Photographers: Make Sure Your Portfolio Doesn’t Just Simply Suck
Really. Too many do. And it is time to get serious about what you show.
Change is constant.
Change is ever-changing.
The resulting change of ever-changing change is constant change.
I am sorry.
I just couldn’t help myself.
But hopefully, you get the point.
Now, let’s talk about portfolios.
Specifically photographer’s portfolios and why you should make sure yours is hitting all the right points. It’s not just a collected jumble of photographs, it has to be a ‘body of work’ to get the viewers to become engaged.
And while the business of photography is fundamentally the same — people hire photographers to make photographs that will engage their prospective clients and customers in order to make a sale — there are more facets to it than there were back in the day.
And far too many people long for BITD instead of facing what is in front of them head-on and getting shit done.
First of all, let’s get one thing totally and unequivocally straight.
Nobody wants to see your ‘toaster on white’ shot.
Or your boring but oh so cleanly shot catalog attempts with silverware.
Or a bunch of boring headshots of boring people wearing boring clothes in front of a boring background.
Creative Directors and ADs don’t care… and even if they have reason to care because they may actually have a toaster client, they absolutely EXPECT you to be able to shoot a toaster.
On white. Or blue. Or green.
Nobody cares to see the proof, it is simply assumed.
Of course, BITD, you would indeed show your toaster on white because making a toaster shot on white was friggin’ hard.
Tilting, swinging, hiding fill cards, and cutting holes for lenses… damn.
You see, we didn’t have Photoshop.
So showing your technical skill on an item that they struggle to get good shots of was imperative.
And many a sheet of E6 was offered up to the gods of toasters, reflective computer monitors, polished aluminum porcelain baking machines (yeah, ask me how I know that), and wine bottles with metallic labels.
Then — change.
Today we simply shoot it with several exposures while moving some reflectors, stack ’em in Photoshop and blend, baby, blend.
You are expected to be able to do that as a competent commercial photographer, and you probably can. And if you can’t, you can learn. Quickly.
So the hard part is that you have to show them something, well… else.
Something more interesting. More exotic. More fabuloso. More incroyable, mon Cherie.
In short, they want to be inspired by your work, your ideas, and your ‘vision’ to use a well-turned phrase that everyone uses but few really understand.
Look, they spend hours every day looking and working with their toaster client. They eat, breathe, drink, sleep, and dream about their toaster client. Their toaster client puts food on the table, keeps the business running, and is a source for growth.
Gleaming toaster parts, toaster closeups, toasters on white for catalogs, “lifestyle” toaster shots, toaster beauty shots, the ubiquitous “slider control shot, boring fucking toasters for as far as the eye can see.
When you come in and show them more toaster shots they want to tear their hair out. Or yours. They will die a little inside when you show them another goddam toaster shot when they are drowning in a world of toaster shots.
It’s not pretty. (Remember that I was once a Creative Director and had to endure some of the presentations by photographers hell-bent on showing us what they KNEW we wanted to see.)
But we didn’t.
We wanted to be amazed, inspired, engaged — whatever — with the photography in front of us. Something other than “Wow, he shoots medical devices nearly as good as the other eleventy-hundred photographers we know.”
Not a ringing endorsement or a reason to hire.
I know, I know — someone on the interwebs said you should show the clients what they want to see — it seems logical but it is out of context. They want to see work that may be relevant but are not really interested in being shown more of what they already have.
Unfortunately, what they don’t say is to make sure you entertain, inspire, and entice us to care about the images. Make us want to run away with you to a tropical Island and make wonderful, award-winning ad shots all day… with your amazing work.
Inspiration lifts us up!
But boredom kills, and unless you have a toaster shot that literally screams “I LOVE YOU” at them, I recommend you keep it to yourself.
Instead, knock them out with your creativity.
An AD wants to spend a few moments away from their ongoing challenges with the toaster clients and spend a bit of time looking at the stuff she wanted to do when she quit law school, fought with her parents, was cut off, and spent 4 years dumpster-diving for food in LA while studying design and art.
She wants to be surprised, uplifted, challenged, buffeted, knocked out, taken aback, and simply enamored of the work in front of her.
Your work your way.
Yes, show her what she wants to see.
Your inspired images.
Your blood and guts splayed in all their glory right there on her desk.
