Creating the perfect photography portfolio

How do you create a winning portfolio that impresses an editor or prospective client? Four industry pros share invaluable tips for student photographers.
A top-down photograph taken by Travis Hodges of a person in a wide hat making pottery.

Portrait and documentary photographer Travis Hodges says it's key that photographers really know what they are trying to say when choosing images for their portfolio. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens at 1/800 sec, f/3.5 and ISO 640. © Travis Hodges

For any emerging photographer, a fantastic portfolio is fundamental. It could mean the difference between landing that all-important first professional commission that accelerates your career or finding yourself stuck in a less creative job, still knocking on industry doors.

A portfolio is a photographer's greatest asset, showcasing their work and demonstrating what they can do. But with minimal time to impress busy editors, you need an immaculately crafted portfolio, presented with real passion, to stand out. So what should a photography portfolio look like?

Here, four experts share their advice on building a portfolio: Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist Daniel Etter, portrait and documentary photographer Travis Hodges and Huck Magazine's Editor-in-Chief Andrea Kurland, who have all been Canon Student Development Programme (CSDP) mentors, and Junior Art Director and former CSDP participant Sarah Köster.

In a photograph by Travis Hodges, dragon dancers perform at a Mid-Autumn Festival.

This image of lion dancers at a Mid-Autumn Festival is featured in Travis's portfolio on his website alongside other images from the event, including the photograph on the right. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM) at 1/60 sec, f/1.8 and ISO 2000. © Travis Hodges

In a photograph by Travis Hodges, a man stands outdoors holding the head of a dragon on a stick.

Be selective about what you include in your portfolio, Travis advises – if you're making excuses for a picture, it shouldn't be there. "I've been told that people will go through a portfolio and no matter how many images there are, they'll remember the one they didn't like," he says. When curating his own portfolio, he ensures every image has been carefully chosen and reflects him as a photographer. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens at 1/160 sec, f/2.8 and ISO 800. © Travis Hodges

1. Select the work that best represents you

Whether you'll be emailing your photography portfolio or showing it directly to a reviewer, choose only images that make you feel proud – no fillers. "It's really important that you show your unique style – what it is you want to be known for, and what you want to continue doing," advises Sarah.

After you make an initial selection, Sarah recommends getting a second opinion from fellow students or mentors. "As the photographer, you can be too emotional when it comes to making decisions. You may choose based on memory rather than what is the best photograph," she explains.

At the same time, when you're preparing a portfolio for a particular purpose, tailor it so that it is relevant. "If you're presenting your work for a grant or competition, where editors see many thousands of photos, it's important that the first photo is very strong to hook them," advises Andrea. "But if you're presenting a portfolio to an editor for a specific publication, you have to adapt it to be relevant. You can have a base with your strongest images, but change it slightly depending on who you are addressing your work to and for what purpose."

2. Find the essence of a story to build a narrative

"Good stories normally take a lot of time and patience to put together, and you need to make people forget you're there – the more they forget you, the better the picture," says Daniel. He gives the example of photographing loneliness: "Loneliness can be sadness, boredom and desperation, but it can also be something lonely people try to fight by joining a dancing class. So just try to find these moments that distil the essence of a person's character and of their story."

Telling a story through photos can be more complicated than telling it through words, but you must still try to cover all the elements. "You set the scene, you set up where it is, you introduce the characters, then you tell the story and then you have a punchline," Daniel explains. "With photography, it doesn't always work that way, but you must still try to build a cohesive narrative with your images.

"Sometimes these stories are about places or events, and sometimes about individuals, so you have to approach these scenarios in different ways," he adds. "When you start out, the easiest thing to do is to focus on one person and try to photograph what makes their life unique." A strong story in your portfolio will help hook the reviewer.

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A hand resting on a table covered in photographic prints.

The Canon Student Development Programme offers young participants the opportunity to have their portfolios reviewed by leading industry professionals. © Paul Hackett

3. What makes a strong photography portfolio?

Travis's clients include Time Out, The Big Issue and Cancer Research, so he has both reviewed and presented many portfolios over the years. "The strongest portfolios I have seen are ones with intent. The photographer knows what they are trying to say and both their images and verbal storytelling are clear and concise," he says.

Daniel has advised many students as a CSDP mentor, and he believes that powerful stories can emerge from the simplest of narratives. "I had a student from Galicia, Spain, and I was mentoring his story on this little village," he recalls. "Not much happening there but that's what makes it interesting. It's a small village and you have a close connection and intimacy there. It's just a few houses on top of a hill but as soon as you have the intimacy and if you have the access, you can make pretty much every place interesting. You must have a story but if you spend time in a place and you keep your eyes open, you can turn pretty much anything into a good story."

A monochrome image appears as though a figure is silhouetted against a white material in an image by Sarah Köster.

In 2022, Sarah compiled a self-published photobook titled "vague", consisting of 106 photos over 128 pages. which won Gold in the Art Directors Club Talent Awards. "I think a photobook can be a great way to showcase your work," she says. The jury commented: "The thrilling pictorial rhythm of interchanging portraits, landscapes, objects, colour alienations, cropping and abstractions creates a visually seductive experience that celebrates the power of images." Taken on a Canon EOS 6D Mark II at 1/3200 sec, f/5.6 and ISO 100. © Sarah Köster

In an image by Sarah Köster, a close-up of a woman's face and naked shoulders are bathed in a red light.

