As a photographer focusing on the commercial and fashion genres, working with models is part of the territory. I've looked through countless portfolios and comp cards everywhere from agency websites to Facebook, Instagram, and Model Mayhem.
I get requests from models regularly who are interested in working with me or are looking to break into the industry and need work for their books, and I also do a lot of local searching for models who might fit projects I'm working on. Over the years, I've noticed a few things that I think might really help non-agency models get more work.
While Agency models have the assistance of professionals in curating their books, finding jobs and shaping their look, freelance models who aren't signed have to rely on themselves. Because I've got great respect for models (let's face it, it's a lot of work!) I wanted to let you awesome people know what I look for when I'm scoping out portfolios, and also what might be stopping you from getting work.
First, let's address the MUST HAVES
1. I want to see your face. Close up. I need to know what your bone structure looks like and how light strikes your face free of any contouring or light-mimicking makeup.
What do you need to do? Have a clean headshot, head and shoulders at most, with little to no makeup in fairly even light.
Want to go above and beyond? Try to have a few photos in different types of directional light; hard light, soft light, diffused light, etc.
2. I need to know what your body looks like. As an example; If I'm going to shoot a fitness ad, I need a model who has a body that represents that.
What do you need to do? Have a clean shot, not overly posed or edited, of you in a bikini or underwear, in fairly even light, from the front and the side. *note* this should not be a sexualized image; it's descriptive not provocative.
These are the common kinds of shots you'll see in a model's polaroids. It's important to have these because they give potential photographers a clear vision of what you will bring to the table, and whether you have the right look for the project they're working on. PLEASE, for the love of all things holy, get these done by someone who knows what they're doing, even if you have to pay.
Now, let's talk about the NICE TO HAVES:
It's nice to look at a portfolio and be able to see the following things;
It's helpful to see that you can pose, that you can give expression, and what genre you'd like to focus on. If you're looking to trade with a photographer who needs boudoir work, but you want to focus on editorial, you may not want to include that kind of work in your portfolio. Show what you want to shoot.
Finally, let's get down to the things that will make me pass right by your profile without giving you a second look.
1. Your profile photo is a body shot from really far away or in bad light.
If I can't see your face, you get skipped. I don't have the time to search through all of your photos just to find out what you look like.
2. The photos in your port aren't quality work.
I can't stress this one enough. Trade work is great, and everyone does it (myself included!), but if you can't get a photographer who is producing quality work to trade with you and you want to make a serious go of modeling, PAY a good photographer. Sub-par work, without purposeful lighting, lens choice, etc. can distort your features and prohibit photographers and employers from seeing what you truly look like.
3. Everything is so heavily edited that I can't tell what your skin or body actually looks like.
Having a retoucher paint in abs might make you feel like a bad ass, but it gives potential employers a false idea of what they're working with. If I need to work with a model for a clean beauty shoot, I need to know what their skin quality is, and if the photos are retouched into plasticity, then it doesn't only destroy your skin texture but can also damage the appearance of your bone structure.
You should be doing everything you can to fill your book with the kind of work you want to be doing, whether through trade or by hiring a great photog. If you're interested in fitness modeling, get shots in your port that show you are believable as a fitness model. If you want to do beauty work, get it into your port, whether through trade or hire.
Photographers each have their own aesthetic, certain things that inspire them about certain models, whether it's widely spaced eyes, a down turned mouth, epic cheekbones, an aquiline nose, or all or none of those. If a photographer passes you by, it may just be that you don't have a look that works for the project they're working on. But if you have a strong book, with the examples I mentioned above and quality work, then you'll have done everything you can to attract the RIGHT kind of photographer for the work you want to do.
Just to round things out, I've asked a couple of amazing photographer friends what kind of things they look for when checking out a model's portfolio. They're both amazing, with totally different styles, so this should help keep everything in perspective. GOOD LUCK!
Olga Tenyanin: Boudoir and Portrait
"At first I look to see the quality of the images, then I look to see how the light falls on their face and if their personal look goes with my aesthetic and matches the look I'm going for in that particular shoot."
Kate Woodman: Commercial and Fashion
I need to see your face! Polaroids (or the digital equivalent these days) are definitely important. They may not look super polished compared to the rest of your book but they are super important to a photographer. Because I particularly like to work with more natural makeup, less is more for me.
If you are going to include more editorial makeup looks, it is SO important to work with quality makeup artists, in addition to quality photographers. Even the best photographers & retouchers can’t fix bad makeup!
I also want to see your angles—don’t just show me that one side of your face; you can trust me as the photographer to find your best angles, but I want to know what I’m working with before we start shooting. Seeing your face (and body) shot at different focal lengths is also a plus for me, since I tend to shoot a bigger range of focal lengths—a lot of times you’ll see the iPhone selfie which approximates a 35mm and tends to elongate your face and exaggerate certain features, but when shot at 100mm your features can look VERY different!
What do you look like NOW? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve booked with a model and I’ve planned for long curly hair and she’s cut it, straightened it and dyed it blonde! If you’ve changed your hair, make sure you have an image with your current look; if you have been vacationing in Bora Bora and have a deep tan, I need to know.
Versatility is important! When I am looking for a model, I already have a preconceived notion of what I want that model to look like in my mind. I generally already know what I want my lighting, makeup and styling to look like. So when I go through a model’s book, if I can see them in a similar setup that I’m already planning on using, it makes my decision that much easier.
You may want to be that model that only does swimwear or lifestyle, but even the Karlis and the Caras go from shooting avante garde one day to shooting fitness the next. You aren’t going to be appeal to everyone but you are more likely to appeal to a wider range if you can SHOW range.