BUILDING A BETTER PORTFOLIO Step One: Establishing an Online Presence

Portfolio blog

If you want to land well-paid, high-profile gigs in the world of professional photography, your portfolio is as crucial a tool as your camera. Any weekend warriors out there who decide to take the plunge and turn pro should craft a stellar set of sample images even before they print their business cards. No portfolio, no business—it’s that simple.

In the era of the Internet, the first opportunity most prospective clients will have to see your work is online, so a polished Web portfolio is a must. A number of free Web-hosting sites offer budget-minded beginners an inexpensive means to establish an online presence; Viewbook, Zenfolio, and Squarespace are among those I would recommend. Once you’ve selected a host, you need to choose a name for your Web site that will establish your brand identity. Do you want to brand your own name, or would you prefer to christen your business with a made-up name? This is a defining decision in your career, so choose carefully. Branding is so important to a photographer’s success that I plan to devote an entire column to it in a future post.

Next, you must settle on which style of photography to focus. If you’re like most novice freelancers, you’ll take whatever paying gigs you can get: weddings, headshots, portraits, product shoots, and so forth. However, to further your career, you should think about your long-term goals in the field and gear your portfolio toward that specialty. It’s a sure sign of a newbie photographer when a Web site has links not only for fashion but for maternity, weddings, engagements, and sports as well. This tells potential clients that you are a jack-of-all-trades, master of none.

Web Portfolio In this image, notice how I only have Commercial and Fashion as my primary work.

If you want to pursue, say, weddings as a sideline, I suggest including a hidden link in your site, such as “” (not a true link). Some photographers will go so far as to purchase a whole new domain name like “” (not a true domain name) for their auxiliary services in order to keep the businesses separate and distinct. Whenever you receive an inquiry about your wedding services, you can simply refer the prospective customer to the appropriate link or Web site. You may maintain as many of these alternate sites as you can handle, but your main splash page should always represent your primary focus—your brand. If you do choose to advertise different photography services on the same site, don’t mix images and styles on any given page. Instead, categorize the site with labels using industry-standard names for each style of photography you offer, such as “Still/Life,” “Fashion,” “Commercial,” and so on.

For a better idea of how to design and organize your Web site, I advise studying the online sites of established, agency-represented photographers. You will be able to tell immediately what type of photographers they are simply by viewing the first image each photographer offers on his or her page. Here are a few excellent examples:

Weiss Reps
Kate Ryan

These sites will not only demonstrate how successful pros represent themselves online, they will also show you the caliber of work that sets the standard in the industry.

As you create your Web site, be selective in your choice of photos for your online portfolio. Try to limit the number of images to no more than 20. With any more than 20 images, you tend to lose the audience’s interest no matter how captivating the pictures may be. Believe it or not, most art directors or casting agents only have the time and the attention span to focus on your first five to ten images. Given that you have such a brief chance to make a good impression and demonstrate your versatility, resist the temptation to include too many photos of any one model, even if you have multiple shots of that model in a variety of different looks. Your splash page can have as few as three or four of your most impressive images, but make sure that each picture features different talent so that you appear to have as broad and diverse a range of experience in the field as possible.

Once your site is up and running, Google Analytics provides a good way to monitor the number of hits you get, the duration of people’s visits to your page, and the average age of your viewers. These are all important metrics to track, and observing how they change in response to alterations in your digital portfolio will aid you in fine-tuning your online presentation.

Although it may sound old-fashioned, no matter how great your digital portfolio is, you should always have a portfolio of printed images when you go to meet face-to-face with a new client. Some photographers these days merely show clients their work on a tablet or laptop because of the convenience of computer storage and “pinch-and-zoom” graphics capabilities. But nothing conveys your pride in your work like an immaculate set of printed photos. Whenever professional models come to a casting session, they always bring a printed book with them, and photographers should possess the same professionalism. Clients always want to see what the final product will look like, and in the field of catalogs and magazine advertising, the final product is always a printed image, not a digital one.
You can find quality portfolios in which to keep and display your prints at the following Web sites: This is what I use–a standard-size 11″ x 14″ portfolio. A case of these dimensions will safely hold the most commonly-used prints, 8 1/2″ x 11″, the size of a typical magazine page.

Printed work

So how can aspiring pros obtain suitable images for professional-looking portfolios before they’ve actually been hired for paying jobs? We’ll talk about that in “BUILDING A BETTER PORTFOLIO Step Two: ‘Spec’ Shoots and Trade Shoots.”

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