Give Yourself an Honest Portfolio Review

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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.

121 thoughts on “Give Yourself an Honest Portfolio Review”

  1. I found myself smiling as I recognized my own achievements at each leg of the journey, up to where I currently reside in Stage 4. It’s quite interesting to see that most of us follow the same path. I really enjoyed reading this article, thank you!

  2. This is great! Thanks so much for posting this…it’s very helpful. I think for the most part I’m a stage 3, though I have the occasional stage 2 slightly blurry shot that I include because I still love it, and I don’t like over-processing my photos, so I’ve got a little of stage 4 in me as well. Overall, though, I think I’m around a 3 right now. I like to look at myself critically, and this is helpful to know WHAT to look for.

  3. I agree with Kaitlin, I was expecting to find more information on how to *improve* the issues and not just labeling them. I am a photography student and I have seen plenty of photos that are in fact blurry, lacking perfect composition and with less than ideal lighting. But within these photos I have also seen amazing examples depicting strong human emotion, exposing critical social and political issues and portraying gripping narratives. Their work is more like what you would call a “stage 6” photographer, because the most important part of the photo is the message and not just the technical qualities or praise that it receives. I have seen many technically perfect photos that are not memorable at all and communicate nothing more than “I know how to take a perfect photo.”
    While reading this article I did actually find that it had a discouraging tone, further emphasized by the comment in the last paragraph about hoping that it not be discouraging. I don’t think this would have even been mentioned if it didn’t actually meet this characteristic. Everyone has something that they can improve upon, and it would be far more constructive to see examples of how these problems can be fixed instead of just figuring out which arbitrary category of “inexperience” one fits into.

  4. I absolutely love this article.

    I think it’s a generalization but a very good one.

    Interestingly, if you work hard and love photography with all your heart – there’s nothing stopping you to achieve the so called Stage Five.

    Stage Six… wow, these guys are more than photographers. It’s not anymore about aperture or whether it’s 5D mkIII or an iPhone (look at Jeremy Cowart – so inspiring).
    It’s all about the way they look at the world, and are able to use photography so that others can see it too.

  5. Very interesting article and very accurate. I’m in between 3 and 4 right now personally, but practice and learning will advance my portfolio level. Having a clearcut guide to the progression is actually helpful in highlighting what I need to focus on improving.

    For the couple negative comments, I would say that negativity only reflects poorly on you. Only you know how to improve your photography to develop your skills. There is no tried and true way besides practice and accepting critiques from others.

  6. Nice! I have definitely evolved over the years and still have room to improve, but I’ve never thought of breaking that progress out into stages. Genius. I really like the specific examples listed for each stage… some of them will definitely make some people cringe, but they are very useful for identifying what stage you are at. Great work putting this together.

  7. I’m most definitely sitting on the edge of stage three, quickly approaching stage four. As much as this article stepped on my toes just a bit and put me in my place, I’m happy with where I’ve gotten. I certainly don’t plan to stay there long, but with all that I’m working with (and not working with), I’m pretty impressed if I do say so myself. This post just served to remind me once again that the world of photography is vast and far deeper than I’ve ventured thus far, so the adventure continues. I have so much to look forward to and so much to learn. The journey is too immensely intriguing to quit now.

  8. @April Remember, rules are meant to be broken, but you must know why the rules are there in the first place and only then can you break them in a way that empowers your image. It is very true that some blurry images are powerful. Everything boils down to the story of the image. Was the blurry image on purpose or a happy accident? If it was a happy accident, it is not a level 6 photographer. It was a just a happy accident, not something you could re-create through a skill level and knowing what you wanted to capture. And please keep in mind that this is only one article that Jim has posted. Please do not take this as the only representation of what he is accomplishing on his site. I have been shooting for over 27-years and I have learned some exciting stuff from him. Explore his site and I promise your skills will imporve. Listen to other photographers, read the critiques, submit your photos for critique (Yes, I know it’s hard, but it will help you grow.) and make your own comments. Jim is building a community here to help each other grow.

    BTW, thanks Jim for your site. The community you are growning excites me. I love to learn and I love to teach and mentor and this is a great venue. Keep up the good work!

  9. Stage 3.5 and proud of it, slowly but surely making my way up. I think this was very helpful Jim, nice to see where I am at, where I have been and where I have yet to go.

  10. Interesting article. Proud to be stage 3 – elements of 4 on a good day. I knew i had a long way to go but i am amazing at how far i have

  11. Fantastic piece. I think Im somewhere between stage 3 and 4…. Perseverance is the key.

  12. Hey Jim,

    Interesting piece. loved reading it.

    As a photographer, personally, photography has always been an expression and a language.

    What one expresses using this language is far more important than the knowledge of the language itself. Every language has its vocabulary n grammar, but even with that knowledge, not all can write.


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