Strong Advice: Photographers’ Portfolios in the Digital Age

by Heather on November 19, 2009

OK, think of it this way: if I’m considering you for a job, I already know of your work and I will be looking at it on-line. I don’t call in books anymore but I do see books because photographers still drop them off for general perusal.

This means that the role of the book has shifted completely from primary marketing vehicle to specialized marketing tool.

Essentially, your portfolio is now your calling card. Although it may be excruciatingly hard to get a meeting with an AB/AD/CD, you will always be welcome to drop off your book. Especially if you have a good reason to (“I’m just starting out” or “I’ve just redone my book”).

So, the best thing that your book can do is to immediately impress the creative team and drive them to your site so they can bookmark you for future use. The portfolio needs to be special and precious, it needs to hook your audience. Think of it like a fine art book. Whereas the website will be comprehensive and vast, the book needs to be aspirational- your best work; and a teaser- not too much work either.

And it’s a whole package: the quality of the portfolio itself and it’s case is part of this equation. Likewise the image reproduction- beautiful paper please and no more plastic sleeves!

Think of your portfolio as a unique new tool, figure out the best way to show only the best of your work and start making some phone calls.

{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

Josh R. November 19, 2009 at 4:55 am

I was just thinking about my book and someone linked me to this. I think your right on the money, thanks.

Anthony November 19, 2009 at 11:13 am

I think it may be the norm in Canada, but in NYC, I think you are in the minority. Certainly websites are the first thing someone may see, but most people still want to see prints and they understand that you have tailored your portfolio for the specific potential client (hence sleaves). Most important is the work being up to print standards. A jpg on the web may never be able to be printed as it’s presented and may hide many flaws.

ian November 19, 2009 at 12:00 pm

Perhaps this comes on the heels of last night’s CAPIC event? I agree with you and it is good to see those words in print. Your last paragraph being the most important and the last 5 words the most critical. I didn’t make it to the CAPIC event last night, but had I been able to, I was planning on bringing my portfolio on an ipod Touch. I thought it might have been lousy lighting for a printed portfolio. How would that have gone over?

Amy Harris November 19, 2009 at 12:48 pm

Very helpful! I shall pass this on to my photographers!

Theresa Ryan November 19, 2009 at 1:26 pm

This article and these comments confirms that we are now in an age where anything goes as long as one has done their homework and knows which buyer likes which format. The younger ones like the iPod touch, other ones still prefer a stunning printed portfolio. It is wise to have many aides up your sleeve. Creative mini books to leave behind, well executed postcards for those who like tactile reminders to file for future reference and those who will bookmark your site into genre specific groupings. We at TEAcreatives are continually researching who likes what to be more effective. For me, nothing beats consistency, in mailings, campaigns, and leave behinds but there is NOTHING that works better than a stunning physical book which is mirrored in quality throughout the collateral materials. It’s all about branding and knowing who you are working with, who their clients are and what you want to show them that is pertinent to their business without sacrificing your individual style and technique. Thanks for the article and comments…all good to know!

selina maitreya November 19, 2009 at 1:37 pm

While I agree with Heather that your portfolio should represent the best of the best, ala “Aspirational” , my experience with art buyers is that “as a group”, they are not treating print books this way.
Yes front end apts are huge (been preaching that for years) but many buyers on mid -high end account still call in books for assignments. There are still different processess being used by buyers. There is no ONE WAY which is a big part of my message here. That being said
develop a print book for those that will want to see one AND because YOU VALUE your work and value the printed process, pay attention to content, pagination and housing, carry your images on your IPHONE for quick reference, build a website that’s deeper than your print book,
You get the message.:):):)

Finn O'Hara November 19, 2009 at 1:54 pm

I too embrace the approach of creating a great looking, creative & exclusive portfolio book.
I’ve been working with an Art Director/Designer/Friend whose aesthetic I love, to help me produce my books for a while, and it’s really helped me to leave a nice exclamation mark amongst the throng of lazy books out there.

Neil Binkley/Wonderful Machine November 19, 2009 at 3:31 pm

Re: Selina:
Not to mention, that it gives another layer of confidence that your work actually holds up in print, and is not a fictive collection of digital images that are not high enough quality (especially when high-end retouching is concerned).

We’re still doing portfolio breakfasts. Last month, an agency creative was looking at one of our still-life photographer’s books, and immediately asked them to bid on a project. So there’s still a use for the printed book.

That said, there is no magic bullet in marketing to your audience. We’re not robots, and we each like to be approached in different ways.

Lauren November 19, 2009 at 3:39 pm

What if publishing a leave-behind didn’t have to be crazy-expensive?? I have seen a number of photographers/artists/designers using MagCloud to print portfolios that look fantastic and don’t cost a fortune. Because of the quick turn around time you can actually tailor them to the audience.


Check out two great examples:

Heather November 19, 2009 at 4:38 pm

I agree with most everything said here (absolutely there is still a need for a printed portfolio- I just want you to think seriously about what role it plays in your game) and appreciate the comments but, above all, please continue to think about how you are approaching all of your marketing. Think critically about “the way it’s always been done” and the way things might be going.

