Editing Your Portfolio
I’m currently in the process of updating and printing a new portfolio and I thought I would take a
moment half day to talk about the process.
My dear friend, Marc, has said of editing, “It’s like lining up your children and deciding which ones you’re going to shoot.” That quote isn’t going to end up on the front of a greeting card anytime soon but it does get to the heart of the matter. Andy Lee rephrased it to, “…deciding which ones you love more.” Either way, the process can suck but it is a process you need to go through on a regular basis. At least twice a year. Minimum.
I know many of you are wondering why I’m working on a print portfolio. What about web sites, PDFs, iPhones, thumb drives, laptops, etc, etc? Are printed portfolios still relevant? In my opinion they are. That opinion also is held by many in the editorial and advertising world. I know of two leading Ad agencies that won’t meet with you if you walk in with only an electronic portfolio. They want to see your book. The printed output of your work. Anything can look good on an iPad. Can it print? Can it run larger? The devil, and the jobs, are in the details. Wedding photographers know this all too well. Do you want to deliver a disk of zeros and ones or would you rather deliver a beautifully printed album? What is going to live in plain sight? A thumb drive or a book? Which one will be cherished? Which one has lasting value? Which one makes you more excited to deliver? Which one is instant? The book. That’s which one.
A printed book is a thing to take pride in. There’s something tangible about it that holding an iPad doesn’t compare to. Note that I’m a big believer in electronic forms of showing your work. I walk into every meeting with a print book AND an iPad. The book is the best representation I have of the work I do. The iPad holds expanded galleries of work that support the book and hold other galleries of work that don’t find their way into the main book. Things like personal projects, travel photography, video, etc. Eventually I want to have a series of print books that show a range of the work I do.
I’ve lived as a photographer for some time without a book. I wanted a book but didn’t have the time, money, discipline, etc to get it done. Going from having no book to having a book you’re ready to show is a pretty large mountain to climb. Choosing the physical book and making the prints are the easier parts. It’s editing the book that will make you cry and leave you feeling completely inadequate as a photographer. You’ll pray for your strengths while constantly focusing on your weakness through the process but I can’t stress enough how invaluable the process is. For me it’s more about the process of building a book than actually having a physical book to show. Let’s talk through the physical process.
The full discussion can be found after the jump…
Get Organized :: Make a master folder on your desktop or working hard drive. Label it “Master Portfolio” or something like that. Inside of that folder will be a series of folders. Something like “Possibles” “Edit for print” “Print Finals” “Resize for iPad” “Resize for web” “Etc”. You’re going to start off with at least 1,000+ images if you’ve been shooting for awhile. Dealing with that many files and trying to get them down to the top 2 or 3% is going to require getting organized with the big edit. My BIG edit folder has around 1,700 images in it. You may also want to consider making genre specific folders to keep additional copies of your images in. I have folders like “guys” “girls” “hiphop” “rock” “editorial” “personal” “project X” “project Y”, etc. This helps you later organize web galleries and things like that if you feel the need to do so. Everything from your print book to your web galleries are going to live in this master folder. Make sure you are making regular back ups of this folder. You may even want to consider an online service like Photoshelter to keep these RAW files online in case of a drive disaster. This folder will, after all, be holding your best work so you want to hold on to it.
The BIG Edit :: Brew 10 pots of coffee, grab all of your archive drives, kiss the wife and kids goodnight and start harvesting every photo that you like from all of your jobs. Grab the RAW untouched files where possible. Don’t get the processed JPGs. Get the originals whenever you can. You may think your post production skills three years ago were awesome but as you put your work together today you may not like those 14 crappy actions you dumped on your work back then. Trust me on this… harvest the RAW files every chance you can. Don’t think “is this going to be in my portfolio?” while you do this first step. You’re just looking for photos you like. Like you really like them. Maybe you shot five consecutive frames of someone laughing and you like all five. Copy all five of them to a BIG edit folder. Notice I said “copy” your photos into the BIG edit folder. Don’t move them out of their home in the job folder where they lived. Make a copy. You want ONE folder holding all of the images. You can then copy specific images into genre folders if you want but the main folder holds all of them.
Go through your edits and any other RAW files you may have from the job that you did not deliver to the client. It’s always amazing to go back into a shoot and find a gem of a shot that didn’t make the edit when you first shot and delivered that job. You not only grow as a photographer but you grow as a photo editor in your life. A shot you may have passed up three years ago suddenly jumps out at you now. That is why I never delete my unpicked files. I always keep them. I go through these old folders a few times a year.
You may spend a few days going through this process. Or a week. Or a month. Try to be a bit disciplined and pull a handful of your favorite images into this BIG edit folder after every job. Let this folder live on your main drive all the time. Constantly be adding stuff to it as you are shooting. The first time you do this will take awhile though. Be very loose with your edit. If you like an image, throw it in the BIG edit folder. If you think an image might just be a good texture for a promo or something, throw it in this folder. Anything that has anything to do with your marketing and branding can dump in this folder. Go with your gut on these decisions. You can’t have too many in there. Well, yes you can, but if you’re hovering around 1,000 / 2,000 count that’s fine. You’ll go digging for the jewels in there later. Pretty soon you’ll be going blind looking at a large sampling of your work.
