10 Tips for Getting a Photography Portfolio Review

In Photo Basics by Kirk Bergman

A portfolio review is one of the best and fastest ways to improve in almost every aspect of your photography.  From composition, camera settings, post processing, and even storytelling and image theory, you'll learn so much when you talk to someone about your photos.  There are a few things you need to do to make sure you're getting the most out of it.  We'll talk about 10 things that will help you keep an open mind and be receptive to change.

1. Get a review from someone whose work you respect or admire

I fell into the trap of asking anyone who has ever picked up a camera before to give my work a review.  I got a wide variety of feedback from “These all look great, I wouldn't change a thing” to “I don't like what you took a picture of [therefore you are a bad photographer].”  This was super not helpful and it took years for me to understand why.  Just because someone has held a camera before doesn't mean they are qualified, or even that interested in giving you feedback.

If you follow a photographer on Facebook or Instagram or follow a blog they write, and you like/love/respect/envy/admire what they do, you can find out if they would be willing to take the time to look at a few of your photos.  If you follow someone big like Erin Babnik or Ted Gore, don't expect a response to an email you send them via their ‘contact me' page (believe me, I've done it and never got a reply back).  It's not because these people are rude, it's more likely they are literally traveling around the world 40 out of 52 weeks a year and have very spotty Internet and very little time to respond to each of the 3,000 emails they get a day.  Instead, check out their website and see if they offer a review service.  Most of them do and you can schedule a time to have a Skype meeting with them where they will either review your work or help you process an image.  This will cost money though; don't think they do this for free.

Alternately, reaching out to a smaller photographer on Facebook Messenger or via a ‘contact me' page, asking them if they would be able to review a few photos, will likely get you good results.  While this conversation may be free, don't expect it to happen quickly.  Small time photographers are still busy, holding down day jobs and taking care of families.  I've had conversations with other photographers over the course of a couple months, with emails sent back and forth maybe once a week.  Also, these photographers might not be able to articulate WHY a photo works or doesn't work because they might not be experienced in teaching or extrapolating details.  This feedback probably won't be as helpful or polished as paid feedback; but hey, it's free.

2. You get what you pay for

As I mentioned, time is money to just about everyone, especially those with busy, full time photography jobs.  Most full time photographers will have time set aside to help paying clients with their post processing, vision, compositions, or just about anything photography related.  Pricing for this usually ranges from $80-$150 per hour or more depending on who you are talking to.  Some photographers only have full day rates, ranging between $500-$800.  Again, remember these photographers are busy and they've made this into their full time job.

Paying for a review is definitely the better way to go if you are looking for solid, well articulated, honest advice.  You know what you are getting since there is usually a description of the services offered.  Check out Improve Photography's Portfolio Review page to see an example of this.  You can choose between a range of options that fit your needs and you know exactly what you are getting.

If you choose to go the free route by reaching out to a smaller photographer, you may hit the jackpot with a 9 paragraph email with 5 links to external sources, or you may come away super disappointed with a 3 sentence email about 5 photos you sent over.  And it may take 2 weeks before you hear back from them, if at all.

3. Don't take it personally

One of the hardest things to do as a creative person (that's you) is to give someone else your work and say, “Tell me what you think.”  You think your work is great.  But what if they don't like it?  What if they say you're no good?  What if they say, “Get out of here kid, you got no future!” I mean, I don't think I could take that kind of rejection.

Fear of rejection and criticism is a very valid concern.  But overcoming this fear is a big step forward to getting better.  It is said that starving artists do their work in secret, never showing it to anyone.  But thriving artists do their work in public, letting everyone see what they are working on.  This helps them to make small course changes to incrementally get better and better.

Whoever is reviewing your work is not out to get you.  I feel that most people will genuinely want to help you get better and they'll have some things to say about your process, your vision, or your technical skills that might need to change.  That doesn't mean they are attacking you personally.  It just means there are things you can do better.  But even after you spent 3 hours processing an image, it is still hard to hear someone say, “Ya know…. I just….ummm…this part isn't great because of these reasons.”  But it's OK.  They aren't saying YOU'RE not great, just that a couple things could be improved.

