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How to Excel at Professional Photography Portfolio Reviews

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When you're presenting your portfolio, the way you show your work matters as much as the work you are showing. 

In this short video tutorial from my course, The Photographer's Portfolio, you will learn how to best present your portfolio. This video includes best practices for showing your portfolio and key tips on how to interact with portfolio reviewers.

In this course, we discuss what goes into creating four types of portfolios: web, PDF, tablet, and print. You also watch the process as I edit down a small group of photos and, hopefully, it helps you narrow down your own images as well. I want to stress that you can have a number of different portfolios that are best suited for certain situations and themes.

For example, if you're an architectural photographer and a corporate headshot photographer, it would serve you best to have two different portfolios, whether that be print portfolios or two separate galleries on your website. And if you tend to focus more on architectural photography, and less on corporate headshots, then you would want to show more of your architectural work.

Your portfolio is a flexible, living tool that can be adjusted according to the needs of the situation. It's key that you're familiar with your strengths, your images, and also the needs of your potential client.

Open Up to a New Relationship

So, you've put together one or more portfolios. Let's talk about actually presenting your work to a reviewer. The way you show your work and interact with those looking at your work matters as much as the work that you're showing.

The first thing to keep in mind is to do your research on the reviewer, client, gallery, or director, and their company beforehand. Know their style, what they're looking for, as well as their history. While doing your research, remember to be empathetic: be considerate about what the reviewer's role is in this process.

Assume the people reviewing your portfolio are just as passionate about photography as you are. They may not share your point of view, but that's okay. At the most basic level, a portfolio review is an opportunity to engage someone who loves looking at pictures, so enjoy this. This is a gift.

Your primary purpose in the portfolio review isn't to get yourself work. It's to help the reviewer with their job. Your portfolio review can help any editor, art director, or creator in a couple key areas. First, it can help them identify current trends. One part of their role is to be highly informed about current trends in photography, who is making work, today's photographic tastes and the state of the photographic industry, and so on. This might be in a certain genre or niche of photography, or it might be in a specific geographic area.

Ask yourself where your work fits. Is your work something fresh and new? Is it different and exciting in some way? Or maybe it's that you're a solid and dependable performer with a consistent body of images. Think about how the reviewer will see you as part of the landscape of photography.

Reviewing your pictures helps reviewers keep their tastes sharp. Recognize that, for the most part, the review will be about the pictures and not about you. The feedback they give you comes from a lifetime of critical thinking. They have good taste. It's not just personal taste either—they've spent a career developing an eye for photography. They get paid to exercise those tastes. Part of the work for them is engaging with a lot of pictures. So think about who they are, and how they might engage with your photos. Do your images confirm their worldview and experience, or do they complicate it? Both scenarios can be positive. Some reviewers might need more background or explanation than others to understand your work, so be prepared to give it.

Spark Interest

The real goal in the portfolio review isn't to get work, it's to get another portfolio review.

Reviewers hire people and buy pictures for their job, but this is really the least important part of the portfolio review. Yes, sometimes it happens that someone will buy pictures on first viewing, but this is exceedingly rare. Most people, even professionals, need to look at your work and engage with you multiple times before they make a decision. You want the reviewer to remember you, to think about how you might be able to help them or someone they know, and to ultimately take another look at your pictures. Maybe they visit your website. Maybe they ask to visit your studio. Or maybe they ask you to visit them again. In any case, the vast majority of hires and purchases only come after the second viewing, at the earliest. There's a high degree of intimacy in sharing your work with someone, especially in person. It's scary and exciting for both parties. Work with that energy.

Stay True

The second thing to keep in mind when presenting your work to a reviewer is to know your professional objective and also to know yourself when walking into that review. Be sure to communicate this during your review. Be compassionate with yourself.

Just like knowing about your reviewer, also know about yourself. Take a self inventory:

  • What are you good at?
  • What are you not so good at?
  • What kind of work do you really want?
  • Whose work do you admire as a potential client?
  • Who do you wish you were working with, or for?
  • What excites you about the possibility of working with that particular person that you're meeting with today?
  • What subjects or people do you wish you could photograph?

Be prepared for your review, and don't go in cold. Answer these questions for yourself before you have your review. Be honest with yourself and with your reviewer. Don't try and please everyone—you can't. Remember, you aren't showing your work to sell. You're showing it to engage.

