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How to Edit a Series of Portraits

Javier Sirvent is a photographer, photo editor and curator based in New York. His photographs and writings have been featured in publications such as TIME, TIME Lightbox, New York Magazine, among others. In the following interview, he gives his advice on editing photographs, sequencing a series of portraits and creating a portfolio. Learn how to build a strong portfolio and present it to professionals of the industry.

What are the first steps to consider for building a portfolio or a series of images?

The first step is to identify the purpose and who it’s going to be presented to. It might be for an editor you want to work with, a gallery or for meetings with potential clients. A portfolio can show an overview of the work you’ve done but should also reflect the kind of work you want to continue doing.

Ryan Eggold © Erik Tanner

How many images should usually be included in the sequence of a photography project and why?

I would say between 20 and 30 images in a portfolio are enough as a survey of your work. You want to show the strongest work only, and a clear point of view. 

What’s the best way to make the selection? Is it just about choosing the best images?

Definitely, the first step is to choose the strongest images and start working from there. Even if these are images from different projects, you will be able to reveal how individual your work is. The work is only as strong as the weakest images in a portfolio.

Does a series need to be narrative?

In portraiture it’s not a must but depends on the work. A lot of photographers use portraiture as a way to convey a story, either through the invention of characters, reference or simply using light, composition and color to build a narrative. Sequencing is crucial when building up a portfolio, either in a purely visual way or by telling a linear story.

Snail Mail © Erik Tanner

How should be the first and last pictures chosen?

The first and last should be some of the strongest images in the series. Start with an image that sets the mood and finish with an image that will stay with the viewer for a while. The first and last are important, but they should feel integrated through the series. A reviewer will always relate to the emotional aspect of a photograph, an expression, use of light and color.

Tell us about the easiest and most difficult series you had to edit with photographers.

I guess the easiest ones are portfolios with very consistent or unified work, a photographer using similar lighting and moods with a large number of subjects. There you can play with subtle mood changes and expression but it’s almost a display of a strong mindset and technique. The difficult ones are portfolios where stories are complex, images diverse and with complicated narratives and elements. There’s so many ways you can approach an edit like this. Usually the photographer has to have a clear intention building this series, and then you can play and move images around.

What about a series of portraits? What’s the best way to edit one?

The best way to start is identifying an opener and a closing image, then a couple strong ones to create impact in the middle of the series and fill it in, move images around and play. You would ideally avoid redundancies or repetition, and you going back and forth between tighter and wider shots and angles. It’s important to create a peak and then bring the mood down to close in a subtle way but again, it depends on the style of portraiture you are working with.

Josh Brolin © Erik Tanner

How should photographers prepare before showing their work to professionals of the photo industry?

Presentation is very important, how you project confidence in your work and awareness of the tools you use to communicate a message. I don’t think it should be a rigid and overly formal presentation but meeting in person is crucial to understanding someone’s work and ethics. The way someone speaks about their subjects and the ideas around their work is very important. Preparing consists on being ready for all kinds of questions.

What’s the best way for them to show a portfolio? In prints, in a book, on a tablet?

A print portfolio is best, but not everyone has the possibility of having a big beautiful print portfolio and keeping it updated. Anyone that values photography enjoys looking at prints. It’s not a strict must, the work speaks for itself after all.

© Erik Tanner

How should photographers react to the professional’s point of view?

With an open mind and a lot of acceptance of feedback and comments. Not everyone shares the same points of view about photography so you have to be aware of who you are, where you come from and what you are trying to say. Take the comments that can be useful for you. At the end, it’s your work and you have to trust yourself, if you try pleasing everyone you will end up taking your work nowhere. 

As an illustration of Javier Sirvent’s advice, here is a typical editing of a series of portraits by Erik Tanner. 

Cover photo of Jocelyne Beaudoin © Erik Tanner

Interview by Jonas Cuénin

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