What Not To Do When Putting Together Your Photography Portfolio

What Not To Do When Putting Together Your Photography Portfolio

Trying to decide what to include in a photography portfolio can be a daunting challenge. Here are just a few things that should definitely not be included.

I’ve been a professional photographer for a couple of decades now and have been through more amazing, and more than a few less than amazing, portfolio reviews than I can remember. Those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities you get to sit across from prominent art producers, creative directors, photo editors, and various other titles to show them your work as a photographer and make your case for why your name should be at the top of their list. I don’t know that anyone can really master portfolio reviews. Like most things in life, you win some and you lose some. But after so many years of sitting in the hot seat, there are a few common threads which I thought I might share. I’ve written before about things you should do when building your portfolio. Below are a few things you would do best to avoid.

A Portfolio Is Not a Greatest Hits Album

Lesson one: It’s tempting to think of a photo portfolio as an opportunity to prove to the world that you are an amazing photographer. Be it portraits, fashion, landscapes, documentary, or still life, you know it all. And you can do it all. And daggumit, anyone who looks at your portfolio is going to walk away knowing that you, John Doe, are the greatest photographer ever to pick up a camera and that they should hire you for any and every job that comes into the ad agency.

Well, as logical as that all may sound, it ignores two very important things. One, no matter how good you are, there will never be a world where you (or anyone else) will win the crown of “world’s best photographer.” There are simply too many amazingly talented photographers in the world. However many amazing photographers you think there are, multiply that by 100 and you’d still be undercounting. So hoping to objectively prove that you are the best generalist photographer on the planet isn’t likely to do much more than leave you frustrated.

The good news, and point number two, is that you don’t have to prove yourself to be the absolute best generalist photographer on the planet. Why? Because your clients aren’t likely shopping for a generalist. The brief they are coming to you with is for a very specific job. A ketchup campaign for Heinz. A lifestyle shoot for Coca-Cola. Editorial portraits for The New York Times. Clients don’t tend to just be looking for “a photographer.” Rather, they need specific types of photographers to fulfill specific types of assignments. So, when you sit down to show your work, you aren’t trying to show that you just know how to take a photograph in a general sense. Instead, you are specifically showing them your unique product and the areas in which you excel so that, when a matching assignment is available, you are first on their list.

I had an art producer put it simply once, “tell me how to hire you.” All manners of projects flow through advertising agencies. So art buyers need to keep a list of talented artists in every specialty on hand to meet the needs of their clients. Art buyers are inundated with hundreds of emails, promos, and cold calls every day from talented photographers hoping to be at the top of that list. And, as I mentioned earlier, a simply daunting number of these photographers will be absolutely amazing and likely just as good as ourselves, whether we wish to admit that or not. So, how do you stand out? Well, it’s impossible to stand out if you’re hoping they will remember you just as a “good photographer.” There are just too many good photographers and unless your timing is impeccable, it’s too easy to get lost in the shuffle. But, if, for example, they know you as an “amazing celebrity photographer” or “one of the best shooters of high-end fashion,” it helps the art buyer to know when to hire you. There aren’t likely too many generalist briefs. But there are ones for automotive photographers. So, if you have a portfolio full of great car shots, you are cementing a place in the art buyer's brain that cars are a subject you can handle.

It’s very tempting to want to show everything to everybody. Especially because of the understandable fear that not showing everything might lead to you missing out on a potential job because the buyer didn’t know that you could shoot both cars and travel photos. But, it’s far more likely that trying to show everything to everybody will simply lead your potential buyer to be confused as to what exact product it is that you are selling. You’re not trying to sell Coca-Cola just as generic soda. You’re trying to sell a soda with a specific taste. Your portfolio is a chance to show that taste.

You Don’t Need To Tick Off The Boxes of Minimum Requirements

Similar to our last topic, there is another temptation that emerging photographers often fall prey to. I know I did. You see a number of advertisements, editorials, etc., using a certain kind of shot, and you think that you have to have an example of that kind of shot in your portfolio to prove that you can do it too.

In my case, it was a simple portrait of a subject properly lit on white seamless. Sound boring? Well, that’s because it was. Oftentimes, a simple shot like that is a default of an ad campaign for reasons of time or convenience. And, no doubt, you will likely take thousands of such photos over your career once things get rolling. So that is a skill set you should have. But that doesn’t mean you need to have it in your portfolio.

