6 Ways to Improve your Photography Portfolio: The Goldilocks Principle


I call it the Goldilocks Principle in editing. Of course, you remember the story of Goldilocks. The little girl who stumbled into a cabin with three bowls of porridge and three beds. One bowl of porridge was too hot, one too cold and one was just right. In the same way, one bed was too hard, one too soft, but one was just right. Apparently, Goldilocks was a ruthless editor. She didn’t settle for anything but what she wanted. She didn’t settle for anything – she knew what she wanted. If Goldilocks were a photographer, she would have a killer portfolio.

Over this past week or so I have been working with a photographic mentee/student. The biggest issue out of the gate has been she has way too many photos in her portfolio. Many of which are not up to the standard of what she is capable of. I get it. Being ruthless to one of your children is hard. As photographers, we have to be disciplined and practice tough love on our portfolio. We want to allow viewers to leave wanting more. Here are six principles (questions) to help you do just that.

1. Is the image technically correct?


By “technically correct” I mean is it exposed correctly; is the subject, whatever that might be, in focus or is it soft? Did you push the ISO too far is it grainy?

I love intentionally blurry images. But if an image is blurry because of carelessness then, most of the time it needs to be tossed (there is that happy accident). Soft images are not artistic, they are…well, soft. If a photo is not your best work then it doesn’t need to be in your portfolio. As far as a soft image in your portfolio is concerned, there is one exception, and this brings us to the second point.

2. Does the image show emotion?


Emotion is a powerful force and can cover a multitude of technical sins.

There is a passage in the Bible that says, “…love covers a multitude of sins.” (1 Peter 4:8). In this case, we can broaden the emotion of love to almost any type of visible emotion; anger, sadness, laughter, really any emotion that can appear on a subject’s face can cover or shall we say, override many technical errors. We see this in photojournalism all the time. An image with powerful emotion trumps a technically flawless one without emotion. Some people might argue that John Filo’s Pulitzer Prize–winning photograph of Mary Ann Vecchio, a 14-year-old runaway, kneeling over the body of Jeffrey Miller during the Kent State shootings was technically flawed. In the original photo, we see a pole that appears to be sticking up through Vecchio’s head. But the image is so profound and so full of emotion that this isn’t important. Emotion in a picture trumps almost any other compositional or technical aspect.

So all this to say, does your photo have emotion? If it does, then there is a good chance it’s a keeper.

3. Is the subject the subject?


Don’t be afraid to move in close to your subject.

Do your photos have clear subjects? Ok, so you have a photo of a village. Why? What’s in it? Is there a person that important? Maybe a building that is unique? Is there an unusual pattern or shadow at play? The viewer’s eyes need to be drawn to something. If we can’t see it pretty quick, then it’s pointless. It just isn’t interesting.

I often see images by students that are shot wide. I love shooting with a wide angle lens, but you have to make sure that in a wide image there is a clear subject for the viewer to focus on. When shooting a wide or ultra wide lens, think about putting the subject off-center, nearer the edge of the frame, this might add a slight amount of distortion, but this could help the subject be more dominant within the frame.

Always remember the famous quote by war photographer, Robert Capa “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”

4. Is the image uniquely mine?


Look at your image and ask yourself, “Is this my image or am I trying to channel Steve McCurry?” It is ok to be influenced by other photographers or artist, but don’t try to be them. We already have a Steve McCurry or an Amy Vitale. What we need is a [insert your name here] image. If there is one thing I see the most on my workshops is participants trying to be Steve McCurry. Find your style. I have had many people tell me that they can always tell a Matt Brandon image. I am not sure that is entirely true, but it does tell me that I have created a unique style of my own and this is just what you want to achieve. How do you do this?

Honestly, it happens over time. You take influences from those significant photographers and you borrow a little of this and a bit of that. Everyone is influenced by a mentor. That’s kind of the point on a mentor. I doubt anyone’s style is 100% their own, certainly not from the start. But over time you mold it to what you like and who you are and it becomes your photography, your style.


5. Does the images have context?


This photo is rich with context. A Hindu priest leaves a temple that is adorned with the Indian imagery.

I like my images to tell a story and a good story needs context. Imagine I am telling you a story, but all I did was describe how the main character looked. I don’t say what country the story takes place. I don’t say anything about the weather or if the location is crowded or not (not to mention develop a plot). All I do is describe the person. That is no story. If all you ever make is tight portraits, then your portfolio is going show you are a portrait photographer. Maybe that’s all you want. But if you want to keep people’s interest, mix things up. Shoot wide, medium and close-up and include context. Mix up your lenses. I shoot primarily with a wide-angle, 10-24mm (16-35mm full frame). Why? It includes context.

