10 Tips for a Successful Portfolio Review – by David Griffin

David GriffinDavid Griffin is a freelance graphic designer specializing in photography and publications. He is president of the DGriffinStudio, based in the Washington DC area. Formerly, David was visual editor of The Washington Post. In that capacity he oversaw photography, graphics, and design departments. David previously was at National Geographic where, as executive editor of E-Publishing, he directed the editorial efforts of extending the print publications into digital formats. Prior to this, he served as director of photography where he oversaw the magazine’s renowned team of contributing photographers. He is a graduate of Ohio University and an alumnus of Stanford’s Professional Publishing Program. David is currently on the advisory boards of Eddie Adams Workshop, LOOK3: The Festival of the Photograph, and the Virginia Quarterly Review.
Eddie Adams portfolio review

David Griffin reviewing portfolios at Eddie Adams Workshop’s 11:30 Club

I’ve had the honor of reviewing many photographers’ portfolios, particularly when I was at National Geographic magazine. Once, a photographer showed up at headquarters in DC, after having, apparently, traveled by ship from South America—without an appointment. He did evade front desk security and made it a few floors up into the building before being caught and escorted out. I would think that most photographers would realize they need to call ahead. But here are a few less obvious tips for having a successful portfolio review.

It’s not just about the photographs

It’s also about you. Editors are looking closely at how you carry yourself, how engaged you are, inquisitive, articulate, calm, etc. They’re trying to get a sense for how you might act in the field as a journalist and representative of their publication, and how you might conduct yourself with their colleagues (editors, designers, technicians, etc.). Your work shows if you have the skills, while your demeanor predicts how you will fit within the publication’s culture.

Eddie Adams portfolio review

Shaminder Dulai from Newsweek reviewing portfolios at Eddie Adams Workshop’s 11:30 Club

Know my publication

At a minimum, read the latest edition. It leaves a good impression if, when the moment feels right, you can comment on a recent story you like. Or, you might be asked what you thought of a recent story. In that case, if you do not recall it, politely say so. (Most editors have a high minded self-view, so it doesn’t hurt if they get knocked from their perch from time to time.)

Purge your weakest work

Your portfolio is defined by your best work, but it might be dismissed for the worst. Hence, you should constantly strive to improve your portfolio, not by adding, but by replacing lacking images with better. Don’t have great portraits or landscape? Go out and shoot a ton until you get worthy replacements.

Eddie Adams portfolio review

Deirdre Read, former TIME and National Geographic photo editor, reviewing portfolios at Eddie Adams Workshop’s 11:30 Club

Show variety

If you are early in your career editors don’t expect you to have a singular style. In fact they may prefer to see that you can be a jack-of-all trades. Never assume they are looking for only one specific type of photography—they might see something unexpected that they need.

Shut up

Do not jabber away explaining each of your images, unless you are asked. If you have a photo story, add a title with a one sentence explainer. This will provide a window into how you handle captions, a vital aspect of all photojournalism. Do not expect a busy editor to read a ten paragraph overview with the lame title “Photo Story #1.” And never, ever make excuses for why something could have been better.

Eddie Adams portfolio review

Jim Colton, ZUMA Press Editor-at-large, reviewing portfolios at Eddie Adams Workshop’s 11:30 Club

Keep the design simple

Choose a background which visually recedes: if it is a Blurb-like book, keep everything on white; if it is on a screen, present on black. Avoid white or black bordered edges on your photos. Do not overlap your photos. For books, strive for one photo per page with finger room around each. For digital displays, maximize the size. You are being hired to make images, not do design.

Eddie Adams portfolio review

NY Times Photo Editor Maura Folly reviewing portfolios at Eddie Adams Workshop’s 11:30 Club

No gimmicks

Heavy handed burning, desaturation, montages, etc.? Get out of journalism, go to art school. Don’t waste an editor’s time. Most want to see images that show an honest take on the human condition, not what technique is the latest rage.

Do not expect an assignment

At National Geographic, I reviewed many portfolios knowing it might be years before a photographer distinguished themselves to the point of garnering an assignment. Your review is often the first date of a possibly long relationship.

Eddie Adams portfolio review

2015 Pulitzer Prize winner Daniel Berehulak reviewing portfolios at Eddie Adams Workshop’s 11:30 Club

Be guided by the comments

An editor’s comments are in context of the specific needs of their publication. You might be a great photographer, but you also might not be the right photographer for their needs. If the review does not go well, do not feel you have failed, see it as a helpful road sign leading to another publication where you are better suited—and appreciated.

Exit gracefully

Always have a card to leave that has your contact information. Each editor is different, but if I was interested I would ask you to stay in touch. Do so by sending an occasional, brief email or mailer that has a link to your latest work. Remind the editor where you met, since they most likely will not remember. Say “thank you” no matter how the review may have gone.

And never show up without an appointment.

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