Tips for Building a Portfolio

Tips for Building a Portfolio

I have been teaching fine art photography for 6 years. In those years, I have had to scrutinize what makes fine art photography successful so that I can pass on that knowledge to others. My method has been to try what feels right, document what fails (and why), what succeeds (and why), and pass that on to others. One consistent piece to the “fine art” puzzle has been the importance of a portfolio. Not just any portfolio; a tight-knit, well planned and organized portfolio.

Registration for portfolio reviews is now open! For $50 ($10 of which goes to charity), you will receive a 1-page written portfolio review detailing relevant style words, strengths, and suggestions. In light of this limited offer (there will only be 100 spaces and registration will last 4 days, or until sold out), I wanted to give a little portfolio guide…

Top 5 Tips to Building a Portfolio

1. Take the word BUILD very seriously. A portfolio is not about throwing together some of your favorite images. It is about very purposefully crafting them so that they represent your best work as well as where you want to go as an artist. My recommendation is to go through all of your images and choose the ones that speak to you the most. Now out of those, choose 10 that you feel are consistent and work together. That is a great place to start in presenting a portfolio.

What if none of them match? If your images feel incoherent together, choose a favorite and try building a series. Try asking yourself some key questions about that image. Write down every reason why you like it. Focus on lighting, colors, backgrounds, wardrobe, theme, and emotion. Once you know why you like your favorite picture, build other images that contain some of the same elements. That will likely create a cohesive portfolio, or could even birth a new series.

2. What does COHESIVE even mean? I’ve learned from having my fair share of reviews that cohesive will not always mean the same thing to every reviewer. Sometimes the artist feels there is a common link, but another person might not see it. I split my work into two categories: visual and conceptual. When I am presenting a portfolio, I want to make sure that either, 1) the images are linked visually by a repeating pattern, or 2) the images all center around one theme. If your images can do both, you likely have a great start to a series.

Cohesion is about telling a visual narrative or a thematic story, or both. When choosing images to put in your portfolio, look for images that share a color palette or location. Or, if that isn’t your thing, choose images that all clearly deal with the same theme. This can be very helpful in narrowing down the portfolio. I have personally created over 700 images since I began photographing 7 years ago. That is a TON of images! I would never be able to present them all in a review, nor should I. Instead, I choose my strongest images and make sure they relate to one another in some way, even loosely.

When choosing images, try to keep them relatively close in age. If your work is extremely consistent over the years, don’t worry about this point. However, if some obvious growth has happened, including images that are too old might throw the reviewer off.

3. Narrow it DOWN. As an artist, I know how impossible it seems to narrow down a portfolio to just a few images. We have emotional ties as well as stories to go with the creation process and those elements can often hinder our ability to see the image objectively. Here are a few tips to narrowing your portfolio down.

a. Choose your 30 favorite images. Show them all in a folder to 3 different people. Ask them to choose their 10 favorites in under 2 minutes. Look for gut reactions. Ask them why they chose those images afterwards and notice on what level they are responding.

b. Choose your 30 favorite images. Now place them into categories based on visual style. For example, you might notice that some have a lot of red in them, some are all taken in the same location, and others have a strong theme running through. Make 3 folders on your computer and place the images into the corresponding folder to better see which images are most striking together. Not every review requires the same images, and it might be that one set of images is better to show for one review than another set.

c. To trust or not to trust social media. Once you have chosen your 30 favorite images, it is okay to see which of those pieces did particularly well on social media. As long as you aren’t choosing solely based on that factor, it can be really helpful to narrow it down based FIRST on your opinions, and SECOND on how people reacted to the work. This can help to determine how the reviewer will also react.

4. Don’t forget about TECHNIQUE. We are intrinsically tied to our work. It is in us and who we are. This tends to cloud our judgment of what should be in our portfolio because we are inherently biased. Never forget about technique. It doesn’t matter if you have the most incredibly poignant, important, and life-altering image (well, maybe it does…), if there is a glaring technical error it will rip the viewer right out of it.

Many portfolio reviews can help tremendously in identifying what those technical flaws are. Don’t hesitate to put images in that you just aren’t sure about. But do be aware of which images aren’t quite up to par. I will put concept before technique any day, but only after the technique has been mastered.

