3 Questions to Ask of Every Image in Your Portfolio

3 Questions to Ask of Every Image in Your Portfolio

Today, we’ll look at three simple questions you should ask when deciding which images make the cut for your professional portfolio.

Being selfish is never a good thing. Except when you’re an artist. Don’t get me wrong. The higher you go in photography, the more likely it is that you will be working with a team of people and not just walking the streets alone with a camera and a smile. And, as part of a team, indeed as part of a functioning society, it is your job to be respectful of your teammates, treat others as your wish to be treated, and foster a positive environment. Being an artist doesn’t absolve you from being a good person.

But being a successful artist does mean leaning into the things that set you apart from the marketplace. It’s the one industry that rewards you for doing things your way. So, with that said, here are three simple questions you should always ask yourself when curating your images for the world.

Could This Have Been Shot by Anyone Else?

Having a high level of technical skill is incredibly important for a photographer. The job is part art and part math and science. So, it is worth your time to develop and continue to develop your technical ability to produce the most commonly requested shots.

But, simply put, it’s highly unlikely that you’re going to bring them to their knees by showing them a portfolio of e-commerce images of models shot on a white cyc. Nor are you likely to wow them in Manhattan with a series of images of smiling shallow depth of field portraits where the bokeh is doing all the work. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with either of those aforementioned scenarios. And both can be moneymakers at a certain stage of your business. But if you’re trying to take the next step in your career and be able to compete with the top names in the industry, you’ll quickly come to an important realization. Pretty much every photographer you see working at a high level is also extremely technically proficient.  

Not all. There are certainly some who manage to make it to the top without even understanding a light meter. But, more often than not, what separates super-successful artists from the competition is not their ability to replicate the same thing every other photographer can shoot. Instead, they become industry leaders by, well, leading. I can pretty much guarantee you that every commercial photographer worth his or her salt can shoot a basic headshot on a white cyc. But not everyone can create a truly special image that is all their own, whether it be shot on a cyc, in a field or in a laboratory.  

Because a certain level of technical proficiency is assumed of a photographer working at a professional level, choosing to allot some of your precious portfolio real estate to images that demonstrate nothing more than your ability to use a light meter may not be as impactful as you imagine. If an image could have been shot by just about every professional photographer, how does that help to separate you from the competition? Sure, you may have built a better mousetrap. But, if every photographer the client sees can build the same mousetrap, then it’s not the kind of thing that will help you stand out. Your unique artistic vision is what puts you on top. Technical mastery is simply a base requirement and the method through which that artistic vision reaches the world.

Does This Fit Within My Overall Niche?

When I was just starting, I made the same mistake that many young photographers make. I assumed that to be a professional photographer, I had to prove to the world that I could recreate every type of photograph I’d ever seen in the world. Gritty photojournalism? Got it. Studio shoot of a model on a white cyc? Been there, done that. Commercial lifestyle shot of happy people sharing a beer? Even though I don’t drink myself, I’ve got that too.

It’s not that trying my hand in a lot of different areas was a bad thing. I learned a great deal doing this early on. I broadened my skill set, while, at the same time, learned both what I did want to shoot and, more importantly, what I didn’t want to shoot.  

The problem came when I started to try and present this hodgepodge of random work to potential clients. It’s not that any of the shots in my early portfolios were particularly bad. It’s just that they made no sense presented together in the same portfolio. Worse yet, because I had spread my interest so thin, I was quickly becoming a jack of all trades, but a master of none.

When I started to do research and study the photographers whose work and careers I admired, I realized they generally fell into one of two camps. Either they shot a lot of different categories, but all of their images across categories tended to have a very unique and identifiable aesthetic. So, their images of rockstars felt very much at home with their beauty work, for example. Or, other photographers varied their visual approach from job to job, but they tended to focus that variation all within a single genre. So, they would shoot black and white one day and highly saturated images the next. But they would work almost exclusively within, for instance, the automotive industry.

As soon as I applied this logic to my career, my business began to take off. It’s not that I couldn’t keep shooting whatever I wanted. But, when it came to what my clients would see, I was incredibly particular about what images made it into the public. While this may at first seem limiting, niching down ultimately has been one of the most freeing choices I’ve made as an artist.  

First, it allows me to use all of my creativity, just focus it on a specific target. Constraints can spur creativity. Second, once you have established a specific specialty, it can open the door for others. Become known as the woman who shoots great images of jungle cats and you might find yourself shooting nothing but jungle cats for several years. But, as those years pile up, you will discover that you are no longer just trying to get your foot in the door, but, instead, have a firm reputation for service within the industry. Now that you have that reputation, brands can start to trust you with subjects outside of jungle cats. Maybe a pet food company wants to give you a shot with a different set of animals. Maybe shooting the packaging art for them leads to packaging work in a completely non-animal-related industry. The goal is to get yourself in the door. It’s up to you and your hard work to make things happen once you get there.

Does This Show Where I’ve Been or Where I Want to Go?

After you’ve been shooting for some time, you will inevitably find yourself with a collection of great images that you are proud of. I discussed earlier how important it is to find your niche in the market and be intentional about which work you choose to present. So, let’s assume you’ve taken that advice and have built a strong business around a specific type of photography.  

