The Secret to Great Photography Portfolio


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If you’ve been around the photography world for a short time, you probably have at least a basic grasp of the technical skills. You know how to manipulate depth of field with aperture, where to focus in a portrait, and how to compensate your exposure for extremes in shadows and highlights. Even knowing things like that, you’ve probably stumbled across some incredible portfolios or magazine spreads and asked, “How did they do that?” Or even “What’s their secret?”

The secret to a great photography portfolio is simple. It isn’t even a secret at all, although it’s not often talked about in photography communities. Simply put, the secret is:

Master the technical skills until they’re automatic, then go out and endlessly make photographs, a lot of photographs. Only a handful should ever be shown to anyone.

Photography is easy; at least the technical side. Yes, that’s a quite a contentious statement, but I’m not the one who said it. It was David Bailey being interviewed by Rankin and answering the question, “What makes a good photographer?” His answer was:

“You can learn to take pictures in three months. You can learn to draw in three months, but only technically. It’s where you go from there.”

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The critical point is that it’s not the technical skills that make good photography. They’re vital ingredients but it’s how they’re put together with your subject to create an end result that is most important.

Think of it like cake. If you’re digging in to a piece of cake and you actually notice any of the individual elements of eggs, flour, butter or sugar, something’s gone horribly wrong in the baking process.

What comes after the technical skills?

There are two elements to consider when thinking about what to do next:

  • First, creating a lot of images and showing only a few.
  • Secondly, giving your subject comprehensive coverage.

Create many, show few

In an article, that I read a few years back, a National Geographic photographer said that they use to go through 1500 rolls of film to create a single set of 10 to 20 images for an article.

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To translate that, assuming they used 120 film in a 6×9 medium format camera; that yields eight frames per roll of film. That’s 12,000 photographs. Also assume that those photographers would have bracketed one or two stops on either side. (Bracketing is the practice of taking a normally exposed photograph, then taking two more – generally one overexposed, one underexposed. This was useful in the days of transparency film which offered very little in terms of exposure latitude.) That brings the number to 4000. Finally, say 50% of those weren’t good enough to show the editor.

That leaves 2000 photographs that most people would probably be more than happy to have taken. The final spread used about a dozen of the very, very best or 0.6% of all of the images taken.

To apply this concept to your own portfolio, you have to learn how to be ruthless. If it isn’t your very best, scrap it. It can be hard work, especially considering the emotional connections we, as photographers, have with our work, but if you can learn to turn that off then your portfolio will be better for it.

Comprehensive coverage

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Back to dissecting National Geographic, my favourite article is one that covers the glamorous topic of caffeine. This one is a large spread and is made up of 23 photos.

Breaking it down: nine images are environmental portraits, six are classical reportage, six are still-lifes, and two are landscapes.

The set of photos also covers five countries and five US cities; all within 23 photos.

To cover every possible aspect associated with caffeine, the photographer for that piece documented several facets of the human element of the topic, from production workers, to scientists in labs, as well as the consumers. The landscape images in the article showed the environmental impact of caffeine.

Hopefully you’re starting to see what comprehensive means in this context. Of course, very few people have the kind of resources to approach a subject so thoroughly, but if you take the extra time to consider and follow through on other possible aspects of your subject matter, you may be surprised with the results.

Icing on the cake

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To return to the cake metaphor: when you’re at a bakery, you only see the shop floor, with the well presented finished products. You don’t see the chefs slogging through hours of batter and hot ovens. You don’t see the logistics of bringing chefs and ingredients together in the right place. You just see cake.

Hopefully, you now have a little more insight on what may have gone on behind the scenes, albeit a simplified interpretation, when you look at a photo that you admire, and what steps you can take to push yourself in that direction.

Just remember: get the technical skills mastered and out of the way, then go wild.

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John McIntire is a portrait photographer currently living in the UK. He studied commercial photography at Leeds Metropolitan University. He is obsessive with photography and is always trying to learn something new. You can find him on Instagram as @johnwhitneyphoto for portraits and @macjw2 for landscapes and travel.

  • This was a well written article. Insightful, too. I believe I will go cull my portfolio of the 99.04% that isn’t my best work… And maybe get some cake as well.

  • John Voss

    A prominent gallerist friend of mine told me that the one skill lacking in many of the artists she represents is the ability to edit their work. So, yes, showing only the very best of your images and very few at that is important. But, learning how to discern just which ones those are requires endless looking at the work of the best practitioners and figuring out why they’re so good. One may have to emulate or even copy some of those photographs (just as painters learn by copying the masters) to learn to see before developing your own style.

  • John McIntire

    Thank you for sharing that John. That’s an excellent point and I couldn’t agree more.

  • John McIntire

    Thank you! I’m glad you got some insight from it. Enjoy your cake!

  • Ansel Adams said “Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.” Regardless of how many I shoot I like to narrow down to the 12 best pics of the year into a special collection in my catalog. Then my portfolio is 24 images, to get in is “Dead Man’s boots”. If one of this year’s 12 best can beat out a previous entry they take it’s place.

    Although I kept my portfolio diverse when I first started I think it’s lost that. After reading this article I may revist things to make it more comprehensive.

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  • Your pictures are beautiful. If only I could master the technical skill automatically like you said. Does anyone one have any tips for me since I’ve been taking pictures a long time and have some mental block about the technical side of the camera.

