Give Yourself an Honest Portfolio Review

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NOTE: I certainly didn’t intend for this article to be negative in ANY way, but it looks like one commenter felt that it is.  The purpose of this article is to see how far you’ve come in learning photography, and to get an idea what “bad habits” we all have that may be keeping us from getting to the next level.  Please read the article in that light.

Over the last year or so, I suspect that I have been asked hundreds of times (thousands?)  to review portfolios of other photographers in my online photography classes, on our Facebook page, and other places.

Portfolio reviews are incredibly important because it allows you to see your work through someone else’s eyes who are seeing your work for the first time.  But as I review so many photos, I am constantly brought back to the same 4 or 5 things that most photographers just don’t quite realize.

So today, I hope to provide you with the main problems I see in portfolios of other photographers.

I hope that this provides you with perspective that allows you to take a long and honest look at your photos in an effort to improve.  I have done the same and see areas in my own portfolio where I need to improve.

Stage One Photographer

Beginning photographers can easily be spotted because they don’t know enough about the technical side of photography to do much with the camera, so they really only concern themselves with the person being photographed.

How to spot a stage one photographer…

  • They consider a photograph “good” when they captured an interesting expression on someone’s face, or something random or rare that occurred (like a fire or a UFO).  You can spot this from a mile away, because when looking at their portfolio, the photographer looks over your shoulder and starts explaining things in the picture because he failed to tell the story with the photo.
  • The photos are rarely sharp enough to show fine detail on the photos and all of them are taken from standing height
  • None of the photos show any artistic flair.  The photos would look the same if taken by any person who was standing in the same spot.
  • Almost all of the photographer’s portraits are zoomed way out.
  • If the photographer does any post-processing, it is spot color (all black and white except one item in the photo that is color).

Classic Stage One Photographer's Portfolio

Stage Two Photographer

Stage two photographers have gotten lucky a few times, and their pictures have been applauded by friends and family; however, they find themselves caught up in so many little tips and rules of photography that they manage to miss out on the biggest pieces.  For example, they find a beautiful landscape and concern themselves so much with the camera settings that they fail to notice that they are shooting in TERRIBLE lighting, or that the composition is dull.  Soon, they must learn that lighting and composition are more important than anything else.

How to spot a stage two photographer…

  • Some photos in the portfolio are slightly blurry or have other technical issues.  The photog at this stage is still paying so much attention to the subject that he frequently skips over the essentials.
  • Few of the photos in the portfolio have interesting lighting.
  • The photographer is happy with the pictures because they have started to use shallow depth-of-field in their portraits.
  • The photographer might follow the rule of thirds… but ignores the fact that sometimes the most interesting composition does not follow any “rule” per se.
  • The photographer takes out the camera for a picture when he sees an interesting PERSON or LANDSCAPE, but not when the photographer sees interesting lighting, shapes, or compositions.
  • Some of the photos are still taken from too far away, but other photos in the portfolio are zoomed in to the extreme.
  • Their portraits are posed with the subject placed right next to a “really pretty bush.”
  • Their favorite post-processing technique is spot color (all black and white except one piece of the photo in color).

Pictures like these are indicative of a stage two photographer

Stage Three Photographer

By this point, the photographer has started to clue into the fact that lighting is a big deal.  They stop taking landscapes in the middle of the day and at least find shade to shoot portraits to avoid ugly harsh shadows.   Most of their pictures look better than an average person could do, and they are beginning to be known by friends and family as a photographer.

How to spot a stage three photographer…

  • Their best photos are macro shots of flowers.  At some point they need to realize that photos of flowers are EASY.
  • Their photos almost always incorporate good lighting, but they occasionally leave one in there with bad lighting because they really liked the subject, or because they have some sort of “war story” from the shoot that makes them especially fond of the photo.
  • A few of the photos in the portfolio look quite good, but most of them are just “nice.”
  • When the photos are shown to friends or family members, they have said things like, “Wow!  You could sell that!”
  • Stage three photographers are always eyeing the 5D Mark III or D800, and secretly tell themselves that their photos will finally be professional if they just had the right equipment.
  • They have entered the world of Photoshop and post-processing and can do some really neat tricks, but a professional would look at the photos and clearly see the image quality being ruined by untrained hands.  When I look through portfolios, I’m amazed how many pictures are WAY over-sharpened, grainy, or where the colors are all messed up.  This makes it easy to spot a stage three photographer.

These photos are indicative of a stage three photographer

Stage Four Photographer

Stage Four Photographers are just on the cusp of consistently producing professional work, but they still have some baby habits deeply ingrained in their heads.  These photographers are known by most of their family and friends as a “really serious photographer” and have at least considered going pro.  They spend a tremendous amount of time or effort working to get their work noticed by others, but have a tough time drawing as many eyeballs to their work as they would like.

