Advice: The Portfolio Review

Okay, this past weekend I reviewed portfolios for a few hours at an event in Los Angeles. I hadn’t done this in over a year. Overall, the experience was better than expected, although I didn’t think about the event until I was walking in the door. I was on vacation the week prior, so my mind was elsewhere.

Several things happened, and I overheard several more. Wanted to share these things with you just in case you were planning on showing work at some point in the future.

Advice begins here:

1. Edit your work. You HAVE to understand how important this is. This is, in some ways, as important as the work itself.
2. Limit what you show. Do NOT show 100 images. Show 10-15 and they better be good.
3. KNOW why you are there. Be prepared for being asked why you are showing work, why you want to be a photographer.
4. Bring a notepad. Good reviewers are going to give you homework.
5. Think twice about showing work on laptops and iPads. This work is simply NOT considered in the same way as prints.
6. Don’t dread printing, embrace it. Printing is your final chance to put your mark on your work.
7. DO NOT SHOW YOUR WORK ON AN iPHONE. Yes, people were doing this. I heard other reviewers say “Are you kidding me?” when a phone was brought out.
8. If you copied someone, admit it. Don’t act like you created something original then act like you don’t know who you copied it from.
9. Ask questions. Do NOT talk the entire time. The reviewer will be wondering “Why are you here if you have all the answers?”
10. You can be serious but have a sense of humor at the same time. This is much appreciated.
11. You better have some references. If I ask who inspires you and you can’t name a SINGLE person it tells me you are self absorbed.
12. Bring “regulation” size portfolios. Bigger is not better.
13. Thank the reviewer.
14. Send a follow up email.
15. Leave a card or promo piece.
16. Justify what you are showing. Be able to defend your work while not being defensive.
17. Not everyone is going to like you or your work. This is TOTALLY OKAY.
18. Enjoy the moment. This is what it’s all about.
19. “I don’t know,” is not an answer that will win you a lot of respect or confidence.
20. Have a second body of work in reserve.
21. SHOW THE WORK THAT IS UNIQUE TO YOU NOT THE WORK YOU THINK THE REVIEWER WANTS TO SEE.
22. If you show work to ten different people you are going to get ten different stories. If you have good instincts, trust those and move on.

Okay, start there. Have fun with this process. Make great work. Be positive and progressive and things will be just fine. And finally, you don’t need to be a photographer to be a photographer. This industry isn’t as fun as it used to be. The key is making YOUR work. It will be the only thing you are left with so make it count.

14 Responses to “Advice: The Portfolio Review”

  1. Tom says:

    This all looks like good advice. Some of it would seem like common sense (like not showing stuff on a phone) I’ve never done this portfolio review thing before but when I do this is a good list to keep in mind. Thanks.

    • Smogranch says:

      Tom,
      I’d never seen anyone try the iPhone, and it was a massive fail. People get nervous and forget common sense. A lot of people are trying to be working photographers without some of the prep needed. Others are killing it and will become part of it all.

  2. Thanks for sharing. I’ve never gone to one of these but if I can manage to get up the nerve this sounds like great advice. What is the largest print size that you would consider “regulation?” Are prints better presented bound in a portfolio or loose? Is it better to show consistency rather than diversity – say, for example, that you shoot portraits and landscapes? Stick with only one genre in a portfolio review?

    • Smogranch says:

      Michael,
      11×14 ish, or 13×19 would be about as large as I would go for MOST reviews. Portfolios, in binders or books are good, as are loose prints. I would show consistent cohesive bodies of work broken into different portfolios or books. It shows you can commit, do long-term work and also that you can produce more than one body of good work.

    • Thanks, Daniel. I’ve been doing 13×19″ prints lately and was wondering if they were too big. I do like that size though. The images have so much “life.”

    • Smogranch says:

      Michael,
      Nope, not too big. Big but not crazy big.

  3. Hi Daniel,

    Great post, I recently went to my first review experience this past September and from what I saw and experienced, everyone of these are on point, especially about print sizes, there were people dragging around huge prints (20×24 in and up!)in big portfolio cases, and in some instances poster sized prints rolled up in long cardboard tubes. I’d also like to expand on #17, and that when you go to one of these and you have an opportunity to meet a particular person, that that person might be the one that just flat out does not like your work! I scheduled a session with someone who runs a fairly prominent emerging photography blog that I follow quite regularly, and I felt that the review would be an opportunity to let her know that I exist, and she flat out did not like anything that I showed her, it was a letdown, but I appreciated her honest feedback (even though it was all negative). And I would also add to research the reviewers and read their bios, as some will explicitly say what they don’t and do want to see, so for example if you shoot nudes, don’t sit down with the reviewer who said that they did not want to see any nudes.

    that and you will never experience a faster twenty minutes in your life, it almost felt like it was only 15 minutes!

  4. Mike says:

    Daniel, a portfolio review sounds like a good idea in order to gain the thoughts of your peers, but is there still an industry (in the old sense) to join? I know that many photographers are looking for a business model after the collapse of the traditional newspaper / magazine model but I’ve not heard of many successes in this area. Is completing or making a good start on an essay and then looking for an outlet the norm these days?

    Mike.

    • Smogranch says:

      Mike,
      Photography is shrinking. The value of photography has been greatly diminished, so the answer to your question is “yes and no.” There is a still a way to do it, but most folks don’t seem to realize the industry of old no longer exists.

  5. lionelB says:

    Dan,

    I notice that most of the points you make here are not about the photography as such. They are about good manners. Not putting the reviewer to inconvenience, listening, thanking them. In short, leaving narcissism at the door. Sounds like a review could be 80% achieved without any images being shown at all.

  6. Guillaume says:

    @mike We live in an image world, every day we get bombarded with new images. And people reflect on them and expect new imagery every day. But the budgets stayed the same or got diminished. The problem is that everyone is online these days and the budgets for online imagery are a lot lower than for print.

    But one thing is certain. Stories need to be told so images are needed. Online and in print. But businesses want to put their story out there too. So that is a large market to sell imagery too. The old business models are gone and new ones are in place but there will always be a need for photographers, and everybody knows that they need to make a living too.

    @lionelb you will be surprised how many photographers still think that they would not need to do this. And just expect to get all the answers and that the reviewer will open up every door.

    Just be nice and open, ask questions and be polite. The reviewer will want to talk to you outside of the review moment and you can ask other questions if you want to. you might be able to put the person in your network.

  7. Listen to the Danman friends, for he knows what what he writes about. My favorites; 1, 2 and 10 though I can’t express enough the importance of 1 &2.

    great post.

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