Ask Anything – How Do Assistants Take It To The Next Level

- - Ask Anything

Former Art Buyers and current photography consultants Amanda Sosa Stone and Suzanne Sease have agreed to take anonymous questions from photographers and not only give their expert advice but put it out to a wide range of photographers, reps and art buyers to gather a variety of opinions. The goal with this column is to solicit honest questions and answers through anonymity.

QUESTION:

I have been assisting fashion photographers in NYC for about 5 years now and feel more than ready to move on to the next phase of the game. I have tried to put together a print portfolio in the past an always end up getting frustrated and scraping it halfway through. What do editors want to see? If I put in complete series, the book becomes way to thick. When I try to edit down each series it feel scattered to me and doesn’t make sense. Should a portfolio show the range of a photographer or a consistent vision? How many pages are too many? Does showing commissioned work matter more than personal? Is a homemade portfolio out of the question?

I shoot all the time and know the work is good but I just can’t seem to grasp the next step…

Amanda and Suzanne: We are excited about this question, because it’s been an ongoing question for decades and I think it’s crucial to have an open mind and know that each individual has to create their own visual voice and take the advice of potential buyers and mold it to represent your vision.

ANSWERS:

ART PRODUCER #1 This is a tough one to answer as general response. I think it’s a little different for everyone. For sure have someone else take a look at what is included. A photographer is always more attached to the work than anyone and everything holds meaning. Someone outside of that should take a look to make sure that everything included has relevance. Though I will say, usually less is more. Most art producers or editors just don’t have the time to sift through large books of work and if too much is included, may skim over some great pieces instead of really looking at the detail. Specifically show the type of work that relates to the type of assignments in which you are wanting to get. A homemade portfolio (for me) is not out of the question and can give me some insight into your creativity, just make sure that it doesn’t look thrown together and still reflects your overall brand. I also like to see a little bit of personal work. It tells me a little about you as a person and what it may be like working with you. As well, it shows me what you’re passionate about and what you like to shoot. But for sure focus on commissioned work.

ART PRODUCER #2 There is no magic number of pieces to show, nor is there a magic formula for what to show. The answer is: Show enough work to prove to the viewer that you are capable of handling a particular project. In some cases, it may mean showing 20 pieces. In others, only a handful.

This will vary not only by the body of work the photographer has in their repertoire, but by the scope of the project and by the type of client. Clients working at a local level may expect a more broad body of work than a national client, which is usually pinpoint specific in what they are looking for.

ART PRODUCER # 3 Being on both sides of the portfolio gives me a unique perspective on this. The most important thing is to show a cohesive style with aesthetic and technical repeatability. My first portfolios where scattered in terms of style and technical approaches. This was a direct result of being a freelance assistant working with a wide range of fashion photographers. Once instructed to keep things simple, I got back to my roots of graphic design and complied a book of 10-15 portraits all done in the same style and utilizing a very simple lighting scheme. It worked and got me noticed. The next step was to build on that style, introduce new subject matter, but keeping things cohesive and simple, putting the attention on what I wanted viewers to see.

Once you have a large, strong body of cohesive work, you can begin to tailor the portfolio on a case by case basis. I’ve asked photographers to show me that they’ve shot the type of product my client needs advertised. My clients are literal people.

PROFESSIONAL PHOTOGRAPHER: When putting together a portfolio, I try to convey a personal vision, not the best images in my library. I view my personal vision as a fingerprint and its the only thing I can offer that I’m 100% sure I’m the best at. If you try to put work in your book you think an art buyer wants to see, it will automatically become lost in the flood of similar images.

To Summarize: The viewer has a specific need to fill. You might be able to fill that need or not, but you should not focus on what you THINK they want to see, but show them what makes you, YOU. Stated perfectly: “personal vision as a fingerprint” – use your portfolio to make a mark on that person and their visual memory. You want to be brain googled, meaning you are the first to pop up in your potential client’s mind for a specific project…the real goal of a printed portfolio.

As a side note – when showing commissioned work that does not always mean you have to show the tears, it means show the work you captured for that specific project (this usually helps clients understand your production value and how well you take art direction).

Call To Action: Research Print portfolio options and get one printed:

Some examples to consider:
Paper options:
(consider using double sided paper – http://www.moabpaper.com/entrada.aspx – which you can purchase directly from http://www.lost-luggage.com/store/paper.php – which is pre-scored) or from http://www.rexart.com/case_envy.html
Printer to consider: Lincoln Miller at pushdot studio www.pushdotstudio.com
Portfolios: www.lost-luggage.com
http://www.plasticsandwich.co.uk/

Custom book binders:
Brooke – fantastic Book binder: http://dwellerbythestream.wordpress.com
Nicole Andersen – www.nabookarts.com
Scott Mullenberg – www.mullenbergdesigns.com

Also there are perfect bound book options out there…
blurb.com
aandi.com

If you want more insight from Amanda and Suzanne you can contact them directly (here and here) or tune in once a week or so for more of “Ask Anything.” Amanda and Suzanne review your comments for 2 days, and then they are off researching next week’s question.

