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A couple of weeks ago, a friend emailed me a link to a photographer’s portfolio and he wanted to know what I thought of this guy’s work.

I followed the link and in his portfolio he had different categories there (landscape, wedding, portraits, travel, etc.) so I clicked on portraits, and a large main image appeared alongside a grid with 20 smaller thumbnails. At the bottom of the page he also had a link to a 2nd, 3rd, and 4th page of his portrait images.

After spending a few minutes going through his portrait galleries, here’s what I thought:

On page 1 of his portrait gallery I thought, “Hey, this guy is really good.”
On page 2, I thought, “Well, I guess he’s pretty good”
By page 3, I thought, “Gees, some of these aren’t all that good.”
By page 4, I thought, “Man, this guy has some pretty lame stuff”

Now, before we go any further, here’s what I’d like to ask that photographer (with some likely answers):

Q. Which images wind up on the first page of your portfolio?
A. My best images—of course.

Q. So, if you take a new photo that’s better than any of the photos you currently have on your front page, what do you do?
A. I take the weakest photo from the 1st page and move it to the 2nd page.

Q. That makes sense. So, basically the images on 2nd page of your portfolio are the ones that aren’t quite good enough to be on the front page, or they’d still be on the front page, right?
A. Well, yeah I guess.

Q. So what’s on your third page?
A. Ummmmm.

Q. You’ve obviously taken much better photos than these back on the third page, or these would at least be on your 2nd page, right?

A. Uh, I suppose.

Q. OK, now what about the photos on your 4th page? I guess these weren’t as good as any of your previous 60 images, so this is basically the bottom of your barrel (so to speak)?
A. I really hadn’t thought of it that way.

Q. Why do you even have a fourth page? It’s a page where all your worst portfolio images are presented to the public?
A. I dunno.

Q. So take a step backward now; Why do you have a third page?
A. Hey, I like some of those images!

Q. Then why aren’t they on your second page? Aren’t they good enough to be on your 2nd page?
A. I guess not.

Q. So why do you have a second page at all? These are photos that you admit aren’t your best work. Why show your 2nd rate stuff at all?
A. I dunno.

Q. If you narrowed your portfolio down to just your 20 or 24 absolute all-time best images in each category, what would people think of you as a photographer?
A. [long pause]….I know, I know, but it’s really hard narrowing it down like that. Some of these photos mean a lot to me.

Q. Then maybe you should have someone else narrow it down for you, right?
A. I guess that would work.

Now, let’s jump back to before we started the Q&A. If he had only posted one page of portraits, I would have only seen his 20 very best photos, and then I would have based my opinion of his work solely on those and left his site thinking, “Man, this guy is great!!!!”

But instead, I also saw lots of his 2nd and 3rd rate shots, and even some of his so-so work, too, so instead I left thinking, “I dunno, I guess he’s OK. I mean, he does have some good images, but the majority (60 or so images of the 80) weren’t all that great.”

Changing Perceptions
I just went through this with a photographer friend of mine last year. He was shooting one style of photography, so he had 80 photos (4 pages full), and I told him the same story I’m telling you today. He said there was no way he could trim it down to just the first page of photos. He told me he just simply couldn’t do it.

But the next day, after thinking about what I said, he called me and asked if I would do it for him—would I narrow his portfolio down to just 20? I obliged, and I took a screen capture of each page, and put a big red “X” through each one I thought wasn’t his best work, leaving only the 20 best one–the ones that would wind up on his home page.

Naturally, almost all of the ones I chose were already on the 1st page (because like most folks—his best work was already there), though I did find a few gems on the 2nd page; one from the 3rd, and nothing from the 4th page.

He was really reluctant at first, and he tried to defend an image that I had cut here and there, but to his credit—he did it—he took it down to just 20. The next day, he called me to let me know that now, after the emotional trauma of making those tough cuts, he was really happy he did it.

A few weeks later he called to tell me that trimming down his portfolio turned out to be the best thing he had done for his photography in years. He was already getting not only more offers for work, but better quality jobs as well. He has thanked me (and I’m not exaggerating) at least 10 separate times since then, and now he’s the biggest proponent of “less is more” when it comes to your portfolio, and he’s a total evangelist for only showing your best work. Now he convinces others to do the same thing.

Do Some Research
Check out the online portfolios of the big name photographers whose work you admire. You may not love every single image in their portfolio, but you can be sure of one thing—there’s not a “stinker” in the bunch. They’re all “page 1” photos, because successful pros are experts at editing things down so they’re just showing their very best images. They limit the number of images so every one’s a winner. Every pro takes 2nd rate shots sometimes—-you just never see them because (come on everybody, say it with me), “They only show their best work.”

You can do the same thing, then sit back watch how this this changes people’s perception of you as a photographer, and how it impacts your business. You will be amazed.

Important Disclaimers:
(a)
I’m not saying you can’t have 80 photos in your portfolio if you shoot multiple styles. I’m saying don’t have 80 in a single category (like 80 wedding photos, then 80 portraits, then 80 travel photos, etc.). Nobody needs 240 photos in their portfolio. Also, if you just shoot one style of photography, then try just going with 20 or 24 photos of your very best stuff.

(b) Don’t post a comment pleading the case that all 80 images are your best work—that they’re all equal in quality, and that one isn’t better than another so you can’t narrow them down. You won’t find anyone that agrees with you (especially a potential client).

(c) If you use flickr as your portfolio, go back and look a few pages deep. Chances are a lot of these photos are your old work, since people tend to post to flickr in the order they took the shots. Also, chances are you are a lot better today, and are taking better shots, than you were a year ago, so get rid of those shots you took when you weren’t as good as your are today.

(d) If you’re one of these photographers that has multiple-pages of photos like this, please don’t post a comment telling us why you just have to have all of them there, or about the time you got a job because the image a client fell in love with a photo on your 4th page. The story you’ll never be able to tell is of how many jobs you didn’t get because a potential client left once they got to your third page.

(e) If you disagree with all this—no sweat. Just leave your 80+ photos as is. It won’t change my fortunes one bit (but it just might yours). ;-)