The Ultimate Guide to Student Portfolios

Marianne Stenger
1st September 2021

It’s a great time to pursue a creative career, with research showing that the creative industries sector is growing more than five times faster than the national economy. With that said, it's also a highly competitive sector, and for new graduates looking to work in photography, fine art or graphic design, creating a portfolio is a crucial part of getting hired, whether as a freelancer or salaried professional.

A strong portfolio can help graduates showcase their best work, demonstrate creativity, and get their work in front of potential clients and employers. For those who still lack relevant work experience, a portfolio is also a good way to display technical ability.

So whether you’re still completing your university applications or have already begun your job search, this guide will help you craft a strong student portfolio.

1. Getting started

Taking those first few steps tends to be the hardest part of any large-scale project, so here are some tips on how to start off strong, as well as some of the things you should consider early on in the process.

Define your portfolio’s purpose

It’s important to be clear on why you’re creating the portfolio and for whom. A portfolio for a university program might be easier from the outset, because the requirements are usually clearly laid out. A portfolio geared towards employers or clients can be trickier, because it’s more open to interpretation but still needs to accurately represent your skill set.  

Peter Bennett, Senior Lecturer in photography as well as Course Leader BA (Hons) Photography at the University of West London, points out that when graduating from a degree in photography, students will be expected to have produced a physical portfolio of their practical work.

“The primary purpose of a physical portfolio is to demonstrate creativity and skill in a particular area of photography,” he says. “A physical portfolio will showcase technical quality more clearly than a digital portfolio.”

Even so, Bennett points out that much of the time, students may be asked to provide a digital portfolio, website or Instagram link first or instead of a physical portfolio. With this in mind, he suggests aiming to have all of these options to hand when leaving university.

“What the portfolio should include and how important it is to getting a job, will depend on what area of the industry you want to work in,” he explains. “For trying to get work exhibited in galleries, a strong portfolio is essential. To get work as a photographer’s assistant, a portfolio may be important, but practical and technical skills and knowledge may be more important. For working in arts administration, or as a curator, a practical portfolio may not be expected.”

Break the project up into manageable tasks

If creating a professional portfolio seems daunting, try breaking the whole project up into more manageable tasks that you can complete one-by-one. This will allow you to start crossing things off your to-do list, and seeing this visible progress will help you stay motivated.

For example, once you’ve gathered examples of the projects you want to include, your next task could be to eliminate any unsuitable photos, paintings or sketches so only the strongest ones remain. After this, you could work on editing all the images in a similar style, and so on. It’s also a good idea set realistic deadlines for each part of the project so it doesn’t drag on for too long.

Look for inspiration

If you haven’t yet formed clear idea about what you want your portfolio to look like, spend some time looking at other portfolios or photo books to get inspiration and ideas. As you flip through each one, take some notes on what you like about it, but also what you don’t like. What makes it stand out? How does the artist convey his or her specific style? What might you have done differently? 

Start with the photographers, designers or artists you admire. Do any of them have digital portfolios available for viewing online? And don’t forget that the Bob Books bookshop is also a great place to browse a variety of photo books and see some examples of different styles and genres. One of our favourite portfolios from the bookshop is James Bowdens - Portfolio 2019, view it here. 

Keep your audience in mind

When you’re deciding on what to include in your portfolio, your first consideration should always be your target audience. What will they want to see and how will they perceive your work?

“Students should think about what a client will want to see and tailor the work they present accordingly,” says Peter Bennett. “Remember that the outside industry may not judge your work in the same way as a university course. Students should be prepared to talk about their work in a clear and accessible way.”

He also points out that the people commissioning photography will often not be photographers themselves, so this is something that needs to be taken into account when crafting a portfolio.

2. Putting it all together

Once you’ve collected plenty of material to work with and have a better idea of how you want to present it to your audience, it’s time to start putting everything together. Here are some practical tips and ideas for designing your book, choosing the right paper type, and more.

Show versatility but keep it relevant

Your portfolio could feature anything from sketches and drawings, to photographs, paintings, and photos of sculptures or other creations. You might even want to include quotes that inspire you or add a short essay or piece of reflective writing to help explain your ideas and creative process.

