Portfolios for Hobbyists and Semi-Pro Photographers

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A Photography Portfolio – a term that any professional knows all too well – is an overlooked tool when it comes to the world of hobbyists and semi-professional photographers. Those of us who fit into these two classifications don’t depend on our photography to make our living, and so we don’t think of our work from a marketing point of view. For that matter, I seriously doubt that more than a few people even budget for marketing if photography isn’t their primary income. If this were the early 1980’s, I might be able to sympathize with that point. But in this day and age, photography’s greatest marketing tool is quite affordable: The Portfolio.

As I have recently completely redone all of my portfolios, I have learned (and relearned) a few things that I’m happy to share with you.

Why Have a Portfolio?

Even hobbyists are willing to pick up a few side jobs here and there to make a few extra bucks. Maybe it helps you to afford a new lens or at least a bottle of 12 year Irish Whiskey to take the edge off your day job. But the point is that you can earn money with your hobby. Sure, you can license an existing photo here or there, maybe sell a few as prints. But the jobs you really want are the photography assignments – shooting to meet the demands of your clients. Then you get to charge fees for your time, reinbursables, equipment rental and so on. These don’t come along very often – especially if you don’t have a portfolio. Your potential client wants to know what you can do before hiring you, and people won’t take words as grail. They want to see with their own eyes what you’re capable of doing. And there’s no better way to do that than with a Portfolio.

The Many Flavors of Portfolios

There is no better time than now (and the future) to create a portfolio. No longer are you tied to having a high-end (and expensive) bound portfolio – though these are still commonplace in the world. With devices like tablet computers and web interfaces, you have a number of options. I would encourage you to diversify. Keep two or three portfolios, each with a different intent and goal. Personally, my website, a few different slideshow presentations and I am wrapping up the design of my first print/bound portfolio. Your website can be a good well-rounded outline of your capabilities. A slideshow presentation (especially if you have a tablet, which is a nice interface to work with at a meeting) is a great way to customize and drill-down to better address the needs and demands of your potential client.

Then there are the classic bound portfolio books. I like to separate the portfolio books into two categories: Idea Books and Portfolio Books. When dealing with a potential corporate client, the latter is likely what they will be looking for when they call in your portfolio. I will leave that to the professional photographer’s to discuss as it’s well outside the budgets of the typical semi-professional. On the other hand, an Idea Book – an on-demand book created using a service like Blurb – is quite capable of helping you to earn a few paying private clients. They may wish to have a similar book of their own – with your help of course. Such books are quite affordable, and they will do well to serve your needs until you cross that bridge into the professional world.

The Most Important Element of a Portfolio

The most important element of your portfolio is not your photos. The most important element is continuity. Continuity in your selection of photos, continuity in the overall design of the portfolio. Regardless of your chosen medium, your portfolio should have continuity. Not just within itself, but from portfolio to portfolio should you have more than one. Your website should share a lot of similarities with your slideshow presentations and your printed portfolio. Even your stationary and proposal forms should look like it was designed in conjunction with your portfolios. This is branding. And if you expect to get jobs, you’ll need to focus on branding yourself.

This of course means that you need to carefully select the photographs that go into your portfolio. This is a much harder concept than you would expect. As I was redoing my portfolio, I had a lot of very difficult decisions to make. There were a great number of photos – some of which are personal favorites – which did not truly fit style and branding that I was trying to portray. I spent hours upon hours deciding which photos would make the cut and which would not. And even after I determined my selection set, I still pondered the careful placement of each photo within my portfolio. Some photos fit my branding, but didn’t really fit along side another photo in the set. I had to be careful of such decisions as it would ultimately impact the effectiveness of my portfolio. It sounds like I’m overthinking these things, but I’m really not. A potential client may not be able to pick up the reasons why – but the placement of photos within your portfolio will have an impact on their overall opinion of your work. The strongest photos should be scattered throughout – but the viewing of your portfolio should be a journey. At the end of the journey, the viewer should have a pretty good understanding of who you are as a photographer. That is, after all, the goal.

