13 September 2013

A Better Print Portfolio: 10 Creative and Technical Tips

Top 10 Tips to a Better Print Portfolio

Are you still using a print portfolio to show your work? Many illustrators and photographers have told me they don't need a printed portfolio anymore. Most of the jobs comes from their websites, and if they need to show their work in person, they can whip out a tablet or a smartphone. And I must admit, as the years pass, we receive fewer requests for a physical portfolio to be shipped out to a potential client. But the printed portfolio is still one of the best tools available during a face to face meeting, and nothing beats some face time with your buyers. There is a power in the printed page. Art buyers, directors, and producers can appreciate the quality and effort of print. It shows a technical attention to detail that many advertising jobs require, and is probably still one of the most important marketing tools in a professional artist's arsenal. What follows is a collection of best practices for your print portfolio, both technical and creative, compiled from various seminars, portfolio reviews, and classes attended over the years. Part of our series on finding and working with artist representatives.

Ten Technical and Creative Tips for a Better Print Portfolio

1) Make your contact info easy to find. This is the number one tip because it is surprisingly overlooked. Consider a title page at the front of your portfolio (name, phone, email, website). Do not make an Art Director search for this information, because they may not bother! Remember also, you are trying to create or maintain brand awareness for yourself at every opportunity. Consider adding contact info to the bottom of each portfolio page in small print, like many magazines. If one page gets pulled or scanned at least your contact info is still on it. Including some business cards or postcards is not enough, either. By their very design, you want people to take them out and keep them. If your book is being passed around an office, they probably won't make it to the last person. Which leads to our next point.

2) Be sure to include leave-behinds. Portfolios often have a little back pocket like a moleskin notebook. If yours doesn't, consider installing one. Inside this pocket, you have business cards, postcards, tear sheets, etc. You can also include a few small signed prints, feedback cards, gallery show invitations - anything to help your buyers remember you. Preferably something with a name, a signature image, and your contact info. You can keep that stuff in your portfolio case, too, but if the portfolio case is under the secretary's desk, and your book is in the cafeteria, they're probably not doing you any good.

3) What are you trying to say? There are two questions which will shape the content and layout of an artist’s portfolio: "Who do I want to know me?" and, "What do I want them to know about me?" Think about these two questions. Simply stating that you want your photographs or illustrations “out there” is not enough. Be specific. Do you want publishing, editorial, advertising, or design work? Or, perhaps all four? Whichever you choose, your portfolio must reflect this. It also must reflect who you are. Don’t try and make a portfolio to appeal to all clients. You can’t be all things to all people. Therefore, you need to choose your images carefully and also consider their relationship to one another and to your intended field or interest. Don't fall into the trap of using your book as a client list. You want your book to show the buyer where you are going, not where you have been. Your portfolio should not be your history, but rather your vision moving forward.

4) Consult an editor. The hard and fast rule of portfolios used to be don't show more than 15 images, but the truth is, books can vary from a dozen to a couple of hundred images. You can argue that 15 is too little, but there is definitely an upper limit. Leave 'em wanting more. If you're like most artists, you are totally bonded to your work, making it incredibly difficult to edit away images. I've seen some go as far as to refer to them as "their children" and to pull one of their kids out of a book would be akin to murder. Let someone else pull the trigger for you. Hire a killer. Many reps, art buyers, and photo editors will be happy to go through all your work and suggest a cohesive portfolio, or edit your down your existing book or website for you (for a fee, of course). If you're just starting out, consider using friends, contacts, or teachers as editors. Remember that old proverb, your portfolio is only as strong as your weakest image.

5) Get personal. Many artists balk at the idea of including experimental or personal work in their portfolios, but remember, you were awarded some of your first assignments based solely on test shoots and personal work. Don't be afraid to mix it up with your commercial work. Your personal work will draw the viewer deeper into your portfolio, and provide some pause from the commercial work. Often, it becomes a conversation starter, and helps the viewer recognize in which direction your artistic style is heading. Including personal projects or tests can highlight or reflect your desired area of interest, and demonstrate to the client that you are capable of delivering key visual images. Just because you do not have experience photographing/illustrating what you ultimately want does not mean that you will not get hired for those jobs.