There Are 27 Comments On This Article.

  1. I’ve never done the assisting thing but just recently redid my print portfolio as I too was wanting to take things to the next level. After struggling with image selection, I decided that professional help was the best solution for me. Hiring a consultant (Suzanne Sease) helped take the emotion out of the image selection and offered a different perspective I couldn’t have got on my own. I cannot say enough good things about the process. She did an incredible job of helping me build a memorable portfolio that effectively conveys MY style/vision. I’ve barely had a chance to share it and the results have already been amazing. I’m much more confident and clients are taking notice. I also highly recommend Scott Mullenberg and Lincoln Miller. Both are outstanding at what they do.

  2. Are Blub books as portfolios acceptable? I had a couple made last year to take around to some agencies and the times when I was actually able to get face time, a positive comment was usually given regarding the book itself. But for some reason I feel like portfolio blurb book isn’t going to be taken seriously. But at $85 per portfolio, it’s hard not to want to make another one.

    • Amanda & Suzanne

      @narayan, The number thing to look at is how a book makes you feel. If you don’t feel confident in that as an option, than it will show. We think a blurb book is a great option when a budget is limited. If we had our choice and no limitations we will always vote for the BIG ENCHILADA and go for the custom screw-post portfolio. But we have many clients who have made Blurb books and have had lots of success with it. We also have clients who use a traditional portfolio and then they use an iPad or a Blurb book to show the most recent work (since reprinting a book can be very expensive).

  3. This may be getting off topic, but I’ll blame Narayan!

    I need to update my book. It’s been a long time and there are options now that were not available, or that good, before. I’m torn between an on-demand printed book (Blurb etc.) and a portfolio of real laser prints.

    What’s the preference these days? There’s a big price difference between the two.

    • Amanda & Suzanne

      @Andrew Ptak, What is your REAL budget? Are you going to take it out and show people or let it sit on your shelf and wait to get called in (which doesn’t happen often anymore). Be honest with yourself and figure out what type of time and money you have to invest in it and then ask how much energy will you invest in the book once it is in your hands.

      • @Amanda & Suzanne, Thanks for the reply. I’m not trying to cheap out on this – really.

        I would have never thought of an on-demand printed book, but I’ve seen some really nice ones and they have design and layout options not available with a traditional book of prints. Hence my question.

        There’s no reason to pay an arm and a leg for a book if you don’t have to and I could get four or five “Blurb type” books for the cost of a traditional portfolio of prints – and the books could be out to more places then.

        I’m an old guy, but frankly I’m a bit stunned that people still want to see printed material, even when there’s a good chance the work will be used electronically. However, my opinion doesn’t matter. I’d just like to know if there’s a preference these days. Thanks.

        • @Andrew Ptak, We would offer out the following information: The beautiful printed portfolio can be a show stopper but you need to get it out there to make it worth your time and money.In a presentation to a client, a printed portfolio is needed. If you can’t get one printed in time, make sure you have a PDF of your portfolio (Agency Access offers to their members a PDF portfolio for a great fee). The iPad is making an impact on viewers and it can be considered less than printing a book. So while books are not being called in as much, you should be prepared in case it is.

  4. I, like Mike, have recently worked with Suzanne on a portfolio edit as well as complete re-branding and marketing campaign.

    I can tell you that a lot of times we photographers get VERY attached to images which in their own right, might be great photos, but for the AB or potential client, they may not send the right message. I learned very quickly how a cohesive portfolio is put together, that it needs a “story” of sorts and and needs to show a consistent vision and style.

    Sometimes it’s that outside eye that can see the mile high view when you’re stuck at ground level and very much “in the mess” as I called it.

    After working through this recent port edit, I feel much more in tune with how to group, divide and present the images. As I shoot new images, I will be able to update, refresh and replace in each port with confidence now knowing that I’ve got a solid framework to work with :)

    Cheers,
    Rick

    • @Rick Lohre, Thanks for your lovely comments. And with Mike working with talented photographers does make the process and journey a pleasure!!! Here is to the future for you and Julie!!!

  5. I worked with Leslie Burns and cannot imagine trying to build a portfolio without some sort of external help. In hindsight that is. Sometimes you kinda know what your style is in your subconscious but you need to make sure others are receiving that vision the way you are putting it out. Leslie gave me some really great things to think about that I hadn’t considered before.

  6. I enjoyed this post as we’re finishing up our custom portfolios. We worked with Amanda and Brooke (Dweller By The Stream) and can’t imagine getting through this process without both of their expertise.