The best connections happen when you're real with people, but being real means you won't click with everyone. That's OK, you don't need to: a photographic practice can survive on three good regular clients, and it can thrive on five. So don't worry if your work is not to someone's taste. Keep looking for the people who understand and resonate with your work.

Give yourself enough time to stay focused. If you have to drive to a meeting, arrive early, and don't schedule anything for immediately afterwards. Ideally, don't schedule anything critical for the rest of the day. Make the review your number one priority.

In a situation where you'll do multiple reviews, such as a festival or a conference, less is more. Don't pack in reviews back to back. Give yourself breaks to make notes, clear your head and put your portfolio back in order. All the feedback can be overwhelming. So take the time to check in with yourself, get centered and feel good. Don't waste your time and energy, or a reviewer's, on reviews with people who are clearly not a good match for your kind of work.

Connect or Deflect

If you're just starting out, look for younger reviewers. Like you, younger editors, curators, and art directors are looking to make their first connections. Older reviewers tend to have already established their networks. Younger reviewers are looking for people that they can work with and trust, and they're more willing to take a chance on a new and unknown photographer.

Editors, curators, and art directors also move around. They might be at a minor institution today, but maybe tomorrow they'll take on a bigger role. In the case of a younger reviewer, both you and the younger reviewer are looking for people you can go with professionally. Try and find each other.

While the vast majority of reviewers are there in good spirit, like any large population of humans, some reviewers can be jerks. Do not feed the trolls. In your career, you will get reviewers ranging from unhelpful to arrogant to downright mean. If this happens, politely thank them for their time and input and cut the review short.

Do not argue about your work. Ever. If you say thank you and cut it short, in all likelihood the reviewer will forget about you ten seconds after the review. If you get into an argument they're a lot more likely they tell all their friends stories about how unprofessional you are. And they would be right.

However, more common is encountering people who have no experience with your kind of work, be it subject matter, style, or interest. This is another situation where advanced research is important. Try to avoid a mismatch. If you do get a reviewer that doesn't have anything to say, that's okay. Most of the time, they'll tell you so after they've seen your work. Don't be offended. Instead, politely thank them for their time, wish them a good day, and leave. It's perfectly all right to cut a review short in this situation, too. In fact, it's considerate. It gives both you and the reviewer time to get on with whatever you need to do next.

Leave a Good Impression

Come prepared with a few questions for your reviewer. It shows that you're interested in them and the company they work for. Also take notes. Do it while you're getting reviewed and also afterward. It signals that you're serious and it will help you process the information afterwards and keep you from getting overloaded or forgetting important details or feedback that they gave you.

When you're done, leave some type of high-quality leave behind for the interview. This can be a business card or preferably some type of promo card that features some of your work.

If you feel there was a spark with the reviewer, tell them you want to follow up. Ask them if this is okay with them and how they prefer to be contacted. Some people like email, while others are simply overwhelmed with it. Some people collect promo cards, and others just trash them right away. At this stage it's about keeping that new connection alive, so do it in a way that's preferable and easiest to your reviewer or interviewer.

It's a good idea to update your portfolio at regular intervals. If you have a new project or have recently updated some images in your portfolio, this is a good occasion to get in touch with reviewers that you have established a relationship with.

Other Types of Portfolio Reviews

Now two types of portfolio reviews I haven't addressed here are with the non-professional photo-buying public and with business-to-business clients. Most of the advice discussed here is the same, except they will have even less tolerance, time, and flexibility. If you're working with reviewers with low visual literacy you have to be even more succinct, organized, and on-point. In this case you're essentially doing the work of structuring the dialogue for them, because they may be inexperienced with looking at images. So the chances that they will get stuck or off track are much higher.

Watch the Full Course

How do you take a body of photographic work and edit it into a cohesive, professional portfolio? The full course, The Photographer's Portfolio, will demystify the portfolio for you, showing you how to make them and how to use them. In this course you will learn how to best present your work in a way that communicates your personal vision as a photographer, builds your confidence, and helps maintain a fulfilling photography practice.

If you want to show your portfolio on the web, choose one of the portfolio WordPress themes on Envato Market.

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