How to make a photo portfolio: a step-by-step guide

Digital or print? Personal or commercial? There are many things to consider when building your first professional photography portfolio. Canon Ambassador Daniel Etter and photography student Sarah Köster share their tips.
Sarah Köster sits at a white desk with one hand on a laptop and the other holding an A4 print of a black and white portrait.

Photography student Sarah Köster thinks it's important to give context to your images when building a portfolio. "You can use words to show the different skills and experience the shots represent, stating for example whether the image is from a personal, editorial or commercial shoot," she says. © Sarah Köster

As an emerging photographer, a fantastic portfolio is fundamental. It could mean the difference between landing that all-important first professional commission that accelerates your career and finding yourself stuck in a less creative job, still knocking on industry doors.

Here, Canon Ambassador and Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Daniel Etter, who is a mentor on the Canon Student Development Programme (CSDP), and master's student Sarah Köster, who participated in the 2021 programme, share their advice on building a photography portfolio.

Step 1: Select work that best represents you

Whether you'll be sending your photo portfolio from your inbox or showing it directly to a reviewer, choose only images that make you feel proud – no fillers. "It's really important that you show your unique style – what it is you want to be known for, and what you want to continue doing," advises Sarah.

Sarah's method is to pick out a "preselection" and then go back through in detail to cull these down. Often, she seeks second opinions from fellow photography students, her university tutors and Canon Student Development Programme mentors.

"As the photographer, you can be too emotional when it comes to making decisions. You choose based on memory rather than what is the best photograph," she explains.

Two people leaning in to look at the back of a Canon camera.

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Step 2: Make sure your edit is tight

The image industry has become increasingly specialised, so don't feel like you need to tick every genre box. "The market has changed in the past 20 years," explains Daniel. "When I started out, you would have newspaper photographers who shot everything. That doesn't really exist anymore. A photo editor will be looking for a specific photographer for a specific job."

When he's doing portfolio reviews, Daniel expects to see one or two strong stories or projects in detail. More than this is too much to take in. "Don't overwhelm people with too many images. Keep it concise and really understand what you're trying to say," he advises.

For a big story, you're probably looking at 15 images, something shorter might be seven to 12 images, he suggests, adding that a project should have a mood, possibly through a distinctive use of light or colour palette.

"You should have enough photos that it's not boring, but few enough that people are left curious to see more," adds Sarah.

A picture of two older women wearing similar black and white blouses taken from behind.

When she edited her personal series, Invisible Bond, portraying sisters of different ages, for inclusion in her portfolio, Sarah made sure there was continuity between the last image of one set of portraits and the first image of the next set. "The colours were important and the interplay between light and shadow," she explains. Here we see siblings Rita, 81, and Doris, 77, from Witten, Germany. Taken on a Canon EOS 6D Mark II at 1/4000 sec, f/2.8 and ISO100. © Sarah Köster

A close-up portrait of two young sisters, their cheeks pressed together. One has brown eyes, the other blue.

Sarah had originally sequenced Invisible Bond in age order, but following an insightful portfolio review with her tutor, she opted for a non-chronological narrative which felt more open. This picture shows sisters Lina, 19, and Josi, 10, from Münster, Germany. Taken on a Canon EOS 6D Mark II at 1/250 sec, f/1.8 and ISO100. © Sarah Köster

Step 3: Build a compelling narrative

"Like any story, there needs to be a beginning, middle and end," says Daniel, giving the example of a project about firefighters tackling a wildfire in Portugal: "You want a sense of the location, you need to see the firefighters, the fires they're putting out, the effects on the landscape, the firefighters resting after working a 16-hour day." Avoid being repetitive, he stresses. "There has to be some rhythm to the sequence – you can't only have landscapes, you also need to show aspects of the story up close."

Compiling images from different shoots or series, Sarah arranges her profile based on visual connections such as colour. But, she concurs with Daniel on repetition: "It's important they are not too alike," she says. "If I have two portraits of the same person, I'll choose one close-up and one that shows more of the environment. And you need a good overall flow." At the end she inserts examples of how her work's been used – on an artist's album cover, for example.

