5 Tips For Surviving a Photography Portfolio Review
Getting a portfolio review can be one of the toughest experiences any photographer will encounter. I've had a few. Two by professional photographers and another by Myron Barnstone. That was over eight years ago. Looking back on it now, I have to give myself credit. To have the courage to turn your portfolio over to Myron Barnstone means you can't be afraid to hear the truth.
When Myron used to teach art at his studio in Coplay, Pennsylvania, he had a wall in one of his classrooms that he would use to hang student's assignments up for critique. It was affectionately named "the impaling wall." Despite his teddy-bear personality, he was very critical of his student's work - not to break their spirit, but rather to help them learn from their mistakes. As he was fond of saying, "Skills grow on the basis of understanding, not on ignorance."
Myron's portfolio review of my work was rough. In fact, he suggested that I get a new camera. That's was a tough pill to swallow considering I owned two Leica M cameras at the time. But the truth is, back then, he was correct. Not about buying a new camera but about my photography. I didn't know enough about art or design, and it showed in all of my images.
After some of the wounds healed from Myron's review, I took time off from taking pictures - four years to be exact. Within that time, I read everything I could get my hands on including books on design, drawing, painting, and color theory. In the end, it paid off. I have learned more about design and art than I ever could have imagined.
At some point, every photographer will have to take that bold step of laying down their portfolio for someone to review. Prepare yourself, because it can be a scary thing to do. Depending on the reviewer, it can make or break you. Here are a few tips that will help you survive a portfolio review and keep your head above water.
1. Always Find a Reviewer That Has a Solid Background in Drawing, Painting, and Design
Most photography portfolio reviews are done by other photographers. Unfortunately, most photographers don't have a background in art, and even fewer have any knowledge of real design principles. So, before you hire someone to review your portfolio, do a thorough background check on their credentials. I would rather have my work critiqued by a master painter than a professional photographer.
2. Don't Assume That A "Professional" Photographer Is Qualified to Review Your Portfolio
As mentioned above, just because someone does photography as a profession doesn't mean they are qualified to review your portfolio. In fact, I have known some very successful wedding photographers who took lousy images, and yet, they make a great living at it. Much success in business has to do with how good you are at selling to your potential client, not the quality of work.
3. Take Your Review in Stride
There are many factors that dictate our mood from day to day, and we're all human - so is the person doing your portfolio review. Many outside factors can and will determine the outcome of your review. For example, if your reviewer had a bad morning, chances are the critique you get won't be as objective as it could have been. On the flip side, if your reviewer is in a great mood, they will tend to be more positive.
With that said, if your reviewer says something harsh, ask them why they are coming to that conclusion and how you can improve your mistakes. The same goes for positive statements. If they say, "this is great," have them explain why. The more feedback you get, the better off you will be.
4. Get More Than One Opinion
Don't take your portfolio to one person for a review and be done with it. Take it to several. The more opinions you get on your work, the more you can weed out the crap. I got a portfolio review by a highly trained photographer that was completely worthless. Yes, their body of work was incredible, but they didn't give me any feedback on how to improve my images. Simply stating that a particular piece doesn't work and not give a reason why won't help you at all.
5. Become Your Own Critic
One thing I have learned over the past eight years is that very few photographers are trained in classical skill-based art techniques. How will this translate in your review? If the reviewer isn't classical trained, they tend to give purely subjective advice. For example, we have all heard comments like, "I want to see more of this," "I don't see enough of you in your work," "this crop bothers me," and so on. Statements like this won't help - you need solid facts and suggestions on how to improve your work.
Become your own critic and start reading as many art and design books as you can find to learn how to analyze your images. If you can develop a competent set of design skills over time, you won't have to leave the fate of your portfolio or your future in the hands of someone who isn't visually trained.