It’s a great idea to keep an up-to-date portfolio of your underwater images. Maybe you want to submit to be featured as a DPG Photographer of the Week. Or, you’re looking to win an award in an international competition. Perhaps you want to introduce yourself to a magazine or website editor and make a good impression.
As an editor for DPG, I see a lot of portfolios from underwater photographers. And with this, I’ve come to learn a hard truth—the small selection often fails to reflect the talent of the photographer. Here’s your guide to producing a portfolio that shows your imagery in the best possible light.
1. Think Like an Editor or Judge
Gauging the quality of an image is inherently subjective. That’s a great thing—it inspires you to try new things and it produces a vast array of photography styles. Without this subjectivity, every image of a turtle would look the same. That would be a boring world.
But, when it comes to selecting images for a portfolio, you have to learn to view your images not as the photographer, but as the person who will be viewing your images. All too often, we form emotional attachments to our images that sway our opinions of them. Give yourself time between the rush of photographing the moment and possibly selecting an image for a portfolio submission—this will help you better evaluate the quality of the photo.
It's important to think like an editor as well as a photographer. In this case, the bottom image was chosen because of the crisp sunball, deep green water, and because no part of the shark is cropped out of the frame.
2. Be Selective
Needless to say, your portfolio images should have that “wow” factor. They should be images so visually compelling that no caption is needed. This response will vary as you develop underwater photography skills, but images that deserve to be in your portfolio should be more than technically on-point. You want to show that you aren’t just a competent photographer, but a killer one.
Unless you are a National Geographic level photographer, you probably don’t have more than a handful of truly spectacular images—and that’s okay! I’d say in my portfolio I have maybe 15-20 photos from taking underwater images for more than 10 years. Assuming that I have taken 200,000 images in that time period, my portfolio reflects the top .01 percent of the photos.
So where to start? If you’re a diligent organizer of your photo library using a program such as Lightroom or Bridge, you may have already labeled your images using the star system. Those 5-star level images are a great place to start. From there, you want to look for images that are unlike those frequently published or seen online.
Having a well organized image library will make choosing images a simpler process. Begin by sorting through your 4-star and 5-star images, and eliminating the shots that aren't truly unique.
3. Don’t Choose Based On Subject
Have an image of an ultra-rare animal? That’s great! But, your portfolio might not be the best place for it. Often, we assign more value to our images of the rare and wonderful. For macro shooters, this might be a rarely spotted nudibranch or one of the lesser-photographed species of pygmy seahorses. Wide-angle subjects that fall into this category may include crocodiles, rare cetaceans, or pelagic species.
You want to make sure that the image is as powerful as the subject is considered to be “prized” by the diving community. You don’t want to include mediocre images of fantastic subjects in your image. This is tough, because we can have a tendency to assign more value to our images of rare subjects. Instead, opt for fantastic images of more “mediocre” subjects.”
A Cuvier's beaked whale (left) is exceptionally rare, only photographed in the wild a handful of times. But it's not nearly as strong an image as the smiling dolphin (right) with the reflection at the surface- a more common subject.
4. Be Diverse
Too often we see portfolios where there’s a great image of a nudibranch, with a snoot used to create a spectacular spotlight effect. But then, the majority of the rest of the images are in a similar vein.
The strongest portfolios are those that communicate the diversity of talents of the photographer. This begins with a diversity of subject material: Unless you are submitting a specifically macro/wide-angle portfolio, you want a diversity in subject types. In addition, you want to display a variety of shooting abilities by using “niche” techniques—close-focus wide-angle, over-unders, silhouettes, black and white, Snell’s window, and motion blur are just several suggestions.
Tobias Friedrich's portfolio is one of the strongest we've presented as a Photographer of the Week. One main reason is the diversity in image types, including subjects, behaviors, and techniques used.
5. Ask Other Underwater Photographers
As mentioned above, one of the biggest challenges when putting together a portfolio is being removed from your images. We see this time and time again: Photographers share portfolios that are weakened by the fact they have an emotional attachment to an image (or images) that don’t live up to the quality of the rest of the shots.
Other underwater photographers have no attachment to your images. And they know what looks good. Take advantage of this: Send 15 or so images to a photographer (or editor) whose opinion you trust and ask that person to select just 5 images. The answer may surprise you. But it might also be an opportunity to make your portfolio stronger.
Struggling to choose the best image from your recent great white shark expedition to include in your portfolio? Reach out to a fellow underwater photography friend for honest advice!
A photography portfolio is only as strong as its weakest image. Unfortunately, a beautiful portfolio can be marred by just a couple “meh” shots. Hopefully the tips above will help you put together the best possible selection of your images.