Getting started in portrait photography, whether as a professional or amateur photographer, requires people to photograph. But how do you find models for photoshoots when you have no portfolio to show your potential models?
I know that it can be frustrating, but just remember that everyone starts somewhere.
Here are the steps that most portrait and fashion photographers take to build up their portfolio so that they can one day hire models for photoshoots.
(PS- This post contains affiliate links. Buying something through one of these affiliate links won’t cost you anything extra, but I may get a small commission.)
Step 1 – photograph friends and family
The first place to find models to photograph is friends and family. A model is anyone in front of your camera.
I actually think that this is far more valuable than you realise, especially if you plan on one day being a professional portrait photographer. But there’s another reason, which I’ll get to in a moment.
You need to learn how to pose people and starting with people you know is easier than with a stranger. You can work through ideas together and if you mess up it won’t matter.
Learning how to pose and effectively direct models is a skill that develops over time. You can’t just fall into it.
Not only do you have to know poses for different types of people and how to direct them into poses, but also how to make them feel relax in front of your lens.
If you think about it logically, when you first meet a stranger, are you completely comfortable? Of course not, so how can anyone be relaxed in front of your camera straight away, even an experienced model? The sooner people relax, the quicker a photoshoot will start to flow.
It’s hard work at first, because you have so much to think about. However, with practice it becomes second nature to scan your model and the entire scene constantly, while directing, encouraging and keeping the shoot moving with high energy.
You’re the photographer. The buck stops with you.
Further reading: 5 background photography tips for better photos
Moving on from friends and family
Once you’ve built up your confidence and have a few photographs you’re proud of and can show a variety of photoshoots, create an Instagram account purely as a portfolio to show to potential models.
Not only will potential models be able to see if they like your style enough to work with you, but it helps to start establishing trust that you are an actual person.
Now you’re ready to start photographing inexperienced models. But first, you need to think about safety – your model’s safety and yours.
Safety when looking for models for photoshoots
When approaching a model to photograph, you have to put yourself in their shoes and imagine how you would feel. What you would need to feel safe and comfortable with a stranger photographing you?
As a female photographer, I can’t deny that it’s easier for me to approach models, but there’s no reason for them to trust me just because I’m female.
Just as there’s no reason for me to trust a model I don’t know. I too have to take steps to ensure my safety.
That’s why second shoots with the same model are so much fun! You’ve got all the cautious stuff out of the way, you’re familiar with how each other works and you know what to expect. By the second time around you already have a connection and you can just be excited about the amazing photos you’re going to create together.
I’ll cover safety in more detail as we go through the next steps of finding models for photoshoots.
A model I’ve enjoyed photographing several times. This was her first shoot and while she knew how to connect with the camera, she knew nothing about posing, but took direction really well. I met her through her sister who is a client.
Step 2 – photograph inexperienced models
Why start with inexperienced models for photoshoots?
Yes, you could just pay for an experienced model, but if you don’t know what to look for, you might end up paying for an inexperienced model that says they’re experienced. If you’ve taken the time to learn about posing, you can spot an inexperienced model very easily.
Just because a model is experienced, doesn’t mean that they’re good.
They could have picked up bad posing ideas on the way, or might not be experienced enough to know how to work with the light, in which case it can be hard work to direct them to pose differently.
How to find inexperienced models
This is so much easier than it used to be, thanks to social media! I’ve regularly booked models through:
- Modelling websites
Just remember that not every connection you make is going to lead to a photoshoot, so if you don’t get a response, or they decline, don’t worry about it. Move on to the next one.
How to find models on Instagram
To find potential models on Instagram simply search using these hashtags:
The first one is self explanatory. The second two involve a little more work.
If a photographer posts images of a model on social media, very often they tag them, especially if it’s a collaboration shoot (i.e. both the model and the photographer work for free).
I always ask models if they want to be tagged in posts and I ask that they tag me when they post images I’ve taken.
So, as you look through a photographer’s Instagram feed, if you see an image of a model you like, you might also be able to click through to their account.
After that it’s just a matter of sending them a friendly, professional DM to get the ball rolling.
Keep reading for my first contact template, which shows you how to ask a model for a photoshoot.
3 ways to find models on Facebook
This is even easier than Instagram! Just search for model and photographer groups to join on Facebook.
I belong to several and, like all things in life, some are better than others. I live in a small town, so I’ve joined groups for the whole area and for nearby cities.
