Why I Didn’t Put Some Of My Favorite Photos In My Portfolio

Last year I participated in an air-to-air workshop with Moose Peterson. I wrote about it here, and I think it gives a good perspective on what it was like to experience the workshop. But that’s not the point of my post. Just a couple weeks ago, some one had mentioned that they loved the photos I took from that workshop, and asked why I didn’t have them in my portfolio. To me, it brings up a great topic of whether or not “workshop” photos belong in your portfolio.

I Love The Photos Too
I actually love the photos from that workshop. And I’d love to put them in my portfolio, but I have a very specific reason why I didn’t. And it could totally just be me – I recognize that. But to me, although I may own the copyright to those photos because I’m the one who pressed the shutter, I don’t feel like those photos are really mine. I mean, Moose set up the workshop. He hired the pilots, planes, coordinated everything and simply placed me into a spot to get great photos. I don’t feel like those photos are representative of something that is mine. Some one simply placed me into a position and basically said press the shutter. It wasn’t quite that easy, but it wasn’t much harder either. And if some one hired me to produce something similar I wouldn’t be able to because I don’t have the contacts, nor know the logistics in producing such a photo.

Or let’s say you go to a wedding photography workshop where some one hired professional models (who already know how to pose themselves), picked a great location at a really fancy hotel or church, and set up lighting for you to step in a take a photo that 20 other photographers are taking next to you. Is that representative of something you could produce? If some one hired this person to shoot their wedding, would they be able to reproduce photos like this? I guess only the photographer really knows if they could set up the lights, pose the couple and pick great locations like the leader of their workshop did.

One more example. I’ve seen people post photos in their portfolio, from the live shoots that Westcott has at Photoshop World (using the constant lights so nobody needs triggers for flash). Heck, I’ve even seen people win awards at photo contests using those photos. Here’s an example of a Photoshop composite that I created using one of these setups.

These shoots are already pre-lit, pre-planned, pre-stylized, and basically pre-everything. Don’t get me wrong. They’re fun and it’s always interesting to see what you can get from those shoots. But I never quite think they belong in people’s portfolios because they’re not representative of what that person can shoot. If some one hired them to produce something similar, they may not be able to because some one else set the entire thing up.

So What About Landscapes?
Here’s where it gets interesting. What about landscape workshops? I mean, you can go to Moab for example, and look on a map of all the photo spots that some one else has found and go there too (with a workshop or alone). Do those photos belong in your portfolio? It’s definitely a gray area. To me, composing the landscape is one of the hard parts. Figuring out what to put in the foreground, what lens to use, what to focus on, f-stops, exposure, etc… So it’s not just about location, it’s about much more. Trust me, I’ve been to many landscape workshops and seen people walk away from the same location with drastically different photos. But everyone in my air-to-air workshop or the Photoshop World pre-lit shoots I just mentioned have photos that look nearly identical.

But with the air-to-air workshop, I think the leg-work ahead of time is one of the hardest parts. For the pre-planned photo shoots I spoke about at Photoshop World, I think the lighting, stylizing, posing, and overall ideas of the characters they use are the hardest part. That’s where the creativity comes in. When you have a guy that looks like the samurai above, it’s hard to mess it up. But when you’re standing in front of, say, Mesa Arch in Canyonlands NP, I think it’s easy to mess it up.

A Gray Area
Anyway, I thought the original question I was asked about the air-to-air workshop photos raised a good point. It’s definitely a gray area, and I’m not sure there’s a right answer. In fact I’m sure there’s not and mine is only one opinion here. I think it’s a very personal choice and different for everyone. For me, going back to the original question I was asked, putting those air-to-air photos in my portfolio isn’t something I would personally do. But after all, it is my portfolio and my choice and I’m sure what some one else decides to do could be very different.

How about you? What would you do? Thoughts? Comments?

Thanks for stopping by today. Have a good one!

  • http://twitter.com/DogmaMom Ginny T

    Wow! Your thoughts on this make complete sense; and I agree with you. It’s very honest, humble and shows a respect for your craft. Pushing the button is a small part of it. Your point about landscapes is also well-taken. I hate to admit it, but I don’t like to give my location on shots because when I discover an awesome panorama that isn’t on the usual map, I like the idea that it is MINE. In the same vein, I wouldn’t feel right copy-catting someone else’s shots, unless it was just to learn.

  • Fraucha

    I agree Matt, legwork is part of the process and if I were not the orchestrator of the set up or long trip I would have a hard time putting something in my portfolio also. Even if I consider the earth and sun as public domain.