This photo is from one of Sarah's recent personal projects titled in/verse re/verse. "I think it's important to take time for personal projects besides jobs, to keep working on your own style and to develop yourself further," she says. "Personal projects allow you to experiment and work regardless of any external guidelines." As a result, they can say more about you as a photographer than commissions done to a brief, and hence should always be considered for a place in your portfolio. Taken on a Canon EOS 6D Mark II at 1/125 sec, f/1.8 and ISO 125. © Sarah Köster

4. How many photos should be in a photography portfolio?

The image industry has become increasingly specialised, so don't feel like you need to tick every genre box. When he's doing portfolio reviews, Daniel expects to see one or two strong stories or projects in detail. More than this is too much to take in. "Don't overwhelm people with too many images. Keep it concise and really understand what you're trying to say," he advises.

For a big story, you're probably looking at 15 images; something shorter might be seven to 12 images, he suggests. "Of course, if you spend years and years working on something, you can go broader and bigger, but I wouldn't. Even if you aim for more and if you have more variety that could, in theory, make an edit longer, it helps to keep it short and precise and just use your best images."

You could also have multiple renditions of your portfolio, as Sarah does. "I have a shorter version which shows only my best work, and I have a longer version – which I developed during CSDP – where I focus on two to three projects in the beginning and then have another selection afterwards, which showcases my best work," she explains. "It should be balanced so that people want to see more of your work but can still see who you are and what you're about."

A top-down shot of a group of people, most of them young, gathered around a circular table, looking at and discussing a series of photographs spread out on the table's surface.

Mentors on the Canon Student Development Programme provide feedback to young participants at a group portfolio review session. © Paul Hackett

5. Go digital and be creative

In the digital age, emailing portfolios has grown in popularity. Sarah has PDF portfolios that she can present remotely or send to potential clients, and PDFs allow her greater adaptability and control. A digital portfolio presents a unique advantage: the ability to adjust the layout as and when you want. "It's important to play with your images to present them in the best possible way," Sarah says.

However, remember to keep things simple – it's easy to get carried away when experimenting with layout. "In the beginning, you might try to bring too much into it – like typography, or adding too many photos to one page," she explains. "But you should try to keep it simple and minimalist. The layout and the photos should benefit from each other and make the portfolio stronger, not weaker."

As part of her final project when studying photography at university, Sarah created a photobook and self-published it. "Something like a photobook can also serve as a portfolio or act as a great addition to your own archive," she says. "I won Gold in the the German Art Directors Club Talent Awards for it, and through this the jury, which included the creative director, saw my work."

Sarah has also started printing postcards with different motifs, providing an attractive picture plus all her essential details. "If I meet up with someone, like an editor, I add a little handwritten note on the back," she says. "I know that some editors like to display these in their office." This can help spread the word about your work and act as a mini advertisement.

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7. Showcase your creative abilities through video

While Sarah's main focus is photography, she has a small video selection on her website. "Showing that you also do videography, and that you can do both, can give you an advantage over others," she says. "That way, clients can see and understand how I view the world and frame a moment. Additionally, you can also show the client that if they hire you, they won't have to book a separate videographer. It can be an advantage, but remember, you don't necessarily have to do this to be successful as a photographer."

Daniel agrees, but emphasises that you should include video only if you're confident in your abilities.

The homepage of photographer Sarah Köster's website showing a montage of portraits.

Many photographers today show their portfolios on a screen, either as a PDF, a website like Sarah's pictured here, or even simply a gallery of JPEGs. © Sarah Köster

8. Don't be afraid to ask for help

You can learn a lot from others. Whether they are your peers or mentors, everyone has a unique perspective. Participating in a programme such as CSDP, as Sarah did, can prove useful in your journey as a photographer. "Talking to expert photographers really helped me," she says. "It taught me how to bring everything together in a portfolio, and how to show what your work stands for, what you want to be known for and even what you'd like to be booked for."

Travis adds: "Seek advice from people whose opinion you trust. Do mock portfolio reviews and refine both your edit and personal story through those. But remember, everyone's opinion is different, so go to multiple people you trust to give a valid, honest opinion."

9. Make connections and follow up

A portfolio is a marketing tool that can help you build your network. Give the reviewer a postcard or business card so they can look you up afterwards, and follow up with an email. "The meeting is the beginning of your relationship," says Andrea. "So be personable, and touch base on a regular basis."

It is also important not to feel defeated after a rejection. Even though an editor might not be looking for a particular story you've done right now, that doesn't rule you out indefinitely. "Don't go into every meeting feeling disappointed if it doesn't come to fruition right away," says Andrea. "The reviewer might come back to you even years later saying a story has just landed that is perfect for you."

But don't take a scattergun approach to pitching. Daniel advises. "Try to get a feel for the person, what they need, what they want and what you can provide for them. And then, when you're ready, contact them. Wait until you have something to offer."

With these tips in mind, you can take your photography portfolio to the next level. Be confident, enthusiastic and committed – and, Travis adds, "Be prepared for the question, 'What are you working on now?'"

Rachel Segal Hamilton, David Clark and Nikita Achanta

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