How to Choose Images for a Photography Portfolio

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Creating a photography portfolio can be a daunting task. One of the most essential aspects of creating a compelling photography portfolio that showcases your specific talents and style is choosing the images that best represent you as a photographer and content creator.

Now that we've covered the general advice for your photography portfolio, here are some more specific recommendations choosing images for your photo portfolio.

Before you begin making your photography portfolio

Below are 7 key tips to help you choose images for photography portfolio. Before actually making your portfolio, read through all the tips first, paying careful attention to the first 3 tips in particular. These first tips will help you get in the right mindset and aid in the general selection, as well as helping you choose specific images when you're making those decisions.

Now let's get into the advice to help you pick your best images for your photo portfolio.

1. Identify your portfolio's audience

First and foremost, before you pick images for your portfolio, you must identify the audience to which you are selling. Because make no mistake — you are selling abilities as an image maker and as a problem solver to your potential clients and buyers. This is a tip from my article “10 Tips to Create Your Best Photography Portfolio” and it bears repeating because picking images that speak to your audience is truly essential for an effective portfolio.

Think carefully about the clients or buyers who may view your work. What are they looking for in a photographer? What do they need to see to make an informed decision about your capabilities? What are their main priorities in selecting a photographer? And how can you stand out as they may search for a photographer who can fit their needs?

The answer to all of these questions should guide your decisions in which images you choose for your photography portfolio.

As a music photographer, I present live music photography and artist/celebrity portraits of musicians as one of the main focuses of my portfolio. There are often instances in which my prospective clients are looking for photographers who can create both compelling concert photography and also portraits of artists.

2. Make your focus clear

Every image in your portfolio tells a piece of the story about you as a visual creative. Your goal should be to use each image in your portfolio as part of a mosaic of your vision, capabilities and experience as a photographer. You should aim to show depth and range, but only within your strengths and in the area you want to be known.

And aside from quality, each image should speak to some aspect of your vision and ability. In choosing images, ask, “What does this image say about me as a photographer?” If multiple images are competing for the same specific message, consider paring down for the sake of efficiency. Expressing range, however, should not be confused with a lack of focus. Every image should work toward a singular goal of expressing your eye and capabilities as a photographer.

3. Tell the story in your portfolio

If your portfolio is focused on a more specific body of work, what are the images that are necessary to describe its essential parts or the narrative arc? What's the fewest number of images you can show and still have the story feel cohesive? What's the maximum number of images that showcase the full breadth of the project without being redundant or boring?

Just as a photojournalist approaches a scene looking for wide angle, midrange and tight images to tell the story, consider this approach for your own portfolio. Look to include variety in your approach, both in the content and the sequencing of the portfolio.

4. Identify your best images

It's essential to show your best images. Note that these are not the same as your favorite images. Based on your audience, focus intently on images that you understand your potential clients and buyers need to see.

One of my favorite sayings about photography is this: You're only as good of a photographer as you show you are. You will be judged by not only your strongest images, but your weakest images as well. In fact, your weakest images may be the ones that leave the strongest impression. 

Again, your audience should guide the selection of your images. This means not just the best aesthetically or technically compelling images, but images that don't fit your focus or what your clients need to see. Beautiful images that don't ladder up to the specific things your clients need to see are filler at best and at worst can give your audience the impression that you're not the photographer they need.

Consistency and distinction in your images should be a key takeaway. Showing anything but the best is often a waste of time; when you have someone's attention, make every image count.

As a concert photography, I am to create not just images of musicians on stage, but also to showcase the scale of the events I photograph. It is important to show range of approach and subject in all aspects of photography.

5. Fill major content buckets 

Consider your photography speciality, your potential clients and the images they need to see in order to hire you for the work you want to do. What are the major categories of images they need to see from you?

Ask yourself, “What are the major areas I need to cover to showcase my work and show range and depth? What images are representative of my style and can also speak not only for themselves, but for the other images from a shoot or a category of images?”

As a music photographer, I have my work separated into three main categories: live music, band/artist/celebrity portraits, and live music lifestyle from concerts and festivals. While portrait work is requires dramatically different skills than event or lifestyle photography, all three portfolios ladder up to present me as a music photographer.

While music photography may be primarily focused on either concert photography or celebrity portraiture, another huge aspect is covering music lifestyle. This is particularly important to brands who may be tapping into the genre of music, but who want to showcase people enjoying their product, for example.

6. Consider secondary proficiencies

Beyond the kind of hero images your audience needs to see, consider what the “nice to haves” might be for your potential clients, as well as points of distinction that can set you apart from the competition.

Ideally, these images should all support your main focus as a photographer, but can be considered “value added.” These images may take the form complimentary or supplementary skills.

For example, if you're a music photographer with a focus on live music, you may still want to show your ability to photograph band portraits. Your portrait work may not be strong enough on its own to be hired, but with the understanding that editorial clients may want someone who covers both a show and has the ability to snap a serviceable backstage portrait.

Consider your own genre and the primary, secondary and even tertiary kinds of competencies you need to show your audiences.

7. What images are uniquely you?

Finally, you want the viewer to come away with a distinct impression of your work and your style. If you're known for technique or an approach and this is what makes you stand out, lean into this in the work you show.

Identify images for your portfolio that speak very specifically to you as a photographer. If another photographer could have made the image, think twice before including it. Try and select images that tell your story as a photographer — your unique way of seeing, your aesthetic and approach.

By the same approach, if you're choosing between two images that might fill the need, choose the one you feel expresses your style in the most unique way. This tip should aid you in decisively choosing between images for the most difficult decisions.

Putting it all together

To recap, consider these key tips as you look to choose the images that are put in your portfolio as a photographer.

  1. Identify your portfolio's audience
  2. Make your focus clear
  3. Tell the story in your portfolio
  4. Identify your best images
  5. Fill major content buckets 
  6. Consider secondary proficiencies
  7. What images are uniquely you?

As you put build and curate your portfolio, you're looking to distill everything that makes you unique as a photographer. Not just that, but your photo portfolio must intersect with the needs of the clients you want to attract.

While the task seems daunting, focus on the essentials. Carefully consider: your audience, what images they need to see, and telling that story as efficiently and uniquely as possible. These tasks should help focus you and your work as you choose images for your photography portfolio.

Beyond that, whether this is your first portfolio or your 100th, it will always be a work in progress. There are no mistakes that can't be undone. The most important thing to consider is to get your portfolio to a state that satisfies your main goals. Everything beyond that is a refinement — and that can always be left to the future.