6 minute read

Make a Client-Winning Portfolio

Your portfolio is likely to be the first time a client sees your work. Here, I’ll help make sure it’s not the last

In a portfolio, it’s your images that do the talking. And in our fast-paced world, buyers are only one click away from deciding you’re not the photographer for them. If your work is badly chosen or presented, you won’t get a chance to talk them round. But get it right, and you’ll hook them in.

Today, your portfolio is going to be online. That’s just how it is. You might have a printed book for face-to-face meetings, or use mailers such as postcards to attract attention, but 99% of images are seen on screen. Sites like Instagram are an amazing shop window. Use them to your advantage, and apply the same quality control that you would for a personal website. Your Instagram can hook clients into your portfolio on its own, then take them to your main site. But remember, you don’t want them to be excited by socials, only to find a poor website.

‘Dress for the job you want, not the job you have’ sums it all up. So, whether on Instagram or your own site, a portfolio should appeal to the clients you’re seeking. Show them what they need to see, as well as surprising them a little. Put them at ease with your ability to deliver, too. There are lots of ways to do that – and we’ll cover them here.

Young woman model in blazer dress on rooftop, lit with bright flash

Photo 2022 © Ab Sesay | FUJIFILM GFX100 and FUJINON GF110mmF2 R LM WR, 1/4000 sec at F2.5, ISO 200

Define Who You Are

You might have a good idea of who you are as a photographer and what you’re selling – but does the client? A big mistake people make is not presenting a clear idea of what they offer. Start with your basic style of working. There are basically two to choose from: I call these ‘work for hire’ or ‘exhibitionist’. Work for hire includes anything where someone pays you to take a picture, covering commercial, fashion, beauty, wedding, and product photography. Exhibitionist work is something you do under no one’s direction but your own, and includes fine art and documentary subjects, which you then sell on.

It’s fine to do both, but be careful. Better to present one or the other, because a mix can be confusing to clients, in terms of subject and what they get if they hire you. If you have more than one approach, definitely explore the idea of separate websites to clarify your offering.

How to pitch your portfolio depends on the market. In areas where competition is slim, it’s fine to let clients know you can work across a broad range of subjects, even if you lean into specific areas. But in more fierce sectors, it’s not always enough to badge yourself just ‘a portrait photographer’ or ‘fashion photographer’. There could be a thousand of those, in which case your portfolio should illustrate precisely what style you work in, without straying into others. If your fashion look is high-end studio with lots of attention to hair and makeup, major on that; if you photograph fashion in a lifestyle or environmental way, make that the focus.

The same goes for any personal projects you include. These should be properly organized away from your commercial work – more on this later – and need to be in line with your brand. If a fashion photographer’s own projects show niche subjects like drag, or carnival, clients will get it, even if it’s a more documentary style. But if they show something completely different, buyers can see a conflict of interest or lack of dedication.

Photo 2022 © Ab Sesay | FUJIFILM GFX100S and FUJINON GF45-100mmF4 R LM OIS WR, 1/125 sec at F8, ISO 100

Portfolio Organization and Layout

The next choices are organizational. How to display your images; how many pictures to show; and how up to date they should be. The first thing a visitor sees should be the images you’re most proud of, or which have been most successful. These are taken in at a glance, without having to scroll through hundreds of pictures. Limit the front page to 20 great images.

How you edit down and decide on images can be tougher. Most photographers turn pro in a cloud of encouragement from friends and family, but more critical advice is vital. People helping you edit is a ‘need to have’ – not just a ‘nice to have’. Lay yourself open to criticism, and accept that this is what a client may be thinking when they come to your work. If you have to pay someone for an hour of their time, like an agent or photo editor, consider it money well spent.

Remember, the front page is just the welcome sign to your portfolio, and while you don’t want the site to be a baffling maze, subsections are expected. A wedding photographer might have an overview of 20 images, each clicking through to a larger selection from that particular day, almost like an online album. Those subsections show your front page isn’t a load of pictures where you got lucky, but that quality is consistent.

Subsections can be taken further. We already mentioned personal projects, but photographers will often have a section called ‘commissions’, so people understand those images were work-for-hire jobs. Especially useful if you want to show pictures that have a variation in style or subject, but are still important to what you’ve achieved. We’ll talk more about that in the ‘context’ section.

When it comes to updating work, there’s never a downside. It shows you’re active, reflects experience, and lets you exhibit what clients are looking for. Showing current and emerging styles, or work that appeals to new customers, is important in commercial, fashion, and advertising. A good recent example is ‘personal branding photography’, which didn’t exist 10 years ago; a style that’s grown up around social media’s need for ‘content’. It blends lifestyle with environmental portraiture, showing someone’s character in connection to their business.

When it comes to layout, homepage images must make an impact. Further into the site, where you’re concentrating on specific projects or jobs, treat it more like a photo essay – grouping images and adding more guidance, like text or endorsements. Finally, as good as off-the-shelf templates are, professional advice and paying for design can give your site a real boost.

Photo 2022 © Ab Sesay | FUJIFILM GFX100 and FUJINON GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR, 1/15 sec at F16, ISO 50

Adding Context

Showing work that’s been bought and published, using tear sheets from catalogues and magazine covers, gives you a level of credibility, allowing clients to place their trust in you more easily – especially if they are booking for jobs that need access, or specialist skills. Art buyers might like a photographer’s work, but may still need to sell it to a campaign manager, secondary client, or even a celebrity. So, if a photographer has been on 20 covers of Vogue, the buyer can sell that credibility; the photographer knows how to work with talent and keep them happy, as well as getting great images.

Upload photography used in advertising campaigns or page layouts, especially where your pictures are combined with the creative skills of others, or provide images that work for designers and copywriters. You can follow a brief and adapt to different work scenarios.

Context also means blogging and behind-the scenes content. It adds interest to your site, and gives clients an idea of what goes into a production, so it can also help justify costs. Even great images can look deceptively simple, but if an exclusive blog shows a team of 14 with $50,000 of lights, clients can see where their money is going. Add narrative, describing the project and letting clients know that you’re fun to work with, but that they have to pony up!

But beware: if you’re selling your skills on this kind of content, what are people going to think when it dries up? No client or buyer will be impressed by a couple of blog entries from years ago, after which you gave up posting. Keeping the approach fresh and consistent means your work will look both vibrant and in demand, just how you want it to be.

In the next article, I’ll show you how to work more efficiently with clients, including creating an accurate statement of work, agreeing on a creative brief, and most importantly what to charge.

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