Creating portfolios that sell

Tips for photographers working in the commercial world on how to present your work and create a portfolio.

Writer / Selina Oppenheim

A photographer’s portfolio has always been their most important selling tool. It has also been the subject of many questions and misconceptions. As a consultant for the past 20 years, I have worked side by side with hundreds of clients as we crafted their portfolios. In the beginning of our relationship, I continually hear similar questions, What do I put in? How many pieces should I include? Is this image too old? I don’t want to shoot this, but do I need to show it anyway? What if I like it and no one else does? What type of format should I use.

Photographers have lots of questions about the specifics of a portfolio and often in the quest for answers, they lose sight of the three main messages that every portfolio that sells, truly delivers:

What the photographer does, how they do it, and why a potential client should trust them to deliver their message.

Does that mean that creating a portfolio that sells is a simple task? Absolutely not. Much thought, time and effort are needed. You must learn how clients buy talent, and understand that today’s buyers have many assignment and non assignment (stock and royalty free images) choices when looking to purchase photography. In addition, it is important for you to be aware of the impact that these choices have on a buyers desire to get a clear, specific and focused message from each book they see. The message that YOU are looking to clearly communicate is: your subject expertise, your specific vision and your experience. In short your book needs to deliver your visual value. I call a portfolio that has been crafted from vision out, a pro active book. In a pro active book it is your talent that drives the vehicle.

Most often, photographers develop books by reacting to their viewers comments. Each comment made, sends the photographer scurrying back to their studio where new image generation or editing, based on the comments from the last viewer, begins. Clearly this method of portfolio development is backward and most often unsuccessful. It leaves photographers with more questions than answers and drives many to the point of despair.

Happily, successful talent are learning that relying on the opinions of others doesn’t fill their souls or their pockets. Does that mean that opinions should not be listened to? No. Listening is fine, however you must choose your own direction. You must accept the responsibility for your own choices, and the visual direction of your portfolio is one of the hugest choices you need to make.

Today, many photographers can create a portfolio that is a good example of their work, but still not develop a book that sells.

Often photographer’s have said, “If another person tells me that they like my work but they don’t know how to use it, I will scream.”

Equally frustrating for talent is the response, “This is good work, I’ve seen it before, but what do you, really want to do?” Are clients trying to be difficult? Are they just contrary by nature? Obviously not. What they are saying is, “Show me something different and unique, but make sure I can use it.” They are in essence giving you permission to explore, to experiment, to develop your “visual integrity” and to market it, while they are asking you to know what a commercially viable product is.

It is this marriage between art and commerce that your book must speak to. This is what a proactive book accomplishes.

Today’s market requires photographers create this type of portfolio.
Buyers are no longer looking just for technical ability. They are searching each portfolio they view, looking for visual value. It is not unusual for a client to need one specific look for the project in front of them. It is also a common practice for them to call in 50 portfolios in order to select the perfect one. As today’s clients are more likely to be less relationship oriented and more project oriented, your portfolio is more important to them than ever before, as it’s not a relationship they are reinvesting in, it is a vision they are buying.

Clearly, developing your vision is your first step, but you need to take it further. It is important that your vision have two or three different aplications. You need to offer clients more than one opportunity to hire you. While this may sound like a contradiction, it is not. Think of going to a restaurant. Today, each restaurant of merit has usually defined a cuisine that it offers. Whether ethnic or not, there is indeed a type of food that they serve. Within their menu there are many choices of food, all of which fit into the category and position that they have chosen for their establishment. You choose your restaurant based on their type of cuisine and your immediate needs (similar to those buying photography today!) Publications are another example of this style of thinking. Years ago, magazines contained information that was geared more toward the general public. Now there are hundreds of publications, each directed toward a specific interest group or area of our population. Within each publication there are a variety of stories and topics that might be of interest to the reader. It is this thinking that you must apply to your portfolio. What will be your visual positioning and what variety of examples throughout the vision will you offer?

Once you have developed the images that tell your story, you must decide how to paginate and house them. Pagination is an art. One that every photographer can learn, and one that each creative must incorporate into their process. Many portfolios contain little thought in regards to the placement of images. This is truly unfortunate, as a book is much more successful when conscious thought is applied to the sequencing of imagery. You can build a viewers interest, or evoke an emotional reaction simply by paying attention to the order in which images are presented.

The last step in creating the physical book should be the housing of the images. Interestingly, I find that this is one of the first areas that many photographers want to discuss when they begin to build their books. They are more eager to choose formats, styles and colors for the portfolio, than they are to discuss and begin the hard work of defining their vision. This is one trap that you do not want to fall into. The outside of the book represents the inside. Not the other way around.

Selina Oppenheim has been a consultant to creative professionals for over 20 years. The president of Port Authority Inc. one of US’s leading talent consulting firm, Selina has built hundreds of portfolios for freelance photographers, graphic designers and in house photo departments of major corporations.

Read Selina Oppenheim’s book
Portfolios That Sell: Professional Techniques for Presenting and Marketing Your Photographs

Portfolios That Sell: Professional Techniques for Presenting and Marketing Your Photographs

by Selina Oppenheim


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