You’ve won the battle, but you still have not yet won the war. That is because photography is a long game. Developing yourself artistically is a never-ending cycle. You don’t just reach a certain point then decide you’ve done enough. You want to continue to develop your vision and your career for as long as possible.  

But, while this is a valiant goal, it does also mean that your goals will change over time. The type of photographer you wish to be at the beginning of your career isn’t always going to be the type of photographer you wish to be in the end. In fact, throughout a photography career, the way you see yourself and your work is almost guaranteed to change as much as you will change as a person. As a result, your portfolio has to keep up.

It’s tempting to keep certain images in your portfolio simply because they represent career peaks. You shot this for such and such client. You won so and so award for this series. This other image was a watershed moment for your career. This last image always performs well in portfolio reviews. But are those images representative of where you’ve been or where you want to go?

Here’s an example. Let’s say you make a healthy living shooting weddings. But, what you want to be doing is shooting editorial fashion images. Because you’ve been established so long in the wedding world, you have a portfolio full of amazing images of brides and ceremonies. But, despite your dreams, you have only shot a handful of actual fashion jobs. So many of your best images are still wedding images. You want to start getting meetings with fashion photo editors, but don’t know what to put in your book. Should you include some wedding images because that’s what’s always gotten you to work? Or should you present a more limited portfolio with only the fashion images?

Well, I think the answer to the query is present in the question itself. If you want to be a fashion photographer, then why are you showing wedding images? Even if you're the best wedding photographer in the country, those shots mean absolutely nothing to the fashion clients you want to work for. I’m not saying you need to completely ditch wedding work. If that’s something you want to keep doing, then, by all means, keep a separate portfolio dedicated to it. But, just like showing fashion images isn’t likely to be helpful to a bride trying to decide if you’d shoot great wedding shots, showing wedding shots to a photo editor who doesn’t hire for weddings is equally pointless.

You will get hired based on the work in your portfolio. So, your portfolio should not only show the work that you’ve done but also represent the work that you want to do in the future. If you want to put weddings behind you, then there’s no reason they should be in your portfolio. The only thing that will do is confuse your client as to your intentions. Worse yet, as inevitably happens, a potential client will see that image that represents the kind of work you are trying to get away from and hire you to keep doing that same thing as opposed to considering you for the new work you want to be making. Don’t put that old stuff in there and give them any ideas. Put your new direction in there and they’ll be able to envision hiring you to shoot that instead.

A portfolio should tell the audience where you want to go. So, sure, you might have a long history in one field, but the portfolio is a place to advertise for the future. If you don’t have enough fashion work to show, do some test shoots with local models to build up your book. Fake it until you make it. But, by all means, make sure that you are using your portfolio to not only show off your awesome skills but to paint a clear image in your client's mind of exactly how you wish to be hired.  

Instead of thinking of your portfolio as a way to prove your technical merit, think of it as a way to take what you have on the inside and share it with the outside world. Be selfish. This portfolio is about you and how you see the world around you. It’s not just about whether or not you have the technical skills to light a scene. It’s more about why you choose to light a scene in a particular way. It’s not just about where you’ve been. It’s about where you want to go. What is your view of the world and humanity that separates you from every other photographer who walks in the door? What makes you unique? It’s that uniqueness that the client is paying for. And your portfolio is your chance to drive home to a client just what makes your vision so valuable. It’s not because you can shoot like everyone else. It’s because you’re the only one who can shoot like you.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

Log in or register to post comments

A portfolio is like a resume. You should tailor your resume (portfolio) to the work you want to do with the particular client you are interviewing with. Going to an interview to get a men's fashion gig, put men's fashion in the portfolio (your tablet or the hand-carried portfolio case). Two weeks from now at a bridal interview, pull out the bridal photos. Corporate headshots - yep, portfolio 3.

I completely agree. A portfolio isn't just one set of images that you show to all prospective clients. Rather, each time you are meeting a prospective client, you make a portfolio just for them. Then the next prospective client you market yourself to, you make another, different portfolio for them. And so on and so forth for each person that you show your portfolio to. That's doing it right.

I always say "you attract what you put out" so put out what you want to be hired for. Great article Christopher. Excellent points and very well written

I am appalled at the images included in this article, truly amazed if they were made by a "successful" pro. The opening shot (basketball) is "framed" with garbage- motley textures and lines that distract, but contribute nothing. The "Green" studio portrait casts green onto the subject's face!!
I could continue, but can't waste more time on what's probably a "fool's errand"...
I'm new to this site, probably done with it.
- Mark T, Michigan USA

Mark, I have to disagree with your comment. Christopher didn't actually ask for a critique of his photography, and if she did, then it would probably be requested from another skilled and established photographer. But, have you considered the possibility that because she is a successful and highly respected photographer, that it's maybe your subjective opinion of her work - an opinion you are, of course, entitled to - might be the issue and not the photography.

A fascinating read, and I find your photographs that you use compelling and unique. Thanks for the great advice.

Thank you! These aren't mine this is Christopher's article but I also loved it

Oops. Sorry. Great article Christopher! Sorry, I saw your comment above, Michelle, and in my multi-tasking muddle, wrote the wrong name.