A Few Thoughts About Portfolios
August 24th, 2015 by David LaBelle
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A sampling from David Dermer’s portfolio. Dermer is a one of my senior students at Kent State who loves to shoot football. I encourage him to keep two portfolios: one general and one sports. Photos by David Dermer

Years ago, a photographer friend asked me to look over his portfolio. There were 40 or so well-organized, correctly exposed images—a solid, professional portfolio. But nothing in the pictures took my breath away. There was no edge to the work, no risk taken. But one thing did stand out: His portfolio looked just like him—an authentic sample of his work, his style and even his person.

I have viewed hundreds of portfolios and am often asked what a good portfolio should look like. Ask 10 editors from varying backgrounds, and you will likely get 10 very different opinions.

Don’t despair. Here are several staples most editors agree upon:

• Be authentic. First and foremost, your portfolio should look like you. Have the courage to present a portfolio that is an honest representation of who you are, what you do or would like to do.

• Keep two portfolios. Keep one for your belly and one for your soul. The first is for editors who make decisions based on formulas, void of intuition or recognition of potential. The second—the “soul” portfolio—is the one you show to editors with vision. This “authentic me” portfolio should contain only images that show your unique view of the world.

• Show your best work. Include your most recent work. It’s OK to show work from the past, as long as most of your portfolio is from this century. Edit mercilessly. Have the courage to let go of all of those “almost” pictures you risked your life to shoot. Remember: You are only as good as your weakest picture.

• Know the publication. Every publication has its unique character and personality. Choose a publication that does the kind of work you would like to do.

• Be accurate. If you can’t spell, use spell check, or find an editor or friend you trust to review your work before submitting it.

• Be personal. A name is better than “Dear editor” or “To whom it may concern” when sending a portfolio.

• Don’t try to pad your resumé. Most editors are not easily impressed. Don’t attempt to impress them with titles or where you have been. They just want to see what you have produced.

• Presentation is important. Should you call or write? Should you email or send a personal letter? Should you submit an online or print portfolio? It depends. Do our homework. See if the person or publication you are sending to has published preferences or presentation guidelines.

• Maintain digital and print portfolios. For online portfolios, there are several free sites, such as Wix.com, that are easy to build and navigate. Whatever the format, include current contact information and references.

• Focus on the core. Formats and delivery methods will continue to change, but the core of a compelling portfolio should not.

daveDavid LaBelle is an internationally known photographer, teacher, author and lecturer. He has worked for newspapers and magazines across the United States and taught at three universities. He grew up on a frog farm in rural California, roaming the creeks and hills with his coon dogs. Many of the lessons he learned during those magical boyhood years have been applied to photography and teaching the essence of this art form. For more information, visit www.greatpicturehunt.com.