Why? Well, first let me point out that it’s not a crime to have a well-lit portrait on white seamless in your portfolio. But, like every other shot in your book, it should only be there because it is unique to your artistic voice and you are doing something with that simple shot on white seamless that no one else would ever think to do. It should not be there, as it was in my case, simply to prove that you have the technical capabilities to execute it. Because, the truth is, being able to execute a shot like that is one of the bare minimum capabilities clients would expect a professional photographer to have (assuming you are doing studio work). So it’s not special to show that you can execute a shot that art buyers are going to assume that all professional photographers should be able to accomplish. Even if you nail your exposure with mathematical precision, it still does nothing to set you apart.

Of course, I’m only using a shot on white seamless as a personal example since it’s a trap I fell into. And, again, you may have come up with an entirely different spin that takes your image to a whole new level and the fact that it is on white seamless is beside the fact. Or maybe it's a simple shot but the engagement you got out of your subject highlights your unique skill in working with talent and bringing a signature humanity to your images. I knew a photographer who had an entire section of his website dedicated only to black and white portraits on white seamless. But, again, the point of the collection was that it showed how he was able to bring out candid moments among his celebrity subjects, not just to show that he knew how to work his light meter.

There are a million reasons why you might want to include a certain shot. Just don’t include it because you think you have to in order to prove a minimum level of capability as a photographer. It will do nothing to set you apart from the competition. And, unless something about that shot highlights what you personally do best, it’s missing the point of a portfolio, which is to show your unique artistic voice.

You Will Always Be Judged by The Worst Image in Your Book

I am often asked how many images should be in your portfolio. The actual answer varies on a case-by-case basis. But, to simplify things, I would say there should only be as many images in your portfolio as are necessary to prove your point.

As an example, let’s say that you are a fashion photographer known for your unique lighting choices, bold styling, and dynamic poses from your talent. Let's now say that you have a top 20 set of images that all speak that brand, varying enough from each other not to get monotonous, but speaking from the same voice to project a cohesive style. This is perfect. You are displaying your true artistic vision and leaving the art buyer with the knowledge of how to hire you and the types of jobs that you would excel in.

But then you have one more image you are considering. It’s not quite as good as the others. But it’s in the same family. And, it’s kind of cool. So, why not? Let’s throw it in. Well, I can tell you exactly what is going to happen. After all those amazing images you showed, it’s going to be that one lackluster image that sticks in the reviewer’s head. It’s not fair. It’s just human nature. Part of the reviewer’s mind is always going to be searching for a way to disqualify you. Remember, they are getting tens of thousands of emails a year from potential photographers. They have to eliminate some or else their inboxes will explode. So, one of your main jobs when presenting your portfolio is to not give them any reasons to cross you off the list. If that means having only 15 images in your portfolio instead of 30, so be it. You’d rather leave them wanting more than having one or two lesser images bringing down the quality of your entire presentation. Sure, all the other images in your portfolio may be amazing. But one bad image can start to sow doubt. And you don’t want to instill doubt.

Just yesterday I was on the other side of the table, helping to review portfolios for a non-profit organization connecting photographers with clients. I was helping to narrow down our selections for the available slots. One of the photographers had a decent portfolio overall. But three of his images were way overexposed. And not in a kind of “artistic choice” kind of way. Rather, they were so badly exposed that it made me think that the photographer hadn’t yet fully mastered basic exposure. I don’t know if that was true or not. But, since it created immediate doubt in me, it would likely do the same to any potential art buyer. Those couple of shots completely disqualified every other good shot in his portfolio. So he ended up shooting himself in the foot just by not trimming the fat from his book. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot.

All in all, showing your portfolio is about creating a cohesive vision of who you are as an artist that will leave the potential buyer with a firm knowledge of your product, what makes your product unique, and zero doubt that you can repeat your process if called upon to do so on the job. We are artists. But we are selling a product. And just like when you go to the store in search of any other product, our potential clients are looking to purchase dependable products that suit their own unique needs. Your job, when presenting your work, is to show that you are the perfect fit.

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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1 Comment

Image is everything……….. Shalom.