I hear people talk about 'building their photography portfolio.' What is a photography portfolio, and when would I use it?
A portfolio is a collection of your very best photographs. There are typically two modes for presenting a portfolio, namely online and prints. The use for them will depend on what you are wanting to use the portfolio, but let me give a few key pointers.
- The portfolio probably should not consist of more than 10 pictures, at least for an initial portfolio. It can be okay to have a slightly larger portfolio if a prospective client wants to see more of your work.
- It is more important to have consistently high quality of pictures than shear numbers. If a picture is not your very best, then don't include it. It's better to have 5 great photos than 5 great photos and 5 okay photos.
- Make sure your portfolio consists of photographs that you want to sell to your client. Don't include dog shots in a wedding portfolio, or wedding pictures in a landscape portfolio. It can be okay to mix slightly, such as portraits and wedding, but you might consider having multiple portfolios even then.
- If you print your portfolio, it is best to not bind the photographs.
- If you are submitting a portfolio to a business, then find their standards for making a portfolio and follow them exactly!
Just to help hone in a few more points, I have 2 portfolios, one of landscape/wildlife, and a second of portraits, to which I am including links. I welcome any feedback as well on the portfolios, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Portrait, Desert Photos
Fine-art photographers typically create a 'portfolio' on some thematic ground or other--in this context, the photographs in it might in some ways play a part in the whole rather than being the very best the photographer has taken. This is sort of like a writer approaches a book--a meditation of sorts on some 'topic' that unifies the images. I use quotes on 'topic' to indicate that sometimes the unifying principle of the portfolio isn't always immediately or literally apparent... i.e. some 'fine arts' portfolios may be more literal such as, for example, 'the children of war' or 'the cascade mountains' or whatever, but sometimes it might be much, much harder to actually put into words what unifies the body of work into a 'portfolio' and as such, it might not have a descriptive name (or, alternatively, a name that is somewhat obtuse or vague).
To me, these 'portfolios' where you see, say, 10 photographs and you can feel that they go together, but you can't easily articulate why, are the most interesting. Photography is, um, a visual art, and as such, follows a logic that sometimes parallels the way verbal logic operates, but sometimes rolls on another level that would be reductive and inaccurate to verbalize--it has a different sort of logic. A portfolio as a somehow related set of images amplifies this concept: something in the unconsious tries to connect the dots and draw significance by marrying the photos together. Sometimes this juxdisposition can lead to interesting conclusions greater than the sum of the parts. In short, the portfolio can be an extension of photographic 'reasoning'.
Another reason to make a portfolio is that it signals to the world that you are 'a serious photographer that serious people should seriously take seriously' (and buy at a high price 'cos, you know, it's serious) . By putting your work in an archival clamshell box you are telling the world you are a serious artist. It's just a sleight of hand that we all sorta fall for. For whatever reason, taking a photograph and putting a mat on it not only makes it look better, but it makes it more legitimate. It's sort of like publishing in journals if you are an academic. It's just something that shows you belong to a specific crowd of special seers, etc. Very much worth the price, nudge nuge. Pro film/video types have 'reels'. still-folks have 'portfolios'.
If we look back at the old masters (say Steglitz for arguments sake), it isn't that often when we even think in terms of 'portfolio'. now maybe image abc was part of a portfolio back in the day and maybe it wasn't. Who cares? On the other hand, I really like the 'portfolio' approach--it tells a story, it makes me think about the work taken as a whole, etc, on the other, it's just a silly (and stuffy) convention. However, having said that, Robert Frank's The Americans is an example of a portfolio that stands the test of time as a unified whole. I don't think of Frank's work in terms of individual photographs. I think of the portfolio.
If your area of expertise is photojournalism, you need a portfolio too, but the requirements are a bit different. You'll want your best photographs, just like others have mentioned, however you'll 'submit' them in the form of what are called 'tearsheets.' This is literally when you tear your picture (and often the article) out and put it in a portfolio binder of some sort. The goal is a little different with a photojournalistic portfolio, you're looking for a job instead of trying to get hired for a contract, but the principle is similar.