The photo community has a unique advantage over other art forms. As the most democratic of the arts, photographs, by their very nature, are among the most easily shared and viewed. This has given rise to an abundance of photographic portfolio reviews. In recent years, the portfolio review has become ubiquitous in the field of photography, providing a venue for photographers of all levels, from students to enthusiasts to accomplished professionals. Opportunities for critique, feedback, and professional connection are also available within a wide range of photographic markets—including fine art, wedding/portrait, commercial applications, and so on.
Reviews come in many different types, from face-to-face meetings to online forums, and from cost-free opportunities to pay-to-play sessions. Amid all these options, making sense of where your work fits in, and understanding how to make a memorable impression, can take some effort. To help in this regard, we’ve broken things down into the following 25 tips.
Above photograph © Erin Hoyt, Filter Festival Portfolio Review, Chicago, IL
Prepare Yourself for Objective Feedback
As all manner of photographers can attest, creative work is often produced in a bubble, with the artist deeply immersed in the processes this entails. While there are obvious benefits to such intensive work and introspective focus, this can also result in a lack of objectivity for how the work fits into or is seen by the wider world. In the face of such challenges, a portfolio review offers photographers a distinct opportunity to gain insights into their work and get valuable feedback. But to make the most out of these meetings, some advance preparation is key.
Questions of Size and Format
First and foremost, present your work in a uniform format that is easy to handle. Since review sessions are generally held in a large room with reviewers seated at adjacent tables, space is at a premium and privacy is limited, at best. These factors should be considered in how you present your work.
For ease of viewing, ideal print sizes are roughly 11 x 14" to 20 x 24," although smaller sizes are fine if you work in miniature. Organize your prints in an archival presentation box or similar container that is professional looking and easy to access. Century Archival Storage and Archival Methods are two leading brands.
The Challenge of Presenting Large Mural Prints
The dual factors of space constraints and transport issues generally make it unrealistic to show larger prints or mural-sized work at a review event, unless it’s for a fine art portfolio review, in which case one representative proof print would be appropriate. Roll the print into a large tube, such as this Fiberbilt by Case Design container. If a reviewer expresses interest in larger work when viewing your standard portfolio, you can offer to pull out the rolled print if there’s time. Another effective approach is to present installation views of your pictures in exhibition, either on your website or as an addendum to a print portfolio. In addition to providing a suggestion of scale and production value, this also serves to verify your status as an exhibiting artist.
How Many Pictures to Show
When it comes to determining a reasonable number of prints to present, an instructive tenet is to always leave a reviewer wanting to see more of your work, rather than having seen too much. To that end, consider paring your work down to a tight edit of 20 to 30 prints, and keep a second edit on hand to present by special request. A slightly larger number of images might be acceptable in a commercial review than for fine art. Check with event organizers if you have questions about this. If you have multiple projects that are in a finished or near-finished state, you can always bring two bodies of work and offer the reviewer a choice of which project to view at the beginning of your meeting.
Print vs Digital Portfolio Presentation
The blurring of boundaries between still photography, video, and interactive content makes this question particularly salient. The easy answer is that it all comes down to the specifics of your work and the venue you are attending. If your work involves motion, presenting it on an iPad or laptop, with headphones to handle the audio, is key. However, print portfolios tend to be more readily accepted at certain events, such as reviews targeted to fine art photography. In this case, consider covering all the bases by preparing a print portfolio of stills to complement your media piece, which you can show on a small display—but by all means, don’t forget your power cord or an external battery!
Mats, Sleeves, and Protective Coverings
While the importance of showing your images in an attractive and well-built portfolio case can’t be understated, prints are no longer routinely presented in mats or sheathed in plastic, as suggested by the title No Plastic Sleeves, a leading guide for presenting and marketing photographs. Custom-made portfolios for commercial and wedding markets generally protect photos behind archival sleeves, but this kind of presentation is not as common within fine art venues. Unless you work with delicate media that requires interleaving tissue or protective gloves, insisting that reviewers don white gloves before touching your prints is generally overkill, and it also takes precious time away from the short span of a meeting.