Many, many years ago, (1985?) I had a National Geographic photographer do a short portfolio review for me. I had two images of two different little Nepali girls. Each image was a tight head and shoulders crop of a shirtless child in black and white. I thought they were stunning. His comment was, “I have no clue as to where this photo was taken; New York? In a studio? India? You need to pull out and give me context!” He was right. If you are taking “travel” imagery, then allow the viewer to travel through the image. Travel images need to transport people to the location of the photo. We do this through context.

Context can be communicated through anything from clothing like a turban or a ratty t-shirt to writing on a wall, or a statue. These give contextual clues to the location, timing, and environment of the photo.

6. Was the image premeditated?



What do I mean by that? So many photos I see in carelessly or quickly edited portfolios are images that were taken on the fly. Photo walks can be fun but in my opinion, rarely provide the photographer with images that are well thought through and executed. I can almost always pick out a photo that was “snapped” on the fly. These images feel like a stolen moment and often convey a sense of voyeurism. Your images need to be premeditated, thought through and executed. What angle will communicate the best context? Do I want the subject camera aware or not? What you leave out of the frame is just as important as what you put in, and if you are grabbing an image on the fly, then you are, in the words of Ansel Adams, not making a photograph, you are taking it.

In the image above I saw the yak butter lamps and the light and I knew I wanted to photograph them. But the lamps by themselves were not very interesting, at least not to me. I knew it needed more to make a story. So I waited for the human element; people lighting the lamps. I shot the photo with one hand lighting the candles. It was, OK. But, then another person entered the frame and added symmetry. This was the shot.

There are more points I can add to this list, but if you will just concentrate on these six points and not be satisfied with cold porridge and hard beds, you will have upped the quality of your portfolio several times over. Go be Goldilocks!

The Last Roll of Kodachrome


If you’re a photographer and haven’t heard about Steve McCurry shooting the last roll of Kodachrome then you’ve been living under a rock or working too hard and need to get out more. McCurry apparently asked Kodak for the last roll of Kodachrome so he could be the one to shoot it. Just that act alone has got to tell you something about Steve McCurry. Continue reading

Just whose images is this?

This little girl’s photo is mine not Steve McCurry’s.


Every once in a while it’s always a good idea to Google your name. It’s a good way to find out what people are saying about you and to check out any links people might have made to your website. So a few days ago I Googled “Matt Brandon”. Of course many of my photos came up. For fun I tried out Google’s image search function. It is simple to use. Take any image under the image tab of the Google search you just performed and drag it to the search bar. It will then search for that image within the Google database. It’s quite amazing and I find it much more accurate than Tin Eye. When the image above appeared I drug it to the search bar and found four pages of results. I was a little surprised to see so many pages. I have not used the image that much on the Internet. Of course there was several links to my blog and to other blogs that have interviewed me. I expected these. Then I saw a couple of results with Steve McCurry’s name under them. I found this to be odd. After clicking a few of the links I realized some bloggers have somehow confused my image of the little Gujjar girl with a Steve McCurry image. In fact there were no less than nine websites that listed this image as belonging to Steve McCurry. Honestly, I don’t know whether to be flattered or furious.

There’s not a photographer on earth who takes the kind of images that I do that would not be flattered to have one of their images mistaken as a Steve McCurry shot. Steve McCurry set the bar for travel and cultural photography years ago. Interestingly enough I find it rather amusing that one of my images could be confused with one of his. McCurry has a definite style. Often, though not always, he photographs children from slightly above and usually with a very shallow depth of field. Very few if any of his images of children are smiling . They all seem to have a very somber look on there face. This is almost the complete opposite of this image. To be fair, I’m sure McCurry takes many other photos of children that are smiling and are not shot from above. But, this image is different enough that would make me wonder how people would view it unquestionably as a Steve McCurry image.

My Gujjar girl is in good company.


So, how did this confusion begin? I think a clue is that most, though not all, of these websites are either Spanish or Italian. So, the bloggers may not speak or read English. I have a feeling that they simply did a search for Steve McCurry as I did Matt Brandon and found several images and assumed they were his. Then just pulled a copy off the site and used it in their blog post on McCurry. Why would my image be listed in a Steve McCurry search? I can only assume it has to do with an old post I did back in 2008 called, “Steve McCurry Sharp“. In this post I comment about how I viewed several McCurry images at a gallery and how they seemed “soft”.  I used this to point out that just because a digital image is soft it should not be tossed out if it conveys emotion. Here is the catch, I used the same photo that is showing up in the searches as my example of a super sharp image. Could this be the reason? Whatever the reason – it brings up two points I want to touch on briefly.

