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A Graphic Designer's Guide to Shooting Portfolio Photographs

Tips & Tricks

July 10, 2017

As a graphic designer today, you probably work solely using digital tools, and only ever present your portfolio to prospective clients on a screen. But unless you specialize entirely in web-based projects, it's likely that most of the briefs you work on are ultimately destined to be realized in physical printed form. 

 

But do the photos you take for your portfolio really show your print projects off at their very best? Read our guide to taking pictures of printed design work and you'll have your portfolio looking top notch in no time.

How to Take Photographs for a Design Portfolio

For anyone working in print design, tangible qualities such as paper stock, printing techniques, textures and finishes all form an integral part of what makes your work stand out from the competition. In this case, clearly a few screen shots from Photoshop or InDesign are never going to effectively communicate the quality of your creative output to potential clients. 

What do you want to say?

As with the design itself, you'll need to choose an appropriate creative direction for your photographs before starting work. What do you want your portfolio to communicate about you as a designer? Are you a clinical minimalist? Or a neo-classicist? A retro-futurist? Or a folksy whimsicalist? Do you want to show your work in situ, as it's intended to be seen and interacted with by users? Or would you prefer to keep things totally pared back so viewers can concentrate 100% on the work? 

How you answer these questions will dictate many of the choices you'll make from here on in. 

Choosing the right background 

While the work itself should always be the star of the show, the background you choose to display it on is extremely important, as this will contribute enormously to the final look of the pictures. Top priority here is choosing a background that is appropriate to your style of work and the kind of objects you want to display. 

 

A simple white background is the most obvious choice, and if you want a totally clean look then it's almost the only option. But it won't be right for everyone. Even if you are going for total simplicity, you might also consider pale grey or pastel shades as alternatives, as these can add an extra level of sophistication, and this way you avoid the risk of shooting pictures that look like badly done eBay listings.

 

However, if a stronger statement is more in line with your style of design, then a contrasting primary color or deep hue could really set the work off nicely, giving your portfolio greater impact and a very contemporary look.

 

 

how to make a designer portfolio
Light grey background which works well with a white and yellow identity.

Work by Guillaume Phillippe

 

 

The next step is to get a large sheet of paper or card in the color you require. A smooth, textureless paper is likely going to be the best option here, but a coarse, textured finish might be desirable in some situations, depending on the look you want to achieve. Be careful not to buy paper that has a glossy sheen though, as this will be difficult to light evenly and you may end up with ugly glare and reflections on the background.

 

You can either buy two pieces of the same paper and place one on a table top and attach the other to the wall behind it, or if you prefer a totally seamless "infinity" background, then get one very big sheet and tape it to the wall so that half its surface covers the wall and the rest curves down smoothly onto the table. This way there'll be no visible join between surfaces and instead your work will be floating on a featureless bed of color.

 

 

free photography portfolio websites
Home made backdrop.

Photo by Maker Mama

 

 

When buying paper it's important to remember that the background needs to be a lot bigger than the items you want to shoot. It's easy to imagine that a few more inches will be enough to work with, but the extra size is required not only in order to leave some empty space around the object when framing the shot, but also because perspective foreshortening means that even a few inches of distance between subject and background will make the background appear a lot smaller in relation to the subject. If the object you are photographing is close to the camera and the wall far away, then even a sheet of paper that is twice the width of the subject could be insufficient once pinned to the wall.

 

As an alternative (or even in addition) to the clean studio pack-shot approach, you might want to shoot your designs on a real-life background, giving a greater sense of context and scale to the work. This approach also offers an opportunity to reinforce either the idea behind your art direction of that particular project, or your own brand image as a designer. 

 

 

portfolio interior design
On a real-life background.

 

 

These are just the most traditional approaches, but really there are no rules beyond choosing a background that shows your work of at its absolute best. You're a designer, so get creative with background locations and surfaces!

