8 Steps to Build a Successful Online Portfolio

Let's face it: the internet runs our lives.  Fighting it would be futile.  The most productive thing to do is to try to work with it and let it work for you.  It would be impossible to take a physical look-book style portfolio with you everywhere you go in order to show potential clients your capabilities as a photographer.  Instead, directing them to a website that showcases your best work is a more streamlined, user friendly and relatable experience.  Follow these steps to help you stand out from the crowd.  A successful portfolio with a well-composed appearance will help sell who you are and what you do when you aren't there to do so.


Step One: What's the point?

Ask yourself a few questions:

  • Who are you and what do you do?
  • Who are you marketing towards?
  • How would they like this website to look?
  • What exactly are you trying to say with your portfolio?
  • Does your site explain everything you would say in an actual conversation?

In order to have a good idea of what your portfolio needs to look like at the end of the process, ask yourself these questions to help build a foundation.  Portfolios need to be free of clutter, concise and absolutely to the point.  Mussing up the site with gobs of buttons, unnecessary links to your favorite website or unrelated text can deter a person from becoming a potential client.  Take a look at your favorite photographer's portfolio and apply the above questions to their site.  If you feel like they were successful in answering those questions with their end product, try to emulate that (don't copy it outright; that would be unimaginative and cheating). 

Step Two: Keep it simple, stupid.

Apply this high school football coach theory to your website.  Keep the tabs to a minimum.  There needs to be a stock few but deviating from that can get labyrinthine and too much too handle for some potential clients.  There should be an About Me section somewhere on the site that clearly defines who you are and what you do.  Although it should be fairly obvious you take photographs, explaining what type of photography you specialize in can be helpful.  Going against the "keep the tabs to a minimum" rule, one place that could truly benefit is separating various genres of photography.  Wedding Photography and Landscape Photography are best served separately.  Having the two on the same page would be chaotic and unfocused.  Give focus to everything.  Be very clear with the tabs names.  Now is not the time to get creative with your words.  Stick to something everyone can understand.    

Step Three: Make sure it all works.

Nothing loses a client faster than a broken page.  Links that don't work, tabs that direct you to the wrong place and images that don't blow up to the correct resolution are all deterrents.  Regularly ensuring that all links are up and in working order needs to be routine.  If you aren't building the website from scratch and are using a template website instead, the Technical Support division is there to help you.  If you are in fact an HTML master, you already knew all of this.  One-click destinations are best.  Avoid using a complicated series of steps to reach any given point on the site. 

Step Four: Don't say too much all at once.

Slamming everything you need to say on the site in one place is a rookie move.  Separate paragraphs gracefully.  Take a note from online periodicals and utilize the Grid and Column design.  It streamlines what you need to say in a geometric way.  After you have managed to make it look good, it also needs to sound good.  If you can say something in 5 words, don't let yourself get carried away with 20 words.  Remember, keep it focused and concise.  People should be spending more time looking through your images and not looking up what you mean by promising the client appears illecebrous in every shot. 

Step Five: Contact is key.

Since you never know which image is going to speak most to your new potential client, contact information on every page is the best way to ensure you capture every sale.  Make it unobtrusive but obvious.  The bottom of the page is a good way to organize the information in a streamlined manner.  It is vital to make it easy to contact you.  There should be a dedicated page on your site as well that displays a phone number and email address.  A simple tab labeled "Contact Information" or even "HIRE ME" should suffice.  The email address should be professional and not something that resembles a text message from a 12-year-old.  To make it even easier, a contact box that allows people to email you directly from the website without having to open their own email is best.  

Step Six: Show off only what you are really good at.

A portfolio doesn't necessarily have to be your entire body of work.  It needs to be a clear representation of what you are only really good at.  This is a great time to get honest with your work.  If you aren't too good at that, ask some close friends to give their honest opinion on what which pieces they like the most.  If you already have an account on a photo-hosting site such as Flickr, use the statistics on what viewers like most to showcase those photographs in your new portfolio.  The point of your new portfolio is to display what you do the best and not what you do pretty well.  You should have a few pictures that are exceptional and not a page full of mediocre photographs. 

It is also important to watermark your images but even more important not to destroy the image with a monstrosity of a watermark.  Distracting viewers from the photograph is the last thing you want to do.  A simple, small watermark at the bottom of the photograph will be enough.  There are also a lot of sites, such as Flickr, that don't support Right-Click+Save maneuvers that allow people to steal your images.  For those brave enough to tackle HTML, you can disable Right-Click+Save on your own.  Either way, watermark with discretion while keeping your images safe.

Another thing to keep in mind is the importance of being specific with what you are showing people.  If you are a writer and a photographer, make separate websites for separate skill sets.  A photography portfolio should only speak towards your ability to take pictures.  You don't want to confuse people who came to your website looking for a wedding photographer by showing them your published Arts and Crafts articles.  By all means, link to other portfolios you manage in the About Me section of your site.  Shameless self-promotion never hurt anyone.  

Step Seven: Speaking of shameless self promotion...

After you have constructed the best possible representation of who you are as a professional, you need to promote the site you worked so hard on.  Search Engine Optimization is the best way to go about it for free.  If you are a Monterey Bay-based Family Portrait Photographer, label your site accordingly.  Then explain in the About Me section where you are from, what you do and what you specialize in.  Don't use Search Engine phrases in every other sentence.  It needs to be organic or else you'll lose people based on desperation alone.  Be specific with who you are and what you do.  This step ties back in with the questions you asked yourself in step one.  If someone searched for "Monterey Bay family portrait photographer", they should be able to find you with no problem.   

Step Eight: Your portfolio should look like you.

Your portfolio should be a stand-in for a conversation with you.  If you are an effervescent person with a bubbly attitude, don't design your portfolio in dark colors with a Gothic theme.  If you are a landscape photographer, choose colors that appeal to you and equally suit your photographs.  Imagine your portfolio as a cupcake: the images and content act as the cake, deserving the most attention while the site itself, the wrapper, should be a helping hand in illustrating what you are really all about.  The background should not stand apart from the content but compliment it.  Layering the site is a great way to get the most visual interest on the page.  A personalized background topped with a solid color base for the photographs to sit on is good start.

Other Articles on Steve's Digicams by the Same Author:

Maggie OBriant
Maggie O'Briant  Personal Blog Flickr

Maggie O'Briant recently graduated from Florida State University with an English Literature degree.  She is currently a freelance writer and photographer.    She currently lives in Hawaii with her husband and giant baby.