Aesthetics and Photography
— Part Eight of Nine —
How to Create a Portfolio of your Work
Article and Photographs by: Alain Briot
Alain Briot is one of the most successful landscape photographers working
in the U.S. today. He was educated at the Ecole des Beaux Art in Paris,
has a Masters degree in Fine Art, and is currently working on his Phd.
Creating a portfolio of your work is one of the most important things you can accomplish as a photographer. Unfortunately, relatively few photographers create portfolios because they find the process daunting or think their work is not good enough to be included in a portfolio. Others squirm at the idea they will have to review thousands of photographs taken over many years. Yet others do not know how to select photographs for a portfolio. Finally, there are those who believe that a portfolio cannot be created by themselves, that such an endeavor has to be conducted under the control of a museum or a gallery or needs to take place in the context of a retrospective of the artist’s work.
While these concerns are fair, let me start by saying that they are inaccurate. Assembling a portfolio is not the daunting and frightening task it is touted to be. Let’s start by taking a close look at what is a portfolio, proceed to study why it is important to create portfolios of your work, and finally learn how you can create a portfolio of your own work. Throughout this article I will use portfolios I have created as examples.
2 – What is a Portfolio?
Let’s start by taking a look at what a portfolio really is. A portfolio is, literally, a porte folio, in French, meaning a page carrier. A folio is a large page roughly the size of a single newspaper page. Porte means to carry. A porte folio, shortened to portfolio in English, is basically a device designed to carry loose pages. The first goal of the porte folio we might say is to hold these pages together in a secure place so they do not get lost or damaged. For artists these pages are works of art on paper.
Although a folio is a large page there is no implied size for the contents of a portfolio. Similarly there is no implied restriction on the nature of the works of art placed in a portfolio. These can be drawings, paintings, architectural sketches, photographs, collages, etc. There is also no implied restriction on the type of container to be used. The device used to hold these works of art together, the porte part of the porte folio, can be a folder, a box or some other device chosen by the artist. Finally, there are no restrictions on who can create a portfolio. It is most often the artists themselves who create portfolios of their work.
3 – Portfolios and Portfolios
In today’s digital age, and in theory, a portfolio no longer needs to be printed. It can be created solely through digital means, either from scanned or digital photographs color corrected and optimized then presented in PDF, jpeg or other platform-independent (preferably) format.
Doing so is a perfectly legitimate way to select images, submit images for publication, apply for acceptance in a gallery show, or other similar purpose. However, in my view a portfolio is not a portfolio unless it consists of images printed on paper. Why? For the simple reason that in my eyes a final image is an image on paper, not an image on a computer monitor. There is a tremendous difference between looking at an image on screen and looking at an image on paper. For me, the end product of my efforts is a fine art print on paper and for this reason a portfolio of my work has to be a collection of fine art prints on paper. Of course my way is not the only way, so your opinion may differ. However, if you do not print your work you are missing on one of the greatest rewards offered by photography: looking at a fine art print which embodies not only your abilities as a photographer but also your abilities as a fine art printer.
Example 1: Black and white portfolio
Dune and Cloud
Hasselblad 500CM, Zeiss Distagon 60mm, Kodak TMax 100
From 1980 to 1997 I printed my black and white work in my own darkroom. I sold all my darkroom equipment in 1998 and today all my printing is done digitally. However, when I created a portfolio of my Southwest Black and White images I decided to keep the uneven print borders that I created by using an oversize negative carrier on my Besseler enlarger. These borders were different for each print and were truly personal since I had personally hand-cut the negative carrier. I scanned each print at high resolution and created digital versions the size of the chemical prints. The portfolio included only black and white images, each printed with uneven borders. The photographs were printed on Somerset 300 grams paper, signed in pencil and embossed with my personal embossing stamp. They were left unmatted to better show the quality and “organic” feel of the paper.
