A good portfolio is never finished. Portfolios, books, albums, or websites, however a photographer's body of work is contained, it should be ever-evolving and developing even after a photographer has started working on professional projects. Any perception that a photographer can leave a portfolio static once work starts flowing in is a dangerous one. For a number of reasons, developing and improving is an on-going process.
In some ways, assembling images for a portfolio is an opportunity. A portfolio shows not only the quality and creative level a photographer is capable of, it also gives a photographer the opportunity to show the direction they want to take their work. Additionally, elements and aspects of an image, even a great one, can give away the time period it was created. Some images, especially fashion shots, can age rapidly. Even portrait images can suffer from age as styles of photography and lighting come in and out of favor.
Taking in the double-barreled aspects of keeping a portfolio current and more actively taking the rudder in steering a photographer's career, I have been surprised at the push-back I have heard about intentional portfolio development shooting that is outside of revenue generating shooting. As I came up through the ranks from student, to assistant, and finally shooting on my own, it was assumed that my peers and I were always looking for the opportunity to add to or enhance our portfolios. We used the blanket term "testing" to mean everything from technical experiments to elaborate shoots with models or stylists who were also building portfolios.
Fashion Editorial Photographer Blake Davenport regularly makes time in his schedule for portfolio development in addition to his regular assignment work. "I think the reason I keep shooting is to make sure that every piece of work I have in my book is fresh that I can present to current and new clients. It also helps us to evolve and bring a new feeling or slight variations in our style of work," he said. "If you aren’t shooting and testing often then sometimes you tend to fall behind unless you shoot editorial all the time. Commercial work and ecomm won’t help keep the book alive."
I will admit to finding busy or even prosperous times where my attention was filled by my assignment work and finding time for extra shooting was more difficult. At some point I got used to the cycles of busy and slow times and started to try and take better advantage of down time to take images that were either more special or represented a direction that I wanted to take my photography in the future.
One of my early efforts was to create a backyard circus using child models I had worked with on previous assignments. I worked with my friend and frequent collaborator who is a make-up artist and had been collecting children's costumes. My assistant and I painted the backdrop and props. Since I wasn't working for a particular product or publication, I felt free to have fun taking active photos without worrying about making the styling fit a particular vendor or taking extensive notes for captions. The effort ultimately paid off after I featured the images in promotions which caught the attention of a magazine creative director who hired me to recreate that atmosphere for a children's fashion editorial.
A more dramatic example of my portfolio development work was planning a trip to Thailand with the idea that I would be able to photograph a model posing with a live elephant. It was a shoot that I had imagined several years before. After some research I discoverd that it was far more economical to plan a trip to an elephant preserve north of Bangkok than it would have been to find an elephant to photograph in New York City. Thankfully I was able to combine an exotic travel vacation with a day of portfolio photography.
More recently I took a day to visit a vintage hot rod and motorcycle event, The Race of Gentlemen, on the Jersey Shore to play around with black and white images for a change of pace on my website. The best case scenario is when a shoot blurs the line between portfolio development and just having fun. I am already seeing some results from doing that shoot. A past client is using a few them to help pitch a book concept to a publisher. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that it will lead to future shoots, but I am already satisfied with the images for my website.
Even if a portfolio shoot doesn't have such a direct payoff, it doesn't mean that portfolio development work wasn't a success. Sometimes the interesting personal work can start a conversation. Art directors and photo editors are often quoted as saying that while they review assignment work when looking at photographer's portfolios, they find a greater interest in personal work. I think this underscores the idea that portfolios are a great opportunity to show or show more of the kind of work a photographer is seeking in addition to the kind of work they are already getting.