Types of Lighting 

Every bit as important as the choice of background is the way that you light the shot, as an unevenly or poorly lit photo will look unprofessional and bring down the level of your portfolio. There are three types of lighting open to you. Let's take a look at some of their advantages and disadvantages, in order to help you choose.

 

 

— DAYLIGHT

The sun can produce the most beautiful quality of light imaginable, and on top of which it's free. This makes it a pretty appealing option. The problem with daylight though is that we mere humans don't have a great deal of control over its behavior, and a sudden change in the light half way through a shoot can be very frustrating. If you do go for this option, you'll probably want to avoid direct sunlight, as this will cause strong shadows and any change in the sun's position between one shot and the next will be very noticeable.

A better approach is either to shoot outdoors on an overcast day (just make sure there's no wind) or indoors in a room lit by a large north-facing window, so that the light entering is even and indirect. If you don't have access to a north-facing room, you'll need to find a period of the day when no direct sun hits your working area and only shoot at this time.


Of course, not only does the sun's position vary depending on the time of day, but also its strength will fluctuate, so you will constantly need to monitor and alter the exposure settings on your camera in order to guarantee an even result over all your shots. Not only this, but the color of the light will change too over the arc of the day - from cool to warm and back again - so you may need to adjust the white balance at some point as well. Both of these problems can make it quite a challenge to achieve a uniform look throughout a series of photographs.

 

 

— CONTINOUS ELECTRIC LIGHT

This is likely the best option for the average person, as it offers consistent results yet doesn't necessitate spending large sums of money or come with a steep learning curve. While professional photographic lighting equipment will permit greater flexibility and control, two or three anglepoise lamps will probably do the job well enough for most designers. 

You will need to use daylight-balanced bulbs and come up with a method of diffusing the light so as to avoid hard shadows. This can be as simple as taping some tracing paper over the front of the lights. However, if you do go this route, you will need to make absolutely certain that the bulbs do not heat up, or else you run the very real risk of the diffusion material going up in flames. This is no joke, be very careful!

Set up two lamps in front of, but to either side of, your background - angled towards the subject. This way your work will be equally lit from both sides, the two lamps mostly cancelling out each other's shadows. If you find that the background is not evenly illuminated (for example the lighting falls away and becomes darker towards the edges of the frame) then try moving the lamps away from the background slightly. Failing this, you might need to use a third lamp pointed at the background itself.

 

 

— FLASH

Photographic strobes are extremely powerful, their output can be carefully modified and controlled, and they provide excellent consistency, making them the best overall choice for studio lighting —if you know what you're doing. The main problem is that you can't actually see what kind of light they are giving off until you take a picture, making them tricky to set up and control. Not an ideal choice for photography newbies. They will also cost considerably more than the other two options we've looked at here. If you're happy to confront these two challenges, though, then they will likely give the best results. The set-up procedure for flash is the same as for continuous lighting above.

Quality of Light

Lighting equipment is one matter, but what kind of lighting should you be aiming to achieve for your portfolio shoot? This will depend somewhat upon the kind of materials you need to photograph, but generally, the most appropriate lighting for shooting printed design work will be soft and even, without hard shadows or reflections. There are occasionally exceptions to this rule though.

 

 

— SHADOWS

As already mentioned, you're mostly going to want soft, even light, so as to ensure that every bit of your design work is clearly visible and that there are no distracting shadows. However, occasionally you might need to work with hard, contrasty light (i.e. light that produces shadows with a strongly defined edge) so as to bring out surface details in your work. For example, if you have a project that includes embossed, foil stamped elements, or a paper stock with a unique texture, then clearly this needs to be understood by the viewers of your portfolio. Hard light will throw them into relief, bringing out the grain and contours. 

 

 

portfolio graphic design
Hard, contrasty light used to reveal the unique texture of the paper. 

Work by Eroshenko Vladislav.

