How to get the most out of a portfolio review

I’ve been helping out with NYCFotoWorks for the past few months, and one thing I agreed with Marc and Josh about immediately was the need to help photographers get the most out of the portfolio review, Oct. 28-30 in NYC. I’ve encountered a lot of doubt from photographers about how to approach reviews and a lot of misconceptions about what to expect. So here are a few tips; and for the veterans in the audience, I hope you won’t mind a little refresher.

There are two things that I suggest photographers consider before any sit-down with a respected member of the industry: What do you want to get from this meeting, and what do they want to get from it?

Below are some responses from the other side: editors, reps, and gallerists attending the NYCFotoWorks portfolio review. The variety of their preferences demonstrates the importance of doing your research before a meeting. And, conveniently illustrating my above point, almost all of them want the photographer to be able to explain what they want from the review, not just their work.

For additional insights from reviewers, check out this video, too.

1. What kind of questions should photographers be ready to answer? Or is it more important they have their own questions?

Marianne Butler – Freelance photo editor: Where do you live? How long have you been shooting? Who have you been working for? Any personal projects you are working on? What do you like to shoot most? It’s also important to have background info on specific photos in their book: assignment or personal work? How much time with the subject? What else did you shoot that day? If digital work was done on the photo, and did you do it yourself? They should ask some questions of the person reviewing their portfolio to find out what they are looking for and to see where they might fit in. If they are meeting a photo editor for a specific publication, it’s helpful to have some knowledge of the magazine and the sort of photography they run.

Leslie DelaVega – Essence Magazine: It’s more important for me that they have their own questions. Usually the questions I do ask are pretty basic: where they’ve worked, gone to school, etc.

Michele Hadlow – Forbes Magazine: I like hearing a little bit about some of the images I will see; jobs or personal shots that were particularly challenging or enjoyable. I don’t mind getting questions but nobody should feel like they have to ask anything.

Jocelyn Miller – Conde Nast Traveler: They should be prepared to tell the reviewer about the specific assignments in their portfolios. I want to hear the stories behind the pictures. I want to know who they’ve worked for in the past, who they’re working for now, and their goals for the future. They should also take the opportunity to ask questions they have of the editors.

Karen O’Donnell – People Magazine: I would ask what kind of assignments they are looking to shoot, what are their main interests photo-wise, and what kind of editorial work they would like to be working on. They should have their own questions, too.

Travis Ruse – Inc. Magazine: It’s more important that they have their own questions.

Marcel Saba – Redux Pictures: They really should have their own questions to ask, and hopefully a lot of them.

Kristina Snyder – Photo agent: Yes on both. I usually open a review with a question: What are you trying to get out of this visit? Why are you here paying money to see me? Do you want to know how to improve your book? Judgement of overall quality of the work? Feedback on look of your book? They should also be able to answer questions about the kind of work they’re looking for: editorial or advertising? People often don’t know how to answer that. Also, too many photographers come expecting to be discovered and aren’t prepared to take criticism.

Wendy Tiefenbacher – Kiplinger’s Magazine: I like to look at their work. I’m most interested in any recently finished personal or professional projects and any work they’ve done for other magazines or clients. Any questions I would ask them would be based on looking at their photography, though I do like to know where someone lives.

Catherine Wyatt – ClampArt: Any photographer should be able to give the basics of how they create their work: film vs. digital, type of print and paper, ideal display size, edition, etc. They should also expect to answer questions about the subject matter displayed in the works. On the other hand, if the photographer has specific questions to ask, the review session is the perfect time for those. It really depends on what the artist is trying to get out of the session. Does he/she want an opinion about the work and the direction it should take or does he/she feel very strongly about the work and is now interested in finding representation?

2. What are you most interested in: hearing specific story pitches, seeing a wide range of work, or getting to know the photographer personally?

Marianne Butler: I really just want to learn about their work, find out what they like to shoot, and get a feel for what working with them might be like. I like to hear what they’ve been working on lately because they may have a project or some unpublished work that could be right for something I’m editing/assigning. I don’t really like hard sales pitches.

Leslie DelaVega: I’m more interested in the body of work, however specific or wide. I am a proponent of seeing that photographers have a wide range of interests.

Michele Hadlow: I would say getting to know a photographer is what I am most interested in. A wide range of work is nice, as well, so I can get an idea of what type of projects he/she would be a good fit for.  Pitches are not helpful at all right now, I am afraid.