Seems to me I’ve seen very little change overall in the looks of photographers books (I’m only talking books here) in the last 10 years. Considering the mammoth changes in our industry and the way we do business, this seems odd. It’s time to revolutionize that black leather portfolio.

On APE, in response to this post someone has suggested that he thinks he might start bringing his stills and motion work to show on a tablet- sure, that might make some sense.

In my opinion you need to cut through the rest, and as many of you have said, have consistency in your marketing and approach it from all avenues possible.

Re sleeves: every Art Buyer’s office I’ve ever seen uses some form of “mood” lighting- usually dim. I’ve seen this many times- the AB tilting and turning the book so that she can see the image beneath the glare. Get rid of the plastic, and figure out a way for book to be changeable with matt paper. If one of the purposes of the book is to show how your work reproduces, all the more reason to show gorgeous prints.

Heather November 19, 2009 at 4:45 pm

Oh, and don’t forget a double page spread of thumbnail tears in the back of your book. Big fan of that- shows me the work you’ve done without presenting it as the best work you’ve done.

Don’t know what I mean? Can someone snap a picture of their portfolio if you’re already doing this and send it?

Laura Berman November 19, 2009 at 4:48 pm

This is the best–and most helpful– thing I’ve read about portfolios and promo strategy in a long time.

Jaime Hogge November 19, 2009 at 4:59 pm

I really hate having the plastic sheet things in my book, that’s for sure. It’s nice to be able to swap things in and out all the time but they get dirty, they look terrible with lights on them and they just seem to cheap. As I mentioned in my post last week I’m looking to up my printed book and this is definitely one of the first things I want to lose so I’m glad to hear I’m not just being OCD about it.

I like Finn’s idea of working with a designer of sorts.. I think I’m gong to look into that since layout isn’t something I have experience in at all.

Here’s some thumb pages that I was using previously because of Heathers’ suggestion:

simon winnall November 19, 2009 at 7:30 pm

I’d love to see some examples of people’s folio, as a photographer, its so rare to see what other people books looks like? Maybe if we all submitted some pix of our books Heather for post?

Heather November 19, 2009 at 7:39 pm

Great idea Simon. Send in your pics everyone.

John Beebe November 19, 2009 at 7:55 pm

Heather and all,

Thanks for provoking a discussion on physical vs. virtual.

And Heather thanks for coming out to the CAPIC speed dating event last night. It was inspiring and revealing to see the range of books out there. I may be old fashion but I still have not met a screen that comes close to a beautiful print.

I will send a pic of my book in the AM.


Heather November 19, 2009 at 8:09 pm

I’m not up on my paper terminology but this question was posted in response to this thread on APE:

“If you don’t use double-sided rag inkjet paper, what is the best alternative to the sleeves?”

Can someone answer this?

Tim Gruber November 19, 2009 at 8:45 pm

Great post Heather.

A lot of great advice already shared. Love the idea of having tears at the end of the book. I’ll send in a few snaps of my book.

Not sure on an alternative to double-sided paper as that’s what I use myself.

After doing a portfolio review a few weeks ago I received some great compliments on my book. Everyone, as you already mentioned, loved that my prints weren’t behind sleeves. At this point it seems like it’s a no-brainer for me. Sure it might be a little more work to change the edit, but it’s well worth it. No glare and not to mention the tactical feel of matte paper.

A lot of editors also complimented me on the layout of my book. It’s more than just full-bleeds, which I think help brings some energy, rhythm and more impact to the pages where I do have full bleed images. Here’s an iPhone snap of a few prints showing the different prints/spreads laid out before they went in my wife’s book.

Next on the list for me is having a custom screw post portfolio made to polish it all off.

I’ve also just started using MagCloud as leave behinds and mailers.

I’ve been doing video work too and struggle with how I promote the video work. It seems editors and art buyers barely have time to glance at a print promo how you do you about grabbing their attention to watch a video? Any ideas from your perspective Heather?

I had a blog post awhile back about the process of putting my book together if any cares to hear me ramble more. :)

Ross Feighery November 19, 2009 at 8:45 pm

I highly recommend using Inkpress Luster Duo Paper.

It’s double sided inkjet luster paper, I used to print on moab entrada double sided matte but the matte sucked the color and life out of my photos.

This paper looks magazine quality and is a little thicker, everyone compliments me on it.

Also be sure to invest money in a good bookbinder/designer to work with you on your book.

