Building a portfolio or a strong slideshow requires a lot of work, but it’s one of the most important tools photographers have to showcase their talent. Sorting the images strategically needs to be an integral part of the process. This article explores why and how to do it properly.
Whether you’re creating a print portfolio for prospective clients, or you’re just trying to create a good gallery slideshow on your website, you probably roughly go through the same stages:
- Work hard to create quality images
- Narrow it down to the absolute best (and then narrow it down again)
- Put the images in the portfolio/slideshow
This last step is often neglected by photographers, the order of the images is actually important. Like with many other things, this can be rationalized, so here’s what you need to know:
Why care about the order of images?
Properly ordering the images can help grab the viewer’s attention and make a better impression. It can also end on a high note, leaving them wanting to see more of your content.
Ordering your images also forces you to objectively rate them and prioritize your most recent work, instead of simply adding images to the end of the slideshow/portfolio, where fewer people will see them. Arranging images in a sequence will help you remove the superfluous and focus on the essential.
It’s also your job to manage the viewer’s expectations: placing great images first and poor images last (which is what many photographers do) can only set people up for disappointment. Strategically ordering images can maintain the viewer’s interest longer.
Tips on ordering images in portfolios/slideshows
Let’s explore some guidelines to help you improve the image order:
1. Rate your images and choose the top few
- Get feedback from a photo editor or client if possible, or at least a trusted colleague. Try to remove yourself emotionally from the process, the results will be better, the editing process needs to be very tight.
- View your website stats, use images with most views/comments/sales
- Go for emotional or shocking images (but only if they’re relevant to your audience!)
- Prioritize the most recent work to keep things fresh
- Prioritize certain image types or domains (depending on the type of clients you have, or the type of client you want to have!)
- Alternating dominant colors (if half the images in your slideshow have a blue sky background, spread them out between other images, unless they’re part of an interesting sequence)
- If all other rational thoughts fail, trust your gut!
2. Best images go first and last
You should definitely start and end with killer images. These are the ones that create the most visual impact and can help you make the best impression possible.
The absolute best image should go first, you really want to draw the viewer in and get their attention right from the start. For online portfolios, definitely place the best image first, not last, because some visitors don’t have the time/patience to go through the entire slideshow. The first image is what needs to make viewers want to see more.
The second best image usually goes last, its purpose is to end on a high note, something strong for viewers to remember.
The last image is particularly important for print portfolios: when you get interviewed, the portfolio will sometimes remain open on that last page, having one of the strongest images in front of you to help the conversation.
3. Middle images
If you have other particularly strong images in your selection, spread them out evenly inside the portfolio/slideshow. They maintain the structure of the entire content, carrying the “weight” of the other not-as-good images.
The rest of the images can be placed anywhere in between.
4. Narrative flow
If images are somewhat closely related, it’s also a good opportunity for storytelling. Arrange the images so there’s a consistent narrative flow (first a city skyline, then a street photo; first the tornado, then the aftermath).
This is especially important for event/wedding photographers: images sometimes need to follow the chronological order, so viewers can better visualize the event and relate to the photos.
5. Getting creative in a print portfolio
With a print portfolio, you have the flexibility to group and format images the way you want. You can use that as an opportunity: create small sequences of related 4-5 images to help with storytelling. With no more limitations of a fixed size, you can experiment with multiple image sizes, grouping images in series, using facing pages etc.
6. Getting creative in a web slideshow
Some websites allow you to display 2 vertical images side-by-side. This looks really interesting, but you have to make sure images work well together (no contradicting actions, no conflicting eye sights, image no too similar).
Here’s a great example of a homepage slideshow displaying 2 portrait images side-by-side:
Thoughts of a photo editor
Stella Kramer is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo editor (having worked with The New York Times, Newsweek, People, Sports Illustrated and many others). She currently works with photographers as a creative consultant, helping them edit and sequence their portfolios for top results.
“Sequencing to create flow” is an excellent phrase she uses on her site to describe her services, and it fits perfectly into the context of this article.
I strongly recommend you listen to her talk on how to “Build a Better Online Portfolio”, or skip to “30:48” to learn more about sequencing:
A few main ideas from the video:
- Sequencing should tell the story of who you are and who you want to be
- The purpose of a portfolio/slideshow is to take viewers on a journey into your own work, to give them a short vacation from what they’re doing
- When you read a book, you know what bad sequencing is. It’s like reading the chapters in a random order
- Photographers who figure out how to sequence their work ultimately come across as the most professional (even if they don’t have the best work). A bad sequence won’t reflect well on even the best photographers
- A good portfolio sequence translates to a good experience when viewing your work
- You need outside opinions because otherwise you’d group/order images based on your own preferences or experience. You find relationships (between images) which have no meaning to outside viewers
- Don’t be afraid of having other people look at your work, it’s invaluable
- Consider the similarities with going to an art museum: there are works there that you don’t particularly like or understand, but there’s something about the process of seeing them that you enjoy
Photographers who figure out how to sequence their work come across as the most professional (Stella Kramer, photo editor)
- 10 Steps for Building a Photography Portfolio to Be Proud Of [Tuts+ Photography]
- Tips From a Pro: Build a Better Photography Portfolio [PopPhoto.com]
- Creating a Successful Photography Portfolio [PhotoShelter free guide]
- 8 Tips for a Great Photography Portfolio [ishootshows.com]
- 15 Tips: Creating the Perfect Photography Portfolio Website [Tuts+ Web Design]
- 5 Tips for Building Your Photography Portfolio [dPs]
- 10 Tips for Creating a Photography Portfolio [Beyond Megapixels] part 1 and part 2
- Narrow down the number of images as much as possible, this will make your life easier. Go for quality instead of quantity. If you won’t impress viewers with 8-10 images, you’ll surely not do that with 20-30 images.
- Decide on your best four images. Then choose the top two.
- Order them something like this: 1 … 4 … 3 … 2 (where “…” represents the other images, as few as possible)
- Look for other creative sequences you could use
- Schedule to repeat this process from time to time, as you create new content
By default, content management systems orders images based on: upload order, creating date, alphabetically. But almost all of them also allow custom-sorting.
If you’re not sure where you can do that, don’t hesitate to leave a comment below and I’ll try to give you instructions for your specific case.