The difficulty in putting together a portfolio of work lies in what constitutes your best work. The two main threads here are the images that you consider to be the best versus the images that are perhaps less important to you but may garner you more work. Often you’re not the best person to judge this, as you’ve probably become very attached to the images in question, particularly ones that may have taken you a long time to produce and/or cost a lot of money. Wherever possible get at least one other opinion about the work you’re putting in your book. Be careful about where these opinions come from, what you need is someone who knows the market, ideally knows you a little and isn’t afraid of being honest. Having someone like this look over your work can be quite painful, but is far more worthwhile than having a few mates go through it, declare it “cool” and then wonder why you never seem to get any work from it.
I was very lucky 5 years ago, as I took my “end of assisting” portfolio to be looked over by a friend of mine who directed commercials and had been an art director in advertising for 20+ years. He verbally destroyed all but one or two of my images, which left me feeling a little fragile (small understatement). However, out of that fragility came the determination to shoot lots of new stuff at a much higher quality, and within 6 months I was starting to get much more regular commercial work from my portfolio.
I suspect I’ve told this story before, but it’s so important that I feel no shame in repeating it. When I was 17 and just about to go for an interview at Blackpool College I spent a day on work experience with a local commercial photographer. At that time in my career he was by far the most financially successful photographer I’d encountered – he had his own E6 line, a large converted barn that served as a studio and office, large format cameras and tons of lighting. He made most of his living doing product and pack shots, and whilst I knew this wasn’t where I was heading, I felt the experience would still be worthwhile. I took along the portfolio I had just slaved over, and which I would be taking to Blackpool in a few days. By way of explanation this portfolio was all hand printed, in my parent’s outside loo, all in 35mm black and white and blown up to 16×12″. I’d only been able to afford 10 sheets of paper, so for the 8 final images I had to be very careful indeed, plus to get images that big from my cheap enlarger I had to reverse the column and print onto a home-made cardboard easel on the floor.
As he was looking through my book I was making all sorts of excuses for the images, apologising for quality, grain, cleanliness and so on, mostly based on the reasons given above. By about the 5th shot he turned to me and simply said: “If this isn’t the very best you’re capable of doing, why are you showing me it? People are going to remember you for the shit images more than the good ones, and if that means only putting 3 pictures in, so be it.”
I don’t feel I need to add anything to his statement!