5.30.2011

The scariest part of being a photographer....

The scariest part of the race is waiting to get to the blocks.  

Without a doubt the scariest thing about being a photographer is putting together a portfolio.  There is always a self-inflicted monster conflict between what you'd "love" to put in the book and what you "think" will sell to potential clients.  Then there are the conflicting foibles of putting 20 of nearly the same image in the book versus putting in 20 completely different styles and subject matters in the pages of your portfolio.  Which brings up the whole issue of "how many images?" to put in a portfolio in the first place.  Followed by the "what size should they be?" question.

Maybe there's an easy set of answers but I've never found them.  Maybe that's because every art director or client is so different.  And the things they are looking for depend on what kind of projects they're working on at the moment.

Some of my friends took the plunge a few years ago (before civilization collapsed) and had large, custom books done.  These were done on big, lush papers and then bound by professional book binders into impressive, nearly overwhelming toures de forces that are so impressive.  Except.....they are finding out two years or so down the road that styles change, presentations change and favorite photographs change but custom made books don't change gracefully.  Here's the scenario:  You printed up 40 great, oversized images on unimaginably expensive inkjet paper.  You used the equivalent of several car payments worth of ink to get the images printed.  You spent $1500 or more having the collection artfully and permanently bound.  And then you went out and showed it to every potential client......good for you.  But the scenario continues.  You showed this impressive, museum quality piece just minutes before AIG hit the wall and Goldman Sachs walked off with everyones' money.  Now the market is recovering and you need to get some work.  And you want to show the dream book.  But most of your potential clients have already seen it.  Do you show it again and risk them thinking that you've been trapped in amber, or worse; unemployable, these last few years?  Or do you punt and show something else.

As a former CD I'd say the smart play is to put together a lesser book (lesser bobka?) and take it on the next round.  You've already shown the previous viewer that you can knock presentation out of the park.  Now you're trying to show them that you've been working, you are flexible, you have new stuff to show. Think of this round as "portfolio lite."  The real magic is to keep yourself in front of the buyers.

On to the idea of showing your portfolio on a iPad.  If you do a lot of video this makes perfect sense as you can put both stills and videos together on one asset and show them easily.  I think iPads are great for informal shows of photos and shows to people under 30.  For everything else I think large, well done prints are more impressive and show off your production skills.  It's easier to see faults at 12x18 and 16 by 20 inches and it's easier to be impressed by no faults at the same sizes.  If you live in San Francisco, Austin, New York and Boston you're not going to blow anyone away with your "awesome" grasp of new technology by walking in with a tablet.  At this point you'll just be at the end of a long line of people who got there to show off their new toys first.  Better be sure that what's on the screen is more impressive than the screen itself.  If you really want to blow away an art director  show them the portfolio on a tablet and then.....just give it to them.  But if you can afford to do that a few times a week then you're doing better than I am and don't need my advice.  Just don't confuse "new to me" with "new to you."  And don't make the mistake of thinking that a smaller (one quarter size) presentation is somehow more impressive than a full sized one.

I've done it every different way.  I used to hand tip fiber paper prints into beautiful, handmade Panodia books and take them around.  Clients loved the presentation but the books are still on my shelves with prints from the early 1990's and that market has flown.  In fact, if I showed them now I'd have to get into the big, ugly discussion that goes something like this:  "No, we don't have those cameras anymore. No, they don't make that film anymore.  Come to think of it they don't make that lovely printing paper anymore.  And no,  I no longer have a darkroom in which to do these kinds of things in...  And, no, I'm not sure why I'm showing them to you now."  Embarrassing to sell something you can no longer really do....

For a while we converted everything to 8x10 transparencies.  And that was pretty neat because they looked cool on a light box and we showed them loose so we could constantly change the mix.  But that got really expensive as custom labs everywhere stopped doing 8x10 dupe transparencies, stopped souping big E-6 film and......well,  you know the story.

So now I go back and forth between showing prints in boxes and showing prints in portfolio cases with clear plastic pages.  I love the idea of clients being able to handle each 16x20 print in a free form black box.  I hate the reality of having to keep making new prints to replace the ones crimped by young art directors who've never handled a print before.  I also sneezed on one.  That had to be replaced.  Quickly.

But the boxed prints get unorganized quickly and are cumbersome to clients used to turning pages in books.  So I go back to the anonymous black portfolio cases with enough 13 by 19 inch pages to hold 48 images.  I have everything printed a 12 by 18 inches and I keep the unbordered style constant.  Not as sexy as holding the prints in your hands but pretty efficient, easy to carry and easy to view.  And most important, easy to interchange.

Here are my secret weapons for putting together a portfolio and getting it in front of a client without ruining my self-esteem or scaring the hell out of myself.  First off, I've been systematically making five to ten prints (12 by 18) at the end of every job or project I do that I like or that has relevance to a large number of clients (or, if I'm being really venal, if I've photographed someone famous.)  I currently have three to four hundred 12 by 18 inch color prints in archival keeping boxes on the shelves of my office.  I can customize a 48 print showing in about and hour.  I added ten more prints this afternoon.  By not waiting till the last moment I never have to deal with:  1.  Oh dear God, the DVD is corrupt!!!!!  Where's the cleverly hidden back up file???  2.  Having to do a scad of post production and runs to the lab to get something together.  3.  Forgetting about those cool jobs you did last year.  Ordering prints in advance also spreads the cost out over time and gives you the chance to change your mind, show to show, without stress.

Second, while I might narrow down the selection I'll get together with Greg or Belinda or Mike and run my choices by them.  They are much more intertwined in day-to-day advertising and I trust their taste.  Probably more than I do mine.  If more than one of them says, "Take that one out."  Believe me, it's gone even if I had to wade thru acid to get the shot.  I try not to run the work by other photographers because they seem easily swayed by gimmicks and tough techniques.

Final weapon?  I arrange, at my first show to come back and show more work.  To do a second show.  And that's why I can't have a spectacular "take no prisoners" uber book.  I wouldn't have a good excuse to go back again.

Final advice for you if you are competing in my markets, here in Texas.  All that I've said above obviously doesn't apply to you.  The quality of your work will be self-evident.  Just put up a nice, flash website, sit back and wait for the assignments to come rolling in.  Really,  I'm sure you only need a website.  Really.  (sarcasm alert for the hard of humor...)