Photograph of New York City at night in Times Square from Melanie May's photography portfolio

18 top photography portfolio tips

Here are my eighteen top photography portfolio tips. These will help you to create a great photography portfolio for work or college.

Over the years, I have learnt a thing or two about photography. I’ve honed my skills to a high(ish) level. My photos were good enough to secure me a place on a photography course in Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) and in the Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design & Technology (IADT).

These are the only two Level 8 degree photography courses in Dublin. There are less than 60 places available between the two colleges. There are even fewer places available on the courses to mature students. When I applied I was a mature student. The fact that I got on both courses is a fairly good indication that my photographs aren’t half bad. Or at least they aren’t as crap as I think they are.

Photography Portfolio ‘Monochrome’

This post first looks at how I physically put the portfolios together. It then looks at the photographs I included in my portfolios. Hopefully it will answer the questions ‘what to put in a photography portfolio’ and ‘how to make a photography portfolio for college’? It will also give you an example of a photography portfolio.

I am not saying this is the right way to do it, but as I said, I did get on to both courses.

Photography Portfolio ‘Favourites’

 

THE PRACTICAL PART

 

Photograph Portfolio Tip One – RTFM – Read the F**king Manual.

If there is one thing I do and do well is follow instructions. To. The. Letter. This is the biggest thing that colleges/employers look for – that you can do what is asked of you. You would be surprised at how many people fall at this first hurdle.

Follow the guidelines for your portfolio submission. Stick to them and tick them off as you fulfil each one. I know, how boring, right? But it must be done at this stage. You are just trying to get your foot in the door. Your portfolio submission isn’t just about the photos inside. Your portfolio is a look at how you will function as a student or how you will approach the job etc.

Photography Portfolio ‘Landscapes’

 

Photograph Portfolio Tip Two – invest in a good portfolio case.

When I applied for the course in the National College of Art and Design (NCAD) in Dublin, I just submitted my work in a plain A4 pocket folder. I was quite happy with this until I went to the college to pick up my portfolio. Everyone else had professional looking portfolios. I was so embarrassed, so I decided there and then that to compete I needed to invest in a proper portfolio. More so though, I wanted my images to be displayed nicely as I was very proud of them. So, I bought a decent portfolio case and it was well worth the investment.

A professional looking portfolio will show pride and care of your work. Colleges and employers want to see that you are going to take things seriously. Never underestimate the psychology at play here – I should know; I studied psychology instead of photography!

This is the link to the shop and the portfolio that I bought. Make sure you know what size to get. RTFM. My brief said 20 images no bigger than A1 so that is the size of the portfolio I bought.

Photography Portfolio ‘Travel Situations’

 

Photograph Portfolio Tip Three – make things easy on yourself.

If applying for more than one course try to make life easy for yourself by looking for similarities in the briefs. Try to find a way of making your portfolios as similar as possible. This will cut down on costs and time swapping images and you’ll only need one portfolio case – college courses usually have different submission dates so you don’t have to buy loads of portfolios.

I knew that I needed a minimum of 20 images so I bought a portfolio that would hold at least 30 images – just in case. My photos had to be no larger than A1, so, I decided to make them all A1 and to get them all printed with a matt finish, as I like a matt effect, and I got them all printed at the same time in the one shop.

One portfolio, one size, one finish, one batch, one shop. Easy.

The wonderful people in John Gunn Camera Shop did the printing and I was so happy with the results and the advice they gave me about putting my portfolio together. I can highly recommend them.

I also wanted my photos to ‘pop’ so I bought some good quality white sheets of cardboard and mounted the photographs on these.

I’m not going to show you or talk about the portfolio I submitted to NCAD – the National College of Art and Design. It is so embarrassing and the photos are awful. NCAD gives you a project to do and you interpret it whatever way you wanted. I’m not a very creative person. I find it very hard to think outside the box when it comes to art and design. So, I am in no position to offer any advice or tips for getting into NCAD or following a project design. Needless to say, I didn’t get past the first round of applications.

Photography Portfolio ‘Perspective’

 

Photograph Portfolio Tip Four – tell a story.

I placed the mounted photos on the right-hand pages of the portfolio. I wanted my portfolio to tell a story so I gave each image a title or theme to give the photo context.

