7 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Your Next Portfolio Review

7 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Your Next Portfolio Review

Should that photo really be included in your portfolio review? Let’s talk about it. 

Portfolio reviews work because they provide a level of objectivity few of us are able to reach ourselves. A good editor has no emotional ties to the photos they’re looking at and therefore provides indispensable perspective and feedback. 

As artists, we tend to fall in love with our creations. “But that’s when a good editor comes in and taps you on the shoulder and says ‘You know what? Go out there and make it again,’” Pulitzer-Prize-winning photographer Essdras M Suarez told us. We spoke with him about how photographers can make stronger images and get the most value out of their reviews. 

Now that you’ve decided to be reviewed and locked in a date, it’s vital you spend time critically thinking about which images should be included — and which should be left out. To help you make the final cut, we’re outlining seven questions to ask yourself before your next review. Looking at your photos with a new, specific lens helps uncover overlooked elements and facilitates a bit of separation between you and your work. 

How’s my crop?

To crop or not to crop, that is the question.

Cropping is one of the quickest ways you can make an image stronger. It’s also often one of the easiest ways to ensure a photo stays mediocre. When done right, cropping adds a clearer focus and creates more interest to an image, but when done wrong, everything is thrown off. 

“If your content merits a certain crop, then you crop. You crop for content,” Essdras advises

Don’t send your viewer searching for the subject. If that’s happening at any point, you’ve got to make adjustments. Each image in your portfolio should have a clear focal point and limited filler, so look at your foregrounds and backgrounds closely when you’re doing your own edit. 

An interesting crop is also a great way to add another element of detail or interest. After all, parts of a whole can sometimes make things more intriguing than leaving the whole. Just be mindful of what it is you’re cropping, especially when it comes to the human form. “On Cropping the Human Form: The Do’s and Don’ts and Why?”, written for the official journal of the Photographic Society of America, outlines how to handle cropping human subjects appropriately.

Are the small details helping or hurting me?

Just like cropping, the small details in your images have the potential to be both your friend and enemy. When selecting images to include, don’t add detailed photos just for the sake of adding detail. That’s likely to busy up your portfolio and cause confusion about your vision as an artist. However, including a photo or photos that make a viewer want to lean in and explore further? That’s worth it.

That’s our goal as photographers. We want people to spend time looking at our images. The worst thing to happen to your photos once you make them is for them to be ignored.

Essdras M. Suarez

Is this farm worker working solo or part of a larger team harvesting that field? Are you looking to take a portrait or raise awareness about a particular issue or cause? Details can and should provide meaningful value. But they also have the potential to be massive distractions, so keep that in mind when selecting which images you’re including in your portfolio. What you leave out is just as important as what you keep in. 

“When it comes to photography, God is in the details. That’s what’s going to make you stand out,” Essdras says.

Is this photo good or am I just showing off a cool photo technique? 

Here at PhotoShelter, we love gear and exploring the photo tools that allow photographers to take artistic chances. So this one is extra hard to admit but it bears mentioning: using a cool photo technique does not always translate to making an impactful image. 

The right techniques add to the mood or overall feeling of an image but nothing is good enough to make an otherwise boring photo interesting. Because of the work it takes to make complex images, we are often that much more emotionally attached to them, so be sure to ponder that when selecting images for your review.

We’re all for getting a photo or technique out of your system. Just think twice if you’re including it with the sole hope of showing off. 

Are there any points of escape in my images? 

Review your images for points of escape, which are elements of a photo that distract the eye. Oftentimes quite small, these have the power to derail an otherwise strong image because they divert attention away from the important elements of your images. 

Some examples of points of escape: 

  • Light sources that don’t add interest 
  • Bright colors in corners 
  • Intense highlights or shadows creating shapes 

Don’t draw the attention of the viewer away from the main subject. Do a quick walkthrough of your images and specifically look for points of escape. An easy way to do this is to review your images and squint at every one. Is anything standing out to you as being too bright or too dark? That’s a point of escape and ideally can be cropped or edited out. 

The distracting small triangle you see in the top left corner is an example of a point of escape because it takes away from a viewer’s attentino on the man walking.
(Photo credit Caitlyn Edwards)
The image becomes much stronger after the point of escape and meaningless details from the sky and other buildings are cropped out.
(Photo credit Caitlyn Edwards)

How clean are my backgrounds? 

A clean background is akin to wrapping up everything in a nice neat bow. Look through your images and contemplate the quality of your backgrounds. Is there wasted real estate like too much of a wall or ceiling or grass with little to nothing being added by its presence? This is where those details can take away from the potential impact of your photos. Don’t throw the weight of your images off with useless information.  

“Everything within a frame has to have a reason for being there. If it doesn’t add to the composition, it’s taking away from it,” Essdras advises. So clean your backgrounds!

Is this decisive moment powerful enough to excuse any mistakes? 

In other words, is the photo you’ve included so gripping to a viewer that the other details don’t matter?

 “When it comes to what makes a photo a good photo or a great photo, we’re talking about a lot of elements. We’re talking about composition, lighting, technique, approach, the camera you’re using and decisive moments. You can take all of these elements and make a great photo, but there is a hierarchical order. Everything below the decisive moment, I don’t care what order they’re in. The number one in that hierarchy, the king, will always be decisive moments,” Essdras told us. 

When it comes to capturing the essence of a moment, you could have bad composition, bad lighting, bad technique. But if that decisive moment is powerful enough, that’ll carry your photo.

Essdras M. Suarez

One useful example of this is John Filo’s infamous Kent state protest image from 1970. The anguished woman, Mary Ann Vecchio, appears to have a pole coming straight out of her head, an obvious no-no. That being said, the moment John was able to document is so compelling that the unfortunate angle really doesn’t matter. (This is all the more proven by John Filo later on winning a Pulitzer.)

Photo credit John Filo / Getty Images via The Washington Post

Did I go overboard with post processing? 

Last but certainly not least is the importance of editing. Similar to decisive moments excusing bad elements in an image, great photos can (and often are) ruined by overdoing it in Lightroom, Photoshop and the like.  

So be wary of overediting. When the technique you use in post production becomes the first thing someone notices about an image, you’ve done too much. Don’t go crazy with hyper saturation, HDR or anything that’s going to alter reality. One of your goals when making photos should be to avoid creating scenarios you’ll need to fix in post processing and if you do have to do that, maybe leave that image out of the review. 

Have other tips for photographers preparing for a portfolio review? Leave them in the comments below or tweet @photoshelter and share them! 

Watch our on-demand webinar with Essdras M. Suarez to get more tips and see examples of how to make better images. 

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This article was written by

Caitlyn Edwards is the Senior Customer Marketing Manager at PhotoShelter. Passionate about visual storytelling and ethics, she covers photo news, events and offers educational tips.

There are 2 comments for this article
  1. Pingback: Weekend Reading 7.28.2022 - ASMP
  2. Linda Tommasulo at 5:53 pm

    I would love to include this article in a future edition of my photo club’s newsletter, the Focus. You can check us out at http://www.spsphoto.org. I have a portfolio review scheduled with Essdras this week, so I really appreciate the content. But, these tips are great even for editing your own images. Thanks.

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