When you’re a photographer, or even just a creative person in general, there are so many things that can happen — both expected and unexpected, big and small — that end up having a huge-wild-amazing impact on the course of your life. For me, one of those life-defining moments came to me in the form of my very first portfolio review.
Now, if you’re already biting your nails with anxiety at the mere thought of having your work judged by another, more experienced photographer, let me remind you that you are not the only one. I’ve been there, I’ve had the anxiety dreams — but I’ve also felt the rush of excitement that comes afterward when someone you respect gives you honest feedback about your work. It’s LIFE CHANGING. And, honestly, any photographer at any point in their career will benefit from the motivation and perspective that you get from a portfolio review.
But let me pump the breaks on myself here (yes, even talking about portfolio reviewing gets me AMPED) — before I tell you the story behind this particular portfolio review, I should explain what a portfolio review even is.
So, first off, what is a portfolio?
A portfolio is basically a super well-organized collection of all your very best work. These days, photo portfolios typically live on your website (and if you don’t have a website in the works yet, I’m going to need you to clear your schedule because you absolutely NEED to make one!), but in the past, they’d typically be printed out on high-quality paper and organized into a collection that came together kind of like a book. No matter how you present them, either digitally or physically, your photos should be arranged in a way that helps you tell your story, emphasize your strengths, and sell your skills as a photographer. It’s your space to show the world just what you got!
Now that you have your portfolio, what about the portfolio review?
There are a few really important things that you need to know before going into a portfolio review, the most important of which is this: you have to find an unbiased professional. Yes, your mom/dad/best friend/pet goldfish totally love you and your photography and would be more than happy to review your portfolio with you, but at the end of the day they just won’t be able to give you the kind of insight and feedback you need to move forward and grow as a photographer.
And when it comes time for your actual portfolio review, be ready for some of the best feedback you’ve ever received. You’re going to sit down with another photographer, photo editor, or agent and they’re going to go through your portfolio with you, image by image, and give you their opinion about where your work is strongest, where it is weakest, and what your next steps should be in your career to get you where you want to be. And this kind of feedback and assisted goal setting isn’t just important, it’s honestly essential. We can’t grow as creatives if we don’t know what we’re doing wrong — or right. We need to make sure that each photo we take is pushing us closer to our goals. And portfolio reviews make this possible.
A portfolio review is so, so much more than just having someone sit with you and say “that photo is pretty good” or “that photo is kind of terrible,” it’s about taking a deep dive into the hows and whys behind your work in order to find the magic combinations that work perfectly for YOU.
Now, let’s get back to why my first portfolio review changed my life.
When I was just starting out, I really had no idea how important portfolio reviews would become in helping me build my career as a photographer. The first portfolio review that I had was at the end of my first year of college at Brooks. I had spent the year studying photography but wasn’t sure what path I wanted to follow or, honestly, whether I was even any good at it. Then, in one of my classes, my teacher told us that he was having a big-time professional fashion photographer from LA come in to do individual, one-on-one portfolio reviews with each of us. And that the person in the class with best portfolio would be the winner of the review. Y’all, I was freaking PUMPED. It’s all the I could think about for weeks.
But sadly, at the same time that I was preparing for this review assignment, my grandma was really sick in the hospital and we knew she wasn’t going to make it. I was of course heartbroken and knew that there was nothing that I could do. So, to get through the pain of losing my grandma I basically just consumed myself in creating this portfolio and working as hard as I could to make it perfect. Then, the day before the reviews were scheduled my grandma passed away. I was crushed, and just ended up going through the motions of the next day in a complete fog feeling every emotion imaginable all at the same time.
And then, at the end of the review, the teacher announced that I had won the review. That all the work I’d put into my portfolio had paid off. I immediately left class and called my mom completely sobbing because I was so happy, so heartbroken, but somehow at peace because even with all the emotions flowing through me. I felt like my grandma had been watching over me and I felt like she was telling me I was on the right path after all. I started to feel like maybe I was even good at my newly chosen life path—that I had potential—and that I was making the right choices.
This portfolio review was completely life changing. It gave me direction. It helped me find my confidence. And the feedback helped make me a better photographer. I still think about some of the feedback I got that day. And I am still learning something new every time I apply the feedback to my newer work.
The thing is, we’re always going to be far too close to our own work to ever be able to look at it with a critical eye; and the people who love us are too close to us to give us the kind of feedback we really need. And this is why these reviews are so essential. We have to be able to see the big picture, and the only way to do that reliably is with the help of an outsider’s perspective, with fresh eyes. Constructive criticism is something we all need if we’re going to grow as photographers.
Now, when it comes to actually putting your money where your mouth is and investing in a portfolio review for your own work, you do need to keep something in mind: it’s not cheap. It is literally an investment. In fact, the last portfolio review I paid for a few years ago cost me around $3,000. And I don’t tell you that to scare you, but I do tell you that to remind you that you’re worth it — we have to be willing to invest in ourselves if we want to move forward in our careers. So long as the reviewer you hire is someone reputable, who you trust and who will give you the high-quality feedback you deserve, then it’ll be worth every penny.
So even if you aren’t quite ready to schedule a portfolio review for yourself, start building your portfolio as if you were going to! Imagine what you’d want to show a portfolio reviewer, the questions you’d want to ask this person, and how you think they might answer those questions. The more you do this now, the more prepared you’ll be when the stars align and you find the perfect opportunity to have your work reviewed. Because trust me, the time will come, and you’ll be so glad that you were ready for it.