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For Portfolios, Less is More

January 31st, 2009 · 4 Comments

One of the hardest things for a photographer to do is edit for their portfolio. Getting down to 50 or so images can be a relatively painless process. It’s whittling down to the final selection that can be difficult, stressful, even paralyzing.

Photography is a service, but it’s also an art form. It’s a job but also a reflection of who you are and what you have to offer. This dual nature can make the editing decisions for your portfolio especially difficult. From a marketing perspective, you want to show a clearly identifiable style so the client will know what to expect if they hire you. As an artist, showing work in only a single style can feel limiting and artificial. But the bottom line is that if you’re an independent professional photographer, then you’re also a business. This means you need a clearly identifiable brand in the eyes of photo buyers so they can distinguish you from everyone else.

Most photographers have a hard time being objective about their imagery. You may have emotional favorites that have meaning to them but don’t rate well against their best work. You may come to believe that some images are so identified with them that they can’t imagine not including those images in their portfolio. Sometimes we’re so close to things that we can’t see them with proper perspective. We are blinded by what an image means to us and don’t see them through the eyes of others.

Here are 5 guidelines for photographers to keep mind when editing for their portfolios:

1. Have a Theme
The images should look like they all belong together. Photo buyers want to know what they can reasonably expect if they hire you. If your portfolio shows vastly different styles and approaches, you’re not giving them a reason to hire you instead of someone else.

2. Less is More
Attention is the most precious commodity these days. Too many images in a portfolio can be irritating to wade through and can cause resentment and even hostility on the part of the audience, especially busy professionals. The fewer images you have the more powerful each becomes. Normally 15 – 20 images will show what you can do without overtaxing the audience’s attention. The first rule of entertainment applies here: “Always leave them wanting more.” If the design of your Web site allows for it, you can include additional images but they should be accessible only to those who choose to take a deeper look at your work and not in the main portfolio area.

3. Ask Others
Getting fresh, knowledgeable eyes to review your edit is invaluable. Demand honesty and put your ego in check. The goal is the help you make tough decisions in order to present your most compelling message to photo buyers.

4. Provide Context
Whether in a print or online portfolio, it’s important to include information about the image or assignment. For commercial work, list the agency, art buyer, client, campaign, etc. For editorial work, the publication, location and story title should be included. A narrative sentence or two can also be appropriate if it’s informative and well written. Just a few lines of text can make an interesting image relevant and ground it in the reality of the business environment we all operate in.

5. Keep it Fresh
The portfolio should be updated every year; every 6 months is even better. In addition, your portfolio shouldn’t contain any images that are more than 2-3 years old. Presumably your most recent work reflects what you are likely produce for a client if they hired you today. And older images will start to look stale to others long before you realize it.

Your portfolio is your single most important marketing tool. In the eyes of potential clients, you are your portfolio. The stakes are high. Be brutal and unsentimental in your edit. Carefully consider each image individually, the message they send when viewed together. Don’t use older images and don’t let the images in your portfolio become stale. Be empathetic to the time and attention of the audience. Provide some information about each image that place’s it in a business context.

Viewing a portfolio that contains too many images and lacks a theme is like listening to someone talk endlessly without a point. Don’t be that person. Your portfolio should make a statement that is concise, focused and impressive. That’s the person you want to be.

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Tags: Photo Marketing Tips

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Sharla Graber // Jan 31, 2009 at 3:12 pm

    great advice, enjoyed reading this article, thanks

  • 2 Gene Smirnov // Feb 2, 2009 at 10:11 am

    Though a lot of people singing a different song, I think this here makes a lot of sense. This is very helpful, thanks!

  • 3 Ally Godfrey // Feb 2, 2009 at 12:30 pm

    I agree with everything, except the “context” part. I think this could potentially be distracting. Based on my experience, having a double page spread of actual ads showing the way your work was used commercially is a better bet. This can be designed and put at the back of the portfolio with thumbnails of the ads along with the name of the agency and art director.

  • 4 Jon // Feb 18, 2009 at 11:52 am

    I think your suggestion of showing the actual ads is another form of context, and a good idea. Context is important because it reinforces the message that the images were actually shot for paying clients (presumably with a budget and on deadline) and not just “personal work” where you might have had all the time in the world.

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