Portfolio Development

by simonrleach

Portfolio development is, as you will know, something I consider hugely important. As a creative we have to keep our work moving forward, to develop our own style and our own way of seeing and communicating, to keep ourselves engaged and passionate about our own work. Client’s want to work with a creative that is driven and passionate about their work, someone who takes pride and interest in what they do and who will use that creativity to produce the best outcome.

Building and developing a portfolio, especially at an early career stage, is important. With the high numbers of people now interested in becoming photographers the demand for instruction and portfolio development have become big business. So how do you best develop, who is best to help you and, when it comes to clients, who will then be trusted to produce the goods?

I am not going into detail about the formal qualification route here. If you are looking at a college or university course, please see my post on questions to ask when selecting a course 1. Choose the right course and your initial portfolio will be a product of your development through that experience.

If you are already a graduate wanting to progress a portfolio or move it in a direction you didn’t feel able to whilst studying, or you are someone looking to develop a portfolio outside of taking a formal qualification then workshops and group portfolio days are an option. Leaving the workshops to come back to later, lets first consider what to look for in a group portfolio day.

The idea behind group days is that everyone wants shots and by organising a group, more than one person covers the costs (Location, Model, Make-up, possible food etc.) Financially it is much less of a burden to the individuals involved. Spending the day with the right peer group can also provide some excellent support, encouragement and learning from each other. The considerations to bear in mind include how much time you have for your shoot and how much control you have over the shoot content. Sometimes you will be allocated your own time, say an hour, and within reason be free to shot as and how you wish. This is a good start but I feel it is never enough time to light, build a rapore with your model and get the shot right. There is almost certainly not time to amend hair and make-up and outfit changes are likely to be limited as well. Group portfolio days provide you with models and crew and some also provide a standard lighting set-up and the exposure setting. Great shots perhaps, but not really yours as such! These factors are almost certainly true if you are working with a group of photographers at the same time. Someone sets-up possibly teaching you what they are doing as they do it, but then its a bit of a ‘rugby-scrum’ to get shots before things move on. The other problem with group days is that you are very often learning specific set-ups. These can be great in getting you started but sooner or later you will get board and won’t necessarily have been given the knowledge to move forward effectively.

Attending workshops, on the other hand, can, with the right person, solve this predicament. Hopefully what you will be learning here are some of the basic rules. With these you should be more confident in trying different things and challenging yourself to explore your craft. Practical workshops, if small enough in terms of attendees, will provide you with the time and space to learn but also to get those all-important images to build into your portfolio. I have led a number of workshops and the most successful give you all of the above, starting with the basics and with the instructor very hands-on and gradually adding to your skill base through the day so that by the end you are producing something that is your own. Of course, this can mean the cost will be higher. Ideally you are looking for a day limited to around 6 attendees and even then ideally I like to break the group further. I find shooting in pairs the most effective.

Beyond this you will most likely move to setting your own personal shoots or tests and either covering any costs yourself or perhaps sharing with a friend or two. For example getting a larger location where you can all shoot at the same time in your own area and swap spaces at an agreed time. Working on a solo test or alongside a friend can often be cost effective and give you far more space and time to develop your own ideas and style. All of these options benefit from the addition of one-to-one mentoring 2, but especially so for those that are testing on their own. Finding the right mentor is crucial and just because a mentor is recommended does not mean they will be a perfect match for you. Having had a mentor and been one I assure you that developing a conversation and a relationship that allows you to understand and affirm what you do and who you are as a creative is immensely valuable. A one-off session can open your eyes and provide great insight, but if you find the right person take the time to invest in a process that will continue over an extended period. Remember to always seek opinion outside of that conversation because fresh eyes can always point out something you may have missed. Remember, every opinion is valid, what you are looking for is those that help reinforce what you feel instinctively.

Building a proper portfolio is not just a case of grabbing a few lucky shots, that someone else has set and lit, that have had model/props/location/styling all supplied without your input. It is about building the knowledge and ideas that allow you to create shots that a client will ask you to recreate. It is about developing themes and insights into a subject and the skills to articulate them into an image that someone will want to buy. It is also about you, the way you see things and enjoying photography.

1. https://simonrleach.wordpress.com/2015/03/18/university-roulette/

2. there are many, many options for mentoring, just a very small selection of the options are