I recently spent a couple of hours reviewing senior portfolios, the capstone projects of graduating seniors in the Visual Communications sequence at the University of South Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications. The experience made me want to revisit the whole notion of the portfolio — What is the purpose of a portfolio? What should it contain? How do you create a terrific portfolio that will advance your career? My goal is to put forward some ideas and then hear back from readers of this column.
A portfolio is a way for buyers and sellers of creative services to communicate. Showing a portfolio is part of the standard operating procedure for anyone in the business of image-making. There is no mystery involved — clients understand immediately what you mean when you ask to show your portfolio or point them to your Web site. In fact, many clients have set procedures for viewing portfolios, including requirements for CD/DVD portfolios, preferences for Web sites versus printed portfolios, and the specific day of the week drop-offs are accepted. Thus, instead of doing an awkward dance, buyers and sellers of creative services can get right down to business.
Purpose of the Portfolio
As with other large-scale tasks, creating a terrific portfolio becomes easier once you break it down into manageable steps. First, you need to understand the purpose of a portfolio. Photographer Doug Menuez , speaking years ago to one of my photography classes in San Francisco, said it in a nutshell: “Show the portfolio, get work.” In other words, your portfolio may be beautiful to look at, with dozens of gorgeous images, but if it doesn’t resonate with your prospective clients, then it becomes something that merely entertains and amuses. Getting work is what counts.
So, if the purpose of a portfolio is to get work, what kinds of images should it contain? Many image-makers build their portfolio from top-quality images shot for assignments or for stock. As such, the portfolio becomes a “best of” document, summing up the individual’s creative and artistic endeavors to date. It is an axiom of the creative-services business that you typically get the kind of work you show in your portfolio. Art directors and photo editors are generally not risk takers, especially on large-budget projects.
Your portfolio is a way of reassuring these risk-averse folks that you can solve their visual-communications problems — provided the solution falls within one of the categories you have chosen to illustrate. In other words, if you have knockout images of mountain biking in your portfolio, do not assume that the people viewing these images will hire you to shoot other action sports, such as skiing or surfing. That may be asking them to take too much of a risk. You get the type of work you show.
Before building your portfolio, then, it pays to ask two more questions: What kinds of assignments do I want to get in the future? Who are the clients that generate these assignments? Notice how the first of these questions transforms your portfolio from a backward-looking document (“best of,” what you’ve done in the past) to a forward-looking one (where do I go from here?). And the second question forces you to target your efforts at specific clients — people who use the types of images you love to create. It is a waste of time and energy to show your portfolio to folks who are not in a position to use your type of images. Doing so also tips them off to the fact that you haven’t done careful market research.
Making the Jump
Some of the best image makers I know are constantly reinventing themselves. Never resting on their laurels, they seek to move up the ladder of success toward the fulfilling goal of doing what they love for a living. But how do you make the jump, say, from editorial to advertising assignments, or from public relations to adventure travel? Here’s where the forward-looking aspect of the portfolio becomes crucial.
Since you get the type of work you show, you need to invest the time, energy, and money into creating portfolio pieces that show what you would like to shoot in the future — don’t just rely on showing you have done in the past. The process of creating new images specifically for the portfolio, also called testing, should be part of every image maker’s schedule. You can bet that the image makers who successfully reinvent themselves engage in this process — how else would they amass enough high-quality images to convince a risk-averse editor or art director to support this change of direction?
Doug Menuez is a great example of an image maker who knows the value of reinvention. When we first met in the late 1980s, Doug was in San Francisco, shooting sports and other editorial assignments for newspapers and magazines. Within a few short years, he was documenting the high-tech world of Silicon Valley. Then the lure of advertising beckoned, and Doug created a portfolio to showcase his personal vision and unique style. This effort resonated with prospective clients, and a cavalcade of commercial work followed.
But photojournalism never lost its hold on Doug, and his 2008 book, Transcendent Spirit , documents the plight of Ugandan orphans. Doug’s loving look at Mexico’s tequila culture  shows him to be adept at creating images for multimedia, and the Director’s Reel section of his Web site shows his love of, and skill with, moving images. Which is the “real” Doug Menuez? Take a look at his work and then decide for yourself.
Despite Doug’s condensed formula — “Show the portfolio, get work” — there may be many additional steps between showing the portfolio and actually getting an assignment. A lot depends on whether your prospective clients are reviewing portfolios because they have an immediate need for new images, or whether they are simply building up their database of qualified image makers. Ideally, your portfolio should be powerful enough to plant a seed in the editor or art director’s mind: you want them to be excited enough about your work to find the soonest opportunity to send an assignment your way. Or, better yet, you want them to create a project with you in mind.
Remember, your portfolio is just one link in a long chain that includes market research, advertising, self-promotion, and sales. The more your portfolio differentiates you from all the other image makers out there, the more likely you will experience a positive outcome from your efforts. Patience and persistence are essential. Remember, too, that you only get one chance to create a great first impression. Your portfolio represents you — it is often the first glimpse a prospective client gets of your creative personality. Make sure it sends the right message.
This column has just scratched the surface of a complex issue — I want your feedback. Please let me know about your recent experiences with creating and showing your portfolio. What are today’s editors and art directors looking for? What format(s) work best? What have been some of the best (and worst) responses to your portfolio? What are you going to change when it’s time for a redesign? Is the portfolio getting you work? Hopefully, this will be a useful discussion that will benefit everyone, from students to seasoned pros. Thanks!