The first one is, bloggers need to be more careful when blogging. Come on! How hard is it to check your facts? Not only does this image not appear anywhere on McCurry’s own website it’s file name has my name on it. Doesn’t it strike you odd that though it is a good photo it is stylistically very different from the rest of McCurry’s work? Spend more than a few seconds gathering your information and really do some research.

The second thing is a lesson learned. Where it is true the file had my name on it, it did not have my full name on it. Recently I have started a new naming convention. My file names now read “matt_brandon_place_year.month.day.jpg” Here is an example: “matt_brandon_kashmir_2004.05.31.jpg” One thing I did do right was I embed my image with my name and other copyright information. Interestingly enough every photo of mine used on each of these blogs about Steve McCurry had my name embedded in them identifying me as the photographer. I always embed my name and copyright information in every photo. This is never a guarantee that it will remain in the photo. But it might, as with these photos, at least help.

In closing, after I sent an email to one of these websites asking them to remove the photo, they responded with:

Hello Matt! First of all I ask you apologize for the error. Second: If we made this error means you are a good photographer. Do you have a website or can you send us some of your best shots and information about you. We are happy to introduce you in our 5election magazine. Thanking you in advance and sorry again for our error.

Wishing you all the best regards from Italy,

Florian ( www.5election.com )


Editors Note: I just received a Facebook message from Kristian Bertel he writes, “Hi again Matt, I noticed in your blog post that you use file naming with an underscore. Google robots as far as I know do not see underscore _ as a space so it is best with matt-brandon-tokyo-japan.” Great pieces of information that effects this post. Please make not of this and Thanks Kristian!


When spending money gets out of focus

f/1.8, with Canons $100 50mm II, on a Canon EOS 5D

Last month I led two Introduction to Photography courses and one of the things I saw repeated in each course  is that the beginners don’t want a lot. They are not asking to be the next Ansel Adams or Steve McCurry. But the one thing almost all of them do want is a simple portrait of their kids or friends with a nice milky background. What we more experienced shooters call, a sweet bokeh1 Every photographer loves that soft, blurry background behind their subject. We all love it. We all love the way a shallow depth of field drops off and isolates the subject. It often creates negative space around the subject that is so soft and dreamy, our subject just pops out of the frame.

Well, I got good news and I got bad news.

First the bad news. You are going to have to face it. It’s really hard to get any kind of soft bokeh using a lens that has its widest opening at f/3.5. The math just doesn’t add up. It ain’t going to happen. These lenses are cheap introduction lenses and are not what we call “fast”. Fast means they have a wide aperture that lets a lot of light into the camera. It’s this wide aperture that gives you that bokeh you want. I am sorry to be the bearer of such bad news. Most people at the beginning stages of their photography are using standard kit lenses like an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6. These lenses are designed as starter lenses and as such, are cheap and very limited. Here’s a not-so-great workaround to your problem. Pull your subject away from the background quite a bit, then you and your camera get closer to your subject. This will make the depth of field drop off…some. But it will never give you the bokeh that a f/1.2 or f/1.4 lens will give you. OK, that’s the bad news.

Here is the good news. You can get close to what you want for just a little extra money. You don’t need to spend $1,300 on a 50mm f/1.2 lens. You can spend $100 on a 50mm f/1.8 lens and be just as almost as happy. Here’s how it works. Canon and Nikon both have a 50mm f/1.8 lens that is cheap! Here is the Canon version and here is the Nikon. Both of these lenses are around $100 and both have a fast, wide open aperture at f/1.8. These lenses give you a lot of light and a very dreamy bokeh that folks with the kit lenses aren’t able to achieve. It’s a lot of bang for the buck, so to speak. More good news; there are other options. Both Canon and Nikon make 50 f/1.4 lenses and they run only $350 to $400. This is also really good value and the bokeh is way better than the f/1.8 lenses. $300 better? Yes, no question. The last option is both Canon and Nikon offer a sweet 85mm f/1.8. I loved this lens when I had it. Many of you know, it seemed to never leave my camera. These are fast lenses but they give you a bit of telephoto and for around $400, it’s another killer deal that will amp up your creativity.

But eventually it comes down to your budget. Most people that are replacing a kit lens don’t want to spend $300+ on a prime lens2

So when you are making that last minute Christmas wish list, think about your images and what will take them to the next level. It just might be you need to add a little bokeh to your list.