4 – Goal and Purpose
It is important to consider your goal and your purpose before creating a portfolio. Doing so will make the process a lot easier. Let me use my work as an example.
Each portfolio I create has a specific goal. Several examples of these goals are provided in the captions accompanying the illustrations featured in this article.
I photograph for a purpose. Currently this purpose is to show the beauty and the positive aspects of nature. My purpose is also to create photographs that will be exhibited and used to decorate homes and offices.
5 – Audience
You also need to consider the audience to whom you will show your portfolio.
An audience does not necessarily consist of a large group of people. Some of us have small audiences, consisting of only a few persons, while some of us have large audiences, consisting of thousands or millions of people. However, regardless of the size of your audience, you do have to consider the relationship between your work and your audience.
To help you understand your relationship to your audience ask yourself the following questions:
– Which images do I want to show to my audience?
– Are there images I want to leave out and not show to my audience?
– Does my work address a single audience, or do some of my photographs address one audience while other photographs address a different audience?
– What kind of response do I want from my audience? Do I want to please my audience, surprise them, challenge them, shock them, etc. ?
Your goal, purpose and audience may or may not be similar to mine. What is important is that you are aware of their existence and of their importance. Deciding on the contents of your portfolio will be a lot easier if you know what your goals, your purpose and your audience are. Knowing this will allow you to make informed choices in regards to the photographs you choose and the artist statement you write.
You also need to keep in mind that not all work is appropriate for all audiences. While landscapes are most likely to please the wide majority of viewers, we do have to accept the fact that to enjoy landscape photographs viewers have to like nature and the outdoors. Why one wouldn’t like nature is beyond me but I am sure there are such persons.
Your work may focus on a subject other than nature. Or you may be photographing landscapes as well as other subjects. In this case you may be addressing two different audiences – one who likes landscapes and the other who likes your other work, be it still life, nudes, architecture, etc.
If this is the case you will have to decide whether to include the different subjects you photograph in a single portfolio or create several portfolios each featuring a single subject.
Example 2: Paris Canon 300D Portfolio
In December 2003 I purchased a Canon 300D and used it extensively while photographing in Paris in December 2003 and January 2004 (see A Rebel in Paris). Upon my return to the United States I decided to assemble a portfolio showcasing a selection of my favorite Paris 300D photographs. While I also used medium format and 4x5 in Paris, I decided to create a separate portfolio featuring only photographs created with the Canon 300D. I also decided to print all the images in this portfolio on the Epson R800 Ultrachrome printer using Epson Premium Photo Glossy Paper. My goal was to show that world-class images and print quality can be achieved with a relatively inexpensive camera and printer combination. This is a perfect example of a portfolio focusing on a specific location, a specific camera and a specific printer. The prints in this portfolio are all 8x10 double matted to16 x20.
6 - Portfolios are not necessary aimed at showcasing a photographer’s best work
I started this article referring to the reasons why relatively few photographers create portfolios of their work. This is because there seems to be a myth that goes something like this:
A portfolio can only show the best work a photographer ever created.
The problem with this belief is three-fold:
– First, it is difficult to know what our very best work is. As artists we are understandably biased about our work, making such a selection challenging to say the least.
– Second, it is difficult to tell whether or not we have enough excellent work to put together a “best work” portfolio.
– Third, many photographers find the concept of a “best work ever” portfolio both pretentious and intimidating. As a result they postpone creating a portfolio of their work preferring to wait until their photography “gets better.”
The end result is that when facing an endeavor perceived as difficult many photographers do nothing, preferring to put off the “task” for later rather than face the critiques which they believe are sure to surface should they engage in an endeavor which is clearly reserved for the “great photographers” of this world.
Needless to say, this belief – that portfolios can only be used to feature one’s very best work – is inaccurate. This is not to say that portfolios cannot be used to showcase the work of a master photographer over his or her lifetime. Portfolios have been used for this exact purpose since photography was invented. However, this is only one possible use of a portfolio.
