Skip to main content

Portraits Under Pressure

Lesson 26 of 28

Portfolio Best Practices

Victoria Will

Portraits Under Pressure

Victoria Will

Starting under


Get access to this class +2000 more taught by the world's top experts

  • 24/7 access via desktop, mobile, or TV
  • New classes added every month
  • Download lessons for offline viewing
  • Exclusive content for subscribers

Lesson Info

26. Portfolio Best Practices
Building a portfolio is essential to working as a portrait photography artist. Learn portfolio essentials from how to build your point of view to formatting options. Learn how to create distinctive features to make your work stand out and why a consistent appearance is important. See classical examples of portraiture in Victoria's own portfolio.

Lesson Info

Portfolio Best Practices

Your portfolio is an extension of who you are. Extension of your brand. The lack of sounding dramatic, this is you, this is what you're presenting to people as their first impression of you and their last impression of you. It's really, really important so you have to put the time into making one. I think it's really important. I also think, sometimes maybe you make a book. I would even suggest making a portfolio just for the point of making a portfolio, the exercise of making a portfolio, because you're gonna learn something. You're gonna learn something about your work. I then think you should take that portfolio and put it in front of people, and if you're not ready to put it in front of an editor then you show it to other photographers and you get feedback. This speaks entirely to my point about being uncomfortable. You just have to start getting comfortable being uncomfortable. And the more you do that, it just gets easier and easier as you go, and as a photographer, you have to b...

