27/10/07

Portfolios - A Summary

Spread for Men's Fitness Magazine.


Not a very lengthy summary this, as I've made most of my arguments within the main posts. Instead here's a quick list of what I think are the main points about portfolios you should bear in mind:
  1. Presentation is very important - if your work looks shit it will reflect very badly on you and make you look cheap, this is the one area where it really does pay to get the best quality.
  2. Editing is even more important - don't be afraid to show only a few images, and if you're not certain that something is the best you can do, or it's been getting mixed reactions, sack it off.
  3. The personal aspect of a portfolio viewing is at least as important as the pictures themselves, never pass up on the chance to meet people face to face and let them discover what a truly wonderful human being you are (man).
  4. Developing a coherent "body" or book of work as opposed to a range of subjects is largely a matter of preference. My personal feelings on this are quite well documented, but all the same I'd be the first to admit that because Art Directors can't easily categorise me I may have missed out on some high-profile jobs. Do what seems right for you and the market you are targeting.
  5. Always have a portfolio ready - you never know when the opportunity to stick it under someones nose may arise.
Other Posts: What and Why?, What to Include/What to Leave Out, A Book or Body of Work, Presentation, Making Appointments, Portfolio Meetings.

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Presenting The Portfolio - The Actual Meeting

Format.

As with so many things in life, there's no such thing as an average portfolio meeting. I've shown my portfolio in the waiting room, reception, the corridor, the boardroom, in the local café, at the editor's desk and many places in between. Likewise there's no set pattern for who will be looking at your book. Some places (particularly those who commission tons of stuff) will have just one person who looks through your stuff, and you'll be kept fairly separate from the rest of the office. In others it's almost like the ice cream man's arrived - "there's a photographer in the building, does anyone want to have a look?" and you can find several people (from various places) looking through your work. It's quite common to be shared around as well - many magazines work in offices where there's another title just around the corner, and after having a meeting with your initial contact, don't be surprised if you're ushered into the next office and thrust in front of another art director or similar bod.

Spread for Mixmag about the History of DJ's. Very difficult to shoot, as first we had to travel back in time to the victorian age.


Feedback.

As the art director (or whoever) is going through your work, offer comment where necessary, but don't bore them to death. Much of this should come under the remit of basic social skills, but standing there in stony silence isn't going to promote "you" as a photographer anymore than not letting them get a word in edgeways will. If they show particular interest in an image then flesh it out a bit for them - tell them what problems you had shooting it, or what a laugh you had. Beware of being bitchy, as the industry is much smaller than you think, and a rude comment about someone in the photograph, or someone who commissioned it, may blow up in your face when you find that the person you're showing your portfolio to is related to them. From their side don't expect any great insights or constructive feedback, particularly from those who commission work all the time. If they happen to offer some you should be very grateful indeed, and pay close attention, but usually people will stick to polite comments, and save any bitching (or compliments) for when you're out of earshot.

On the whole you can expect portfolio viewing appointments to be quite short. At one end of the scale you'll get those mentioned above who see a lot of work, will flick through your book with what seems like dismissive haste, and at the other end of the scale there will be people who'll take you round the office, go through some ideas with you, and even occasionally take you out for a coffee/food and commission you on the spot. Generally though you can expect a portfolio viewing to last about 15 minutes.

Bobby George, Darts Legend. I've just noticed that my shot is very similar indeed to the cover of his Autobiography. I shot mine in 2004 though, and the book came out in 2006, so at least I can't be accused of plagiarism!

Follow Up.

It may sound a little cheeky, but it's often worth asking, "Is there anyone you know who'd be interested in looking at my work?" Art directors do actually talk to each other, and this is an ideal way to generate "warm" contacts. Being able to call someone up for an appointment and say: "person x at magazine y said you might like to see my work" is far more likely to yield results than a random call out of the blue.

Staying In Touch.

I'm in the process of writing a whole piece (expect the usual delay) on the subject of keeping work ticking over and staying in touch with your clients, much of which goes beyond the basic remit of "portfolios", but there's still that immediate post-appointment period that needs to be mentioned. If you're lucky enough to get commissioned by the person you've been to see fairly quickly, then little of this need apply. Otherwise it's very sensible to try and stay in touch and keep your pictures at the front of the commissioner's mind. Of course, you'll come across as pleading and pathetic if your only phone calls after the event consist of saying, "got any work I can do?" It's here that your personal/social skills come into play, as if you've established a good rapport with someone during the portfolio viewing you may already have a good excuse to call them up again and discuss how Arsenal are getting on, when the band you both mentioned are touring again, and so on - all obvious stuff really. The easiest way to contact someone again after an appointment is with new work, particularly if it's along the line of something they remarked or commented upon when they saw your portfolio. These days this is very easy to achieve with an email attachment or two.