I want here to propose a much wider use of portfolios:
Portfolios can be used to show the results of specific photographic endeavors
and present one’s work up to the time a portfolio is created.
Approached that way portfolios are easier to assemble and far less daunting or frightening. It also becomes clear that there can be many uses for a portfolio, each one tailored to different goals, purposes and audiences.
For example you can create:
– A portfolio that includes photographs from a single camera format (35mm, medium format, large format).
– A portfolio which includes only black and white or sepia photographs .
– A portfolio of images which are radically different from your “regular” work and which will surprise your audience.
– A portfolio of images created over a specific period of time. This can be a short time (a one week photo trip for example), a specific year (2002, 2003, etc.), or another specific time frame.
– A portfolio of photographs all taken in a specific geographic area. For example, I created a portfolio of images of Isle Royale National Park in Michigan when I was Artist in Residence there in 1996.
Example 3: Oliver Award Portfolio
The 13 images that are part of the Oliver Award portfolio. All photographs were created with Hasselblad cameras, using Zeiss 38 Biogon, 60 Distagon and 150 Sonnar lenses and Afga Ultra color negative film. The image I selected for the cover is the fourth one from the left on the second row.
This portfolio was created for a single purpose: as a submission to the American Rock Art Research Association (ARARA) Oliver Award. The Oliver award is an international award given to a single photographer for excellence in Rock Art Photography. While it is supposed to be given once a year, in recent year the award has not been awarded for lack of finding work that meets the requirements set by ARARA.
The portfolio I submitted, and which was unanimously awarded the Oliver Award in 1998, focused on a single rock art site: Little Petroglyph Canyon in the Coso Range mountains near Ridgecrest, California. Three visits to the Coso Range were necessary to complete this portfolio, something made difficult by the fact the Coso Range is located in the midst of the China Lake Naval Weapons Station, thereby requiring clearance and special permission to access. The portfolio consists of 13 photographs. The prints were made on an Iris printer since at the time desktop printers were only available with dye inks, thereby not offering satisfying archivability. Each print is 10x10 matted to 16x20.
Photographic portfolios submitted for the Oliver Award must demonstrate a mastery of both art and science. The photographs need not only be beautiful, rock art researchers must also be able to use them for research purposes. To this end I included a CD Rom with the full size scans of each photograph. I also wrote a 20-page essay detailing the equipment and the process I used to create each image in the field, scan the film, optimize the images in Photoshop and print them. This paper served as the basis for my presentation during the 1998 ARARA conference at which the award for presented. This paper was subsequently published in the conference proceedings. The portfolio prints, were framed, displayed and sold during the conference. As I explain in this article, little additional work was required to prepare for my conference presentation, for the exhibit, for the sale, and for publication since nearly all the work was done by the time the portfolio was completed.
7 – The Contents of a Portfolio
Photographs are only part of the total content of a portfolio. After all, this is your opportunity to express yourself in ways other than with photographs. It is your opportunity to write, to talk about what you do, to explain why and how your images were created. Here is a short list of what you can include in a portfolio:
– An artist statement
– A title list of the photographs included in the portfolio
– A cover image representative of the portfolio as a whole
– Thumbnails of each photograph
– A nice portfolio case
– A music CD to be listened to while viewing the photographs
8 – Some Important Questions about Portfolios
There are many things to consider when creating a portfolio. I decided to present some of the aspects I have not addressed so far in a question-answer format:
When is a portfolio complete?
In my eyes a portfolio is complete the minute you consider it ready to present to your audience. I am often asked whether one can add extra images to a portfolio later on. To me this sounds like a second thought, a little like a writer who calls the editor years after a book has been published and asks if he can add an extra chapter or two. I recommend you do your best to make your portfolio complete then close the box, show it to your audience, and move on. If you feel the need to add to your portfolio it most likely means you are ready to create a new one.
Should portfolio photographs be matted or not?
