Preparing the perfect photography portfolio

What is the recipe for success when presenting your portfolio to an editor? Three industry pros share invaluable tips for student photographers.
A black and white image of two enormous religious statues on a hillside with people gathered around and touching them.

An image from Ghanaian photographer Nipah Dennis's project Coming to Maria, which explores the annual Christian pilgrimage to the country's Our Lady of Lourdes grotto. Nipah was one of 230 students selected to take part in the 2020 Canon Student Development Programme and was mentored by Magdalena Herrera, Director of Photography for Geo France. Taken on a Canon EOS 6D (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 6D Mark II) with a Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM lens at 1/40 sec, f/3.2 and ISO8000. © Nipah Dennis

A successful portfolio review can take your career to the next level, but with scant time to impress, you need an immaculately crafted portfolio, presented with real passion, to stand out.

"When you're telling someone what your work means to you, it's a powerful experience," says Huck Magazine's Editor-in-Chief Andrea Kurland. "That's why we tell these stories – they mean something to us. So be vulnerable, be raw, let it come from the heart. That's the stuff that will stick in the minds of editors forever."

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Invaluable advice on portfolio presentation is offered through the annual Canon Student Development Programme. In 2020, 230 students were invited to select their mentor of choice from 30 key industry professionals, including photo editors, photographers and curators. These mentors included Andrea Kurland, Magdalena Herrera, Director of Photography for Geo France, and Travis Hodges, a photographer whose clients include Time Out, The Big Issue and Cancer Research. Here, all three offer their top tips for crafting the perfect portfolio.

Stay relevant

"My starting point is what I'm hoping to get out of the conversation – it works backwards from who I'm showing the work to," explains Hodges. When you're meeting an editor who only commissions reportage, for example, you shouldn't include your commercial events photography – always keep your portfolio relevant to the situation.

"If you're presenting your work for a grant or competition, where editors see many thousands of photos, it's very important that the first photo is very strong to hook them," advises Herrera. "But if you're presenting a portfolio to an editor for a specific publication, you have to adapt it to be relevant. You can have a base with your strongest images, but change it slightly depending on who you are addressing your work to and for what purpose.

"For example, if you're bringing your portfolio to Geo or National Geographic, you need to show the geography, because these magazines run stories about how people are changing places or how places are changing people. However, if you're showing your work to Marie Claire, you need a very different approach and you'd start your portfolio with a portrait, for example, or a situation where women are strongly involved."

A hand resting on a table covered in photographic prints.

The Canon Student Development Programme offers young participants the opportunity to have their portfolios reviewed by leading industry professionals. © Paul Hackett

Ensure your portfolio looks professional

Herrera says most editors now expect to view portfolios purely on laptops and tablets. However, some photographers also like to have a physical portfolio for situations where they're needed, for example when requested by particular editors or competitions. Hodges's portfolio is well-printed on high-quality paper and A3 in size. It's post-bound so the images aren't behind plastic sleeves, which he says "take so much away from the beautiful print you take pride in".

If you're showing a printed portfolio, it's a good idea to also take your laptop or tablet. That way, if the reviewer is particularly enthusiastic about a project they see in your portfolio, you can show them more.

An elderly couple sitting on a red sofa, pouring a drink from an ornate coffee set.

Ćejf, a project by student Amina Hodžić from Bosnia and Herzegovina, was among the portfolios reviewed by Magdalena during the 2020 Canon Student Development Programme. It focuses on the tradition of coffee drinking in Amina's home city of Sarajevo. "This travel story was a very coherent work on an aspect of Amina's culture," Magdalena says. "She has a very good style." Taken on a Canon EOS 700D (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 800D) with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM lens at 1/80 sec, f/2.8 and ISO1600. © Amina Hodžić

Present a tight edit

"Show recent work that you're excited about, maybe something in progress because that could spark an editor's interest," says Kurland. Only include your best work, no fillers, and don't be apologetic about anything you've included. If you're making excuses for a picture, it shouldn't be there. "I've been told that people will go through a portfolio and, no matter how many images there are, they'll remember the one they didn't like," adds Hodges.

It's a delicate balance between variety and consistency. Kurland recalls an interview with legendary American documentary photographer Alec Soth in which he responded to the question: what should students include in their portfolio? "He said: 'What kind of life do you want to have? Do you want a diverse one or do you just want to wake up and do the same thing every day?' I think that's really interesting and something to bear in mind. But then if you look at his work and his career, everything he does has continuity and makes sense."

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"The pacing is important. You can't have one image after another that keeps upping the ante," says Hodges. "Start strong, finish strong. And remember you can't show everything – try to edit a story down to six pages maximum." The right total number of images to include in your portfolio differs according to the work, the length of the review and the reviewer's attention span.

"At a first meeting, the initial presentation shouldn't go over 25 or 30 photos," says Herrera. "You have to show that you can edit your work. The editor can always ask for more if they want to see them."

Mentors on the Canon Student Development Programme provide feedback to young participants at a group portfolio review session. © Paul Hackett

A top-down shot of a group of people, most of them young, gathered around a circular table, looking at and discussing a series of photographs spread out on the table's surface.

Make the review count

Plan how you will describe your work and, if possible, practise what you'll say to friends beforehand. "If you're a narrative-driven photographer, take that person through the story – bring to life what you were driven by, and what you were trying to capture," says Kurland. "It's your opportunity to be yourself and to stand up for your work."

Give the reviewer a postcard or business card so they can look you up afterwards. Follow up with a thank-you email. "The meeting is the beginning of your relationship," says Kurland. "So be personable, and touch base on a regular basis. Don't go into every meeting feeling disappointed if it doesn't come to fruition right away. The reviewer might come back to you in years to come, saying a story has just landed that is perfect for you."

Herrera agrees: "If an editor shows an interest, send your PDF and follow up afterwards. We editors are looking for stories all the time, and I personally keep all the work I've liked. Editors all have a good visual memory, and sometimes I've contacted a photographer to offer them a job as much as two years after they've sent me a portfolio."

Kirjutanud Rachel Segal Hamilton and David Clark

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