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:
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?
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.
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."
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.