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5 Basic Tips for Starting a Fashion Portfolio


When you’re just starting out, building a fashion photography portfolio can be quite a daunting task. Having to organize and prepare shoots can be difficult, especially if you have no budget. These are my tips for shooting on a shoestring when you’re just starting:

#1. Find Models

If you have some photogenic friends, start with them to get your technique down. But a real fashion portfolio needs real fashion models.

I have worked in the fashion industry as both a model and photographer for over 5 years and can tell you most models have a hell of a lot of time on their hands. Many are happy to volunteer their time for some new test shots to fill out their book. It’s often as simple as reaching out (model Facebook groups are a good resource) or direct messaging some one’s look that you like on Instagram.

Of course, don’t always expect replies for pro-bono work, but if you can provide a cool idea and show some of your work there are many models who are happy to do test shoots. Don’t go through agencies, as they just will try to charge you.

#2. Create a Mood Board

I favor a bottom-up approach to this, especially when working on a limited budget and time. First of all look at you’re models existing portfolio so you can get an idea for what angles and styles will suit best as well as what appeals to you.

In terms of location and mood, look at what you have with and build around it and to make things easier, think in terms of black and white. I use mood boards primarily to look for a color palette and pose, so I know what to look for in a background and how to direct the model.

#3. Preparation is Key (Especially if You Don’t Have an Assistant)

Scout your location the day before at the time of day you plan to shoot at to get an idea of what the lighting will be like. Visualize how the light will fall on your subject and think of how the setting should correspond with the mood and pose of your model.

Think simple: architecture, sharp lines and symmetry might look good with a straighter form and stern expression. Natural settings with softer shapes could correspond better with movement and a more relaxed mood. Keep in mind the clothing you will be using, as well as the model, so that the visuals are coherent.

If possible, avoid shooting in the middle of the day, when the sun is directly overhead, as this is very unflattering lighting- as well as it tends to be the hottest time of the day. There’s nothing worse than a sweaty model, lit from above.

#4. Makeup is Not Essential (But Can Save You Time Retouching)

Not so important for shooting guys and for certain skin types and moods, but it can help especially if you are not trained in more complex retouching. Ask your model if they can apply some basic makeup before the shoot and you will thank yourself later.

On that note: it is important to learn some basic retouching, and one of the best things you can buy is a cheap Intous stylus and tablet for precision editing and avoiding carpal tunnel syndrome. The most important thing is spot removal skin toning, and learning how to use liquefy. Always do this in layers, so you can fix mistakes long after the fact and remember to reapply some noise over your image at the end so things don’t end up looking too flat and artificial.

#5. Simplify Everything

If you’re on location and new to shooting models you don’t want to have to think about changing lenses or managing a cumbersome inventory of gear. If you can get an assistant then this will take some of the burden off, but less is always more.

You will get your best shots through communicating with your subject, by thinking in terms of the focal length you have attached and by working within your limitations. A nifty 50mm on a decent camera and you’re good to go. In terms of clothing, it’s far better to completely nail one look than waste an afternoon trying to shoot several different ‘meh’ outfits. If you’re going for variety, get some accessories, or alternate between taking a jacket on or off.

If you’re doing everything right, it shouldn’t take longer than an hour to get some decent pictures to start your portfolio.

About the author: James Cater is a digital and analog photographer, film lab operator, and model. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Cater’s work on his website and Instagram. This article was also published here.