Three Questions to Consider Before Showing Your Photography Portfolio

Three Questions to Consider Before Showing Your Photography Portfolio

A trio of questions to keep in mind as you are trying to put your best work forward.

I’ll try to make this as streamlined as possible. In about an hour I’ll be heading into a meeting with a photo editor at a pretty major magazine to show my portfolio. This is nothing out of the ordinary. Just part of a normal workday as a professional photographer. Part of that non-photographic part of the job that allows you to make money from your profession. Aside from remembering to shave and fretting over my quarantine self-haircut, I always look forward to these sorts of opportunities.

When you are first starting out, a portfolio review can be a source of great stress. We tend to think that this one review will make or break a career. We tend to go in with the misguided impression that the reviewer might be so blown away by our work that they will want to give us an assignment on the spot. The truth is that a portfolio review is more like a first date. It’s a chance to get to know them and a chance to let them get to know you. Sure, you might end up going home with someone on the first date. But, more than likely, what you really are looking to do is make a good enough impression that you stay on their mind and they wish to see you again.

So, how do you make that good impression? Giving a good meeting is an art in and of itself. But as I sit here, going over my own work, I figured I’d share three simple questions on my checklist before heading into any portfolio review.

Is This the Work I Want to Get, or Is It Just the Work I Think They Want to See?

This is the most common affliction among photographers just starting out. You’ve shot a million and one different images. You’ve culled together what you think are your best. But you’re still having trouble narrowing them down. What makes one picture really better than another anyway? So, you start to think about what customers are currently using and what you imagine they might need and lean in that direction. That all sounds very logical.

But, as illogical as what I’m about to say may sound, to create a portfolio that truly stands out, you actually need to think a little less about what the client wants and a little more about what you want. Your portfolio is not simply a certified document showing what you are capable of technically. Yes, you have mastered shooting ecommerce images on white seamless. Yes, you may get a lot of work doing just that. But it may not be the kind of image that’s going to wow them in a portfolio review. It might be, if your entire business is based around ecommerce on white seamless. But if you really want to shoot fashion images atop The Eiffel Tower and are including ecommerce images shot on seamless just because you think you have to, it’s unlikely those are the images that will bring them to their knees and garner you your dream assignment. A portfolio is a reflection of who you are as an artist. Not just of the work you’ve created in the past, but of the work you want to create in the future.

A lot of mid-career photographers whom are looking to grow their business beyond their current market run into this problem. Say, for instance, you make a living shooting events. It pays the bills, but what you really want to shoot are cars. Because you already have built up a business and track record with your event images, it’s likely that you have a large archive to pull from. It’s likely that this is where your client references come from. So your portfolio may comprise of 90% event photography. The only problem is that you don’t really want to do event photography. You want to shoot cars. By the way, this is nothing against event photographers. Just using a diametrically opposed example.

So what do you do? Do you continue to show a portfolio full of event images with a handful of cars thrown in on the off chance that the person reviewing your portfolio will see through the clutter of event photography and really see that your true passion lies on the open road? You can probably guess from my tone that this is not likely to be the most winning formula.

As scary as it might be. You need to show the work you want in order to get the work you want. Even if your car shoots are just a series of test shoots versus your commissioned event work. If you want to get hired to shoot cars, show cars in your book.  

If you continue to show work in your book because you think it has to be there rather than because it’s what you want to get hired for, a couple things will happen. One, your portfolio is likely to feel disjointed. It’s not hard to see when an artist is being pulled in two different directions. That makes the artists, no matter how good the work, seem unfocused. If I’m hiring you to shoot my event but a quarter of your book is cars, I’m going to be confused. Likely, if I'm an editor at a car magazine, and I’m looking to hire someone to create beautiful shots of the new Honda, and you present me with 35 images of event photography, it is equally unlikely you are going to get the job. Not because those car images that you’ve thrown in aren’t great. But, because you’re not making it clear enough to me what kind of work you want to get hired for.  

Truthfully, the most likely outcome of such a divided portfolio is that you will continue to get the work you currently have. That might not be a bad thing. It’s a wild economy and maybe you want to shoot events for the foreseeable future. There’s nothing wrong with that. But, if that isn’t what you want, then you need to show people what is it that you do want so that they know what assignments to offer you.

Is This a Duplicate?

This is going to sound incredibly obvious, but you’d be amazed at how hard it is to follow this piece of advice. Don’t repeat yourself within the same portfolio.

About ten years ago I was looking in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and a rather strange thing happened for a heterosexual man. I was bored. Granted the easy objectification of the subjects in the magazine had already begun to lose its luster for me years earlier. But still, I’d been buying a copy of the latest swimsuit issue since I was too young to be buying such a magazine and it had become something of an annual habit.

