So now we get on to the easy bit, the actual physical, tangible aspects that make up the portfolio itself. I’m a bit of a traditionalist in this respect, as I believe that a bound book of prints is still the best way to present your work. Transparencies are OK, with the exception that they can only be viewed over a lightbox, and not every office has one (surprising, I know, but there you go) Also, people have to crowd round a lightbox, but a portfolio of prints can be handed round easily, and viewed in almost any light. The other major disadvantage of transparencies is that they’ll need to be of medium format size or larger, and may need to be dupes (duplicates) of existing prints or other trannies. This is an expensive process, both in getting the dupes made and then in mounting and presenting them. The basic photographic rule should always be borne in mind that every optical stage an image has to pass through is going to degrade it slightly, so making prints that will then be shot and presented as slides is a somewhat circular and expensive exercise in my opinion. In the digital age of course, transparencies are getting rarer and rarer, and there’s absolutely no point whatsoever in getting dupes made of digital files – get it printed and stop being stupid.
Needless to say, the final image quality of the shots that end up in your portfolio should be of the very highest order. Note I don’t say, “the highest order you are capable”, as this is one of those occasions where trying hard just isn’t as good as actually being the best. The point is that if you’re trying to compete with established commercial photographers you’ll need to play at their level. It’s far better to have 10 very polished, professionally presented and mounted/bound prints, than 20 loose, dirty, tarnished in a folder. I know this may sound as if I’m more concerned with presentation than the content of the images themselves, and truthfully at this precise moment I am. You’re trying to create as good an impression as you can in a short space of time, and you want your work to shine.
If your images are of a low quality, or badly presented they simply won’t sell themselves enough, plus you’ll give out the general impression of not being very professional. I can hear people in the wings whinging that they haven’t got the money to spend on expensive portfolios and finished prints, to which my answer is that the portfolio is one place where you can’t cheat with money. When shooting tests you can borrow cameras, get studios at knockdown rates and get models/hair and make up etc to work for free, but besides being lucky enough to have a mate who works in a lab who’ll print your stuff cheap, you’re going to have to pay the proper price for a decent portfolio. When you consider that it’s through this portfolio that you’ll get most of your work it should be apparent that scrimping and saving at this stage would cost you much more later on.
One final thing to bear in mind (and this relates in some way to editing your portfolio) is the circumstances under which your images will be viewed. If you can guarantee that your perfectly duped 5×4″ transparencies will always be looked at on a top of the range lightbox, then you need not worry about pictures that rely on lots of shadow detail for their impact. On the other hand, if there’s a fair chance that the pictures will simply be held up to the window for light to shine through, or your glossy prints may be flicked through in a dark room, then the tonal range of the final images should be a serious consideration. Obviously this applies most to images with lots of shadow detail printed on gloss paper, they may look great under window light or a well-calibrated monitor, but will lose much of their beauty in worse conditions and may end up just looking murky.
Ideally you want the portfolio to be between A4 and A3 size, mine’s A3 for the record. Any smaller than A4 and your images not only will lack impact, but clients will wonder if they have sufficient quality to stand up to being reproduced on a magazine page or similar. Larger than A3 and the portfolio itself will start to become physically rather unwieldy, and since at least in the Editorial world the largest most images are going to end up is as a DPS, A3 is sufficient to illustrate the quality of your shots. The number of pictures to show is a bit hard to nail down, too few and you’ll look like you’re very inexperienced, too many and the client will be bored before they finish looking at the book, and will be unlikely to remember anything about the stuff they’ve seen. In my experience 20-30 is about right, though I’ve seen portfolios with as few as 12 and as many as 70 odd before. Don’t forget of course to tailor the images to the client. The golden rule to remember, which I’ve made reference to in several places on the site, is that you’ll be remembered for the crap ones as much as the good ones, so if you’ve only got 12 images you’re totally happy with, only show 12!
Around the late 90’s and early 2000’s there was a great rash of people knocking out portfolios on CD’s, making beermats out of their images, and doing a host of other novelties to make themselves stand out from the crowd. Alongside the main portfolio tricks like this an be very effective at keeping your images in the Art Director’s mind for longer, but they should never take the place of a conventional, physical set of images.
Tearsheets, or examples of your work in it’s finished, printed/published form are almost an essential. I’ve known Art Directors who insist that even if shown a stunning portfolio of work they won’t actually commission someone until they’ve seen a few tearsheets. The main reason for this is that tearsheets offer proof that you can work to a brief, with all the professional behaviour that that implies. I suspect an exception would be made if you were already a successful, well-known photographer, but then in that case you probably don’t need to be reading this piece!
In a similar vein to the actual portfolio images it’s worth tailoring/editing the tearsheets if you have the ability and the range of work, for the same reasons given previously for portfolios Presentation-wise I find a simple but smart folder is usually best – clients aren’t expecting polished prints, but are looking for genuine pages from magazines etc, so there’s no major problem if some pages don’t quite fill the sleeves, or a DPS doesn’t quite fit.
Ignoring novelties, as briefly mentioned above, you should always have some nicely printed business cards with your portfolio, ideally both business card size as well as larger ones. The larger ones (postcard size and above) are very good for leaving behind, as people tend to leave them on their desks until they next tidy up (and this can take ages!) If, like me, you cover quite a wide range of subject matter, the best option is to take your “best” shot from each area and get it printed onto postcard or A5 size, then carry the appropriate ones depending on who you’re going to see. At the risk of stating the absolutely bleedin’ obvious, make sure the card’s got your name, phone number, web address, social media profiles and email on. Just checking.