Expert Advice: Print Portfolios

Jul 26, 2019
Expert Advice

We live in a world saturated with images. It is estimated more than a trillion photos were taken last year. But how many got printed? A tiny fraction: about 39 billion, which amounts to 0.03 percent of the total. Even professional photographers don’t often see their images in print these days. After all, isn’t it so much easier and efficient to share your work online?

But print is not dead!  Paradoxically, the more time we spend with images on our screens, the more excited we tend to become encountering something real and tactile.  A print is special. We slow down. We look at one image at a time. Who knows, we might even focus on it for a second? 

Your book is a representation of your identity, the cherry on top of solid branding, and a beautiful website. A physical book signals to a client that you pay attention to detail and are committed to the craft. The level of care you put into your portfolio shows clients what they can expect if they hire you.​

Lauren V. Allen’s  print portfolio

Are you wondering whether to invest in a book? Before you decide, consider the following:

Your printed portfolio is an extension of your brand. Which means you have to have the brand in the first place! I rarely, if ever, recommend that a photographer produce a book before they have a reliable website, logo, and up-to-date marketing materials. 
While there are a lot of approaches to edit and organize your work for different platforms (Is it tempting to feature the same project on your website and in your printed book? What about individual images? How many is enough and how many are too many?), one thing is certain: you must have some solid work before you show it around. If you don’t, it might be better to put your efforts into producing work before you start marketing yourself. 

Printing a portfolio is a serious investment. Treat it as such and do everything you normally do before you commit to a big purchase: save, budget, research.

A close-up of a photo spread for Benjamin Norman's portfolio

OK, so you’re ready to take the plunge. Where do you start? Start at the beginning — your photographs. Having worked for years on so many projects, and for so many clients, you have accumulated thousands and thousands of them. How do you decide what to include in your book? Consider the following:

  • Who is my ideal viewer? Of course, you'd like to include all of your work in one book, but be realistic and ask yourself: who is going to see your work? Are you marketing to industrial brands or travel publications? It’s good to focus on just one or two types of clients. This way, whenever you show your portfolio, you can be sure they’re seeing images that are relevant to them.
  • Do I need more than one book? Perhaps. If you’re shooting commercial food one day and high-fashion editorial the next, it might make sense to split your books. In that way, you can bring one portfolio to the Food Network, and another to Vogue.
  • How do I put it all together?  When I edit for a book, I look for images that feel natural together, whether the photos came from the same shoot or are similar in style. The first and last image of a book makes a strong impression. So any picture that mainly represents a photographer’s theme will typically go at the beginning of the book, setting the tone for the rest of the book. The last image encompasses the style of the brand while showing strong yet consistent skills. 
  • How long should my book be? A good rule-of-thumb is to keep it between 20-30 spreads. I try never to go over 35. A client should comfortably view your book without asking, “When does it end?” It’s better for someone to love your work and ask to see more (or visit your website) rather than feel tired and bored.

Once you’ve developed the narrative for your book, it’s time to think about presentation. How are you planning to layout your images? Are you going to use double-sided pages? Full-page spreads? Each of these factors will likely affect your design and image choices.

A print-edit for Jeff Lancaster; we use Lightroom to compile our images before printing the book.

A portfolio is a serious investment. Depending on labor and materials, the cost can range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.  Before you fork out the money, give careful thought to what kind of cover and binding you want to have. Different brands offer different options, and each has a particular style and feel. Then, there is paper, probably the most crucial thing to consider.

Whether printing on-demand, working with a high-end printer, or making each page yourself, do not skimp on your paper. Just as you don’t want pixelated images on your website, you don’t want smudged prints in your portfolio. Choose a paper with a full-color gamut, minimal tooth, and the right degree of brightness to show off your work. Also, be aware of the paper's texture and how it will affect the display. I prefer matte for its smooth surface, vibrant colors, and deep blacks. Keep in mind that while the glossy paper may increase the contrast and sharpness of your image, it will also collect dust, show fingerprints, and produce a glare that makes your pages harder to view. Plastic sleeves are an easy option, but in all honesty, they create a barrier between the viewer and the page. I can’t count the number of times I have heard: “What a beautiful book! If only the images weren’t in sleeves.”

If you print at home for a custom screw-post book, use double-sided paper and acid-free materials. If you choose a presentation box with loose prints, try using paper with a heavier weight that will withstand more handling.

Erin Little's book is split into Editorial and Commercial, allowing her to shop her workaround to a range of clients.

Consider the size and orientation of your portfolio. If you’re a portrait photographer, a horizontal book may not be the best fit. Also, a 12x18 book might be beautiful, but if you travel on public transit to five client meetings per day, a large book might not be practical. Remember, books will be carried, shipped, and handled, so consider the logistics as you plan the size and shape.

A look into the interior and beverage spread by Karen Segrave

Resources to get started:

The final piece of the puzzle is selecting your vendors. Sometimes it’ll be a one-stop-shop, and you can get a book laid out, printed, and bound in a single place. Other times, you’ll need to find someone to print and order a binder from elsewhere.

Since photographers often seek our advice with this step, I keep a list of recommendations ready. Here are a few tried-and-true printers and book manufacturers, all working nationally, if not internationally.

For bound or on-demand portfolios:

Asuka: Well-established industry-level printer, offering high quality for retail and commercial photography books.

Adoramapix: Best for price and ease of use, plus they have a fast turnaround time and rush shipping options available.

Artifact Uprising: A VSCO owned company that makes artful hardcover and softcover books–we’ve had photographers rave about them.

Blurb: At the forefront of the on-demand printing industry, Blurb offers a wide range of paper choices for books as well as lay-flat pages.

Magcloud: Originally owned by HP, now Blurb, great for zines and digest style books/promos.

Edition One Books: Great if you’re considering printing multiple editions or self-publishing — custom books in numerous versions, produced at any size and page count.

Paper Chase Press: Although we've experienced some customer service hiccups in the past, their print-quality is excellent!

For custom, screw post style portfolios:

Hartnack & Company: A more recent discovery for us, but beautiful handmade portfolios with a wide variety of materials and excellent customer service.

Klo Portfolios: Newer to the industry, offering a wide selection of trendy material and treatment options.

Lost Luggage: Mid-level to high-end portfolios and presentation cases, based in San Francisco.

Mullenberg: By far some of the most beautiful, well-made books out there– handmade by owner Scott Mullenberg.

Pina Zangaro: Offer affordable and customizable portfolios and boxes at a reasonable cost, with paper and printing options as well.

If you’re familiar with these or any other resources, let us know what’s worked for you in the past. Or perhaps you would like help editing and designing your portfolio? Please call 610 260 0200 or send us an e-mail.