This really depends on your personal taste as well as on what paper the photographs are printed on. I personally mat photographs printed on glossy or semi gloss paper because they get scratched and do not lay flat if they are not mated. With photographs printed on heavy fine art paper, such as for example Cranes 300 grams paper, I present the photographs unmatted, separated with interleaving tissue. I sign each photograph and number them if they are part of a limited edition. I also add my embossing stamp to images printed on fine art papers.
It you intend your portfolio images to be framable right out of the box then matting is a must. Matted photographs can be framed directly while unmatted photographs will have to be matted first. This is because a matte is necessary to separate the print from the glass or the Plexiglas.
Should all the photographs and mats be the same size?
Traditionally, if photographs are matted then the mats are all the same size. If photographs are not matted then all the sheets of paper are the same size. The image size and dimensions can and do vary, as it is not uncommon to crop images or use different camera formats in the same portfolio. However, having the mat or paper size constant does bring uniformity to the portfolio.
How many photographs should be included in a portfolio?
This depends on your particular taste and on your opinion regarding how many photographs is enough. I personally consider anything past 25 images to be way too many. This is not to say you do not have more images worthy of being included in a portfolio. You may very well do. But your audience will get tired after the 25th photograph or so, if their attention lasts that long. Believe me, I have been there. As photographers many of us are capable of looking at prints all day long. Non-photographers rarely have what I call photographic endurance. Most viewers get tired after looking at 10 to 20 prints.
There is another aspect to consider: if you provide 50, 100 or more photographs in a portfolio you are in effect asking the audience to make the final selection. Part of the benefit of creating a portfolio is learning how to make a close selection yourself. While this is not necessarily easy to do it is definitely worth it for the lesson it will teach you in being able to select a few photographs among the many you like.
What is the relationship between a portfolio and a show of my work?
If you do everything I recommend in this article, including write an artist statement, select a cover photograph, mat your images, etc. the difference between a portfolio and a show is that images in a show are framed and hung on walls while portfolio images are matted and displayed in a box.
What I am saying here is that if you assemble your portfolio carefully you can literally take this portfolio to a gallery and have the gallery consider it for a show. All they will have to do to exhibit it is frame and hang your work. Very little, if any, additional work will be required of you.
This is one more reason why you need to keep the number of photographs in your portfolio relatively small. 12 to 25 images is a number most galleries will find reasonable. More than that and you may have to eliminate some of your photographs. Fewer than that and you will not have enough images to make a strong impression.
Where do you get your portfolio supplies?
You can get most anything from Light Impressions:
What solution do you recommend for storing and presenting the prints?
I personally favor a clamshell design, cloth-covered portfolio box. However, there are many other options available, including portfolio binders, folders, carrying cases, etc. A look at the Light Impressions catalog will show you most of what is available. The exact choice depends on your personal taste. See my remarks on this subject in last section of this article: 11– Conclusion
4: Print of the Month Portfolio
Each month I add a new image to my Print of the Month Portfolio. I don’t know which image I will choose ahead of time, although I do keep a short list of images to consider. This is a very interesting way of creating a portfolio since it makes the selection a lot easier. It does, in one way, fail to meet one of my criteria since it is not complete at the time it is offered. In fact, this portfolio will not be complete as long as I keep the idea alive. One solution to this endless portfolio approach is to assemble a portfolio at the end of the year that includes images released from January to December of that year. Images created with all camera formats are included in this portfolio.
A partial display of the print of the month portfolio on beautiful-landscape.com
9 - Photographic Skill Enhancement exercises
A – Selecting photographs to include in your portfolio
One of the most difficult aspects of creating a portfolio is selecting the photographs you want to include in your portfolio. Just like selecting keepers, the easiest way is to make a gradual selection and go through stages. The difference between selecting keepers and selecting images for a portfolio is that a portfolio selection is made over several shoots while a keeper selection is made over a single shoot. Depending on the scope of your portfolio this selection may be made over tens or hundreds of photography shoots covering several years.
