How to Succeed at a Portfolio Review

How to Succeed at a Portfolio Review

The portfolio review is likened to speed dating for good reason — you often have only 20 minutes to make a lasting impression. Whether you are having a one-on-one chat in a prospective client’s office or meeting at a photo festival round robin with several reviewers, here’s some advice for how to succeed… and, hopefully, put yourself in contention for future visual opportunities. As the saying goes, “you never have a second chance to make a first impression.”

The portfolio review provides you with that “reach out and touch someone” experience that all the e-promos, direct mail, direct tweets and promo pieces cannot. It’s often the foundation on which a healthy creative relationship is built. As Bill Cramer, founder of Wonderful Machine puts it, “It's easy for clients to ignore your emails, post cards, phone calls and social media connections, they can't ignore you when you're sitting right in front of them. So it's important to make the most of that brief encounter.”

If your work isn’t tightly edited and honed for presentation, you may want to continue to shoot until you’re ready for the auditioning process of a review. As photo consultant Jasmine DeFoore writes in her blog, “Be honest with yourself about if you are really ready to show the work. Maybe you need another year of shooting before you start showing your book to art buyers, art directors and photo editors. You only get one chance at a first impression, don't rush it if it's not the right time. Ask people who you trust for their honest opinion.”


SNAP! Orlando Portfolio Review  ©  Nancy Jo Brown/106FOTO

Regardless of whether your work is advertising, editorial or fine art, there are reviewers who will match up with your objectives. But before you sit at the table and pull our your work to show, there are a few keys to presenting well. A print portfolio, while not necessarily a must-have, is ideal and, preferably, one that has a branded look that conforms to the type of work that you specialize in. Logo treatment and color palette should unify fluidly with your existing brand. “The binding and pages could be classic and elegant or it could be quirky and unusual, but either way, it should suit you and your photographs and it should be on purpose,” said Cramer.

Images look crisp and color pops off the iPad and the digital display is ideal for having a larger set of portfolios that can be tailored to specific meetings. “If you find the client is responding to a particular part of your portfolio, there's an opportunity to show other projects along those lines or more recent projects that you haven't had a chance to add yet,” says Cramer, who feels the iPad is a nice supplement to the printed book. “And of course, an iPad is essential for showing sound and motion.”


SNAP! Orlando Portfolio Review  ©  Nancy Jo Brown/106FOTO

The iPad, however, shouldn’t be the only means of presenting your work and it is often best as a secondary tool. Lighting conditions can be unpredictable in review rooms and even with auto brightness, there are no guarantees as to how the work will represent. Unless you have access to the review room in advance of the event, you will have no way of knowing the lighting conditions, glare and layout and how that could impact the touch screen experience of the iPad.

“I like a custom-made, bound, printed book with double sided paper,” said DeFoore. “I just think it feels more special than an iPad, but I'm old school that way. Depending on how much work you have that is relevant to the reviewer, you might want to have one main printed or iPad portfolio, and then some extra stories or projects that you save in case there is time and interest. If you have motion, you should definitely show that on the iPad.”

The technology of the iPad also requires that you either use third party app or configure a custom presentation with the photo app in the iOS. Whatever avenue you choose, the entire experience needs to be bug-free and idiot-proof so you can control the user experience in advance as fully as possible. Having a reviewer open an iPad and not know where to begin or which app to launch can immediately thwart a good introduction. The iPad presentation needs to be tightly honed and edited just like a print book and not a mélange of recent work. Resist the temptation to load it with tons of varied work just because you can.

Dressing for success sounds cliché but a portfolio review is a job interview and the reviewer is assessing whether they can trust you to represent their brand well. You don’t want to provide a prospective with a reason to discount your work before even opening the portfolio so showing up early and dressing well are essential. Naturally, they will assume that the way you dress when you come to the table is the way they envision you will dress for a shoot when headed out to represent their brand.


SNAP! Orlando Portfolio Review  ©  Nancy Jo Brown/106FOTO

The reality of the portfolio review experience for the reviewer is that they may see anywhere from 20 to 30 portfolios over the course of a festival and, generally, all of the work is good work. When they leave the festival or expo, they often return to their office where they have another 20 to 30 books that they are tasked with reviewing over the next week or month. As Frank Meo, the Photo Closer, mentioned, the level of competition is high and all of the work is good.

