The last couple months I’ve been living and dying with my portfolio as I look through it over and over, change it up constantly and formulate game plans for future stories.

I’ve been thinking of what works and what doesn’t. What editors will want to see and what they couldn’t care less about. What will make me stand out and what will make me just another face in the crowd.

I’m still working on it, but I thought I’d share some of my tips and tricks.

Enter every contest there is
Whether you think you have a great collection of work or not, entering contests is a great way to think like a professional. And quite bluntly, if this is to much work for you, then you will never make it, because in this business no one is going to hand you a job. I have meet some great photographers and I’ve got a few of these people’s personal cell phone numbers to call at any time I choose, but that does not mean that The Mercury News, Michael Grecco, the AP or Golf Digest is going to hire me just because I happen to be a nice guy who they can have a conversation with. I need good solid work to even be considered, and one of the side effects of entering contests is that you start shooting for the contest and

Don’t be afraid to ask for help
You should have some like minded people in your circle of friends. Ask them to look at your stuff, listen to your ideas and generally help you sort things out. I often hit up my friends, mentors, teachers and even writers that I’ve met for advice and feedback on what I’m cooking up. If nothing else it gets me to think of stuff from another angle. Plus sometimes you need someone else to tell you that the picture that you love because it reminds you of a hard shoot or a that you had a great idea, is better forgotten.

Keep a best twelve wall
One thing that I’ve started doing that I find helps is keeping a wall of my best twelve in my room every month.

This serves three purposes:

  1. It forces me to re-examine my best work everyday and recognize where I need to improve.
  2. It helps me recognize when I’m shooting similar styles and challenge myself to experiment.
  3. I’ll always know what my best twelve pictures are at any moment for contests.

Why twelve? Aside from that it looks nice, if I framed those 4×3 squares I could sell them as art, most regional and national contest are limited to two dozen singles.

Devour greatness
When I was younger, while my friends were looking at Nintendo Power and the latest version of an import tuner magazine, I was reading National Geographic at the library and grocery store just for the pictures. I was subscribing to Sports Illustrated mostly for the Leading Off pictures (and the NBA coverage… oh and Rick Reilly’s column).

I was studying the great light painters of the Renaissance age. I turn to movies and study cinematography, and once flirted with the idea of pursing film editing. I’ve turned to music and music videos for editing tricks, storyboarding visual exercises (try closing your eyes and thinking of your video for a song next time you’re in a quite place) and innovative camera work (plus, I believe half of multimedia is the audio experience and this helps reinforce the education).

I cruise the net for inspiration and using tools like Popurls, RSS feeds, and I am able to find much to keep me saying, “Damn, I gotta try that!” Plus today I’m having an easier time keeping up thanks be being surrounded by like-minded folks (what, connect with like-minded folks? That sounds like a tip).

Keep a journal
Seriously try it, it works wonders. I’ve been keeping a sketchbook/idea book/journal since I was 15 and it’s done wonders to help me develop my style and projects (and it’s also resulted in waking up at 3 a.m. and jotting down many an incoherent note). I like the Moleskine because of it’s small size and sturdiness, but the guy inside of me who remembers what it was like growing up poor won’t actually let me write in one. Long story short, I have many blank Moleskines and many many more filled in cheepie notebooks.

And now, here’s some advice from people who actually know what they’re talking about

Jim McNay relayed the advice of Sports Illustrated editor Jimmy Colton and offers up:

“Less is more. Don’t feel like you have to send 20 because that’s the limit. says Colton.” Send as many good, strong, solid, speak-for-themselves pictures that you have….UP TO 20… Remember the portfolio and personal statement you send should be from your heart. They should reveal who you are.”

And the folks over at the San Jose Mercury News second that opinion. During a recent visit with Dai Sugano and Richard Koci Hernandez (who says SJSU and SFSU can’t be friends?) they loved referencing a story about the intern that got in on the strength of only five pictures (they misread it as five clips for writers as also meaning five clips for photogs). It’s uncommon, but the point is, if you edit down to the strongest work and don’t leave them anything to nitpick at, you’ll be a strong candidate.

My former instructor Dennis Dunleavy gets a little more analytical with the process and focuses on the whole package, not to mention he drops in his trademark three-I’s along the way:

“Although we tend to think of a resume in terms of words, we can also extend the idea to images in a portfolio as well. Your portfolio, in fact, is a visual resume. Every image that weakens a portfolio through poor technique, composition or ambiguous content sends a message to the viewer… The words and images that work in the resume or portfolio are those that shows not tell the viewer about your strengths, attributes and qualities. For me, the power of an image is in its ability to communicate universal human meaning with immediacy, intensity and intimacy.”

Lastly here is some advice that has deeply resonated with me. Sol Neelman of the Oregonian offered me this in a recent e-mail:

“I think putting together a portfolio is one of the greater challenges out there for a photographer. I’m lucky to have some talented friends help me… Don’t ever make excuses about your work when showing it to someone else. Hold your head high and realize that not everyone is going to get or like what you’re trying to say. But don’t let that stop you. When something strikes a cord of truth with you, embrace it.”