The Perfect Portfolio: Tips from Winners

By Jim Colton

In this installment I asked three of this year’s major photography contest winners to answer the question: "What is the single best piece of advice you can give a photographer to create a winning portfolio?" 

Paul HansenPaul Hansen is this year’s winner of the World Press Photo of the Year as well as Newspaper Photographer of the Year at POYi (Pictures of the Year International). His World Press Photo winning image is one of the most powerful photographs to come out of the conflict in Gaza. 

 “To be honest there is a lot of intuition and transferred feelings from the moment of taking the photograph that goes into my selection process. If I connected to the story/picture/people emotionally, that photograph will always have a preferred place – for better or for worse. I have to stress though; that I have no clue what the Perfect Portfolio looks like. The only dominating priority for me is content.

There is of course a difference in selecting a body of photographs to represent your work in a competition compared to choosing pictures for a story that will be published. But, in saying that, there are also some similarities. To choose the "best" or "strongest" pictures would sound like a no-brainer, but for me it is more complicated.

When I choose photographs, I select them for their natural place in the storytelling, much like I would if I would have written the story. To only choose pictures that are visually strong would be the equivalent of lining up a row of exclamation marks, one after the other. I try to always tell the story. I sometimes feel that the pictures that are deselected are just as important as those I choose.

In choosing the portfolio for this year POYi I worked along those thoughts. Among other choices, I totally cut a story from Afghanistan until there was only two singles left. I didn´t just kill my darlings, it was an emotional massacre!

Regarding the World Press Photo of the Year, when I got the call from Amsterdam they asked me how I felt winning this big award. I answered that I felt honored and happy on one level, but also sad on another. The event that day, the fact that two innocent children, carried by their fathers for burial, was heart wrenching. My thoughts of course also went to my own daughter and I cried for the tragedy that had struck the Hijazi family. I think crying is a part of the job and part of being a human being. I cannot separate the two. “

RJ SangostiRJ Sangosti was just awarded the premier prize of Photojournalist of the Year, Large Markets, at the NPPA’s Best of Photojournalism contest. Like many shooters, Sangosti started contemplating a life behind a camera as he poured through the pages of National Geographic magazine. He grew up in Gunnison, Colo. and earned a bachelor's degree in art at Colorado State University and worked for three years as a staff photographer at a community newspaper in Loveland, Colo. In 2005, Sangosti earned a full-time gig at the Denver Post and his inventive approach to whatever subject matter is thrown his way continues to enthrall readers and colleagues alike. 

 “Putting together a photographic portfolio can be a daunting experience. I try to slow it down by losing technology. Print out ruff copies of your work and pin them up on the wall. This way you can step back and look at the work all together---see how the pictures work with one another. Leave the work up for a while in a busy place. (I do it in the hallway of the photo department in the newsroom) 

It is amazing, without asking, how many people will voice opinion about the work as they walk past. Listen to what they have to say and use that information to help you along with the edit.  Lastly, bring in other photographers and photo editors to help finalize the portfolio.” 

Chip SomodevillaChip Somodevilla is no stranger to winning awards. He is a former Michigan Press Photographer of the Year and the recipient of multiple White House News Photographers Association awards. A twenty year veteran, he currently works for Getty Images in Washington DC. “The Last Campaign” a portfolio from his coverage of the 2012 Obama campaign won First Place in the 2012 Campaign Stories category of POYi. 

The single best piece of advice I can give a photographer who is assembling a portfolio or a picture story for contest is edit your work with as many people as you can before showing it to the world. You may like a particular photograph or you may like a certain sequence of images, or worse yet, you may have a strong emotional attachment to a certain image. But none of that matters and it’s not going to help you. What matters is what other people think of your work. Whether it’s a contest judge or an editor you are trying to impress. Seek out the opinions of people you respect and hopefully they will return that respect with honesty.

I showed my Obama campaign work to at least seven different people and each one gave me a different opinion and had something important to add to the conversation. I absorbed everything they said and when a kind of consensus and cohesion emerged then I worked to apply that to my edit. Ultimately, you have to make the final edit because it’s your name on the finished product. But you should always listen to how others interpret and receive the work.” 

Paul Hansen

RJ Sangosti

Chip Somodevilla

Part Three: Advice from Editors and Buyers