Graham November 19, 2009 at 10:44 pm

Wow this is a really great post, interesting to hear everyone’s perspective.
The times that I have asked ADs everyone seems to have their own preferences, some prefer websites, some books, some direct mail, some emails, so I’ve just continued to do it all to cover my bases.
Lately I’ve also started carrying images, and now motion, on my iphone.
But I do still feel my printed book is the best showcase of my work. Great prints, on nice paper and housed in a custom sleeve just shows another level of respect for the work, much more than a website in my opinion.
So I really hope books aren’t going out of style, because I just picked up 2 new ones from the bookbinder today!

danno watts November 20, 2009 at 1:25 am

ya know what i’d like to see is a posting of everyone’s books.
maybe have it so that people can send in 3 photos of their books to you ( front, open, back ) and you can have a post showing all the ones you’ve gotten.

would be a good way to just see the variety out there.


simon winnall November 20, 2009 at 6:14 am

Heather I’ll send you some snaps of my folio today…

Sure most people would have seen this already, but this is Chris McPherson’s book via APE:

bob o'connor November 20, 2009 at 10:16 am

I’m curious to see what other people’s books look like too. What’s the email address to send the pics to? I can’t find one on the site.

I also recommend the Inkpress Luster Duo paper. It holds so much more detail than matte surface rag papers. The prints almost look like real c-prints.

Heather November 20, 2009 at 10:23 am

Email address:

Grant November 20, 2009 at 1:30 pm

We are in the process of putting our book together as well. Getting covers made, picking and testing papers. Picking images. Simply put, it is an extension of your online presence.

Having imagery in your book that you won’t find on the website is a bonus. Potential clients love to see that your style carries through to print and fresh imagery. It also allows for dialogue about the pieces that just doesn’t happen through the web.

And I agree, no plastic sleeves!!

Margaret Lindsay Holton November 22, 2009 at 12:43 pm

Very interesting.

I am in the midst of writing/producing/packaging a complimentary ‘book’ that will ‘launch’ at the same time as a solo exhibition for the summer of 2010 at the Burlington Art Centre in Ontario, Canada. Peter Wintonick, famed Canadian documentary filmmaker, (and friend), has written the foreword.

‘Memory’s Shadow: Pinholes & Photo-Collage Photography’ by moi will be available in TWO formats: the deluxe edition and the ‘street’ edition. The deluxe is for connoisseurs, the street is for ‘interested parties’ who aren’t all that familiar with print procedures but want a ‘document’. An ‘exhibition catalogue’ will also be produced by the Art Centre that is a ‘freebie’ for the ‘walk-in’ public. My ‘book’ will contain over 50 additional images not exhibited but pertinent to the exhibition theme- ‘Memory’s Shadow’.

Having once worked with the veteran, venerable (and now defunct) Canadian book printing company, T.H.Best Book Binding & Printing, I do understand the degress of quality available and the subsequent price structures.

I’m afraid I see no point in investing in, or creating, a ‘deluxe’ book to ‘give away’ to prospective clients. If they are interested in your photographic work, the ‘street’ edition will suffice. As a photographer, I want them to buy my prints and/or my services, not develop their photo-book library at my expense.

Lisa Sciascia November 23, 2009 at 12:03 am

I am in the middle of converting my books from the black leather to a more unique book-as I was doing this and investigating what could be done on my printer an Epson 1280 I realized I could not go to the Moab Rag Injet as it was too thick. I tested Moab Lasal paper. One thing I like is that its very white and the Epson matte heavyweight paper I was using I realized dulled my photos. My concern is that maybe the Lasal is not thick enough? Does anyone have thoughts on this?

Jackie connelly November 23, 2009 at 2:55 am

Great conversation – I love it when photographers talk to eachother and share knowledge, it’s so important.
We at CAPIC Vancouver are in the process of planning our 2nd Annual Portfolio Series and personally I’m super pumped for it. Speaking as someone who had her book reviewed at the 1st event the biggest things I took away were pay attention to the design (just because the pages are 11×14 doesn’t mean the images have to be that big, or even close) and that everyone really does have their own opinion of what they like and how they want to be kept in touch with.

Kristen Sams November 23, 2009 at 12:55 pm

Pina Zangaro makes an adhesive hinge strip. It sticks to the edge of your paper, and fits their products as well as most standard screw-post or binder style books. Its just as quick and easy to change out those pages as it would be sleeves. I know Vistek carries them in Toronto.

Christopher Bush November 24, 2009 at 11:21 am

My question over at APE was more about displaying prints that do not come from a home printer, rather than alternate inkjet papers. How do you put “real” (wet darkroom or digital-to-emulsion prints) prints in your book without sleeves?

tony fouhse November 24, 2009 at 1:15 pm

@ Christopher Bush: See the comment right above yours. I use the adhesive hinge strips too and love ‘em.

Tim February 5, 2010 at 3:34 pm

More on the future of photo books from Senior Product Manager at online publisher Tim Wright:

Richard February 8, 2010 at 11:00 am

An Interesting Blog !

Sarah December 8, 2010 at 6:32 pm

I still keep a printed book for people to see like when I do weddings and people ask for my card. I’ve had several times where people want to see work in person, not just on the internet. I hate how so many people are “awesome” photographers now because they turn their cameras sideways and photoshop!
Arizona Art Gallery

Leave a Comment

{ 9 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: