The process every photographer secretly (or not so secretly) fears. Putting together the portfoliio.

The floor of the studio while deciding what to include for a portfolio show.

I have a portfolio show with an advertising agency today. When I first set it up with the art director I assumed I'd be showing my work to him and maybe one or two more people.  It was my intention to throw some work on the new iPad and sort it into galleries with an app called, "Portfolio" and then let them fingertip drag their way through.  It's a nice, intimate way to show one's work and it doesn't require a bunch of physical work.

Of course there's always Murphy's Law. In the interim between setting up the portfolio show and the appointment this afternoon someone at the same agency called me up and asked me to bid on a fairly big project. Then, when I confirmed our portfolio show the art buyer let me know that eight of the creative people in the agency would be attending.  Yikes! Eight people hovering around a (now) tiny iPad?  Curses.

What to do and what to show?  I decided I'd do the show with both a traditional 13 by 19 inch leather portfolio case, filled with prints, and the iPad.  I might also bring along a beautiful little 8x8 inch leather book filled with black and white portraits.

The nerve racking part of the whole process is the question of what to put into the big print book. So I did what any crazy artist would do and immediately dumped the better part of 1200 large prints onto the floor of the studio and started sorting. And here's the sad reality:  I'll be sorting and changing and sorting and changing right up until the time of my appointment, trying to fine tune the selection. Not an efficient way to spend the day.

My "brilliant" friends who are also professional photographers would laugh at me.  They've got bound books (which removes all temptation to meddle) filled with their greatest hits.  But I like to custom populate my portfolios with images that are aimed at the market I'm pitching.  If an agency is heavy into healthcare I want to make sure that I've got a good sampling of the images I've done for hospitals, cardiology practices, cancer practices and oral surgeons.  At the same time I don't want to come in so heavy in one category that I can't represent my interest in other kinds of  industries in which they may have good clients.

My wife, a graphic designer of many years, tells me to put together a book of great portraits and just to show what I want to get. Nice advice. But it would really depress me to go in with a book of great portraits only to hear, "These are lovely but we were hoping to see some food as we just landed a big hotel account..."  Or something along those lines.

While this may sound like something only commercial image sellers should have to worry about I think it's also germaine to amateur photographers as well.  I think nothing is as ruthlessly, painfully instructive for every artist than the task of narrowing down your work to your top  thirty to fifty pieces. In fact, I think we should all undertake the discipline of having to put together a big, printed portfolio (say 13 by 19 inches?) because it will make you really look at your work with a critical eye.  Does the work hold together stylistically? How will handle the inevitable vertical and horizontal interplay between prints? Does your chosen subject matter hold up for 25 or 50 images?  Do you have 25 to 50 keepers? (sometimes I feel like I have ten....)

Try it as an exercise.  Put together a beautiful portfolio of 25 images. Don't put in anything that's not perfectly seen and well printed. Don't put in stuff that's so limited in appeal that only you would get the emotional appeal of the image. Don't stick it in a nappy plastic binder. Invest in a real portfolio case.

What will this buy you?  Well, when people ask you about your photography work you will have a very impressive and comfortable way to present what you do.  I think everyone would agree that seeing beautifully printed images writ large beats the heck out of watching your "friends" scroll through the screens of their cellphones, "Looking for that great shot..." Your audience will be impressed if only by the fact that they've probably never seen photographs well presented before.

It's a way of organizing your vision and your style.  And the process will probably nail down, for you, what you really like to see and what's just the same kind of fluff everyone else is shooting and showing on the web.  But the most important aspect of putting together the book is the solid feeling of having really done something with your work.

A company called Itoya makes some really nice, inexpensive portfolio books with leather-like covers and crystal clear insert pages.  Do your own ink jet prints or send them to a lab that's well profiled like Costco.  In Austin we have an additional embarrassment of riches in that we have good custom labs at Holland Photo Imaging and Precison Camera.  I have a fair number of prints done at Holland Imaging because they run specials on large prints imaged onto C-print papers, including metallic finishes that look really cool.

Okay.  I think I've got it.  One big book, one small black and white book, and my greatest hits on the iPad.  Now, what am I going to do for leave behinds? 

