Why You Need A Portfolio
The Essential Tool For Every Photographer

Here's my large Panodia portfolio. After two years of dragging this thing all over the Northeast you can see how the Mylar pages have wrinkled around the images. I've just reprinted every image in this book and gone to a white background with a thin white border. With fresh page inserts I've taken the old book and freshened it up nicely.
Photos © Jay Abend, 2000

You need a portfolio. If you call yourself a photographer and you don't have an up-to-date portfolio of your best work, I think you're missing an essential tool.

While having a great portfolio is a wonderful thing, the act of assembling the images for a portfolio is one of the greatest challenges that faces a serious photographer. While commercial and advertising photographers like myself have to have a killer portfolio to survive, I think that any photographer, amateur or pro, should have a "book" of their work ready for review. While I know that photographers who specialize in portrait and wedding work tend to assemble sample albums of their best wedding work, I think that a proper portfolio of your best personal, commercial, and editorial work still makes sense.

For those of you who think that your work is worth a serious look, let's define what a "proper" portfolio is. Unlike a small album of photographs or a "scrapbook" style assemblage, a well-crafted portfolio leaves the viewer with a definite impression of the artist's style, sensibilities, and technical skill. We'll get to the design and layout of a good portfolio in a minute, but first let's look at the "book" itself.

There are many ways to print up your work. My new look is to print up the image with the white border, like the picture of the man leaning against the wall. The smaller shoe picture was printed for another portfolio, back when I was matting everything on each page. It's much easier to print the entire page at one time.

For the longest time my portfolio book wasn't a book at all, but a leather and tweed briefcase made in the style of a 1950's Fender Stratocaster guitar case. In this funky but chic case I kept a large selection of mounted large format transparencies, heavily laminated ad tear sheets, and mounted Cibachrome prints. Back in the days when film was all we knew, I always felt that a handful of 8x10 transparencies plopped on the light table made a strong statement. The laminated ads took a lot of abuse, and the Cibachrome prints of course dazzled everyone. With the individual pieces in no particular order I could customize the presentation for a particular meeting, and prospective clients could make a quick photocopy of an image they liked for future reference. After a year or so most of the pieces were pretty beat up, but for the era this presentation technique worked quite well.

Now that we're well into the digital revolution, a loose-piece case like this is sheer madness. I now try not to leave anything that can be scanned for use in a client's future comps, because sometimes an image can get "borrowed" accidentally. Leave a case of original transparencies in an ad agency lobby unsupervised with a dozen scanners in the next room? Forget about it. Be-sides the copyright issues, with the size of an Art Director's office shrinking, the total lack of light tables anywhere, and the brief glance that any prospective client is willing to give your work, it makes more sense to have a tight, well thought out portfolio with actual pages.

What is a well thought out portfolio? Well, for my money it's a portfolio that leaves a definite impression of the artist's unique style, abilities, and experience. A great portfolio may not always be your best work, believe it or not. In some cases it makes more sense to put together a collection of images that seem in context with each other. For instance, for many years I shot a lot of music work. Images of rock stars from the '80s may speak volumes about my experience on the road, but they look dated and do little to bring in new work. I've banished most of my rock-and-roll images from my portfolio, even though some are my best work.

Here is one of my small 8x10" "travel" portfolios. You can find small bound books like this at most office supply stores for under $10. With properly prepared prints you can produce a terrific looking portfolio for very little money.

A well-crafted portfolio should also have some sense of order. I like to structure a portfolio with a beginning, a middle, and an end. This way if I actually get the change to narrate my way through a presentation I can start with the self-assigned promo work, get into the meat of my client-assigned advertising work, and finish with my national ad tear sheets from magazines. It's a nice build-up and makes for a great "story."

What about the photographer who doesn't plan on dropping his portfolio off at a major ad agency any time soon? Even if you have no commercial aspirations you should have a "book" that you can pull out of a drawer that instantly defines who you are as an artist. Why? Because if you take your photography seriously and want to share your work with others, you may not always have the opportunity to show off your matted and framed prints. A small portable portfolio solves the problem nicely.

How to assemble a really killer portfolio? Here are some quick tips:

Three Words: Edit, Edit, Edit. Any good photographer knows not only how to take great pictures, but also how to edit out the not-so-great images. I know it's hard not to fall in love with your own work, so sometimes it pays to bring in a fresh set of eyes. I show my stuff to everyone--the wife, clients, the FedEx guys, whoever is handy. I try and get everyone to be as honest as possible, and in some cases I've pulled stuff that I really liked.

Once you assemble your images it pays to keep an open mind. Pictures that made it through your initial decision making process may get less than stellar reactions. In my case I had an image shot with a Better Light 6000 scanning camera. While the image and print were amazingly sharp and clean, for some reason clients thought the image looked "digital." I'm sure they were reacting to the finish of the product in the image, but nevertheless I pulled it quickly. The first lesson you should learn about a body of work is you should never have to make excuses for your work. The work should stand on its own. If that means you have a book with five great pictures, having edited 30 so-so pictures out, so be it.

