In Defense of a Fatter Portfolio: Why You Should Include More Photos

In Defense of a Fatter Portfolio: Why You Should Include More Photos

Everywhere I look, professional photographers are calling for people to put their portfolios on an extreme diet. Well, I'm here to defend my curvier portfolio and why this decision is entirely intentional.

I've had multiple photographers ask me why my portfolio is so large. The area in which I do a lot of commercial work — watches — has hundreds of images in the portfolio. While that is nowhere near all the images I have taken in this niche, it's an enormous body of work to present. It wasn't always this way, but I changed according to demand, not anecdotal evidence and whim.

The Arguments for Wafer-Thin Portfolios

I reached a point where I wanted to present a counterargument to the common sentiment toward an over-culled portfolio when discussing fellow editor Alex Cooke's article "The Subtle Mistake That Can Cost You Photography Clients." We usually agree on most things, but it's far more fun when we don't, and I decided to let him have it over one of his points. The article is full of excellent and thoughtful information, but I took umbrage with one small section:

Be Ruthless

It's tempting (particularly with the ease of the Internet) to thoughtlessly overfill our portfolios. But that can come back to bite us when we put anything but our best work out there. It's far, far better to have a portfolio of just a select few of your best shots than it is to have one with more shots of varying quality. A positive impression can be formed through 6-8 high-quality shots, but a negative impression can be formed from just one bad shot among 15 good images.

Now, I do understand the sentiment that underpins this common stance: show prospective clients only your very best work. Why overload them with your mediocre, middle-of-the-road imagery? On that front, I agree. There's no need to settle, but "6-8 high-quality shots" is a rather extreme outcome. If you're shooting as regularly as one ought to, should you be striving to be or continue to be a professional photographer, then your body of work will likely be tens of thousands deep. Whittling that cathedral worth of raw material down to the size of a doorknob might make you a ruthless mason, but does it make you a commercially successful one?

Shoot to debut new WorldTimer color.

The Argument for Girth

To be clear and lest I be accused of gerrymandering dear Cooke's point, I'm not saying a heavily pruned portfolio is wrong, it's just not always right. I work with a large number of brands, publications, and agencies. Some of these are small, some of these are gargantuan, but from all sizes, I have heard a problem time and time again. A wise man once said that if you can solve people's problems, you'll always have work, and I do my best to live by that advice. So, what is this common problem? Consistency. I would often hear of how photographers showed these companies some great imagery, but once hired, couldn't maintain that level of work and were rather hit or miss.

While I still had a brutally pruned portfolio, I would do my best to allay these fears with words. Then, failing that, I would move on to showing them work that wasn't in my portfolio. However, with business companies and the people that work for them, sometimes, you get one extremely brief chance to show them your portfolio. Where once I was worried that my work wasn't impressive enough to grab their attention, I was now concerned there wasn't enough to shout at them: "I work in your field and I take it very seriously."

So, I began adding most of the images I took that I was permitted to share to my previously sparse portfolio. Since then, one of the most common responses from prospective clients about my portfolio upon first sight is along the lines of "that's a huge body of work!" I've often asked agencies I've become friendly with whether it's overwhelming, and I've yet to hear any of them say they'd prefer a much smaller offering. I'm sure there are agencies and clients who have thought that, but I'm appealing to a problem of consistency.

Shoot for Aries Gold and Rocky

This Isn't an Ode to Low Standards

Let me clear here: this isn't suggesting you remove that quality filter entirely and let everything pour in. If there's still a huge disparity between your best and your average images, then this method of portfolio presentation might not be for you. The objective of having such a full body of work to send to clients is primarily to show that you can work at a high standard time and time again (with a secondary objective of social proof, showing you're actively working in this area.) You have to ask yourself (and it's critical you are honest): "is my average high enough to be considered of value in my field?" If it isn't, then you ought to only upload your best and your better-than-average images. There's nothing wrong with that, and my approach isn't a prescription of "all or nothing," Instead, what I am suggesting is that you don't limit yourself to a handful of your best images when consistency might be an issue for your clients.

Imagine booking a photographer for your wedding. You have a limited budget and need to very carefully allocate those funds to the right shooter for the job. If a photographer sent you a gallery with 6-8 or even 18-24 images, would you feel confident they're going to capture your whole day well? When friends have asked for advice on wedding photographers, I always say the same thing: "get the photographer to send you at least three full wedding galleries, then see if you're happy with the standard." 

Conclusion

I'll reiterate an earlier point here: I'm not saying a heavily pruned portfolio is wrong, it's just not always right. While you ought not to lower your standards to bolster your portfolio, demonstrating a level of consistency with volume of your presented body of work can show the caliber of photographer you are, as well as how often you are hired to work in the relevant area. I have genuinely lost count of how many clients of all shapes and sizes have voiced the same problem with past photographers they have hired. With words to the effect of "they weren't as good as we thought they were," they yearn for guarantees or, at the very least, strong evidence of results that are a level of quality they both expect and desire.

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15 Comments

Alex Cooke's picture

"I reached a point where I wanted to present a counterargument to the common sentiment toward an over-culled portfolio when discussing fellow editor Alex Cooke's article 'The Subtle Mistake That Can Cost You Photography Clients.' We usually agree on most things, but it's far more fun when we don't, and I decided to let him have it over one of his points."

