Making the most of Portfolio Reviews

I'm a big fan of portfolio reviews and highly recommend them to photographers of all levels. Since I've gotten started in the industry, I make it a point to attend them regularly, explore the new talent, make connections with other creatives and help photographers push forward with their brands. This past October I was at the APA | DC and PhotoPlus reviews at the Jacob Javitts Center in New York. 

Overall, I was extremely impressed with both the range and level of talent I saw at the reviews this year. I met with emerging photographers committed to gaining valuable insight about the commercial viability of their work that were eager to take notes and ask questions. (Exactly what emerging photographers should be doing!) They were prepared with portfolios of their best work, promo materials to leave behind, and a level of professionalism that will surely keep them on the proper trajectory moving forward.

The reviews are not just for the emerging photographers either, but also a valuable marketing tool for the seasoned pros as well. One particularly interesting experience I had in DC was meeting with Norfolk photographer Keith Lanpher and his producer Kerry Cesil. This was the first time I had the luxury of meeting with two main forces behind a photographer's brand. While Keith spoke about his work and recent projects, Kerry carefully took notes, observing the pages I hovered on and those I quickly passed through. She asked about the sequencing of images and we dialogued about the level of production that goes into each and every one of Keith's shoots. Although his book was highly curated, beautifully printed and full of both client and spec work, he was just as eager to receive input from a fresh set of eyes. I spoke with Kerry afterwards about the process and she had this to say:

“Keith wanted me at the review because we work together on our clients projects. We don’t go to portfolio reviews often, but we do try to get the portfolio reviewed several times year by art directors we want to work with. We research agencies to qualify that we’re compatible as to not waste their time. They’re busy. The work reflects to a production level and that we cover a range that’s appropriate for what we are trying to do. [As you approach the reviews] you should select the people you feel are relevant to your work and listen to them. Don’t take it personally if the criticism is negative, make it constructive by learning from the experience.” - Kerry Cesil, Producer / Studio Manager
 One of my favorite images from Keith Lanpher's book that looked so beautiful in print: "This shot was for a wealth management group.  It was a produced shot, all the elements were controlled." - Kerry Cesil

One of my favorite images from Keith Lanpher's book that looked so beautiful in print: "This shot was for a wealth management group.  It was a produced shot, all the elements were controlled." - Kerry Cesil

While in NY and DC, I even met with a few photographers I’ve worked with in the past and was thrilled to see what kind of assignments they'd been working on. Marisa Guzman Aloia, a DC based corporate and portraiture photographer, used her review time in DC to catch up with me and do just that. We talked about the success of her brand and the work she’d been doing since her last web edit and Branding Overhaul (which I worked with her on during my time at Wonderful Machine). She also asked for recommendations on images to use for her next email blast. Again, such a smart way to use your review time! 

The new talent that I meet at the reviews never ceases to amaze me either. Corey Nickols' dynamic body of work, upbeat style and consistency of vision throughout his portfolio blew me away at PhotoPlus this year. Recently signed on with Greenhouse Reps, he was at the reviews to network with Creatives and use the time to market his work and production skills via a custom designed screw post book jam packed with celebrity and editorial work.

In addition to a handful of other impressive books from commercial photographers, I met with a number of equally talented fine art photographers looking for feedback and direction on the best avenues to exhibit their work. On one occasion I found myself giving away the business card of a gallerist I met in the reviewer lounge to an alternative process photographer whose work completely blew me away.

I was equally impressed to receive this email from another photographer a few days after the reviews. At the end of our session, she asked me if I knew of any agencies that might be interested in seeing her book before she went back to the left coast:

“Hi Stacy! I just wanted to say thanks for taking a look at my work last week at the portfolio reviews. Also, I checked out the agency you told me you had been keeping an eye on (Barrel) and I have a meeting with them this afternoon, so thank you for that recommendation.” ... “It went great! It was a case of perfect timing, they’re looking to expand their team to do more content creation and I think we’re a good fit for each other.” -Jenn Harrington / LA Photographer
 A fun, fresh lifestyle image from LA based photographer Jenn Harrington's latest body of commissioned work.

A fun, fresh lifestyle image from LA based photographer Jenn Harrington's latest body of commissioned work.