What I Did

As I mentioned, I have a web-based portfolio, a few slideshows and will soon have a printed Idea Book for my portfolios. I tried my best to make sure that they are all branded alike and that they all serve a specific purpose. You will not find much in the way of written descriptions in any of my portfolios. I provide titles, but not much else. I of course have contact information and a brief “about the artist” section, but I prefer to let the images speak for themselves. This is a personal preference of mine which caries through in my slideshows. I rarely speak about the intent or the goal behind each image unless prompted. I wish for the viewer to see what they wish to see. In the end, I am not bothered if their interpretation is different from my own.

I will briefly describe each of my portfolios below.

The Web-based Portfolio – I treat my website portfolio as an introduction to who I am and what I do. It features a number of my works falling into intentionally broad topics: Abstract, Creatures, Places and Things. Some photos appear in more than one category. I often get asked why I chose to lump all of the “Creatures” (humans and animals alike) into a single category. The reason is that I’m trying to avoid using the word, portrait. I am not a portrait photographer, nor do I want to be. I like to capture moments, and the naming of the category – as well as the content within that category – helps me to communicate that intent. I also use the categories to simplify the user’s experience. It is a portfolio for non-photographers, so I purposely avoid technical categories such as “Candids”, “Long Exposure” and so on.

The Slide Shows – I will admit that if I had an iPad, I would take full advantage of it’s interface. It would be awesome to hand one of those things to a client and let them browse at their own will, just like a book. I’ve seen these things in use at trade shows and in the hands of fellow colleagues and I think they do a lot to let the viewer – the potential client – feel like they’re in control. Because that’s what you want. As I have not yet justified the purchase of an iPad, I have my slideshows set up in two different ways: Folders and executable slideshows. The purpose of the executable slideshows is so that I can send out a presentation electronically if necessary (all the images are watermarked, of course). But I will admit that I rarely need to do so (as such, I will also admit that my executables are a little out of date). As such, I prefer to use the folders of images. Mind you, it’s not as chaotic as it sounds. I have a few carefully organized folders each with a set of images with numbered filenames so that they show up in sequence with my photo browser (I use ACDSee for this purpose, in case your curious). I can quickly switch between portfolios as necessary to if a discussion arises, or if the client wants to see more. This method is quite simple and works quite well – the only downside is that you need to bring your laptop with you.

The Printed Idea Book – As I mentioned, I opted to create an Idea Book in lieu of the traditional portfolio at this time. I am targeting small businesses and private users, not photo editors, and so I chose the more affordable and more comfortable medium. I am going to get my book published through Blurb (I plan to do a full review of the service in the months to come), and so I have been working with their custom-built software that makes creating the book quite easy. I have organized my book a little differently than my web portfolio. Each of the three chapters are more focused than the website, and I share my thoughts and philosophies pertaining to each category at the beginning of each chapter. Otherwise, I do not describe any of the photos in the book – the interpretation is up to the viewer. I will, however, note any known technical data behind each photo – partially to help aspiring photographers understand how I accomplished each image, but also as a quick reference tool for myself. One thing I feel that my book portrays better than any of my other portfolios is how my own experiences have inspired my photography. For example, the first chapter, A Sense of Space features photos where the elements that define a physical space are put on stage for the camera. Another chapter, Everything Disappears paints deterioration and waste in a beautiful light (Even ugly things can be beautiful). I feel that the way in which I organized the book clearly communicates my inspirations and philosophies when I am looking through the lens.

Final Thoughts

Everyone of course has their own philosophies about portfolios and how they should be presented.  My examples shown herein could be very inappropriate for some photographers.   There is no blueprint for the ideal photo.  As you work through your portfolio, the best advice I can give you is to take frequent breaks – get some fresh eyes on it throughout the process to make sure that your presentation aligns with your branding.  In the end, you will be happy and proud of your creation.

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About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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