Other Posts: What and Why?, What to Include/What to Leave Out, A Book or Body of Work, Presentation, Making Appointments, Summary

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Making Appointments with the Portfolio

Making Contact.

Golf Supplement.


OK, so you've got a beautifully printed portfolio full of your very best quality work, now you actually need to go out and get work with it. Firstly you'll need to make an appointment with someone who commissions photographers, and these people fall very simply into 2 categories: warm and cold. These terms are fairly familiar, but in brief, a warm contact is someone who you already have some established relationship with. It could be someone who you met off the back of a job you were shooting, or someone recommended by an existing client. A cold contact is someone with whom you've no prior relationship with - the same as calling someone straight out of the phonebook.

Warm.

A warm contact is always better than a cold contact. If you've met someone socially, or off the back of another job, and they've expressed an interest in seeing your work, then strike while the iron is hot. I've made reference to how many opportunities I wasted as an assistant by not having a portfolio and following up on chances when they were offered, and it should be obvious that making an appointment soon after meeting someone is going to keep you in their mind better than calling months after the event.

Cold.

If you're approaching a client cold, call first to find out whom you should be seeing. Some magazines, for example have both an art desk and a pictures desk, whilst some even leave the commissioning up to the editorial (writing) staff. A quick call to the editorial assistant of a magazine is usually enough to find out who to make an appointment with. You can find all this information in the masthead, usually a few pages in from the front, and I'd strongly advise buying the current issue of the magazine you're targeting before you call, as personnel can change surprisingly rapidly.

Polar Explorer - Taken in an Outdoors shop!


Tepid. (sorry, couldn't resist).

Once you've made the appointment here's a few basics:
  • 1. Know where you're going, precisely who you're going to see and get there early. I don't need to give reasons for this, it's blatantly obvious.
  • 2. Personal appearance - don't overdo it, but likewise don't turn up looking like you've been dragged through a hedge backwards. In the editorial world at least, people tend to dress pretty casually - if you turn up in a suit you'll look a bit of a tosser to be honest. This rule may not apply if you're going to meet the CEO of some large banking firm mind you. Use your common sense.

So, on to the actual appointment itself....

Other Posts: What and Why?, What to Include/What to Leave Out, A Book or Body of Work, Presentation, Portfolio Meetings, Summary

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The Presentation of the Portfolio

Spread from my Portrait Portfolio

Image Format.

So now we get on to the easy bit, the actual physical, tangible aspects that make up the portfolio itself. I'm a bit of a traditionalist in this respect, as I believe that a bound book of prints is still the best way to present your work. Transparencies are OK, with the exception that they can only be viewed over a lightbox, and not every office has one (surprising, I know, but there you go) Also, people have to crowd round a lightbox, but a portfolio of prints can be handed round easily, and viewed in almost any light. The other major disadvantage of transparencies is that they'll need to be of medium format size or larger, and may need to be dupes (duplicates) of existing prints or other trannies. This is an expensive process, both in getting the dupes made and then in mounting and presenting them. The basic photographic rule should always be borne in mind that every optical stage an image has to pass through is going to degrade it slightly, so making prints that will then be shot and presented as slides is a somewhat circular and expensive exercise in my opinion. In the digital age of course, transparencies are getting rarer and rarer, and there's absolutely no point whatsoever in getting dupes made of digital files - get it printed and stop being stupid.

Image Quality.

Needless to say, the final image quality of the shots that end up in your portfolio should be of the very highest order. Note I don't say, "the highest order you are capable", as this is one of those occasions where trying hard just isn't as good as actually being the best. The point is that if you're trying to compete with established commercial photographers you'll need to play at their level. It's far better to have 10 very polished, professionally presented and mounted/bound prints, than 20 loose, dirty, tarnished in a folder. I know this may sound as if I'm more concerned with presentation than the content of the images themselves, and truthfully at this precise moment I am. You're trying to create as good an impression as you can in a short space of time, and you want your work to shine. If your images are of a low quality, or badly presented they simply won't sell themselves enough, plus you'll give out the general impression of not being very professional. I can hear people in the wings whinging that they haven't got the money to spend on expensive portfolios and finished prints, to which my answer is that the portfolio is one place where you can't cheat with money. When shooting tests you can borrow cameras, get studios at knockdown rates and get models/hair and make up etc to work for free, but besides being lucky enough to have a mate who works in a lab who'll print your stuff cheap, you're going to have to pay the proper price for a decent portfolio. When you consider that it's through this portfolio that you'll get most of your work it should be apparent that scrimping and saving at this stage would cost you much more later on.