Jocelyn Miller: Seeing a wide range of travel-related work. I want to know about their upcoming trips and also get to know the photographer personally.

Karen O’Donnell: Seeing a wide range of work.

Travis Ruse: Seeing work that is: a. relevant to Inc. b. inspiring to me but not necessarily perfect for Inc. c. that the photographer has a personality that could work with our subjects.

Marcel Saba: It is all the above for me. Since we are an agency and act as agents at the same time, we like to see a variety of work to determine the photographer’s strength, style, and composition.

Kristina Snyder: I try to figure out where this person is in their career: a working photographer or just coming out of the gate? And what kind of photographer are they? Do they only shoot paid projects or do they shoot personal work a lot, too. I work with all kinds, so I want to know what their psychology is, their expectations, what they aspire to be.

Wendy Tiefenbacher: I don’t like seeing a wide range of work. Though I don’t mind looking at someone’s portraits AND a personal project. Or still lifes and portraits. Or a book of still lifes, portraits, and a photo essay. I’m not usually interested in someone’s personal history or getting to “know them” unless they were a circus performer or astronaut in a previous life. I would be very interested in someone pitching a story BUT ONLY if they were familiar with my magazine and were pitching a story related to what we do. Not just some random story that has nothing to do with my magazine (which happens to be personal finance).

Catherine Wyatt: I am most interested in being of some help. Every reviewer goes to a portfolio viewing hoping to see something new, striking, dazzling, and sell-able. Of course, it is very rare for a one-time meeting to turn into a greatly successful gallery/artist relationship. Since this is the case, it is important that the reviewer sees a photographer’s best work and gets to know the photographer on a personal level. I want to know the meaning and story behind your pieces, but I don’t want it to take up the whole time we have together. I want to see a series of photographs but not so many that I don’t have time to talk to you about the pieces. A good balance of hearing about the work, looking at the work, and talking about the work is best.

3. What is the best way for a photographer to follow-up with you after a  review and how often should they be in touch?

Marianne Butler: After a meeting, an email or a promo card/note is nice. Photo editors all feel differently about how often to be in touch, so this is just me, of course: I get turned off by “checking in” emails. If there’s a new website, or they’ve completed a new project that they think I should see, then sending another email is cool. Other than that, if I don’t already have a working relationship with a photographer, a few times a year is enough.

Leslie DelaVega: Email is best.

Michele Hadlow: Email. It will be hit or miss depending on when the email lands in my box, but an email a week or so after our meeting and a reminder down the road if you have a new project or website update that I should see.

Jocelyn Miller: I want to know when they are traveling; they should email me a month before their trips.

Karen O’Donnell: I think email is the best.

Travis Ruse: Mailed promos are good. Email is also ok. They should stay in touch if I encourage it. Send new work that is appropriate for Inc.

Marcel Saba: Stay in touch by email and send updates of their new work.

Kristina Snyder: I get so many emails from all over world. If I want to see what you’re doing, email is OK, but just a couple photos, lo-res, of recent work that is hopefully relevant to what I do. That means doing research on the kind of artists I work with. And don’t expect me to answer every email.

Wendy Tiefenbacher: If I like someone’s work I always give them my business card and, as long as they don’t pester me, I like them to stay in touch. To be perfectly honest – New Yorkers may have less of a chance of being hired by me than someone from Cleveland or Texas or Kansas. Some more out of the way place where it’s much harder to find a good local photographer. But you never know…

Catherine Wyatt: The best way to follow up is either by a quick email or by mailing a thank you note. Some reviewers will prefer physical cards; others prefer digital, so it’s up to the photographer. I also like knowing where a photographer’s career is going. If you are included in a group show or have a solo show coming up, please let me know. The same goes for any new works you have in progress or book deals in the works. Of course, I do not want a weekly update on what you are shooting now, but rather just the headlines.

Still have questions?

Leave them in the comments below and I’ll be sure to address them in the video interviews with reviewers and photographers that I’ll be conducting during the review.

2 thoughts on “How to get the most out of a portfolio review

  1. Pingback: Portfolio reviews – Are they worth it? | HEY MIKI

  2. thanks Miki, I'm on the flight from SFO to JFK when I saw the link to this come in…with such a variety of editors, reps, buyers and galleries represented it is interesting to see the mix of responses. Such as showing a wide range of work…I keep my wide range on the iPad if needed but the print book is all about visual focus of where I am today and where I want to be tomorrow. Know your audience. Hopefully photographers are doing their homework on the reviewers to get the most out of the 15 minutes.


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