6) Hire a designer. Especially if your book is a collection of single images, all formatted the same way. Photographers are especially guilty of falling into the trap of making a book full of interchangable images with little thought to anything else. Remember you are trying to create a theme, here so you portfolio should reflect your vision. There is a big difference in the reviewer's experience between a book that has a layout or design and one that is simply a collection of interchangeable single prints, one to a page. People will spend more time reviewing a book with an interesting layout. A book full of single page images doesn't let the mind linger on a page. Instead, it tends to put people's head into data collection mode, not allowing themselves to be immersed in your work. If you're not working with a designer, you still may benefit from some design concepts. Try keeping the following in mind when you're choosing images. Pay attention to how images complement each other in a spread. The goal is to create a more effective and fluid portfolio. You want to make sure that you keep the viewer engaged and on the page longer. This can be done in a variety of ways:

  • Balance black and white photographs/illustrations with color photographs/illustrations
  • Balance detailed images with non-detailed images
  • Non-detailed images on right juxtaposed with a detailed images on the left

Normally, the eye goes directly to the right page of the portfolio. Therefore, if you happen to have an image on the opposite (left-hand) page and that image is black or white or simpler in design than the image on the right side of the page, it may not receive the same amount of attention due to the fact that it is located on the left-hand side of the page. In order to remedy this so that both images receive equal viewing, it is recommended that the busier or more colorful image be placed on the left side of the portfolio and the more simple or black and white image be placed on the right side. Your entire portfolio does not have to follow this pattern. These are just some examples of how you can rearrange some of your images to diversify your spreads. Do not be afraid of the gutter or placing multiple images on a page/spread. This too creates movement and fluidity throughout your book.

7) The Grid. A working photographer will have tearsheets or samples of their recently completed ad campaigns. Generally, these include copy and design elements. Try shrinking them down to thumbnail size, and creating a grid of recent projects as a closing page in your book. This helps the art director visualize your work with their design. Don't make the images so big that people start criticizing the design surrounding the photography. If the image is really strong, it should be in your portfolio. What we're going for here is visual client list. And be sure to include credits in the grid; client, agency, art director, makeup, etc.
This gives you a chance to show off some images or client names that might not necessarily be portfolio worthy images.

8) Consider having two books. A regional and a national portfolio. If you're operating in a regional market, battling for clients at the local level, then a regional book can help you show a number of styles and genres. You may be shooting food, people, and architecture or some other combination for your local clients. Competing at the local level is different than competing at the national level. Locally, buyers lean towards people with a variety of skills. Especially when you're shooting for a magazine, for example. At the national level, they are usually looking for a specialist; be it cars, portraits, or architecture. In order to compete on a national level, your portfolio must be distinguishable from others competing against you. This is when content and design of your portfolio become critical. A regional portfolio will not get you national jobs because it does not reflect projects executed outside of the region. For example, it contains work that was completed in a studio or that could be replicated in any other city. In order to compete nationally, your portfolio needs to contain images shot/completed outside of the region. Illustrators can benefit from having two portfolios as well. Perhaps a book of your more technical illustrations and designs for your regional clients, and a mix of fine art and personal work for galleries. It's not always possible to have one portfolio be fit for every job.

9) Make your portfolio easy to handle. If your portfolio requires a two-handed struggle to operate and doesn't lay flat on its own, the Art Director is going to have a bad time, and they will do one of a few things; They will force your book to stay open against its will, bending or breaking it in such a way that it lays flat for them. They may take it apart, removing a page or removing prints from sleeves so they can show or review a specific image. Or they'll just toss it aside in frustration. Ideally, your book should lay flat on its own.

10) Be ready to ship. Heavy may be a sign of quality, but it's too expensive for travel. A beautiful custom designed riveted copper case may really complement your architectural photography, but prepare for the Art Buyer to be upset when you blow away their entire portfolio review budget on shipping one 20 pound box overnight. A big heavy portfolio is only appropriate if you are the one carrying it: Great for studio meetings and client vists, but not for international shipping. There are many ways to cut down on the environmental impact of shipping a book as well. Consider ditching the standard FedEx boxes, and pick yourself up a heavy duty (reusable!) portfolio bag or transit case. So long as the zipper is secured and zip-tied shut, all you need to do is attach a label to a tie-on tag, and it can go out just like that. Try portfolio bags from CASE Envy or Tenba.

Do you have any tips for a better print portfolio? Questions? Sound off in the comments.

First published 05/15/05. Contributors; Robert Saxon of Workbook. Cristen Crujido and Michael Muratore of Store 44 Reps.

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