One final thing to bear in mind (and this relates in some way to editing your portfolio) is the circumstances under which your images will be viewed. If you can guarantee that your perfectly duped 5x4" transparencies will always be looked at on a top of the range lightbox, then you need not worry about pictures that rely on lots of shadow detail for their impact. On the other hand, if there's a fair chance that the pictures will simply be held up to the window for light to shine through, or your glossy prints may be flicked through in a dark room, then the tonal range of the final images should be a serious consideration. Obviously this applies most to images with lots of shadow detail printed on gloss paper, they may look great under window light or a well-calibrated monitor, but will lose much of their beauty in worse conditions and may end up just looking murky.

A DPS tearsheet.

Size Matters.

Ideally you want the portfolio to be between A4 and A3 size, mine's A3 for the record. Any smaller than A4 and your images not only will lack impact, but clients will wonder if they have sufficient quality to stand up to being reproduced on a magazine page or similar. Larger than A3 and the portfolio itself will start to become physically rather unwieldy, and since at least in the Editorial world the largest most images are going to end up is as a DPS, A3 is sufficient to illustrate the quality of your shots. The number of pictures to show is a bit hard to nail down, too few and you'll look like you're very inexperienced, too many and the client will be bored before they finish looking at the book, and will be unlikely to remember anything about the stuff they've seen. In my experience 20-30 is about right, though I've seen portfolios with as few as 12 and as many as 70 odd before. Don't forget of course to tailor the images to the client. The golden rule to remember, which I've made reference to in several places on the site, is that you'll be remembered for the crap ones as much as the good ones, so if you've only got 12 images you're totally happy with, only show 12!

Novelties.

Around the late 90's and early 2000's there was a great rash of people knocking out portfolios on CD's, making beermats out of their images, and doing a host of other novelties to make themselves stand out from the crowd. Alongside the main portfolio tricks like this an be very effective at keeping your images in the Art Director's mind for longer, but they should never take the place of a conventional, physical set of images.

Tearsheets.

DPS Tearsheet.

Tearsheets, or examples of your work in it's finished, printed/published form are almost an essential. I've known Art Directors who insist that even if shown a stunning portfolio of work they won't actually commission someone until they've seen a few tearsheets. The main reason for this is that tearsheets offer proof that you can work to a brief, with all the professional behaviour that that implies. I suspect an exception would be made if you were already a successful, well-known photographer, but then in that case you probably don't need to be reading this piece!

In a similar vein to the actual portfolio images it's worth tailoring/editing the tearsheets if you have the ability and the range of work, for the same reasons given previously for portfolios Presentation-wise I find a simple but smart folder is usually best - clients aren't expecting polished prints, but are looking for genuine pages from magazines etc, so there's no major problem if some pages don't quite fill the sleeves, or a DPS doesn't quite fit.

Extras.

Ignoring novelties, as briefly mentioned above, you should always have some nicely printed business cards with your portfolio, ideally both business card size as well as larger ones. The larger ones (postcard size and above) are very good for leaving behind, as people tend to leave them on their desks until they next tidy up (and this can take ages!) If, like me, you cover quite a wide range of subject matter, the best option is to take your "best" shot from each area and get it printed onto postcard or A5 size, then carry the appropriate ones depending on who you're going to see. At the risk of stating the absolutely bleedin' obvious, make sure the card's got your name, phone number, web address and email on. Just checking.

Other Posts: What and Why?, What to Include/What to Leave Out, A Book or Body of Work, Making Appointments, Portfolio Meetings, Summary

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The Portfolio as a "Book" or Body of Work.

Dean Robertson at Loch Lomond.


A Body of Work.

