Profoto released the B10 camera strobe unit recently, so I put it through the paces.Read More
Creating photographs is only half the process; the other half is sharing them. While the internet (like this very website that you're on right now) is fast and convenient for this, nothing tops the experience of holding a thoughtfully built collection of printed images.
A printed portfolio is equally about both sharing the images themselves, and the experience of the physical presentation. The details matter, so I did everything I could to create a pleasing experience from start to finish.
This is a fast-paced video showing a glimpse into how I built my professional photography portfolio. If you have any questions, drop them in the comments!
Portfolio case: Ice Nine Portfolio from Lost Luggage - 11"x17" in black paper resin
Printer: Canon Pro1000
Paper: Moab Lasal Photo Matte 235 - 13x"19" sheets cut down to 11"x17.75, scored, and punched.
Scoring board: Scor-Pal SP108
Paper trimmer: Rotatrim Professional M20
The other night I couldn't sleep (too much coffee at 5pm) and was in bed scrolling through my Facebook feed, when this ad for the Samsung Gear 360° camera came up (below), with the instruction to "capture more of the moment." Through my groggy state of semi-consciousness, it hit me in a new way. We don't need to capture more, we need to hone a vision. If anything, we need to capture less. More wheat, less chaff.
We've hit a point with media where there's an emphasis on capturing everything. Case in point, this ad for a 360° camera. If you're not capturing everything, you're not capturing enough. Every moment. Every inch of the world you see. Even the ground around the camera. The camera operator. The backs of people's heads. The ceiling. Coffee, food, visiting a museum, taking an Uber. Everything.
My point is not to rant against FOMO (fear of missing out), and tell you to be "happy right where you are." I won't even criticize "pics or it didn't happen" or "do it for the 'gram." I take photos at concerts too, and when hanging out with friends; I'm no saint.
My concern lies in the loss of the value of having a story to tell. Most people understand that the art of photography (or videography or design or art) isn't about the gear you have, it's about your vision, aesthetic, composition, subjects. It's also not about the volume of content that you share. To share a vision and communicate an emotion, there has to be focus. Purpose. Subject. Reason. Direction. Motivation. Intention. Execution. Capturing everything around with an infinite scope isn't just lacking in value, it's boring.
It's a solid reminder that what defines an artist/creator is not the volume of what they make, but the quality.
Being a good sculptor isn't about using the most cubic inches of clay or marble. Master painters don't compete to see how much paint they can apply to the canvas. These things are done with precision. An idea that is a driving force in my work is a quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupery: “Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”.
There are valid reasons to capture more. A camera that shoots 14 or 20 frames per second isn't valuable because of the sheer volume of images captured, but because it captures so much that that perfect frame can be selected and shown on its own. The "more" is a means to a specific, finite end.
If there's one thing that holding a 360° camera out in front of you doesn't do, it's show a vision. What am I even meant to be looking at? But the point of this is not to dump on the 360° trend, there is a time and place for it. It serves a specific function that can be very practical (Google Street View is the best). It's my punching bag for this example because it's a great metaphor for aimless capture with no selectivity.
Selectivity is a big part of a creator's skillset and value. Knowing not just how to capture something, but what to capture, and what to deliver, is valuable. I'm not old enough to say "back in my day, we shot on film," but shooting film is a great practice in thoughtful and intentional execution. On the spectrum of intention, you could say that film cameras are on one end, and digital 360° 4K cameras are on the other.
Several billion photos are uploaded to the internet every day. That's a lot of noise. Of course, most of that is not work created by professionals. It's friends and family sharing candid moments, and maybe their breakfast. But with increased sharing, it's even more important for (professional) creators to have a unique message.
So what's the point? Don't get lost in the weeds of technology because of the promise of more. More is not better, better is better. Different is better. More for more's sake is just noise.
Detaching ourselves from the amount of work we've spent on something, and the end result, is a critical part of the creative creation process. Nobody cares how hard it was to create something unless it shows in a material way.
It's important to not confuse effort with results. When we ascribe value to the trouble we went to, it clouds our judgement. We get attached. We start to shove square pegs in round holes because we've got self-imposed tunnel vision. We think just because we got up at 4am to hike to the top of a mountain in the snow, and because there were technical issues that we overcame, and we spent a month planning it, that the mediocre result is praise-worthy. Sometimes the best photos are the ones that took the least effort. "Complex" does not equal "better," or even necessarily "interesting." The beauty (and curse) of a still photograph is that, for all the factors that went into its creation, the entire story is held in that one frame, and it has to be able to stand on its own. If your feet got cold and wet while taking the photo, it doesn't matter if it's not good on its own.
This is theme runs through so much of the effort spent on my business. Communication with potential clients, connecting with other creatives, updating my website, cultivating a social media presence, working on various marketing activities, getting super deep into editing one photo for hours, and trying to work on things that make me different, not just better. It's important to not waste time on unimportant tasks, but ultimately, there has to be a detachment from looking at every ounce of effort spent as a direct relation to a final result. Because sometimes, things just don't work the way you think they will. It's really hard to calculate the ROI on relationship building.
