Hit 'Em With Your Best Shot: Six Tips for Photographers Preparing for Portfolio Reviews

Hit 'Em With Your Best Shot: Six Tips for Photographers Preparing for Portfolio Reviews

Meeting face-to-face with a potential client is the best way to introduce them to your work. Here are just a few helpful tips to help you turn that handshake into a profitable relationship.

It seems like such a simple thing. Introduce yourself. Show your amazing work. And be immediately showered with more money than can be legally contained in a single bank account.

Well, as anyone who is a professional photographer (or lives on the planet Earth) can likely tell you, real life doesn't often play out to the same script generated by our expectations. But one thing holds true, whether you're a photographer in search of a dream client or a mid-level shipping manager in search of a promotion, the key to business is the personal relationship. People hire who they know. They want to work with people they like. They want to be able to put a face with the name.

Of course, in today's hyper-digital age, it's that last part that can be the most challenging. We spend a small fortune on print promotions trying to get the right photo editor or art buyer to pin our image to their inspiration wall. Or, at least pause momentarily before throwing it in the trash with the hundred others they received that day. We spend far more hours a week than we would like on social media trying to form some kind of relationship with a contact that we hope will lead to them to taking a similar level of interest in us. But the most valuable tool in marketing our services often remains the most elusive: the in-person meeting.

Whether it is through a paid portfolio review, or as result of being invited (likely after several one-sided emails, unanswered calls, and an endearing relationship with someone's voicemail), the chance to sit across a table from a potential client and introduce yourself and your work is not to be taken lightly. Here are just a few tips to help you prepare.

Tip #1: Be Prepared

Well, duh. Of course. But often when starting out, we are under the allusion that the greatness of our talent will simply carry the day. We think, of course they'll hire us. We're awesome. But take a moment to reflect on what's missing from that statement. In case you missed it, and most people do, it's all about us.

You have to remember that there are two people at this meeting. You may be the one that brought the party favors, but you're not a solo act. It helps to know a few of your dance partners favorite moves.

What type of photographers do they usually hire? What are some of their recent campaigns? What projects at they company did THEY take a hand in producing? And by "they," I mean the person sitting in front of you, not the company as a whole.

Unless you've been stalking this person for years, and I'll assume (and hope) that is not the case, then you'll need to do some research. Check them out on LinkedIn. Look up the organization on Agency Access. Refer to sites like We Love Ad or Ads of the World which often list credits for recent campaigns. Check out LeBook and their database of recent projects. Heck, even Google can help you source information in a matter of minutes. There are a surprising number of resources for finding out who's who at the company you're hoping to work for.

This initial meeting is like a first date. And, like a first date, a well placed compliment can go a long way. Clients have egos too. Perhaps not as large as photographers. But they are equally susceptible to flattery. Being able to walk in and say "Hey, I love what you did with the ____ campaign" can be a great way to break the ice.

Even when it is not possible to know many details of the person in front of you. At a bare minimum you should know the basics of the company. What brands they represent. What their corporate messaging is, and whether it dovetails with the themes present in your own work.

I once walked in cocky to a meeting with the Photo Editor of Wired Magazine. I tried to break the ice by asking how the weather was in New York. Turns out the weather in the Big Apple was great. A beautiful day. Unfortunately, Wired is based in San Francisco. 

That didn't go well.

Tip #2: Are You Speaking The Same Language 

I alluded to it earlier, but it deserves a deeper dive. Are you and a client a match made in heaven? Or are you two talented ships destined to pass in the night?

Going back to our date analogy, you may be out on the town with the most beautiful woman, or handsome man. You've been eyeing them from across the coffee shop for weeks, and you can't believe your luck that they have finally agreed to spend a whole evening being seen with you and pretending to laugh at your jokes. This is exactly what you've been dreaming about.

So why isn't it working?

Well, sometimes, despite how someone may look on the outside, there's a pesky little thing missing: chemistry. You may be the most amazing photographer in the world, but just not the right fit for that particular client. Like the failed first date, it's not personal, it's practicality.

Ask yourself the question, "Is my style the right fit for this particular company?" And vice versa. If you had an appetite for soul food, you probably wouldn't spend too much money on sushi. Photography clients are the same. As Bob Dylan put it, "You're gonna have to serve somebody." That individual in front of you may love your work on a personal level, but they are representing a larger brand. A brand with an objective. A profit objective, not an aesthetic one. That jean company doesn't use images of young rebellious teenagers running through empty fields because they like images of young rebellious teens. They use those images because they represent a brand image that the marketing department has determined will help them sell the most jeans to a highly researched demographic. If you go into a meeting with that company armed with a portfolio of corporate portraits of older men in suits sitting behind an expensive mahogany desks, odds are you aren't going to get that job. The shots may be great. But your aesthetic and the client's aesthetic aren't aligned. You lack chemistry.

