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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say, photos that were my best at one point in time, have now been discarded from my portfolio because they have been replaced by newer, better work.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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