What do photographic agents, curators, editors and commissioners look for on an online portfolio? Five industry professionals offer their perspectives.
The photography portfolio has, some might argue, been eclipsed by its digital counterpart. Offering an opportunity for almost limitless invention and innovation, mastering this mode of display involves a whole new set of challenges. From the colour scheme to layout, every element of a photographer’s website deserves careful consideration. There are now a number of services, such as Format, committed to providing creatives with the tools to produce online platforms that enhance their work.
When designing a website, however, it is also important to carefully consider your audience. What is it that you want your online platform to say about you as an artist and how do you plan to communicate this? To help better understand what makes a compelling website, we asked five industry professionals about what they look for and why having a strong online portfolio is so important today.
What do you look for in a photographer’s website?
Diane Smyth, Digital Editor – British Journal of Photography: A website that’s both clear and easy to navigate – the design comes after. Images need to be large enough to see them properly, but small enough to load quickly. I don’t like seeing watermarks on images. It’s helpful if the images are divided into separate series, with text before each series giving a quick idea of what it’s about. I also like to have a quick bio of the photographer somewhere on the site and (obviously) details of how to contact them. It’s better to have a small number of really good images than a large volume that includes weaker shots.
Ken Flaherty, Founder – Doomed Gallery: I like to see the one image that really defines the photographer on their landing page. I also like to know the story behind a body of work. Photographers can be unwilling to express their ideas and motives in words; for the viewer, a brief explanation or critique, can help us look more and understand what we are seeing better.
John Wyatt-Clarke, Founder – Wyatt Clarke & Jones Photo Agency: I see a glaring divide between websites that are trying to achieve something and those that are just reflective of a photographer’s fascination with themselves. A good online platform should be designed to guide an ideal visitor towards a specific action, whether it be commissioning, buying work or enquiring about an exhibition. It’s also important to clearly distinguish the work that is most important to you, to give a sense of what direction you’re going in as an artist, and consequently, where you’ll be in a few years. As an agent, I’m interested in the future, and I want a website to give me an idea of that.
Fiona Shields, Head of Photography – The Guardian: At The Guardian we will always view an online portfolio before commissioning a photographer for the first time so it is important that we can gauge the range, breadth and style of imagery. I would always advise making contact details very prominent on the opening page and including your geographic location, along with your phone numbers, email address and Twitter account – I will often try all three if I’m looking to contact a photographer as a matter of urgency. This landing page is a shop window for your talents so be scrupulous over quality and keep the edit varied but tight.
How important is your first impression when looking at a photographer’s website? And would you say that this is dictated more by the nature of the work, or the way in which it is presented?
DS: I’m much more interested in the work itself, but if the website takes ages to load or I can’t find my way around it easily I’ll definitely come away with a bad impression.
Matt Martin, Co-Curator – Doomed Gallery: A bit of both. If the work doesn’t jump out at me immediately then it’s rare that I will look through the rest of the website. Good design and a strong lead image can help with this, but it’s also important that the site is easy to navigate.
JW-C: I spend a great deal of time on photographers’ websites. We get up to 50 emails a week from photographers looking for representation and consider each one carefully. First impressions aren’t that important because we’re trying to find people we can work closely with for years, so looking at their work more thoroughly is always necessary.
FS: Always check that your website can be found simply on a Google search under the name and keyword ‘photographer’, and that the website loads swiftly on desktop and mobile. Any picture editor looking to make a commission immediately, or who is considering a number of photographers, will be frustrated by a complex portfolio that can’t be accessed easily.
Should a website exist solely as a platform for the featured work, or is it important that it has a distinctive aesthetic too?
DS: I don’t have much of an opinion on this one, either one is fine by me if I can find and see the work and find contact details for the photographer. It’s sometimes nice when I come across an unusual or quirky website. But in general I’d say the aesthetic of the website should come lower down a photographer’s priority list than their work.
KF: I’m really interested in the idea of the virtual gallery as somewhere you can explore. I also really like it when photographers provide further insight into their work through the inclusion of interviews or short text.
JW-C: It’s the photos that count above everything else. An online platform can complement your photography but no site will ever be good enough to disguise poor work. Conversely, if your work is good enough, from the perspective of an agent, you can get away with bad presentation. It would be our job to help you improve your online presence. I’d advise devoting more attention to the architecture, signposting and navigation than the graphic design.
FS: Consider design and allow a slick presentation for anyone navigating their way through your portfolio. If you have particular publications you admire, or would like to attract commissions from, then it’s worth paying attention to their visual sense. Equally, if your style is aesthetically distinct then do play to this strength as it may encourage a picture editor to cast you for a specific brief.
With the digital realm becoming increasingly integral to our everyday lives, would you say that having a strong online portfolio is more important than ever?
DS: Definitely – I rarely get shown physical portfolios now, in fact it seems a bit old fashioned when I do. It’s interesting to see some of the shifts in how photographers are presenting themselves – websites used to be quite formal, presenting work projects in separate series, but on Instagram photographers tend to include more behind-the-scenes images – shots of them installing a show, for example, or photographs from their everyday life. I don’t have a preference about which is better or worse. Whichever format you use, and however you present yourself, all that really matters is that your work is online and that it includes your contact details.
MM: This boils down to the question of where are people looking at photographer’s work the most? Ultimately, I think that when it comes to photography a website is the best place to showcase your work. An online platform provides the optimum space to present images clearly and organise them to communicate any narrative running through a series. However, I do still think that it’s important to have a strong physical portfolio or book.
JW-C: I can’t imagine how anyone would get work without one. A more vital question is how do you get people to look at it? And obviously that’s where social media comes in. A site is useful as a centre for all your social media activity, a place where all these disparate platforms lead back to and where you can showcase a more comprehensive overview of your work. That’s why it’s so important to understand what you want your website to do, so you can focus all this energy in the right direction instead of dissipating it.
FS: Yes, often we are seeking to commission photographers globally who it would be difficult to meet face-to-face so an online presence is the best opportunity to review a portfolio. It is a competitive market so it’s worth spending time presenting work with consideration and keeping the portfolio up to date.
It might be tempting to create an online portfolio shaped solely by your creative vision, but building a website that caters to your desired audience is crucial. Clarity, ease-of-use and layout are all important elements to consider. Ultimately, your online portfolio is your opportunity to showcase who you are as an artist and, if done well, will help further your career. To experiment with designing your own website on Format, sign-up for a 14 day trial here.
Sponsored by Format: This feature was made possible with the support of Format. Please click here for more information on sponsored content funding at British Journal of Photography.