How Will a Portfolio Review Improve my Photography?

A Fool-Proof Guide to Portfolio Reviews

Photo: Nick Fewings

What is a Portfolio Review?

Portfolio Reviews are powerful learning experiences that will help you discover flaws in your work, positive paths that your work may be on, and reveal undiscovered theme possibilities. 

There are several portfolio review formats, but each of them involves having one or several qualified reviewers critically analyzing your work and providing creative feedback

The two most common formats for reviews are the festival review, such as the Houston PhotoFest, The Medium Review, and one on one reviews provided by academics or photographers who have achieved substantial professional status for their work.

The Festival Review

Festival reviews are large gatherings where you present your work to several reviewers over one to three days in a conference setting. When you enroll for one of these festival reviews, you will be provided with a list of reviewers beforehand, and you can choose those reviewers with backgrounds that seem to have an interest or experience with your genre.

Festival operators may be a not-for-profit photography organization or a for-profit conference provider. During the review conference, you can also attend valuable lectures and mini-workshops for enhanced learning experiences. The benefit of a Festival Review is that you can get 4-8 reviewers to examine your work in one place, usually in 30-minute blocks, and you will come away with a cross-section of valuable feedback that will stimulate your themes and future techniques. 

The downside to Festival Reviews is that they have significant admission fees, generally involve travel to a distant city (unless conducted on zoom), and you will need to invest in lodging.

The One-on-One Review

One-on-One Reviewers can be a professional photographer who has significant professional exhibit and publishing credits, an art teacher, gallery operator, or photography editor and other art academics. They charge a reasonable fee for their services— $50-150— and an excellent investment that will impact your creative life. 

Many of the leading photography magazines such as Lens Culture, Lens Work, Doho, and others offer one-on-one review opportunities throughout the year. They provide online submission guidelines and a portfolio to upload your images, artist’s statement, and bio. 

Compared to a Festival format, these reviews are inexpensive, and you only have contact with one reviewer and usually no reviewer choice. However, these reviews are completed by highly qualified members of the art photography community and provide positive criticism, direction and often include mentoring commentary. Many of these reviewers also take the time to provide you with relative links to influencers for your genre and further study directions for your work. 

Who Should Attend a Portfolio Review?

Anyone! At least, that’s the short answer. While professionals get the most out of having their work reviewed, hobbyists and amateur photographers can benefit greatly from receiving one. Professionals will appreciate finding ways to make their art more effective, while amateurs and hobbyists can use it as an opportunity to find their unique voice in the medium.

Preparing for a Review

You will want precise feedback on your work, so it’s essential to make a smaller image selection united by a theme. The exact number of photos you will be expected to provide will depend on the Festival or the individual reviewer, which they will list beforehand. 

Presenting a coherent body of work is critical. Do not present a mishmash of individual pictures. Generally speaking, a photographic theme is a narrative focusing on one subject which could include a photography technique like intentional camera movement, or it could be a subject theme like “Architecture of Paris.” Either way, you’ll want to make a concise selection of best photos instead of a set that you think needs improvement because having your best work critiqued will show you flaws you may not have been aware of, rather than work that you already know needs improvement. 

In the case of Festivals, you will receive precise instruction on how to bring prints, portfolio sizes, presentation practices, and additional materials such as artists’ statements, bios, and related materials. This is also true for one-on-reviews with directions for uploading and sharing a digital version of your work. 

What to Expect

In the case of a Festival Portfolio Review, the feedback is immediate. You will want to step away after the review and make notes about the review for later reference.  When completing online reviews, response times t can take anywhere from 2 weeks to 3 months for feedback. It’s important to remember that these reviewers are looking over hundreds of submissions and want to make sure they’re thorough with their criticism. So if you don’t hear back from them for a while, don’t worry! Your work is being appropriately reviewed, and the wait is worth it. 

One-on-One reviews will usually come back to you as a 1-2 page response with your submission pictures followed by the reviewer’s analysis. Reviewers will identify the compelling aspects of your work and break down the elements of your theme that aren’t being adequately presented. Almost all reviews will stress the importance of pushing the boundaries of your art and establishing your unique voice in the medium, and the more clearly you can express your work, the better the feedback you’ll receive.

What to Take Away

A portfolio review will not “solve” any problems with your photography. Still, it can make you aware of gaps in your techniques or your thought processes that can significantly improve how you approach both taking photos and organizing them thematically. For a relatively cheap fee, you can identify flaws in your process and become aware of potential avenues for exploration. 

Whether you are a professional or simply a photographer interested in improving your work as a whole, getting a portfolio review is an excellent way to enhance your creative life.  If you are looking for further information on photography portfolio reviews, these links are an excellent place to start:

  • Palm Springs Photo Festival – One of the largest and most comprehensive portfolio review programs for professional and emerging professional photographers in the United States
  • LensCulture – A fine-tuned approach to presenting your work to galleries, curators, collectors, and the overall marketplace.
  • Lenscratch – A list of festivals and events from around the world that offer portfolio reviews. (note that some links are outdated but a majority of the programs listed are still ongoing) 
  • World Photography Organisation – Free twenty minute online portfolio reviews, but very limited availability.
  • Magnum Photos – One hour long, one on one consultations regarding your portfolio review.

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