As anyone who's ever created a portfolio knows, designing the site itself is the easiest part. Collecting, creating and organizing the content is the biggest hurdle and I'd venture to guess, the reason why most of us procrastinate on our portfolio. Capturing images is a big part of that.
After all the effort we put into the work, photographing it seems like a whole other project. And, well, it is. The way you present your work often showcases your skill as much as the work itself. Whether you're a skilled photographer or not, you don't have to settle for the standard shots everyone else includes on their portfolio. To stand out and do your work justice, you need to photograph it in a thoughtful way.
We asked some of our favorite designers from our Semplice Showcase how they go about photographing their print, branding, packaging, product design and identity work. And while there's no right or wrong way to do it, their tips and tricks will help.
Just as you would for a client shoot, consider storyboarding and even creating a shot list before photographing your work. Having a plan ensures your images feel cohesive and helps you avoid wasting time aimlessly snapping pictures.
“Before every shoot, I sit down, look for inspiration and figure out what I’d like to focus on when showing a particular project,” says Marton Borzak, a multidisciplinary designer/art director based in Copenhagen. “It helps me to create a little storyboard. I draw small sketches about different compositions and look at the order of images before taking any pictures, so I can see how the flow of the images could create a nice rhythm. This keeps me focused and on-task during the shoot.”
Don’t default to the standard “portfolio shots” – create a mood
“Give a bit of a feeling for the brand and the overall tonality by experimenting with sets and moods that help convey the overall vibe of your book or magazine or printed collateral,” says Verena Michelitsch, an independent designer and art director in New York.
While it's tempting to simply find an interesting backdrop or do the typical overhead shot, challenge yourself to experiment and think about what best conveys the brand or product – rather than only what looks cool.
“Nowadays you see a lot of similar compositions out there – colored backgrounds, pieces arranged in a grid,” Verena says. “I am guilty of doing or having done that. Personally, I think I just got tired of the sameness in how graphic design work is shown these days, so I try to break out of it and find photography inspiration in places other than graphic design portfolios.”
Be intentional with backgrounds and props
Your photo is a chance to quite literally put your work and the product in the best light. Rather than simply capturing a still-life picture, think about how you can add to the story.
“Contextualize. Photographing your work means you can add another creative layer to it that underpins what it is about,” says Christina Michelitsch, a New York-based art director and designer. “Experiment and choose your set purposefully. Figure out what materials, colors, props and lighting complement your project best and what helps tell the story of your work.”
As Heather-Mariah Dixon of Studio HMVD explains, contrast and scale help tell that story.
“Rather than just photographing your work on white, consider using objects, textures and backgrounds to give your designs context and a sense of scale,” Heather suggests.
Would we better understand the product if we saw it in someone’s palm? Would a textured background add a nice contrast or distract? Should we see the work on a table or in the wild?
“We love sourcing props from fabric stores, eBay and antique shops to bring nuance and life to our work, and then painting or modifying them to make sure they suit the scene. Designing a compelling set to tell the story of your project extends the world that you've worked hard to create.”
Improvise and work with what you've got
You don’t need a studio-quality camera, perfect lighting or expansive set to bring your work to life.
"Be ready to improvise," Seyi Olusanya of Dá Design Studio explains. "We don't focus so much on having the best camera or gear. It's always better to prioritize photography that is extra consistent with the idea, theme, and mood of the project.”
Perhaps you take a standard shot and enhance it with illustrations or animation later. Maybe a snap from your phone fits the mood or nature of the product better than a highly-produced image.
“When photography is more focused on enunciating the ideas behind the project, it makes the entire presentation far more effective.”
Use natural light to your advantage
Considering so many portfolios feature perfectly polished images with calculated studio lighting, an image shot in natural light can feel refreshing and authentic.
“When you’re starting out it can be pricey to get someone to shoot for you, and equipment can be expensive. Your new best mate, natural light, is here to make everything better,” says Alex Reece of Studio Rollmo. “An overcast day will give you accurate color and nice, even light. Set up next to your biggest window and with some time and photoshop you’ll get the good results – even with relatively cheap cameras.”
Heather-Mariah Dixon seconds this advice.
“We started shooting our portfolio pieces on our building's roof before renting and eventually investing in photography equipment. Oftentimes the sun gave us interesting and unexpected results.”