Choosing the Best Photos for Your Portfolio

Choosing the Best Photos for Your Portfolio

Choosing the ideal images for your portfolio can often seem as hard or harder than actually taking the photos in the first place. Most photographers tend to treat their portfolio as a dumping ground for as much work as possible with the intention that quantity is the key to building their credibility. More often than not, the opposite is true.

Your Portfolio Should Be Limited to Your Absolute Best Work

Contrary to what you may think, the quality of your portfolio is often defined by its weakest image. This is why becoming adept at choosing the images that communicate to potential clients a consistent message of quality is critical. More is not better. Rather, try to shrink your portfolio with the goal of it representing only the most impressive images that you have ever shot. Your portfolio should never really contain more than a dozen or two images. If it does, the time has come to cull then moving forward whenever you create new work that belongs in your portfolio make a point of removing the weakest image.

Your Portfolio Needs to Be Cohesive and Specialized

The era of the generalist photographer over. Clients expect specialization. There is nothing wrong with dabbling in other disciplines but when it comes to your portfolio you should present a unified message of being an expert of a specific niche. Furthermore, your portfolio should speak to a level of cohesion in terms of artistic direction. Each image should look like it was taken by the same photographer who is able to deploy a consistent and unique creative vision. 

Your Portfolio Must Reflect What You Actually Are Able to Create

By attempting to sell what you are unable to do, you only create a road to disappointment for your potential clients. If you took the best photo of your life at a workshop where the teacher did most of the setup and lighting then you need to master those techniques on your own before that image deserves to be in your portfolio. The same goes for situations where a healthy dose of luck led to creating a particularly special photo. Make the effort to learn exactly what led to your creating that shot so that, if needed, you can reproduce it. Until you do, the photo has no business being in your portfolio. 

Your Portfolio Isn't Just Online

In a social media driven world the idea that we only need a digital presence tends to often become too prevalent. The challenge, however, with online, is that it often exposes you to the wrong audience (such as people on the other side of the world) while forcing you to compete with virtually every photographer in your space, globally. By also wielding the power of a printed portfolio you can isolate your sales pitch to target only potential, real-world clients in situations where they aren't distracted by the normal blizzard of digital noise that we live within online. 


Your portfolio is the first impression that you put out in the world. A poorly constructed one can create the impression that you may lack attention to detail or fail to meet the level of professionalism that a high-end client expects. Don't let a a weak portfolio pull your work down when it can be easily used to elevate instead. Consider this a call to action and take some time to take a long, hard look at your portfolio with a critical eye. Is it up to snuff? If not, fix it!

Ryan Cooper's picture

Ryan is an mildly maniacal portrait/cosplay photographer from glorious Vancouver, Canada.

Log in or register to post comments

I don't know of any photographer who randomly dumps pix into a portfolio in order to build up the quantity.
The trick is to open strong, close strong and if you have any weaker shots that are included put them in the middle, not everyone hits a home run every time. A couple solid triples if they tell a story will be ok. But if you don't love it, leave it home.

It is best to specialize but in smaller lower budget markets like direct to client being a generalist is not a bad thing until you develop a strong core of specialization. Ad Agencies and bigger pubs want specialists, until they don't.

Pictures shot at a work shop should not be in your book as it's like batting practice (to continue the baseball metaphor) it's not the real world. However if the best picture you have was "luck" show it! If you were there and were able to take the picture it's only half luck, still your shot. It might make a good story by explaining the serendipity of the image.

Very few photographers I know in the commercial adv editorial world are using printed portfolios these days. Fifteen years ago we all did. The last time I showed my book was probably 10 years ago.
Art buyers love a very well made custom built portfolio (no plastic pages) something that has a feel that reflects your work a rustic outdoorsy photographer should have a different boot than a hard edged studio shooter. The big agencies call in portfolios after they narrowed it down to 3 or 4 choices, usually the online presence is enough. The days of a hallway with 50 black leather portfolios piled up is long gone.

I have seen online portfolios with more that 200 images, I think they figure there is one chance to show the work so they better show everything...maybe it works. I dunno.
I have no instagram presence because I am over 50. Sadly that is how a lot of clients find photogs.

Last thing in my long post is to have someone who you trust look at your portfolio. Ask them what your strongest and weakest shots are. They may think your favorites stink. You may love them because it was a fun shoot.

All good advice from Mr Cooper and Mr Hogwallop. I would add one advice: give it time. Don't decide if the image you just shot belongs in your portfolio. Wait at least a few weeks, then look at it with a fresh eye. Chances are, you will be ready to judge the picture on its own merits then.

Who is your portfolio for? Answer that question, and you no longer need to read the article.
What is your genre? Is it one? two? twelve? If you claim a genre, your portfolio needs to show it.
Are you limited to studio portraits? Or are you an outdoorsy type never using the studio? Again, you need to showcase your abilities in different situations. If you claim to be a wedding photographer, your clients may think you should have plenty of images relating to weddings. But what it you also do senior pictures? Don't forget to cover those sorts of shots at different location, including the studio. Now if you are trying to squeeze some executive portraits, don't forget to show both a formal portrait and one capturing the exec at more relaxed at work. Product photography, too? Love shooting fashion and models? May need more than one or three of each to show you mastered the genre, rather than "Here's my best shot." This is getting messy. And you might want a few more than "a dozen or two" images in that portfolio.

The author should explain his scope of genres. Then others can realize what works for specialized photographers is not necessarily the same as a generalist. Not everyone is submitting to a rag.