How to spot a stage four photographer…

  • Most of their photos look good only because they include some interesting style or technique, rather than being a photo that can stand on its own.   Often this means that 90% of the photos have creatively tilted horizons, over-processed HDR photos (which they always describe as a “really subtle HDR effect”), overly vibrant colors, are taken from extreme angles, or are weirdly wide panoramas.  There is nothing WRONG with these techniques, but it is obvious when a photographer is using them as a crutch, because only a few of the photos in the portfolio can stand on their own without one of these techniques.
  • Every photo in their portfolio is quite good and any amateur photographer would be envious.
  • None of the photos in their portfolio have technical problems.  Everything is sharply focused, properly exposed, and most (but not all) of their poor Photoshop habits have gone by the wayside so their image quality is now quite good.
  • They have been asked by people who are NOT family members, friends, or co-workers to shoot an event for them or to buy their photos.
  • The photographer rarely notices it, but a trained eye sees many distracting elements in the photos that take away from the overall picture.

Stage Five Photographers

While these photographers are not all full-time pros, they are capable of consistently producing truly professional-quality work.  People can’t take their eyes off the photos they see from these photographers, and people often ask if the image was “Photoshopped” because the post-processing adds interest without creating surrealism.  They recognize that gear is fun to talk about and buy, but find themselves scaling back to just the essentials on many of their shoots.

How to spot a stage five photographer…

  • Every shot in the portfolio has perfect image quality (no graininess or wacko effects added in post-processing) and is shot with perfect technical skill.
  • The photographer is capable of shooting any event and returning with very good pictures that have interesting lighting.
  • The compositions of these photographers are mature and make the photo feel put-together and solid without being too extreme.
  • Each element in the frame is carefully placed and no distracting elements have slipped their way into the frame.  Each item in the photo plays a specific role in the overall composition.
  • The photos are not just “correct” or good, or even really good–they are jaw-droppingly good.
  • The photographer’s portraits are not only nice looking, but they actually communicate something about the person being photographed.  They truly “tell a story.”

Stage five photography

Stage Six Photographers

These photographers have grown bored of taking “professional quality” pictures.  It is no longer challenging to go somewhere and create work that is impressive to others.  They find their drive to continue learning photography in challenging themselves with specific techniques and styles.

How to spot a stage six photographer…

  • Their work is no longer “random” with one sports picture, then a wildlife shot, then a landscape, etc.  All of the photos in the portfolio go together and you can spot the photographer’s style coming through in the work.
  • The photographers can create art without the crutch of a beautiful subject, even if that is what they choose to take pictures of.
  • They create photography for their enjoyment and the praise of others has at least deadened some.
Want to see samples of work from stage six photographers?  Check out Jeremy Cowart (one of my most respected photogs on the planet right now), Joe McNally, Ansel Adams, and many other amazing photographers.

The Takeaway

I hope that, by posting this, no one feels discouraged in their photography.  Portfolio reviews are not about seeing if you “measure up.”  They are intended to help you along your way in becoming the type of photographer that you want to be.

I hope you take the information from this post–realizing that it is the culmination of reviewing hundreds of portfolios–and decide on at least one thing you can do to become better.

What did you learn from this?  Be honest with yourself and share in the comments below.  I’m anxious to see what struck a chord with you.

Comments from the I.P. Community

  1. Lee Sterling says

    Thank you, Jim. This is a must read for any photographer, regardless of level.

    I found myself on the cusp of level three with strong forays into four. Of the three Fs of photography, I never got into shooting flowers, but I very recently decided that my true passions are fashion and food, fashion being my first love and both definitely in need of interesting lighting, even if it’s flat lighting on an all-white seamless.

    From our article, I finally learned where I stand and what I need yo do to go fully into level four and beyond.

    Thank you very much for this article.

  2. says

    I’m a 4 but without the Post Processing crutch issues. I certainly could come up with a different criteria for a few of the levels but you were close in my book. As someone who has recently begun to sell, show and professionally prepare their work 100% in house I understand the frustrations and anxieties of plateaus in regards to artistic flow.

  3. Chester Williams says

    I was just analyzing my photography recently and am pleasantly surprised to read this and realize that I am a stage 6 photographer. I just could not figure out why I kept going back to the same places for weeks on end trying to get that elusive “perfect shot” in a not so perfect environment(s). I can honestly state that this is one of the best articles that I have read on the subject and I can see my progress through the various stages after photographing for almost 40 years, 24 of these years as a serious practitioner.