Your deeply rooted and inexhaustible passion for excellence.
You are expected to be able to shoot the damn toaster on white.
What catches the imagination is the unexpected, the simple surprise.
Dazzle them and they will want to be dazzled again.
Now — to the point of showing them “what they want to see”…
WTF is that?
First of all, I cringe when I hear the word “they”.
“They” don’t exist.
Art directors, designers, photo editors, creative directors, and art buyers are not a “they”.
In fact, it would be very difficult to even imagine a scenario in which they all agreed.
On any damn thing.
We once organized a “round table” event where we had 5 prestigious art directors (and they were even way more famous in their own heads than we thought they were) with a gregarious and very smart moderator. They took questions in front of an audience of hopeful and somewhat intimidated photographers.
I will forever remember that muggy August evening as getting an incredible insight on crap we should not believe. Never believe in a “them”… there is no damn “them”. Never believe that someone is automatically better than you when they display to the world that they most assuredly are not. Never expect what you want to expect. And never eat seafood that has been sitting out for too long in the desert heat.
Question one was on what kind of promotions they liked to get.
Art Director One; “I prefer postcards every couple of months. More than that and I feel a bit put out… I’m busy.”
Art Director Two: “Posters. Anything large. Never postcards, I find them too small to get an idea of what I want. Big posters or large prints for me. A couple of times per year is fine.”
Art Director Three; “Don’t send me any of that shit. Make an appointment to show me your work and if I remember it, I’ll call you sometime.”
Art Director Four; “I am only interested in emails and links to websites. Postcards go straight into the round file, and I have no room for fancy promo kits. I toss them. Once a quarter is plenty.”
Art Director Five; I love unique promos. Stuff that shows me how creative you are in a presentation. Postcards, posters… whatever, as long as there is a reason you are sending me the promo. It should stand on its own. Send them whenever you have something you think I would like.”
Are you now perfectly clear on what “THEY” want?
With all this wonderful data, you can create the perfect promo for “them”… right?
Insanity has more touchpoints in reality than this sort of nonsense.
These are individuals.
They are certainly not monolithic social constructs of group-think with a single desire. They believed their invaluable insight was carved in stone because each seemed to think they were speaking for the collective… “we like to…”, “it’s important to …”, “whenever we…”
Even though it was patently obvious to anyone functioning with more than a dozen brain cells that there was simply no consensus at all between them, they kept up the universal proclamations.
BTW, this “insight” continued on through every question asked “what kind of work do you want to see” to “how do we get in touch with you for a portfolio showing”?
Never did the five individuals (“they”?) come together for a single answer.
And they never will.
So what is the answer to “what to show them”?
Show them your best stuff.
And of course, make it relevant to the context of their work in a very wide sense of the term. Showing cool car shots to an agency that handles celebrities may be a challenge… or not. How the hell do I know? Perhaps they will be impressed.
Show them images that are somewhat but not perfectly aligned with their current work. Showing the toaster client cool food shots from Peru, Espresso machines shot in the middle of the Gobi desert, a completely restored 1967 Triumph Bonneville on the salt flats in Utah… If it is a creative and interesting photo it will be remembered.
And being remembered is what your portfolio is all about, baby. Being remembered! It is the golden chalice of this business. The brass ring.
So many things have changed from what we expected BITD to what is expected and allowed now.
Show them how niched you are if you want to approach them that way.
Show them how diverse you are if you want to approach them another way.
Show them your creative approach to mundane subjects, places, and things.
Be the bringer of a unique kind of awesome in a world of “me too”.
Show them how you solve visual challenges.
Show work that shouts its very essence when seen.
Show work that requires a bit of context.
Show work that may be ‘way out there’… hell, you don’t know. Perhaps they love way-out-there stuff.
Whatever you show make sure you absolutely love the images.
THE PRINTED PORTFOLIO: OLD SCHOOL
I would like to give you a little heads up on the printed, analog, heavy as hell, pull your back out of alignment portfolio book.
They are making a steady return.
Believe me when I say it is time for you to consider a printed portfolio.
More on that someday soon.
For now, I have to run, my toaster needs some tender loving care.
I am a photographer, designer, and photo editor. You can find me at my self-named website or at Project 52 Pro System where I teach commercial photography online. This is our tenth year of teaching, and it is the most unique online class you will find anywhere.