Here, models and photographers arrange shoots together on a TF basis. TF stand for Time For. You might also see it as TFP (Time For Print), which is the original term and TFCD (Time For CD), which of course is also outdated now.
Sometimes these are also referred to as test shoots, which is an industry standard term for an agency signed model. New models are sent for test shoots to build their portfolio and get experience. Photographers will test shoot a model to see if they’re what they or client is looking for.
Create a post saying you need models for a photoshoot
To meet models in a Facebook group you can either create a friendly, informative post about what you’re looking for, where you’re shooting and when. Ask them to DM you. Then, as models respond to your post you can start communicating via DM.
Remember, you don’t have to choose everyone that responds!
Not everyone will have the look you want for that particular shoot. You should, however, reply politely to everyone.
Respond to a model’s post looking for a photoshoot
Alternatively, if a model posts looking for photographers, respond in the comments or by direct message if they ask for it.
Message a model to ask for a photoshoot
Lastly, I also sometimes DM a model that I’ve seen respond to other photographers’ posts.
How to find models on modelling websites
Another way to find models is through sites like Model Mayhem or Purpleport, to name just two. This works well for some photographers, but not so great for others, with many reports of unreliable models.
I’ve met a couple of great models through both Model Mayhem and Purpleport, but it’s not my preferred method.
With these types of sites you can set up a free account with limited functionality or pay for a fuller service.
To be accepted you’ll need to submit a selection of photos for your account… which is another reason why you first need to get a few shoots under your belt before you looking for models for photoshoots.
How to avoid unreliable models
Speaking of unreliable models, a word of warning when looking for both inexperienced and experienced models….
If they’re flaky in their communication, think twice about arranging a shoot.
It’s not unusual for flaky models to be late or not to show up for a photoshoot. It takes so much effort to arrange a shoot, so at the first sign of flakiness I tactfully let them know that I no longer wish to proceed.
When is a model considered flaky?
- If a model doesn’t respond to your DM until several days later, it’s the first red flag.
- If they chop and change their mind, or won’t commit to a date, it’s a screaming red flag.
- Also, if they keep asking the same questions that I’ve already discussed, like when and where, or whatever, it’s a no from me.
I responded to a post in a Facebook group looking for a photographer. At the time I was looking for dancers to photograph, so it was a perfect match.
How do you approach a model to ask for a photoshoot?
When I message a model I include:
- My name, website and social media profiles
- A couple of sentences about me and my experience
- A link to a Pinterest board that reflects the type of shoot I want to set up
Fill in this form and I’ll send you a template to use…
I encourage models to view my portfolio and my website to prove my trustworthiness. If they’re happy to proceed after that, I set up a quick phone chat to work through the details.
If model is reluctant to talk on the phone I don’t take it any further. I know many people don’t like talking on the phone, but it’s the quickest way to get a shoot planned and to start getting to know someone.
This is the Pinterest board I set up for the dance shoot above.
What’s a reasonable request from a model?
- Asking if they can bring somebody to the shoot is perfectly reasonable. In fact, for younger models (under 18) I insist on it, even if I’ve photographed them before. I also tell them that I’ll have my assistant with me. Just because the intention of getting together is to take photos, it doesn’t alter the fact that you’re strangers who met online. Safety comes first for everybody.
- Asking if they can use a particular item of clothing. If the photoshoot is a collaboration, it’s as much about what they want out of as you. Who knows – whatever suggestion they have might work really well for your portfolio too.
How to book inexperienced models for photoshoots
The most important thing when approaching a model is to be honest. Don’t pretend to be a hotshot photographer if you’re still figuring it all out.
Organisation is the key to a successful shoot
It comes across as professional and will make people trust you, even if your portfolio is limited.
Plan your shoot as if you’re earning from it. Just because no money is changing hands doesn’t mean you should be unprofessional.
Set up a Pinterest board
The best way to tell somebody what you want to create is to show them. So, if you don’t have examples of your own work for the type of shoot you want, I suggest using Pinterest.
Yes, you could gather images from the internet and put them together in a moodboard that you knock up in Photoshop, or even PowerPoint for that matter. The problem with this is that they’re not your photos, so unless you’re very clear that they’re not your photos, you’re misrepresenting your skills.
Setting up a Pinterest board for shoot inspiration ensures that you don’t mislead anyone.
My board will include images that show the type of poses, location and clothing I’d like for the shoot. My potential model can see at a glance what I’m thinking and if they like it they’ll agree and will feel confident that they know what to expect.