  1. Bokeh, is a very confusing word to pronounce as it is derived from the Japanese word boke, that can means to lose color, fade and also to be dull or even dull witted. The current spelling with an “h” added to the end of the word was introduced in 1997 in Photo Techniques magazine by editor Mike Johnson. Johnson says bokeh “is properly pronounced with bo as in bone and ke as in Kenneth, with equal stress on either syllable”. For more on Bokeh check out his article HERE.
  2. A prime lens is a lens with a fixed focal length, meaning that it does not zoom in or out. So a 50mm prime will only shoot at a 50mm focal length, the same with the 85mm prime etc..

Good to Great

There are people in this world that spend their entire life trying to get better at something they’re plainly mediocre at or even things they’re bad at doing. In fact, society has built institutions around the concept of “be better at what you are bad at; work on your weaknesses”. Haven’t we have all heard this sermon before?

I am here to say, baloney!

I used to live this way. I remember growing up and hearing voices, teachers, and other significant people in my life telling me to focus on my weaknesses and become a well-rounded person. What I’m advocating now is not a sweeping concept that applies across the board. Certainly there are areas we need to work on in our lives. For instance, when it comes to personality and disposition, I think we all need to work on our weak areas and become better people. If you are a bad father or mother, then you need to work at being a better one. My point is that when it comes to talent and shall we say “gifts” and in this case photography, I think we need to look at things in a different way.

The good Lord has numbered my days here on this earth and I don’t have the time to spend working on areas of weakness. Sounds bizarre I know, almost heretical. I truly believe my time is better spent on focusing on my strengths. That’s not to say I cannot learn something new, but at some point I need to decide if that new thing is worth pursuing or should be put aside. I want to be truly great at a few things. I have no desire to be mediocre at many–a “jack of all trades, but a master of none.”

In a world full of “not quite” and “almost”, there is a cry of “No! We want more than that”–a demand for people who stand out and who excel. People and organizations that spend a lot of money on an idea or project, call out for those who are the best. I want to answer that call. In the short time I have on this earth, I want to spend it bringing my really good up to really great and my really great up to awesome.

The world only needs one Steve McCurry or David duChemin. Be the best you can be at being you and in whatever you can excel. Be great at expressing your vision and your voice.

It’s hard enough for me to just be really great at being me. I know I’ll never be a great writer and I wouldn’t want to become one at the expense of being a really great photographer. Recently I started to build in support for my writing by hiring a proofreader and editor. I know my limits. I know what I am good at and that’s where I want to put my efforts. To borrow a phrase, I want to spend my time going from good to great!

A Photographic Workout

Ladakh, India

Ladakh, India


So, you want to get better at taking photos. Ok, great. Are you ready to work at it? I often get this comment either in the form of a question or a declarative statement. It reminds me of my own declarative statement that I keep coming back to: “I need to lose weight.” In many ways both of these problems and their solutions are similar. Continue reading

Guest Post: I’m going to let you into a little secret…

My secret notebook

My secret notebook

…it is this: “I sometimes get others to say what I cannot put so well myself because of the weakness of my language, and sometimes because of the weakness of my intellect.

Of course, that’s not my quote, it was penned by Michel de Montaigne, who, Wikipedia tells me, was one of the most influential writers of the French renaissance. Bloody show-off. Continue reading

Steve McCurry Sharp

One of the fun and quite frankly, thrilling things that digital imaging has been able to deliver that film never did, is the ability to give you truly razor sharp images. Yeah, we had sharp images in the film days, but not like what we can get now. With the digital cameras ability to grab detail and photoshop’s many techniques in sharpening, we have surpassed film by miles. Over the past two Lumen Dei workshops we developed an expression that might be taken disrespectful toward the Guru of travel and world photographers, Steve McCurry. Continue reading

Malaysia Images Loaded

If you have a moment, check out the the newly uploaded images from a small village on an island named Pulau Perhentian Kecil of the east coast of Malaysia. Hope you enjoy them.

Had a great opportunity yesterday. I sat in a lecture and slide show by Steve McCurry. You know who he is, you just might not recognise the name. All I have to say is “National Geographic Afgan Girl”, yep! He is the guys. Really fun to listen to him wax about his years on the field and how certain images came about. Most of what he had to say was pretty rudimentary, but I did like his comment on light and color. He says he prefers soft indirect light from somewhere behind him when he is shooting a portrait, no surprise there. But I made a very interesting comment about color. He said something to the effect that the less color the better. He prefers muted colors in an image. Except when it the colors are playing off each other, as in some of his Holi images in Rajasthan. Over all it was an enjoyable time.He seems like a very personable guy.