Interview with Neil Binkley, Judge for PDN’s 2009 Self Promotion Awards

No Plastic Sleeves recently has an opportunity to ask Neil Binkley a few questions. Here are his responses.

Neil Binkley is co-creator and publicity director of Wonderful Machine, the boutique web portal for art buyers which offers marketing and production support to its member photographers. In less than two years, the agency has signed on photographers in 50 American cities and nearly 50 countries around the world. Neil’s background in advertising, corporate design, filmmaking and photography informs his take on connecting photographers with art buyers. When he isn’t busy tweeting about Wonderful Machine photographers’ latest accomplishments, he enjoys being a first-time father to his year- old son, Nate. Neil recently judged PDN’s 2009 Self Promotion Awards, and also participated as a reviewer in ASMP/NY’s annual portfolio review.


As someone who has reviewed so many outstanding portfolios and self-promotional pieces, what distinguishes the very best?

Certainly, the “wow” factor of an unorthodox or expensive portfolio/promotion is always something that catches my attention. However, if that “wow” isn’t met by “wow #2,” ie. excellent photography presented in a cohesive form, then I feel sorry that the photographer spent so much money putting lipstick on a pig.

So I would say that “the very best” always includes strong imagery as a starting point. Beyond that, unless you’re Nadav Kander, I recommend showing work that makes it clear what you’re good at. Too many photographers try the kitchen sink method of portfolio editing, showing too many styles and specialties, and a client who wants to find a good still life photographer will typically search among people who specialize solely in that field (which is competitive enough as it is).

I also think that our Houston photographer, Terry Vine, did a fantastic job creating a strong brand across his portfolio, print mailer, website, and elsewhere. I was disappointed that he didn’t make the contest’s final cut, but the competition was strong. Here’s a photo of his print promotion.

What do you think is the most challenging and rewarding part of being a judge for an awards competition, such as the PDN Self-Promo Awards?

The most challenging part of juding the PDN Self-Promo Awards was having to choose only my top 3 photographers for each of the four categories. I made several rounds through the many entries, whittling down to the promotions that I considered most memorable and quality-minded. This, of course, took many hours (days, actually).

It was also difficult because I didn’t want to vote solely for people I was already aware of, be they famous, a Wonderful Machine photographer, etc. I wanted to be as objective as possible, and pretend that I had received this promo at my office among a stack of mail or email. In that scenario: what would my eye linger on?

Another challenge was that, in one or two cases, I chose promos whose photography was not quite as good as the other submissions, but whose overall impression was unrivaled. In an ideal world, as I mentioned before, a good promo will have a combination of excellent images and eye-catching presentation. But if you have two photographers side-by-side whose work is comparable, the one with the better presentation will always win.

Also the contest was judged digitally, which is a different experience from judging in-person. I recently had a conversation about this on Andrew Hetherington’s blog, .

The rewarding part was viewing so much wonderful work, and having a cross-section of photographers’ approaches to marketing themselves. It really was a pleasure, and I look forward to future contests.

How important do you feel a portfolio book and/or online portfolio is in securing a job in the creative industries?

I think that creating and sharing a printed portfolio is still a necessary and valuable exercise, and for a few reasons:

1) For advertising work especially, agencies still call in books. Partially, I think, because photographers’ websites can look so wonderful on the web, but most campaigns end up in print at some point, and an art buyer wants to be sure that the photographer can deliver in the printed realm. Especially when it comes to retouching.

2) It’s still helpful to meet art buyers/photo editors in person, and what will you show them when they do agree to a meeting? Of course, you can bring your fancy laser gun leave-behinds, but a quality-minded creative wants to be confident that you have consistently created a body of work that shows many images in the style they’re looking for. And meeting someone in-person is generally much more memorable than an email or phone call.

3) The creation of the book itself is valuable, because it forces you to define the type of work that you’re good at and that you’d like more of. In some cases you’ll need to shoot more work after realizing that you haven’t shot enough to be reliable. You don’t want someone to think that your amazing photograph was done by chance. You want them to be confident that you are in control of creating good images.

And as for digital portfolios, I’m not sure if you’re referring to a website, which really can be an online portfolio, or a digital version of your print book. Either way, the same rules of providing a tight edit and good work apply. And sure, sending a digital portfolio instead of a printed one is better than not sharing your work.

But I would always recommend having a printed book.

Do you have any advice for a student or young professional currently working on their portfolio and/or promotional materials?

Shoot a lot, and seek outside opinions even more! I find that better photographers, regardless of how long they’ve been in business, are often open to critique of their work. And the experienced ones are sometimes open-minded because they’ve been in the awkward situation of sitting in a creative director’s tight office and having that creative point out all of their portfolio’s flaws. Better to get a tough critique from someone before the meeting, so you’re not blowing an opportunity with a busy client who may not take a meeting when you update your portfolio a year later.

On that note, I think that photographers should consider hiring a consultant to look through their work, someone who comes well-recommended from a photographer whose work you like. Wonderful Machine offers consulting, and there are many others out there doing a good job. Aphotoeditor posted a good list a year or two ago. Ask to see a few before-and-afters too, to see what raw talent they had to work with.

Also, I don’t think there’s a “magic bullet” in terms of reaching art buyers and photo editors. Everyone is different: some art buyers only want email promos, and others only want print promos. Because of that, I recommend promoting your work in as many reasonable ways as possible, and frequently enough that you’ll start to stick in their heads. Just don’t harass people, because you don’t want to be remembered as the nag. I think an email promo to the same person several times a year, and the same with print promos, plus trying to get a portfolio visit every year or two is plenty. And make sure that you have new work to show, when you do contact them. Equally important is to approach only clients who need your type of work.

On a related note, one of our photographers, Bill Cramer (also our president), recently did a a talk for APA/NY about how photographers can brand and market themselves. We blogged about it, and here’s a link to the post . We’re also working on a podcast of the presentation, which will give an overview of the many options photographers have in promoting themselves. That should be out (for free) in January, and we’ll blog about it.


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  1. Bill Cramer

    Excellent post. Just to add to what you were saying about the importance of getting feedback on your portfolio…

    Most photographers are too close to their photographs to judge them objectively. (The experience of making a photograph distorts the way photographers see the final product.) So it’s good to get an independent point of view (from someone you respect) once in a while, to help you judge what’s working and what isn’t.

    When you show your book to an art buyer, they’re generally not going to, and it’s not really their job to – critique it. It’s either going to fit their needs or it won’t. Sometimes an art buyer will offer up suggestions (especially if you ask) about how to make your portfolio better. That can certainly be valuable advice, but keep in mind it’s only one person’s point of view.

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