mentioned before, the theme should take the audience  into careful consideration. If the portfolio is being compiled for a prospective job taking portraits, you should include only your portrait work; if the job is with a newspaper you should include only your photojournalism work.

When considering applicants for the online photography courses we deliver at IDI, we like the portfolio to showcase a range of skills, as the online courses cover several different types of photography requiring applicants to show versatility. You would not, however, want to show off your versatility when submitting a portfolio for consideration to an exhibition on a particular theme or style of photography.

If you are constructing a photography portfolio purely for yourself, you should focus on the photography you enjoy. If you enjoy landscape photography, compile a few landscape portfolios and strive to make each one better than the last. You should, however, as a beginner photographer, try not to get stuck with one type of photography. Compiling portfolios of differing styles will help improve your photography as a whole and encourage you to learn new skills.

What shots should you select?

It might sound like nonsense, but when you spend a long period of time considering how to make a photography portfolio, you may find yourself forgetting about the quality of the actual work. Selecting quality photographs is in fact the most difficult part of constructing a portfolio. Most photographers, professional and amateur alike, will have to fight the temptation to pick their favourites. You might not be the best judge of your own work so it may well be a good idea to get a friend or family member, whose taste in art you trust, to pick for you. Try to pick a selection of photographs that go well together, and not just images that stand out on their own.

How many photographs should you include?

This is another difficult choice which you must judge carefully to come to a conclusion. An answer, though not a very helpful one, is not too many and not too few. Keep in mind that you should always strive for quality over quantity. Start with a lot (say 100 as a rough figure) and whittle them down to around 20. Be brutal. If a shot is slightly out of focus, bin it; if it has slight lens flare, bin it. It is ideal to have a few shots that are executed to perfection rather than a random bunch of average shots.

How do you present your photography portfolio?

The presentation of the portfolio again comes down to the audience and the brief. If the brief asks for a digital portfolio, you should still focus on the presentation and not just send the collection in a random order. Carefully arrange them to convey a particular mood; remember that you are an artist after all.

It’s always nice to have at least one professionally printed portfolio. You should invest in this process to make sure your printed portfolio is displayed as neatly as possible. Consider the colour of the backing sheet and how the images look as a whole and not just individually.

Once your shots are in order you should consider adding a contents sheet including an artistic statement, the titles of the selected photographs, the date and location of the shots, and importantly your contact details. Keep anything you write really brief though, the main point of the portfolio is the photographs.

Find out more about what to include in your portfolio when applying to study online for a BA (Hons) in Photography delivered by IDI on behalf of the University of Hertfordshire. 

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