3 Things To Look For When Updating Your Portfolio

3 Things To Look For When Updating Your Portfolio

Deciding which images to keep and which to throw away is one of the hardest lessons to learn for new photographers. One would think that it gets easier with experience, but the more you learn the harder it can get.

I’ve written at length previously about the importance of having a carefully curated portfolio and the process for going about making the right selects. As a photographer, your portfolio is the gateway to the world. It’s the key that either allows or denies you access to those opportunities you are working so hard to obtain.

Having a well curated portfolio, not just a collection of greatest hits, allows potential clients to not only gage your technical ability but also to access your artistic voice. It reveals what stories are important to you, how you go about telling them, and most importantly, how you might approach a potential assignment.

Given this importance, it is essential that a great deal of time and thought go into making selections when you are just starting out. As time goes on, and you go from review newbie to hardened veteran, you will start to get a sense of which of your images resonate with reviewers and which images do not. You will make changes, replace an image here or there, cut some out all together, and maybe even create new material to fill in certain gaps you hadn’t previously considered.  

Eventually, you will get to a portfolio that you are comfortable with. You will have a collection of work that has gone through the battles and consistently given you the desired response. You will have a book that gives you confidence and has led to new assignments.

Game. Set. Match. Your job is done, right? Right? Well, not exactly.

No matter how tight your edit, there will inevitably come a day, maybe one year, maybe two years later when you will look down at your perfectly edited portfolio and have to ask yourself “Does this still represent who I am as a photographer?”

Depending on your rate of growth, a year can be a very long time. Over that time span, not only have you likely created an entire catalog of new work to show, but you have hopefully also grown as an artist. You’ve probably even tried a new thing or two. Some successful. Some not.

So how do you decide what needs to change and what should stay the same? Try out these three simple starting points.

Have You Done It Better?  

You’ve likely refined your skills to the point where one or two of the images previously in your portfolio no longer fully reflect the scope of your ability. In my most recent portfolio update, I laid out the potential images for inclusion side-by-side to identify my favorite images. I very quickly selected three separate images that I felt were among the best I’d ever created. Each had been shot about a year apart and the eldest two were already mainstays in my established portfolio.

But then I noticed something else about the trio. They were all essentially the exact same shot. They were shot at different times for different reasons. The color toning was different. The model was different. The lighting was different. But despite those statistical variations, each of the shots was essentially the same. A female fitness model doing virtually the exact same movement framed in a very similar way. As a photographer and fan of my own work, I, of course, appreciated the subtle differences in photographic technique. But would any of that matter to an overworked art director just trying to make a quick evaluation of my work in as little time possible? Probably not. Far more likely is that, even if they couldn’t identify the exact reason, the art director would suddenly be filled with a sense that my work was repetitive. They might even think me a one trick pony. That’s great if that happens to be the exact trick they need for their product, but, if not, having multiple versions of the same shot is simply a waste of their time.

As artists, it’s natural that we return to certain visuals time and time again. As I said, all three of those images were among my all-time favorites. Clearly, there is something about that pose that I find inherently appealing. But, in the context of a portfolio where less is more, there is only room for one.

Are You Holding Onto An Image For Sentimental Reasons?

Photography, like any art, is a highly personal endeavor. Unless you are just cranking out catalog images factory-style without even bothering to look through the viewfinder, it’s quite likely that you have at least some emotional connection to each image you’ve shot.

Likewise, when selecting the images that will best represent us in our portfolio, it is only natural that these emotional connections will play a part. And that is not always a bad thing. One of the biggest objectives of a curated portfolio is to reveal to a potential buyer who we are as artists. Who we are as an artist is deeply rooted in who we are as human beings. It’s good to show that in your work. It’s what sets us apart from the competition. But, it is important to remember that even the most empathetic reviewer didn’t share in the experience of creating the image and will more than likely only be focused on the result.

When my career was just getting started, I won an award for a series of dance photographs that I created over the course of a half year. At the time, it was my most ambitious project, and prints from the series still line the hallway in my home. The series was also a pivotal point in my growth. Not only did the reception of the series lead me to new clients, but photographing dancers eventually led to photographing athletes which led to my current niche in the market.

Based on both the positive feedback from clients and my own personal love of the series, it has comprised a major section of my portfolio ever since. I personally like the work.  And I know that most potential reviewers will respond positively as well.

The series is also now six years old. And while I still love shooting dancers mixed in with my athletes, the aesthetic approach I took with the series bears little resemblance to any of my current work. Regardless of the quality of the series individually, when included with my recent work it sticks out like a sore thumb, leading to a less effective presentation. So, as much as I love showing the series, I would only be holding onto it for personal reasons. It had to go.

Is It Where You’ve Been, Or Where You Want To Go?

The reason you spend a small fortune on a print portfolio (or a load of time on a digital one) is to generate work. It is an investment in the future. Your goal is to show work that you want to be hired to make. It’s quite a simple concept, but, like other simple concepts, one prone to confusion when we try to overthink the premise.

The dance series I mentioned in the previous section was shot in what I would call a “lifestyle” aesthetic. All natural light. Sunshine. Lots of smiles. Partly this was out of practicality. Partly it was just the appropriate approach for the project.

Based on this series, I was contacted by Getty Images to be an assignment photographer for lifestyle work. Slightly different than contributing at random to their micro stock, I would work with one of their in-house photo editors to generate content for specific briefs. I’ll refrain from going on a tirade about stock photography at the moment, but I’ll just say that it led to them assigning me lots of projects of sunny happy people doing happy things while smiling. It makes sense. My rather trite description of their briefs could probably be applied to at least half of all commercial briefs. And I don’t hate lifestyle photography on principle. I still shoot it all the time.

But, as you can probably gather from my tone, there was absolutely nothing even remotely interesting about the images I was creating. They sold well enough as stock, but I absolutely hated almost every single one of them. But again, they were selling.

So, despite my personal lack of interest, clearly there was a market for these types of images. And since the objective of the portfolio is to reflect what’s in the market (or so I wrongly thought), then surely some of these images should be in my portfolio too. Right?

It is an old saying but nonetheless still rings true. Clients hire you to based on what’s in your portfolio. Many times they will be hiring you to literally recreate a shot that’s in your existing portfolio. In other words, what you choose to show is exactly what you will be hired to produce.

So why would you choose to show work that you don’t want to do? Sure we all need to make money to sustain a living. And all photographers take jobs they don’t want from time to time just to keep the lights on. But does it make sense to make work you hate part of your personal brand? Sure, it may have a short term benefit. But your portfolio is a long term document. You are using it to build the career you want and get the clients you want. There’s nothing wrong with taking a random job here or there, but your portfolio is about showing what your capable of, not just what you can do when you have no other choice. Cutting all those shots out of your portfolio will be a huge step towards defining your voice and creating long term success.

Of course, these are only a few items to take into consideration when updating your portfolio. There are numerous other intricacies that go into your selection based on your individual market, skill set, and experience. But whatever decisions you need to make, keep in mind that, in addition to being full of great photography, your portfolio is your introduction to the world. Make sure you are sending the right message.

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.

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Good read.

I really need to get my portfolio going.