This is quite a vast subject in it's own right, many areas of which are beyond the scope of a relatively simple piece about portfolios, touching as it does upon many facets of creativity and commerce. For the purposes of this piece I'm simply concerned with the images that will end up in the final portfolio, rather than your photographic oeuvre as a whole. I just used the word oeuvre, how poncy is that?

I'm not perhaps the best person to talk about a "body" of work, as one of things I kicked against most whilst at college was the notion of producing a series of images which all seemed very similar, and given that my current work takes in such diverse elements as naked girls in the studio, golf tournaments, portraits, and extreme canoeists, I don't think I've made much progress in that area. However, conventional wisdom has it that your portfolio should be instantly recognisable as your work, should have a coherent thread to it, even if not a consistent subject matter

Conventional Wisdom.

Needless to say, much of this wisdom is not only true, but basic common sense if you're trying to get commercial work. Imagine you're trying to make it as a car advertising photographer, but you also like to take environmental portraits. When you take your portfolio to see the agency that represents Ford, you don't include the portrait work, just your dramatic, beautifully lit car shots. Essentially this is how I approach the problem of a coherent body of work - I relish the fact that my job allows me to shoot a wide variety of subjects, but I don't include the sexy naked lady pics when I go and see Pregnancy and Birth magazine, for reasons that should be all too obvious. I deal with this by having enough stuff printed at finished portfolio quality, plus interchangeable pages in my portfolio itself so that I can swap out whole sections depending on the audience.

Returning to the conventional approach as opposed to my slightly scatter gun method, the ease and advantage of this method is that a commissioner of work should be able to recognise a shot as yours almost straight away. The main reason that this has evolved is simply due to the sheer number of different photographers out there seeking work. A commissioner of photography in a major centre like London or New York is potentially capable of finding a photographer who specialises in almost anything - so why would they want a jack-of-all-trades when they can get the perfect tool for the job?

To this end, your book should have a very strong thread running through it, usually covering both subject matter and treatment. Certain sectors of the industry (let's pick fashion, for example) are extremely crowded, and having some generic fashion shots alongside a body of work that's largely commercial or portrait, will be unlikely to raise any interest from an experienced fashion editor. When up against lots of competition it's obvious that you need to stand out and demonstrate why your work is better than the next photographers, and this is often best achieved by knowing your subject well, and exploring it in sufficient depth. You want to leave the viewer with a very clear memory and impression of you work - this is not often achieved by throwing tonnes of different stuff at them and hoping some of it sticks, but by developing common threads, looks and approaches within your work.

Lucy Becker.

My Approach.

Now, you'll quickly see from glancing round this blog, and from several mentions I've made, that this is not the way I work, in fact I revel in the variety my work offers me. There are 2 main reasons why I don't present my portfolio in this conventional way. The first is that my work (and hopefully everybody else's) continually evolves. With a presentation such as mine it's relatively easy to insert new shots as they develop. If, on the other hand, your book is very harmonious, then a new image may stick out like a sore thumb and make the whole book look a little unbalanced. Often the only way to solve this is to shoot a whole new book in the new style, and this is a costly and lengthy process.

The second reason is that, as stated quite often, I enjoy a variety of work, and have always been surprised at where my work comes from. I never take all 5 of the sections of my book to see one client (portrait, feature/reportage, glamour/beauty, fashion, and lifestyle/stock/commercial), but I always take the 2 or 3 most appropriate. I'm continually surprised by the amount of times that, after selecting the most appropriate work to take to see a client, the one image that they comment on, and perhaps even offer me work from, will be one that doesn't fit the standard template of their stuff.

Horses for Courses, and other Cliches.

On balance, and taking photographers as a whole, it's simply a question of what suits the market best. In a crowded field like fashion or advertising your best bet is to have a very focused and distinct book that is clearly and uniquely yours - any images that detract from the central theme will cause a commissioner to be distracted. If, on the other hand you are based outside a major photographic centre and need to take in work from a broader range of clients, then having more scope to your book is often the only way to go. In fact in these situations a book that shows just one type of work is almost commercial suicide. The wide availability of cheap stock library images, the prevalence of high-quality digital cameras and shrinking budgets mean that trying to make a living outside of London (read New York, LA, Paris etc) by focusing on just, say, fashion will be almost impossible, and you'll need to broaden the base of your work. However, talking about the business like this crosses over into areas way beyond portfolios and would have to include a lengthy (me, lengthy?) discussion about the different working models of professional photography, so for now we'll stop.