So, why should you attend the reviews? Because they are worth it. Where else can you get a solid block of time to show your work, promote your vision and your brand and make valuable personal connections with creatives? Hopefully you’re convinced. And now here’s how you can make the most out of each review you go to:

1) Do your research.

Each review typically lists their panel of creatives before you even sign up to attend. Look for a panel of reviewers that are congruent with the type of work you’re wanting to do more of. If you’re a commercial lifestyle photographer, look for creatives at agencies and brands and do your research as to the type of projects they’ve been involved with in the past. Search the agency or brand’s website for the reviewer’s past work or search them on LinkedIn and read about their title and search for their interests. Looking to do editorial portrait work? Then try to stick to a list of reviewers that would be hiring for editorial publications. Looking for feedback on new work or a new direction with your brand that you’re not so sure about? Try to sign on with as many consultants as you can to get a range of feedback moving forward. Keep in mind that in this industry, people move around a lot. Sometimes looking at a creative’s former position on LinkedIn can give you an extra edge in the game here.

2) Be prepared.

Beautifully crafted and curated print books will always prevail. Make sure your book is printed to the highest standards so that your images can sing. There’s nothing worse than a poorly printed book with otherwise strong work in it. Don’t know how to curate an edit that will blow your reviewers away? Ask a photo editor for help. We understand what your ideal client wants to see in your portfolio, so we can help find the perfect shoe that fits. If you can’t afford pigment prints or a high quality print on demand book, then opt for a tightly curated iPad edit using an app like Foliobook. The iPad prevails over poor print quality. After your review is complete, have a leave behind (a well designed business card or promo card is best) and ask your reviewer for their card as well.

(A few print edits I've worked on with photographers in the past: Shawn Hubbard, Inti St. Clair, Clay Cook and Lauryn Ishak)

3) Ask questions.

Photographers, don't be afraid to ask specific questions during your reviews. We will answer them. And, when you show us your work, pay attention to how you have it curated even if you're showing it digitally as opposed to in a printed book. (You will get brownie points for rhythm and flow.) Have a strong opening image and a great closing shot. And, if there's a particular body of work you're in need of feedback on, don’t be afraid to show it to us as a separate project gallery. We're here to help and offer input on how you can get the most traction out of your work.

4) Network.

Talk to fellow photographers, ask them what they’re working on and who they’re working with. Do they have a rep? How do they like working with a rep? Engage in meaningful conversation with your reviewers. Ask what big projects are coming up if they’re at an agency or brand. Ask for specific feedback on an image or particular project. If you’re meeting with a consultant, ask for feedback on how to improve your marketing and what images stand out most in your book.

5) Build your list.

This is important because you need to market yourself and can’t simply survive on getting jobs via word of mouth and through former clients. Add all of your new contacts into your database and write specific notes as to what they may have said that pertains to your brand. Also take note of all of the other applicable creatives on the review list and add their contact info to your database too.

6) Follow up.

You don’t have to follow-up immediately, although I am always impressed to hear back from a photographer within hours after a review - especially if it’s a photographer I’ve made a good connection with. Keep in mind that plenty of people are traveling around the region to attend these reviews, so waiting for things to settle and get back to normal before you reach out to your reviewers is smart. Keep your follow-up short, sweet, honest and to the point if you want it to be read. These small connections and emails add up over time, so don’t ever think that they're not valuable or not worth the time. They are. As John Harrington, industry author and DC based photographer, noted at a recent ASMP seminar here in Philly, it takes 9 points of connection, or touches if you will, to really stay on someone's radar. So if you ask me, a portfolio review, a thank you email, and a response from a creative counts for 3. Don't let that pass you by.

In conclusion, critique is an understated luxury in an industry so saturated and competitive. Just about every intelligent comment counts regardless of who it's from. Where else can you get so much feedback in such a short amount of time? So, go get yourselves out there photographers! It’s totally worth it, and there’s no better time than now to get your work in front of fresh eyes. If you've got questions or would ever like some help prepping your book or your brand for a review, I’m always here to help. Visit my site for a list of services I offer or feel free to simply reach out: stacy@stacyswiderski.com