Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Essdras M. Suarez knows a thing or two about the power of a strong portfolio. For years, he has helped fellow photographers improve their work through in-person lessons and online portfolio reviews.
Last Friday, Essdras walked us through a selection of anonymous photo submissions. For each image, he discussed what worked, what didn’t and suggested compositional adjustments that could have made the photo stronger. He also shared tips on how to improve your portfolio and what you can do to make the greatest impact each time you snap a photo. As Essdras says, “Keep shooting, keep moving, keep adjusting!
Watch to learn:
- The psychology behind successful vs unsuccessful photos
- How to choose and properly edit the right frame
- An explanation of concepts like visual anchors and points of escape
- When to stop editing your images
On-Demand Webinar: The Power of a Strong Portfolio – Real-Time Reviews and Insights from Essdras M. Suarez
All your questions answered
Thank you to everyone for submitting questions throughout our conversation with Essdras and during the Q&A! Read through some of Essdras’ answers below and feel free to tweet any lingering questions @photoshelter.
This Q&A was edited for clarity and length.
What’s the biggest request you get from an editor that’s on your mind when you’re shooting an assignment?
EMS: I would have to go back to the beginning of my career when I used to get very specific instructions on what was needed. But as you get more confident in what you do and your editors start trusting you, they basically just point you in the general direction.
Editors, sometimes they have very specific requests. But the majority of good editors are very smart people and they understand synergy. A good editor will let you be; when you shine, they shine through you. An editor that is obtuse, obstinate and who wants specific things – sometimes you have to listen to them with all due respect (or you have to overrule them).
You’re the one who’s there. So at the end of the day, it should be you making the decisions, with the background information of what the editor wanted.
What are your thoughts on the balance of landscape versus portrait shots for editorial work?
EMS: I don’t really have preference. The reason why we tend to photograph everything in landscape is because we see everything in landscape. But, when you’re talking about a photo essay, not only should you think of having landscapes and portrait shots, we should also think of three additional types of shots that are necessary.
You need wide-angle, all-encompassing scene setters that tell you, “Okay, this is where the story is going to happen.” Then you need middle shots where people are interacting amongst themselves and the environment. And then you need detailed shots.
If you’re doing a rodeo, for example… Get a great shot where you see the spectators, you see the bull and the person in mid-air. That’s one. Then you get a portrait shot of a cowboy in a corner smoking with beautiful light. And then you find a pair of gloves that have been stomped on by a bull. Now that’s a photo essay.
When cropping, do you think about size and dimensions? Do those matter to you?
EMS: To me, it’s all about the content. The content of your frame rules the photo. Why use something that doesn’t add to your composition? Why leave something that might distract from it?
Having said that, I know that, for example, if you’re shooting for a magazine, some graphic designers—sometimes I love them and sometimes I want to strangle them—will actually design the page before the photo shows up. And that’s brutal because that basically means there’s a hole that you’re supposed to fill, you’re just filling up an order. Would you like fries with that? Homie don’t play that.
What are your tips for working with bad light (in the middle of the day, for instance) if there’s no other choice?
EMS: I have four words for you: Alex Webb, Constantine Manos. Go look them up. These guys are masters of taking the crappy middle of the daylight and turning them into amazing balanced compositions. We cannot run away from the god-awful light. So you need to learn to make it work. You need to study it. You need to look at the shadows.
Personally, if you look at my work, especially from Cuba , I’m all about the shadows. I love shadows. I love drama. Sometimes I don’t even care about the people in the photo. All I care is about how that shadow is hitting them and how they play as compositional elements within the frame.
What’s been the most challenging thing for you in these past few months, as a photographer? How have you approached your work?
EMS: So it’s been tough. When I left newspapers at the end of 2014, I was a chief photographer for a startup for a couple of years. That was great. Made me go to Israel a couple of times. So I thought my path was set. I thought that the startup was going to be sold and I was going to do whatever I wanted. That didn’t work out. The startup went the way of the dodo.
Then I switched my focus. I opened my own company called EMS Photo Adventures, which takes people all over the world to teach them how to become a better photographer. I’m a hands-on instructor. So I help you while I am there on site. I want you to get the best possible photo while you’re there. I always feel bad when photographers come back and they show me the photos and I have to tell them, “This is what you could have done to make it work.”
Having said that, with COVID, I had to cancel this year – a trip to Panama, a trip to Cuba, a trip to Ireland, a trip to Croatia, Slovenia, Montana and a trip to India. I’ve had to reinvent myself.
The one silver lining in my case is that I am not a technical guy, but being in my house and having to communicate with people virtually has kind of brought me into the 21st century.
And finally, I have been able to create content for people. I created a series of 10 webinars that talk about composition tips, embracing your wide angle, understanding the shadow of decisive moments. So it’s everything that I know makes a great photo. And I spent a lot of time doing portfolio reviews. People contact me and I look at their portfolios. You might think you are a great photographer within that little group of people that you’re always hanging out with, but guess what? You might be the big fish in the small pond. You need to pull back and see how you stack up with the rest of the world. I work at a world level. And when I’m competing, I know that I’m competing with the biggest dogs possible. So my standards are pretty high. My goal is to help people to get to those standards.
For more tips on how to create a successful image and properly edit your portfolio, watch the on-demand webinar today.