First and foremost: NEVER PUT UP A SUB-PAR SHOT AS FILLER!!! You are better leaving it out, because if clients see even one sub-par shot in your portfolio, they will doubt your ability to consistently create stunning images. Even if you only have 8 top-tier images, you are better not adding extra filler shots to bring the number up. Think quality, not quantity.
It's easy to become attached to a shot. Maybe it was difficult to create the shot, or getting to the location was tough, so you think it's your best. Ask other people what they think. As photographers we are biased towards certain shots, for one reason or another, that are nowhere near as good as others. Get other people to review your potential portfolio shots with you, they will be more honest than you can be with yourself.
After you have been a photographer for a while, you will have developed a certain recognizable style. This style is what will set you apart from others. Look through your images and pick photos that match it. You can find out what your style is from other people/photographers much easier than figuring it out on your own. Having a portfolio that reflects this is important and will show even more consistency. This does not mean that all the shots look the same, or are of the same subject matter. All that it means is that when people see the shot, they recognize it as one of yours! This can be the toughest thing to figure out and will only come with time and from how others feel about your work.
When I created my initial portfolio, I took what I believed to be my 50 best images and placed them together in a folder. From there, and through eliminations with the help of others, I narrowed down my top images that hold true to my style. You can view my portfolio at www.cnwphoto.com. It's important to update it regularly so that it doesn't become stagnant. If a client views your portfolio and it looks the same as it did 5 years ago, they won't believe that you are in high demand or staying current, and may not hire you.
How many images should you have in your portfolio? This is a tough one to figure out, but for me the magic number is about 20 for each different subject matter. Don't overdo it and show every image you have hoping that clients will search through all of them and buy one. It simply doesn't work that way. Most photo editors/clients have A.D.D and want to flip through it all in 3 minutes. They will spend more time on each image if you have less for them to look at.
Separating your different subjects is a great way to show each one as a specialty. With too many subjects in one portfolio, clients won't believe that you are great at capturing each one. Instead they will think that you are just OK at several. They like to believe that you spend most of your time shooting the subject matter they need images of. It seems weird, but think about it a bit and it will start to make sense.
Presentation is key. Make sure your site looks beautiful, and that if you have a printed portfolio, it looks professional. I'm not a big fan of websites that take too long to load, or have too much flash. I think editors feel the same but this is a personal preference. Simple is beautiful!
When it comes to a printed portfolio, a cheap binder with plastic sleeves will not suffice. Spend $50 and get a printed portfolio made up. A leather book will give you an edge over the competition. I ordered mine from ShutterFly for about $45. These companies always have coupon discounts, so type "shutterfly coupon code" into google and some codes will pop up that should work.
Your portfolio represents how the world sees you, spend time on it and you will be rewarded with more work, and will be proud to show it off.
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