Present Work that Reflects a Unified Theme or Artistic Vision
It should go without saying that any photographer preparing for a review should show pictures organized around a unified theme or artistic vision, and not just a mishmash of “greatest hits.” The high-stakes setting of a formal portfolio review is not the venue for advice on images that span colorful floral still lives, cute toddler snapshots, and exotic travel pictures, followed by dramatic sunsets, and perhaps a rainbow or two for good measure, all in a single portfolio.
Get Preliminary Feedback on Your Portfolio from Trusted Sources
Photographers can be their own worst editor—that is a fact. With this in mind, it can be immensely beneficial to seek feedback from others once you’ve made a preliminary image selection. This can be a friend, a colleague—or for maximum objectivity—a contact who is unfamiliar with your work. Don’t limit this presentation to the tight portfolio edit you plan to show a reviewer. Getting an objective opinion on a wider image selection can yield unexpected insights.
Another trusted motto when it comes to photo editing is that you need to be ready to “kill your darlings.” An outside opinion can help jumpstart this process. Find someone whose opinion you value and be ready to discuss and defend both the individual photographs and potential options for image sequencing. Take notes or record the conversation to review afterwards, and then get ready to make some tough cuts.
Work on Your Elevator Pitch and Artist Statement
Ideally, you should prepare a short, concise verbal summary to introduce your work and describe your artistic approach, goals, and/or vision. This shouldn’t be long or include complicated art-speak, in fact, the shorter, the better—that’s why this is generally known as the “elevator pitch.” When arriving for a review, introduce yourself, offer your pitch, open your portfolio, and allow the reviewer time to look and/or speak.
A written artist statement can also be beneficial for a fine art review, but don’t force this on the reviewer during your face-to-face meeting unless they request it. Many photographers find writing about their work to be a next to impossible task; yet tackling this verbal exercise can often help directly inform the visual aspects of the work. For those who are truly averse to writing, transcribe the audio conversation mentioned above and use that as raw material in crafting a statement.
What to Expect: Don’t Take Things Personally
A portfolio review session has little in common with accumulating likes on Instagram and Facebook, and it’s not always easy to absorb a reviewer’s subjective response to your creative efforts. Indeed, the feedback received can sometimes be tough to hear. But as hard as it might be to absorb in the moment, it’s essential not to take things personally. Remember: the critique that may have just burst your bubble is only a single opinion. Steel yourself from this challenging experience and move on to the next meeting. Once the event is over, review your notes, rehash all the feedback you got, and let the opinions that resonate the most trickle up to the top.
If you do encounter a reviewer who crosses the boundaries of civil behavior, rather than engaging them directly, mention the issue to review organizers instead. In the long and distinguished history of portfolio reviews, there have been certain reviewers known to make photographers cry. If that ever happens to you, event organizers should know about it.
When it comes to portfolio reviews, perhaps the most significant challenge photographers must account for, besides having work that’s appropriate for the venue, is the cost to participate. In addition to the expense of the review sessions themselves, attendees need to factor in travel and lodging, not to mention any loss of income incurred due to their attendance at the event. One sensible approach to addressing such cost issues is to consider portfolio reviews as a business expense, and to allocate an annual budget to attend. Other ways to mitigate costs include using travel reward points for airfare or lodging, seeking out review events near local contacts who can provide you with free lodging, or piggy-backing a review event with local client visits or other types of work opportunities.
Choosing a review opportunity that’s right for you
As mentioned earlier, portfolio reviews come in many different flavors, and there are lots of variables to consider in determining the best match for you and your work. Considered as a whole, these events are the best way to get your work in front of the decision makers you want to attract, and a much more effective way to reach your ideal audience than email blasts or promo cards. Face-to-face reviews will give you a realistic idea of an individual’s response to your work and what their likes are. This is valuable information.
Large international review events can offer significant contacts with industry leaders it would be impossible to meet otherwise, but this comes at a cost, both monetary and in terms of heightened competition. Another aspect to larger reviews is whether photographers are pre-screened, offering reviewers a curated selection of the strongest work, or if the review is open to every photographer who signs up. Non-curated reviews sometimes limit the number of photographers who can pre-register, taking a first-come, first-served approach. Since registration takes place several months in advance, there are invariably photographers unable to attend at the last minute. If you missed registering for an event you’d like to attend, check social media in the weeks beforehand to see if anyone is selling their slot.