But what was it about this particular issue that pushed me from indifference to actual boredom? The photography was as usual. Clean and softly lit images of beautiful women wearing swimsuits and/or various shades of paint. Flipping through the pages should have been a joy for me as a man. But, as a photographer, I instead noticed something else. Page after page after page, not only was the general theme of each image the same, beautiful woman, sand, bikini, but what was really striking was that the models featured in each successive page were all standing in the same pose. The exact same pose. Different models in different locations, but the same pose. Hand on the side of the head. The other on a hip that was slightly jutted out. Again and again, every model struck this pose. At one point, there was a stretch of at least seven pages in a row, including an ad which also featured a woman in a bikini, that featured models doing this exact same thing. In other words, it wasn’t any individual shot that was boring me to tears. It was the nonstop procession of sameness that had the cumulative effect of devaluing each image individually.

The same goes for your photography portfolio. Hopefully you already have more variety in your book than identically posed images of women in swimsuits. But sometimes the repeated patterns can be harder to spot. If you’ve been at this game long enough, it’s quite likely that the images in your portfolio will have been taken months, if not years, apart. The subjects, locations, clients, and circumstances of each shoot may be different. But, because these images were all shot by the same photographer, it’s also likely that certain tendencies will have emerged.

There will be certain poses you’ll be drawn to. There will be certain shapes that strike you as just right. There will be specific facial expressions and features that will tickle your creative funny bone. Most of these preferences will operate on a fully subconscious level. You aren’t intentionally posing your models in the exact same way over and over again. It’s just that when one lands in that pose, that little voice in your head gets excited and presses the shutter button. When you’re dealing with a series of shots from the same shoot, duplicates are easy to spot. But when you’re dealing with completely independent projects shot ten years apart with completely different settings, sometimes it’s not immediately obvious that the model in the shot on the beach is standing in the exact same way as the model in the studio and the only thing that has changed is the background. Again, taken on their own, each of these shots individually may rate as fifteens on a scale of one to ten. But, put into the same portfolio, the impact of both will be diminished.  

The thing I always do before finalizing my portfolio is to take a broad overview of the entire collection. Either in Lightroom, Capture One, or physical prints laid out on the floor, I will lay out all the images in my portfolio so that I can see them all at the same time. Then I will run my eyes over the collection like a jigsaw puzzle and look to see which two pieces are identical. If I’ve got too many of the same piece, then I know something needs to go.

Of course this can apply to more than just posing. Certain themes, expressions, and types can all recur in our work. And that is good. It’s part of your unique artistic voice. But in a short portfolio, you have to make sure that voice doesn’t become redundant. Think of it from the viewers perspective. If you can’t string together 30-40 shots from your archive without repeating yourself, how deep can your creativity really be? I realize that’s an unfair generalization. But your reviewer doesn’t have time to get to know you or pore through your entire back catalog. They need you to spell out for them what you are all about in as few words as possible. A little bit can go a long way.

What Is the Story?

Yes, I realize a photography portfolio is not a motion picture. But neither is it a random collection of career highlights. The way you sequence your images can sometimes be just as important as the images you choose to include. Yes, the client you are sitting, or nowadays possibly zooming, across from is a potentially powerful decision maker. That person is also just an audience member hoping to be entertained. Think about when you sit down to watch a movie or a TV show. Have you ever watched a movie that was filled to the brim with amazing images, one after another, but you missed most of them because you fell asleep after five minutes? Or have you seen another movie that was just as beautiful to look at but also kept you on the edge of your seat from start to finish. The difference isn’t in the quality of the imagery. The difference is in the storytelling, pacing, editing, and flow. The ability to draw you into each character’s story and have you wanting to know more.  

A photography portfolio can operate on much the same level. You have to draw the viewer in. You want them to feel involved in the story you are telling with your portfolio and be connected to the material. This makes this perhaps the hardest of steps in reviewing one’s own portfolio. Largely because it often means leaving certain images that are by themselves showstoppers on the cutting room floor. Not because they aren’t good, but because they simply don’t flow with the rest of the portfolio. Going back to our movie analogy, it would be like you were watching a Woody Allen comedy and then suddenly, midway through another low key two person dialogue scene, a Michael Bay action film suddenly broke out for ten minutes. Then, just as abruptly, you went back to the low key single take comedy. The action scene might be amazing. But, to the person viewing the film, it would make no sense and completely take them out of the film.

Think of your portfolio not as a collection of showstoppers, but as a fluid narrative with a beginning, middle and end, that comes together to tell the epic tale of what you are about as a photographer.

Okay, headed into my meeting now. Let’s see how well I followed my own advice.

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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I don't recall reading an article about portfolios here so I am thinking more people beside myself will benefit. Well written and I especially like the notion of telling a story with the portfolio. I will soon be putting together a portfolio for a self-directed art residency and my mind was working all the while I was reading. The idea of seeing the portfolio all at once in its entirety is a good one. I've sat through slide shows where the repetition was murderous. You have to keep that other person interested. Good article. Thanks.

Thanks for reading. Good luck with the residency.

Great article Christopher! A lot to think about, or is it just me? :D Getting photographs into series and series into portfolio is something that has been doing my head in for the last couple of months as I am going through my archive.

Its not just you :-). Putting a portfolio together is one of the hardest parts of the job.

Always appreciate your articles Christopher! Hope all is well

Thanks, Alexis. You too, brother.