I should stop coasting and do this (portfolio showing) more often. Practice makes perfect.  Now where have I heard that before.....

Edit: After the show.  I went with my plan of showing a book of square, black and white portraits (10 by 10 inches in a nicely book bound presentation), seven different galleries on an iPad and one big book of 13 by 19 inch color prints.

Of the eight people present several were intent on viewing everything on the iPad. The lead creative director loved the big color and everyone, universally, liked the black and white book.  The reasons to bring both are ample.  I think the big prints had the most impact but the iPad supplied depth for people whose brains are wired that way.  In the end the iPad paid for itself because, in response to a spontaneous question from the creative director, I was able to play for the group some video projects on which I've been working. That opened up another line of potential business.

I took along ten copies of a postcard (5.5 by 8 inches) which has one of my favorite images of a weathered looking concrete contractor in a hard hat in front of a wall of incoming storm clouds. The group asked for contact information and was delighted with the cards.

After I update this I'll sit down and write each person a "thank you" note.  And that completes my portfolio show.   Thanks for your interest.


  1. Be thankful they gave you fair warning. Nothing is worse than being surprised by a room full of people!

  2. Kirk, it sounds like you're rationalizing... just remember it's a form of Resistance...

    1. If it is it's short term Resistance, the show is in an hour and fifty minutes...

  3. Hmmm. I am surprised there is no iPad app to create your portfilio for you...

    1. Dave, I wish. There are some decent apps that help you build it but I haven't seen any that help you choose...

    2. I hope there is a good software programmer out there reading this. I imagine they could ask you to rank all your own photos (by quality and applicability) and then just have the computer sort through the photos looking for sharpness, rule of thirds, color-of-the-week, and so on.

      Then, in your case, it would throw in a couple of really great photos of coffee and pastry to make the client hungry.

  4. And you've got to get a book cover in there somewhere :)

    Make 'em think, "not only does he use innovative lighting - he wrote the book on the subject!"

    1. Andy, I used to think art directors would be impressed if I told them I've written five books and sold tens of thousands of copies but it just confuses them. They invariably ask, "Do you want to be a writer or a photographer?" Since they have plenty of writers on staff and no photographers on staff I live in fear of confusing the issue.

  5. I do something like this every January. I take the 125 or so keepers from the previous year, edit them down to 25, make really good prints, and put them into a Century box. I dragged out the box just the other night to show a friend what I had been doing lately. I also select entries into shows from this yearly collection.

  6. You've convinced me. This will be my first time, but I'll give it a shot.

  7. Kirk,

    You are right this is an amazing excercise for amateurs a great way to progress as a photographer, I've been trying to put a collection together for a while and it is painful !! I have lots of photos in different aspect ratios some on film some digital some cross processed (and some other fads) trying to mush them all together doesn't seem to work (for me). Didn't take long to realise that I had a collection of half formed ideas poorly executed, once I realised this it was great motivation to go out and re take the photos properly (if possible)or at least be aware of what caused the photo to be different from the vision. It really closed a feedback loop for me as well it is a wonderful antidote to gear lust.

    I would love to hear your thoughts on the orientation interplay (makes go square seem attractive)

    Longtime reader first time commenter , have to say thank you for brightening up my tea breaks and broadening my horizons

    PS 25-50 !! you are dreaming, right now I've got 4 may be 5 photos that are close enough at reflecting my vision Im hoping by the end of the year I will 6 or 7.

  8. Strangely, this is what I've been doing most of the day today - although not in preparation for a portfolio show. To me this is one of the most difficult aspects of photography - whether as an amateur or professional. I take an inordinate amount of time going back and forth through my images trying to cull them for the best presentation and I finally make a little headway - then not much later I'm either starting over or second guessing myself and changing my mind.

    It's really hard to be objective about your own images. I have been planning to have a portfolio review for some time now but I know I need to do more pre-review culling before I get to that point.

    Thanks for writing an article about this subject. I hope you write more about portfolios in future blog posts.

  9. I'm going to do it. I'll put together my first every portfolio, 13x19 prints. I hope I can find at least 10 images. I am extremely critical of my own work and most of it does not impress me (probably because it is not very good)but I'll try and see what I come up with.


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