Portfolios – What and Why

It’s my portfolio – now there’s an image to draw you into reading this post!

Even in this high-tech, information superhighway, digitised, sci-fi, skinny latte, post-modern, post-impressionist, post-everything world there’s still a very important place within photography for the distinctly old-school portfolio. There’s very little here that will be news to experienced photographers, as without making good use of their portfolio they’re unlikely to have lasted long in the commercial world. However for people just starting out, or those whose only real experience of showing their work off is is via flickr and other websites, read on.

What is a Portfolio?

To many readers of this post the above question is a bit daft – most graduates of colleges, or practising professionals will not only know what a portfolio is, but will almost certainly have one. However, there are a growing number of photographers who have been brought up in the digital age who probably don’t see the need for a physical portfolio, and I’m going to try and both explain and promote it’s use within commercial photography, as well as give some advice on how best to use it once you’ve got one. A portfolio in the context of these posts consists of a collection of your very best work in a physical form that can be viewed directly (i.e. not on disk or online) so it’ll be either prints or transparencies, in a variety of forms, either as a loose-leaf folio, a bound book, or a set of interchangeable pages in an album format. I’ll be discussing the use of other mediums, such as websites in a future series of posts – there’s already enough to be going on with here!


The most important aspect of a physical portfolio lies not so much in the pictures themselves as in the fact that to view it an Art Director will pretty much always have to meet you in person, and this can have as much influence as the work itself. I will go into this aspect in greater depth in a later post, but for now it’s sufficient to say that in many areas of commercial photography (advertising/editorial/fashion and so on) your personality can be as important as your work, and you should never miss an opportunity to meet clients face to face and have a good natter.

A website is still an essential marketing tool for photographers, and don’t think I’m overlooking them. In my experience though, the website is rarely the first port of call for commercial clients, although it does happen from time to time. Where it functions best is as somewhere to refer people to when you can’t meet them face to face, as well as being an “always on” way of displaying your work. Plus, due to the ease with which you can separate out types of work into galleries, it allows you to show your full range, rather than the narrower choice you’ll usually show to a potential client in your physical portfolio.

A spread from my portfolio.

Always Ready.

One thing I learnt the hard way during my years as an assistant is that it’s important to always have a portfolio, and have it available to show somebody at relatively short notice. In an informal industry like ours there are countless times when you’ll encounter potential clients, many of whom will express an interest in seeing your work. For most of my 3 years assisting I didn’t show anyone my portfolio, though I was often asked to, and must have missed out on a very large number of chances to get photographic work. For a large portion of this time, my best work was simply not assembled in a way that I could present to anyone, and due to my lack of confidence in the images, it never really got collated and presented properly either.

Partly this was because the tests I was shooting were not well planned or thought through, and as such the results were not up to the standards I wanted, partly it was because I wasn’t very sure of where I wanted to go with my work, and partly it was because I spent very little money on the basic aspects of presentation (finished prints, actual portfolios and so on.) Suffice to say that I would advise anyone; most particularly assistants who are trying to make it as photographers, to always have some of their work ready to show a client, even if it be only a few pieces. As I’ll detail later on, the actual meeting can be more important than the photos themselves.

A quick note on definitions, I will use the terms “portfolio” and “book” almost interchangeably within these posts. In practice there’s really not much to separate them, though “book” tends to be a bit more of a fashion term, and has slightly more creative connotations. As far as I’m concerned the main difference is that the portfolio is the physical collection of work that you take out to show clients, and the book is a little more esoteric and represents your “body” of work. I’ll go into much more detail about the “book” in a later section, but for now excuse me if I use the terms in place of each other. Like wise, rather than get confused between Art Director, Picture Editor, Art Editor, and Creative Director I may often refer to them universally as commissioners. Not because they answer a red phone in Batman, but because they all commission work. Clever that.

Other posts in the Portfolio series:


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