Palm Springs Photo Festival Portfolio Review at PhotoPlus Expo 2012

In 1980, I made the trek from my boarding school in Pennsylvania to the wilds of 32nd street in Manhattan where Willoughby’s billed itself as “The World’s Largest Camera Store”. There, I bought my first SLR (Single-Lens Reflex camera): a used Nikkormat FTN. I used that camera for my high school yearbook, and I enjoyed shooting and processing and printing through college too. Once I lost access to a free darkroom, though, I drifted away from photography, shooting only occasionally. Years later, I sold the Nikkormat, bought a weatherproof point and shoot film camera, and took it with me on outdoor expeditions. That got me interested in photography once again, and led me through a couple digital point and shoots to my first DSLR (Digital Single-Lens Reflex) and Adobe Lightroom (the digital equivalent of a darkroom) in 2009. Since then, my passion for photography has been rekindled, and I've shot tens of thousands of photos, mostly of landscapes, severe weather, and shows of various kinds. I find that Lightroom post processing is part of my process now even when looking through the camera viewfinder, and I enjoy the challenge of shooting in very difficult situations, whether low light in a show with fast action, or in the middle of a storm where I'm  trying to think about composition and focus while tracking an approaching, deadly, wall of tennis-ball sized hail. 

Those who know me know that I rarely get involved in anything half way. So, I take a serious, professional approach to shooting, and want to sell my stuff.  But I was adrift as to where I was heading next, or what the next step towards selling my work somehow should be, especially in this crazy market, which has been roiled by wave after wave of digital disruption.  And so in October, I found myself nervously walking down 32nd street once again, past the former site of Willoughby's (now "99 cent Jack’s"), to the Javitz center. There, on the recommendation of my friend and photographer Jackie Weisberg, I had signed up for the "Official Portfolio Review" at the Photoplus expo, which is run by the Palm Springs Photo Festival for professional and “emerging” photographers and costs $275 for five 20 minute reviews.

My friend Jackie, who has had shows in galleries, had focused on a group of 20 or so pictures that told a consistent story. Based on that, I figured I’d also shoot for about 20 images, and I went through all the shots I had taken since buying a serious camera, and narrowed that down to about 250 of my favorites. I put these up on in a gallery on my website and also on Facebook, and asked my friends to “like” their favorites to get some feedback; in return, I randomly selected five of the “likers” and give them free prints. I learned that 250+ was definitely too many photos, as people just didn't have time to go through everything.

Interestingly, this was their favorite photo:

While I don't dislike this photo, it certainly would not have been in my own top 20, which is what made this such an interesting experiment (you can see the stories behind all the top 20 crowd-selected photos here).

I guess in the end, asking for this kind of general feedback leads to a sort of least-common denominator (most bland) photo.  But the feedback from my friends was invaluable, and I did keep this sunset photo in my portfolio to see what kind of feedback I’d get from the pros (none of them liked it). And I deleted a few and added back a bunch of my favorites, and organized them into two portfolios of around 20 each, one focusing on landscapes and storms (you can see this portfolio here), and the other on shows and carnivals (here), figuring that I’d show only one portfolio to any particular reviewer. Some of the reviewers on the PSPF photo site listed reviewer preferences (I wish they all would do so!), and some reviewers preferred prints. With that information, and being a technology guy afraid my tablet would die on the way to the show, I invested in a bunch of 11x14 prints and a portfolio.

The task of picking reviewers from PSPF's impressive array of pros was daunting. Some reviewers (fashion photo editors, for example) were easy to rule out since I have no work (or interest in) those areas, but after that I found myself thinking about three possible avenues for my work. One was galleries; but I don’t feel that I have enough coherent work in one area to tell a consistent gallery story, so I skipped those reviewers. Next up—could I sell some photos to a magazine? And, does anyone read magazines any more? Do they buy photos?  I didn't know much about the world of stock photography, but that appealed to me since I could continue to shoot the way I do—somewhat sporadically and of whatever I find interesting. PSPF sends you an email literally about every day to remind you about the sign up process, and when the day finally came, I submitted my requests for five reviewers with experience in magazines and stock agencies.  Astonishingly to me, I got all but one of my requests!

