Anatomy of a Portfolio


Authors Note: I thought I would upload this article on my portfolio even though it is a few years old. It is still as relevant today as it was when I wrote it.

In early 2008, I re-worked my print portfolio. It was a long and expensive process and these days the first thought most people have is “Why do I need a print portfolio?” I was asking myself that same question. Over the twelve or more years (at the time this was written) I have been working as a professional photographer I have only sent a portfolio to a client on three occasions – all to secure an assignment and all successful. Most photographers rightly rely on their website to act as their main portfolio. In recent years a print portfolio has been a requirement mostly just for advertising photographers. In striving for continued and greater success while going after commercial assignments, I figured it was high time I created a custom portfolio that would satisfy even the most demanding high end ad agency art director. This is not to say that I have not had high quality portfolios in the past, but this new book is definitely a notch above anything I have ever put together. Hence, I thought I’d share some of the process of putting together this portfolio and what I have learned from photo editors, art directors and consultants.

As is normal for me, I like an understated look. My website is evidence of this fact. And I was told by quite a few photo editors and art buyers to just go with a nice high-quality black book for a portfolio. It is simple and clean and directs all the attention to the images. Art buyers and photo editors want to see great work. A fancy book is nice but if the work isn’t up to par then it doesn’t matter what the exterior of the book looks like. I figured a classic black portfolio in a slip cover would let my work shine and keep with my understated motif. Size is another big factor and I again heard from many photo buyers that it should be big enough to show your work off effectively but not so huge that it is hard to deal with or so heavy that just looking at the book is a royal pain. I chose a midrange size. The book is made by Moab and is called the Chinle portfolio. It measures 13 x14 inches and comes with a fitted slipcase. The pages that fit inside are 12 x 12 inches. The width of the book is just under two inches with forty pages in it. I felt that a page size of 12 x 12 inches was perfect for my work. It allowed me to print the images up to 10 inches long and still have a nice clean border around the edges of the prints. I chose a book with the standard screw-posts which makes it easy to switch out pages and I had my logo foil-stamped onto the cover of the book and the slipcase. With my old portfolios I found that I really prefer a square format instead of rectangular. I feel it gives equal billing to vertical, horizontal and square images. As an adventure sports photographer, I shoot a lot of vertical images so this was a particular concern when I started creating the portfolio.

Another big reason I went with this pre-made portfolio is that  Moab makes a paper that fits the book and the screw-posts perfectly. The paper is a pre-scored version of their fine art Entrada paper [Moab Entrada Bright 190] which is a favorite of many art galleries, giclee printers and artists. It is a matte paper with a bit of tooth but it isn’t like some of the Hannemuhle rag papers which are a little too thick for a portfolio and a little to close to a watercolor paper for my taste. The other nice feature of the Moab Entrada paper is that they are double sided and can be printed on both sides. At first I didn’t like the way my images printed on the Entrada paper but the more I got used to it and worked with my images the more I came to like this paper. I realized that I see my images printed in magazines, catalogs, brochures and books which is closer to a semi-matte or luster type of paper and hence it was a new experience to see them on a fine art matte paper. Once I got used to the paper and fine-tuned my images so they printed with the degree of saturation and sharpness that I am used to I found myself liking the regal look this paper lends to my images. The prints look like they could be pulled from the book, framed and hung in a gallery. Yet, another reason I chose to go with this paper is that I detest having plastic sleeves over my images. Plastic sleeves are hated by most art buyers and they get scratched up after just a few people look at your portfolio. The Moab Entrada paper is fairly durable and when used with protective sprays the images can deal with a fair bit of abuse. I have been using the Hannemuhle Protective Spray and give each print at least two coats right after they come off the printer, then I leave them out to dry for twenty-four hours. Speaking of printers I printed all of my images on Epson printers, both the R1800 and the R2400. The black and white images were printed on the R2400 because it has far superior black and white printing capabilities than the R1800. Yet another great reason to use this Moab paper are the excellent printer profiles that Moab supplies on their website. I also had a custom profile made here in Santa Fe that for about half of my images resulted in more accurate prints. As many of you know, printing is an art form in itself so I won’t get too deep into the whacky world of printmaking. Suffice it to say that I made at a minimum two (smaller) test prints for each image that ended up in the portfolio. I printed each image with both the Moab and the custom profiles to see which I liked better and then went from there. The result was a lot of paper and ink was used to get the top-notch prints I was after. But, again, that is just part of the game.

Initially I wanted to copy the look of my previous portfolios which were Asuka Books – basically finished and bound books that looked like they were published en mass. Those books had images on both sides of each page and there were many full bleed images and double truck spreads. It looked great so I copied this look for my new portfolio. But once I had the pages in the portfolio I realized there were a few issues with that design. First, since many of the images went right to the edge of the page, when someone looked at the book they would be touching parts of the images when they turned each page. This didn’t seem like an issue immediately but I could tell that I would have to replace the images if I sent my books to clients very often. Second, I saw that it was going to be costly and time consuming to switch images in and out of the book because I would have to print four pages just to switch out one image. Hence, with those issues in mind I decided it was easier to print on only one side of the paper (mostly one image per page) as you see in the sample layouts in this article. This layout also fit nicely with the understated look I was going for. And I also added a design element, in the form of two thin parallel lines, to each page to help the flow of the book. I also wanted to let the viewer see the wild locations that I have shot in so I labeled each image with a short caption that tells the location or person [for the portraits] in the image. The title page has my logo on it and the final page has a photo of myself and a brief bio as well as my contact information [as a safeguard for the book].

Choosing images for the book was a grueling process because I wanted to make sure the images were on target with my marketing message. I also wanted to show the breadth of my abilities and talent so photo buyers wouldn’t peg me as just an adventure photographer, but they would see that I can capture extreme action as well as outdoor lifestyle images and high ends portraits [mostly of athletes]. These choices were determined by the clients I am going after with this portfolio.  And because I have three copies of this book, and chose the single page design it is easy to customize a book for a certain client before it goes out the door or before a face to face meeting.

Another important factor when building a portfolio is to take into account how it will be shipped and transported. I happened to have a few bright yellow padded Patagonia brand courier bags that fit the portfolio perfectly and they are very outdoorsy looking which fits with my images. Sadly Patagonia no longer makes this exact bag so I’ll have to take care of the ones I have but they are a perfect fit for protecting my portfolio – which is lucky because Tenba doesn’t make a portfolio case that will house this size book. Shipping a portfolio to a client is as easy as dropping the portfolio into the Patagonia bag, then into a Large Fed Ex box. I am going to have the Patagonia bag embroidered with my logo as well so that everything matches. Time will tell how successful these portfolios are at getting me more work. I have found the best sales techniques are to meet face to face with clients and having a top notch  print portfolio is a useful tool when clients have time to meet. So far clients have responded very well to the new book.

This article was originally published in the Summer 2008 issue of the Michael Clark Photography Newsletter. Please note that the image included here have my old logo on the cover of the portfolio. I have since updated my portfolio, but the only change was the lineup of images and a new logo being printed on the front of my books. Everything else remains the same with my portfolio, including the materials, papers and layout.

Michael Clark is an internationally published photographer specializing in adventure sports, travel, and landscape photography. He produces intense, raw images of athletes pushing their sports to the limit and has risked life and limb on a variety of assignments to bring back stunning images from remote locations around the world. A sampling of his clients include: Apple, Nikon, Red Bull, National Geographic, Outside and Outdoor Photographer.