Help! My Portfolio is Empty!

The instructions are clear: submit your completed application, a personal essay, recommendations, transcript and fee . . . oh, and a portfolio of your best work. Where do you get one of those?

The mere mention of a portfolio creates a sense of panic in many students hoping to get into the best photography schools. What if my work isn’t good enough? How do I create a portfolio? Or perhaps, most panic-inducing of all: what if I don’t have anything to put in a portfolio?

Chances are, if you are applying to a college-level photography program, you have some experience behind the camera, and maybe even a few good shots that you’re exceptionally proud of taking. And while the admissions committee understands that applicants to their program don’t generally have extensive formal training, and probably don’t have a professional collection of work, they do want to see that you have a unique style, good eye for photography and enough technical skill to succeed in the program.

Here are some tips to build up your photography portfolio, even if you aren’t trying to get into an institution.

If you don’t feel that you have enough “portfolio-worthy” photos, though, all is not lost. You can get the photos you need for your application and gain experience, in a number of ways.

Contact a local photographer, and ask to job shadow or assist

Many photographers are more than willing to help aspiring professionals, especially students. Call a few who shoot in a style you admire, and ask them to let you tag along on a shoot with your camera. Not only will you get some photos for your portfolio, you might even pick up a few tips and tricks that you can use to make your photos even better.

Enlist your friends for a photo shoot

Need some portraits for your portfolio? Ask your friends to serve as subjects. If you have a friend or family member who has recently had a baby, gotten engaged, or simply needs a photo for their Christmas card, offer to take some photos for them.

Enroll in a workshop

Many adult education or community centers offer photography workshops and courses for local residents. Consider enrolling in one to get some photos for your portfolio. Depending on the workshop focus, you might have the opportunity to shoot portraits, landscapes, close-ups and more artistic photos – and learn how to edit and present them as well.

Photography Workshop with Photographer Gustavo Hochman

Take a photo walk

While many cities host annual photo walk events, where groups of photographers tour a specific route with their cameras, capturing the details of the environment, you don’t have to wait for a specific event. Grab your camera and tour your own neighborhood, looking for scenes or details that you might not normally notice in your daily rush. Look for textures, the play of shadow and light, interesting architectural details or vignettes that tell the story of life in the neighborhood. You’ll work on developing your own style and eye, while getting potential photos for your portfolio.

Carry your camera – always

In fact, most professional photographers have at least some type of camera with them at all times. You never know when you’ll pass a scene worthy of a few shots – a single flame red tree in early fall, or an arrangement of flowers just begging to be captured. Sometimes the impromptu, unplanned shots can be some of the best in your portfolio.

You probably won’t need a large number of photos for your application portfolio. The fact that you can only submit a handful of shots, means that the ones that you include need to be your best work and of the highest possible quality. Keep your photos organized, sorting out potential portfolio images into a separate folder. Don’t be afraid to edit your photos, and invest in high-quality printing and presentation. Your best work deserves more than discount photo paper, right?

Creating a portfolio to submit to photography colleges can be nerve-wracking, but taking the time to shoot and present beautiful, and effective, images is worthwhile. You’ll increase your chances of gaining a coveted spot in the incoming class – all while gaining experience and making others happy in the process.

What are some of your tips for creating a portfolio out of nothing…even if you don’t have that much experience?