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Deciding which of your images is a “portfolio” image is one that involves experience, honesty, and confidence. By portfolio I mean an image that you would not hesitate to share as representative of your work, one that you would be proud to put your signature on. While each of us may arrive at that decision differently, there are patterns and general concepts worth considering that can be helpful. It’s especially important for those who return from a workshop or extended photo trip with hundreds if not thousands of images.

Discussing the process of selecting “keepers” from the rest wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging the importance of studying other photographers and their work. And that extends naturally to all art in general. I’m always surprised to learn how little photographers know of those who came before us, and while it’s not necessary to become a historian, it is vitally important when it comes to judging ones own work.

Brooks Jensen says, “Photographers who lack visual literacy—a knowlwdge of the photographers and photographs of the past—do not have the benefits of historical photographs challenging them. Visual literacy means knowing what those who came before you thought, knowing what those who came before you did, knowing what those who came before you accomplished and where they failed. More importantly, visual literacy provides us with more that just a record of what was done. It also provides us with an excellence legacy that shows us what succeeded—and what still succeeds, years or decades later.”


How do you go about gaining visual literacy? Start by looking at photography books by photographers you respect. I’ve mentioned my favorites here many times, and the key thing is to find those who have attained respect by the general public and their peers. Study the greats, learn to appreciate what they were attempting to do with their art, and not so much whether you like it. From there you can branch out to other similar art forms and artists, especially painters. All of these instill a deeper sense of how we see, appreciate, and respond to visual art.

At the most fundamental level, judging ones own work often comes down to a gut feeling that tells us we feel good about the image. We often hear people say things like, “I can’t tell you exactly what I’m looking for, but I know it when I see it.” Unfortunately, relying on a “gut” feeling or some intangible way of recognizing a good image doesn’t help when we’re developing this skill. While I’ve often used this same type of approach, there are some distinct qualities and identifible elements that I usually see in images I select as portfolio quality.

1. Optimal capture – This is a broad category, but in general covers all of the technical and aesthetic issues involved with actually making a photograph. Sharpness, depth of field, optimal exposure, and overall quality of the raw file. While most of these are technical in nature, there are aesthetic considerations as well. “Optimal exposure,” for example, does not always mean capturing every single tonality, but rather capturing the most essential tonal values that bring life to a composition.

2. Strong composition – The way an image is put together, meaning how the various elements interact and relate to each other, is what ultimately defines strong composition. An alternate, and arguably more important way of thinking about composition is to examine the way a viewer is led through the image. Is the main subject clear and uncluttered? Are there obvious or not so obvious distractions? Does everything in the frame work harmoniously with the subject or overall design of the image? If so to all the above, then things are looking good so far…

3. Quality of light – I often think of light as the “glue” that holds an image together — it adds depth, dimension, mood, and drama, all critical components to a successful landscape image. When we think of beauty, richness, warmth, evocativeness, and qualities of the sublime, light is always at the center of the these emotions. In fact I would argue it’s the single most important factor. When you look at the masters of painting and photography, quality of light is a common thread to success. Composition and visual design is something that can be learned and practiced, and I teach it in every workshop. Learning awareness of light and its infinite variations is much more difficult, and requires time, dedication, and lots of practice.

When all of these are considered carefully and critically, and manage to meet or exceed my personal standards, then I start to feel really confident about adding that 4th star in Lightroom that to me signifies “portfolio image.” The final test for me is to make a print, and if that again meets similar standards, then I’m confident about my decision at that point in time.

An interesting yet unsurprising pattern is that I have demoted and continue to demote images as time goes by from portfolio to non-portfolio. While this happens less frequently now than it did years ago, it shows how my standards and my photography have evolved over time—in a positive way for sure. Yes it’s difficult to demote an image, and that can lead to self-doubt and insecurity about ones work. But in the long run I have found it really does refine your ability to look more critically at your work and with less attachment to any single image. And it’s the attachment to expectations and results that gets us into trouble.


Our culture is so biased towards quick results, with technology becoming ever more prevalent in our lives. And for many things it works great and really does let you focus on the important things. Or so it would seem. The most important work a photographer does is and always will be the act of seeing. Awareness of light and shadow, color and gesture, and the interplay and connection between what you see and feel. This is not a result, but a fluid and ever changing process that slowly shapes your vision and perception of the world. The “capture” is the technical execution of a mechanical process, but the real work is done days, weeks, months, and years before the shutter button is pressed.

When you appreciate and approach photography from this perspective, knowing that before you do anything with the camera, you have to see first, then the image itself becomes less important. The potential in seeing, in developing a personal vision, becomes the driving creative force, and rewards you in ways you would never have imagined. Of course you will make images, and that has to happen in order to have portfolio images. But discovering the raw materials for interpretation is really where the excitement comes from for me, and I think should for you as well.

It happens to all of us, myself included—we love the magical sound of the shutter. It does feel good, knowing you just captured a slice of time, with the potential to be a your best image yet. But I quickly realized that the failures far outnumbered the successes, and if I was going to stay motivated and inspired to return over and over again to the same landscapes, I had to adopt a different mindset, one that valued the experience over the captures.

While this may all sound like a lot to consider, it takes courage to put your work out there as the very best you’ve done up-to that moment. Yet therein lies the essence what it means to be committed to the process versus the results. It’s the best you’ve done, without excuses or compromises. It also means you are open to the future, to improvement, to growth. In the book Mastery by Robert Greene, he says, “If your work comes from a place deep within, its authenticity will be communicated.”

And this is what we all should want from the work we hold up as our very best.

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This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Thanks for articulating a thoughtful approach to portfolios. I especially liked your references to photo history and I’m often surprised at how few have delved into the pioneers. In the 1970s the Time-Life book series gave us rich background and examples, and exposed me to Walker Evans, Eugene Atget and many others. Then I saw real prints at the Met. A tree by George Tice was simply astonishing. Seeing a slow-shutter picture of a matador and bull, by Ernst Haas, was the moment I fell in love with light + time; it was all right there, where the camera could show not only static subjects but things moving in poetic grace, in effect occupying many places over a span of time. That one picture has made all the difference for me.

    1. Great insights and worthwhile names to study for sure. Ernst Has in particular was a pioneer in selective focus and using slow shutter speeds to change the perception of the subject he was photographing. Even though it’s a common technique today, his images are still incredible, especially when you consider he didn’t have the benefit of unlimited exposures or the LCD preview to check his captures…a true master of the art and craft.


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