Step 4: Provide some context

"You should be able to sum up your project in three sentences," says Daniel. After that, and particularly if you are emailing your portfolio, think carefully about what text or other details you need in there to ensure the recipient – an editor, publisher, gallerist or funder perhaps – has all the information they need to fully understand your work.

"With the portraits, for example, I always include who the person is, and his or her profession and the location," says Sarah. "And if it's a personal project, I also start with the title, the year and a small introduction."

When Sarah shared her Invisible Bond series in person during the CSDP, however, she deleted the introductory statement and talked about the siblings before widening out into an explanation of her overall concept.

The homepage of photographer Sarah Köster's website showing a montage of portraits, as well as menu options.

Many photographers today show their portfolios on a screen – as a PDF; a website like Sarah's, pictured here; or even simply a gallery of JPEGs. "Whichever way," says photojournalist Daniel Etter, "keep it simple. Don't use too much text and keep the crop consistent." © Sarah Köster

Step 5: Go digital to send your portfolio via email

As with many students, the Covid-19 pandemic meant Sarah didn't have the opportunity to present her portfolio in person, so she has PDF portfolios that she can present remotely or send to potential clients. "I don't think you necessarily need a printed portfolio because you can show your images on a tablet or laptop," she says. "But I would love to have one someday – it's always nicer to see your photos printed. It has more value."

The layout of Sarah's PDFs is clean and simple. She uses the same font as on her website to ensure her brand visuals are consistent and includes a collage of different images at the end along with her contact details and website URL. "The resolution should be at least 72dpi, though I like to go higher. But I try to keep the overall file size below 10MB so I can send it as an attachment," she explains.

Sarah has multiple versions of her digital portfolio – a comprehensive one, consisting of two projects and a series of portraits, commissioned and personal, and a shorter one that has just single images. She also creates portfolios for specific projects as and when she needs them. PDFs allow her greater adaptability and control, while her website is where people can go to discover more.

A selection of photo printouts are laid out across a table.

Don't be nervous in portfolio reviews; instead see them as an opportunity, Daniel advises. "Ultimately, it's about the images. If you've done the work, there's nothing to worry about."

Step 6: But remember nothing beats print for the 'real' world

It's an investment when you're starting out, but a printed portfolio is well worth it if you want to showcase your work to best effect. The easy-to-use Canon PIXMA PRO-200 offers high-quality printing for colour and black-and-white imagery, while the Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-1000 is an A2 desktop printer with an advanced 12-ink system for exceptional results.

Daniel generally prefers to see hard copy portfolios in the form of a box of A4 prints. "There's more flexibility," he says. "I like to be able to move the pictures around to show people how stories can work in a different way."

For photographers who are further along in their career and considering publishing a project, a dummy book format can be effective but make sure it's "simple, with as little distraction as possible", says Daniel. "We're not graphic designers – let the photos do the work."

When the time comes to create her printed portfolio, Sarah knows the paper she'll use: "Hahnemühle artist's paper. I don't like anything glossy and this paper has a really nice feel to it." She'd also make some small prints that she could leave with the reviewer for a personal, memorable touch.

A photography student in a mustard jacket studies an A3 image printed on a Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-300 printer, which is on the table next to her.

Give your printed portfolio a professional edge

Even on a student budget, you can stand out from the crowd with a printed portfolio that does full justice to your photographic skills.

Step 7: Follow up – when the time is right

A portfolio is a marketing tool that can help you build your network. To use Daniel's example, this editor might not be looking for a story about firefighters in Portugal right now, but that doesn't rule you out indefinitely.

"Just try to get a feel for the person, what they need and what they want and what you can provide for them," Daniel suggests. "And then, when you're ready, contact them. Don't write to people out of the blue, wait until you have something to offer."

Written by Rachel Segal Hamilton

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