A quick anecdote. I was recently planning a trip to New York City where I had a portfolio shoot setup. I wasn't going to be able to location scout until I was there, so I was stuck with the decision while packing: do I bring my Profoto B1 flash, even though I'm not sure if I'll need it? Reasons not to bring it: It's bulky and eats up about half my backpack. it weighs 8+ pounds with extra batteries. It's fragile and expensive. It always gets me flagged by TSA for extra screening. it means having to get rental stand and beauty dish when I arrive. Reasons to bring it: I'm trying to create the best work that I can, period, and don't want to be under-prepared.
So, I decided to bring it. To skip to the punchline, I didn't end up using it on the shoot. Like, at all. All the effort that went into bringing it—carrying it my pack while flying, walking through NYC, biking to Adorama to rent a light stand and beauty dish, biking through the city with all of that gear strapped on my backpack—was wasted.
Well, was it wasted? Going into it, I didn't know what I was going to need. I could have not bothered bringing it and just hoped for the best. But hoping for the best isn't a plan. I ended up getting tons of images that were exactly what I wanted, none of which needed that light, and that's okay. If I'd insisted on using the light because I went to the trouble of bringing it, that would have diminished the quality of the photos that I got. A lot of effort, very little payoff. Hindsight is 20/20.
I arrived home from that trip at 11pm on a Tuesday, and had a 7am shoot the next morning in a gym. I didn't think I was going to need lighting, but decided last minute to bring it anyway. It literally took 60 seconds to grab the lighting case, and it turned out that having those lights was absolutely critical. Very little effort, very big payoff.
It was just coincidence that these two experiences happened within 24 hours of each other, but it painted a really clear picture for me; In order to create my best work, I have to be willing to end up being over-prepared, always. I have to be willing to "waste" my time and effort because the alternative is to be underprepared. And if I'm wildly over-prepared for something simple, so be it.
Activities that can look like "wasted time" also include critically important things like spending time practicing, experimenting, and trial-and-error. Insert your favorite inspirational quote here about "don't be afraid to fail," or "with great risk comes great reward."
So, be willing to go the extra mile, even when nobody will pat you on the back for it, and it might end up seeming "unnecessary" after the fact. But when it matters most, it'll pay off in spades.
I've spent a lot of time trying to find the right camera pack for me. This is my review of the F-Stop Gear Tilopa.Read More
Shooting tethered to a laptop takes the guesswork out of what is being captured on a photoshoot, and is worth the extra effort. Let's go over what it really means to shoot tethered, and what gear you need to do it.Read More
My best photos aren't in my portfolio.
Or, maybe I should more accurately say, photos that were my best at one point in time, have now been discarded from my portfolio because they have been replaced by newer, better work. It didn't happen all at once. One by one, they dropped like flies to be replaced by newer and better flies.
As I write this, I'm currently putting together a new printed portfolio to show to potential clients and agencies. Man, it's tough, it's really tough. And it's got me thinking about the process of critically analyzing our own work and how challenging it can be.
Your skin replaces itself in it's entirety fairly often, with cells constantly dying and growing. But, thankfully, it doesn't happen all at once. A few cells die here, a few new ones spring up there. The rolling count stays about the same but the content changes. The same is true with a portfolio.
I'm not an expert on portfolios, so if you're here for me to say "it should look like this, and should have X number of photos," sorry. (By the way, that number ranges from like, 8 to 50 depending on who you ask). Instead, I want to coddle you and help you through the inevitable hardship of saying goodbye to your favorite work. Or, what was your favorite work.
Letting go of the old work to make room for the new is hard.
- WE GET ATTACHED — We get attached and have a hard time letting go. We remember how much we loved a certain shot when we first captured it; We remember what it felt like to say "this is my best work" and it gets filed away in our archives and minds tagged with "best" and it takes a conscious revision to override that feeling.
- WE CAN BE BAD JUDGES OF OUR OWN WORK — This isn't because of a lack of talent or an eye for quality, but more that we know too much about our own work to judge it critically. We know that we spent 5 (or 50) hours trying to make it work, getting all the props, getting everything lined up right, problem solving when something went wrong, and the hours of meticulous editing. But we can fail to remember that effort does not equal results. Just because you spent a long time on something and you love it doesn't mean it's good.
- STAY FOCUSED — As we shoot more, we find what it is we like to shoot, and hopefully, keep shooting more of that. As we progress in that direction, work outside of that scope can seem more out of place in a body of work. I have a photo of a bird that I think is awesome and I really love. I shot it in Iceland and I have great memories surrounding it - but it makes absolutely no sense in my portfolio, so it's gone.