Tip #3: Have Your Book in Order

Knowing how to present a portfolio is an art in and of itself. But once you've researched your clients and made sure that you're a mutual fit, it is time to decide which images you are going to actually show.

  1. Images should be relevant to the specific client in front of you -- refer to Tip #2.
  2. They don't need to see EVERYTHING. The mistake almost every photographer makes starting out is to show every great image they have ever captured in the same portfolio. This generally results in a collection of random images that will likely leave your audience far more confused than amazed. Imagine if you went to see a movie, and in place of a cohesive story, the writer had instead just thrown in a collection of all the greatest scenes he'd ever written. Some from a romantic comedy. A few from a horror movie he was writing until he freaked himself out too much to pick up the pen. A number of loose action sequences with various unrelated characters thrown in for no other reason than they are cool to look at. Now, I know what you're thinking, sounds like most movies I've seen in the last ten years. But think of how nauseous those movies made you feel, and ask yourself whether or not you want to have the same affect on a potential client.
  3. Keep it short. Less is more. Seriously, less is more. And since, many of you more than likely breezed past that sentence, I'll go around once again, less is more. In a paid portfolio review, or especially in an in-office meeting, you don't have all day. Five to ten minutes to introduce yourself, make a personal connection, show work, and leave a lasting impression. Perhaps you'll get a bit longer, but don't plan on it. So, given the time constraints, it is simply impractical to expect a client to sift through a hundred images and give each adequate consideration. It is also unnecessary. While including every amazing image you've ever created my be a boon to your photographic ego, it is counterproductive to the client's own objective. All they care about is whether you can help them address a specific need. They are not there as your cheerleader. Remember, this is a duet, not a solo act. The client needs to know what it is you shoot, how you shoot it, and whether or not that compliments the needs of their brand. Two or three well curated series of images (around 25-35 overall) is more than enough for them to get the picture.
  4. Think in terms of series/projects versus individual images. This one took me a while to figure out. For years, I would put a string of my best images one after another in my portfolio and an invariably be met with a baffled look and pleasant no thank you. It's not that they didn't like any of the images individually. It's just that they didn't make any sense as a whole. Like our movie mashup, the whole was less than the sum of the parts. By focusing instead on a handful of related series, I was able to immediately add a narrative flow. For example, let's say I'm meeting with a large athletic shoe manufacturer. I don't go in with a collection of 35 unrelated images of people in shoes. No, instead I feature three series of images related to athletic wear. Each series consisting of say 6-8 images from the same shoot/project. By culling the images from the same series, they (presumably) will hold together aesthetically and thematically, thus immediately eliminating the randomness factor of the mashup portfolio. 
  5. Sequencing matters. Now that I've eliminated my desire to include EVERYTHING and am clearly focused on specific series that highlight my ability to create imagery that this specific client will find useful and relatable to their brand, my next hurdle to figure out is the order in which to place these images. This can be difficult and is something that will be different for every photographer. But, again referring to our movie example, the main question to ask is whether or not the sequencing makes narrative sense. You wouldn't put the middle of the movie at the beginning and the beginning at the end. Well, maybe you would if you wanted to be "edgy." But the point is that you need to organize your images in such a way as they make sense. Especially when putting two images on facing pages. Ask yourself, "do these two images make sense together?" They may both be amazing individually, but detract from each other when placed side-by-side. Likewise, two images apart may be good, but put together they form something GREAT. Keep an eye out for both visual and thematic connections that can enhance the body of work as a whole and clearly communicate your message to the audience.

Tip #4: Presentation Matters

First, let me start by stipulating that the work is what counts above all else. So, without the right images, the most expensive portfolio in the world isn't going to help you. I will also emphasize that you don't have to spend a small fortune to on your printed portfolio, if it isn't within your budget. Be sensible. Many photographers these days don't even have a printed portfolio, opting instead to show work on an iPad. I've done it. It will definitely save you money.

But, with those things said, I would point out a few (optional) tips that I have found work for me.