4. Don't interrupt

We have a tendency to defend our choices.  Why we chose this crop, or this composition, or this editing style, or whatever else.  We think that if people understand WHY we did something, they'll be on our side about it and say, “Oh, well in that case you did a great job.”  This is part of self preservation and goes back to trying not to get our feelings hurt from point #3.

Interrupting and trying to explain yourself will only lead to frustration from the reviewer and may cause them to cut back on valuable feedback.  At the end of the day, it doesn't matter what your intent was with an image, it only matters how the end result is perceived.  I can't tell you how many times I've commented on someone's photo that it's too dark and their immediate reply is, “Well I'm going for a dark/moody/crushed blacks look.”  Ok, that's great; but it's still too dark.

You should be open to the feedback they get and be willing to see what the reviewer sees.  Many times, and I've fallen victim to this, we try to automatically defend our work even though we agree with the reviewer.  If we produce an image that looks pretty good to us and the reviewer says, “Well, it's a little dark” we might automatically respond with, “It's a sunset photo, it's supposed to be a little dark” or whatever other knee-jerk response we can think of.  You'll need to overcome this reflex in order to get the full value from a review because a good review will include WHY it's too dark or WHY the composition doesn't work.  This advice goes for email or recorded responses.  If you start tossing up walls immediately after the reviewer says something about your photo that you want to defend, you won't hear or internalize the reason WHY they said it.

5. Ask follow up questions

Knowing the WHY is a great way to learn how to be better.  If something isn't clearly explained (or not explained at all) you should ask why it was said.  As I mentioned, most reviewers will include the WHY in almost everything they say but they might miss something or not have explained it properly.  It is in the WHY that we learn the best.

If a reviewer says, “This composition doesn't work because it feels weird to look at” you should be asking WHY does it feel weird.  A review isn't helpful if they can't tell you why or why not.  Going back to my point on getting what you pay for, most photographers who charge for reviews will be able to tell you, in detail, why something is good or bad because they've had extensive experience teaching classes and understand the fundamentals of photography.  If you ask just anyone to review a photo, they could just say, “I dunno, it looks weird to me” but not be able to say why.  This isn't helpful and will lead to frustration.

I had an image that I thought was really awesome but the reviewer (some guy who's held a camera before) said this exact thing to me: “I dunno, it just looks weird.”  When I asked why, he couldn't tell me (he was not an experienced landscape photographer).  This led me to think, “Well, he's got more experience with a camera than I do, so he's probably right” and I took the image out of my portfolio.  After seeing the image 4 years later while going through my archives, I think it's still a pretty cool image and I've made a point to revisit the location for another stab at it with a higher resolution camera, better composition, and better time of day.

Does this look weird to you?

Additionally, asking exploratory questions like “What if I got the camera higher/lower” or “What if I added this post processing technique” will help both you explore different possibilities with a specific image that will lead to a more general understanding of photographic principles.

6. Tell the reviewer what you hope to accomplish with the review

If you are looking for specific advice on a collection of your photos, be sure to mention that when you send them over.  Giving a general review is pretty difficult because there are so many things that can be discussed and often we, as reviewers, don't know what kind of feedback is most valuable to you.  Also, if you present someone with a portfolio of maternity photos and don't ask for a review of your posing techniques, you could get a review on your lighting instead.  The same goes for landscape photos.  If you don't tell me that you are looking for a review of your compositions, I could give you a full review of your post processing.

Be sure to tell the reviewer that you are looking for specific feedback in any of these areas:

  1. Lighting
  2. Composition
  3. Post processing
  4. Camera settings
  5. Vision or “feel”
  6. Storytelling
  7. Anything else you are specifically seeking

A special note about getting feedback on your photographic vision or storytelling; it is probably the hardest of all aspects of photography to review and accept.  Vision, feel, and storytelling are probably the most advanced techniques you will ever learn as a photographer.  Anyone can take a picture of a tree, but only a truly experienced photographer can make the viewer feel like they are standing in front of that tree, not just looking at a photo of it.  Everything you've ever learned about photography will come into harmony when executing a vision.  They way I see your photo may not be how you want me to see it and it is really easy to say, “Well, you're just not seeing my vision.”  That could very well be true.  You could also not be doing a great job and getting me to feel that way.  So again, these are advanced techniques.  Be super particular about who you ask to provide you feedback.  Only reach out to those people who are already executing the vision you'd like to see in your own photos.