e able to take criticism and take the stuff that you find useful and capitalize on it. And then the other stuff, you toss aside. I remember one of the first things my editor said to me when I was at the newspaper, he said, "In this business, you don't "have to have tough skin. "You have to have rhinoceros hide." (laughter) And I was like, "Um, this is very thin right now. "I'm very sensitive." And I knew that. I was like, "Alright, I'm gonna have to toughen up." And that came with time, for sure. But boy was he right. You can't please everybody, so instead of trying, which is a waste of energy, you just have to ask yourself what's important to you and what feels like you in your work. You can't take a portfolio and put everything in it, because it won't have a point of view. It has her point of view and his point of view and her point of view, and that's not where we're going. I'm gonna show you, I actually haven't looked at these in a long time, but I'm gonna show you where I started. Okay. I remember someone telling me that you didn't need to make a book. You had to have a portfolio, but it didn't need to be a printed book. But that you could totally blow somebody's mind with a box of prints. If the work was really good, it didn't matter how it was presented. I take that back, it does matter how it's presented, but you obviously need to have a good presentation. That's speaking to your brand, but what I think he meant, and what I'm trying to articulate, is that it doesn't have to be a physical book with plastic sleeves, in the traditional sense. Times have changed. People used to say, "20 pictures is a portfolio, and you "put it in a black book and you have plastic sleeves." And that's how everybody went around. Well, nowadays, there's a million different ways to present your work and it has to feel right for the work. It has to go with the work that's in the book, and it has to go with your brand and what you're presenting. I, as a portrait photographer, said, I've literally not looked at this book in years, but I found it in my basement, and I dusted it off and I shipped it out here. So I thought, "Okay, I wanna make an impression, "so I'm going to bring a box of prints." Partially because I didn't like the way my book felt when I just laid out portrait after portrait after portrait after portrait after portrait. But I'm a portrait photographer, so I was really struggling with how to present my work. And I felt like it needed to sort of stand on its own, so I made a book. It's a box. I didn't make it, I had it made. And it has my name on it. Now, when you guys sent your portfolios in for the Creative Live folks and when they handed them to me, a couple of them didn't have their name on it. So I didn't know whose they were. Which is fine, however, if you send your book to a magazine or an art director, and they toss it to the side and say, "Hey, you really gotta check this out." And they're passing it to an editor and they say, "Great, who is it? And they're like, "I don't know." And then you're lost. You have to have your name, if it's a brand, a logo, whatever it is, all over the place. So in this book, I had a big box of prints. And I will go through some of them in a minute, but the reason I did this is because, I've already told you, because I didn't like the layout, how it was going, when it was person after person after person, face after face after face in a book. But I also was meeting, was going to portfolio reviews, and meeting people, and I talked about this yesterday. A portfolio review is an opportunity, it's set up, and a lot of photographers come, and a lot of reviewers come. And the reviewers are creative directors and editors and gallery owners, I mean there's a whole list. And you have the opportunity to have your work critiqued in hopes that you're going to maybe get a job or a gallery show or whatever. At the bare minimum, no matter where you are in your career, you should attend these for the feedback. The other reason I did this was sort of a sneaky reason. I really liked the presentation, and I liked the big prints, I thought they were impactful. But when somebody's looking through your book. I'll just use this small book over here. And they're busy and they don't wanna be talking to you, they go like this, "Uh huh." And they skip pages and they go, "Okay, yeah. "Mm hmm, this is so great. "Thanks for coming in. "I really appreciate it." People do that. But if the prints are the size of them, they have to be slow and deliberate, so I really got more time. Portfolio reviews are timed, so you get your 10 minutes. That is what it is. You can't do it. But when I was in a meeting with people, I did feel like I got more time with them, because they were a little bit curious about what was next. These are some of the prints, and the way people would approach them is they would just pick them up. Some people would ask me for their white gloves, because it's what you do in museums. And I was like, "No, no, they're digital printed. "I made them, and don't worry if something happens to them. "I'll make a new one." So I went here. And so, I already see a problem. This is the problem. And this actually happened to me once. I remember putting all the work and ordering it, and I had this image at the top 'cause I liked it, I thought it was really colorful. And the guy opened the book and said, photo editor, big magazine, I was so nervous, "Oh, you're a fashion photographer." And I was like, "No." Oops. This is the very first thing he saw, and he immediately made a decision about me. That I was a fashion photographer. Now, don't get me wrong, I will shoot fashion, but that's not what my book is. So you have to think about that. The first photo in your book, what people are opening up to matters. So here are some of these. These prints are old man. I made these. I guess some of these are newer. I must've added them before. Oh look, hey look it's a band. Just like what we did. Alright, so you get the idea. It really was a lot of prints. This has fashion in it. I think I started then I went, I'll just flip forward. Here, this is a band. Holy smokes. TV on the radio. Kind of feels like how we ended today. Interesting. Maybe I was channeling that unknowingly. Some of the portraits you've seen. More portrait fashion. I'm confused already. I'm sure the editors are going, "What?" They're looking through this, they're like, "What am I gonna get from her?" I don't know if this necessarily has my point of view. So okay, this was the book. Then, one black and white. Let's put this here. So then I realized that sometimes people would call in my book, and after talking to editors and other people, I realized something. That this book, if I'm not there to wield this book for people in personal meetings, there's no way. Think about everything Lacey said yesterday. You think she's gonna open this book and go through the photos? No way. She might get through five or six pictures, but this is an effort. You have to really wanna see to get to the last image. I haven't seen that photo in a long time. Anyway, so you get the idea. The next thing I did. This was that chalkboard, remember? This is the very beginning of the chalkboard, and by