Tell A Story. Even if your portfolio consists of casual shots of friends and family or pictures of trees in winter, you should be able to talk your way through a portfolio presentation. While it's certainly OK to show a group of images that have nothing to do with each other, you should be able to explain your rationale for capturing each image in the first place. While I feel it is important not to make excuses for your work, you do need to explain your work when asked.

Creating The Right Viewing Environment. While you can't control the lighting conditions where your portfolio will be viewed, you can control how the pictures are presented. Do you want the photos to run full-bleed on the page? A black or white border? Perhaps a jazzy frame printed around the image, or the edges of a negative carrier filed to produce the tell-tale black border. Different printing techniques can produce wildly different impressions of the same image.

Lately I've gone to an all-white sheet with the image printed in the center with a thin black border. I feel that it gives the images that "gallery" look, and the extra white space makes colorful images look very rich and bright. Images framed with all black can be extremely dramatic as well, but I've found that black tends to demand really dramatic pictures. While I have a lot of dramatic images, I like to mix in a lot of people photography, which frankly looks better on white.

Have Some Style. Look, you've got to have some style. While you can get away with a bunch of images pasted into a regular old photo album, the extra time and expense required to create a really beautiful portfolio will be rewarded with many compliments and assignments. Most camera stores carry the traditional portfolio. You know the one--the black vinyl case with the thin Mylar sleeves. These books work well for casual usage, but to make a good impression you may want to investigate a more stylish piece. I use a large Panodia Pro Book, which is very slim and sleek with interchangeable pages. I have five different Pro Books, one large 12x18 book and four identical 8x10 books. The 8x10s get dropped off at agencies and Federal Expressed to clients in far-flung places.

For those really looking for a stylish presentation there are any number of companies that can produce custom-made portfolio cases crafted from wood, plastic, or even metal. Given the realities of actually getting work, your book is going to get quite beat up. It probably does make sense to invest in a really good sturdy portfolio that can withstand the rigors of the street. Even if your portfolio is just for your own personal use, a gorgeous presentation really impresses the depths of your devotion to your craft on your potential viewer. Face it: If your best work consists of a bunch of drugstore prints in a drugstore photo album, how serious are you?

How To Assemble The Portfolio. Once you've decided which images to use, it's time to decide how to print them. Once upon a time you were limited to conventional black and white prints, type C or type R prints from negatives and slides respectively, or pricey Cibachrome prints. I always opted for the Cibas, even though their super glossy surface quickly got dulled by the rubbing of the Mylar sleeves. It used to cost anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars to have all of your best work printed up by a custom lab. Besides the money, there was the issue of getting everything just right, and enduring the delays of endless reprints. Today there are Epson photo printers, and the revolution is underway!

I print everything on one of my half dozen Epson printers. Lately I use the 1270 with Epson's Heavy-weight Matte paper. This paper gives decent tonal range and saturation for a non-glossy paper, and lays flat and true under the Mylar sleeve of the typical portfolio page. Since I shoot lots of commercial work with high-resolution Megavision and Better Light digital cameras, my digital work is tack-sharp. My film work is scanned on a Leafscan 45, a high-end film scanner. I can make prints in my studio that rival, and in some cases surpass, the quality I used to pay top dollar for at the lab.

Now, don't get carried away with this digital revolution. Unless you own a really high-end digital capture device or a good dedicated film scanner, you'll be printing up images that really can't match the quality of images printed conventionally. While you may be amazed at how good your desktop produced prints look, to your viewer they'll look a little softer, a little fuzzier, and a little weirder than regular old C prints. Only go the digital route if you are willing to have your good images scanned by a service bureau or onto a Photo CD. While flat-bed scanners have come a long way, their film scanning abilities still can't quite match the quality produced by a drum scanner or high-end film scanner like an Imacon Flextight.

If you have printed work then it's a bit easier. Tear sheets from magazines can be easily mounted to a piece of black or white artist's paper with some contact cement, and should last for some time. If your work is being reproduced in brochures or as magazine ads, try and get as many copies from the client as you can. You'll wear them out eventually, and it's nice to have backups.

Getting Your Work Seen. Every artist needs to have his or her work seen. Even if you have total contempt for your audience, there is still the desire to expose your work to as many people as possible. In my line of work it's easy to figure out whom to show my work to--potential clients. I try and expose my work to the right people at ad agencies, PR firms, and corporate marketing departments. Having the four smaller portfolios has been a big help, because now I can actually send the same portfolio to two or three different people within the same company.

Well before I had any professional aspirations I had a student portfolio. I took it with me wherever I went. After all, how else could I prove that I was a "serious" photographer? I'm not suggesting you carry a 16x20 portfolio with you to the dentist's office, but if you're involved in camera clubs, community activities, or any other opportunities to gather with a group of people, bring along your portfolio and gauge the reaction. I learn something about my abilities and myself every time someone looks at and comments about my work.

In a future issue I plan to cover the field of digital portfolios, web sites, and other digital promotions.