“What people have to do for these reviews is make their presentation totally focused so that when somebody gets up and leaves, they can say ‘I remember what Michael Smith’s book looks like,’” said Meo. “If you don’t achieve that, then it was a total waste of money.”

One of the common mistakes that photographers make when entering a portfolio review is showing too much work. There is no definite sweet spot but 30-60 images tends to feel about right for reviewers. “The better your pictures are, the more of them you can show,” said Cramer.

The biggest mistake, however, and one that will doom the experience is not doing research on the reviewer and showing them work that has no relationship to their publication, gallery or advertising accounts. Showing food photography to a business magazine that specializes in executive portraits would be a huge misstep but it does happen.

At the very least, you should know a bit about the professional background of the reviewer. If they are on staff at a magazine, you should know whom they hire to shoot for them and what the look of the past few issues has been. You should know the artists they represent if they are a gallery or a curator of fine art. It is incumbent upon you to know the clients that an advertising agency representative does work with and be able to share which campaigns your work might dovetail with.

“Don't ask a client for career or portfolio advice (see a portfolio consultant for that),” said Cramer. “You want to present yourself as their creative equal. Don't ask for an assignment. The fact that you're there says that you want an assignment.”


SNAP! Orlando Portfolio Review  ©  Nancy Jo Brown/106FOTO

DeFoore recommends a test run of your portfolio with a friend or colleague who isn’t familiar with your work. Having them review it will allow for a sense of the pacing and time it takes to go from front to back and experience the images. This may also provide insight as to which images spark conversation and how to prep for any questions that may arise as to the backstories associated with images. It is important to have a few interesting stories about your work ready in case things proceed in total silence. But this is a delicate fine line. You don’t want to spend the entire time talking about each image and yapping away over their experience of the presentation. Here, the soft skills can be a major differentiator.

“It has to be more than your work is great,” said Meo. “Your work is great but you are also a problem solver, you’re an interesting person. Those are the type of things that will separate you out. Just being a good photographer nowadays in not enough.” The key is leaving a lasting impression that not only you are an accomplished photographer but that you are interesting and would be fun to work with long term. Like it or not, if a reviewer responds to the work, they are also examining whether they would personally enjoy working on location with you, if you would be a fun, energetic fit for an assignment or campaign.

Once the time is up, be courteous and thank the reviewer and present a well-made, high-end leave behind promo piece that best represents your work. This shouldn’t be a last minute postcard or something thrown together but a well-designed promo that will serve as a solid reminder of your vision as a photographer.

“Then, some weeks or months down the road, if you have something relevant and specific to share, get in touch again,” said DeFoore. “For example, if you have a personal project that would be a great fit for them, or if you are in an exhibition and want to invite them to the opening, that is a great excuse to get back in touch.” Make sure that the follow up is handled in a measured way with a note or secondary promo. Don’t hound them.

“Believe in your work but accept that not everyone is going to respond to it, and that that is ok,” said DeFoore. “Record (with permission of course) or write down their feedback, then file it away for a few days. Come back to it when you've recovered from the reviews and think about what their feedback means to you and how you can grow from it.”

As Frank Meo, the Photo Closer, said, “Be prepared. Be interested and be interesting.”

Most photo festivals have portfolio reviews and ones coming up next week include NYC Fotoworks and Palm Springs at Photo Plus.

Log in or register to post comments


Adam T's picture

For those not in Orlando, or hate driving on colonial, you can go to ( for reviews, they are cheaper and you get better judges.

As a matter of fact I am doing my porfolio to send it for aplication on college, so this was helpfull to me, thank you

Joseph Gamble's picture

Thanks for reading Lukas. Good luck.

Um bom material seguido de uma apresentação correta é um bom caminho. Antenado nas tendencias! Success to all!

David Apeji's picture

What do you think of loose-leaf prints in a presentation box taken to a portfolio review?

Joseph Gamble's picture

I think this is fine for galleries, museums but a bit less practical with commercial and editorial reviews. Just my $0.02.

Why do you write ipad instead of tablet? It's unfair.