There are a few things I look at when I evaluate a portfolio on here. Top of the list are technical skill, consistency, and improvement because these are the backbone of actually being a profitable photographer in business.
I ask two questions normally, because everything else can be discovered by simply looking at the photos, do you charge and how long have you been shooting. The first is important because if you are charging, I will judge your portfolio at the same level I would evaluate any other professional. The second is used only to gauge growth and improvement, it tells me how fast you are learning, and that helps me to advise you on continuing. The reason I ask those two questions is for the reason your pointed out, I am looking to provide a professional review, not secure their services.
Technical skill is the first test to pass, this is not complicated to pass, if you demonstrate the ability to manipulate your camera without relying on Photoshop and post-processing to get a decent shot.
Consistency is the thing that causes me to label most photographers who come here for a review as fauxtogs. I believe that if you are going to offer your services for hire, your clients have a right to expect to get the level of product you present to them. Everyone can get a few good shots here or there. What I look for is whether or not each shoot in their portfolio is comparable in quality. We all have good days and bad days, but if you’re not consistent enough to produce high-quality work on your worst days, you’re not ready to charge for your work. Your clients should never be in a position where they are rolling the dice on whether they are going to get good quality work depending on how your day is going. I consider consistently average to be superior to good some days and bad on others.
Finally improvement. If I can look over a year of work and see that you are not growing and improving, something isn’t working as it should. Growth and improvement are a sign of passion for the art, when I don’t see it, I immediately suspect that the photographer is more concerned with the business than with the art or are more consumed with the prestige that comes from being seen as an artist, and either is a problem.
Twenty years ago, 9 out of 10 photographers failed within 3-5 years, and one would go on to have a successful business. In the last few years (largely due to the availability of less expensive digital cameras) the number of people starting a photography business has increased a hundred fold but the overall density of photographers who make it past that magical 5 year mark has not increased more than population growth would justify.
We must ask ourselves why this is. Almost every photographer that I have ever known to make it past the 5 year mark are technically proficient, consistent, and always growing. (Not riding the trends mind you, but actually improving as a photographer.) Look at it this way, if your technical proficiency is poor and you have to fix your photos, even if it takes you a mere 10 minutes per shot, on a one hour shoot with 30 picks, you’re looking at 5 hours of editing, totaling up to 6 hours of work for a shoot. A photographer who is proficient in their technical skills doesn’t need to edit their photos, and if they choose to, it takes a minute or two at most (artwork and retouching not withstanding).
Consistency is important because the further you get from your normal circle of acquaintances, clients become more and more focused on the product and less and less focused on the photographer. They hire you because they like your work, and if the work you produce does not live up to their expectations, you will end up with a host of problems. Consistency also affords a photographer the opportunity to increase their prices because their clients as you improve.
Improvement is the reason I so readily encourage photographers to get out of business and grow before they re-enter it. The formula for a successful business is:
10% talent + 60% skill + 10% hard work + 20% business savvy = profitability
The percentages represent the effectiveness of each ingredient. If you bring equal amounts of talent, skill, hard work, and savvy, you’ll be profitable, but if you lack skill, it takes 6 times as much talent or hard work to make up for the loss. This is why I stress taking the time to learn before going into business. If you devote your hard work to building skill instead of building your business, it is an investment that pays for itself and then some when you do get into business. Pik mentions that studying can suck the passion out of you, though I contend that if your passion is for photography and not praise it is impossible, being in business before you are ready will destroy your passion much faster, because without a high skill level, you’re working 6 times as hard to get the same outcome.
In short, being better than the work featured on the blog does not make you a pro. Producing work that is worth the client’s money does. To address the three you mentioned from a more practical and less philosophical point of view:
Malula has great potential, but her work lacks consistency and she is progressing at a snails pace if at all. (I suspect she knows this because she was careful to present not-for-hire images when she clearly charges most of the time.) She is talented, hard working, and has business savvy, but without the skill to back it up, I’d say the odds are 100 to 1 that the business will kill itself before they get to the point that they can support the business. I and others gave her the advice we did because we’ve been doing this a long time, and we have been around long enough to see a lot more in the images that just the images. Right now, she is struggling to be sure, and this is probably why she sought reassurance here, but her struggles are obvious in her photos for someone who has watched hundreds of photographers get crushed under the exact same circumstances. I’d estimate her current earning potential cap to be about $30,000 before expenses, which is essentially working for less than minimum wage. It would take her 15 years at her current progression to reach a skill level that would yield a living wage, but she would burn out long before she made it there. On the other hand, with two more years of hard study without the pressures of the business, she could easily triple her earning potential and be operating a profitable business within 4.
JVendetti’s work is, quite frankly, amazing for her level of experience. The problem I see in her work is mostly in the fact that she is wildly overconfident. I was extremely hard on her, admittedly, but I reacted that way because she was heading down a different bad road than Malula. She learned a little bit, and without understanding what she didn’t know, jumped into the deep end. I accept that the growth process is different for everyone. I’ve seen photographers become masters in 5 years and I’ve seen 20 year hobbyists who couldn’t shoot their way out of a paper bag. But it is impossible to go pro in less than a year, and in her case, she tried to do it the first day she picked up a camera. In 9 months of being in business, there hasn’t been any improvement at all, and at that rate, she will fail within the year. Again, the only way to prevent this is to stop, step back, and really put some time into learning. If she were to do that for 3 years, with as far as she has already progressed in so short a time, we’re looking at a photographer who could easily turn $250,000 per year.
MeganRay I believe is a lost cause. After gauging her reactions to critique, I judge that she has no concern for photography whatsoever. She wants to be an artist, has convinced herself she is one, and firmly believes that the best way to be an artist is to avoid learning anything about photography because it would “spoil” her.She’ll lose a few thousand dollars a year doing what she does and convince herself she’s made a profit.
I do not set the bar high because I’m an elitist or a snob, I set the bar high because there is a LOT of competition out there and photography is a very rough business to the point that even a skilled photographer can’t guarantee success. I hate to see potential wasted and so I work to push people to better things, usually through harsh honesty because they are getting more than enough encouragement from other places. If someone is gonna take the risk and go into business, I want to tell them how to stack the deck in their favor, and the best way to do that is to master the art. I am the first to admit that I am a very hard teacher, but I am much, much nicer than the completely unforgiving world of running your own business.
I will use your work as a final example to hopefully make my views a little clearer. Normally if I spotted a few images that look like yours littered in someone’s portfolio, I would label them a fauxtog. In your case, though, it is clear that you are not. When I look at your images, I do not get the impression that they look that way by accident. Rules broken by accident detract from an image, but you clearly know the rules and choose to break them because you desire a certain effect that adds to the image in each case. What’s more, you’ve defined a style for yourself and established a range within that style.