By Michael P. King, Wisconsin State Journal
Let’s face it. You don’t put a portfolio together for the hell of it. That set of prints or that website will hopefully get you work â€“ freelance work, an internship or those rare things these days called “full-time jobs.”
A photographer I work with here at the paper recently asked me to send him “a couple portfolio tips” to share with his students at the local technical college. I began writing what was coming to mind and the next thing I knew, I was on #8 and I still wasn’t done. Because here’s the thing: preparing a portfolio and getting a job isn’t as easy as just making a good edit and attaching a rÃ©sumÃ© and cover letter.
Here are 12 things I think it takes to someday put together a solid portfolio and be the “whole package” an employer is looking for.
1) Take pride in everything you do… not just your portfolio. Before you ever get your foot in the door, and before you ever shake a hand, your work is your public face to the people who may hire you or may work with you. Try to treat every assignment/client/project like it’s the biggest, most important assignment/client/project you’ve ever been given. You never know who is watching you and your work; and you never know what work of yours that they’re seeing. It could be your best stuff, it could be your worst. Strive to make everything others see outstanding. Conduct yourself professionally and kindly with all you meet. Often, people know your reputation before they know you.
2) Learn and practice your ethics now. Learn and study what’s right and wrong in the world of visual journalism. Build good habits now. In the real world you will challenged on a regular basis with situations and dilemmas that will put you to the test. Your ethics are your foundation and your compass. With them, you’ll never be lost. Without them, you’ll someday be that person we read about in absolute disbelief.
3) Be organized. Keep all of your work impeccably organized. Don’t put yourself in a position where you are constantly asking yourself, “Now where is that photo?” or “Where is the latest version of my rÃ©sumÃ©?” I have every assignment I have ever shot â€“ in my life â€“ (even family photos) organized by the date it was shot, where it was shot, who is in the photos, and any relevant keywords. If you asked me to find an original file from Jerry Springer’s appearance at a Rock the Vote event in Athens, Ohio, back in 2004, I could probably find it in less than 2 minutes. Find a system that works and makes sense to you.
4) Backup your work. Be redundant. Be smart. Trust me: you will cry when you lose pictures that are important to you. Avoid all unnecessary anxiety. There are multiple ways of backing up your prized photographs these days. It’s just important that you have multiple copies and have at least one copy “off-site” so if something disastrous happens where you live, you’re not screwed. “Cloud”/online backup services like Photoshelter are becoming more and more popular, economical and secure.
5) Know thyself. Who are you? What are your strengths as a photographer? Put pictures in your portfolio that are solid examples of those strengths. What are your weaknesses as a photographer? Admit those… to yourself. The absence of certain types of pictures in your portfolio adequately implies that making those types of pictures is not your strong-suit. There’s no reason to confirm it visually with weak images.
6) Know your audience. A one-portfolio-fits-all approach is a lazy strategy, in my opinion. Depending on the employer or client, the work you show them and the format you present it in, may (and probably should) be different. Some people may want you to send them a link to your website. Others may want to see prints. Others, tearsheets. Some will explicitly say in the job posting how they want to receive your work. With others you’ll have to do some investigating or make use of acquaintances to find out an editor’s preferences. Also, be smart about what work you show. Know the types of photography a job requires competency in. An exaggerated example: Applying to Sports Illustrated, pictures of food and architecture won’t go over well. Peak sports action, nicely lit sports-related portraits, and quirky found moments at sporting events will get you the most attention. You’ll likely tailor your portfolio for that job differently than one being sent to Midwest Living. A more subtle example: a photographer at a newspaper is leaving for another job. You’re interested in that vacancy. What are that photography department’s needs now that so-and-so photographer is gone? What did the departing photographer “bring to the table” that you can deliver, too? If you’re wise, you’ll tailor your portfolio, your rÃ©sumÃ©, and your cover/application letter, to address this.
7) Balance #5 with #6. I’ve never heard any editor talk about the “perfect portfolio” they once received. I don’t believe there is any such thing. It’s the unicorn. The goal is selecting pictures that convey your uniqueness as a photographer. That is what gets you noticed. You don’t need an editor to love every single picture in your portfolio (although it’s icing on the cake if they do). You need them to be intrigued by the way you see the world.
8 ) Order your pictures wisely. Your first picture (really your first few pictures) should be something that makes people say wow. If you don’t grab the viewer in the first couple frames, you have lost. And it’s important to maintain strong images throughout your portfolio. Some people like to group by genre, while others jump around, editing for “feel.” I’ve done both over the years. Whichever way you choose, really think about how each picture plays off of the picture before it and after it. In general, avoid putting two similarly-shot photos next to each other â€“ it diminishes their impact. Consider the feeling or tone of the pictures. Do they clash or compliment each other? Maybe it’s good that they clash? There’s truly a multitude of possibilities.
9) Keep the edit tight, but consider multiple portfolios by topic. When I was going through school, the rule of thumb was about 20 pictures. Period. That’s it. That’s your portfolio. It was something of a carryover from the slide portfolio days when 20 2″x 2″ slides fit in a single plastic protector sheet. That rule stuck for awhile early in the digital age when we would submit portfolios on burned CD-R discs and DVDs. It may seem old fashioned to you, but I think there are definite advantages to that super-tight edit. Chiefly among them: you can’t put in any crappy pictures because there simply isn’t room. Now, granted, things have changed in a decade. With your own website, you can post as many photographs as you want. But that doesn’t mean you should. Many photographers â€“ because they are not just photojournalists, or commercial photographers, or wedding photographers â€“ are doing multiple tight edits for various topics. I think it’s effective, and it can show your variety of talents. Just don’t overdo it!
10) Talk to people. Get opinions. Lots of opinions. From many different people. Pay attention to what they say. Don’t go to people who will simply say “I like that picture” or “I don’t like that picture.” Their opinions are not valuable to you. Photographs connect (or do not connect) with people for reasons. Seek out people who can articulate those reasons honestly and without reservation. Accept criticism and compliments humbly and with gratitude. A variety of people you trust will yield a variety of opinions. Take them all into consideration and make your own sense out of it.
11) Keep your portfolio (and rÃ©sumÃ©) up to date. This is the one “do as I say, not as I do” rule that I’m offering, hoping that it will make your lives easier. I speak from personal experience: It’s easy, once you have a job or steady business, to get comfortable, rest on your laurels and let your portfolio slide onto the back burner. Bad idea, people. Baaaaaad idea. Keep tearsheets, keep copies of your pictures. Every month or so look at what you’ve done and consider swapping out some old pictures. Update your rÃ©sumÃ© as good things happen (new job, awards and other accomplishments), not after bad things happen (you get laid off or suddenly need to change jobs or relocate). It is far easier to have everything constantly “ready to ship,” than to scramble to put something together from years upon years of pictures. It only gets more laborious and more daunting a task the longer you put it off.
12) Rub elbows. Get out there and meet people. Join photography organizations like NPPA. Go to seminars. Ask questions. Your learning does not end when you graduate. The moment you choose to stop actively learning is the moment you are toast. I think I am an okay photographer with good instincts, but I honestly believe it has been my enthusiasm for learning, and my genuine interest in meeting others in this profession that has carried me the farthest. The jobs I have gotten were just as much a result of who I knew and what I knew; not simply the quality of my work.
Michael P. King is a staff photojournalist at the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison, Wis., one of three newspapers he has worked at since graduating from Ohio University in 2007. He has been on NPPA’s Board of Directors since 2010.