7. Ask for examples

Having someone tell you that something doesn't work and WHY it doesn't work is great.  Having them show you an example of a photo that has the qualities that DO work is even better.  I could say to someone “Ok this doesn't work because you've got the horizon in the middle of the frame.  You have to be super careful with this because you are creating a point of symmetry in the photo and if you don't have supporting symmetrical elements, it's ruined.  Instead, you could put the horizon either in the top third or bottom third.  This eliminates the need for symmetry and leaves you to be more creative with your foreground, background, and sky.”

Here's one example I'd show to introduce the idea of how a 50/50 split horizon works because of all the symmetrical elements in the photo.  The Tetons are reflected, as are some of the trees, and the shape and direction of the waterway are reflected in the clouds above them.

And then I show them 2 pictures that work, one with the horizon in the middle and one with the horizon in the top third of the frame.  This is part of some actual feedback I gave someone not too long ago who asked me about one of his landscape photos.  Showing him what works and what doesn't work, in addition to telling him why, really helped drive the point home.

Here's an example of cutting the horizon across the top third of the photo. Splitting the photo in half by the horizon wouldn't work here because there is no symmetry between the ground and the sky. This photo is better because of the careful placement of the horizon.

The same can be said for any aspect of photography:

“This lighting doesn't work on this model's face because of A, B, C.  Here's an example of what does work and here's why.”
“This editing might not be the best for this image because of A, B, C.  Here's an example of a similar image with different editing that does work and here's why.”
“I don't think I'm feeling what you intended me to feel in this photo because of A, B, C.  Here's an example like yours by So and So photographer who I think is doing a good job at this and here's why.”

8. Ask for resources to learn more

Most reviews will get you a bunch of great feedback on your photos but they won't go into detail on HOW to implement the changes you discussed.  A great thing to ask for is additional resources to learn the techniques to get better.  Things like YouTube videos, books, articles, or training series are great ways to better understand a specific part of photography.  It's likely that whoever is looking at your photos has done a fair bit of training and seen a fair bit of YouTube videos and can recommend some great resources for you.

Don't be upset if they can't give you something specific that meets your needs, though.  The review probably doesn't include this kind of education and you are just as good at Google as they are.

9. Carefully review your photos with the feedback in mind

When you get a review back, you should be cross-referencing the feedback against the photos you provided.  Don't just read an email, listen to an mp3, or watch a video thinking you can remember everything about the photos you gave them (or even every detail about the photos you sent over).  You should have each photo open and be examing it while you are reading or listening to what they have to say.  This way you can follow along with them and apply specific advice to specific pieces of your work.

10. Implement the feedback you get

The last thing you should be doing is implementing the feedback.  If the reviewer said to boost exposure, then open up Lightroom and boost the exposure.  If they said to try this lighting technique on your model, then set up your studio strobes and get your model back in the chair.  You are doing a great disservice to yourself and your reviewer by just thinking, “Ok that's nice.  I'll remember that for next time.”  Practice makes perfect, so boot up your computer or get out your camera and give their advice a test drive.  I saw great improvements in a couple photos when I immediately implemented the advice that Jim Harmer gave me when I asked him to do a review.

Conclusion

Letting other people see and comment on your work, especially if they are well versed in your genre of photography, will help you learn and improve at a greater pace that trying to figure it out on your own.  I stayed in my own dark cave creatively, and refused to show my work to anyone else except for my wife and my mom (who only had wonderful things to say to even the crappiest photos).  Putting your work in front of someone else who knows what they are doing will only help you learn what works and why and what doesn't work and why.


About the Author

Kirk Bergman

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I've been doing photography as a hobby since my first photo class in 10th grade. Now, I shoot professionally as a real estate and architectural photographer. I am also a brand consultant for many real estate agents in my area. When I go on trips, I try to squeeze in a bit of landscape photography as well. You can see my personal projects on my portfolio Facebook page and my business projects at http://www.agyntstudio.com