The portfolio

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MT’s architecture master portfolio

Following on from the previous articles on curation and how to approach a project, I thought I’d conclude with a slightly different look at the same thing: the portfolio. We hear that word bandied about quite a lot amongst photographers and clients too: ‘Send me your portfolio’, or ‘That image is good enough to go in the portfolio’, or ‘Here’s my client portfolio’. What does it actually mean? How can we use it to our advantage?

A ‘portfolio’ refers to a collection of objects or things. In this case, photographs (or clients). I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anybody refer to a portfolio of cameras. Firstly, I think it’s important not to approach a portfolio as a fixed, static object: I prefer to think of them as living, evolving collections. This allows for adaptation, and for a general raising of standards when you capture the right kind of images. Initially, your portfolio will be something that only gets added to, without removing any images. It’s easy to take the best of the last shoot and include it into a master folder somewhere; I do this all the time as a rolling exercise.

A portfolio must have a clear objective to begin with: much like a project, but unlike a project, images are often curated in retrospectively because they fit the general theme, rather than conceived specifically to be consistent with a single idea. It’s a subtle difference, but I think an important one. I would never present a project as a portfolio because it simply isn’t diverse enough; similarly, I would not present a portfolio as a project because it may be representative of what I can do within a certain general theme, but the overall idea or concept isn’t anywhere near as tight as for a project. The objective of a portfolio is to show the viewer what you as a photographer can achieve within some limitations that are relevant to them (generally, a certain topic or subject – e.g. ‘travel’, ‘product’, ‘food’, ‘portraits’): are you a deep specialist with perfection in just one or two looks (‘color environmental portraiture’), or is your strength diversity? More importantly, think carefully about how you want your work and abilities to be perceived.

Remember, the purpose of curation is to control what we show to our audience. Photography is really nothing but curation from the outset: we curate a scene to match our own vision in the process of framing, then curate those frames against our own personal criteria and some general interpretation of what makes a good image or ‘the four things‘*, then curate again in deciding what we present to the public – and how we present it. It is, in essence, the process of sharing your own vision/interpretation of a scene – and far more complex if we want to present it properly. The objective of a portfolio is often to convince the audience that you have the capabilities and vision that suits their requirements, and presumably justifies your fees. This is far more difficult than just convincing somebody that your image is good or nice or aesthetically pleasing or trendy or whatever happens to be the order of the day: you have to get a commitment out of the other party.

*Derived from human psychological responses to visual stimuli, and therefore about as universal, subject-independent and objective as you can manage to be for a pursuit that is entirely subjective

In that sense, the portfolio has to work at several levels: not just a technical, compositional and aesthetic showcase, or a demonstration of experience and evidence to one’s own verbal pitch, but it has to really hit the client at a level which they themselves might not recognise. It is therefore imperative to understand both the client’s real requirements (style, subject etc.) and the preferences of the individual as much as possible before even attempting to curate a series of images to present to them. In most parts of the world**, the subsequent engagement (or not) is really subjective: does the client think your work fits their needs?

**Sadly, in Asia, most of the time the clients will say ‘We love your work and really want to hire you, but we only have budget for [insert unrealistic number].’ The portfolio is neglected in favour of the quote – which is ironic, considering they want to hire you for work you previously did that required a larger budget. Some gentle education is possible, though most of the time they really have no understanding of what they’re really asking for. Those are not the kind of clients you want.

There is an important subtlety here I’ve not mentioned explicitly: what you think is your best work may not necessarily be the best work for the client, or the best work for that particular objective. Remember that the concept of ‘best’ here is highly subjective, and involves a good degree of personal bias from both sides. There can be no such thing as an objective ‘best image’. It goes back to my previous point: do your best to curate to the objective, which is client-first, rather than your own biases.

This is not to say that there isn’t a good reason to continuously curate for one’s own personal improvement. Your own ‘personal best of’ portfolio should probably do two things: be separated by subject, and aim to have a maximum number of images. It means that you restrict the portfolio to images that are at least somewhat related to each other, and it never gets so large and unwieldy that you land up with so many images that individual ones are not memorable to the audience; they should all be memorable. With a fixed number, you will eventually have to start deleting images to add new ones: this is a good thing, because it forces you to both evaluate whether the new images are better than the old ones, as well as continually up your game as you cannot keep both new (and presumably of higher standard all around) images and old.

