What Makes a Successful Photo Portfolio?

I have spent the last forty years looking at photo portfolios and the last twenty creating my own. On one side of the desk I was looking to commission, on the other to get commissioned, two different outcomes from the same artefact.

The one word that brings them together is expectation, that of the commissioner and of the prospective commissioned photographer. I speak so often about expectations because they seem to be so rarely discussed and yet they are the defining factor in our understanding of success and failure. They are also the key to a successful portfolio.

A portfolio is not for you. Just as a website is your shop window, your portfolio is a selling tool, a portable exhibition used to convince others to buy into your work. That may be to commission you, invest in you or buy images from you, but whatever its purpose, the expectation of that purpose should inform its construction.

Let’s get down to the details of that construction. Firstly, all prints must be the same size and be of high quality, a quality that should be consistent across all of the work you are showing. How many prints? I always say between fithteen to twenty maximum. A portfolio should be your greatest hits not every album you’ve ever made.

There was a time when portfolios were all heavy and expensive leather bound books with clear sleeves in purpose made bags (I still have mine) and some photographers still use these. However, today you don’t need to. A print box with your prints in clear acetate sleeves is fine and in certain situations more appropriate. Either way you will need to invest in both prints and a physical portfolio.

Now for some simple tips. The first image should be your strongest. Think of it like a cover of a book introducing you to the work. Be prepared to discuss the image, giving context to the work that follows. The final image should also be one of your strongest. It closes the book and may be the image that is looked at for the longest time as you talk with your potential client.

One of the biggest mistakes I have observed is photographers including work that they are not sure about. If you can’t defend or be positive about the work it should not be included.

The clearest way of seeing a portfolio is as the next step on from your website. Someone sees your website, is impressed/interested/intrigued and wants to meet you in person and that is when the portfolio comes into play. Therefore, it does not have to introduce your work to the client, but it does have to compliment and consolidate the website. It needs to show the quality of the images seen on the website in print form and act as a physical support to your personality as a photographer. In that sense the portfolio is the online made real, just as your name and online persona will become real in a face-to-face meeting. If you think about the portfolio in this way it will be obvious that it should connect with the portfolio section on your website. The same images, in the same order.

Now, you may say that you no longer need a portfolio as you get all of your work from your website or from your social media accounts and that may be true. However, as the old adage states, fail to plan and plan to fail. You may not need a portfolio all of the time, but if someone asks to see it (and in my experience this will happen), you will need one and it is at that point that you will realise the importance of having a well considered and presented portfolio at hand.

Images: © Grant Scott 2023

Dr. Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018 www.donotbendfilm.com. He is the presenter of the A Photographic Life and In Search of Bill Jay podcasts.

© Grant Scott 2023

1 comment

  1. All very true and especially so these days. I think it’s important to be able to show prints in a well designed book. And it’s something physical and tactile instead of just scrolling down a website or iPad or iPhone 📱

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