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How to Build a Modeling Portfolio

Modeling Portfolio Sample (Image)
Model: Jose Manuel Alcalde

Every new model faces the same dilemma: in order to find modeling work or to be signed with an agency, he or she needs a modeling portfolio. But how does one go about building a modeling portfolio without any modeling experience?

Well, there are two ways to go about it.

The first and by far the most common tack most would-be models take is to try to build a portfolio by getting a photographer to agree to a “time for” or TF modeling session, in which the photographer provides his or her services to the model at no charge, with the understanding that the images the photographer creates will add to the portfolios of both the photographer and the would-be model.

What are the advantages, from the model’s side of the equation, to getting a photographer to wave his or her fee? There is really only one, and it’s the primary reason that a prospective model might choose this route: it doesn’t cost anything (surprised?).

And what are the disadvantages of using time-for (TF) sessions to build a portfolio when you don’t have any modeling experience? There are many. To begin with, consider why a given photographer would be willing to work with an inexperienced model who has no connections and really has nothing to offer the photographer other than the opportunity to test his or her camera. Chances are, the photographer doesn’t have much experience either, and if he or she doesn’t know anything about providing direction, suggesting wardrobe, or posing a model, what knowledge will the prospective model gain from such a session? None, of course.

Modeling Sample (Image)
Model: Kat C.

Now take this line of reasoning a step further, and it’s easy to see why working so hard to avoid spending any money on your portfolio can be self-defeating and ultimately can cost you money. By wasting your time with a photographer or photographers who are inexperienced and don’t have the resources of one who has worked with agency models, you end up with photos that are poorly composed, poorly lit, which fail to capture your best angles, or which are in poor taste. And without having a photographer who has a good eye, how can you critically examine the pictures you’re hoping to use to figure out what’s bad or which ones aren’t quite good enough? Unless you’ve worked for a fashion magazine or worked peripherally yourself in the modeling world, how will you distinguish between what you think is a fine photo and what an agent or agency will think of the same image?

Add to these problems the fact that you will have to work hard simply to find a potential photographer who will be willing to wave his or her fee (remember that photographers have to eat, just like you), and it’s not so hard to understand why the would be model who has no money to spend never gets a single modeling job – and wastes a tremendous amount of his or her time in the process.

To understand just how absurd it is to try to build a portfolio without spending a dime on the pictures that go into it, imagine for a moment that your dream is to become a nurse. Is there some magic nursing school that doesn’t charge tuition? Of course not. Try to think of any profession you might choose: is there any career path out there that requires zero investment or that will come to you without any costs or expenses? Nope, there isn’t. And why should modeling be any different?

If you are serious about becoming a model, your portfolio is an investment, a necessary expense, just like your clothes. Without investing in yourself and your potential, you can’t expect to get anywhere, whether you want to be a model or an astronaut.

Modeling Portfolio Sample (Image)
Model: Jose Manuel Alcalde

And now we’ve arrived at the flip side: hiring a photographer to help you build a modeling portfolio. What should you look for in a photographer, and what questions should you ask before you start to spend any of that hard-earned, closely guarded cash that you’ve decided to invest in your future? After all, there are lots of photographers out there, particularly in a market like New York City, who are more than willing to take your money; how do you know which one to pick?

First off, make sure you know something about what you want to achieve with your portfolio. What sort of model do you want to be? Are you interested in straight runway work? Or does fitness modeling appeal to you? Do you see yourself as a fashion model whose face belongs in magazines and on billboards? This is the first question you have to answer, and once you know the answer, it’s up to you to do the research; that is, you need to search for appealing images that fit the modeling niche you want to fill, and you need to be ready to discuss what you like about those images with your potential photographer.

With some idea of what you like and how you want to portray yourself, you’re ready to examine the work of the photographers in your area who offer modeling portfolio packages. Don’t assume that you have to match, so to speak, the exact style of the kinds of images that you like with a photographer who has done something nearly identical; most good photographers can duplicate just about any kind of shot, but that’s not the job of a good photographer, is it? Focus, instead, on the quality and variety of the photographer’s work; there should be examples of modeling done in and out of a studio setting, and any photographer who employs the same model in all of his or her modeling work is probably suspect (this may not be immediately obvious, but it is something to consider).

After you’ve narrowed down your list of prospective photographers and weeded out the ones whose work doesn’t appeal to you, you have to decide how much your first modeling session(s) will cost.

If you’re in New York, any photographer who wants to charge you $500 or more for a modeling session that will jump start your portfolio is definitely taking you for a ride. Even with a make-artist, that’s simply too much to pay; however, with that said, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all pricing tier for any kind of photography. So you need to ask some more questions, of course.

  1. Will a make-up artist (MUA) be provided? What about a hair stylist? If a MUA is not part of the package price, how much will adding a MUA add to the cost?
  2. How long will the photo session be?
  3. How many outfit changes will be included in the session?
  4. How many retouched images are included as part of the package price?
  5. How long will it take for the final retouched images to be delivered?
  6. If the shoot will be done on location (outside of a studio), has the photographer scouted the location? Has he or she scheduled a rain date as well, in the event of inclement weather?

In addition, you should also ask whether your prospective photographer has worked with agency models (we have). If the photographer has a studio, would he or she be willing to meet with you at the studio to discuss the kinds of shots you want to get? (We do this as well: a before-shoot consultation in the studio is always an option.)

Once you and the photographer have agreed on a package price, make sure you know exactly what you’re getting, and keep your expectations realistic. Remember, everyone has to start somewhere, and now that you’ve decided to take the first step toward making your dream a reality, it will be up to you to make the most of your opportunities by honing your craft, learning from your peers, and maintaining a professional attitude.

So what are you waiting for? Start your search today by having a look at my New York modeling gallery, and feel free to contact me if you have any questions about the content of this article.

Head Shots (Image)
Model: Jose Manuel Alcalde


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