On the left-hand pages, I included two smaller photographs that were collages of more of my photos. I created these by following a YouTube tutorial. These extra photos highlight more examples of the theme of the main image.

For example; I called my first main photo ‘Freezing Time’. I then choose eight more photos that showed the theme freezing time and turned them into collages.

Underneath the collages, in pen on an index card, I wrote the story behind the main image and the camera settings used to take the photo. This bulked up my portfolio and highlighted more of my work but kept to the brief.

Photography Portfolio ‘Freezing Time’

 

MY PHOTOGRAPHY PORTFOLIO LOOKED LIKE THIS:

Melanie May Photography Portfolio

Photography Portfolio Layout

 

Photograph Portfolio Tip Five – make your portfolio user-friendly.

Make your portfolio user-friendly via an organised or structured layout. I made sure I had a mix of portrait and landscape photos to mix things up a little. However, to ensure that the folk looking at the portfolio didn’t have to keep turning the big heavy portfolio around I put all the landscape photos at the front and the portrait ones at the back. Again, I thought this was the most genius idea ever, but maybe it is just common practice.

Also, the first page of my photography portfolio was a printed thumbnail sheet of all the large images in the portfolio. The lady in the printing shop did this for me.

Photography Portfolio Thumbnails

 

Photograph Portfolio Tip Six- leave enough time to do it all.

Overall, I was super happy with my portfolio, apart from the index cards, but that was my own fault for leaving everything until the last minute. The index cards look so messy and unprofessional. If I was doing this again I would print these on nice coloured paper.

So, learn from my mistakes and don’t rush your work. Take your time over your presentation as it says a lot about you as a person. Remember, your portfolio isn’t just about the photos. Start preparing your portfolio a few weeks, or more, in advance.

You need time to interpret the brief, find your best photos and take some new ones, get them printed, display them and tell the story. You also, usually, must physically get to the college and submit the portfolio. By giving yourself plenty of time you’ll feel less stressed and you’ll do a better job. You’ll also have a sense of pride when you submit your portfolio and not a sense of sheer relief, as I did!

THE PHOTOGRAPHS

 

Photograph Portfolio Tip Seven – the perfect shot is worth the wait.

This is a more general photography tip, as I’m in no position to talk about how to improve your photography skills as I’ve no idea what made my photos good enough. But, the one thing that I do believe makes me a goodish photographer is having patience. I think waiting for the right moment to take a photo makes my photos stand out. I have been known to wait for over thirty minutes to take one photo. For example, I love to take photos of busy places looking empty e.g. empty streets of New York or tourist traps with no people, but it takes patience to get that perfect shot, but the results are worth it.

Photography Portfolio ‘Patience’

 

Photograph Portfolio Tip Eight – find your ‘thing’.

Find something you enjoy photographing and keep photographing it ’till it becomes your ‘thing’. Imagine it’s your first ever exhibition, what would your ‘thing’ be? Show an example of your ‘thing’ your passion in your portfolio.

I met a photographer who loves to take photos of washing lines. He has quite a collection of very cool and unique photos. This is his thing and he has quite the knack of photographing them now.

I like to take photos of people by themselves. Sounds creepy I know (and it kind of is), but I found that I’m good at capturing those moments and now I have a collection entitled ‘Alone’.

Photography Portfolio ‘Alone’

 

Photograph Portfolio Tip Nine – pick your favourites.

When creating my photography portfolio, I had a few photos that I loved and wanted to include no matter what, so I chose those photos and worked them into the brief somehow.

The photos were ones that I just felt something emotionally towards whist looking at them. Maybe it was the fond memory behind the photo or emotion behind where or when it was taken; either way, I knew these were going in the portfolio. However, it is important that your heart doesn’t rule your head and if you love the photo but you know it isn’t your best work then listen to your head and not your heart.

Photography Portfolio ‘Travel People’

 

Photograph Portfolio Tip Ten – show progression as a photographer.

Include photographs that highlight your development as a photographer and span the duration of your interest in photography. Colleges and employers like to see where you started and how far you have come. This doesn’t mean that you must be an amazing photographer already, they want to see that you have been learning and growing as a photographer and you have what it takes to learn new skills and apply them to your work.

Dig out some of your old photos that show some degree of skill. This is where you can use those photos that you have an emotional response to. Then you need to show the photos you have taken between then and now. This means you should add some up to date photos as well and this is a great opportunity to take some good new photos for your portfolio.

