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If you’ve ever wanted to score a meeting with some of the top photo buyers, editors or agents – but don’t think you have the “in” – then attending a portfolio review could be the answer to your prayers. Sure, they can be expensive, but it’s worthwhile if the reviewers are people you respect and want to work with.
Still, there are some myths surrounding portfolio reviews that seem to be holding photographers back. It’s time to get the truth about portfolio reviews. So we talked to creative directors, art producers, photo agents and more to get the information you need to assess whether they’re a good investment for you. Here are 7 myths about portfolio reviews debunked.
While it’s true that your main goal for attending a portfolio review should not be to pitch and get hired, photo buyers and editors often use portfolio reviews to discover new and up-and-coming talent. Sure, they probably won’t hire you on the spot, but if you leave an impression then they might consider you for a future project.
Photo editor and marketing consultant Jasmine DeFoore suggests in her post on portfolio review do’s and dont’s that photographers need to have a purpose for each review and communicate that purpose to the reviewer. She says that if your purpose is to get hired, then try saying something like, “I’ve been following your magazine for years and feel my work would fit in. Do you think I’m ready to shoot for you, and if not, what needs improvement?” Or if you’re a fine art photographer, you might inquire, “This is a new personal project that I’m working on, would love to know if you think it’s ready to show to galleries.”
Frank Meo, an NYC-based photo agent and founder of The Photo Closer, says, “Have a subtle but directional pitch. You’re finally getting to see the person you want to see, so there’s no reason to hold back. You have to look at like a marketing campaign – that you’re spending money to see buyers. So the best thing you can do is to leave an impression and who knows, you might get the job down the road.”
Most importantly, bring the actual portfolio that you intend to show to clients. “Some of your reviewers are potential clients (duh!), and they’re not going to give you a pass because you intend, later on, to make a better book,” says Jasmine DeFoore Overall, if the reviewers are people you’d want to work for, be sure to treat them like it.
Promo materials, when strategically introduced during the review, are usually appropriate. As long as you communicate that your real purpose is to get feedback on your work, then it’s totally fine to leave behind a little something for the reviewer to remember you by.
Bonnie Brown, who has worked as an ad agency art producer for over 15 years, says that a portfolio review is not the time to do a traditional pitch – instead, “Let your work speak for itself , and absolutely bring a leave-behind.”
In the same sense, reviewers aren’t there to overtly look for new hires – they’re there to help improve your portfolio. For that reason, you must tread lightly when self-promoting. Rachel Been, Creative Director of Billboard.com, says: “I think many photographers hope that portfolio reviews are a serious opportunity to get hired, but as a photographer you can’t enter a review with that intention – you will become inflexible, dogmatic, and defensive. The best point of view is to see the experience as a type of multidisciplinary opinion session.”
“Reviewers who are also photo buyers are good at turning your work into a vehicle for getting hired,” adds Rachel Been.
Photography consultant Neil Binkley also says, “Absolutely leave promos with each reviewer. It’s a great way for them to remember you and to spread the word to their colleagues.” Frank Meo adds that photographers should send a signed print as a follow-up. “You have to treat portfolio reviews like a first date,” he says. “You want to be a knockout and have them remember you.”
Are you surprised to hear that most photo buyers still prefer printed materials? “Don’t assume that an iPad or laptop presentation is enough,” says Jasmine DeFoore. “I am now convinced that the iPad is just not the best way to show still photography. I think if you have a lot of video/multimedia, it makes sense, but otherwise it’s less than ideal.”
“When I see a beautifully printed portfolio, it lends the photographer some legitimacy,” says Jasmine DeFoore, “it makes them at least appear to have invested a lot of time and effort into their work, all which helps me take them more seriously.”
Creative consultant Amanda Sosa Stone says that she also prefers a printed book “of about 20-35 spreads and even a collection of a few loose prints to move around and discuss…it’s quicker and easier to reference actual prints.”
Rachel Been of Billboard.com agrees, saying, “For me personally, I’m used to looking at a screen to see work, so print is a refreshing treat.”
