How to build a portfolio

Put your best work forward

There is one truth in the world of portfolios: Every photographer, regardless of his or her experience level, has a unique opinion about what makes a great portfolio and what should be included.

If you’re new to the world of photography, a portfolio is a current representation of your skills as a photographer, and exemplifies those skills and vision in that collection of 12 to 20 images. A portfolio contains the best of the best from you photographically. and illustrates the uniqueness of your vision and technical skill.  At least, that’s what it should be.

A portfolio isn’t just for professional photographers either, and can be something that you’re proud to display in your home or show family and friends. A well-constructed portfolio will also give you a timeline that shows the improvement in your skill level over the years, and is an excellent way for you to learn improvements that will advance these skill sets.


From my portrait photography portfolio: Magician Curt Anderson used this s a promotional photo for his act. The image was made using three strobes shooting through 3x5-foot softboxes.  The flame is real and wasn’t added into the image. Magicians use a highly flammable paper to make flames shoot from their hands, which is what Curt did for this particular image.

Make your portfolio and put it away in a safe place when you have a new, updated body of work. If you’re a prolific photographer, you should be able to do this about once a year. From time to time, take that older work out and review it—if you shoot consistently, you’ll be amazed at the level of improvement you’ll see from year to year! I still have images that I made as a very young photographer (which were really horrible), and it’s amazing to look at them now and see just how far my work has progressed over the years.


This is my oldest son, Grayson. He was at a local park playing hide-and-seek with his younger sister and brother. I shot this with a Nikkor 105mm f/2.8 micro lens. Grayson was looking at his brother. This image was made with natural, overcast daylight plus a small kick of fill-flash to soften the shadows, which would otherwise have been very deep and pronounced.

Be open to criticism

    One of the most important aspects for good portfolio creation is the attitude needed by both photographer and reviewer of your portfolio. The idea of a portfolio is to sell yourself and your work. Because it’s a very public body of work, you should be open to comments, suggestions and ideas to improve it. After all, that’s the idea for all photographers, isn’t it? And many times the viewer may have a comment or suggestion that’s worth considering, even if they’re not professionals or at your level of expertise. Rule 1 of portfolio reviews is: Don’t take it personally, even if it is critical.


This is an outdoor portrait made with a simple, on-camera flash. The clown had a blue van, and we positioned ourselves on the shadow side of the van. The direct sunlight gave the rim light and the on-camera flash filled the face. This image was also made with a Nikkor 105mm Micro lens and a Nikon D200.

    I live in a college town, and am regularly asked to review portfolios. Several years ago, a journalism student asked me to review her work. I did, and honestly mentioned that all of her images were out of focus. I also suggested that she might want to get an eye examination to ensure she didn’t need glasses (I also noticed she squinted quite a bit, and the amount of softness was consistent from image-to-image). Even though she worked for a competing newspaper some years later, she stayed angry and never spoke to me again, but wears glasses too!

    Rule 2 in portfolio reviews is to consider every suggestion an effort to be helpful.  Remember that showing your portfolio is also an exercise in self-promotion, so be gracious and polite, even if you don’t agree with the reviewer.  Remember that they are trying to help you; find something useful in their comments.  Additionally, remember that if you’re the person doing the reviewing, be helpful and if you find fault in the other person’s work, be honest but respectful. Often, you can discuss how to correct the situation too, turning your review into a more helpful analysis of their work.  You should also find the characteristics within the image that appeal to you too, and tell them this as well. If it’s done correctly, a critique is more helpful to most photographers than just about anything else they will experience and a portfolio is a great vehicle for this kind of dialogue. Look for opportunities to give and receive critiques and watch your work make drastic improvements.


All is right with the world when you’re at the playground with dirt and soda on your face, so why not smile? Here, my youngest son, Parker, shows his approval for the day’s activities. This image was made with a Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 EDIF VR lens. This shot also uses fill-flash from an on-camera SB-800X flash. The tight composition allows you to see all of the details and in my opinion, makes this real-life portrait of a little boy more powerful.

Take a package approach

    Several years ago, I’d shown my portfolio to a photographer named Dave Martin.  I considered Dave to be one of AP’s best photographers at that time and really valued his opinion. I came away from that meeting with one of the best bits of advice that I’d ever received. His suggested that I shoot everything as if it were a “package” of at least 3 photos. So, even if you’re not a professional, think of your shooting situation as if you were turning a multiple photo package into an editor or for your scrapbook.

    Break the story or event down into detailed images that, when viewed together, tell the complete story. If you do this consistently, you’ll be amazed at how quickly your work improves. Start with an “establishing shot” and move yourself closer in to the action as you shoot. Well thought-out images in color and black and white will make your portfolio stand apart from the competition and add interest to the viewer. Remember, no matter what the subject, people love to look at interesting photos.