5. ORDER matters. When you are presenting a portfolio to someone, think about the order in which you place the images. It can impact how someone understands what you are trying to do, as well as make the process go smoother. A great example is that when I review portfolios, the number one thing that takes me out of the moment is when images of different genres are mixed together haphazardly. It is difficult to shift your mind-space from fine art to fashion to nature and then back to fine art.

If you have multiple genres you would like to show, keep them separated or at least in a logical order. Further, if you have one genre and aren’t sure about the order, try considering these things:

a. Color – If your images flow from warm hues to cool hues, for example, it could be a very pleasing transition which won’t appear jarring to the viewer.

b. Styling – If your images take place in a similar location or with similar wardrobe, it might be smart to keep those images together.

c. Story – If your images are meant to tell a story, or if certain themes are being explored, keeping those images together can strengthen the story and keep the reviewer inside the world of that story longer.

I like to open with a really strong image and close on a really strong image, so I try to choose my top two images and bookend the portfolio with them.

Here is a look at my 10-piece portfolio. This is what I would send a prospective gallery, client, or reviewer.

Here are the reasons why I chose these particular images, in this order:

  1. The locations flow. We begin inside, move to a wider space shot in the same building, to a black backdrop, and then outside. There is a buildup to moving outdoors which transitions the viewer from one space to another.
  2. The colors flow. Starting with red, we move to yellows and stick with warm tones until an important transitional image (the 5th) where a blue dress introduces a new color, but the yellow clouds keep with the yellow theme.
  3. The bookend-ed concepts. Beginning with this creepy, dark shot in a bathtub sets an eerie tone for the work. Immediately I am showing an image that doesn’t hold back, yet is not overtly “horror” or off-putting in a gory way. The final image has much the same feel but is opposite in color tone, leaving the reviewer with a strong final piece to the portfolio.

There are other reasons to choosing these images. One is that they are consistently my favorite images that I have ever created. Another is that they are some of my best selling images. A third reason is that they are visually linked via center compositions, subject matter, and theme.

I hope this helps you in creating a portfolio! If you have any questions I didn’t answer, please leave them below and I will get back to you!

Click to register for portfolio reviews!

10 thoughts on “Tips for Building a Portfolio

  1. Wow, Brooke, that is an awesome opportunity. Quick question, do we have to have the portfolio ready for you tomorrow, or is that just the registration? I figure I am probably not the only one with this question 🙂

    1. Great question, Kat! I will hold off on beginning the reviews until Sunday night when registration closes, that way you can submit and secure a space but still have time to fix it up a bit. However, before registration can be completed, a link to a website (or Flickr, for example) must be given. So, as long as you know the URL you will use, you can continue to re-arrange, shuffle, add, subtract, etc. until Sunday night. Hope that makes sense! I like using something like a Flickr account for things like this because the photos can be easily categorized into folders that can be linked, or if you have a blog/website, that is a great option, too. 🙂

  2. Wow, this is really great Brooke’s! I wish I had enough images for a portfolio. LOL
    Those are great tips though, Thanks! 🙂

  3. Well, Brooke, the deed is done. First time stepping out with my work in any serious way. I am kind of ambivalent about the whole thing but I have to start at some point in time and I am very happy that it will be you taking this images apart. I love your work.

    Best wishes.

    Joaquin Barbará MD

  4. Signed up and anxious to hear your feedback. I do have a question, though. When trying to redirect back to your site from PayPal, I received an error message. I did receive and email from PayPal saying the payment went through, but I was wondering if everything else went through since I couldn’t get back to your site afterward.

    1. Hi Donna! You are all signed up and I’ve got your information 🙂 Apologies for the confusion! I can’t wait to take a look! 🙂

      1. Great! Thank you so much for responding so quickly and verifying that everything went through okay. I can’t wait to read your review and learn from it.

  5. Wow Brooke this is so great to have this opportunity
    Question: I am a building my portfolio and skill level whereby I will eventually use my own portrait images, so at present I am mainly using ‘stock images’ with permission from photographer/s in my composition work.

    Can I still present my (work)portfolio to be critiqued? 🙂

    1. Hi Trish! Yes absolutely – when you register, just leave a little note about that in the designated box (you’ll see it when signing up) as a note about stock images so that I know not to critique certain elements 🙂 I’d love to see!

      1. Thanks Brooke, I have already registered but I think I made reference to it in the ‘notes’ section. Stepping out of my comfort zone doing this, but I know thats when we grow and learn the most. A exciting journey and thank you Brooke for this opportunity

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