Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Portfolio Tips for Photojournalism Students

Yesterday I attended the Advisory Committee Meeting at Loyalist College Photojournalism program in Belleville, Ontario. Incidentally this is the same program I graduated from in 1989, in the second graduating class in the program.

As always it was great to meet with some old friends - fellow advisors and college staff - and it's a great opportunity to meet and speak with the current crop of enthusiastic (and scared stiff)  students. While a portion of the day is spent behind closed doors dealing with the business of running the program, its development, and its place in the changing landscape, the bulk of our time is spent meeting with the students, listening to their concerns, and providing them with feedback and critique on their portfolios. As always it was a long day, but worth the time, and the long drive in the fog.

There is plenty of good work being done by the students at Loyalist College.  (some published work in PDF format is available for viewing here.)

I don't think any of us were able to get to review every portfolio, but I'm certain that each student who showed enough interest to ask for critique went away with many helpful suggestions, encouragement, or motivation. While the level of ability demonstrated by the portfolios varies quite a bit a few general themes seem to arise from the bulk of the portfolios - the ones that I saw at least.

Many budding photojournalists are terrified to ask professionals to critique their portfolios. This is something you have to get over. Showing your work, and accepting critique will only assist in your development.

Here are a few thoughts for students when building their portfolios.

1. The Bias - Just because mom and dad like it doesn't mean it's good. Mom and dad have to like it 'cause they're mom and dad.

2. The Standard - Variety is a good thing in a portfolio, but remember that the worst image in there will set the standard. Edit tightly. Having others give you some honest feedback on your edit would be a good start. A lack of good image editing is pervasive in our industry for a variety of reasons, and this is rarely different at schools.

3. The World Traveller - An image isn't automatically a winner because it was taken in a foreign land. It's great to demonstrate a willingness to travel and explore our world, but most editors will still want to know you can make pictures in your back yard.

4. What's in a name? - Lose the politicians and concert images unless they are of extraordinary moments. Editors are looking for images that speak to your ability and your vision. The names of the people in your images are irrelevant at this point.

5. A Sporting Effort - If you must shoot sports and feel the need to include sports in your portfolio the images have to at least be sharp. Many students initially have difficulty with sports for a variety of reasons. Improper equipment, poor lighting, etc. Don't begin to include these images until your results improve. Also, nobody ever said that every sport needs to be shot tight, and bright. If you don't have the long lens, the access, or the skill yet for action there are many sports features and beautiful images to be found at sporting events and venues.

6. Lighting - If your image is included to demonstrate your ability to light a subject, ensure that it is done well. Otherwise you are only demonstrating your difficulty with using artificial light.

7. Picture Story - The key word here is story. A collection of images does not make a story. Stories need to have a focus. They must inform the viewer from the beginning, to the end as well as be visually interesting throughout. Edit your stories tightly to ensure that they are presented in an order that makes sense, progresses the story, and captures the interest of the viewer. Maintain  a consistent style throughout a given story, and avoid redundancy. Every image should add a new element to the story you are trying to communicate.

8. The Image Within the Picture - Most images we see have something going on within the frame that is of interest. The question is, is this something effectively communicated to the viewer? Abilities differ, and everyone learns at a different pace, but there is one very simple premise to remember when making your images. Every time you are motivated to point the lens and release the "shutter" you have a reason in mind - something that interests you or evokes and emotion in you. Define this and consider how best to capture it in a single frame so the rest of us will appreciate what your motivation was. So we will fully appreciate the moment. Make your photographs. Work the subject. And ask yourself again if you've captured an image that emphasizes what is most important about your subject; your reason for shooting it. If the answer is no, do not move on until you have what you want, and what you need.

9. Muitimedia - The industry is changing and as a result students are responding by developing their abilities to tell stories in different ways. While it is important to learn and demonstrate an ability to produce multimedia stories, it is equally important to remember that the strength of these stories still lies in the strength of the imagery, and in your ability as a journalist to root out and tell a story. Future employers will very likely appreciate your multimedia skills, but more importantly your stories will serve to highlight your skills and instincts as a journalist. No matter how you produce what you show, keep the images and stories strong!

10. Technically Speaking - Do not show images that are poorly prepared for presentation. If you do not yet have the skills to properly prepare an image in Photoshop or a similar program, ask for help. The care that you take in presenting your prized images will speak volumes.

Every one of us in this industry has gone through the fearful days of having to show work we're not yet proud of. Opinions differ among professionals and feedback can vary, in substance, and in delivery.

But the critiquing process is a necessary one, and one you must steel yourself for. Seek out critique as often as possible. Consider the feedback you are given and take advantage of the insight shared with you. You will grow and learn and your skills will develop as a result. You will establish relationships that may grow over time, and create contacts that may benefit you in the future.

Do not hesitate to begin showing your portfolio until you think it is perfect. By waiting you will miss out on opportunities to demonstrate your development, your willingness to learn, and your enthusiasm to succeed. The portfolio is a dynamic entity that will evolve over time, and should continue to evolve with you throughout your career.

Good luck!


  1. I agree that new photographers should not be afraid to show off their work to skilled photographers who can provide constructive criticism. The earlier they expose themselves to this kind of advice, the earlier they can build thick skin and find ways to improve.

  2. Wonderful advice Pete! Thanks for taking the time to write and post this.

  3. Great advice for all photographers working on their portfolio, not just for students. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Thanks a lot Peter, planning on heading to Loyalist myself once I get my university degree and these are the things I keep hearing from all the professionals I speak with so thank you for putting it in print. Great reference material!


  5. I got a question... does photography always be accompanied with photo editing???

    Many says i have the ability to be a photographer, but i'm not really god in photo editing...