How to Make the Portfolio Your Promotional Centerpiece


Whether you live to take photos, or take photos to earn a living, few things compare to the joy and satisfaction of making a new portfolio featuring your best shots. Besides being rewarding activities, marketing, meeting with buyers, and showing new work is essential to the success of a professional photographer. Slower periods such as those around holidays, the end of summer, and the first month of the year are ideal times to get your promotional materials in tiptop shape. Be sure to gather supplies ahead of time, as some portfolio materials require special ordering. And for non-professional photographers, putting a portfolio together is a great opportunity to edit and take stock of your work.

"Besides being rewarding activities, marketing, meeting with buyers, and showing new work is essential to the success of a professional photographer."

Before choosing a portfolio, you must decide the number and size of the prints you want to show. Most photo editors endorse the axiom of less is more, and are quick to point out that a photographer is often judged not on the strongest photo, but the weakest. The criteria on how many photos to include may be influenced by a photographer’s specialty. For instance, a corporate photographer might want to show 40 photos, while a food photographer may opt to feature only 20.

When showing your work, it’s a good idea to edit the portfolio to the prospective client’s needs and taste. Be sure to do a little research prior to a meeting. Photography assignments are unique in that unlike buying appliances or other mass-produced items, you cannot know in advance what the final photographs will look like. Clients value predictors such as portfolios with photos and tear sheets similar to what they will be assigning. If the client is a photo editor at a magazine, pick up a copy of the magazine and figure out what they like. In the same way a good fisherman uses multiple poles to increase the catch, photographers should assemble multiple portfolios to reel in more clients. Having two or more portfolios for drop-offs, one to ship, and one for meetings is a good start. Of course, there are photographers who get by just fine with only a website. However, you can learn a lot by watching the person you’re meeting with carefully examining your printed portfolio.

Before selecting a print size for your portfolio, think back to your last client meeting. Try to recall if the person you met with was comfortable with the portfolio’s size. Having a book that’s too heavy, too large, or too crammed with work to facilitate easy viewing can turn someone off of your work. Nothing’s more awkward than watching someone trying to clear a space on their desk to view a large portfolio. However, if you’re meeting with a fine art gallery, then going large might be advantageous—although there are always exceptions. Standard print sizes such as 8.5 x 11", 11 x 14" and 11 x 17" are safe choices, and good places to begin.

A favorite with photographers and clients alike is the Pina Zangora line of portfolios, which features beautiful portfolio binders in landscape or portrait orientation with covers made of finished aluminum, onyx, colored linen, snow-colored acrylic, frosted translucent acrylic (polar or glacier), 1/16"-thick translucent acrylic Flexx, pressed hardboard, and even bamboo (natural or amber). Some photographers opt for different finishes to make it easier to identify specific portfolios or to appeal to individual client tastes. For example, the finished aluminum might be perfect for meeting with an industrial client, while the red linen might be the best choice for a fashion client.

A Few Things to Consider

  • Many magazines and ad agencies have specific portfolio drop-off dates. When dropping your portfolio, or book, on these days, it’s not uncommon to see a dozen other books from competitors in the reception area. Generally, most of the portfolios will be housed in black cases or bags of one form or another. Opting for a case or bag in a different color is one way to make your portfolio stand out from the pack.
  • Attaching a luggage tag with a clear window for your business card will make it easier for clients and their assistants to identify your portfolio.

  • When dropping off your work at a company with more than one photo buyer, art director, or photo editor, be sure to place an attractive address label on the portfolio bag. This is a huge help when dropping off or picking up with the aid of a messenger service. Professional touches like this are in your best interest and will not go unnoticed.

  • Printing your own photos is a great way to maintain quality. Chose a paper that enhances your work such as the Epson Exhibition Fiber Papers that have an F surface with a soft gloss. Prints on soft gloss and satin paper have good minimum and maximum densities and contrast. Best of all, they’re not too reflective and therefore easier to view at close proximity. For making prints in a variety of sizes, it’s often cost-effective to buy a larger size paper and trim to size with a rotary cutter. In addition, some standard paper sizes may require trimming to fit properly inside portfolio sheets.

Assembling a Portfolio

After you decide on the portfolio size, it’s time to select sheet protectors to hold and protect your work. Made of heavy-duty polypropylene or thinner polyester, Pina Zangora sheet protectors are archival quality, chemically inert, heat resistant, and come in packs of ten—enough for displaying 20 back-to-back prints. The high-tensile-strength polyester sheets are clearer, non-yellowing and non-stick. They usually include 10 pt. black, acid-free and lignin-free paper and are often selected by professional photographers. To install sheets in your portfolio, simply unscrew the posts, add sheets, and reassemble. Screwpost Packs are available for expanding your portfolio to include more work. For those who prefer not using sheets, prints and other artwork are easily attached with a pack of adhesive hinges. Using sheets and hinges make it easy to rearrange and edit your portfolio as needed.

