Portfolio building on a budget – Part I

Posted by Ines Opifantion Filed under Personal work, Writings · Ramblings · Musings

There is a saying that goes “if you don’t have a portfolio, you are not in business”. Of course, nowadays, everybody has a working website where clients can browse through your images whenever they want. But if you are invited to an agency or client meeting, you don’t want them to quickly flip through digital images on an iPad or computer screen. You want to impress them with high quality prints on beautiful paper, you want them to hold the images, to feel the paper weight and texture, you want to convey the impression of value. And, if you are on a budget, you still want to make your portfolio book look impressive and not cheap.


I spent a lot of time researching before deciding on the materials I used. I knew right from the beginning that most traditional portfolio books weren’t an option for me. As a person that avoids most animal products, leather wasn’t an option from the start. Not even faux leather, as the look is too obtrusive in my opinion. And cloth bound books are not really my personal taste, they remind me of old school textbooks, even though I must admit that I came across a few very beautifully made ones during my web researches.


Currently, acrylic cover books seem to grow in popularity steadily, and I surely played with the thought of using them. However, glossy acrylics is very sensitive to scratching, even moving it around on a normal desk can scratch the surface and nothing looks worse than a glossy surface full of micro scratches. Of course, these tiny scratches could be polished out with a little time, patience and a ridiculously expensive acrylics care kit from the seller, but I think I can imagine some more interesting tasks than repolishing my portfolio cover after every use, to keep it looking spotless. So, no acrylics for me.

I then stumbled over some bamboo wood portfolio covers and liked the idea immidiately. But instead of using ready made bamboo books, I decided to make my own wooden book with some darker wood, that fitted my taste. Of course, it was also cheaper than using ready made portfolio books, but more importantly, after spending so much time with researching options, I wanted to have an unique book in the end, that didn’t have to be perfect, but my very own. If you are located in the US, I recommend taking a look at Etsy, I saw quite a few sellers offer beautiful wooden custom portfolios. But the shipping cost to Germany is simply too much to consider it.

And while we are talking about costs: In the very end, I spent roughly 265€ for my finished book. That includes ALL the materials I used. Including wood, laser etching and paper. It’s actually around the same price as only the prints would have cost me if I had them done at a lab. And it includes the printer I bought (used), too. ;)

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Screenshot 2015-05-12 13.10.57

Starting out

So, let’s get to the details.

I found the perfect wood at the carpenter down the road, he sold and cut some scrap material for me for the ridiculous cheap price of 7€. This wood is looking really beautiful and I decided against staining it darker, I like the natural look of it.


Next task was to find a person who could laser etch my logo into the wood. I found a super nice guy with a workshop only 10 minutes from my home, so I wouldn’t have to ship the wood. I just dropped it off at his shop and watched the magic happen. 32€ including sales tax. Take a look at his shop at welovelaser.de, pretty cool stuff. If you need custom laser engraving, message him, he’ll make it happen!

After the logo was etched into the wood, I coated it with a single coating of linseed oil. It’s more natural-looking than laquering the wood and I didn’t want to have a glossy or delicate look. Another nice bonus is that the logo really stands out now, as the oil enhances the look of the texture. Depending on the angle you hold it, the logo is either dark on light ground, light on dark ground, or almost invisible. Cool effect.

Assembling the book:

Next step: Actually making the physical book. I bought a sheet of rubber for connecting the wood. The connection needed to be flexible, thin and resistant. Plus, it shouldn’t be staining the paper. Most people seem to use leather for this, I chose 2mm flexible black rubber. Cost for a sheet (50x30cm): ±4€. This is plenty of rubber.


I also bought some special glue for the rubber, cost: 6,50€
Don’t use common glue that hardens, it will either eat the rubber or break away from the stress of opening and closing the book.


Now, the actual book making:


Aligning the wood and making sure everything is levelled evenly. Then mark the lines and cut the rubber.


Applying the glue and let it sit for a few minutes.


Glueing the wood to the rubber. Fix it so it doesn’t move.


Straight view of the book’s cover.

Thoughts about the printing process

I wasn’t overly excited over the thought of using cheap c-prints from the lab and mounting them myself. First, you never know if the lab prints turn out just how you want them, second, they are single sided and need to be mounted and third, mounting them is the source of countless frustrations and can make your book look horribly amateurish if not done well. Mounting prints for a book really isn’t easy if you want to keep up a professional level and if you give it to a pro (which I recommend if you aren’t skilled in it), it costs serious €€€.

A lot of people still seem to use clear plastic sheets in their books, but honestly, I hate them (the plastic stuff, not the people!
;) ). I think they are the easiest way to make quality work look cheap and shitty. I can understand some artists use them to protect their delicate charcoal images and it helps pencil drawings not to smear and dirty up the book, but for photographers, they are not acceptable. At least this is how I feel about them.

So, I knew I’d like to use double sided high quality inkjet prints. These aren’t cheap, I have asked around and the quotes were around 280€ – 400€ for around 20 single(!) pages.

As my book is going to be a screw-post book, that will hopefully be updated on a regular basis, I also didn’t like the idea having to order the new pages every time. You don’t know if the paper will match, the printing quality will stay the same, or the size you want will be available forever. And, of course, using the book and handling the pages WILL lead to tears, folds, dirt and fingerprints. I’m really not one of those people that hand out gloves for clients before they get to touch their portfolio, that’s a weird No-No for me. (Like making the client feel he has dirty fingers or something.) I do know that the paper will get stained and I do know that I will have to replace spreads from time to time, so constantly re-ordering pages for 14€ a piece doesn’t sound like a lot of fun.

DIY Printing

My conclusion so far: Print it yourself. Unfortunately, I didn’t own a printer. Yet! I found some used Canon Pixma Pro 9500 Mark II on the local classifieds. It was used with cheap and empty cartridges and the print head was clogged. With a little love, time and windex, I got the head cleaned. Bought the printer for fantastic 50€, as I knew the print head might be damaged and a replacement would have cost me 100€. But I was lucky, the old print head is now working fine. I spent the saved 100€ on a full set of original Canon inks (which I will carefully refill with quality ink from Octo-Inkjet once they are empty).


Part II

So, what’s left on the todo list?

Yeah, right: Choosing and editing the pictures, layouting them, printing them. Scoring and punching the paper, drilling the holes, adding the screws. Then, stepping back and marveling on my book. Easy, right? Let’s see!

Part II is right here: Portfolio building on a budget part II