Photography mentoring – 5 tips for creating a great portfolio

Editing your own work is not something I think any photographer relishes.  By editing I don’t mean post processing (tweaking in Lightroom, Photoshop or whatever else you’re using).  I mean going through your images and deciding which you’ll show people and which you won’t.  One thing I’ve come to realise about this is that really successful photographers edit hard and edit well.  Whether it’s choosing which images to put on your website, sequencing images for a book or simply choosing which ones you’ll print and put on the wall, editing is a real skill which I’m sure will take a lifetime to master.

Fortunately, Aiden (my intern/assistant/mentee) landed an opportunity to submit his work to a local sale gallery and this was the perfect time to talk about this process and practice it.  I realise that this doesn’t seem like the kind of photography 101 you’d expect me to be covering as part of this mentoring arrangement – but as I said before, Aiden is already a competent photographer and I figured he’d benefit more from this than lessons on technical things which to be honest he can probably learn better by reading a book or using an internet resource.

I’d already encouraged Aiden to edit his project “Learning from Standing Still” to make it tell a story.  He found this process hard! The conversation went something like…

“what about this one – I really like it!”

“Ok but what does it contribute to the story?”

“well it doesn’t really fit but maybe here….”

“If it doesn’t really fit then leave it out”

“but it’s one of my favourites!”

To be honest I’ve had this conversation with myself, in my own head, many times.  I recently made a photo book to use as a portfolio and spent months selecting just the right images. It was the same when I came to redesign my website (  Ultimately I think there are a couple of strategies that I think are helpful, and which I shared with Aiden.

  1. Keep it minimal – ask yourself what’s the minimum number of images for your need?  For a website gallery for example, how many images are people really going to want to scroll through before they move on to something else? Think about your own image viewing behaviour.  How many is just enough, but not too many?  Aim for that and choose only the strongest.
  2. Look for consistency in style – that’s not to say they all have to look similar, but there does need to be a thread that runs through the images and holds them together. Ask yourself – what’s the theme here?  Is it a colour, a subject, a style etc?  If something doesn’t fit with that thread, leave it out.
  3. Accept if something is just not good enough.  Sometimes an image is so almost right it’s tempting to use it.  My advice is don’t!  The flaws you’ve spotted won’t go away because you included it and it can niggle at you and spoil the whole piece as you’ll know it’s not quite what you wanted it to be.  Re-shoot it or simply move on
  4. Ask someone you trust – not your biggest fan (that’s no good they’ll just tell you it’s all amazing) but someone who you believe to have good taste and who will be honest with you. When you have your first cut, ask them to review it and be prepared to listen to the feedback. Ask for feedback on how the series made them feel, how was the experience of viewing the images in sequence?  You don’t have to change everything they suggest, and they don’t have to ‘like’ the work.  You’re looking to see if the series has the impact you want it to.  It’s hard to step into the viewer’s shoes when you’re the artist, so you need this critical friend to play that role.
  5. Find an outlet for the ones that don’t fit.  There are plenty of ways to share a single image that you love but that doesn’t work in your project, gallery or series.  Instagram, Facebook, Flickr, 500px  or whatever, find some place that you can share these. I have a dedicated page on my website called Fun Stuff to do just this.
Here’s an example of an image I made which I adore but just doesn’t really fit with anything else !


Aiden has now submitted his work to the gallery – you can view his portfolio here. He’s waiting to hear if his work will be accepted.  Regardless of the outcome, a lot was learnt here – even if it was only about the difficult nature of the editing process and the need to allow it plenty of time.  I certainly haven’t mastered it yet, and I greatly enjoy reading about how others approach it too.



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