  • Joel

    Great article ! I unfortunately came late to the “ruthless” stage. now I’m slogging through a pile of “maybe” to find a thimble full of “wow”.

  • Dave Steel

    A friend of mine is a specialized pediatric surgeon. He operates on burn victims. He told me that – for a whole year – he wasn’t allowed to do anything but watch when he was in the operating room. Then, only then, after a hole year, did he get to hold a scalpel. Like anything else….practice, practice, practice.

  • John McIntire

    Hi Joel, thank you. I feel your pain. It was very much the same with me and most of the time I still don’t feel like I’m any closer, but improvement can only come with time and practice.

  • John McIntire

    Hi Carol. Thank you so much! There’s a lot of different ways you can go about it. For me, I think the most effective and fastest way is to take things one step at a time. Pick a particular skill you want to focus on (for example: exposing for light coloured subjects) and find a tutorial that covers only that topic. Read and follow the tutorial. Once you’ve done that, do it again with a different subject. Keep doing it over and over again until you don’t even have to think about it. Once you’re confident with that skill, go find a tutorial for another skill and start the process over. Doing things this way makes sure you’re focused on only a small manageable task and takes away the risk of overcomplicating things.

    Thank you again for your compliments and I hope this helps in some way!

  • John McIntire

    Thank you for sharing that quote. It’s a great one and it’s definitely on par with the point I was trying to make. Maintaining a portfolio of 24 images is certainly a lofty goal. I have to applaud you for that.

  • Brett Ossman

    Sometimes I find coming back, say in the next day or two, can help weed out the undesirables. Some of the emotional attachment may have left enough by then.

  • Paul Melton

    Thanks John. This article seems to be just what I needed, well written and lots of knowledge tucked in there.
    I’ve realised recently that it’s my artistic side, not the technical, holding me back.
    I’ve also been looking at putting a portfolio together and now I have some ideas on how to do that.
    Thanks again.

  • This is going to sound like a stupid question. I am an artist but the technical side just blows me away. I probably could be so much better. So here is the question. The blue moon is out now. I took many shots on auto with and without the flash. They were not as good as I expected. Let me start there on the technical side.

  • Brett Ossman

    Check out these FREE tutorials at Note they categorized by topic and skill level. Very well done, in my humble opinion.

  • John McIntire

    Hi Paul. You’re very welcome. I’m glad the article has helped! Best of luck in putting your portfolio together.

  • John McIntire

    Hi Brett. Agreed, I often look at one or two immediately because I’m excited but the rest always wait 2-3 days. I know a lot of people that swear by waiting at least two weeks. Sadly, I don’t have that level of patience!

  • John McIntire

    Hi Dave. Thanks for that. I think that can be quite a useful analogy. Obviously, the stakes aren’t nearly as high for a photographer as they are for a paediatric surgeon, but I agree. Taking a little extra time to watch and learn before you jump in at the deep end can only be to your benefit.

  • PDL

    If you are referring to Bob Sacha’s 2005 NG cover story you might like to review this: I attended a NG photo workshop in Oct. 2005 where Bob was the NG expert. Visit his current site and you will see that he is still on the leading edge of journalism.
    During the workshop he described the Caffeine project and showed us quite a few images that did not survive the editors. This project (as a piece of trivia) was one of the first (if not the first) all digital image projects in the magazine.

  • John McIntire

    Yes, that’s the story I’m referring to. Thanks for that That sounds like a fascinating workshop. I knew the digital transition was happening at that time, but I didn’t know if this article was part of it or not. Thanks for the info.

  • witefeather

    I loved your article and although I’m pretty sure that 99% of my photos could be “culled” out I do think that when I look at my photos I view them with a sense of emotional wonder that at that moment, I caught something that cannot be reproduced. Those won’t go into a portfolio of the best shots I’ve taken, but they will remain with me forever. I agree, hold out on what you will show a perspective client and save the best for last, but for my own personal shooting, the ones I throw away, just might be the best I will ever see of that particular subject. The emotional attachment really can’t be “culled out”. Professionally and as a photographer, you know that the moment you use the shutter release button it signifies the moment that cannot be captured in time again. That is why when I shoot, I often only shoot what I know will be the moment I most want. I really, really try to think of the digital camera as a film camera at that moment and believe that I cannot replicate what I shoot. I think if you try to shoot that way, you will realize that you don’t have to have thousands of pictures, in order to capture the one that will be memorable.

  • Maxwill Hugh

    Thanks so much for this article. I’m using the advice in it to get rid of the number of mediocre shots in my portfolio. In your opinion how important is the design of portfolio website that houses the work?

    I tried to build one via WordPress (a visual disaster) but finally ended up using a portfolio site builder like which had nice looking designs that I could customize. What impact does a bad looking design have on the viewer?

  • Bruce Hooke

    Thanks for the interesting article. I am a bit surprised that you assumed a typical National Geographic photographer would have used a 6×9 camera. I regularly photograph with a 6×6 camera and while I love medium-format it would seem like an odd choice to me for images that would not typically be enlarged beyond a two-page spread, which is well within the capacity of 35mm film (using a good camera). And a medium-format camera would not seem to me to be a very good for reportage-style photographs (this clearly applies to some NG articles more than others) where it’s vital to be able to act quickly and make a string of exposures as a scene rapidly evolves. The book I remember reading by a National Geographic photographer also talked about using a 35mm camera and seemed to treat this as the norm for National Geographic (at the time).

  • Andy Coles

    Awesome! Great read!

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