A portfolio review is a great way to get feedback and direction for your photographic practice. It’s also a great way to connect with industry professionals. If you have been considering getting your work professionally reviewed, this article can shed some insights on what to expect and how to prepare.
What Is a Portfolio Review?
A portfolio review is pretty much what it says on the box. It’s where someone who has experience within your field gives you advice on the work you are creating, which may include feedback about the work itself or broader career advice. Reviewers may be other photographers or they may be folks who more broadly work with photography, such as art buyers at a commercial agency, photography agents, or curators at public or commercial galleries.
As with any feedback, listen to what the reviewer has to say, consider whether it’s relevant to you, and thank them for their input. But only accept what moves you and feeds you creatively. This is your photographic practice, not theirs.
Do Your Research
My first portfolio review was by a commercial photographer who worked primarily in architecture. I had no architecture images in my portfolio and didn’t plan to shoot it. I am sorry to say that it just wasn’t a good fit. Although he had valuable advice, I had to really sit there afterwards and figure out how to best apply it to what I wanted to do. With this sour taste in my mouth, it took me several years until I jumped back into the review pond, so to speak.
Within the last two years (thanks, pandemic!), I’ve had two reviews: one by a commercial photo agency working closely within the type of market I am working in, as well as one by a group of reviewers from a broad art background. These were significantly better with practical advice I could use right away.
It’s very important to research who your reviewer or panel of reviewers are. All reviews and feedback are great because they’ll provide a different point of view, but not all feedback may be relevant. If you work in fashion, a reviewer who specializes in portraiture might have feedback that might be transferrable, for example. But if you work primarily with a very commercial approach to portraiture, an art curator might not be the greatest person to review your work. It’s about finding the right balance between what you do and what insights the reviewer can offer.
There are a few things to do to prepare for your review. First and foremost is to consider how long your review is. If you have an hour-long review with a single reviewer, that’s a very different experience than a quick 20-minute session, speed-date style where you might see several reviewers.
In addition to the length of time you have for your review, you need to also consider the type of feedback you are looking for; you might want to show a selection of images from a few different projects or series. If you are still working on a series but have photographed some of it, perhaps show your work in progress. Generally, commercial reviewers will be more interested solely in the images, whereas an art reviewer will want a bit more context in terms of what the project is about, which makes sense, as in advertising, you really only see the image, but at a gallery, artworks tend to have little placards explain what the series is.
What you present to a reviewer is ultimate up to you. You want to show work that shows you in the best possible light. You want to make it easy to look at the images. But you also want to consider the type of feedback you want on your work; such as where to pitch a specific project, how to develop some things you are working through, or perhaps even working out what order to present your website in. These and others are all questions a reviewer may be able to offer advice on.
With consideration to these factors, I’d tailor a portfolio with 8-12 images. If you have a longer session, you might consider making two or three smaller portfolios for different projects. There’s a big debate with print or digital, but ultimately, it comes down to what will work best for your specific images. If you’re creating commercial work meant to be viewed digitally, then do that. But if you are creating art pieces that will show best only printed at a specific size and specific paper and will look awful otherwise, then that kind of answers your question. Make your work look its best while being easy to navigate for the reviewer.
Look for Bargains
A portfolio review isn’t exactly cheap. My first review cost nearly $800. That’s probably why I didn’t get any more for several years. But there are often free reviews available, for example, through photo festivals or professional photo bodies. It’s a good idea to keep an eye out for these and put yourself forward when these opportunities arise. Coincidentally, my two recent reviews were free and I got them through a professional body as well as through a festival. So, it’s definitely a good idea to “shop around” and keep up to date with local photographic news either via newsletters or by connecting with local art or commercial bodies.
Listen to Feedback
Some practical takeaway advice I got for my commercial review was to have your site start right, ideally with an overview page with a breadth of your work. It also really got ingrained into me to work on the text and say a lot more than what I think might be needed in explaining and contextualizing my art images.
These are all practical things I could do right away. The whole point of a review is to get better; it’s well enough to get advice, but you have to actually put in the elbow grease and try to apply the feedback to your specific circumstances.
Keep in Touch
My final bit of advice is to keep in touch with your reviewer. Networking isn’t some big scary thing; the hard part is over. You’ve already met, they know a bit about you, and you know them. Now, it’s just about keeping that line of communication going.
Maybe send them a postcard or a copy of your book if you have one. If you have work in a show or a new commercial project, share that with them. They work in the arts, and they are as excited by photography as you are, if not more. Share some photography with them!