My portfolio circa 2009
While researching to write this, I came across an old album from 2009 called "Portfolio." These were my favorite photos at the time, what I felt represented the best work I'd done:
The dancing girl was shot right after I got my first off-camera flash triggers and I discovered that I love shooting movement. The popping water balloon was November 24, 2009, the day I bought my first flash. I was in awe of the fact I could freeze water droplets like that. The girl in scuba gear in the shower was early experimentation with working with a concept, not just documentation of what happened to be in front of me. The narrow bridge sign was learning about long exposures. The orange was dabbling in studio product work. I used to do weddings, now I don't. I used to shoot music, now I don't. I used to take random self-portraits to practice lighting (before a "selfie" was a thing). Me sitting in the window was one of the first times I used Photoshop to stack several frames together.
At one point, I was attached to these images, now I've moved on.
My portfolio circa 2017
Now, my style and focus has changed. I've gravitated to more minimalist framing with focus on a bold subject, and unobtrusive but texture-rich backgrounds. Now, my portfolio looks more like this:
Sure, I've gotten better and better with Photoshop, but I've also found what I like to photograph. My new work eclipses the old, and I remove what doesn't fit together. Eventually, the entire body of work is new, and that's how it should be.
Only include the work you want to get hired to do more of.
A portfolio is a specific body of work that should be representative of your current work, but should also be aspirational. If you shoot a ton of weddings, but hate it and want to do more portraits, go shoot portraits and put those in your portfolio and show that to people. Work begets work, and if you don't show that you shoot a certain subject, the likelihood of getting hired for it is very low.
Don't rest on your laurels.
It might sound scary, but if you're on the fence about an image belonging in your portfolio, it probably doesn't. Just get rid of it. Wait 5 minutes and see how you feel. I find myself in moments of bravery where I'm able to be ruthlessly honest with myself. That's a perfect time to say goodbye to the images that have served their purpose, and send them off to the spirit in the sky.
For years, I battled choosing a niche and style. Everyone will tell you to pick a niche if you want to find success, but I was resistant. In hindsight, I realize it was because I hadn’t found the right niche. And I wouldn’t have found it by choosing, I found it by doing some of everything, and from that, realizing what I enjoyed most. So don’t pick it, just let it happen by accident.
When I started out as a photographer, I shot everything; portraits, landscape, travel, sports, music, product, weddings. I shot with natural light and flash, in studio and outdoors. I experimented with everything I could.
Over time, I stopped doing some of those things because they weren’t interesting to me. I slowly started removing sections of my website. 5+ years ago, my site had: Portraits, Product, People, Wedding, Music, Lifestyle, Athletes. And that’s how it should have been. I was learning about photography, and more importantly, learning what it was that I enjoyed doing most.
5 years ago, I wouldn’t have guessed that my website in 2016 would only have athletic and active lifestyle photos. The only way I ended up here was by starting there. Nothing was crafted intentionally, beyond me doing more of the work I was drawn to and less of what wasn’t as interesting. I didn’t blindly choose a niche because I “needed” to. I pursued the things I loved doing and dropped the things I didn’t like. By definition, your style is whatever it is you do, so just go with what you like, and in hindsight, you can point at a style.
I searched my archives and found a good example of something that’s stuck with me since 2009. The photo on the left, taken of my sister on my parent’s deck, expressed movement and flow, and that’s something I still love to capture (recent photo on the right):
These are all self-portraits, which means—that’s right—I was taking selfies in 2009–2010 before selfies were cool. I did this a lot, that’s how I learned lighting. I would go walk around campus in college and set up lighting and my camera on a tripod and practice. During this period, I learned I loved having people in my images, and that interesting light is important, but rarely had subjects so I used myself. The things I kept were my desire to work with great light, and my desire to shoot people.
Identifying a photographer’s style should be like looking at a baby photo of a friend. You see the familiar facial features in the picture, and you see how they looked similar to their adult self, but it’s impossible to look at a baby and imagine what they’ll grow up looking like. That’s how a style should be; You see it in hindsight and it makes sense, but it shouldn’t be predictable.
The style of my images is ever-evolving. I don’t have one single editing trick or preset or light setup I used for every single image. I didn’t decide on Day One that that was what my look would be, then shoot a bunch of photos to build and match that look. I shot all sorts of content, styles, angles, I processed photos in a thousand different ways. But there are looks and effects that I like that I find myself going back to that scratch my aesthetic itch.
I like clean and simple backgrounds with a lot of texture, but not a lot of pattern. I like hazy flare in a background that indicates the direction of light, and that separate the subject from the background. I like putting my subject right in the middle of the frame. I like using bold clean lines with minimal distractions to guide the viewer to the subject.
All of this has come out of not restricting myself early on, and continuing to not stop exploring new methods, looks, and approaches.
If I had chosen a stylistic and subject matter path right off the bat, I might not have found the things I enjoy the most. There’s one thing a style shouldn’t be: chosen. It should just happen. Don’t craft your personal brand. Be it.
Look at your body of work. What don’t you like? Stop doing that. What do you like? Keep doing that. Kinda applies to life too, ya know? By seeing what sticks out as your favorite over time, you’re seeing what your style is. Do more of that. Repeat.
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