Photographers like being paid. We want to work. Your portfolio—whether on an iPad or online or in a box—is one of the best tools you have to get the sort of work you want.
But our portfolios sometimes work against us. Our tendency is to want to throw in "examples" of a wide variety of work. We want to say "Look at all these different kinds of photographs. These are among the many things I will do if you'll pay me."
This was driven home for me years ago when I bought a big ad in the Yellow Pages advertising my services as a portrait photographer. The ad worked, all right—I got lots of clients. But the problem was that not very many of them wanted the kind of work I did. I quickly learned that my first task with each of them was to try to coax out of them what they had in mind. Each client had something in mind. But few were very articulate about what exactly that was. To each of them, what they were thinking of was "a portrait." I was the one who was supposed to know what that meant. For them it was obvious. For me, it was a game of "guess what they're thinking." After all, this is a portrait (Abby Wilcox)—and so is this (Ed Salter), and this (Art Wright). Yet the person seeking one or the other of these styles probably wouldn't be happy with one of the others. It was up to me to figure out what each person wanted and what would make them happy.
The everything-but-the-kitchen-sink portfolio continues: "Here's a food photograph. So I can do that. And here's my portrait photograph sample. So you see I can do those. I did a real estate brochure once. Need a real estate brochure? How about a studio shot of a widget for a catalog? Can do. Interiors. I can do interiors. What do you need? Hire me, and I'll take a stab at it."
And of course you got roped into doing your cousin Mary's wedding a year ago last May. Hey, a few of them turned out okay. What the heck, you'll wade in and do a wedding, if the price is right. Throw one of 'em in the portfolio. It'll say, "Want a wedding? Can do." Weddings R Us.
I'm not going to argue that you can't market yourself as a jack- (or jill-) of-all-trades if you want to. I'd just encourage you to think of it from the customer's perspective. Among brides-to-be who are out there scouting for the right photographer for their wedding, who in their right mind would hire somebody with one wedding picture in his or her portfolio? That's probably never happened once since 1839. What prospective wedding clients are looking for is someone who likes doing weddings, has done a lot of them, and really knows how to do them. Wedding clients aren't interested in your widget pictures or your real estate brochure. They only want to know how you're going to shoot their wedding, and what they can expect of you if they hire you.
With my portraits, I never got the kind of work I wanted until my friend Judy let me put up a semi-permanent exhibit in her frame shop in Georgetown. From then on, I got exactly the kind of client I wanted—people who had seen my work at the frame shop, liked my style, and wanted something just like what they'd already seen. And that was just the kind of work I liked to do, wanted to do, and was good at. Match. That's the magic of a good portfolio.
TOP reader Bob Rosinsky in central Florida wants to be a go-to guy for studio portraits of dogs, so there's nothing ambivalent about his portfolio at his Top Dog site. The best clients want the photographer who's the best for their specific job—they're not looking for someone who's willing to do any old thing.
Even if you're a jack-or-jill-of-all-trades (and most photographers do have several areas of specialization), at the very least you should tailor your portfolio for each prospective client. A friend of mine I used to share a studio with back in the days of film used to keep just under 150 portfolio pieces waiting and ready to go. All of them, no matter what format they started as, were duped to 5x7 transparencies in black mats. But he'd tailor a portfolio specifically for each potential client with only 12 or 15 pictures that spoke directly to the client's need. If it was a job for an architectural interior, he'd show just interiors. If it was a job for architectural exteriors, he'd show only exteriors. And so forth.
The problem is that having one wedding photo in your portfolio doesn't say what you hope it says. That is, the message received isn't, "Oh, so this person can do weddings too. How great. I'll get him to shoot mine next June." What it actually communicates is, "One wedding picture? This photographer isn't very serious about weddings. I'd better go find someone else who is."
The proper number of wedding photographs for your portfolio is: all, or none.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.