Trust is the key ingredient in booking a model for a shoot, so for a successful shoot, you should always work towards establishing trust.
Make sure you’re in agreement before the shoot
This is not the time to be shy about asserting yourself. Agree the terms of the shoot ahead of time in writing.
If you’re looking for free models for photography, it’s very important to let them know what they’ll get out of it so that there’s no confusion that could lead to conflict. Establish:
- How many photos the model will receive
- If the photos will be edited or unedited
- How they’ll receive the photos
- How long after the shoot you’ll deliver the photos
Then stick to it!
Setting expectations and delivering as promised is just part of being professional and no matter how experienced or inexperienced you might be at photographing models, you should always be professional.
Model release form
Send your model a model release form to sign before the shoot. This gives them time to look at it and make sure that they’re comfortable with it before signing. Handing it to them on the day and expecting them to sign on the spot is not fair.
Even if you’re not planning on using the images from the photoshoot commercially, it’s best to have a signed model release to cover you for the future should you decide to use the photos.
Then file it away safely as you’ll need to keep it forever in case you use the photos.
An inexperienced model I met in a Facebook group before my trip to South Africa. She’d grown up on a farm so was very comfortable posing near cattle – in fact, it was her idea. The entire shoot was planned before my trip, including stylist and makeup artist. The only unknown to me was the location, so we met up to do a location scout the day before the shoot.
Be considerate of your model!
Remember you’re dealing with inexperienced models who are also learning the ropes. They might not have the confidence to tell you that they’re uncomfortable.
If I’m photographing an inexperienced model in cold weather, you can be sure that I won’t be wearing my thick winter coat, unless they are. It helps to be aware of the cold so that you can call a break to warm up if necessary.
I check in with my model regularly during the shoot to make sure that they’re feeling okay, especially if it’s cold or hot or they’re holding strenuous poses.
Somewhere to change
If you’ve planned a few outfits, make sure you have a safe place for them to change. I have a fantastic little pop up tent like this one that’s perfect for changing in. I would never ask a model to change in a car or behind a bush! But I hear about it a lot. Telling a model that you have this facility for them to change comfortably goes a long way to establishing trust.
Yes, it’s one more thing to carry if you’re shooting on location, so get yourself a little all terrain wagon. You might not look like the coolest person in the world, but you’re there to create amazing photos, not look cool.
Incidentally, wagons like this one that I use are a great way to ensure that you don’t spread your stuff around – that’s how you lose gear. If you’re photographing at the beach, it’s essential to have your gear and the model’s clothes and accessories in your trolley, rather than on the sand.
Collaboration is key to free photoshoots
Ask your model if they have any suggestions or input. Neither of you is getting paid, so this needs to be a collaboration. Plus, they might have a great idea you never thought of.
Step 3 – book experienced models for photoshoots
The great advantage of photographing an experienced model is that the shoot flows quickly. You spend less time directing and more time getting the shots, so you end up with more variety.
Do experienced models work for free?
Many experienced models will work on a TF or test basis, so you don’t necessarily have to pay. If you can show a good portfolio and have an interesting idea for a shoot that will provide them with photos to boost their portfolio, an experienced model might happily work with you for free.
It all depends on what you both want from the shoot.
If you’re going to pay a model, like with any business transaction, rates are agreed upfront in writing and the model is paid on the day.
How to work with experienced models
The process is no different from when you book inexperienced, free models to ensure a successful photoshoot:
By the time models have built up some experience, they’ve all had to deal with their fair share of MWACs, and they can spot them a mile off. Or they should be able to. So if you don’t present yourself in a professional and trustworthy manner, there’s no way they’ll agree to a photoshoot with you.
MWAC stands for Man With A Camera and while this term is derogatory, and not at all representative of the vast majority of photographers, it’s a lot nicer than the intention of some supposed “photographers” who are simply predators using a camera to get a model (male or female) on their own.
It’s unfortunate, but remember that any photographer approaching a model is a potential MWAC to them.
An alternative way to build a photography portfolio
Another option is to join other photographers on portfolio building days. There are a number of ways to do this:
- Pay a professional photographer who is offering portfolio building days
- Join a camera club that hosts model shoot days
- Get together with a small group of photographers and hire models for a photoshoot
Further reading: 5 portrait photography techniques for better photos
Next, I’ll talk you through how to run a successful shoot when photographing models. If you haven’t already signed up, do so now to be notified when the article is published!
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