Photography Portfolio ‘Favourites’

 

Photograph Portfolio Tip Eleven – show your technical ability.

To show my technical ability I decided to attempt some night time photography. I took my camera and tripod and spent an evening walking along the river Liffey in Dublin city taking as many photos as possible.

Night time photography is a great way to show off your technical ability as it will highlight your understanding of different camera settings and the use of equipment e.g. a tripod. Try some long exposure shots to get some star photos. Play around with the ISO, aperture and shutter speed and get some light trails.

Photography Portfolio ‘Favourites – Dublin’

 

Photograph Portfolio Tip Twelve – add variety.

Do something to add some variety to your portfolio. Don’t just have all daytime shots or indoor photos. Have a mix of colour and black and white photos. Show your breath of skills. Again, you want to show that you can learn and adapt to different situations. Mix it up with some still life and street photograph or go to a gig and try and capture some life and energy. That’s what I did. You can always specialise down the line.

Photography Portfolio ‘Music’

 

Photograph Portfolio Tip Thirteen – show post processing skills.

One thing that I have never learnt to use is Photoshop. However, this is a huge part of photography courses now. I knew my lack of skills in this area might be noticeable in my portfolio so I tried to include one photo that used Photoshop. I learnt how to do it all by watching YouTube videos.

Using Photoshop, I created this composite image of Christchurch Cathedral in Dublin city. This cathedral is huge and not many photos do it justice as they are usually close-up photos of the architectural details or taken far away which loses its imposing grandeur.

I wanted to show the massive scale of the building. So, I took loads of photos from different angles – kneeling, standing up, climbing on railings, far away, up-close etc. – and I stitched them all together in Photoshop. I purposefully chose not to match up the lines, as I didn’t want the photo to be seamless. I wanted it to be interesting and full of texture and as packed full of features as the Cathedral is itself.

At first, you don’t notice the many different photos but then as you look more closely you notice something just isn’t right and then you see the full effect of the image. I love it. I was so proud when I finished as I thought this was way beyond my capabilities.

Photography Portfolio ‘Christchurch’

 

Photograph Portfolio Tip Fourteen – be more creative.

This tip is an extension of the one above – push yourself creatively and do something that you think you can’t. Not only will it improve your skills, it will show that you can ‘think outside the box’ when it comes to photography. Colleges and employers love that shit!

Photography Portfolio ‘Black and White’

 

Photograph Portfolio Tip Fifteen – show your influences.

Include an homage piece or ‘inspired by’ photo. Pick a photographer that you love and try to show how they influence your work and how you have learned from them, even if it is just one photograph. You will be able to write about this person in your portfolio and talk about them too when you get an interview for the course or job. Colleges and employers love when you know some history around your chosen subject. It shows you have a genuine interest and that you have an appreciation for the history of it.

Having found a new confidence in my creative abilities and confidence in Photoshop I decided to do one more creative montage. I wanted to show how others inspire my creativity and pay homage to a famous photographer.

So I chose David Hockney. Why? Because there was something about him on the TV the night before and I liked his style. I Googled some of his photography and picked one I liked and tried to pay homage to it in my own way.

The photo I picked was a Polaroid collage called Joiners. I roped my boyfriend of the time into helping me. I got him to play the guitar whilst I photographed him. This was quite a fun project to do and it developed my Photoshop skills even further. Again, I learnt everything from YouTube. I was so happy with the results.

Photography Portfolio ‘Hockey Homage’

 

Photograph Portfolio Tip Sixteen – research the requirements.

This goes back to the very first tip of reading the manual. The portfolio brief stated that my photos needed to show my understanding of composition, light, texture and form. But I really had no clue what these meant in photography, so I turned to Google and good old-fashioned photography books. I looked up what each of the photographic terms meant and then found examples of famous photographs that showed good use of these elements.

Then I tried to find two or three of my own photos that showed the same sort of things. I had to take some new photos as I had nothing that showed ‘texture’ very well. So, make sure you research your design brief and use examples as your guide, especially if you are stuck for ideas and don’t know what to do.

Photography Portfolio ‘Light’

 

Photograph Portfolio Tip Seventeen – get trusted opinions.