Selecting a Portfolio Bag or Case

The finishing touch for any portfolio is the selection of a beautiful case or bag to carry it in. Pina Zangora offers the option of attractive presentation boxes to for your portfolio, such as the Camden series. Fortunately, there are a many choices, such as the Skutr art + tablet Portfolio Bags, Prat Case and Archival Methods Art Carry Case. And for those in need of a shipping case for their portfolio, a good place to begin is the Archival Methods Trans-Port models, which feature 1.0" wide polyester straps, retractable handles, steel reinforced corners, impact resistant plastic, foam lining, and space for a mailing label. Successful portfolio showings are all about presentation.

iPad Portfolio Presentations

Photographers who shoot motion will do well to consider complementing their work with a beautiful portfolio case for their iPad or other tablets. After all, a scratched and dirty tablet can really ruin the mood you worked so hard to create. Therefore, it’s worth considering a portfolio case such as those made by Xuma, which are available with tote handles, multi-position stands and which are compatible with many iPad generations. iPad cases from Otter Box, Speck and others are also worth exploring.

Besides having a nice case for your iPad, it’s also important to select and use software to enhance your presentation. Simply clicking on and viewing JPEG files is not the optimal way to share your work. Creating PDFs, or better yet, having a graphic designer create one for you, will enhance the viewing experience and show your work at its best. At any given time, various software companies are releasing programs designed for showing still and motion work on iPads and other tablets. 

Seven iPad Portfolio Programs and Apps

  1. Portfolio for iPad – Used for presenting photos, videos and PDFs.
  2. Mediapad Pro Portfolio – Show multimedia content on your iPad.
  3. Showoff – Useful for keynote presentations with a projector.
  4. Photosmith – Synchs with Lightroom.
  5. Minimal Folio – Good for sharing photos and videos.
  6. Xtrafolio – Another option for portfolio presentation.
  7. Foliobook – Minimal design for showing work to a wide variety of buyers.

There are, of course, other options. Before purchasing a program or app, make sure it’s compatible with your specific tablet.

Creating a Multi-Pronged Promotional Juggernaut

Consider your portfolio the centerpiece and spearhead of a multi-pronged promotional juggernaut.  Other prongs are the portfolio case, iPad case, research, networking and the all-important leave-behind promotional piece. Leave-behinds can be printed postcards, business cards, novelty items, booklets, and perhaps best of all—a small signed print. And if leave-behinds are good, follow-up cards are as good—if not better. The goal is to create multiple impressions, so that when the job that is right for you lands on a buyer’s desk, yours is the first name that pops into their head.

Setting Up Meetings with Prospective Clients

  • Before you can set up meetings, you’re going to need a database or contact list with names, job position, phone numbers and email addresses of prospective clients. Companies such as Agency Access include these lists in their menu of promotional services. These lists can be formatted in a variety of ways—by location, specialty, as mailing labels, email campaigns and more.
  • Generally, when cold-calling or emailing a photo buyer to set up a meeting, you will be guided to drop your portfolio off instead. The reasons for this are varied: often photo buyers are inundated with calls from photographers; they don’t want to make an appointment in case a meeting or shoot comes up at the last minute; or they want to have the option to share portfolios they like with others in their department.
  • While dropping off is better than not dropping off, it does require two round-trips—one to drop off and one to pick up. The downside of dropping off is that it doesn’t give you the opportunity of making a personal connection or getting all-important feedback from the buyer.
  • You can improve your chances of scheduling a meeting with a client by letting the buyer know you’re coming from out of town, or making a special trip to show your work. Buyers are often more accommodating to photographers from other geographic areas. Photo editors, especially, like to have photo sources in other cities with familiarity of the area so they can save on photographer travel costs, and meet tight deadlines.
  • As many ad agencies and other companies have more than one person worth meeting with, it’s advantageous to arrange a meeting with as many people as possible. Once you score a meeting with one person, you can tell the others that you’re meeting with so and so and would like to call them after your meeting to see if they’re available. The great thing about this approach is that it doesn’t obligate or inconvenience them.
  • The sweetest fruit on the meeting tree is the referral. At the conclusion of a cold call, email, or meeting, remember to ask the buyer for the names of friends and associates who might be interested in seeing your work. Their interest or lack of interest in providing a few names is a good indication of whether or not they like your work and are likely to hire you. Validating prospective buyers is critical to successfully allocating the time you spend on self-promotion.
  • Another indicator of a successful meeting is when a buyer asks to see more work in the future. Having a portfolio with removable sheets makes it easy to change up your portfolio or include new work for successive meetings.
  • After meeting with clients be sure to write a few notes to help you remember what they liked, when they wish to be contacted again, and anything else of importance to landing an assignment.
  • It is also a good idea to follow up your meeting with an email thanking your prospect for their time.
  • Getting hired during a portfolio meeting, while possible, is quite rare. It depends, in part, on the buyer having the perfect job for you on their desk at the time. As in all advertising and promotion, reaching the tipping point of making a sale requires multiple impressions. The portfolio meeting, albeit highly important, is but one impression.
  • The goal of showing your portfolio is as much about getting work as it is establishing an ongoing business relationship. Think of it as being in business to stay in business.

