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How to Create a Better Portfolio by Revisiting Subjects

How to Create a Better Portfolio by Revisiting Subjects

Have you ever wondered how to create a stronger portfolio and artistic voice? In this article, I will share my methodology for creating better photographs.

One time, while traveling through Maine photographing landscapes and wildlife, I stopped to photograph the Portland Head Light. It was my second visit to the lighthouse. During my first trip, heavy fog, while beautiful and moody, was too disruptive to the scene that I wanted to create. On this second visit, however, a ceiling of low storm clouds was just interesting enough to look promising. In the predawn light, it looked like there might be enough of a gap in the clouds for an interesting sunrise. As I waited for the light, an older couple wandered up and said hello.

Portland Head Light and Ram Island Ledge Light at Sunrise

In talking to the couple the wife said that they have been visiting the lighthouse for years. She wanted to get just the perfect shot and had yet to do so even after hundreds of visits. I replied that I was looking forward to sunrise and hoped that it was good light. Maybe today would be her day. I wished her luck. Ultimately, the light was enough to satisfy the photograph that I wanted to create. After all, I was only comparing my experience that morning to the week prior when it was all fogged over. However, the wife of the couple was disappointed still. Having visited hundreds of times, she had seen the lighthouse in all types of weather and light and said that she would keep trying. She left to return another day. I understood her feelings. Sometimes, I wish that I had asked if she had a website or Instagram so that I could follow it. I still wonder if she ever got the shot. The story of her determination has stuck with me all these years.

Even before that experience, I have revisited locations many times to get the right light, weather, or season. Sometimes, you just envision a specific photograph and so you need to pursue that vision of what you want to create. Other times, even if I feel satisfied with the photograph, I will still revisit a favorite location. Like visiting an old friend, I enjoy re-photographing my favorites. Sometimes, you end up surprised.

Rustic Grist Mill in Autumn Color

Rustic Grist Mill in Winter

Over the years, I realized that I have begun organically creating series or artistic studies of very specific elements of the places that I visit. I have hundreds of photographs from years revisiting a tiny island in the middle of a lake in Vermont, a specific seaside rock formation in Iceland, the Teton Mountain Range specifically in alpenglow, a waterfall in Pennsylvania, a lone tree near my house, and so many more. Even with wildlife, I have been photographing generations of a fox family that live in a specific location, going back year after year to see the same wild horses of a barrier island, and photographing the same owls each season as they roost and nest.

Teton Mountain Range Closeup in Alpenglow

Teton Mountain Range and Misty Reflection in Alpenglow

Teton Mountain Range in Alpenglow and Wildflowers

Autumn Island in Mist

Autumn Island on a Rainy, Foggy Day

With the wildlife, by revisiting the same families for years, I watch them grow up. I find the wild horses to be the most rewarding. Horses have been one of my favorite subjects since I first picked up a camera. With the wild pintos that I photograph their markings are so unique that it is like a fingerprint. I can identify individuals, and in my subsequent visits, see them grow up and start their own bands and families. One stallion may have a certain band of mares, and then, the next time you visit, they lost them and another young stallion took over. There are foals born, rivalries, roving feisty bachelor bands, and the strong herds that control the best territories.

Wild Stallion Looking Directly Into My Lens

Pinto Band on a Tiny Island With Their New Foal

Most of all, you get to know their behaviors. When the horses disappear into the fog, dense dunes, or maritime forest, I know what to expect. By observing certain cues, I can tell when the horses are going into the dunes because they want to go out onto the beach to get away from the heat and pests. So, I take a shortcut around and wait on the open, cool sand. Shortly after, the horses appear out of the brush and pass before my ready lens. Meanwhile, other less experienced people are still wandering around, looking for the horses.

Lead Band in Fog on the Beach

Lead Band Family Portrait on the Beach

With the individual horses that persist and survive the harsh winters and years, I can see their scars, wounds, mud stains, and salt-twisted manes. I don’t post-process those out. Those are badges of honor and a true testament to their lives lived in the wild fighting for survival. By visiting over and over, year after year, I document this. I also set the camera down and just enjoy and observe.

Rugged and War Decorated Wild Stallion

I find that by photographing in this way, I have mini portfolios telling the story of these places and wildlife. I feel that I also have better photographs overall, as I can choose the strongest images from so many more sessions than the average visitor. However, most of all, my comfort and familiarity with the subjects allow me to create in such a different way. I can seek alternative perspectives, wait or revisit for the best conditions, and make better decisions because I know what to expect.

My Favorite Rock Formation at Sunrise

My Favorite Rock Formation at Sunset

It is a different way of thinking and creating art when you know your subject. The photographs that I have are different than those of someone who goes somewhere once. Neither right nor wrong, they are a different approach and process. If I had to choose, I would rather have a portfolio of strong images where I invested in creating the best photographs that I could of each subject, rather than grab-and-go photos where you only see a place or subject once. I suppose that ideally, with a long career, you may have enough time for both the bucket list and the revisits to those special places and subjects that steal your heart.

A Screech Owl That I Regularly Photograph

Ultimately, I think that there is power as a photographer in the concepts of dedication and determination. When I am in the field, photographing a subject or place that I love, I am often up before sunrise, out until after sunset, and often still out late into the night if the Milky Way is visible. Even when revisiting locations or wildlife, I try to make the most of it. So, I will always be that photographer skipping sleep to set up at the location ready and waiting for the sun to peek over the horizon. In meeting that kind lady at the lighthouse so many years ago, I likely only met my future self.
kate g's picture

Kate is an award winning travel and nature photographer, educator and writer. She was classically trained on black and white photography in the dark room while she earned her BFA in Fine Art and Design. When she is not working on assignment, Kate teaches photography workshops to share her love and knowledge of wild life and wild places.

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I completely agree with you that photographing the same subjects over and over is the way to build a portfolio of excellent images.

The photos that you have used to support this article are astoundingly good!

I particularly love the lighthouse image that you lead into the article with, as well as "Autumn Island in Mist" and "Lead Band Family Portrait". The composition in all of these is wonderful, and the way the elements are arranged in the frames gives the viewer a reason to stay and look for a while, instead of taking a quick look and then moving on to the next image.

Tip: If you ask the readership a question at the end of the article, it will make it more likely for people to engage with the content and to post comments. I often want to respond to an article, but don't know where to start, so I look for a question at the end to give me some direction as to what to write. When there is no question, I often move on to the next article without commenting ... but I didn't do that in this case, because your photos were so great that I wanted to comment on them anyway!

Hi Tom! Thank you for taking the time to write in. I will definitely take on board your suggestion for a prompt or question at the end of more of my articles to help get conversation flowing. I appreciate hearing what you as a reader find helpful.

I also enjoy reading which of my photographs caught your eye. I try to purposefully create interesting compositions so that the reader can feel like they are transported to the location. Coming from a background in b&w film, I use a more thoughtful photojournalists approach to telling the story of the places and animals that I photograph. In practical use, in my landscapes for example, you will see that I take care to balance layers. I look for a strong foreground and background to play supporting actors to my main subject as star of the comp. I will have more about this in a future article. :)