You've spent the time learning your craft, you've built a portfolio, and you've invested in your business, but the clients still aren't rolling in. Here's why how you craft your portfolio can hold you back.
The Brain Has a Negativity Bias
Let's take a hypothetical married couple. Now, let's ask each of them simply to write down every positive and negative thing they can think of about their relationship. On average, what do you think the ratio of positive to negative things on the respective lists would have to be for the marriage to be successful over the long-term? Equal? Two to one? Believe it or not, the answer is actually five to one.
Your brain has a negativity bias, meaning it reacts more strongly to negative input than it does to equally positive input. You can see this bias pop up in all sorts of places. In social judgments, people rarely consider all traits of a person with equal weight, but rather place a disproportionate emphasis on negative traits. People show increased cognitive activity when presented with negative items or words. Voters are more likely to vote against a candidate because of negative traits than they are to vote for a candidate because of positive traits (thus the creation of attack ads). Negative memories are thought to be more salient than positive counterparts. A paradox that often arises from this uneven weighting of negative information is this: suppose a liar occasionally tells the truth. People will still tend to think of them as a liar. On the other hand, suppose a normally honest person tells an occasional lie. People will tend to think of that person as a liar. Evolutionarily speaking, the negativity bias has some value. After all, we should react pretty strongly to certain negative stimuli. If our ancestors were apathetic toward predators... well, natural selection probably took care of the apathetic ones.
If you pay attention, you'll notice this bias in play in your daily life. Are you more impacted by a compliment or an insult? When making a decision, do you weigh the costs or the benefits more strongly? Do you tend to fixate more on what you like about someone or what you don't?
The Brain Also Has a Self-Serving Bias
The brain also has a tendency to bias itself in a way to maintain the individual's self-esteem. People tend to ascribe success to internal causes and failure to external causes. They tend to say a good photograph was the result of their abilities and a bad photograph was because the lens missed focus. They tend to overrate their own strengths and downplay their weaknesses. They also tend to reject negative feedback. You can see that last aspect at play just by looking at people asking for critiques online.
Where This Comes Into Play With Photographers
You might be saying: "Ok great, I get it. We're all naturally negative people. What does this have to do with photography?" It has to do with your portfolio. If you're like most photographers these days, the main portfolio you present to clients is on your website. It's super convenient, of course: anyone, anywhere in the world can instantly pull up your work at anytime. You just give them the address, and there it is. It's also incredibly easy for you to update. There's no printing a new book, no cost of materials for changes. You pay your yearly hosting fee, and you can upload and change your portfolio whenever you please. It's an incredible step forward in convenience from the printed portfolio.
But with that convenience comes a downside. Things that are convenient are often done with ease, and things that are done with ease are often done without much thought — our brains often use the heuristic principle that low effort requires low consideration. And so, whereas modifying a printed portfolio is something that requires careful consideration of the effort and cost and thus of what's included or not, we sometimes don't think much about changing an online portfolio. New shoot? Dump the images on there. Why not?
The problem comes when we consider the brain's negativity bias. You can have a section with 10 outstanding images, but one that's fairly lackluster. Of the 11 total, which do you think a viewer is most likely to remember and which do you think is going to factor most into their decision to hire you? Seeds of doubt, once placed, are very hard to remove from a viewer's mind.
And because of the anonymity of the Internet and the fact that you're not actually sitting, talking with this potential client, you won't have a chance to remove that doubt. People have short attention spans and tend to make snap decisions, particularly on the Internet, so if you give them a reason to doubt you, they probably will, unfortunately.
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.
My general rule is that if I catch myself wondering at all if a shot should go in my portfolio, I already have my answer: it shouldn't. Nonetheless, a lot of us (myself included) sometimes have trouble being objective about our own work, which is why it helps to have a photographer friend whose opinion you trust. Don't be afraid to run your work by them. Not only will it help keep you honest about your own work, you never know what you might have missed that someone else's eye will catch. Be ruthless in culling your own portfolio, and present potential clients with your best (and only your best) work.