  4. Dave Lally says

    I found this quite a negative article too, I’m afraid, though I understand what you are attempting to do is quite tricky without coming across in a negative way. Should we be categorising people at all? – would it be better to just highlight common mistakes in portfolios? I don’t know. I certainly would never encourage others to review others’ portfolios and to decide e.g. “oh you’re a level 2″ as this might lead to snobbishness/arrogance. But I can see it perhaps more useful in self assessment. You could have avoided levels altogether and just given a progression line with typical traits or things to check posed as questions along the path “Do you have images that aren’t quite sharp?” etc.

    That said, there are many useful hints and things to check in your article that has hopefully made people go back and review their own portfolios… self criticism is so important.

    I think the key thing about HDR & post processing at level 5+ is about *how* they are used… I agree these are commonly overused and overcooked such that photos are about the effect, not the subject. However, I think the important thing as one progresses is that these tools can be used but should not be visible as such, or if they are visibly used, it is in the right context to do so. Knowing when to use it like that is what differentiates many skilled artists from others.

    But good too see suggestions on improvement anyway.

  5. Nina says

    I put myself in the level two category. My summation of the article… The first three-ish stages are dealing with the more technical. After that it’s being an artist and having the technical down as a strong foundation. Learning the technical aspect of photography is easier (not necessarily easy) than learning art because there are no how to lessons in art. I would love to be a stage 6 some day. Stage 6 photogs are able to put their left brain and right brain together to get outstanding results. that’s why I love photography. I am my own worst critic and I approve of this article.

  6. Kim says

    I thought this was wonderful. I started with P&S cameras, moved on to a fully manual film camera, and now own a DSLR. I definitely have more skills than most people I know personally, but I would by no means call myself a professional. This confirms what I already know when looking at my own work with a photographer’s eye. I’m at stage 3-4. I have some great stage 5 ideas, but I do not yet have the skills and/or resources to carry them out. I have friends/family that love to praise my work and they wonder why I don’t think my photographs are as good as they do. This article explains precisely why. It explains why my photo of a flower (guilty!) is awesome, but somehow not nearly as great as other photos of flowers. :)

  7. says

    Having read this more closely, some aspects of the article do concern me.

    Given that this article is just an interesting starting point for considering one’s skills, and not dogma … I put myself between four and five.

    However, I do not in any way believe that this statement of No. 4 applies to me: “Most of their photos look good only because they include some interesting style or technique, rather than being a photo that can stand on its own. Often this means that 90% of the photos have creatively tilted horizons, over-processed HDR photos (which they always describe as a “really subtle HDR effect”), overly vibrant colors, are taken from extreme angles, or are weirdly wide panoramas. There is nothing WRONG with these techniques, but it is obvious when a photographer is using them as a crutch, because only a few of the photos in the portfolio can stand on their own without one of these techniques.”

    Oddly, the paragraph right after that statement almost contradicts it: “Every photo in their portfolio is quite good and any amateur photographer would be envious.”

    So which is it? In the context of Stage 4, is the work “quite good” or not able to “stand on its own”? It can’t be both.

    There’s one other thing in the article that bugs me, from No. 3: “Their best photos are macro shots of flowers. At some point they need to realize that photos of flowers are EASY.”

    Great photos of flowers are not EASY. At least not the way I strive to capture the beauty of flowers. In Texas, I live for spring, when the bluebonnets, Indian paintbrush and Indian blankets cover the fields. In fact, I take wildflower photos because one, I love wildflowers and two, they challenge me to do something different. In any batch of flower photos I shoot, I stop editing when the only ones left look like the ones I’ve already done. So I think that your statement about flowers really comes across as unnecessarily demeaning.

    Still, it was a good, thought-provoking article.

  8. Katie says

    Jim, thanks so much for this article. I didn’t find it negative at all — but rather helpful. In fact, I was recently considering asking a professional to give me some ideas/critique on my current portfolio, but your article has given me exactly what I need to take the next steps forward! Definitely appreciate all your time, efforts, and support for those of us striving to improve =) Love reading your articles! One of the best sites for photography tips I’ve found over the last couple years.

  9. Angela says

    Absolutely excellent article. Anyone who thought it stepped on their toes is a pansy! Hah! Struggling to see where I belong would like to think a 3, but probably more like a two. Thrilled I found this site today, it is top notch. Keep up the good work and ALWAYS ignore those naysayers. We all need to know where we’re at so we can have a vision of where we want to go (if we want to improve that is). One must have a realistic viewpoint of their abilities in order to improve. Thanks for sharing. I totally agree with the stages, very apt description of the rungs of the ladder one must climb. Again, many thanks!

  10. says

    Wow, that was brutal to read. But truth is truth and I guess I will never get any better if I don’t know the truth. I would say I’m a Stage 3 but it’s good to know I can still climb up the ladder. This was absolutely a great article, those who were offended, felt that way because sometimes it’s hard to look inside one’s self and realize you have an issue. Hope I make it to the last Stage. :)

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