You're fired.

Tim Ericsson's picture

Does your lust for power have no end?!

Alex Cooke's picture

I’m basically the Macbeth of photography.

Tim Ericsson's picture

Oh man, I hope you didn't read the ending!

Mike Kelley's picture

The issue is that by definition, some of those hundreds of images are going to be just plain BETTER than the rest. Why would you take the risk of showing work that is less impressive than the best 25 images? It only takes one mediocre image to have an art director look elsewhere.

Not to mention large portfolios just waste people's time. Show the best, and can the rest - just get right down to business. I assure you - nobody who is looking for a photographer has time to look at hundreds of pictures in the fast paced world we live in.

Lastly, there are inevitable stylistic difference that will occur between hundreds of images - another argument to keep it tight - to ensure you only get hired to shoot what you want to shoot. I can already see this in the tiny lead images uploaded to illustrate your point - the style of image is all over the place and quality of composition, lighting, and consistency varies wildly.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

Hundreds of images smells like desperation. It's like the Taco Bell drive thru menu...

A well designed portfolio has a flow, start strong, keep up the quality and finish strong with a great final shot. Any weak images that you feel like must have shots go in 2/3 of the way through.

In the olden printed portfolio days I had maybe 30 shots which seemed like enough, mostly because it was a face to face meeting and I only had entertaining anecdotes for maybe 23 of the pics. I kept it at 30 by taking out the weakest shot when a better one came along.
Having 100s is ridiculous in my opinion, sure the viewer can click thru and look at each shot for a second, is that really what you want? But they also get bored and rate the shots...good...ok...good...sucks...ok

BUT...today many ADs and CDs don't meet photographers in person until well into narrowing down the choices between photogs you may only have one chance online to show your work, so you throw everything at the wall and hope and pray something makes an impression. The shotgun approach.
I am pretty sure the client will be able to decide in 20-30 images if a photog is qualified to shoot the job, the next question is do they want to work together.

Carlton Canary's picture

I tend to think the argument for a slimmed down portfolio is most applicable for beginners. Most people early in their careers not only have quality inconsistency but they tend to shift their style around as well, leaving the viewer confused. When you look at Dan Winters or Mitch Feinberg or countless other VERY successful shooters, they have huge portfolios that show the breadth of their work. That said, they get away with it because every single image in their book is worthy of being there.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

This is true - early on I had a lot of stuff in my portfolio that shouldn't have been there (and I shudder when I think of the portfolio that got me into graduate school). The advice I give my students now is that your portfolio is only as strong as your weakest photo. Definitely a fan of pruning (do I get a raise, Alex?) but can understand that I'm only speaking for my industry (photojournalism) and not everything else.

Just because they get away with it, doesn't mean they do so because all their images are good.

Carlton Canary's picture

Maybe I'm just a fanboy then?

No, not at all. I'm just calling the logic into question. You don't know why they get away with it. Perhaps it's because they're already so successful, their names and reputation allows them to get away with it. Very often, people judge a practice based on the practitioner, rather than on its own merit.

Reasonable points, and well-articulated. Thanks.

Color Thief's picture

It's really all just speculation and anecdote unless you can show me a controlled study. This is one of (if not THE) biggest issues with people who give business advice to photographers. You can't know unless you can control the unknowns, but nevertheless people make stuff up because it sounds plausible. And other people buy into it. You have no idea if you've lost clients you would have otherwise won with a smaller portfolio. The same is true for those that argue for a smaller portfolio.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that the way you imagine people assigning value to your work is probably wrong. Study after study by people who really know about this subject, like Christopher Hsee, demonstrate this. Here's one example that should be a cautionary study to anyone who tries make arguments like those above: https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/3a9b/df026c5e6bbea2cd9f715c430984cecb10...

p.s on your about page you talk about being published by National Geographic. I'm curious have you really been published by NG or is this referring some online thing like 'Your Shot' (A vague, grandiose-sounding, client list with no tear sheets would be a much bigger red flag than the number of shots in your portfolio).

Daniel Medley's picture

I wonder if it matters as to what your photographic genre is?

I don't have a lot of pics in my portfolio, but I tend to rotate them in and out fairly regularly. I've a number of people who after viewing my portfolio or IG feed reach out to me and refer to a specific image in a request to "do something like that."

I do mainly portraiture with a strong leaning towards environmental and a occasionally conceptual. I think something like that lends itself to a heavier portfolio than, say, strictly headshot work, weddings, or product photography.

On a completely unrelated thing. Often times when this website reloads an ad, it bumps my cursor from the comment field. It makes me want to plunge a stick into my eye and spin it between my hands like an aboriginal starting a fire on a frosty morning :)

Dana Goldstein's picture

First of all, a wedding portfolio is a completely different beast from a commercial portfolio, so your example is irrelevant. I wouldn’t put up a gallery on my site with only 6-8 images in any particular category. I would wait till I’d shot at least a dozen in that, and would certainly want more overall. However I also wouldn’t flood any poor unsuspecting photo editor or creative director with hundreds of images. Pick the 30 best, and list your clients on your site. Expand on the categories there but certainly don’t do it in print. I’ve been told by multiple photo consultants that 25-40 is the sweet spot for a properly sequenced, tightly edited commercial portfolio.