    However, if I am out and about and take a photo of let’s say some destroyed urban environment (clearly not a building I built or destroyed), went home and did a little HDR or whatever, does it belong in my portfolio? Well, yeah, but … if I happen on an old ship or factory and take photos …. or if I … I suppose sometimes the “grey area” is subjective, as we can make a case for just about any photo.

    For the expensive set-ups like you describe, to me, clearly they are not your “creation”, you are at that point just a button pusher, and we can have a monkey (and who doesn’t want a monkey?) go to a booth and poke that button if someone else does all the set up.

  • Peter Frailey

    Well, you could always create a folder (my experience is with Zenfolio) and call it: “Favorite Workshop Photos”. That way you’d display some great shots, but make it clear where they came from….
    Peter F.

  • Scott King

    I think it goes back to branding. You are trying to brand yourself more as a landscape guy so the workshop air photos don’t really fit anyway even if it wasn’t a grey area.

  • Dennis Zito

    Matt, good point! I’ve never had the opportunity to go to a workshop, but I can see your point … 99.9% is setup and .1% is pushing the shutter button. I think workshops are basically for learning technique and photo critiques! That’s how I look at them. Good question on landscapes … set up and positioning are on our shoulders! Even though I’ve been to popular places and taken shots of them, I’ve always tried to get into a different position for a different perspective. I learned that by the way from Scott Kelby’s first book on Digital Photograph. :-) It’s one of those things that stuck in my brain.

    Good question today … Thanks!


  • http://www.orlandolocal.com William Beem

    I generally agree with your concept about what does and doesn’t belong in a portfolio. It should represent what you can do.

    The difference may be how we define the representation of what you can do. Take your composite of the Samurai as an example. Although I recognize him from the Westcott booth at PSW in Orlando, I think you created something in your composite that demonstrates what you can do. Also, I wouldn’t question your ability to setup lighting for the original capture. With a little hustling, you could even find the costume (Hollywood is full of rental shops that ship).

    On the other hand, I completely agree with your rationale about Moose’s workshop. Most of us couldn’t get the people and aircraft together to reproduce such a shot, so it’s not representative of what we can accomplish.

    I have a couple of shots from Scott’s hands-on LSR workshop that I like, but they wouldn’t go in my portfolio. I’ve since re-created those lighting setups on other shots that I would put in my portfolio. All I did at Scott’s workshop to get those photos was walk up and click. If I were better at creating composites and could come up with something using one of those shots as part of the scene, I may reconsider using it in a portfolio. Until then, the shot doesn’t have something that represents “me” in it.

  • Paul Coffin


    You pose a great inquiry and offer an even better debate on
    the very nature of photography as a form of artistic expression. I would suggest
    this predicament is no different than the much debated question “is
    photography art”. The availability of the tools to the masses to make
    photographs has been around since the time Kodak gave away thousands of
    Brownies. Anyone can “take” a photograph but not very many can make
    art from a photograph. That for me is where the line is drawn.

    Whether in the plane or on the conference floor, the real
    question is not “the how” but “the what”! As photographers
    we seem to be constantly apologizing for the how or at a minimum explaining it.
    Why does the how matter to anyone but ourselves as artists. The how is a
    mystery for me when looking at the folds of fabric carved in marble, and while
    fascinating, my mind dwells more on the subject, the pose and the beauty of
    form than the chisel, hammer and sand paper.

    So it is with your photo from the plane. The fact is, the
    very moment you finger pressed the shutter release, something special happened.
    Could the person beside you have pressed their button at the same time pointing
    their lens in the same direction, sure. Does that make it any less special, I
    would suggest not.

    It’s true, there is a technical element of the mastery of
    photography that we all must overcome to create great art, no different that
    the mastery of hammer and chisel or paint and paint brush. The various
    incarnations of David each with its own unique interpretation of the “original”,
    and I use that term carefully, are masterpieces in and of themselves. The
    ability to repeat “the how”, as is the case with the wedding photographer
    example, is meant only to demonstrate to the consumer the ability to achieve
    the technical capability of the toolset and nothing more. The real mastery
    comes from the subtle use of these tools to capture a moment in time that
    reflects back to the audience an image the moves the viewer with emotion.

    That it was “easy” for you to press the shutter
    because the circumstances that put you there were not of your own doing is no
    different than the presence of a magnificent sunset that just happened to occur
    when you were about to press the shutter. The difficulty of the capturing of the
    moment, for me at least, is of much less importance, than the fact that you
    captured it in the first place.

    Here is something else to wrap your noodle around. What if
    you had a time machine and went back to the very second Henri Cartier Bresson
    pressed the shutter on his infamous photograph, Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare,
    in 1932 and took the same picture with your D800. Which photograph do you think
    would be considered a masterpiece, yours or his and would the other be any less
    for it?

    • David

      Paul, well said!

