How-to Portfolio Photography

As the head of the New York Film Academy‘s photography school, Brian Dilg has seen mor than his fair share of portfolios. So, if you’re looking to impress people with your work, presentation can be almost everything. Here are some crucial tips for making your work look its best.

What are some of the most common mistakes people make when putting together a portfolio?

The single most common mistake is including multiple images that are too similar – images that were clearly shot at the same time and only slightly different. That is a very negative indicator of a photographer’s ability or willingness to evaluate their own work. Just as common is loading the front of the book with decent work, and padding the back of the book with mediocre work. Changing formats (vertical/horizontal) and sizes is another faux pas.

In the age of the digital camera with its zero-cost images, most people simply shoot too much, sloppily, and edit too loosely. All photographers find it easier to shoot than to edit their own work. Shooting is fun. Taking a hard look at everything you shot and being honest with yourself about whether you have any truly outstanding images is hard. Most of us need to call on trusted colleagues to keep us honest.

If you find yourself having a conversation in your head like “Oh, the guy in the yellow hat is funny. But it has a dog in it! Really, the composition isn’t that bad…,” it should not go into your portfolio. Let it go; you will make better images.

What makes an image worthy of being in a portfolio?

Unless every person who sees it goes “WOW,” without needing to elaborate, it should not go into your portfolio.

Unless it is consistent with the primary body of work for which you want to get hired, it should not go into your portfolio.

Unless it is technically executed at a professional level of mastery, it should not go into your portfolio – unless a deliberately rough style is something that you have been doing and exhibiting deliberately and consistently.

Should you keep several different portfolios tailored to specific purposes?

Sure; most photographers do. Some suggestions:

One of the most common business mistakes is trying to show the world that you are a competent photographer. That will not help you; it is a given that anyone worthy of being hired to shoot professionally is competent.

What you must excel at communicating with every tweet, image, Facebook post, newsletter, meeting, exhibition, and tear sheet is what makes you unique and different from every other perfectly competent photographer with a 20+ megapixel camera and some expensive lenses.

You must choose a specialization. Believe me, it will be hard enough to compete in just one area. The industry is glutted with photographers. The first step is to identify the kind of photographs that you would love to get paid to take, the kind that hold magic for you, the kind that will continue to challenge you, the kind that aren’t going to lead to boredom and creative stagnation.

The second step is to create and show only that work to potential employers and clients. Your challenge is fundamentally to create an image for yourself in the mind of your prospective employers that will stick. So when a photo editor needs awesome photos of zebras, there is one person who immediately comes to mind: the photographer who has taken the most insane, inspiring, unique photos of zebras she’s ever seen – not the photographer who sent some wedding photos, some fashion photos, some editorial photos, some car photos, and one zebra photo.

Just remember, your employers have an infinitely long list of photographers who want their business, and finite room in their heads to remember them all. Create a truly iconic body of work in a specific area, and use the business that brings you to buy you time to indulge in your other projects.

How often should your books be updated?

Not every day; as often as it takes to land the job. “How often” is not really the critical question; “Is everything that’s in my book consistent with my style, strong as individual images, and adding to the quality of the body of work as a whole?” is a better question. Eliminate the weak images without mercy. Meanwhile, keep shooting, but beware nursing a limping project to death.

Bringing a project to a close is as important as starting one. Explore your idea deeply and thoroughly, finish it by making exhibition quality prints, hold a celebration exhibition, even if it’s in your living room, serve some drinks, and move onto the next thing. It’s about the lifetime body of work, not any single image, no matter how lauded or how disposable. Once a body of work is finished, give it enough time to make the rounds and be seen so you can learn something from it and get some valuable feedback.

5. How important is the order in which the images are presented? What are some things people should keep in mind when selecting the order?

The first image, needless to say, had better be a killer. You are announcing yourself, making a promise that more will follow along similar lines, and above all, the job of the first image is to make the viewer want to see more.

I find it useful to make mini-sequences of 2-5 images within a 20 image book, like chapters in a larger story. Vary shot size and vantage point, especially if it’s a printed book with facing pages. Don’t put two wide shots on facing pages; take a cue from movie editing, and juxtapose complementary colors, tones, and shot sizes. Make the surrounding images strengthen each image by setting up expectations and creating surprise.

Another great trick of all art forms, practiced perhaps most masterfully by Beethoven, is the law of threes. Our brains are pattern seeking machines. Remember how babies react to the peekaboo game? Every disappearance is tension-filled; every reappearance a surprise. Adults are only slightly more complicated. The way this works is that the first event or image creates a world or expectation, the second image establishes a pattern that the viewer’s brain thinks it’s now caught onto – and then the 3rd image breaks the pattern and gives the viewer that “oh!!” feeling of surprise that gives babies – and adults – a little thrill. Try to use images to suggest commentary on surrounding images, even if they had nothing to do with each other originally.

How important is a strong ending?

Do not put weak images in the back of the book, ever. Leave us with the memory of a great image; do not make us turn back to the cover image because the last image cast so much doubt on your whole portfolio that we suddenly feel like we were wrong to be optimistic based on the front of your book.

**What is the appropriate size for a portfolio? How much does it vary depending on purpose? **

Not so huge that handling it is a back-breaker, but big enough to do your work justice. Print size is important; making a choice about the edges of the pages is also critical. Look at well-designed photo books – you will see a lot of either a full-bleed blast of borderless imagery on a big page, or a huge amount of white space around a small image. Are your images loud or soft? Gentle or brash? Make the book size and design consistent with the content.

As in most areas of life, trying to hug the safe middle is usually fatal; make your design choices clean, strong, and simple. Spend some serious time exploring cropping. Find some telling details. Mix it up.

What are the benefits of a print portfolio vs. a digital one?

Every editor I know still says that the print is the final product of photography, and I’ve heard most have them mumble something like “If I see one more iPad portfolio, I’m gonna throttle someone…” Electronic images and the internet are convenient, but to some, they are not beautiful. They are not organic, and you can’t touch and hold them and put them on your shelf because you love the cool little Chinese puzzle box that unfolds like a treasure on your shelf. Just make sure that your prints are up to exhibition standards.

Nevertheless, if you’re under a deadline, have to get a portfolio out, and don’t have time to make prints, don’t let stop you – run over with an iPad. Just get it out there.