Improve Your Portfolio

If you are an artist, you probably have a portfolio. This is simply a collection of your best work. One important thing I have discovered is that when you pull a portfolio together, you are not done. It is not done. Your portfolio selections can probably be improved. The portfolio improvement process is a critical skill to work on.

Have you had a relative or friend who wanted to show you “a few” pictures of their vacation? You know, they took 1200 pictures and they want to show you every one of them. Eventually your eyes bleed and you want to strangle them.

Some portfolios are like this. We like almost every one of our images so other people need to see them. Don’t be that one.

Less is more

Here was a hard lesson for me to learn: every image you take out of your portfolio makes the collection stronger. On the surface it doesn’t make sense and it hurts a lot to do, but it is true.

It has been said your portfolio is only as strong as your weakest image. Therefore, every weak image you take out makes the remaining ones stronger overall. If you actually take out the weakest one. Therein lies the hard part.

How do you take out that image you love or represents a great memory for you or was a once-in-a-lifetime location? You do it brutally and without mercy. Sorry. That’s the way it is.

The viewers of your portfolio don’t care. They weren’t there with you to share the experience. Any image you show needs to be near perfect technically, compositionally, conceptually. This is representing who you are.

Portfolio improvement process

I recently watched a video by Ramit Sethi. He is a well known writer on finance and business. Something he talks about a lot is copy writing. Copy, technically, is any written communication you get from a business. It can be ads or email or brochures or anything else. Ramit is persuasive in showing that great copy is far more effective than weak copy.

In this valuable video he made 3 points about improving copy, but I was impressed that the idea applies to other things, too. Paraphrasing him, the points were

  1. Know if something is good or bad
  2. Know why it is good or bad
  3. Know how to improve it

I believe this same process can apply to building a stronger portfolio. It is a model for a vary mature and knowledgeable way to approach improving something.

Recognize good

Do we really recognize the good? Without letting our emotions get in the way? Do we have a base of knowledge to compare our work to?

We can educate ourselves to improve our recognition of good vs. bad. One easy thing is to look at a lot of good examples. Spend time in museums and galleries. This work has been vetted by curators. That doesn’t mean much in reality, but at least you know someone consciously chose the work there.

Books of images are useful, too. Most contain carefully chosen collections of the artist’s best work. Again, we don’t really know who did the choosing or by what criteria, but if the work is being presented as art it is often quite good.

Finally, cultivate a collection of artists you admire. Browse their web galleries regularly. They also often have very good blogs. But of the many thousands of photo web sites, probably only a small fraction is worth bookmarking.

Exercises like this will help build a base of knowledge. It gets us familiar with the look of good work. I can’t recommend that you will get better by looking at bad art.

Articulate good

Recognizing good is an excellent start. It probably puts you ahead of most people. But we also need to be able to describe the reason for our evaluation. It is not enough for us, like Justice Stewart to just say “I know it when I see it”.

There is an old saying that if you want to understand a new subject, explain it to someone else. It helps you understanding it yourself. This works kind of like that. When you can clearly explain to yourself or someone else why an image is good or bad (in your opinion), you have a clear understanding of your judgement.

Getting to this point is harder. You can build a mental model of what you think certain art critics would say. You might have taken some lessons in art appreciation. If you are very lucky you may even have a good mentor who can coach you and help develop your conscious evaluation.

Your standards

Better is to train yourself. Study composition. Know the “rules” of photography. Study technique and use of light. In other words become enough of an expert to have a solid and well reasoned opinion about your craft. And don’t forget that, as you grow, your style becomes more and more different from your peers.

When you evaluate an image it is from multiple viewpoints. You have to consider what the artist intended. Determining if you have ever seen anything else kind of like it gives a point of comparison. Applying conventional composition norms to it helps to set an evaluation framework. It is tricky, but fair, to consider what you would have done in the same situation.

But at the base of it all, pretend you are explaining to someone why it is good or bad. Really go through the dialog. Be honest. Don’t skip over the hard parts.

Improve

Then there is the improve part. I hope we all are consciously trying to improve our work all the time. If you think you have arrived at the peak and can’t go any higher, you are fooling yourself. As an artist you have to have a lot of confidence but at the same time be humble enough to realize you are a work in progress.

Ask yourself what could be different, what variations on this could you think of? What part or this image is weak? Can you move your location? Should you wait for better light? Maybe a smaller part of the scene is a better image. Some of these questions may lead to a different way to approach the subject.

Your portfolio

These 3 questions from Ramit could lead most of us to becoming better artists. But let me relate it back to improving our portfolio.

As I am going through my portfolio I need to be brutally honest. For each image in your portfolio ask: is this a great image? If not, it shouldn’t be here. Can I explain why it is good? Clearly? Finally, can I envision a way to improve it and replace it with a stronger image?

The survivors should be strong images. There is no hard rule of how many images you should have. A number I hear a lot is 20. That seems insane. I have to boil my thousands of great images down to 20? Crazy. Impossible. Have you tried? It is quite a revealing exercise.

There are some attitudes I have to take when I am doing it. First, I must really believe that taking out a marginal image makes the set stronger. Second, I can’t keep an image in just because I love it. It has to be able to stand on its own. Third, I make myself believe that taking out a favorite image is not like throwing it away. It could be used somewhere else, like if a gallery requests a certain subject that it fits.

Lastly, I have to understand that the viewers will only see what I show them. They will never see the ones that almost worked. They will not see the ones that were bumped by stronger images. What they do see determines their evaluation of me as an artist. Better to lose some of my favorites if they are not to the level of craftsmanship and creativity I want to portray. I have done it and lived through it.

A living thing

Your portfolio is a living thing. It should change as you do better and better work. Go back periodically and test some of your new images against your portfolio. Hopefully you will sometimes reluctantly take out some of the old favorites in favor of the new works.

This is sad, but it should also be exciting. If you are growing as an artist you new work should be even better than the best of the past. It is a way to see your progress. And your portfolio gets stronger. You are growing.

To see a snapshot of my current portfolio broken down by several genres, check it out at:

photos.schlotzcreate.com

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