  7. I’m in the process of putting my first book together. I’m using fashion as a vehicle. I’ve gotten so much great advise, from Art Dept and you guys, but I still don’t know what to do with my book. I have some good clues, and I’m going to follow those, but I think it would be nice to know who fashion photographers are supposed to meet. Where are these mythical art buyers/producers ? Haha

  8. I recently made the transition from assistant to photographer and I can’t stress enough how important it was for me to get outside help with the editing of my book. I was emotionally attached to certain images that weren’t necessarily going to make my work stronger. It’s not an easy thing to wrap your head around as everything is subjective. By hiring someone to edit for me I was able to distance myself from my work and I felt like I had one more person on my team. This has resulted in a greater amount of confidence while shopping my work around.

  9. I have used Lost Luggage and A & I for books to show my personal work in the past, both are great options and with just a handful to maybe 20 prints the A& I option is not that expensive.

    Lots of great advice on the book and resources out there affordable if you don’t have a big budget. And you can make it very personal, with the needed help of others.

  10. Good post! I agree with some other comments about editing your own work and finding YOUR style…not just what you think the editor/buyer wants. Amanda helped me narrow down my site from multiple categories to just a couple and from about 200 images to 30 or so. Funny how much sense it made after she did it…but without the help, it was just a mess that I couldn’t seem to sift through.

  11. This has been helpful. However, once you get that book, and a pimped out website, and a general marketing plan: what does one do without a rep? Most of “us” (assistants) don’t really know what “next” is. We (generally) work with people who have multi-year relationships in place or reps whom we aren’t ready for. How can we REALLY step it up? and who are we stepping to?

  12. I won’t lie, I heard most of what was mentioned in this post many times and somehow I still do not get it. Being a photographer specialized in Editorial and Music related portraiture (and live music!), I feel my book will only reflect part of who I am. Cause at the end of the day, it’s not the only thing I do.

    How does one show the full spectrum of one’s skills while still keeping this cohesion you guys mention, this body of work?

    I often assist a few very talented photographers, and I tried more than once to have them look at my portfolio to give me leads on what I should do. But more often than not I get a “I don’t know, there is no rule”. So is there?

    And if I was to get professional help (I’m in the uk), how would I go about finding the right person for me?

    Thanks for the blog, it’s a goldmine of information!
    Cheers,

    Romain

  13. Hi Suzanne, Hi Amanda,

    Thanks for writing to this question. It something that gets asked of my frequently, and something that as you have pointed out, is very difficult to generalize. It is an incredibly difficult transition for people to make, and I feel for all the assistants out there who struggle with this.

    This is what I tell people:

    -You need a consistent vision, it must be cohesive.
    -This vision needs to be carried out in a competent way so that buyers are assured that you can repeat it on demand.
    -Your vision needs to be relevant. If you are really into some obscure niche, like underwater caves or something, that is great, but not so relevant.
    -Your vision needs to be honest. If people think you are faking it, or that it does not come from your heart, it won’t be believed. The ADs want your heart and soul into their job, and if you are not fully committed to your vision, there is someone else out there who is.

    Personally, I never book a big job without my printed portfolio being called in. I wish that was not the case, as they are a real pain to make, but that is the reality.

    The order of the book, and the selection of the images is something I work on with my agent. I agree with what everyone has said on this point, it is essential to get someone else to help in the editing. Hopefully that person is very smart and is informed about what is happening in the market.

    This is what I do for a portfolio:

    The portfolio is about 100-120 images, printed double sided on Inkpress Duo 300GSM 11×17. I use an Epson 4800 printer on 8 pass. The prints are then trimmed, 3 hole punched and sprayed with a fixative. The binders to the books are made by Richard at Portfolio Creative Design. I have 4 of them, down from 60 10 years ago. Thank god for that. We redo the books about twice a year, and it completely consumes my studio for 2 weeks each time I do it.

    I hope this is helpful,

    Best wishes,

    David

      • @Jonathan Waiter, Hi Jonathan, How are you? I just went to your site. Wow, fantastic work! Love what you are doing. Briliant. What are you looking at these days? What are your influences?
        d

        • @David Harry Stewart,
          Thank you David:)
          Honestly, I look at everything, but I don’t really feel influenced by much. I’m much more inwardly focused. I look at allot of stuff, but much of what I do is a reaction to what I don’t like. For example, I am very critical of truths portrayed in photography. Photography has the pretension of saying: look, this was reality. This is, of course, is extremely false and unreliable. So in my work, I am always sort of playing with that, –but in my own way. And darkness is like a super cliche thing these days. The references are ridiculous and almost comedy now. I think we’ve become totally desensitized by movies and media. It now takes a very sophisticated vision to see what is now relatively dark. I’ve always felt specially tuned to emotional aesthetics and darkness has always fascinated me more than lightness. So thats the basics ;)

          I’m doing ok, building books for new faces, but I need to find the mythical art producers. I’m just now putting together my first book. I don’t really know what to do with it. Who to talk to ect…