Personally, I generate a lot of images: I have to try to balance objectivity with giving each image a fair viewing before deciding if it makes ‘the portfolio’ or not. I start with an approximately monthly curation – I seem to land up with 30-50 images per set. At the end of a year, I’ll curate that set into my core themes (architecture, watches, product, corporate documentary, cinematic etc.) and delete older images from those master portfolios that no longer make the cut for whatever reason. Some images are irreplaceable because of circumstance or access and stay; others are there because they represent a personal breakthrough at a certain point in time, and eventually get superseded.

If I am asked for a portfolio by a client, I’ll start with whatever fits the broad theme the best and then go back through the archive of monthly folders to tailor the images to their specific needs and preferences – I’ve never sent two clients the same portfolio, actually. (It’s also one of the reasons the portfolio tab on this site isn’t updated that often – what I have there is representative enough, and I’ll send a tailored set anyway.) And not all client work yields images that are portfolio-grade: they have to make a certain cut for creativity and imagination, too – and if you’re shooting standard catalog images to spec, then these would hardly qualify. I’ve tried other methods of curation, but this is the best I’ve found short of printing everything (unfortunately, that’s just too expensive). Even if you’ve never had the need to create a portfolio before, I highly recommend the experience – if only to have something coherent to show if somebody asks to see your images. MT


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  1. John Harvey says:

    Just curious. How does one send a portfolio? PDF, email, website, Facebook, Print? What’s the best way the present?

  2. This is thought-provoking. I both make images and write fiction, and every day I’m thinking about the connections between the two. I’ve passed this along to some writer friends. To me, it’s cross-modal, particularly for poets (who can work at a smaller scale and thus produce a portfolio with a number of works in it).

    • Interesting: I definitely think most creative disciplines have a lot in common; take songwriting, for instance; a singer may write hundreds but only present a dozen in the final album. They get known for perhaps at most two or three dozen songs throughout their entire careers; that’s insane considering a photographer may produce hundreds of thousands, even in a year. Writing to me has never been quite as fluid as photography, so my curation/discard rate there is much lower…

  3. I should make this an annual exercise, though I’ve tried “style development” by curating both my own AND others’ (my flickr favourites, i.e. a pretty random selection) photos to some kind of thematical sets. Not sure how that worked for clarifying my vision though; coincidentally spending several months at the same time without reviewing shots on a large screen might have an entirely different effect.

    As a sidenote, you often wonder about the perceived lack of interest in this kind of articles. I much enjoyed this and the previous parts on projects and curation, but the best educational pieces (all three in this case) are very difficult to immediately discuss in relevant tems. However, they do get saved for revisiting later – one read is not always enough to fully develop one’s own thinking. The same difficulty of discussion goes for most photoessays, but I doubt many regular readers would trade either for more reviews. (As for the review traffic, you could see it as a river that carries lots of garbage but which might also bring some interesting fish – blogging is a dirty job 🙂

    • I think it would certainly help with clarifying personal direction, though I feel double curation (curating the curated) can sometimes not work so well because the different objectives are mutually exclusive, resulting in possible missed images. I suppose it doesn’t matter quite as much if it’s only for your own inspiration though 🙂

      Blogging is a dirty job. Philosophising is a lonely one 😛

  4. Ming, On applying your approach to my many pictures I find I have a portfolio of 4 and I will shortly cut off my ear, for which I will hold you responsible. On the upside however, having read this along with your equipment reviews I now know I only need a £400 Ricoh rather than the £2.9k Leica I thought I deserved, a saving of £2.5k and a welcome return to sanity. So, qualified thanks for your excellent blog.

  5. Excellent trio of articles. Perfect rainy midwinter reading!

  6. Ming, I’m sure you will know this, but a “portfolio” originally referred to a small case for the carrying of folios (sheets of paper) or maps, for example. So this explains its use in photography to mean a number of photographic prints, a selection representative of the photographer’s art, and wouldn’t mean his complete collection. This is why one wouldn’t refer to a portfolio of cars, nor indeed of CD’s or LP records, but as a collection.

  7. This is a nice conclusion to your three part discussion on curation, projects and portfolios.

    Curating for a portfolio is probably the biggest challenge I’ve come across. Granted I do it as an academic exercise. It’s surprising how few images seem to actually make it into ‘the portfolio’ and harder still is then breaking them down by defined themes/styles.

    As always, thanks for your thoughts Ming.


  1. […] is almost certainly why working to an idea of a specific portfolio or project yields a much stronger set of images than just photographing instinctively and […]

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