Just keep in mind that although you do want to show some versatility and creativity, it’s also important that your portfolio represents the area you want to work in.

For example, if you’ve taken some gorgeous landscape images but primarily want to work as a portrait or fashion photographer, it may not be helpful to include those types of images in your portfolio because they aren’t relevant to the area you want to work in.

Getting the design and layout right

The layout and design of your portfolio is very important, because even the best photos won’t grab the viewer’s attention if the book is overcrowded or the layout is confusing.

“Students should present their work in a professional way,” says Peter Bennett. “They should normally include around 20-25 images, and the portfolios should usually be around A4 to A3 in size. Only the best images should be included and only images that will be of relevance to the person they are going to see. Tear sheets of work that has been published should be included if available.”

In general, it’s best to keep the layout simple and let your images speak for themselves, but this doesn’t mean you can’t get a bit creative. For example, some images may look good when placed side-by-side, whereas others might really come into their own when given a full page spread.

If you do decide to include multiple images on one page, make sure you give them room to breathe by leaving some white space around them, as this can act as a border.

Paper type and binding

When creating a physical portfolio, you’ll also need to think about how you want to print it, which means choosing the right type of paper and binding for your specific project.

Paper types range from gloss-coated paper to matte photographic. Glossier paper types tend to bring out clarity, bright colours and sharpness, whereas matte paper types offer more muted colours and since it doesn’t reflect light, it has a calmer and more artistic look to it.

There are also a few different types of book binding you can choose from, but the best type of binding for your portfolio will be somewhat dependent on the type of paper you’ve chosen. The ones you’ll most often come across are perfect binding and lay flat binding. Perfect binding is suitable for many projects, but if you want to include double page spreads in your portfolio, lay flat binding will allow you to print the image uninterrupted across the spine of the book.

If you’d like more in-depth information on selecting the best options for your portfolio, check out this guide to choosing the right paper types.

3. Using your portfolio to promote yourself

Once you’ve designed your portfolio and had it printed in book form, it’s time to start using it. In this digital age, having a physical portfolio to bring with you to job interviews and client meetings can make a powerful statement. 

If you’re meeting prospective clients, having a physical portfolio for them to flip through is also a good way to help them picture their own images in a printed format and get excited about what you can do for them.

Just having the portfolio with you isn’t enough, of course; you’ll need to be prepared to talk about the work you’ve included and explain your objective, your role in the project, and the results you achieved.

With this in mind, it’s a good idea to spend some time preparing your presentation in advance and thinking about some strong responses to the types of questions you might be asked. Below are some examples of common portfolio questions you might run into during an interview. 

What was your creative process like?

By asking this, the employer probably hopes to gain an insight into your ability to turn an abstract concept into a strong product or image that tells a clear story. In order to answer this question, start by explaining what the assignment was or the story behind your image, and then talk about the steps you took to turn that early idea into the piece it now is.

What would you do differently with this piece if you were to do it again?

No piece of work is ever perfect, so this question helps employers gauge whether you’re able to view your work objectively and spot areas that could be improved on. Of course, you should never speak negatively about your own work, but you could talk about what you might have done differently if you’d had more time or resources at your disposal.

Which piece of work are you most proud of?

When asking a question like this, employers are probably more interested in what motivates you and sparks your creativity than which specific project you like best. So when answering this question, focus on explaining why it inspired you and what you most enjoyed about working on it. Take some pride in your work and don’t be afraid to speak confidently about your skills and abilities.

Of course your portfolio is just one piece of the puzzle, and you’ll still need to market yourself through online channels to start building a strong reputation as a photographer, artist, or designer. But crafting a physical portfolio is a great way to get that competitive edge in a crowded market.

Ready to get started? You can find out more about the photo book sizes, papers, bindings and covers available to you through Bob Books with these FAQs. You can also take advantage of our Professionals Discount, and eventually mark up and re-sell your photo books or even distribute them through our Bob Bookshop. This is a great way to share your work with customers or potential clients.