You Want to Become a Professional Photographer? Show the Work
If you want to sell it you have to show it. I’m going to assume you all know how to build a simple blog or Web presence for your photos. I also assume you understand that you can use social media to show your work, but in my experience, nothing takes the place of showing the work in person. After all, back in the stone age (before the Web, that’s how we did it—every time. And it worked. Millions of images were published in books, newspapers, and magazines before there was any such thing as a Web browser. Most of the photo editors I know prefer to see images in the flesh, so to speak. How do you go about showing the work to people “in the flesh”? Here are some ideas.
Workshops and Seminars
Showing your work is more than just waking up one morning and deciding to put it on display in a gallery or public viewing. It’s an ongoing process and one of the best places to start is by attending various workshops and seminars in your area and at regional and national conventions.
This is an opportunity to attend a workshop with a topic that’s specifically in line with your specialty and then looking for the opportunity to show some of your work to the instructor. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about getting feedback, so let’s cover the basics.
To start, every notable instructor at a photo workshop is going to be buried immediately after their program, so I suggest you contact the instructor in advance.
Let the instructor know you’re going to be attending the upcoming workshop and ask if there’s a time literally for five minutes to give you an opinion on some of the work you’ve been doing. Stress the importance of five minutes and only looking at half a dozen images, just for feedback.
You’ll be surprised at how many instructors will make the time, but if you push too hard and show up with a hundred images for the instructor to look at, you’ll be finished before you even get started. Go easy and don’t take it personally if they can’t find the time, but at least you’ll start a dialogue, which will hopefully lead to other opportunities down the line. I’ve hired two or three people as assistants that I met at workshops. Anything is possible.
There are two different types of formal portfolio reviews. First, there are specific portfolio review events, which are an opportunity for emerging photographers to get exposure to photo buyers, museum and gallery curators, book publishers, and photo editors. These events are held throughout the country as a way for buyers and publishers to discover new talent. There’s usually a fee to participate, paid by the photographer.
When a review event presents itself, plan to show only your best work. Display your work in the most flattering way. Bring business cards and be prepared to discuss your images in depth. This type of event is a sort of job fair for photographers. Be forewarned, however, portfolio review events are usually packed with aspiring photographers. Reviewers attending the event will select only the very best images and shooters.
You can search the Internet for portfolio review events, but here’s a mini list of some of the best-known ones throughout the country.
FotoFest/The Meeting Place, Houston, Texas, is held on even-numbered years. It’s one of the biggest portfolio review events held in the U.S.A.
Center (a division of New Mexico Arts, a division of the Department of Cultural Affairs) offers similar reviews.
There are others but these two should get you started.
The second type of portfolio review is an added benefit at many workshops and conventions. If you’re unfamiliar with the process, here’s how it often works. You bring your portfolio and sit down for a specific amount of time with a working professional photographer who reviews your images and gives you feedback. The format is more of a critique session to help guide you than introduce you to buyers, gallery owners, etc.
Whether you agree with the photographer looking at your portfolio or not, listen to what they’re saying and how they look at your images. They have nothing at stake regarding your images and are there to give you objective feedback.
Imaging USA, the national convention owned by Professional Photographers of America, usually has a portfolio review schedule. Similar conventions (Photoshop World) also offer portfolio reviews. It’s also a good idea to check with your lab (if you use one) and see if they have anyone doing reviews at an upcoming convention.
While I’m on the subject, let’s talk portfolios. You don’t need hundreds of images, just a couple of dozen of your very best. Even fewer if you can get away with it. Just the best of the very best will do. These images also don’t need to be printed at 16×20″. I’m always amazed at new photographers who show up with monster portfolio cases. Your images don’t need to be any larger than 8×10″ unless the particular review criteria for your session requires something bigger. Yes, we live in a digital age, but my opinion is that you should still have prints in your portfolio because they demonstrate the printing and the presentation side of your skill set. There’s also nothing like a photographic print. It has power all by itself.
If you’re showing several different types of photography, then organize them by specialty. There’s nothing wrong with having variety in your portfolio, but keep each category separate because it makes the demonstration of your skills that much stronger.
Showing the work should be the full-time job of anyone who’s serious about making the leap to professional photographer. You can shoot in your spare time but the people who are successful in this business are those who sell 9:00–5:00, five days a week—and showing is selling. That’s how it worked for me anyway. Your mileage may vary.
ALL PHOTOS BY SCOTT BOURNE