Having a Paper Portfolio

July 31, 2014

If you are a photographer, you know the feeling: you've spent hours editing a photo perfectly, you've bought a $4.99 app to display your portfolio on a tablet, and you are confident that your photos are stunning.  Then, you hand the tablet to your friend, who swipes through each photo for half a second, says "Nice," and then gives you back the tablet. 


What you just experienced is a bizarre phenomenon known as "normal behavior."  Your friend does not mean to hurt your feelings or disrespect your work, but it is just part of human nature that people love swiping to the next photo in a portfolio as quickly as possible.  This is why even the most successful photographers can expect to make almost no money whatsoever through online print sales.  Beautiful photos are everywhere online, but the sheer number of them makes people want to simply swipe to the next set as fast as possible.  This is not a problem with people; it is a problem with technology.  Computers, tablets, and phones especially make it so easy to swipe to the next batch of eye-candy pictures that no matter how jaw-dropping your portfolio, very few people will spend more than a couple of minutes looking through it.  I hope that viewers to my gallery will spend five minutes looking through the photos.  That's a total of roughly six seconds per photo; six seconds to look at a photo which I spent at a minimum of thirty minutes editing, and a maximum of several hours.  Take the photo below as an example:


(Click to see on black  ::  Link to photo in gallery)


This is perhaps my favorite photo I have ever taken.  I have fifteen different copies of this same photo on my hard drive, I have opened it dozens of times in Photoshop for everything from perspective correction to sharpness control, and I counted 223 tone and contrast adjustments I made on just three of these fifteen copies in my Lightroom software.  My rough estimate for the number of hours I have spent on this photo is well into the double digits.  Now, you can see why I feel disappointed when I show people this photo on my tablet, and they look at it for no more than a couple seconds.  In general, they like the photo a lot; that isn't the problem.  What frustrates me is that they don't give it the time that I wish they would. 


I never understood why this happened until I entered the photo in a local competition.  It wasn't a big competition at all, but out of all the photos submitted, this one won first prize.  The judges printed the photo 12x18 inches wide, and it sat on display at the front of the art exhibition.  Then, when people came to the art show, they stopped and stared at this photo.  Several people at a time, even, would look at the photo as a group.  They pointed at parts of the photo, talked amongst themselves, and just looked at the print for fifteen seconds to minutes at a time.  For the first time ever, people had looked at this photo how I had intended it to be seen.


Was it the fact that it had won first prize?  Did people only stand around and admire this picture because of the blue ribbon?  At first, I thought so.  But then, when I started talking to people at the show, they told a different story.  People genuinely connected with the photo, telling me about their favorite details in the frame in a way that no one ever had before.  I began to think; maybe visitors admired this photo because they were viewing it on a sheet of paper, not on a screen.  The photo now had become a physical object, worthy of admiration.  Because it was worth printing large, it mattered now.  People saw details that, though visible on a computer screen, no one had ever mentioned before.  The print itself had made this photo important.


Now, I carry around a folder everywhere I go.  Inside are fifteen of my best photos, all printed 8x12 inches large.  This is just a simple plastic folder, not a gorgeous binder built for art presentation.  And yet, if someone ever asks to see my photos, I just hand them this folder and stand back.  Now, they look at my portfolio as art, spending upwards of fifteen seconds looking at each piece and pointing out their favorite details.  This isn't the same amount of time that people spent looking at the 12x18 print at an art gallery, but it is more than ten times better than what I get out of showing them the photo on a tablet.  A paper portfolio slows down your viewers so that they look at each photo for a significantly longer time.  Now, people can appreciate that you put enough effort into making these photos that they are worth having as a print.  And that is a beautiful thing, both for your viewers and for you. 

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