the end of the week, the chalkboard looked completely different because we had written stuff on it. That was sort of the beauty of it. Okay, so then I said, "Alright, well "this is a little bit unwieldy, even for me." And I would continue to take it to meetings when I was meeting with people, but instead I thought, "Okay, how about I send something "that's a little bit more reasonable?" I made this, and it is the mini version. The same thing. It's still a clamshell. It has a lot of the same prints even. This is where I was. A lot of prints in here. And the beauty of having a box of prints actually is that when you do make new work, you can drop them in really quickly. You just get one and you slide it in, or if you're seeing a fashion magazine, you could just put the fashion images in. Or if you're seeing sports magazine, and you really wanna have your action sports if that's what you shoot. You can just change the book. Cater it a little bit. That being said, I don't think that you should have to change your work. I think it's a decision. I think that if you are, I don't wanna totally contradict myself here, but your work is your work. And that's something that I still struggle with. "Oh, should I show this to this editor? "Should I show this?" Really, what you need to do is show the work that speaks to you. So next, I made a book, a book book, a printed book, and part of the reason I did it was because I felt like I had figured out a way to layout my pictures. Now, I did want to do a little bit more, I don't wanna say fashion. I don't wanna be Steven Meisel. I'm not trying to shoot a Prada campaign, although I would if they called. But what I was trying to do was I shot a lot of backstage at fashion shows for Vogue, and I had all this work that I really loved. I really loved it. And it was very reportage. It spoke a lot to my photojournalism roots and I think that that's why they hired me actually. 'Cause I wasn't from the fashion world, and they wanted my point of view. So they sort of unleashed me to the wolves backstage. And I really liked the work, and I wasn't sure how to make it fit with some of my other work. But when I put it all together, it started to feel like it had a personality. And it had a point of view, so I did that. So here's some of these pictures. And it was laid out in a way that tells a little story. Again, I'm a storyteller at heart, and even though I'm not necessarily going out and telling photo journalistic stories, I'm telling narratives in my work. Here are some of those pictures. And here's the beauty, this is an old picture, and I love it and I use it all the time. Because it's sort of timeless. Eventually I will have to retire it for awhile, and then I will bring it back. Because I've always liked it. This was the beginning. This was the first book book. So then I managed to find a way to incorporate some portraits. And to me, the book is about flow. Here are some more. So then I started getting more and more commercial work and more of this sort of storytelling. Sometimes it was for a fashion designer. Sometimes it was for a clothing brand or whatever, and I kept having these ideas. I did run into that situation about personal work where people would say, "This is beautiful stuff. "Where's your personal work? "What do you do when you're not on the clock?" And I didn't really know. I needed to spend some time doing that. So I came up with some ideas. I just said, "Well, okay, if I'm just gonna go "shoot tomorrow, well then what am I gonna shoot?" Well, this is an example. This is my sister in law, and I just really wanted to go shoot one day and so I grabbed her and we drove down the street. And that's where I made that image. Actually, there's a whole sort of narrative about it on my website, and that just came to be because it came to mind and I executed it. And executing is half the battle. It really is. Coming up with a plan. You get the idea, great. But then you have to follow through with it. And the beauty is is that sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn't. But either way, you've made progress. You've learned something. You've either learned what you like or what you didn't like or where you made a mistake or in the end maybe you actually have an image that you really like. My personal work started. I was in a very commercial mindset and advertising, 'cause I thought advertising was so neat. They have this brand and it has an identity and then they build the whole campaign around it. And I think that's really awesome. I started thinking about my point of view. And I'd pick a brand, in my head, and I would say, "If I was a creative director "of this brand, what would I do?" So I have been to Coachella, it's ironic that it is actually Coachella time right now. I've been for many years, and I went to Coachella. But this time, with the idea that I was going to tell the point of view of a brand new pair of shoes. I told this story about a pair of shoes. Had a really long night, that's what happened. So that was how I built some of my personal work. Now, this one was around the brand Carhartt. You could call this a spec shoot in that sense. That's a term people use. I was on this trip and was photographing what was happening on this pack trip regardless, and I realized that all the cowboys wear Carhartt. And I though, "Oh well, I think I have an idea." When I edited it, I pointed it towards the Carhartt situation, and I've had the great fortune of actually working with Carhartt as a result. This was that. Okay, that was the book. That was my first book. Then, I'll make this kind of quick. So time has passed, and I've done a lot more work. And I couldn't fit it all into one book. So I decided that I was gonna break it up. I have my stories book, which is my personal work. It's all stories like that Coachella story about the pair of shoes and then that pack trip. And this story. This isn't around a brand necessarily, but that's what works for me to come up with a story. I sort of give it a little bit of a narrative. I ended up taking out the fashion work and putting it into its own book. And then this is actually essentially that iPad situation I was talking about where if I have new work, I'll come in and say, "Oh well, here's work that I had just done." And after a certain point, I had enough, and I made it a book of some of the work that I had done. This is sort of like, "Well, here's my resume." You can divide it up any way you want, but also, I don't show all of these books to everybody. This stories book goes with me to all my meetings. And then I'll decide what to bring. This is a book I made of those tin types. This is just the first year I made it just to show people, and it didn't fit in the other books, of course. But what people would say, "Oh yeah, this is so great. "Do you have any personal work?" And I would go, "Well, actually I do." There's a lot of stuff. You have to figure out, I've been shooting for a long time, what to include and what not to include. And there are a lot of great pictures that I have that aren't within my book anymore. And that's because you've evolved. Those pictures aren't going away. They're just put aside for a minute. Those are my books.