When you are selecting the final photos to go into your portfolio get the opinions of people you trust and be open to constructive criticism. This will help you narrow down your photos and include only the good ones. Resist the urge to scream “What do you know?” in the faces of those who tell you they don’t like your favourite sunset-in-Thailand-photo. If you know any photographer or people studying photography ask them to help you choose your final photos and ask them why they prefer one photo over another. This is a great way to learn what makes a photo appealing to others.

Photography Portfolio ‘Composition’

 

Photograph Portfolio Tip Eighteen – prepare for the interview.

For the photography course in DIT, I was offered a place after I did an interview. They asked me lots of questions about the photos in the portfolio, so make sure you prepare for an interview by being able to talk about the photos in your portfolio. Know your portfolio inside out and if you mention other photographers in your portfolio be able to talk about them too. Talk about your development as a photographer and where you get your inspiration from and what you see as your weaknesses as a photographer, mine was lack of Photoshop skills.

As far as I am aware, I was only one of two mature students offered a place in DIT that year. The courses themselves look amazing and I would have really enjoyed doing them but I was also offered a place to study psychology at Trinity College and I decided to take that instead.

The portfolio I submitted to IDAT got 390 points out of 600 and to get an offer of a place you needed only 240 points, but that was back in 2009 so just check the points required now.

Looking back over my portfolio now has gotten me all excited at the thought of studying photography, and I notice that I have time to submit my portfolio for this year’s intake. Right, I’m off to print out some proper index cards.

Photography Portfolio ‘Form’

 

My full photography portfolio can be seen here.

If you have any questions or want to know more about my experiences please leave a comment or question below and I will be delighted to answer them.

Happy Snapping

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Melanie May
melanie@melaniemay.com

Travel Eat Write Repeat - Food and travel blog, easy recipes and real restaurant reviews.

15 Comments
  • Melanie
    Posted at 21:06h, 03 April Reply

    Thanks Sean, and he was on the telly the night before!

  • Shigufa Saleheen
    Posted at 00:49h, 20 June Reply

    I’m not a photographer, but these tips were still super helpful when I thought about applying them to my instagram aesthetic! Great work!

    • Melanie May
      Posted at 23:01h, 20 June Reply

      Thanks for reading and I am glad you found some of them useful.

  • Jessie
    Posted at 03:26h, 20 June Reply

    Great post and beautiful photos! I’m a new blogger and my photography skills could definitely use some work. Thanks for the tips!

    • Melanie May
      Posted at 23:02h, 20 June Reply

      My photography skills need so much work. It is the area I struggle with the most.

  • alisonrost
    Posted at 07:35h, 20 June Reply

    These are all such great tips. I especially liked the tip about showing progression as a photographer. I’m a food blogger and I can definitely tell I’ve improved over the years. I try not to look too closely at my older photos, I always want to redo them!

    • Melanie May
      Posted at 23:02h, 20 June Reply

      Me too! My earlier photos are awful but they show how far I have come. I have a long way to go still!

  • Ana De-Jesus
    Posted at 11:51h, 20 June Reply

    I think that I would have to agree with you. The best photos in my eyes are the ones that tell a story, they seem more real to me x

  • helerinablogs
    Posted at 16:52h, 21 June Reply

    This was so interesting to read and has so many great tips. Your photographs are all so beautiful. I’m just starting out in photography and would love to be able to have a portfolio one day.

    • Melanie May
      Posted at 22:13h, 21 June Reply

      Thank you. I have to take hundreds of photos just to find one or two that I am happy with. There is so much to learn when it comes to photography. Thanks for stopping by.

  • Louise x (@withlovefromlou)
    Posted at 23:13h, 21 June Reply

    These are all fantastic tips. I think I’m OK at photography, but I could definitely improve!!

    Louise x

    • Melanie May
      Posted at 21:14h, 23 June Reply

      So much to learn and always room to improve. The more I photograph the more I improve!

  • den
    Posted at 22:57h, 23 June Reply

    Our photography professor said the best way to organize a portfolio is to showcase your unique eye or as you have mentioned “your thing.” It helps provide people your perspective of the world. Love the photos!

    • Melanie May
      Posted at 00:22h, 17 September Reply

      That’s a really great thing to do. Put in your portfolio what makes your work stand out from the others. Thanks for the nice comment.

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