As you can see in the screen capture above, I use Photo Mechanic through this entire process. It’s the fastest way I’ve found to go through a large amount of work. It makes quick work of the culling process as you begin to sort through the work.
Take a day off :: Now that you’ve collected a large amount of work, take a day off. Separate yourself from it all. Get away from it for a day or two. Cleanse the palate so to speak.
Hunker down. Here we go. :: Here begins the process of lining up your children and, ummmm, figuring out which ones you love more than the others. This begins the painful process. It’s painful to not only choose but if you are a true creative this is the part where your self doubt, anxiety, and loathing start to show up. You come back to your BIG edit and it all sucks.
The images that you want to shoot are not in this folder. They are still out in the world waiting for you to capture them. As you start to go through 1,000+ of your “best” images they all begin to suck. You want to trash them all and just go shoot a new book. Well sorry Charlie, you can’t do that. You can’t go shoot a new book. Those elusive images are just that… elusive. You have to harden yourself during this process and realize that you are building a body of work with what you have to work with. If you ever say “I’ll just do this when my work is ready” then you will never do it. That kept me from this process for a long time. Kick the demons out of your head and get to work.
Pull the images up one by one in full screen mode and start numbering or tagging or labeling them somehow. I typically use a numbered system. Do whatever you want, just start marking or flagging them with a key stroke command so that you can later sort your edits. I typically do the first edit with a 3 star label. Then I go through that edit and hit images with a 4 star label. Then I go through that with a 5 star label. You can do yellow, blue, green, etc. Just find something that works for you and do that. Just keep in mind you want varying levels of ratings so that you can go through this process in waves so to speak. You’re going to cull that 1,000 or so images down to 300 pretty quickly. Then that needs to get down to 200. Then that needs to get down to 100 or so. Remember that your final portfolio is going to have a set of 20 to 40 images. You’re starting with 1,000. The 1,000 are all images you have responded positively to but the vast amount of these have to get cut and won’t see the light of day again for a long time, if ever.
The 100 :: Culling your BIG edit folder down to 100 images is a fairly easy goal to have. It will take some time but it’s pretty easy to do. Maybe you end up with 75 images after three or four waves of editing. Maybe it’s 200. Whatever. Just get it to somewhere around 10% or so of where you started. It’s time to get them off the computer and make small work prints of this smaller edit. We have an inexpensive Samsung color laser printer that we use for this process. From Photo Mechanic I print all of these images four up on a letter sized page. That’s four images to a page. I then cut these pages in quarters.
Once you have your small work prints done start laying them out on tables. Having a dedicated area for this will help. Clear off a few folding tables in your garage, basement, studio, etc and lay them all out. By the time you have culled your 1,000+ images down to 100 or so you know each photo. You have a wide angle view of your work. It’s time to start focusing on the details now. Clear a wall and grab some tape.
Two by Two :: Start picking photos in pairs. That’s the easiest way to get the process started. You’re looking for images that work well when shown together. Your web galleries may show images one at a time but a print book typically will have spreads of photos together. Start finding these pairs and tape them to the wall. Don’t worry about the pacing of the whole book just yet. Just start getting pairs on the wall.
For the last three books I’ve edited I started the process with a set number of images I was trying to hit. Something like, “No more than 30 images”. For the edit we are putting together now I’m not thinking that way. I’m just thinking about a solid book that isn’t too big. I want to see what naturally starts appearing on the wall. I’ll deal with 20, 30, or 40 image counts near the end.
Once you start the process the pace picks up. It’s slow at first and then finds a natural pace. It’s sort of like playing the memory game where you are trying to find matching cards. This is a good time to show two different images from one shoot. Maybe you want to show what you can do in studio AND on location with one client. Pairing two images like this can be done nicely. Once you get a dozen or two pairs on the wall start to step back from it. Look at it as an entire body of work now. Start looking for your kick ass beginning image and your kick ass ending image. Look at the flow of the images on the wall. Read it the way you read words. We westerners will start on the left and read to the right. Start rearranging the pairs on the wall. This spread leads nicely into this spread. Flipping the page from this image will lead into the next two images nicely. Images will get sorted by color, composition, subject material, etc. Start trying a few different pairings that may be a contrast with each other. Take a look at these two pairings.
The first pair work because they have similar tones, compositions, and backgrounds. The second pair works as well based on composition but the tones and backgrounds contrast with each other. It’s this crap that will finally drive you mad near the end of the process. You may go with one of these pairings because one of the images pairs with some other image you have better than the other. That helps in that other photos help dictate pairings.