My first reviewer was Elizabeth Boyle, of Travel + Leisure magazine. She gave me some good feedback on my physical portfolio presentation, and gave me a lot of insight as to what people for magazines like T+L are looking for (often need vertical images, need room for graphics).  She said, though, that many of my images were very soft (more on that in a bit), and that I should try to tell more of a story in the images.  Her favorite was probably this one:

Next up was Amy Wolff, Photo Editor at Niche Media, working with two regional "lifestyle" magazines. She also commented on the softness of the prints (time to buy a new camera, I thought!).  We had enough time that I was able to show her both portfolios, and she seemed to like some of the Coney Island stuff like this:

When the bell rang, it kind of felt like speed dating, and I ran over to my final review of the day: Keren Sachs of Shutterstock. She was very complimentary about a lot of my stuff, and thought a lot of it had potential for stock usage. She gave me some good pointers, suggesting that I tell a story that has symmetry or a graphic element, while thinking about the design.  She liked my interest in "quirky" subjects, and she too commented on the softness of the images. Her favorite was probably this one:

That was thankfully the end of day 1, and heading back to work to run our haunted hotel, I figured that I needed to do something after all three reviewers said they thought the images were too soft. I didn't have time to re-tweak and print everything, but I did reorganize all the prints into one big portfolio with more logical groupings, and got some software for my Android tablet so I could display on the screen instead of a print.

Two days later, I was back at the Javits again to meet with Elizabeth Krist of National Geographic. I was honored to be able to meet with her, and while she made me the most nervous, she gave me really great constructive criticism in a manner that didn't make me defensive. I gave her the choice of either my print portfolio or the tablet, and she said no one had ever given her that choice before (she actually looked at both but in the end she preferred the images on the tablet). She was complimentary on a bunch of my stuff, including some that the others had criticized, which was fascinating. In fact, she did not like the tents photo above, which is one of my favorites. She thought there was too much sky and not enough to keep interest. She said that a few images were like post cards (and she didn't mean that in a positive way), and that others were a "backdrop waiting for focus".  She advised that to push for originality. She liked that I was getting into these "amazing" situations, but cautioned that I couldn't rely on the situation alone to make the photo, and   Interestingly, she actually suggested doing a bit more digital processing than I would have thought. In the end, she gave me probably more criticism than any of the other reviewers, but did it in an amazingly positive way that left me inspired rather than demoralized. She even suggested that I submit these two photos to a monthly contest they have:

My last reviewer was Susan Jones of age fotostock.  She was very complimentary on lot of my stuff, and gave me some great feedback and also a lot of information on how the stock world works these days. Interestingly, reviewing on the tablet, she actually commented on the sharpness of many of the same pictures that the Day One reviewers said were too soft! She said my strongest stuff was the storm chasing stuff, and she liked the colors of this one: 

In the end, the reviews were really helpful and definitely worth the time and money. Getting different, highly focused and experienced points of view was invaluable. Ms. Krist's "postcard" comment probably helped me turn a corner, and gave me a different focus just a few days later when I was chasing superstorm Sandy (photos here) and it's aftermath (here and here and here). I think, when I got the modern, digital gear and had the ability to tweak things again, when I made something that felt like a postcard, I thought that was cool and a sort of means to an end. And those photos may work in the the stock market (I'll be submitting later this year when I get caught up).  But to take my  photography to the next level for myself, I need to think about what I'm looking at differently.  

Here's my tips for your first portfolio review:

  • Bring a laptop or pen and paper to write down notes!  Many of us (and definitely me!) have a natural human tendency to only remember criticism and forget positive comments.  I brought my laptop and noted every comment, positive and negative, which is very helpful now, weeks later.  
  • Present what you feel is best in the way you think is best. Read the reviewers preference if they have one.
  • Don't be nervous!  Of course this is easier to say than do. While all five of my reviewers were tough, they were fair, sympathetic, and cordial.  They all treated me very well.  I’m a college professor and I know that sometimes students are nervous in their interactions with me (something that I still find baffling).  These reviewers, too are just people, but people who are there to help you. Keep that in mind.
  • Spread your reviews out over a couple days if you can. Living in NYC, this didn't cost me any extra, but having time between the reviews allowed me to absorb and process what was said, and even completely change my portfolio before day 2.
  • Most of all, try and have fun!