The Organized Photographer:
5 steps to a polished portfolio
It’s a tough task, so let’s break it down!
You would think after planning, shooting and processing your images, the hard part is over, right?
Actually, one of the most important and difficult steps awaits you.
Polishing your portfolio into a tight, cohesive, effective set of images is an agonizing but vital part of high-quality visual storytelling.
Wait! Before you throw your computer out the window, let’s tackle the task together. Trust me, it might be tough work but it is so very much worth the time and effort.
Plus, this can be fun! (And my experience has proven it is especially fun when you involve a group of creative, opinionated friends and a bottle of whiskey!)
Inhibitions lowered or not, we can ease the difficulty by breaking the whole process down into 5 manageable steps.
1. Know Your Portfolio’s Purpose
Before you get started, you need to know why you’re editing your portfolio. Who will ultimately see the portfolio, and what is your goal for how they respond?
- Is it a “best work” portfolio for your website where potential clients will see it?
- Are you trying to get a stock agency to accept you as a contributor?
- Is this for a grant for a project?
- Are you pitching a story to a magazine editor?
- Is this for a photo essay competition?
Knowing why you’re creating a portfolio will drive the selections you make, and the narrative you build when you order your images.
This might seem like a step to quickly brush past. But when you take the time to really consider who is seeing the work and what you want from them, you’ll enter the entire process with a clear head, and a reference point in case you start to feel lost during the process.
2. Wide Edit
Pull in everything that can or should be considered for your edit. Likely, this will be in the range of 40-60 images.
It’s helpful to use a tool like Lightroom where you can use things like flags, star-ratings, color labels or other ways to organize the images you want to mull over.
This is your chance to ensure you’re truly grabbing your best work – and a diversity of work. If you’re creating a photo essay, are you hitting on all the key elements of storytelling? If you’re showing your best work, are you including wide shots and detail shots, a range of colors, and the right subject matter?
Pull images that show the range of your skills and style while sticking with an overarching theme.
3. Final Edit
Now we really start to fine tune. This part might be the most painful.
It’s critical at this point to refer back to Step 1 and keep your “why” and “who” in mind as you edit. You can’t make the correct decisions without knowing your viewer and desired outcome.
In fact, write this out on a post-it and put it next to your computer screen. Every time you feel stuck in narrowing down your selection to the very best images, re-read the post-it.
Start eliminating any image that:
- is redundant of a stronger image in content
- can’t hold its own if viewed individually (unless it is a critical part of the story)
- stands out from the others in a jarring way, in terms of style, content or quality
It might be helpful to pull a friend or two into this process. Meet at a coffee shop or (as I mentioned works for me) pile out on the living room floor with a bottle of wine (or whiskey). Talk through the pros and cons of certain images, and listen to their input about your work. Really listen. They’ll help you look past emotional attachments you may have to certain images and select what is truly your best work.
The final number of images in your portfolio will depend on your goal. Typically, a portfolio has between 12-25 images. But the specific number of images you end up with will be based on whether or not you’ve been given a requirement by a photo editor, grant guidelines, and so on.
4. Order of Your Images
There are several ways to approach ordering your images, again based on your goal. It can be based on story flow, or visual flow.
- If you’re pitching a story or trying to win a grant, you’re probably going to go with a story flow. Consider how you make a great first impression with a “hero” image, introduce the characters, build tension, and provide visual diversity while advancing the plot.
- If you’re building a “best of” portfolio for your website, stock agency or a potential client, you’ll probably go with a visual flow. With this approach, you’ll take into account things like subject matter, color palette, and other aspects of style to move a viewer seamlessly from one image to the next, providing cohesive diversity.
Use a tool like Lightroom Collections to drag and drop images so you can reorder them quickly and easily as you change your mind.
5. Review and Reorder
Once you’ve completed the ordering, do two things:
- Get honest feedback. Send the portfolio to at least two people who you trust.
- Give your eyes and mind a solid break. Wait at least 3 hours before you look at your portfolio again. Then you can go back in with a fresh outlook and make savvy decisions about swapping out images or changing the order.
And there you have it! A cumbersome and often emotionally difficult process is far easier when you can take it step by step!
Oh — and actually there’s one more step in the process: send your amazingly perfect portfolio out and WOW your audience!
PS: Learning the process of editing a compelling portfolio is one of the topics we cover in Conservation Photojournalism Intensive workshops, along with many other critical elements of seeing a project through to publication.
Gain the skills necessary to craft a photography project and get your work in front of publishers. It’s an ideal workshop for anyone passionate about conservation issues, storytelling, and making a difference with your photography!
What past students say about their experience:
“What a fantastic experience. The agenda was so well planned and organized, but allowed flexibility to seize unexpected opportunities. We all learned so much about pulling together a strong story. Jaymi and Mo were wonderful, supportive mentors. Highly recommend!” – Michelle
“The course was an extraordinary experience of learning, sharing and being creative. The challenge of developing a powerful story for an association committed by heart to the conservation of their local forests leaves me full of energy to create more stories.” – Paula
“I just finished an intensive class learning so much about how to create photographs to tell a story. The lectures during this class were very relative and properly timed. The structure of the class from pre-planning to capture were excellent. The information & experience I gained in this class will be used in all facets of my photography and the stories that I tell.” – Jeanne
“I learned far more than I imagined possible this week and can’t wait to put these new skills into action!” – Teri