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Preparing the perfect photography portfolio

A young photographer presents a selection of colour prints at a portfolio review run by Canon and Magnum Photos at the Visa pour l’Image photojournalism festival in Perpignan, France.

A successful portfolio review can take your career to the next level but with scant time to impress, you need an immaculately crafted portfolio, presented with real passion, to stand out.

“When you’re telling someone what your work means to you, it’s a powerful experience,” says Huck Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief Andrea Kurland. “That’s why we tell these stories – they mean something to us. So be vulnerable, be raw, let it come from the heart. That’s the stuff that will stick in the minds of editors forever.”

Canon partnered with Magnum Photos at this year’s Visa pour l’Image festival of photojournalism to provide portfolio reviews for 200 students from across Europe. The young photographers presented their work to renowned image-makers and key industry figures, including Kurland, photographer Jérôme Sessini and Magnum Photos’ Global Education Manager Shannon Ghannam. Here, Kurland and photographer Travis Hodges, whose clients include Time Out, The Big Issue and Cancer Research, share their advice.

Stay relevant

“My starting point is what I’m hoping to get out of the conversation – it works backwards from who I’m showing the work to,” explains Hodges. When you’re meeting an editor who only commissions reportage, you shouldn’t include your commercial events photography. But to ensure your work is hyper relevant, you could have multiple portfolios for different situations. Or use one adaptable portfolio. “I like to be able to remove and re-edit images,” says Hodges.

A photographer presents their portfolio in an educational programme for European students arranged by Canon and Magnum Photos at Visa pour l’Image.

Pick a portfolio

The type of folio you choose is largely down to personal taste, but make sure it looks smart. Hodges’ is A3 leather, post-bound so the images aren’t behind plastic sleeves, which “take so much away from the beautiful print you take pride in,” he says. Print your pictures well, on good quality paper. Bring a laptop or tablet so that if the reviewer is particularly enthusiastic about a project they see in your portfolio, you can show them more. “Gone are the days when you had to do your portfolio either in print or digital,” adds Kurland.

Huck Magazine Editor-in-Chief Andrea Kurland feeds back on photojournalism students’ work at a group portfolio review session at Visa pour l’Image 2017.

Present a tight edit

“Show recent work that you’re excited about, maybe something in progress because that could spark an editor’s interest,” says Kurland. Only include your best work, no fillers, and don’t be apologetic about anything you’ve included. If you’re making excuses for a picture, it shouldn’t be there. “I’ve been told that people will go through a portfolio and, no matter how many images there are, they’ll remember the one they didn’t like,” adds Hodges.

It’s a delicate balance between variety and consistency. Kurland recalls an interview with legendary American documentary photographer Alec Soth in which he responded to the question: what should students include in their portfolio? “He said: ‘What kind of life do you want to have? Do you want a diverse one or do you just want to wake up and do the same thing every day?’ I think that’s really interesting and something to bear in mind. But then if you look at his work and his career, everything he does has continuity and makes sense.”

“Start strong, finish strong. And remember you can’t show everything.”

“The pacing is important. You can’t have one image after another that keeps upping the ante,” says Hodges. “Start strong, finish strong. And remember you can’t show everything – try to edit a story down to six pages, maximum.” The right total number of images to include in your portfolio differs according to the work, the length of the review and the reviewer’s attention span. The general consensus, however, is that 15-30 pictures works well. “Less is always more,” says Hodges.

Prints taken by student photographers are laid out on a table at a portfolio review event run by Canon and Magnum Photos during the Visa pour l’Image photojournalism festival.

Make the review count

Plan how you will describe your work and, if possible, practise what you’ll say to friends beforehand. “If you’re a narrative-driven photographer, take that person through the story – bring to life what you were driven by, and what you were trying to capture,” says Kurland. “It’s your opportunity to be yourself and to stand up for your work.”

Give the reviewer a postcard or business card so they can look you up afterwards. Follow up with a thank-you email. “The meeting is the beginning of your relationship,” says Kurland. “So be personable, and touch base on a regular basis. Don’t go into every meeting feeling disappointed if it doesn’t come to fruition right away. The reviewer might come back to you in years to come, saying a story has just landed that is perfect for you.”

Written by Rachel Segal Hamilton