How to build a cohesive photography portfolio

First published:
December 30, 2022
Updated:
January 31, 2024

How to build a cohesive photography portfolio

First published:
December 30, 2022
Updated:
January 31, 2024

Post Office Mural in Chernobyl by Roman Robroek

Top tips to help you build a consistent portfolio that showcases your own unique style of photography

Consistency is important if you want to make a name for yourself as a photographer. If you can develop your own style then it makes your photography more distinctive and cohesive. But it isn’t just about the integrity of your artistic vision, it’s also highly marketable. Potential clients will know what they’re likely to get from your services, and print sales may improve if you can offer a set of images that look as if they belong together.

Here are some tips to help you create a cohesive body of work…

1 Hone your visual style

One way to develop your own visual style is to focus on aesthetics like angular geometry or a bold colour palette. Photo by Christopher Wright

The joys of photography are in the variety of images you can create, the subjects and places you can visit, and the equipment you master along the way. But if you want to build a cohesive body of work then you need to think about how to distil all these possibilities into your own distinctive visual style. Perhaps there’s a genre of photography you want to focus on, like portraiture of landscapes. But it goes beyond your choice of subject, a visual style should say as much about the photographer as it does about the content of the photograph. So when shooting a photograph, whatever the content, ask yourself whether there is a part of you somewhere within the image.

2 Revisit subjects

If you revisit familiar spots repeatedly you’re more likely to be reward with serendipitous moments like this perfect placed flock of birds. Photo by primpaul - f/8 | ISO 100 | 30s

Great photographs often come through intimate knowledge of a subject. Whether it’s visiting the same landscape location umpteen times, gradually coaxing wild animals to be comfortable in your presence, or getting to know your portrait subjects before you point a camera in their face. Background knowledge invariably leads to a better connection. This can take time and perseverance, but by revisiting and building a relationship with your subject - whether it be a person, an animal or a place - you’re likely to build up a better body of photographs to choose from.

3 Choose a consistent colour palette

Shoot images with a consistent colour palette in mind, like the calming pastel shades here. Photo by Stockimo - f/2.2 | ISO 32 |1/1250s

A consistent colour palette in your photography not only creates a sense of cohesion, but also gives a set of images that wow-factor when displayed as a gallery grid. Perhaps you like to use bold reds or pastel colouring, autumnal scenes or wintery landscapes. Display images in your portfolio with a consistent colour palette and the photos will look as if they belong together.

4 Develop life-long projects

Devote yourself to a photo project that you can revisit and develop over time. Photo by Roman Robroek - f/13 | ISO 200 | 1/60s

There are some projects that take years to develop into fruition, especially if you only find the opportunity to add to the work now and then. But devotion to a project that may take decades is likely to lead to a unique body of work, and the passage of time adds an extra layer of meaning to the photos. For instance, Magnum photographer Martin Parr likes to capture self-portraits in novelty photo booths and touristy portrait studios whenever he comes across one. Over many years this has developed into a wonderfully kitsch side project full of dodgy Photoshop effects, chintzy sets and awkward costumes.

5 Perfect your lighting set up

Develop your own distinctive lighting setups. Here we’ve used a combination of flash, constant lighting and camera movement to create a combination of sharp detail and motion blur.

If you like to work with lighting then you can build a consistent body of work by honing and refining your own setup. Perhaps you like to use a certain modifier for the lights, or shoot with a combination of coloured gels. Through the history of photography the great portrait photographers have often relied upon a signature lighting setup, as this gives their work a consistency of style. Portraiture is as much about the photographer as it is about the sitter, so by settling upon a repeatable lighting setup not only can you stamp your own style on the portrait, but also have a reliable workflow to use as a foundation for your work.

6 Go black and white

Portraits can benefit from a black and white treatment as the lack of colour can emphasise expressions and textures. Photo by Light captured by Damian - f/4 | ISO 100 | 1/400s

This is probably the easiest way to make your photos look consistent. By converting them to monochrome they’ll have a common aesthetic that never goes out of fashion. However, there’s more to black and white than simply removing the colour. The best black and white photos are those where the absence of colour enhances the content of the photo. Patterns, contrast, shapes and form all come to the fore when colour is removed, so seek out subjects and scenes that demonstrate these features.

7 Use presets

Use Lightroom presets or profiles to keep your colour and toning tweaks consistent. Photo by Photography by Roxanne - f/5 | ISO 200 | 1/80s

If you use similar tonal tools and colour settings when editing your photos then they will look as if they belong together. Perhaps you like to matte the highlights, or cool the colours, or make gritty black and whites. A simple way to keep your edits consistent across the board is with Lightroom presets or profiles, which let you apply the same tonal treatment to any photo with a couple of clicks. So if you come up with a treatment you like, simply save it as a preset, then try it on other photos. If you like you can even set up Lightroom so that it applies the preset upon importing an entire set of photos.

8 Stick to your lenses

A wide angle lens can give street photography an in-your-face style. Photo by Gagan Sadana - f/5.6 | ISO 800 | 1/320s

Every lens has its own characteristics. Aesthetics like the perspective, angle of view, depth of field and sharpness will all vary depending on your choice of lens. So for a consistent aesthetic, try sticking to one or two lenses. Of course, certain lenses are suited to certain subjects, like telephotos for wildlife and wide angles for landscapes. But even so, you could create a more unusual aesthetic by going against the norm. For instance Nick Brandt, for many the greatest wildlife photographer working today, chooses to shoot his African subjects with a wide angle lens.

9 Pick a subject that matters to you

A misty morning offers wonderful opportunities for atmospheric landscapes. Photo by Richard McVeigh - f/11 | ISO 100 | 10s

There are lots of amateur photographers who dream of becoming a pro, but then there are also plenty of pro photographers who become jaded with the photography they do to make a living. The great thing about being an amateur is the choice you have to go out and shoot whatever you please. So find a subject that enthrals you and channel your creative enthusiasm into capturing it.

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