“A portfolio should be designed to spark a conversation”

Curt Chandler brings more than 25 years of print and online newsroom experience to the classroom, where he teaches communications and multimedia. Before teaching at Penn State, Chandler was the Editor for Online Innovation and Director of Photography for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He also taught photojournalism at Duquesne University from 1998 to 2005.

Chandler has scoured countless portfolios as a founding faculty member of Penn State’s Keystone Multimedia Workshop and the University of Kentucky’s Picture Kentucky workshop. He talked to CV about what makes a portfolio shine.

CV: List some common mistakes you see young visual journalist make when creating a portfolio.

CC: The biggest mistake young journalists make is putting too much into the portfolio. The best thing to do is to set a high bar for quality and only show work that good, or better. I’d rather see fewer offerings, all done well, than lots of work that includes mediocre pieces. Including weaker work sets off all sorts of alarm bells: Does the journalist know good from bad work? Does the journalist understand hierarchy? A good example of this is coverage of celebrities. Would that picture/story/graphic/video be interesting if it was about a regular person? If not, don’t show it.

A portfolio should be designed to spark a conversation, not include everything the journalist has ever produced.

CV: What do you think are must-have elements in a great portfolio?

CC: A good portfolio should achieve four objectives:

  • It should demonstrate the type of work the journalist does best.
  • It should show the range of work the journalist can do. It should indicate the type of work the journalist wants to do in the future.
  • And, most importantly, it should have a signature element — a particularly well-produced story/image/video/graphic — that will stick in the mind of anyone who looks at the portfolio.

CV: What type of work should young visual journalists have in a portfolio?

CC: Visual editor Bob Lynn has the best way of describing the two types of work that should be in a portfolio. He divides it into one-point content and two-point content. In his view, one-point content is well-executed coverage of something that anyone would easily recognize as being a great story. An example would be the fireman carrying the bloodied infant from the wreckage of the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City after the structure (which included a day care center) was bombed. A dramatic image for sure. But this Pulitzer-winning photo wasn’t captured by a super-talented journalist, it was made by a bank teller. Bob defines two-point content as being excellent coverage that takes a less obvious situation, and reveals an interesting story or image that most other people would have missed. A good portfolio should have a mix of one-point and two-point content.

"It’s okay if an editor doesn’t like your portfolio. Sometimes that says a lot about the editor and the potential work environment. "

“It’s okay if an editor doesn’t like your portfolio. Sometimes that says a lot about the editor and the potential work environment. “

CV: If a young journalists produces work in photo, video, and mixed media, how much of their portfolio should they dedicate to each one?

CC: The portfolio should have the best example of each that the journalist has produced. After that, selections should be prioritized to achieve the four objectives described earlier, while maintaining a consistently high standard of quality.

CV: For students who don’t have a solid body of work, what do you suggest they put in a portfolio?

CC: Everyone has to start somewhere. Show the best work you have. Don’t make excuses. Listen to the criticism and act on it. I’ll let you in on a secret: it’s not a journalist’s first portfolio that makes an impression on a good editor. It’s the second portfolio that’s most memorable. That’s when an editor finds out how well the journalist listens to criticism, whether they act on it constructively, and whether the journalist is getting better or seems to be stalled. There’s no shame in showing a weak initial portfolio. Just do it. Then start working hard on the follow-up.

CV: What do you say to students who are unsure about creating an online portfolio?

CC: Don’t get bogged down trying to design something spectacular. Post work on a free wix.com or weebly.com site. Once you have an idea of how your portfolio site should work, then dive into WordPress or some other CMS and make a site that’s a little slicker. If you wait until everything is perfect, the site will never get launched and your competition will be getting the jobs you want.

CV: Any additional advice you would like to dispense?

CC: It’s okay if an editor doesn’t like your portfolio. Sometimes that says a lot about the editor and the potential work environment. I’ll give you an example. A standard portfolio for a visual journalist contains about 20 single images, an in-depth picture story and an example of video work. Some editors won’t look at a portfolio that doesn’t meet those requirements. Do you want to work for someone who is that rigid and formulaic? Probably not.

The best portfolio I ever saw when I was director of photography at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was sent to me by Tim Rasmussen, who is now the Assistant Managing Editor of Photography and Multimedia for the Denver Post. Tim wanted to work with us in Pittsburgh because we had earned a reputation for doing long-form picture stories, which is what he wanted to do. Tim’s portfolio had four single images- a stunning well-lit portrait, a tremendous peak action sports photo, a funny feature picture and a great news photo from a fire. That showed me that he knew what good singles should look like and he knew how to make them. The rest of Tim’s portfolio was three outstanding picture stories- exactly the type of work both of us were interested in producing in Pittsburgh. This portfolio would never fly with the rigid editor looking for a standard shooter. And Tim wouldn’t want to work for that kind of editor. His portfolio made him an instant finalist in Pittsburgh.

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