A frequent question in the Hello Artist Prep Group is whether a particular image is worthy of inclusion in a portfolio. So what makes a good portfolio image?
The short answer is that a good portfolio image should represent YOU as an artist. It should tell a story, and demonstrate technical proficiency. You want your very best work to shine through. This doesn’t necessarily match up with your favorite images. It can be hard, but you have to separate yourself from the emotions attached to the image and look at it objectively.
When I was working on my draft portfolio to apply for the Hello Artist program, I collected about 125 of my favorite images and thought I had plenty to cull down to the 100 I would submit. Only about 60 of them made it into my final submission even though I still adore those other images.
Should you stop taking images that aren’t going to end up in your final portfolio? Of course not! For example, I take plenty of documentary shots. In these shots I don’t give any thought to composition or light. I’m just trying to capture a fleeting moment with four fast moving kids. Okay… only three of them are currently fast moving since the baby’s still immobile.
I cherish the memories of my oldest son reaching down to help his brother when he fell off his scooter (even though there’s a lamp post growing out of his head). Or also my daughter giving me the most adorable look of surprise (even if I put the horizon line right through her neck). I’ve even kept some missed focus images if the moment is too good to pass up. There are images that I love because they speak to my own personal aesthetic. Sometimes I like excessively clipped blacks, but I have a hard time explaining to others that it wasn’t a mistake. But just because these images won’t end up in a portfolio doesn’t mean they don’t have their place in my heart and in my home.
I think of images as falling into three categories:
Every year, I print out an album that collects some of my favorite memories from the year. I do this even if they’re not the strongest images. Often, these are simple snapshots. Images where the kids are all staring at the camera and saying “cheese.” A photo of all my kids standing in a row in their Halloween costumes. The obligatory first day of school photos. I personally don’t love photos where my kids are looking into the camera. So even when they have a super cute expression, these are relegated to the album.
Some of my album images lack good composition, which is one of my weaker areas. They might have crooked lines that I can’t straighten without chopping off something important. They might have photo merges, or they might have a centered composition for no reason other than that’s where my focal point was set when I captured the moment. Often, when I’m in “shoot fast, capture this moment” mode, composition is not my first thought. I’d rather capture whatever is happening in the moment since my kids’ interactions are often fleeting.
I use autofocus and tend to shoot more wide open when I’m outdoors.This means I sometimes miss focus . Particularly with my longer lenses which are less forgiving. But those images can still have powerful moments that I want to remember. And I’ll stick them into an album, even though I wouldn’t want to hang it on my wall.
I love so many of these images, imperfections and all, and am thankful to have the moments documented. These images capture pure joy and sibling relationships at their best.When I look back on these years, these will be the things I want to remember. I can treasure these images while simultaneously acknowledging that they’re not ones I would show off. I love making our yearly album and revisiting these moments with our kids.
My wall photos are the ones that I personally love the most. Some are also found in my portfolio. Others are ones that I love with my whole heart but I ultimately cut – and those cuts were painful. Sometimes I have “mom goggles” when it’s a picture of my daughter with an adorable scrunch-face smile or my middle son’s mischievous antics.
These are the images that go beyond snapshots and might have a great moment and good composition, but are still missing something. The image might have flat lighting, for example. Or the image might be taken at the same session as another image that I’ve already included. Therefore, it will be too similar to an existing image. It might be yet another centered composition image that I love, but just doesn’t add enough variation to my portfolio.
The wall photos may break rules in a way that I like but others may not. There could be excessively clipped blacks or a limb chop that doesn’t bother me. But I’d lose points for if I included it in a portfolio. It might also be a rare (for me) landscape that would look out of place in my portfolio. It may be a beautiful image of the glaciers in Iceland that fits right at home on our gallery wall. Just because an image is technically flawed, though, doesn’t mean it’s a bad photograph. If you love it, print it out, frame it, and hang it on your wall!
Portfolio images are your best of the best images. Ones that have great use of light, intentional composition, and amazing moments. Can you break the “rules” in your portfolio image? Can you have clipped blacks, blown highlights, limb chops, or out of focus images? Of course! But you need to make sure that it’s intentional and that it will be obvious to the viewer that it’s intentional. It can’t be confused as a mistake.
You should take a look at every image in your portfolio and think about why you included it, whether there are technical deficiencies (look through the rubric), and whether it is a good representation of you as an artist. Just because it’s a beautiful image or technically correct, doesn’t mean that it will fit in well with your overall portfolio. Try to take your emotions out and look objectively to see whether someone with no connection to the subject would feel something when viewing it.
If you’ve been slowly collecting images over a period of time, I’d encourage you to go back and revisit every image. Just because you loved an image at the start of the year doesn’t mean it showcases your voice now. In the several months I’ve been a Hello Artist, I’ve continued to learn and grow and there are several images that were in my portfolio that I wouldn’t include if I were submitting today.
Putting together a portfolio can seem like a daunting task at first. It was hard for me to let go of many images that I loved or had emotional attachments to. At the end of the day, I had to acknowledge that some of my favorites did not have a place in my portfolio, but that they could still be treasured photos.
For those of you in the process of portfolio building, I encourage you to check out the Hello Artist Prep Group on Facebook. There are a number of Hello Artists, Pros and Mentors in the group who give excellent feedback. Even if you’re not ready to share your own images for critique, I know I learned a lot from looking at other artists’ images and the corresponding comments.
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