Class Description

Short on time? This class is available HERE as a Fast Class, exclusively for Creator Pass subscribers.


  • Leverage new techniques for choosing the light and locations for a successful portrait
  • Know how to build a rapport and utilize clear communication with your subjects
  • Set up a developed concept as well as how to light on the fly
  • Use successful strategies for marketing yourself as a photographer and how to get your work in front of editors


Portraits require more than just great lighting and equipment. Sometimes a shoot doesn’t go as planned. The location is drab, the client isn’t in the best mood, or you forget to charge your camera batteries. Great portrait photography artists are able to think on their feet, connect with their subjects -- and capture great images under pressure. The best portraits often come from portrait sessions that didn't go exactly as planned, when challenges turn into assets.

Celebrity portrait photographer Victoria Will shows you how to use your environment to capture a unique, sharp image that reflects the person in the portrait. She’ll also highlight how to quickly evaluate a less than perfect situation and make it work for you and your subject. Take your portraits from amateur to near Mona Lisa gallery worthy by learning how to shoot portraits under pressure.

You’ll watch Victoria photograph real people in limited settings, discovering multiple opportunities in a limited space. Learn her three portrait musts for preparation, point-of-view, and connection. Gain insight into how to make every frame count and how to get the shots the editor requested, as well as those that speak to your vision. Learn how to make your subject feel comfortable in only a few moments while capturing exquisite photo collections in Portraits Under Pressure.


The photographer looking to improve their portraiture through thoughtful lighting, creative techniques and leveraging the environment around you to get a consistent appearance.


Victoria Will’s background as an American photojournalist and celebrity photographer has helped her to develop techniques on editorial assignments to quickly connect with a subject. Her career began as a photojournalist for the New York Post and grew into a sharp portrait photography focus that opened opportunities to photograph celebrities. She continues to work in New York as an artist specializing in portraits and commercial work.


Helena Sung

This was a great class and I learned a ton! It was amazing to watch Victoria Will in action -- shooting portraits under pressure. I learned a lot watching her walk into an unknown situation -- not knowing the location, what the natural lighting situation would be, and only knowing she had 15 minutes for the shoot. I loved watching her problem solve on the spot with lightning and tight, dark spaces. She also taught a lot about how she interacts with her subjects -- always putting them at ease (like you're the host at a dinner party -- gem!) It's much easier for a photographer to take pictures in their studio, but this course was not about that. This was watching a photographer handle real world situations under time pressure and think on her feet. Loved it! I also loved the parts where she culled her photos afterwards and picked out the ones that caught her eye. In most instances, I found myself agreeing with her!! When she gets subjects to stand up and sit back down, it is the in-between moments she is looking for, or the moment right afterwards -- genius!! Oh, lastly, I loved how she went through stunning images she shot of celebrities like Brad Pitt and Janelle Monae and gave us the backstory of how she creatively problem-solved to get the shot! Hello, showing up two hours before a shoot and knocking on random hotel room doors for furniture?!! Of course she could do that because she has a lovely, warm personality! Oh, and by the way, the bits she shares about her early career path is very inspiring!

Robert Negrin

Great course! And the best part was the honesty. I was an executive in a fortune 500 company and what the critics watching this course missed is that there are a lot of talented photographers, actors, singers, accountants and even landscapers, but there are very few that are successful and accomplished. Yes, part of it may involve a certain degree of luck, but most of it is the drive and desire to suceed. It is obvious you have both. I used to beleive that a true image could only be captured by styling the shot, metering light and controlling the subject. (Yes, I shot film...complete with developing and printing all my images) Then, one day I realized that, if deliberate-shooting was the right way, why then most of the great images I have were the result of quick, rather than deliberate reactions. I get it Victoria. Love your style and how you get there. Three things I learned today are that the conditions... even the background, do not have to be perfect if the image is strong enough to carry the message. Second, setting up to capture the perfect image, misses all the imperfect, epic moments. Third, I disagreed with almost every image you picked until they were isolated from the rest. Then they made perfect sense. Well done. :) Robert Gabriel

Meredith Zinner Photography

I really love Victoria and her work. She's something suuuuper special and showed me a fab new way to look at portraits. I love her openness, honesty, the whole 'you're at my dinner party' intimacy, care and respect for her clients and am SO impressed at how quickly and reliably she's able to transform any location to suit her needs. She's super impressive, professional and inspiring thank you!