Other Posts: What and Why?, What to Include/What to Leave Out, Presentation, Making Appointments, Portfolio Meetings, Summary

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Portfolios - What to leave in and What to Leave Out.

A nice big Double Page Spread (DPS) from my portfolio.


Editing.

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.

Anecdotal Evidence.

My Portfolio, as it was in 1995. Can you tell it was printed in a toilet?


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 16x12". 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!

Other Posts: What and Why?, A Book or Body of Work, Presentation, Making Appointments, Portfolio Meetings, Summary

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Portfolios - What and Why


It's my portfolio - now there's an image to draw you into reading this post!


Even in this high-tech, information superhighway, digitised, sci-fi, skinny latte, post-modern, post-impressionist, post-everything world there's still a very important place within photography for the distinctly old-school portfolio. There's very little here that will be news to experienced photographers, as without making good use of their portfolio they're unlikely to have lasted long in the commercial world. However for people just starting out, or those whose only real experience of showing their work off is is via flickr and other websites, read on.

What is a Portfolio?

To many readers of this piece the above question is a bit daft - most graduates of colleges, or practising professionals will not only know what a portfolio is, but will almost certainly have one. However, there are a growing number of photographers who have been brought up in the digital age who probably don't see the need for a physical portfolio, and I'm going to try and both explain and promote it's use within commercial photography, as well as give some advice on how best to use it once you've got one. A portfolio in the context of these posts consists of a collection of your very best work in a physical form that can be viewed directly (i.e. not on disk or online) so it'll be either prints or transparencies, in a variety of forms, either as a loose-leaf folio, a bound book, or a set of interchangeable pages in an album format. I'll be discussing the use of other mediums, such as websites in a future series of posts - there's already enough to be going on with here!

Why?

The most important aspect of a physical portfolio lies not so much in the pictures themselves as in the fact that to view it an Art Director will pretty much always have to meet you in person, and this can have as much influence as the work itself. I will go into this aspect in greater depth in a later post, but for now it's sufficient to say that in many areas of commercial photography (advertising/editorial/fashion and so on) your personality can be as important as your work, and you should never miss an opportunity to meet clients face to face and have a good natter.

A website is still an essential marketing tool for photographers, and don't think I'm overlooking them. In my experience though, the website is rarely the first port of call for commercial clients, although it does happen from time to time. Where it functions best is as somewhere to refer people to when you can't meet them face to face, as well as being an "always on" way of displaying your work. Plus, due to the ease with which you can separate out types of work into galleries, it allows you to show your full range, rather than the narrower choice you'll usually show to a potential client in your physical portfolio.

A spread from my portfolio.

Always Ready.

One thing I learnt the hard way during my years as an assistant is that it's important to always have a portfolio, and have it available to show somebody at relatively short notice. In an informal industry like ours there are countless times when you'll encounter potential clients, many of whom will express an interest in seeing your work. For most of my 3 years assisting I didn't show anyone my portfolio, though I was often asked to, and must have missed out on a very large number of chances to get photographic work. For a large portion of this time, my best work was simply not assembled in a way that I could present to anyone, and due to my lack of confidence in the images, it never really got collated and presented properly either.

Partly this was because the tests I was shooting were not well planned or thought through, and as such the results were not up to the standards I wanted, partly it was because I wasn't very sure of where I wanted to go with my work, and partly it was because I spent very little money on the basic aspects of presentation (finished prints, actual portfolios and so on.) Suffice to say that I would advise anyone; most particularly assistants who are trying to make it as photographers, to always have some of their work ready to show a client, even if it be only a few pieces. As I'll detail later on, the actual meeting can be more important than the photos themselves.

A quick note on definitions, I will use the terms "portfolio" and "book" almost interchangeably within these posts. In practice there's really not much to separate them, though "book" tends to be a bit more of a fashion term, and has slightly more creative connotations. As far as I'm concerned the main difference is that the portfolio is the physical collection of work that you take out to show clients, and the book is a little more esoteric and represents your "body" of work. I'll go into much more detail about the "book" in a later section, but for now excuse me if I use the terms in place of each other. Like wise, rather than get confused between Art Director, Picture Editor, Art Editor, and Creative Director I may often refer to them universally as commissioners. Not because they answer a red phone in Batman, but because they all commission work. Clever that.

Other Posts: What to Include/What to Leave Out, A Book or Body of Work, Presentation, Making Appointments, Portfolio Meetings, Summary

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