Building a photo portfolio

Every couple of years I take a look at my photography portfolio and see if it needs a refresh — whether that means new content, a new design, a new theme or a new service. I’ve been hosting my portfolio with Squarespace for the last couple of years and while I’ve been happy with it, especially the clean designs, I found maintenance of it to be cumbersome and it was regularly falling out of sync with my latest work. Recently I’ve been looking at Adobe Portfolio as an alternative. One of the neat things about Adobe’s offering is that it comes free with a Lightroom subscription. Lightroom costs just $10 / month and you get Adobe Portfolio with it for free. Squarespace on the other hand is about $15 / month and while I think this is reasonable for a professional looking portfolio, I have a ridiculous number of “just $10/ month” subscriptions. So in the interests of both curiosity and reducing my number of subscriptions by one, I decided to give it a try.

My previous portfolio, hosted by Squarespace

Part 1 — Adobe Lightroom and Portfolio integration

On the topic of Lightroom — I consider this to be one of the best consumer software apps ever written. Since moving to it full time, my Photoshop usage has done down to virtually zero and I now rely on Lightroom for my entire workflow which includes importing, categorizing / library and processing (or “developing”). It even has one of the better layout editors for printing and I’ve used its Blurb integration several times for creating custom photography books. Even if I wasn’t doing much processing, I’d be using Lightroom to manage my catalog of images.

However, the one area in my workflow that has felt broken for the longest time has been when it’s been time to manage / publish a portfolio online. I’ve had a cumbersome process of exporting images from Lightroom to Google Drive, then manually maintaining them.

What’s nice about Adobe Portfolio is that it supports direct Lightroom integration. This means you can edit your photos on your Mac / PC / Phone, categorize them in Lightroom (e.g. “portraits”) and then select the ones for hosting within your Adobe Portfolio website without having to transfer files around. For example, I have a gallery called “Mountains” and on myportfolio.com, I can select from any one of the “Add Media” options below.

If I select “Lightroom”, then you get another dialog where you get to choose the images:

The difference with this approach is that you don’t have to export your images from from Lightroom to your local disk, and then upload them and worry about things getting out of sync. The other benefit is that since Adobe also released Lightroom for iOS, you can even browse the same categories on your iPhone which removes another manual process I had.

As for the service itself, I actually slightly prefer the visual output of Squarespace — but Adobe Portfolio has a number of customizations that can get you close enough. The interface itself can be confusing (they could do with some pretty radical simplification) but once you learn it, it’s reliable and consistent. So as a standalone service, I think Adobe Portfolio is good, but throw in the free-with-lightroom thing and the benefits of Lightroom integration and it becomes great.

Top marks to Adobe. They didn’t just build an amazing piece of software in Lightroom, they made it available on other devices like Web and Mobile and took care of syncing everything between them.

Part 2— Being a good editor

When I first started photography, I was lucky enough to be part of a great circle of photographers who were much more talented than me. One of the best pieces advices I got was to “get good at editing your own portfolio”. Over time I’ve come to understand what this means. The process of editing your own portfolio does a number of things such as forcing you to evaluate where you are as a photographer, whether you have a body of work you are happy with and to look for certain styles / themes that may be emerging (consciously or otherwise). Getting “good” at this is mostly a process of reduction rather than addition — it’s about removing mediocre photos so that you’re left with only a few great ones.

We often do the opposite to this. When we come back from vacation we have hundreds of photos. We often don’t want to cull them down to a select few because we’re too lazy or we feel like they’re all too precious. If we’re too lazy to do it, you can bet that a viewer will be also — it’s pretty rare that anyone will be willing to sift through a hundred of your photos to find a handful of meaningful ones. The feeling that every image is precious is super common also. It’s not limited to photography either. We hoard possessions, such as our 15 year old hoodie we were wearing when the Cowboys won the Superbowl. And we get attached to our written words — the famous quote “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead” seems relevant here. And relevant for my profession, we get attached to our ideas in software and hardware design, to the point where companies differentiate mostly by removing, not adding features.

What I try to remind myself of when I’m struggling to cull down my photos to a select few (or possessions, words or features) is that it’s not because every photo is great, but because every photo is average. It’s a subtle shift, but an important for me. I find taking this approach to be freeing and it helps release me from the jaws of mediocrity for a moment so I can pick the few things that really matter.

Part 3 — the result

So, here’s my current porfolio. You can view it at http://view.lawrenceripsher.com.

I organized it into 9 galleries (the thumbnails for six of them are shown above). Some were projects (e.g. “Horizons” which is best example of my “photographic vision” right now) and some are themed (“Oceans”, “Deserts”, “Mountains”).

One self-criticism of my work which I’ll offer is that while there are some common themes such as minimalism, you couldn’t look at my work and know if I was a landscape photographer, travel photographer or sports photographer. It’s kinda a mix of both. I could argue that the best attribute of my work is its breadth and variety — but I could equally argue this is the biggest weakness too. It appeal of variety certainly matches my attitude and passions in life —so I’ll no doubt continue to wrestle with this.

I tried to stick to fewer than 10 galleries, and fewer than 20 photos per gallery. The exception to that rule was the “dogs” gallery where as in real-life, I’m setting an unlimited upper bound on the number of dogs. But in total, that’s about 200 images. Perhaps too many in some regards, but when I think about the 10 years that I’ve been doing photography, that means I’ve created 20 photos per year that I consider worth looking at.

I think this is a reasonable assumption and I’ll stick with that for now. At least, until my next overhaul.

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