Actually, the best thing you can do for yourself is to show a wide breath of work. But more important than that is to tailor your work to the reviewers. You almost always know who is going to be reviewing your work beforehand, so select images for your portfolio accordingly.
“I’d keep in mind the audience for your portfolio,” says photography consultant Neil Binkley. “If you’re showing a portfolio meant for Bon Appetit editors, then tailor your edit to their eyes.”
Karen Dsilva, a marketing and creative consultant, says, “Show me what you think is most relevant to your photography business…I need to see enough to understand who you are.”
On the theme of a well-rounded portfolio, Rachel Been adds, “I would say that a single project is not a portfolio…More than staying within a specialty, you should stay within an aesthetic. If I’m seeing an intense, artificially lit ad next to a naturally lit beauty shoot next to a dark landscape, I’m going to be confused and worried that if I hire you, your work is going to be unpredictable.”
Says Frank Meo: “Variety is fine, but it’s like an artist’s palette – you mix all the colors together and you get mud.”
If you’re really seeking feedback on a certain project, Amanda Sosa Stone suggests creating a small, secondary book to tag along with the main portfolio.
You cannot be an unbiased editor of your work. Period.
“We are often terrible editors of our won work and are blind to inconsistencies in story flow and content decision,” says Rache Beenl.
Adds Bonnie Brown: “Portfolio reviews give the photographer feedback as to what’s working and what’s not with the images. It’s a great opportunity to make your portfolio stronger and stand out.”
Beyond just the unbiased opinion, a portfolio review is a chance to get a reaction from someone who resembles your ideal photo buyer or client. “Though it’s great to be compliment on your work,” says Neil Binkley, “I think the value of portfolio reviews is to get a professional reaction to your photography.”
Hey, that’s what you’re paying for, right?
Photo buyers and editors did not take time off to talk to a blank wall. The review process is a two-sided conversation, so come prepared to chat (it’s also the only way you’re going to get valuable feedback). “Come armed with 1-2 specific questions that are pertinent to your reviewer’s area of expertise,” advises Jasmine DeFoore. That shows an interest in the reviewer but also gives you a chance to get professional answers to your questions – seize the opportunity to lift the veil of ambiguity between photographer and buyer!
That being said, you should be open to receiving the reviewers’ thoughts and construction criticism. “The people who are looking at your work know what they are talking about,” reminds Jasmine DeFoore. “Don’t argue with constructive criticism. You may not agree with someone, and that is ok, but don’t tell them that they are wrong.”
In most cases, you should also feel comfortable communicating your goals for the portfolio review. In fact, Karen Dsilva says that, “Photographers need to be serious about their goals. My job is going to be to help you achieve the goal…It’s a waste of money otherwise.”
“I personally love working with photographers who really want to engage in a dialogue about their work, not convince me why their work is amazing,” says Rachel Been in a final note.
If you show up to a portfolio review without researching the reviewers, it’s like walking into your college midterm exam without ever opening the textbook. It’s pivotal to do some background research on the reviewers so that you can select a relevant group of images for your portfolio and come prepared with specific questions about how to improve your work.
“If the goal is to get work from the reviewer, do your homework.” says Karen Dsilva, “You’d be surprised how often a photographer shows a potential client what they want to show them, instead of what they want to see.”
Amanda Sosa Stone says, “Clearly communicate how you would love to work with the reviewer. And be educated – reference their last issue or ad you saw.”
“If you spend $100 to go to a portfolio review,” adds Frank Meo, “take those reviewers and say, ‘I’m going to know everything about you before I sit down.’ You might never get the chance to meet with them in another situation, so the most important thing is to know everything about them. You can leave such an impression if you’re also a business person…It separates you from everyone else, and that little effort might get you the job.”
Portfolio reviews are an ideal way to get a professional opinion on your work and photography business from people who resemble potential clients. To that end, it’s important to act professionally and leave a positive, hopefully lasting, impression.
Of course, portfolio reviews should only make up part of your marketing strategy. For more on how to grow your photography business, download the free 2012 Photo Business Plan Workbook.