However the process is roughly the same: start by selecting the images you really like by going back through your files, either looking at originals on film or at raw files, prints, digital images, etc. Pull out all the ones you like and get them all in one place. You may have a combination of prints, transparencies and digital images on screen. At this stage this is not a problem.
I find it helpful to consider which images are truly representative of the body of work a specific portfolio is about. I focus on finding the images that best show what I was trying to say and accomplish at the time I took each photograph.
I also consider which images are repetitive. I do this by asking myself if my selection contains images that all “say the same thing” so to speak. If yes, I place these images next to each other to isolate them from the others. I then select the strongest one amongst them.
The key here is to be “tough” with yourself. Some of your favorites will make it and other will not make it. The goal is to assemble a portfolio that achieves the goal and purpose you defined previously, a portfolio that will address the audience you have in mind.
Here is the process I recommend as a starting point:
1 – Decide how many images you want in your portfolio. I recommend a relatively low number, about 12 to 25 images, so that you have to make a rigorous selection. If you decide to include 100 images for example, the number is so high that it will not allow you to make a rigorous selection.
2 – If you use several camera formats, decide if you want to focus on a particular format (35mm, medium format or 4x5 for example). If this is not the case skip this step.
3 – Make your selection progressively. Start by selecting 100 images or so. Then clear your mind, relax, and when you are ready go back to your selection and now reduce it to 50. Do a third round and now limit it to 12 or 20 images only.
Take a break between each selection, at least a day, and go back to your selection, this time pulling out your favorite images from the selection you made before. I know, those are already all favorites. This is where it gets tough. You have to narrow it down to the favorites of the favorites.
4 – Making the final cut is the most difficult part because it means eliminating images that you like very much. If making the final cut from transparencies or digital files is too difficult make small prints (8x10’s) from your selection and make the final selection from these prints. Make high quality prints so that you are making a decision based on what your portfolio images will actually look like. I personally make relatively large prints (20x30) because larger prints make it easier for me to decide which images are my favorites.
5 – Get feedback from friends, family members and fellow photographers to see if they agree with your selection. Show them both the final selection (if you have completed it) and the “best 50” selection in case you missed something that everyone believes should be in your portfolio
6 – When going through this process keep in mind that as photographers we are not necessarily the best judges of our work. In saying this I am not trying to put anyone down. Not in the least. Rather, I base this remark on my personal experience. I personally would have never printed what today are two of my most popular images. Two other extremely popular images were printed 3 years or more after I created them. Another one was so difficult to print I gave up on it until last year. A friend of mine now calls this image “my signature image.” All this to say that learning to identify your strongest work is not easy. I used to think that a photograph was good if it had been difficult to create. For example, if I had to hike for several days to get to the location, had to overcome problems with malfunctioning equipment, or couldn’t return to the location for years due to lack of time and other imponderable events, then the photograph stood out in my mind as one of a kind. However, my audience does not know all the events I attached to such images. When someone looks at my work they do not know, unless I tell them, how difficult any given photograph was to create. And even if I tell them it rarely changes how viewers feel about an image.
I therefore recommend that you not only distance yourself from your work as much as possible (I know how difficult that is) but that you also ask other people which of your images are their favorites. If several persons like the same image it is very likely that you have a winner and that you should include it in your portfolio, even if this image isn’t at the top of your list. Of course, you are the final judge, and there may be instances in which you want to make a different choice. However, my personal experience has taught me to listen to my audience carefully.
Vary your portfolio
Consider ways to vary the way your subject will appear to your audience. Select images that show as many different aspects of your project as possible. For example, include photographs taken with different focal lengths. Include close ups and wide angle views, details and wide scenes. In this approach you are not only looking for your best images, you are also looking for images that complement each other, images that work well together when viewed as a set. Don’t forget that a portfolio is a collection of images, and that these images need to stand out on their own as well as fit into the theme of the portfolio.
