Portfolio development is a major topic of course, so I will be doing a series of full free tutorials on the subject, but here is a condensed version until that time. Also, my opinion about portfolio development is just one amongst many different photographers, agents and clients. If you are new to this, you should seek out opinions from as many industry leaders as possible so that you can decide which ones will work best for you.
Just what is your portfolio?
Many new photographers tend to look at the portfolio as being a history of your work that grows as you produce new work. I don’t agree with this point of view – your portfolio is not about your past, it is entirely about your future. This is the single most important tool you will use to steer the direction of your career, and acquire the kind of clients you really want to be working with. It’s a tool that most veteran photographers build and refine based on a very well thought out strategy that looks at both the prospective client’s photo needs, and the competing photographers going after that account.
When a new photographer is beginning to develop a portfolio or, for that matter when a veteran photography is working on a new book, it should be all about that photographer. You are far better off to focus your career on shooting the kind of work you are most passionate about, as what you show is what you get when it comes to your portfolio.
I don’t recommend trying to build a portfolio based on economics, or which parts of the industry you think represents the best budgets. Focus on what you love – if you’re only in it for the money, then that’s all you’re going to get (and it’s unlikely you’ll get even that). When you know what you love to do, you can research your best opportunities within those parameters – if the opportunities aren’t great then you may have to compromise by reaching out to the most closely related work that has better budgets.
However, once you have identified the kind of work you love to do and the markets that require that type of work, your portfolio stops being about you and becomes entirely about your prospective client’s needs. This is what gets up so many fine artists noses.
A friend of mine who ran a fine art photography program was working with me on how to market our two schools as the program I ran was an applied art, or commercial photography program. When asked to describe what differentiates fine art photographers from commercial photographers, he suggested that commercial photographers were “Artistic Prostitutes,” and I suggested that fine art photographers were “Thin and Bitter.” You might want to change the title on your business card accordingly.
In reality, you’re not compromising your artistic integrity by considering your client’s needs when developing your work – that’s just common sense. Draw a big circle that represents the kind of work that you love to do, then draw a big circle that represents the kind of budgets you’d like to be working with, then draw a big circle that represents the kind of people you’d love to work with. Where those three circles overlap is where your target market is, and you’d be surprised at how many clients sit in that overlap.
I don’t really have “a portfolio.” My portfolio changes based on the client(s) I happen to be going after at that particular time. My portfolios almost always start the same way – first I research the prospective client, then I find out which photographers they are working with and research them. Next I start to plan a portfolio of work that meets the client’s needs, but shows them something different from what they are getting from the photographers they are currently working with.
This is one of the reasons that I (and many other photographers) rarely show tear sheets, or published work in our portfolios. When I am shooting an ad for a client, then the job obviously must be shot with their needs in mind, not mine. Tear sheets are great for dropping names, but fewer clients are now that impressed by who you’ve worked with, they are more impressed by how relevant and original your work is. Custom shooting personal work for a specific portfolio means that I can be very targeted in the kind of work I show that prospective client.
I typically try to develop anywhere from 50 to100 ideas to shoot, which will then get edited down to about 15 to 20 shots that will actually get produced. Usually these ideas start out as simple Sharpy (felt pen) renderings on paper and, while I do like to draw, my idea renderings tend to be pretty much stick people.
I don’t need to render anything tight – as a matter of fact, I prefer really rough sketches as these sketches focus on the idea, not the execution. That keeps both my mind and my assistant’s mind free to come up with creative options on how to execute the idea. A really detailed rendering would make us much more inclined to try and copy the rendering in a literal way. One of the great things about this process is that you end up building a sizeable library of unproduced ideas, which can be a real relief when you are suffering from artists block (see the post on Creative Block).
Now, as an advertising or commercial photographer who has a very select number of existing and prospective clients – all of whom can be easily researched – this is not too daunting a procedure. But what happens if you’re a wedding or portrait photographer whose clients could be anybody and where you would likely be charged with stalking if you try to research them? My recommendation in this case is a modified version of what a commercial photographer will do, and that is to research your competing photographers, and try to identify industry trends.
I normally tell photographers to run like hell in the opposite direction of any trends they see, but that is not necessarily the best advice for wedding shooters. However, you certainly would want to look at trends and then figure out how you can interpret that trend in a way that is unique to yourself – not an easy thing to do!
If I were a wedding photographer, I would schedule time on a regular basis to shoot experimental and personal work for my portfolio (regardless of how busy I am). I would likely still storyboard my portfolio to make sure that I am showing a range of work that represents what I love to do, what I want to offer to my clients, and what separates me from my competition.
For those of you who might think what separates most wedding photographers is cost because of the new shooters who keep undercutting, you’re right – but in a limited way. There will always be clients who simply don’t have much money and getting the cheapest photographer is their primary motivation. Leave those clients to the cheap photographers. There will also always be clients out there who are less concerned about the budget and more concerned about getting the perfect photographer – those people should be your clients. One thing I learned early in my career – it is ok to respectfully turn down assignments that you feel fall short in terms of budget, creativity or ethics on the client’s behalf.
Of course, if you are a high end wedding or portrait shooter who charges top dollar, it doesn’t mean you can’t help out clients who simply have no money and would never be able to afford you. Helping out your community is always good.
This post barely scratches the surface of a large and fascinating topic that is intertwined with so many other important business ethics and marketing issues. I will be addressing these issues in free tutorials as well as future posts. In the meantime, please feel free to join the conversation – we may not agree with each other, but we should feel a lot of respect for each other by sharing our opinions and thoughts on such critical issues. I hope you join the conversation!
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Storyboarding a Portfolio
Storyboarding a Portfolio: Portfolio development is a major topic of course, so I will be doing a series of full free tutorials on the subject, but here is a condensed version until that time.
Bluesky is a photography tutorial website created by veteran commercial photographer and college instructor Greg Blue. This site advocates an approach to learning studio & location photography that focuses first on light theory (these are free tutorials). Lighting, camera and post-production techniques are equally important, but should follow the study of lighting theory (these tutorials are also free). The site also offers a host of specific image tutorials that take a mile deep look at theory and technique from the perspective of individual images (these tutorials are members only).