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|| News Item: Posted 2011-02-20

No Crap: Portfolio Tips
By Robert Seale

Photo by

Robert Seale's portfolio from 1992: "Everyone's portfolios were so similar and formulaic that it almost became comical."
During the summer of my junior year as a photoj student, after toiling my first three summers in Hell hot south Texas refineries, I found a job in a camera store. After a month or so of that, I finally mustered the courage to make a few calls and show my work.

The first call I made was to the AP bureau in Houston, hoping to get work as a freelance photographer. The phone rolled over to the Dallas office, and the legendary Harry Cabluck, the Dallas Bureau Chief, answered the phone.

The exchange went something like this:
Me (nervous as all Hell): Uh...hi there...uh, sir...I, a college photographer...and uh, would, love to meet with you, and uh...possibly, a str-str-stringer for you this s-s-s-summer.

Harry (with a booming, scary voice): Well. Do you have a PORTFOLIO?

Me: Y-y-yessir.

Harry: Ok, but DON'T SHOW ME ANY CRAP!!!

I promptly went back to the camera store and didn't call anybody again until the following summer.

A portfolio (aka "Your Book") should be a current record of the VERY BEST photography you've ever done. Portfolios take many different forms of presentation: websites, traditional books, boxes of prints or slides, a PDF presentation, etc. but regardless of the format, the purpose is the same: it should blow the viewer's mind visually and convince them to hire you.

The most important part of putting together a killer portfolio is having great work to show. If you're a student, this means carrying a camera at all times (we should all be doing that anyway), creating new work all the time, and self-assigning to fill the holes in your book.

The Purpose of a Portfolio:
The real purpose of a portfolio is to get you a job. It's a sales tool. While it would be nice to fill your portfolio with all the various things you might be interested in, the bottom line is that you have to edit it down to show your marketable skills. You should critically look at each picture in the book and ask yourself: What does this image show/say about me or my vision/technique? Will someone hire me to do this?

Editing Your Portfolio:
When editing your book, it's important to be as objective as you can be, and edit ruthlessly. There are some pretty common mistakes that everyone makes that are easily avoidable.
-If the picture needs a 10-minute explanation about how you took it, where you stood, how difficult it was to gain someone's trust, etc. - throw it out.
-If you have to explain a fault (power line, bad lighting, tree converging with someone's head, etc.) - throw it out.
-If you have pictures of famous people just because they are famous (particularly, lame press conference photos of the President) - throw them out.
-If you have to apologize for or explain anything about your presentation (a fingerprint on a print, a dust spot, a binder you aren't wild about, bad layout, etc.) - start over.
-If you can't answer the question: "Is this the best (baseball photo, fire picture, portrait) I've ever shot?" in the affirmative - throw it out.
-You are ultimately in control of what you choose to show, and there are NO EXCUSES in a portfolio.

It's important to go with your gut when putting a portfolio together (ultimately, it's your vision), but it's also a good idea to get other photographers you respect to weigh in on your edit as well. You shouldn't necessarily edit by committee, but if 12 people tell you to throw out a photo - chances are it sucks.

A portfolio should be a showcase of your best images. You might have a great photo story, with wonderful access, with subtle emotional content. I'll probably get flak for this, but a portfolio is not the place for subtlety. I've been to lots of photojournalism workshops and portfolio reviews, and you should really lead off with your best singles.

Photo editors (even the ones that are sensitive, open minded, and leaders in our industry) make quick judgments about you and your work after 5 pictures, so don't save your best images for the end, and don't lead off with a 10-minute multimedia piece. Save the subtle images for a picture story, a slide presentation where you have a captive audience, etc.
Don't pad your portfolio with mediocre images trying to fill some hypothetical space requirement. If you have 10 good pictures - show 10 good pictures. No one knows how big a portfolio should be: I've looked at really interesting portfolios with 100 images, and I've been bored by 10-25.

Photo by

Robert Seale's current portfolio presentation:"The method of presentation really all depends on what type of job/client you are going after."
Presenting Your Portfolio:
The method of presentation really all depends on what type of job/client you are going after. If your goal is to get a photojournalism job or internship, a website might suffice. If you are going after corporate clients, a website, and some sort of print book is essential. If you're marketing to super high-end ad agencies, then you need a custom made book (preferable several), a top-notch website, lots of printed materials, promos that you mail out several times a year with professional, well-designed branding on everything.

As a student, I learned the hard way about presentation methods. At the time, most internships required a page of 20 35mm slides with an accompanying caption sheet, resume, clips, etc. My junior year, I sent out packages with 4 8x10 prints inside with my resume. My pictures were ok, but I went to a school with no real photojournalism program. My photography teacher in the art department, where I took my classes was used to the commercial world, and my communications photography teacher, whose last job prior to teaching was shooting dog food bags for Purina, had no clue.

Once I joined NPPA and started networking with photographers at other schools, I figured it out. At the time, 1991-1992...everyone's portfolios were so similar and formulaic that it almost became comical. On a page of 20 slides, a college/young photographer's portfolio looked something like this:

1. News -hard news shooting, fire, etc. (bonus points for women hugging/crying)
2. News -Abortion protest picture
3. News -Fireman silhouette
4. News -Protest/arrest picture 2 (South: Klan rally optional; Midwest: tornado wreckage)
5. Feature -backlit kid in sprinkler-black background
6. Feature -funny sorority girl photo
7. Feature -Silhouette of marching band
8. Feature -backlit, 300mm hand-of-God Frisbee dog photo
9. Sports -tight levitating football player
10. Sports - tight floor-action horizontal basketball photo
11. Sports -wide angle track and field steeplechase reflection photo
12. Sports -300 mm head-on hurdle photo
13. Sports -baseball /softball pitcher picture (with ball coming off fingers)
14. Portrait -old wrinkled man in black and white
15. Portrait -arms crossed business portrait of professor
16. Food illustration - usually with softbox reflections in a wine glass and/or fork
17. Photo illustration -usually someone staring at a green computer screen
18. Fashion illustration - usually a photo on a white background of your girlfriend
19. Broadsheet clip of Picture story
20. Broadsheet clip of picture story

But I digress...

With the Internet, Facebook, Sports Shooter, etc...there really are no excuses. There is a wide base of knowledge available, and if you aren't sure what to send for a specific job - just email and ask.

Other stuff:
Photo by

Branding is a key component to your marketing efforts.
At the very least, even as a college student, you should have a real website for your portfolio. Register your domain name, get a real email address with your domain, and have a well designed, fast-loading, easily navigable website that a photo editor can look at quickly.

Don't make people sit through long intros, fancy flash graphics, or...God help you - music. These sound like small items, but they all add up to you being perceived as a professional.

Sending links to your Facebook photo gallery is absolutely unacceptable.

It is a really bad market out there for photographers right now. You can separate yourself from the crowd with a killer portfolio.

Above all, just remember the famous words of Harry: "Don't show me any CRAP!"

Robert Seale is a freelance photographer based in Houston, TX. He formerly was a staff photographer with the Sporting News. You can see samples of his work and read more of his insights in photographer at his personal website:

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