Portfolio Review Events

Since the advent of organizations that hold portfolio review events for profit or as a free service, photographers have debated their merits. The advantage is that you can schedule and meet with many buyers on specific dates and locations. The downside is that each person you meet with will be meeting with many others. Meetings generally last 15-20 minutes. Therefore, if a buyer is there all day they can easily meet with up to 32 different photographers. And while buyers like to help photographers succeed, they can’t help everyone they meet with, much less remember everyone when meeting with so many. So choosing whether or not to attend one of these events can be a tough call. On the other hand, meeting with a lot of buyers is a great way to gauge the response of your portfolio. To this end, one of the selling points of a mass portfolio review is getting feedback. It’s also a good place to get referrals, make first impressions, and schedule follow-up meetings to show another portfolio with new work. Photographers interested in attending a portfolio review in April or October may wish to consider the Palm Springs Photo Festival, which takes place in Palm Springs and New York City.

Leave-Behind Promotional Pieces

Some ways to gild the leave-behind or follow-up is to hand address the envelope, and create the impression that your promo piece is a one-of-a-kind item. Some photographers like printing their own 4” x 6” promos with the Canon SELPHY, mounting the print in a tasteful white Collector’s Gallery 4x6" Print Folder and mailing it inside a Crystal Clear Bag or envelope. Before selecting a specific folder, be sure to explore the B&H selection of Archival Storage Envelopes & Mailers. The minimal design of both the print and the folder will appeal to the design sensibilities of most photo buyers, and show how much you want to work with them.

Benefits of Crystal Clear Bags

  • When mailing postcards and other flat promos, it’s common for the post office to affix an info strip or print on the piece. Using a clear bag protects your work from this treatment and also insures that it will arrive clean as well.
  • The downside of using a clear bag for a postcard is that it may increase postage costs. So before sending out a large quantity of promos, bring one to your post office to calculate costs and weigh the pros and cons.
  • Photo buyers may receive dozens of promos per week or day. Sometimes they’re too busy to look at them and they wind up in the circular file, otherwise known as the recycle bin. However, with clear bags, even if one’s work isn’t saved, it will at least be seen and give you a better chance of landing work.

Sell, Sell, Sell

Worth considering is the concept of applying the same creativity to getting work as to making it. Salesmen have a saying: “Always be selling.” And while most professional photographers fell in love with photography for the creative aspects, the business side is equally, if not more, important if the studio is to prosper. For this reason, when not shooting assignments, many photographers shoot portfolio samples and work on getting work. Therefore, when you’re on location, one of your portfolios should be on location, too—hopefully on a prospective client’s desk. Include current clients in your promotions. Remember, it’s easier and less expensive to hold on to the clients you have than to find new ones.

Website and Portfolio Synergy

Although most photographers are well versed at putting together websites to showcase their work, they may want to consider optimizing online galleries to reflect and coordinate with printed portfolios and other promotional efforts. In addition, some photo buyers won’t make portfolio appointments without first viewing a photographer’s website, so it’s important to make sure your photo galleries are ready before starting a marketing campaign. Photographers with website galleries featuring on/off visibility can create a variety of galleries edited to different client tastes, and that either mirror or supplement their printed portfolios. If you know a particular client will view your website in the near future; then turn on the galleries you want them so see and turn off those you don’t. The benefit of this approach is that it makes your promotional effort more targeted and consistent across a wider range of delivery methods, and shows clients that you’re tuned in to their needs. Remember, that your client will show your work to their client. Being on your A-game validates your client’s good judgment in the eyes of their client. To further this dynamic, some website templates such as those offered by include the ability for a client to create an edited PDF to show their client directly from your website. All they have to do is click on the “Create a PDF” link, check mark the images they want, and click “OK or Submit.” They can then share the PDF of your work with their clients and at meetings.

In the photography industry it’s often said that success doesn’t happen overnight. Having the career you want requires sharing your vision with as many photo editors, designers, art directors, galleries, publishers and other photo buyers as possible. The Japanese have an expression, “Ren Ma,” which translates into “constant polishing.” When applied to photography, Ren Ma could suggest that you should constantly strive to improve not only your photographs, but also your portfolio presentation, and indeed everything connected to your craft.

We hope this article has been helpful. Please share your thoughts on portfolios, promotional materials, and marketing your photography. We’d love to hear what you have to say. 


Another great article Dan!  You've got quite a knack for bringing it all together in an informative, engaging and inspiring piece!  Mike Nykoruk

Thanks Mike and Jill. I'm glad you enjoyed the article and found the information useful. Dan

This is definitely a must-read for anyone who wants to start a career as a professional photographer! It's the kind of real world advice they just don't teach in schools!