The end of the year is always a time to both make one final push to close the business year strongly and to reflect on the current state of affairs. As a photographer, it’s also a good time to look back on where you stand as an artist and where you still want to go.
There is a photograph on my desktop. It’s a portrait of four women that I took as part of an activewear shoot a couple of years back. It has always been one of my favorite images for multiple reasons. For one, it was taken at a point in my career where I was just starting to get serious about honing down on a specific niche. I’ve written before about how important it is to your marketing that you find a niche to call your own. And this shoot took place at the beginning of that process for me. I’d been working as a professional photographer for years already. But this shoot marked the beginning of a new chapter both creatively and professionally.
There were several keepers from that series, but this one portrait of the four women together always stuck out as my favorite. I got my light just how I wanted it. The interaction between the women was just what I wanted. It felt both clean and natural at the same time. It felt very much like other activewear campaigns I’d seen from more established photographers. So I was both satisfied to be able to please my client as well as to prove to myself that I could execute that type of shot.
Thematically, the shot also fit very much into the brand I was building. So, in addition to being my screensaver, it has been a regular fixture in my portfolio for years even as my work has evolved along with my client list. I couldn’t count how many times the images in my portfolio have completely turned over in the last several years or even in the last couple of months come to think of it. But as many images have come and gone, this image has always stayed. Somehow, my portfolio felt naked without it.
I think all photographers have shots like that. Those portfolio stalwarts are the first you reach for when building the latest version of your book. Those images that have gone through portfolio review after portfolio review, client meeting after client meeting, and have always presented with flying colors. They are the photographic equivalent of a trusted veteran quarterback. You’ve been in enough battles together to know that, even when the chips are down, that image will come through for you.
But, as much as I love that set of images, and I really do love that set of images, I recently found myself doing something really foreign to me while preparing for a recent Zoom meeting with the creative director of a magazine I was trying to connect with. Scanning over the presentation before the meeting and looking to cut out any excess slides, I landed on the page with my favorite photo. And I hit delete.
Choosing instead to focus on work I’d created in the last 18 months, with an extra emphasis on work since the pandemic, I went into the meeting with a batch of images with a far more limited track record. But they were images that spoke very much to who I was as an artist in the current moment as well as the new style I was continuing to develop. While this strategy could have been termed risky considering that I was trying out this combination of images for the first time in front of a very high-profile client, I went for it nonetheless. And, in the end, even without the favored image, the meeting was a success.
Now, this is not an essay about how I fell out of love with a particular shot. I suppose I will always love that shot and the rest of that series. But, as my client pointed out in that meeting, being a photographer is not only about reaching a certain point artistically. It is also about continuing to push oneself. Even if you feel as though you’ve reached your highest level, there is always room for improvement. It’s about constantly trying to find ways to reinvent yourself as an artist and put work in front of clients that is fresh and innovative. Your clients are coming to you to produce something new for them. They know you for your track record but are hiring you for the images you haven't shot yet. As much as your tried and true images will likely be well-received, many clients are most interested in what you are working on right now. What new ideas are you coming up with that might benefit them?
This is only further enhanced once you have established your name within the industry. Once you’ve been at it for a while and have built up a reputation within your given section of the marketplace, there is a good chance that many of your potential clients have seen your work before. I will often go into a meeting with a client that I’ve never met, only to have them look at an image in my portfolio and say, “oh, I’ve seen this series before.” Of course, it’s flattering for them to already know my work. But, in meetings like that, the moment that tends to stoke the most conversation is when I break out a new set of images, preferably ones that haven’t been made widely public.
But, of course, that begs the question. What should be the balance in your portfolio between oldies but goodies and brand new work? How often should you be rotating the work in your portfolio or on your website? How often is enough to keep it feeling fresh, but not too often to where clients don’t get a chance to see your favorite work?
Like most things in the art world, there really is no exact one size fits all response to that question. I tend to shoot a lot. Whether it be for clients or for personal projects, my O.C.D. serves me well when it comes to producing new content. So, practically speaking, it would be very easy for me to always have a portfolio consisting of only work created in the last couple of months. That’s not to say that it would be the best strategy. But, it would be possible. Yet that also has to do with the type of work I do. Another photographer who might instead spend a year shooting one long-term project might naturally turn their portfolio over at a much slower pace.
And then, naturally, just because you can turn your portfolio over, it doesn’t mean that you should. Your portfolio is not so much a collection of images as it is a succinct visual definition of your brand. So, some images, even aging ones, will always have a place in your portfolio, because they speak to who you are as an artist in a way that never changes no matter how your career progresses.
Whatever old versus new balance you go for, keeping your portfolio up to date does require you to be consistently reviewing your own work and your personal goals as an artist. Set a schedule. Maybe every couple of months, depending on how much work you are producing, you go back over your portfolio and confirm whether or not it still is an accurate reflection of who you are as an artist. Let’s just assume that the shots in your last portfolio are all super awesome. But do they still represent where you want to go with your career? Might a newer shoot be more in tune with the artist you are trying to become and the clients you are trying to attract? Or, as has happened to me on more than one occasion, if you go back into your archives to look at all the shots that didn’t make it into your portfolio in the past, might you find a previously discarded image that was just ahead of its time and actually is a better representation of your current style than the image that you have always used?
I know change can be hard. And it always seems impossible to choose to not show images that you are in love with and have stood the test of time. But also keep in mind that just because you are taking it out this time around, doesn’t mean you have to delete the file from your archives altogether. You can always put a favored older image back into a future portfolio edit. Or, you can even do the familiar photographer trick of having multiple edits of your portfolio that you simply rotate periodically. This allows you to continue to show more work, but also have your website and portfolio seems to be constantly changing for potential visitors. There are numerous tricks you can use to keep your work fresh and up to date without necessarily needing to abandon your legacy work altogether.
But, however, you choose to go about it, making sure your portfolio is continually infused with new life is critical to sustaining your creative career. The work you are producing today has hopefully come a long way from the work you were producing this time a year ago. And, with any luck, the work you produce a year from now should be forcing the work you shoot today out of your portfolio as well. Artistic work is about evolution. As you evolve your craft, you must also keep refining the message you are sharing with the world.