The Holy Grail: Capturing a Worthy Portfolio Shot

Monterrico Sunrise, Guatemala

What is a portfolio shot, and why is it so important? I’m directing this question to “Newbie” photographers, but it might be a good idea for seasoned photographers to revisit the reason for portfolios and the shots they contain. An online portfolio is the single best way to showcase your work. Period. In the old days you had to carry around a portfolio box containing 15 to 20 mounted prints of your very best shots. It was both cumbersome, expensive, and limiting.

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Cumbersome because the prints were usually 16 x 20 inches mounted on white mat board with a 4-inch border. Overall size then increased to 20 x 24 inches, and the hard, rigid box containing them was even larger. Expensive because the boxes were expensive, and printing 15 to 20 custom images at a lab was not inexpensive. Add to that the cost for mounting each print on a white mat. Limiting because you could only showcase your work to a few people at a time (oftentimes paying to & from shipping costs).

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Digital changed everything. Now photographers can showcase their work online. It’s not cumbersome because the images are digital and not physical paper prints. It’s not expensive at all and is often free. It’s not limiting, because unlike paper prints, you don’t have to hand deliver or ship individual portfolios to different viewers. A digital online portfolio can instantly reach hundreds, thousands, and even tens of thousands of viewers simultaneously.

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I chuckle, and then bristle, at the few (very few) dinosaur photographers who lament the good old days. They were anything but. I’m glad I learned and practiced photography in the days of film, it was a good training ground and instilled the basics and the virtues of photographic discipline. However, today’s cameras are better, most lenses are superior, digital images are now better than what film can produce (some would argue the point, but I think they’re misguided) and processing costs have plummeted.

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Photographers were severely limited, by the constraints listed before, when it came to sharing their work. Digital changed all of that forever, but now a different problem confronts us. Everybody shares everything, and most of it is crap. Everyone with a Smartphone or pocket point & shoot camera is a photographer. Not. Social media are the venues of choice for showcasing their snapshots of family, friends, pets, vacations and social events. In photography’s vernacular snapshot does not equal photograph.

Senor Cigar 3 FINAL

This blog is for people who take photography seriously: “Newbie” or advanced, amateur or professional, it makes no difference. Appreciation of photography as an art form is the common thread that binds us all. There’s nothing wrong with recreational shooters who take snapshots, but this article is not directed at those folks. I’m reaching out to those photographers who take their work seriously and want to get better. So how do serious photographers standout from the clutter?

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Every serious photographer should have an online portfolio. It makes no difference whether you sell your work as a professional, or simply showcase it as an amateur. This is the venue to share your art, your very best work. A Facebook Fan Page (Business Page) is not an online portfolio. Instagram and Flickr are not online portfolios. These social media venues typically stream your latest work, not necessarily your best work. By all means share your photography on social media, but don’t confuse that with having a portfolio.

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Suggestions for setting up an effective online portfolio would include: format simplicity, ease of use (1-click navigation), and exclusivity. What kind of photographer are you? Are you a generalist or do you specialize in a particular genre? Are you an amateur or a professional (do you want to sell your work or simply showcase it)? This is a good exercise to clarify your thinking, just as selecting images for your portfolio is a good exercise in evaluating your very best work.

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Two good platforms for hosting your website are WordPress and SquareSpace. WordPress is a basic, free website hosting service (with paid upgrades for more flexibility). SquareSpace is a low-cost alternative starting at about $8.00 per month. My online portfolio Indochine Photography is now hosted by WordPress.org and is a paid site comparable to SquareSpace. By way of complete disclosure I’m a paid contributor to Northrup Photo which SquareSpace sponsors.

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I’ve included a short (14-minute) YouTube tutorial from Tony Northrup on setting up a professional looking online portfolio at SquareSpace. Remember, you can do the same thing at other web hosting sites of your choosing, but SquareSpace offers a low cost and easy solution to your hosting concerns. Tony & Chelsea Northrup offer a lot of free content on their website and on YouTube. They can be seen every Thursday at 5 p.m. EST at Tony & Chelsea LIVE.

I will end this article by citing three huge personal epiphanies, things that have dramatically improved my photography:

  1. Capture in CameraRAW. Every digital SLR (and many digital pocket cameras) I know of allows you to capture images as CameraRAW files. The flexibility this brings to your processing in post is amazing. JPEG files are fine for the casual shooter, but if you’re serious about your photography start shooting in RAW (not in the RAW, that’s a different thing entirely). Years ago, when I first switched to digital photography from film, my good friend Tim Vaclavek at One Man’s Wilderness encouraged me to make the leap from JPEG (some of the best advice I ever got).
  2. Learn How to Process in Post. Digital photography requires you to process your own images in post. The days of sending rolls of film to labs for processing & printing are pretty much over (except for some niche photography applications). I spend about 25% of my time capturing the original image, and about 75% of my time in post processing (RAW file conversion in Adobe CameraRAW and final editing in Photoshop Elements 11). Whether you choose Lightroom, Photoshop, or Photoshop Elements, every digital image requires some extra processing.
  3. Creating an Online Portfolio.  Every serious photographer needs an online portfolio to showcase their best work. For professionals, or aspiring professionals, it’s a non-negotiable. Any amateur photographer who takes their art seriously should also create and maintain an online portfolio (I refer you back to Tony’s video). I am now very self aware of each and every image I capture, is it good enough to include in my portfolio? It will force you to ask the same question and to answer it.

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So I will restate the title of this article – The Holy Grail: Capturing a Worthy Portfolio Shot. This simple step, creating an online portfolio, will improve your photography. Trust me on this, you won’t be sorry. The photos I’ve chosen to illustrate this article are all from my online portfolio, and are some of my best I think. To see the rest of my portfolio go to Indochine Photography.

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Stephen F. Dennstedt

Photographer, Writer, World Traveller

www.IndochinePhotography.me

Cusco, Peru

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4 responses to “The Holy Grail: Capturing a Worthy Portfolio Shot

  1. I couldn’t agree more. Nothing motivates me more to get out and make better photos than looking at my online port and working to replace the weakest with a new and better image. It has also helped land me some really nice payed gigs, and is a great place to share proofs with clients. I think of it as a shark – if it’s not moving it’s dying.

    Stephen, reading your blogs each week is a strong motivator too. Thanks for being the prolific scribe.

    • Thanks for the nice comments Jim. I mostly write for myself, it helps me to clarify my thinking, but if others get something out of it so much the better. I’m enjoying your blog posts (and photos) too.

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