  1. Print is not dead. It used to be that every photographer worth his or her salt had a printed portfolio as their main method for displaying work. That all changed pretty much overnight with release of the iPad and birth of the tablet market. Suddenly, photographers could bring pretty much every shot they'd ever taken with them on a device no bigger than a notebook. They could make changes up to the very last minute. They could tailor every portfolio on the fly to a particular client. The benefits were enormous. Not to mention the cost savings. A professionally printed portfolio can easily range well into four figures. An iPad runs you about 500 bucks. You don't have to be a mathematician to understand that. But as we live now in an almost 100 percent digital world, an odd counter movement has emerged. Whereas, it was originally novel to show your work on a tablet, the tide has shifted. Because so many people show their work on a tablet these days, showing a physical printed portfolio can actually help you stand out. Again, nothing matters if the quality of the work isn't there to begin with. But busy art buyers who, like most of us, spend their entire lives glued to one screen or another, still love to see an actual physical book. Pages they can touch. Large images that exceed the digital dimensions of a tablet. Images as they appear printed in real life, as they are likely to be viewed if the brand were to hire you to shoot a billboard or other physical art work. It's a small detail. It won't make the ultimate difference. But it can help you stand out.
  2. The book itself. Again, whether you shell out for a custom made case or just grab something off the rack at the camera store, it's what's inside that matters. Having a nice presentation case can again give you a small advantage on the next competitor. Not, a deciding factor, but a leg up. Especially, if your aim is to shoot for higher end clientele. They exist in a world where everything is top shelf. You want to present yourself as top shelf as well.
  3. The body of... you. Well, now that we've carefully curated the presentation, let's turn a bit of attention to the presenter. Obviously, everyone has their own personal style and I am not here to turn this into a fashion show. But like any job interview, you should dress appropriate to the job you're applying for. And while you may find cargo shorts decidedly comfortable while shooting, they may not make the best impression when meeting with the photo editor of Vogue. Similarly, I have a decent collection of three piece suits. But if I'm meeting with a quirky ad agency, to wear a formal suit and tie would make me appear just as out of place as if I showed up in sweat pants. Like your image selection, you'll have to rely on your own instincts when selecting your wardrobe. Just remember that your book, your images, and even your own personal appearance all contribute to your overall brand and can help a potential client determine whether or not you are ripe for a second date.

Tip #5: Learn When to Shut Up

Okay, remember when I mentioned that this wasn't a solo act, but instead a duet? Yeah, that doesn't necessarily apply to the art buyer/photo editor. You've probably heard the old adage that "the customer is always right." Well, as much as we may protest, the same goes for photography.

If someone is not really keen on a particular shot or just doesn't like your book at all (this is more likely in a paid portfolio review, since getting an in-office meeting is more than likely proceeded by the client at least having some knowledge of your work), then remember that their opinion is not an invitation for you to try and talk them out of it. Instead, a pleasant nod and grin approach would be the way to go. If what they're saying is helpful, maybe you can use it to improve for the next meeting. If not, it's just one person's opinion. As an artist, you cannot please everybody. If you do, odds are that you aren't much of an artist to begin with. So you need to be able to accept that you're not always going to get 100% praise.

Also, to piggy back on the first point, even if the response is overwhelmingly positive, you will need to judge for yourself when to comment and when not to comment as the reviewer is flipping through your book. Some reviewers like constant stream of conversation. Some like to flip through the book in silence then talk. It will be different for every reviewer, so you'll have to read their body language to know when to interject. If they ask you questions about a particular image or series, as they likely will, then it's a great opportunity to talk about both the image and how that relates specifically to their brand. Or, if there is an interesting back story that will add to context and impact, now would be a good chance to share. But this is one of those situations when those people skills your parents taught you will come in handy.

Tip #6: Leave it All Behind

So, you've researched your client, compiled a stunning and appropriate portfolio that addresses their needs, and presented your work in a cordial and friendly manner. Now, as you get up to leave the table, its always a good idea to leave a little something for the reviewer to remember you by. They see hundreds of photographers in a month, and a little help in sorting out who's who is always appreciated.

Leave-behinds come in all shapes and sizes. Postcards are always a good choice. They are small enough to carry, but larger than a business card. Or perhaps you have a specific promo piece that you think will be perfectly suited for the client. It's dealer's choice in this regard. One tip that I can suggest is to pick a leave behind that represents an images in the portfolio you presented. If you show a portfolio of cars and leave behind an image of a tree, the reviewers may have trouble sustaining the connection. My approach is to have several leave behind options in my briefcase. If a reviewer seems particularly drawn to a specific series when going through the book, I will give them a leave-behind that corresponds to that series.

And in the obvious category, be sure the piece has all your contact information, social media links, and any other method for them to be able to get a hold of you.

In Conclusion

So, you've likely realized by now that presenting well during a portfolio review is equal parts preparation and people skills. You'll need to decide on your own approach based on your specific brand and situation. But just remember that the little things can add up to a lot. And it's often the little things that can get us from having a foot in the door, to having a place at the table.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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Great article. What do you thing about have a short power point presentation (8 to 10 slides) to show what you do? And then show your portfolio.

That could work. Sometimes, it's appropriate, for example, to show a specific body of work that may not be in your printed portfolio but is specifically applicable to that particular viewer. And then show your port. But, if you are going to show a separate series as a slide show, the same rules apply. Tight edit. Narratively connected.