How to Build Your Model Portfolio for FREE with Professional Photographers
I hear photographers groan all the time “This model wants me to shoot their model portfolio for free like I haven’t got anything better to do” and yet we all end up working for each other for free at some point, so I thought I’d give you some insight into the mind of a photographer and what motivates them to shoot you for free.
I get a lot of requests from models to work on TFP* shoots with them. I know some photographers complain about this because the model is asking them to work for free, but I think it’s flattering, because the model is also telling me that they love my work enough to offer up their own time for free. Unfortunately, though, most of these requests sound something like this:
“Hi Mark, I really love your work. If you ever need a model please let me know”My first reaction is one of gratitude. I, like all creatives, feed on the idea that people are enjoying what I’m putting out into the world. Then I check out the model’s portfolio and I see if I think I like their look.
Even if I love their look, the real world quickly reminds me that I have a backlog of editing to get through, marketing to do, clients to appease… I don’t have time to pull together my team, come up with a concept, book the studio, create the mood board, set aside a half day for the shoot and then another day for retouching. So I reply with something like “I love your look, if you’d like to drop by the studio for a coffee and a chat that would be great”.
Why do I reply with this if I’m too busy to shoot? Because I want to be convinced. I love your look, but do I like you? Do we have a connection that will show in the camera? I want you to make me WANT to shoot with you.
The questions I’m really asking relate to what kind of shoot you’re asking to work on with me. I’m wondering:
DO YOU HAVE IDEAS?
DO I WANT THEM IN MY PORTFOLIO?
Here’s the secret: Photographers have portfolios too, and we value ours as much as you value yours. We need to keep working on ours, we need to keep building ideas, trying new things and pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone so that we’re improving. I will ask you to coffee if I like your look, so that we can work out if we’re heading in a similar direction. So to convince me that I want to work with you:
STEP 1: COME UP WITH SOME IDEAS.
You can write them down, you can create a pinterest page to describe your idea, you can make a mood board. Have ideas. Communicate them. Tell the photographer, apart from the fact that “It will look good” why this shoot will be worthwhile.
- What will it say about the team?
- Who will it appeal to?
- Will it be submitted for publication somewhere?
- Could it be shown to a potential client to pitch for work?
- Does it send a particularly powerful message?
STEP 2: CHECK THE PHOTOGRAPHER’S PORTFOLIO.
Most photographers already have way too many white-background, commercial, smiling catalogue-style photographs in their folio. We get paid to do that stuff and we can do it in our sleep; we definitely don’t need to donate our time to do it for free, even if you’re the best looking model we’ve ever shot in a pageant pose on a crisp white cyclorama. So you need to pitch ideas to a photographer that are not already in their portfolio. Each photographer will be different. Personally I love the idea of working on complicated artistic shoots or shoots that have weird themes or something that could lead to commercial photography work, or establish me as “that” kind of photographer.
Each photographer is unique, so the idea you want to work on won’t suit everybody and you may get some “no thank you” responses. But if you’ve got me to the “Let’s have a coffee” stage then I will at least hear you out and perhaps offer some tweaks to the idea that might work better for both of us. I believe most photographers would be the same.
STEP 3: CONTACT THE PHOTOGRAPHER.
By this stage you have an idea and you think it might look good in the portfolio of this particular photographer. So tell them. Send them an email that reads something along the lines of “I love your work, I have this idea for a TFP shoot, let’s meet and chat”. Meet them for a coffee and show them your mood board. Be friendly and professional.
STEP 4: (optional) ASSEMBLE A TEAM.
Having an idea for a shoot is good, and the photographer may want to bring their own team in on the shoot. Some photographers, though, might prefer that you do all the production legwork and bring in Make up artist, hair stylist and wardrobe stylist. This is something you can ascertain at the coffee meeting. If you have a good photographer on board it wouldn’t be too difficult to approach these additional creatives with the same pitch, because just like models and photographers, these creatives need portfolio too, and having a pro photographer already interested should convince the others that they want to be part of the project.
EXCEPTIONS TO THE ABOVE RULES
You don’t always need to use this method and some models will have built their portfolios without ever having had an idea for a shoot.
- Not everybody is creative and I know some amazing models (with whom I love shooting) who I know will never bring me an idea. If your look is so fantastic that photographers are falling over each other as they clamber to beg you to work with them, then you won’t have any trouble being gifted a portfolio.
- If modelling is just a hobby and you just want to have some snaps with some student photographers for fun, then the standard “If you ever want to shoot with me…” message will be fine. Start-out photographers really just need a human to stand there so they can practice focusing, exposing and directing at the same time, so they will probably let you be that human.
- If you want to work with a pro photographer but you don’t have any ideas, ask the photographer for a coffee anyway and ask them if they have any ideas for which they might find you suitable. Most photographers have a thousand ideas in the back of their mind that they would love to work on one day.
REASONS PHOTOGRAPHERS MAY SAY “NO”
You need to understand that “no” doesn’t mean “get lost”. Sometimes creative types aren’t great at communicating their reasoning, but a rejection to your request may be because of any of the following:
- The photographer is too busy. This is common. If you want to work with them then so do other people, probably on paid, time-sensitive jobs that require immediate and intense concentration. You might be able to try them again in a couple of weeks or perhaps they are this busy all the time.
- The photographer doesn’t do TFP. Sometimes, if a photographer has found their niche and is working regularly whilst effectively being paid to build their folio, then they may simply not do any TFP work.
- You might be too inexperienced. Pro photographers are usually great at directing new models. But sometimes they don’t want to have to spend their test shoot time easing you in to basic poses and expressions that may or may not turn out to give a great image. Pro photographers often only test shoot with pro models to save this time.
WHAT TO DO IF THE ABOVE DOESN’T WORK FOR YOU
The advice above won’t work for everybody.
You may not be confident enough to approach a photographer in this way or what you want in your portfolio might not be what photographers want to shoot for free. Perhaps photographers think you’re too fresh and they don’t think they’ll get the right images.
In this case you may be back to paying for a portfolio.
If you need lots of instruction, if you aren’t confident in front of the camera or if you just don’t know your angles and how to move and express, then paying someone to teach you for the first shoot may still be the answer. When being paid for a portfolio shoot, photographers are much happier starting out spending time on some basic looks to teach you the fundamentals of posing, movement, using your expressions, and working with the light. In this shoot you’re also more likely to get some of those standard commercial images you need for catalogue work!
Best of luck!
*TFP means Time For Print, Time For Portolio or a few other variations. Basically it’s a way of describing an unpaid collaboration of a creative team which is not for commercial use.
If you can’t be bothered with the above and would like to simply pay for the service, you can check out model portfolio packages.