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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
John McIntire

is a portrait photographer currently living in the UK. He studied commercial photography and is always looking to improve. Admittedly a lighting nerd through and through, John offers lighting workshops and one-to-one tuition to photographers of all skill levels in Yorkshire.

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