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|| News Item: Posted 2006-07-03

Tips to Staying Out of the Out Pile
By Chip Litherland, Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Photo by Chip Litherland / Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Photo by Chip Litherland / Sarasota Herald-Tribune

The OUT pile
I am not a photo editor, nor do I have to power to hire anybody except maybe a taxi driver.

What I do have is a Director of Photography that lets his staff recruit people to come work for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, and have a lot of say as to who is flown in for three days of interviews and wining and dining. We have had a couple openings recently, and what I've enjoyed is going through these bins of portfolios of prospective applicants. There are three U.S. Mail carrier boxes in our pool closet which are marked with long-winded titles, but basically what they end up being is "Yes," "Maybe," and "Not a snowball's chance in, well, Florida." Let's chat about avoiding the latter.

Here's the process I went through on a slow Friday in June. I plunked a box down full of portfolios for one of the new positions we're adding to the staff. I grabbed a pad of Post-It notes and started opening Fed-Ex envelopes. I love doing this, because it not only gives me a look into what great work others are doing and who the competition is, but it also helps me with my own editing - which I pretend to know a lot about on, but I can't seem to do it to my own work. Alas, I stray.

Here's a Top 10 list of my tips that I hope will help you avoid getting in the "Out" pile faster than Britney got pregnant again:

1. Presentation isn't everything, but it will keep it on the desk: Remember in English class when you used to dress up your crappy 10 page essay (double spaced, with wide margins, and in large font so it seemed longer) with that clear plastic .99 book report cover with the slide on plastic binding? Yeah, it didn't work, but it would be better than what many people send in. Spend the extra couple bucks on getting something somewhat professional looking to hold your resume, cover letter, captions and CD. I don't know how many free-floating resumes I found, folded in half and stuffed into a yellow envelope - bad idea. Better yet, give it a little design, give it to one of your designer or graphic artist buddies and see what they think. If they start running to the bathroom holding their mouth, that's probably not a good sign. Remember the way it looks is the first impression they get of you - make sure to blow them away with some slick, but really clean, design. Example: we got a print portfolio from someone filled with absolutely gorgeous 11x17 prints - can't comment on anything other than that. It didn't fit into any box we had so it sat on the DOP's desk for weeks - and is still there. Everyone that comes up to said desk opens it and checks it out. That's the kind of attention you should want. Overkill? Maybe. Will it get him/her a job? Who knows, but everyone now knows about it.

2. Either fill the frame as you shoot, or crop to pretend like you do: When I do portfolio reviews for students for this site or in person, the first thing I always notice is many photos that are cropped to squares and long horizontals. I'm not sure if this is because an editor or teacher is pushing the "light, tight, bright" or "crop to the action" mentality, but for me I like to see images that are the standard 35mm ratio, unless they were shot or intended as squares or panos. What cropping it weirdly shows is that you can't fill a frame while shooting, and it leaves the people seeing your work wondering what has been left out. Just avoid it all together by pretending you can and crop your stuff to as close to a 35mm ratio as you can. That's just me, but I'll preach it to the bitter end.

3. Avoid the "sheet of doom" - caption sheets with thumbnail images on them: The caption sheet is a necessary evil, I know. It seems the trend is to include little grainy inkjet thumbnail images next to each caption so that editors can figure out what goes with what. I found that I would pull those sheets out and look at the pictures on those sheets first and make my decision whether to look further based on those small, terrible images. Force an editor to open the CD and look at them the right way in all their glory. Find another way to list captions - maybe numbers, letters, or just keeping them in chronological order.

4. No one cares if you can do it all, just as long as what you do is all good: There is a lot of emphasis in schools and books about covering every traditional category when you are putting together a portfolio. I don't agree. While it seems in theory right to show that you can cover spot news, general news, features, portraits, illustrations, etc., I'm not convinced that anyone one is sitting there with a checklist next to your name making sure you can. I see so many mediocre pictures in portfolios that get reasoned in by, "Well, I needed a sports photo." No you don't. Just make sure the photos you do include are the strongest you have and show your vision. What I like to see is a photographer with a fresh, developing eye that sees the world in a way that no one on staff does. What you should have is a healthy dose of singles that vary from frame-to-frame and a good project, story or two. Edit. Edit. Edit. Edit. Edit. Then edit some more. Then when that's done, well, edit. After you are through editing, throw all of those photos in the trash and go grab your outtakes, because they were probably better - joking. My point is, don't water your vision down - it's who you are and who they're hiring.

5. Cover letters are like the instructional manual to your camera, and you know how often you read that: This might be a little out there, but every cover letter sounds exactly the same to me. Part 1 - "My name is and I know this person on staff and I want to work there." Part 2 - "I knew I was destined to make pictures when I saw this scene that everyone has photographed before." Part 3 - "I have won this, done that, and you should hire me because I can set-up a remote." Part 4 - "Thanks for your time, now hand over the medical card, man." That's all well and fine, but there's some really unique cover letters out there that actually get read - one recent one described the biggest mistake he had ever made on the job. Why would anyone talk about that? Well, because I want to read about something interesting and see what he learned. Try writing in a way that will make someone take the time to read it and get a sense of who you are - "personality plus, all the way." Copy check, give it to a friend, read aloud, rinse and repeat.

6. Your references will be called, so make sure they like you and know they're a reference: Pretty obvious, but I've heard some horror stories from these conversations..."Who is this?" "Oh, man, where do I start?" "This one time..." " Great shooter, but the personality of a lens cap." Point is, make sure you have the right three people on there and that they know you are dropping their name.

7. If your CD doesn't work, it's in the grey, plastic-lined "filing cabinet" under the desk: I don't care how many copies you've made of your portfolio, put every one of them in a PC and MAC and make sure they work. There's no point of applying if a slide show isn't going to run. No one will ever call to say that your CD doesn't work - there's a stack of 50 other working CDs right under yours.

8. Make sure the person you are sending a portfolio to is: a) Still working there b) Spelled correctly. C) The right person. D) All of the above: The answer is d. About 1/4 of the portfolios I saw had it wrong. It won't get you thrown out, but it certainly doesn't make the person wanting to hire someone feel good. All is takes is a simple phone call or email to someone there to get it right.

9. If you want to work for a newspaper, don't send a portfolio that says "I just need a job until I can get into what I really want to do.": Unfortunately, it is painfully obvious when someone is just looking for a paycheck on their way to their beloved magazine or agency gig. If that's the case, for the love of God don't say it in a cover letter, but also think about your pictures and who you're sending them to. Newspapers run photos on off-white, muddy crap. Sometimes newspapers cover things like Aunt Betsy sewing her favorite quilt. Think about who you are marketing yourself to and show them how you can fit in, or better yet contribute, to their staff. One of the most repetitive questions I hear is "will this person be happy here?" Translated: this person has some beautiful work from (insert country here) which would look great in magazines...why is he/she applying here? A good way to figure out what to send is to call your friend (there's always one, trust me) and ask about what turns the DOP off and on.

10. Don't leave anything for anal people like me to complain about: Yeah.

(Chip Litherland is a staff photographer with the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. This is his second story for the Sports Shooter Newsletter. To view some of Litherland's work, check his member page at:

Related Links:
Litherland's member page

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