I have reviewed many portfolios, often looking for emerging talent. Each editor is different, these are my tips.
1. It’s not just about the photographs. It’s also about you. Editors are looking closely at how you carry yourself, how engaged you are, inquisitive, articulate, calm, etc. They’re trying to get a sense for how you might act in the field as a journalist and representative of the publication, and how you might conduct yourself with their colleagues (editors, designers, technicians, etc.). Your work shows if you have the skills, while your demeanor predicts how you will fit within the publication’s culture.
2. Know my publication. At a minimum, read the latest edition. It leaves a good impression if, when the moment feels right, you comment on a recent story you like. Or, you might be asked what you thought of a recent story. In that case, be honest! (Most editors have a high-minded self-view, so it doesn’t hurt if they get knocked from their perch.)
3. Show variety. If you are early in your career and editors don’t expect you to have a singular style. In fact they may prefer to see that you can be a jack-of-all trades. Never assume they are looking for only one specific type of photography—they might see something unexpected that they need.
4. Purge your weakest work. Your portfolio is defined by your best work, but it might be dismissed for the worst. Hence, you should constantly strive to replace the poorest images from your portfolio. Don’t have great portraits or landscape? Go out and shoot a ton until you get worthy replacements.
5. Your portfolio should be self-explanatory. Do not yack away explaining each image, unless you are asked to do so. If you have a photo story, add a title with a one sentence explainer. (This will also provide a window into how you handle captions, a vital aspect of all photojournalism.) Do not expect a busy editor to read a five paragraph overview with the lame title “Photo Story #1.” And never, ever make excuses for why something could have been better.
6. Keep your portfolio simple in design. Choose a background which visually recedes: if it is a Blurb-like book, keep everything on white; if it is on a screen, present on black. Avoid white or black bordered edges on your photos. Do not overlap your photos. For books, strive for one photo per page with finger room around each. For digital displays, maximize the size.
7. No gimmicks. Heavy Photoshop, de-saturation, HDR? Get out of journalism, go to art school. Don’t waste an editor’s time. Most want to see images that show the human condition, not what technique is the latest rage.
8. Do not expect an assignment. At National Geographic, I reviewed many folios knowing it might be years before a photographer distinguished themselves to the point of garnering an assignment. Your review is often just the first date of what could be a long relationship.
9. Be guided by the comments. An editor’s comments are usually in context of the specific needs of their publication. You might be a great photographer, but you also might not be the right photographer for their needs. If the review does not go well, do not see it as failure, see it as a helpful road sign leading to another publication where you are better suited and appreciated.
10. Exit gracefully. Always have a card to leave that has your contact information. Each editor is different, but if I was interested I would ask you to stay in touch. Do so by sending an occasional, brief(!) email or mailer that has a link to your latest work. Remind the editor where you met, since they most likely will not remember. Say “thank you” no matter how the review may have gone.