  • Stephen Stipe

    “while you live, tell truth, and shame the devil” – Henry IV, Part I, Act III, Scene I
    William Shakespeare

  • http://twitter.com/algia10 A.G. Photography

    I agree, and I wouldn’t put them in my portfolio either. I may create a specific gallery for them, but that’s about it.

  • David

    Interesting point of view … I understand your view but I don’t agree. It is still you who set-up your camera, made appropriate adjustments, zoomed in/out regardless of whether you were zooming with your feet or lens, and finally pressed the shutter.
    I don’t think this is much different if we were in Moab (or wherever), standing side by side, and shooting the same landscape.
    Our captures ‘would’ be different … however, in this case God set-up the lighting, etc., versus Moose or Joe or Dave, etc.
    We each decide how we want to set-up our tool, the camera, to capture what we, individually, see.
    This is not gray/grey to me.

    • http://twitter.com/algia10 A.G. Photography

      I disagree, because “knowing” what settings to use on the camera based on what you’re shooting should not be something you still have to think about when you go somewhere. Here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ap7qnQHIuXI

      Everyone sets up their shots differently based on each one’s level of creativity in real life, so if there are 30 people photographing the Arches on February 23rd at 10am, the you have 30 people that got the same light, same clouds(if any), same shadows, so now you have 30 websites with the same shot!? what is the point in doing that and be like other people? I can bet you that 1 out of 30 people will dare to play with the settings on their camera and try hard NOT to get the same shot. The key here is to be original from the set ups to mother nature. I have never been out west, but I am pretty sure that if I have the opportunity to go, I would make damn sure I don’t take the same shot the rest of the Globe has already!

      • David

        Sounds to me that you are the guy from the UK who sued a photographer because he took a shot of a red bus on a bridge that was similar or the same as your shot. I happen to disagree with your notion that 30 folks get the same shot and in that scenario, we will not agree.
        Thank you for your thoughts.

  • Laura Di Tomasso

    Thanks Matt, I too have faced the same question. My rule of thumb is if I found the composition on my own and there is no staging by someone else it is my own, even if I shot it while on a photo expedition, in a workshop or class. If the set-up, subject, lighting or whatever was provided, than it’s just practice for me. Not really a representation of my work.

  • http://www.facebook.com/richard.g.smith.jr Richard Smith Jr

    Wholeheartedly agree with you on this topic. There are so many wedding photographers out there that do exactly as you mentioned. And hey… if you can reproduce it, fine, but then why did you go to a photo workshop in the first place. I pretty much only go to workshops that deal with topics that are above me and I want to learn and climb to that level.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002140990527 James Madison

    I believe the question lies in your reasoning you stated, Can you produce an image of that quality? If yes, no qualms about showing the image. If not, do not include it. Some workshops may simply have a different model, but the lighting and posing is something you can duplicate. The real question is for how long you keep that image in your portfolio. When given the chance to demonstrate you can duplicate it, use the last image, not the workshop one. then no one can argue. But you might want that image in your portfolio to attract the right model/client.

    Landscape? Just driving back the scene and setting up exactly has you did in the workshop seems silly if not down right lack of reasoning capability.

  • Van

    Matt, I have been meaning to ask you, your shots are sharp. Do you fine tune the auto focus for each lens on each camera body? There are times I like the ACR and sometimes Camera Standard in LR, I go back and forth, even use Portrait for my NEFs, which do you use mostly? Thanks.

  • justme95

    i understand your point but…

    1. the final image is more than just the initial capture (as ansel adams once said about the negative being the score and the print the performance).

    2. where do i draw the line? should i make my own inks and paper since i consider that to be a very important part of the interpretation and the expression?

    3. will these images be mine or yours if i use your presets?

    4. if i’m photographing a model in an elaborate costume (that in itself is a work of art like the samurai suit) with no one else there, is that image no longer mine as well? after all, the guy in normal modern clothes just won’t make this picture.

    5. i’ve stood side by side with other photographers in a workshop and while lit the same, we have completely different images due to angles, perspectives, lens choices, camera settings, framing, timing, emphasis, etc.

    6. how many gazillion shots of yosemite valley have been taken? the same scene that ansel adams made famous. who do those belong to? ansel wasn’t the first person to photograph the valley.

    i don’t think you can say that using the same model in the same lit environment with other photographers shooting the same scene at the same time should automatically exclude this body of work from your own portfolio. moose may have provided a common stage and the actors but this only represents one slice of the final set of creative decisions made by you the artist. pros will outsource many of the logistics to bring a project together simply because they can’t do it all nor have that kind of access. but that doesn’t invalidate their work. i believe ansel adams had others print for him. but it’s still his work.

    just my thoughts…