Finally, select one single image as the “title” or cover image. This may be the most difficult part of all, but it is one of the most important aspects of this project. This image needs to stand for what the portfolio represents, for the message you are sharing through your work. It needs to be strong as a single image and be representative of the portfolio as a whole.
B- Portfolio Ideas
Here is a list of possible portfolios. Pick one idea from this list, or create your own portfolio idea after reading this list, and create a portfolio based on this idea. This list is similar to the one in section 6.
– Create a portfolio that includes photographs from a single camera format (35mm, medium format, and large format.
– Create a portfolio which includes only black and white or sepia photographs
– Create a portfolio of images that are radically different from your “regular” work, a portfolio that will surprise your audience.
– Create a portfolio of images that were all created this year. Include the year in the portfolio name
– Create a portfolio of photographs from a specific area. For example, I created a portfolio of images of Isle Royale National Park in Michigan, when I was Artist in Residence there in 1996.
Example 5: Museum Collection portfolio
My new Museum Portfolio, which will be announced later this year, expands on my Print of the Month Portfolio. In essence, only my favorite images from the Print of the month collection make it to the Museum collection. In that sense I am using the print of the month collection as a way to make a first choice. I then use the Museum collection to make the final choice. I do reserve the right to add images to the Museum Portfolio that do not appear in the Print of the Month Portfolio. For me keeping a free and open approach to portfolios creation is critical.
Antelope Light Dance
Museum Portfolio Collection (to be released in late 2004)
Linhof Master Technika, Schneider 75mm f4.5, Fuji Provia 100F
11 – Conclusion
Creating a portfolio is an important aspect of being a dedicated and committed photographer. It is also relatively easy once the hurdles that have stopped so many have been pushed out of the way. Creating a portfolio allows you to see what you have accomplished so far and where you are at right now. It also allows you to plan what you want to focus on in the future. In this sense it is a landmark event that will stay as a record of what you accomplished in photography up to this point. Once completed it will make it easier for you to chart the course ahead, plan your future assignments and schedule your upcoming shoots. Your sense of purpose and direction will be enhanced once the completion of a successful portfolio is behind you.
A portfolio is also something you can go back to later on to visualize how your work has changed over time. In this sense a portfolio stands as a mark in time, allowing you to see your progression and the changes your photography went through over the years.
Countless details come into play when creating a portfolio and for this reason no two portfolios are alike. The goal of this article is not to cover each and every portfolio possibility. Doing so would require that I end my writing career at this article and devote the remaining of my existence to endlessly list new and different portfolio ideas as they are brought to my attention.
However, if you have a unique portfolio idea, or if you want to add to the concepts I detailed in this article, I encourage you to share your ideas during one of my workshops or while working with me one on one. Workshops and consulting make it possible for me to help you and work with you personally.
Creating a portfolio requires, above all else, personal commitment. Some photographers can do it on their own, others prefer to do it under the guidance of Natalie and I. Attending a workshop or series of workshops is certainly one of the very best ways to apply the concepts I discuss in my articles and study directly under the guidance of myself and my wife Natalie. It is also an excellent way to work on your next portfolio. I just announced five new workshops for 2005. All the details of these exciting photographic adventures are available on my website at http: //www.beautiful-landscape.com
The next article in this series will focus on personal style. The series was originally supposed to end with this next article. However, I am now considering adding one more article in this series, making it a ten articles series instead of the nine articles that were originally planned. This tenth and last article, if I decide to include it, will focus on “Being an Artist.” If this sounds like something you want to read email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Until then this series continues to be a suivre …
Arizona November, 2004
The Alain Briot Portfolio Collection
If you want additional examples of my selection process take a look at the Porfolio collection on my website. This collection, which is built from the Print of the Month Special offer, is a selection of my favorite work which is built over time by selecting one photograph each month.
© 2004 Alain Briot
Beaux Arts Photography