In contrast to the major review events, smaller-sized or niche photo organizations can offer more accessible review opportunities, which is a great way for regional artists or enthusiasts to get their feet wet with the review process. Nonprofit photography centers, professional associations, and schools sometimes roll out free portfolio review opportunities as a membership benefit—a win-win scenario that supports the organization and provides photographers who are part of the community with valuable feedback on their work.
Set Reasonable Expectations for What is to Be Accomplished
Having a sense of who you’d like to meet with and what you want to get out of a review experience is an essential consideration in presenting your work for review. Are you seeking technical guidance from a photographic master, a photo editor’s advice on how to sequence your images, a marketing consultant’s help with presenting your work, or exhibition or publication opportunities for a specific project, which would generally fall under the guise of a curator or director of a cultural institution? You won’t be able to get feedback on all the areas mentioned above during a single review session and expecting as much from a reviewer will set you up for frustration, if not worse. Avoid the common pitfall photographers often experience by having unrealistic expectations and try to be specific about what you want to get out of the experience.
Research Your Potential Reviewers
Upon registering for a review event, photographers are often asked to list their top choices for reviewers, and this data is run through software to come up with a master schedule for review sessions. While it’s not possible to match every photographer with all the contacts at the top of his or her list, computerized matchmaking methods work far better and are much more efficient than analog alternatives, such as drawing straws to determine who gets a top pick.
After receiving a confirmed reviewer list, take some time to research the professional accomplishments and personal interests of the people with whom you’re scheduled to meet. This is your chance to learn about their background and consider any commonalities you might share. If you’re matched with someone who was not one of your picks and/or has an aesthetic focus that differs from your work, this doesn’t necessarily mean your review session will suffer. If you come prepared with an open-minded attitude and solid questions to ask, a reviewer with a differing aesthetic could offer valuable insights that you wouldn’t necessarily get from other sources.
Forging Community Contacts
A hidden benefit to in-person review events, especially large ones, is the cross-pollination that occurs from meeting like-minded colleagues and sharing pictures and experiences. There’s a reason why such events are fondly referred to as “Photo Camp.” Outside the space dedicated to formal reviews, review participants cluster around open portfolio cases in spirited sessions that are equally powerful as bonding experiences. After hours, newly minted colleagues gather in the hotel bar and other spots until the wee hours, to look at even more pictures, revel in shop talk, and trade stories that often lead to lifelong friendships. Take the hint and make friends, this could prove to be the most valuable takeaway there is.
Relationship Building as a Strategic Goal
A standard portfolio review is a brief 15- to 20-minute meeting, an intensive interaction that can pass in the blink of an eye, or feel like an eternity, depending on the quality of interaction between photographer and reviewer.
In many cases, photographers expect to come out of this experience with a tangible offer—print purchase, exhibition opportunity, photographic assignment, book deal, and so on—under their belt. While this it is not totally impossible, the odds are against this, particularly if you are introducing your work to the reviewer for the first time. More than anything, the purpose of a portfolio review—and your primary goal—should be one of relationship building, to leave your reviewer with a positive impression of you and your work to be expanded over time.
Taking Your Place in the Hot Seat
To quote William Shakespeare, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” When considered in this light, the portfolio review is a brief crystalized version of a theatrical performance, and it is your goal to engage the reviewer about the merits of your project in a professional yet memorable way. There are a variety of approaches one can take; however, a successful interaction often comes down to being attentive to the other party’s personal preferences. Here are few tips to consider.
- Introduce yourself clearly yet briefly, and give a quick summary of the work.
- Open your portfolio and invite the reviewer to begin looking at images. Some people like to record audio of the discussion that occurs. In this case, you should ask the reviewer’s permission first.
- If you have a specific question, or a goal that’s applicable to the reviewer, don’t hesitate to mention it up front, so your work can be viewed through that lens. A few examples include: advice on image sequencing or an edit, professional insights about a subject area or image style, potential recommendations for marketing or publication of the work, etc.