I made this image in the early 1980’s with a film camera, a Pentax LX, and a Tamron 180mm F2.5 EDIF lens. It is still one of my all-time favorite portraits. The young man in the shot, Robert Tucker, was a fellow-student in a journalism class. Robert was sitting next to an open doorway and struck this pose. I happened to have my camera with me and made this shot. I pushed Tri-X 400 black and white film to 1600, which added some grain to the portrait and dropped the shadows out in the face.

If studio work is your interest, many photographers plan their shots for their portfolio. This is easier to do with studio work because you have much more control over image content, lighting, composition and other factors that make the total image. Use correct lighting techniques and look to books, the internet and seminars to get the inspiration and know-how to make your images their best. One of the biggest mistakes novice portfolio builders make is including images that have technical flaws. In studio work, a flaw that might be considered small in less controlled circumstances becomes a huge, glaring mistake in a studio shot. Perfect lighting, perfect composition and perfect technicals should be the norm on all of your studio work.


I was in the wonderful little town of Ulysses, Kansas doing some work for the parent company of the local newspaper and happened to be there when they had the county fair. As I was walking into the fair, I noticed this young man and found him and his horse charming. The light was cold, but soft. I made about five shots of him and this one was my favorite. I find that the best portraits are those that aren’t planned. They are scenes that you happen to come across and are prepared for.


    The subject you shoot is important too. Photographing subjects that interest you will yield stronger images and allow you to target your viewership more precisely. If the subject is technical or specialized, a deeper understanding will translate into more thoughtful final images. Photographers and viewers who are interested in similar subjects are likely to give you the type of feedback that will be most useful in improving your shooting too.

    If, for example, you are interested in photographing architecture, find other photographers with similar interests or attend an AIA  meeting as a guest/student or even volunteer to speak about architectural photography and use your portfolio to demonstrate the techniques you’re discussing. And unless you’re a photojournalist, keep your subject matter narrowly tailored to one subject area. There’s no rule against one photographer having multiple portfolios either, if you enjoy shooting multiple areas of interest.


I was assigned to make an image of a neon artist for the AP several years back, and I walked into the exhibition and was drawn to the sculpture used in the shot. The rods of light represented lightning and worked well with a facial portrait. Add to that his shirt and a borrowed pair of sunglasses to add to the neon effect.  I used a touch of fill-flash and a long exposure to ensure that the light from the neon not only recorded in the rods, but in the frames of the glasses and on his face too.

Portfolio planning 101

    Now we get to the difficult part: planning your portfolio. This is something you should take considerable time to think about. What type of content will your portfolio have, how will you present it, who will you present it to and ultimately, what is it that you want to accomplish? You should decide these important questions before you look at your first image.

    It’s also important to have some organizational skills too. Through the year, I make a copy of the RAW files of the images I like best when I shoot them and place them into a “portfolio” folder with the year. When it’s time to review and revise my portfolio, all of those shots are in one location, and culling the good from the very best is quite simple.

    I also like to use a photo organization software, like Adobe Bridge (integrated into Photoshop), and rate the images, taking those selected as “five star” to be the eventual portfolio. Remember, these need to be the very best representations of your work, meaning that all of the technical issues such as composition, focus, exposure and color balance are perfect. Look at the images and see if you can spot an overall style as well.


Shannon was a professional model who hired me to shoot her portfolio. This is perhaps the most planned shot in this work because I wanted to make an image that showed off her perfect skin, jet black hair, and pretty eyes, so I felt that a tight crop, using her hair to frame her face would be a great contrast. Add to that the close-up detail in her eyes and it becomes an interesting and “daring” portfolio shot. The image was made with two softbox strobes- one almost directly head-on with a fill card under her to eliminate all shadows and an additional light to give her hair shine and detail.


A  process of elimination

    Remember that showing your personal vision is important in portfolio work and if the images aren’t consistent in vision and style, you may need to keep eliminating those that don’t fit. It’s better to have fewer images that are well thought-out, consistent in vision, and technically excellent than many images that are lackluster and of poor quality. It’s also a good idea to include other people in the selection process because we are often very “emotionally attached” to our images and often won’t see the flaws that others do. Choose a diverse group of people and ask them to rate the images. You should see a pattern of choices, and chances are the most popular will be well suited for adding to your portfolio.

    Because a portfolio is highly personalized, each will be different and the thought process that we all go through will make each of these bodies of work unique. Choose carefully, shoot well and be ready for others to want to view this work regularly. A thoughtful, well made portfolio is a joy to view and a great way to gauge your work’s evolution over the years, and since there’s a majority of the year left, start on 2010’s portfolio now!

This is a portrait of a man named Jack Williams. Jack lived under a bridge in Talladega County, Alabama and was diagnosed with throat cancer. I did a series of articles about Jack for the Talladega Daily Home. This particular portrait was made of Jack’s reaction to having several things stolen from his camp while at the doctor’s office. The tiny structure had a heavy solid white tarped rook that acted as a perfect softbox. I made this portrait with available light with a Leica IIIc rangefinder and a 35mm lens.

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