You’re going to find yourself putting an image on the wall and taking it down and putting it back up and taking it down again over and over. What’s nice about having 100 or so images printed out is you can pull something off the wall and replace it with something. You’ll also find yourself running back to your BIG edit folder and printing out a few more photos at a time because suddenly one image you passed over now fits with the body of work as a whole.
What sucks the most is when a shot you really love just. doesn’t. fit. You LOVE this image but when you view it as part of the whole piece it doesn’t work. It’s one of your favorite shots of all time. Or it’s the best image you’ve shot to date. Or it shows a new direction you’re going with your work but it. just. doesn’t. fit. Period. You have to kill it. It has to be put aside. If the rest of the work can’t support it and it looks like a sore thumb then it is a sore thumb.
Once you have a pretty solid set of images on the wall and you’re ready to punch holes in walls, sit in the corner and cry, scream, smile, whatever, turn the lights off and go to bed.
Take a day off :: Yep. Step away from your work for a day or so. Not too long. Not a week. Not a month. Just a day. Clear your head. Mow the lawn. Play legos with the kids. Chop firewood. Spit nails. Drop acid. Whatever you do to forget about work for awhile.
Gather your trusted colleagues :: You are not an island. You are not an island. You are not an island. You need to pull in some help at some point near the end of this process. You need honest and trusted people for this. People who will give you honest feedback. Don’t bring them in at the beginning. You’re walking in waist deep mud at the beginning. Bring them in when you start to have a solid rough draft. If you are having a hard time with just getting to the rough draft part then hire someone like Mike Davis. Mike is a freelance photo editor and eats and breathes this stuff. I’ve worked with Mike on getting my images together and I can’t say enough great things about him. He’s worth three times his nominal fee to help you get your visual sh!t together. Seriously, call in a big gun if you need to. Mike can walk you through the process from start to print. He’s awesome.
Gather your folks around and have them look at your wall. Take a photo of the wall before you set them loose on it and then give them freedom to move things around. Let them take photos down and put others up. Listen to what they have to say. Let them tell you why you shouldn’t love that one child any longer and why you need to go get the other kid you just kicked out the door. They may be 100% correct and you need to listen to them. They may be a complete idiot. But if five idiots ALL tell you to ditch that one image you love, you should probably ditch it. Five idiots together might just be right.
Close your eyes and get it done :: You’ve now spent a week, month, quarter of your life going through this process. STOP second guessing. Stop replacing crap with more crap. Stop rearranging it till you fall over dead. Stop trying to figure out if you should put all your B&W work together then put your color work together or keep it mixed. Print the damn book and get it out into the world. Period. “But I don’t have X kind of photos that I want for my book.” Well guess what you’re going to be going out to shoot soon? “I wish I had this sort of image to pair with this one” Guess what kind of image you are going to shoot on your next job?
The edit of your book will start to show you holes in your body of work that you now have to fill. You wouldn’t really know that if you had not gone through this process. It’s never going to be perfect. It’s never going to be finished. It’s never going to be ready. If you wait until you are ready you’ll never accomplish a thing. Ever. Get the damn book printed and be ready to start replacing images in it as soon as you can. One by one. In pairs. Section by section. In a year you want half of it replaced. If you are a student graduating with a portfolio then you want to replace the entire thing as soon as you put your cap and gown in the closet.
I won’t go into the physical book, the printing, sleeves vs. no sleeves, Blurb vs. DIY, etc. Those are all personal preferences. I can’t tell you what your final book should look like just like I can’t tell you what the photos inside of it should look like. It should look like “you”. It shouldn’t look like someone else. Period. I will tell you that after getting tired of using sleeves I’ve gone to printing the book. My right hand Dan is the guy I lean on the most to keep me motivated through this process, help put the edit together, print the images, and build the book. He has a truck load of initiative in this process and he’s the one who keeps it on track. I have him to thank for most of the process of brining the images from the hard drive to the printed page. I’m using an 11×14 Pina Zangaro book that I have
destroyed modified the front and back cover to match my promo materials. We are printing on an Epson 3880 on a rag paper. Dan found a print shop to score and drill the paper so the pages fold easily and we don’t have to use those stupid adhesive strips to put the pages in a screw post book.
I’m also not fully happy with the off the shelf portfolio books out there. I’ve looked at most of them. There’s always the classic black leather cover with your name/logo embossed into them. You can make a strong case for and against those. They are industry standard / everyone does that so do something different. Whatever. The size, materials, format, paper choice are all personal preferences and that process will drive you nuts. Just get one and build it and go show it to people so you can get hired.
For some examples, check out noplasticsleeves.com
I’m an editorial / commercial shooter. Do portrait photographers need a book? Maybe. You definitely have to have a web site. How do you put your images together for your web galleries? Scroll to the top and read again. Print, web, iPad, wedding album, it’s all the same process for me. When you have to collect a body of work and present it you have to edit it to a cohesive collection. Book editor. Magazine editor. News editor. Photo editor. There’s a reason that job title exists. Whether you are going to print your book or just have a web site I can’t recommend this kind of process enough. You will learn so much about your work and the work you need to be shooting.