- Be attentive to the reviewer’s reviewing style. Are they chatty and asking questions about the work, or are they looking at the pictures in silence? If the latter, do not feel compelled to fill the space with your voice. Some people prefer to get a good read of the work before opening a discussion.
- You should also come prepared with questions, comments, or even a compliment, targeted to the reviewer’s background. This is where advance research can really pay off and make for some memorable engagement. Compliment the reviewer on a past exhibition they curated or an article they wrote, mention a shared connection such as a hometown or a school you both attended, ask an educated question about their work process, etc. Obviously, whatever you say should be authentic and from the heart (don’t make them feel like they are being stalked!).
- Towards the end of the session, ask the reviewer if they can recommend any colleagues who may be interested in your pictures. If they respond with a name, ask permission to use their name as a referral.
- Offer a business card or a small leave-behind so the reviewer can remember your project, and make sure to ask for their business card, too! Reviewers routinely collect way too much stuff from photographers during these events, so less is more here. Or, if you want to make a lasting impression, hold off on distributing your marketing materials at the event, and send it by mail afterwards with a nice thank-you note.
Make Sure to Follow Up
Reviewers agree—the most important aspect of the portfolio review experience is the follow-up, and this is precisely the area that busy photographers tend to overlook. The most common first step remains sending a thank-you note by regular mail, so make sure to ask the reviewer for their mailing address in addition to their business card. While corresponding by mail might seem outmoded in our hyper-digital era, the tactile nature of snail mail is more likely to get noticed and appreciated than the brief subject line of an unsolicited message in someone’s overburdened email client. This is not to dissuade you from adding the contacts you meet with to your email list for updates on your work, but you should mention doing this in the note you send.
All told, since you’re trying to sell your artistic abilities, a snail-mailed thank-you note personalized to the receiver offers you the perfect opportunity to flaunt your creativity and graphic skills in creating a memorable marketing piece. Who knows, it may end up hanging on a museum curator’s office wall, as an ongoing reminder of you and your photographs!
Images for this story were graciously provided by the following portfolio review events. Click on the links below to learn more about their offerings.
Center for Photography at Woodstock - Woodstock, NY - CPW offers an annual portfolio review that alternates between New York City (summer 2020) and Woodstock, NY (May 2021). Additionally, a Photographers Salon is held in Woodstock on the second Tuesday evening of every month and is open to all serious photographers seeking to develop their own work and participate in discussion about work by fellow photographers.
Filter Photo Festival – Chicago, IL – Upcoming portfolio reviews scheduled for September 19 – 22, 2019
Griffin Museum of Photography, Winchester, MA - The Griffin Museum hosts monthly reviews for members, as well as a curator-in-residence program with contacts from outside the area. Elizabeth Avedon is scheduled for October 2019. In late April 2020, they will host The New England Portfolio Reviews in collaboration with Boston’s Photographic Resource Center.
Medium Photo Festival – San Diego, CA – Upcoming portfolio reviews scheduled for October 17 – 18, 2019
Photolucida - Portland, OR – Biannual face-to-face reviews next scheduled for April 2021, Critical Mass online reviews currently in progress.
PhotoNOLA Portfolio Review – New Orleans, LA – Upcoming portfolio reviews scheduled for December 12 – 13, 2019
American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP) - New York chapter hosts annual portfolio reviews for fine art, commercial photography and photography students.
Society for Photographic Education (SPE) – Portfolio reviews are held during an annual national conference (March) and 8 regional conferences (September/October).
Additional resources related to photographic portfolio reviews can be found here:
The blog of noted photo industry advisor Mary Virginia Swanson features an ongoing list of upcoming deadlines for photography grants, competitions, review events and more. Visit her Advice page for additional resources, including her article How to Prepare for Portfolio Review Events, downloadable as a PDF.
A monthly list of select portfolio reviews compiled by freelance photo editor/producer Jasmine Defoore. Her website also features the article Portfolio Review Dos and Don’ts and a description of Defoore’s portfolio building services for photographers.
A seasonal list of portfolio reviews compiled by Aline Smithson for her online photography journal Lenscratch.
Have you presented your photos at a portfolio review? Please share your experience by leaving a comment below.