 

 

— REFLECTIONS

Mostly reflections are something that you want to avoid, as they tend to look untidy and will distract from your design work. If you find you have an irritating reflection on a shiny surface (say a glossy book cover, or a shiny foil), to fix the problem you will need to change the position of either the lights, your camera, or the item itself. If not all three.


Having said this, the only way to successfully photograph a very dark object is by getting reflections on it. For example, let's say you've designed a slick series of work in all black, with all the text embossed or printed with a gloss black foil — black on black. Only by positioning your camera or the lights at such an angle that the light bulbs themselves are reflected directly on the surface of your subject like a mirror will the details of dark items become visible.

 

 

free portfolio theme
Glossy golden logo on a business card. 

Work by Kai

Image Quality and Resolution 

Even if it's most likely that your photos are destined to only ever be viewed on a screen, you can't rule out the possibility that you might also need to print them some day. For this reason, you should always endeavor to produce the highest quality images possible. This means that you need to shoot everything as RAW files. If you shoot in RAW and then afterwards need some smaller JPEGs for your online portfolio, you can make them whenever you need. Conversely, if you shoot as low-resolution JPEGs and then later discover you need to make prints, well tough luck. 

Similarly, make sure ISO is set to 100 or 200, so as to avoid unnecessary digital noise.

Use a Tripod

Blurry images are of no use to anyone. Unless you've got a very powerful light source that will allow shooting at 200 ISO at a fast enough shutter speed to avoid camera shake, then you'll need to use a tripod and a cable or remote shutter release.

 

 

online portfolio

Composition and Approach 

Given that few viewers of your portfolio will ever get to see the real physical versions of your work, you need to be sure that all the important details of color, texture and form, and any special features are all totally visible in the photos. This means not only showing a good, clear overall view of the entire item, but probably also producing a series of close-up or macro images showcasing important details individually.
 

As a general rule, you should get in close but also experiment with height and angle, so as to inject a little movement and energy into the photos. Show your items separately or grouped together; lain flat or standing up; front on or diagonally from the side. Books, magazines, catalogs and menus can be displayed with their pages splayed open. Business cards shown individually or stacked. Consider whether it would also be beneficial to show the item as it's intended to be used, or with some other objects alongside it to give an idea of scale.

Finally, if the design process itself was especially unique and interesting, you might also want to document this and place it alongside photos of the finished work in your portfolio.

 

 

Focus and Depth of Field 

For most shots, you should be aiming to get as much of the image as sharp as possible, so as to allow the viewer to see your work clearly. This means shooting with a deep depth of field (i.e. at a high f/stop number, such as f/.16 and beyond). However, when doing close-up detail shots, shooting in macro-mode and using a narrow depth of field to blow the foreground and background out of focus can help add depth and draw the eye to important features of the work.

 

Make sure to always focus in the right place. For example, it's natural that a viewer will want to read the title of a book when looking at its cover, so this should be the point of focus. If the eye naturally wants to look at a specific detail then it will be disconcerting for the viewer if that element is out of focus while other less important ones are totally sharp. Decide which is the most important element of that particular photo, and focus there. 

Post-processing

Post-processing is an essential part of the job of producing portfolio photos, giving you the opportunity to fix inconsistent color-casts, and remove dust or any other distracting marks from the shot. Using Photoshop adjustment layers, you can also level out uneven lighting of the background to a degree, and lighten or darken parts of the image so as to draw attention to the most important elements. If you're skilled, you might even be able to clone-out unwanted shadows and highlights (but it's always better just avoid them in the first place when shooting).

 

 

Final Thoughts

There's a lot of thought and hard work that goes into producing high-quality photographs for a digital portfolio. Yet this pales in comparison to the time and effort you will have put into designing the work in the first place, so it really makes very little sense to be so exacting in your standards as a designer, only to try to cut corners on the presentation. 

 

Bad photos will make good design looks bad. Good photos will make good design looks better. 

 

 

Happy shooting!

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