Model 101: Building Your Portfolio- and Do You Even Need One?

October 9th, 2010 One thing I get hit with all the time by aspiring models is that they think they have to "build their portfolio" before going to see an agency.  Or worse yet, hearing a young model tell me that her "agency" told her that she needed photos for her portfolio and then charged her big money to shoot them -which is a scam by the way (see my previous Model 101 post on how to avoid scams).  Here's the thing; your portfolio is a collection of prints showing your looks and ability in front of the camera to (hopefully) get you booked with a client for work.  When you're starting out, you are not required nor expected to have a full portfolio book of professional photos to get signed by an agency.  Now, there's nothing wrong with wanting to build experience, and collecting photos of yourself as you get practice, but don't think that an agency won't see you unless you are a "pro" with a full portfolio book of work.  In fact, it's totally the opposite.

Now before I go on, I need to say that you don't necessarily have to have an agency to be a working model.  You can represent yourself if you want to.  In some smaller markets, you can't even find a legit modeling agency, and don't even need one if you can get work on your own.  I know one model that works locally and nationally and doesn't have an agent, she just promotes and manages herself.  But for anyone who wants to work in fashion, or  any "high-end" market, I would strongly advise getting a good, respected agency to represent you.  They know all the big clients, can get you booked with them, and handle all the business for you.

Ok, so to get into an agency, what do you need?  Simple snapshots.  Even the largest fashion and commercial ad agencies in the world only need to see a couple of simple, no-makeup snapshots of you to consider contacting you.  If you really want to know the specifics, go to an agencies' website.  Yes, it's that simple!  I can't believe how many people who want to be models have never even gone to an agencies' website to get info.  Internet generation my a**!   Professional agency models are basically expected to have and carry their portfolio with them at all times.  The photos in it are there to show potential clients what the model looks like in print, and what other work the model has booked and with what other clients.  However, for you though, (without an agency since I assume you are reading this because you are just starting out) you don't "need" a portfolio at this point.  At most, you may be required by an agency to get some professional test shots.

Test shots are photos by a professional photographer whom is one of many who are recommended by an agency to shoot their model's pictures for portfolios, comp cards and website images.  A test shoot is just what the name implies- it's a shoot put together to see how you photograph, and also to get some images of you that fit the agencies' style of how they represent their models.  Most of the time a model has to pay the photographer for a test shoot, but sometimes the agency arranges for the shoot.  If you're new, expect to pay for your first test shoot.  Or if a major agency is interested in signing you, and you're a 5'10" potential supermodel from Russia with no money, the agency may front the money for the test shoot, and you'll repay them when you start working.  Once you're listed with an agency, sometimes approved photographers will contact the agency for a model to test with.  This will be a free shoot if the photographer chooses you. However, you might have to pay for the prints yourself, as many photographers will just supply you with the digital images from a test shoot for free, but not the actual prints.

Essentially there are going to be two ways to build a portfolio.  One is by signing with a legit agency, testing with various photographers until you start getting real work, then you can replace your test shots with working shots as you go.  The other way is to just go out and find photographers and either collaborate with them to get free shots, or just outright hire them to shoot you.  NOTE: I've heard some self-proclaimed "models" claim that they would never pay a photographer to shoot them.  These are not real models, they are non-professional TFP (Time For Print) "models" who think that they are so "hot" that they deserve everything in life for free- and their photos usually suck.  Real, working models have started out just like you, and many top-models even paid for their first photos to start their careers.  But here's the important part: the only thing that matters if you hire a photographer, is YOU.  You getting very professional and legitimate high-end shots which can get you to that next level in your career that the free photos may not.  I realize it sounds biased coming from a photographer, but again, it's not about the photographer, it's about the photos your going to get.  It's an investment in your career.  If you can manage to get real model shots for free, then all the better.  But I would strongly urge you not to let your ego keep you in the same career-less league with those people who tell you to never pay for photos.  Just make sure you are hiring a legit model photographer who is recommended by real modeling agencies.  Don't end up paying for cheesy "senior photo" looking shots or amateur glamour photos with bad Photoshop retouching- that's IS a waste of money.  A real photographer who shoots professional models will know how to shoot you that way.   Whether or not you will need a portfolio will in large part depend on the industry you want to work in.  There's lots of different types of modeling.  Both male and female models usually want to work in fashion, so a really impressive, professionally shot portfolio is essential to show fashion designers and big companies, but again, not necessary to be signed with an agency.

If you're going to build your own portfolio, the biggest thing I can advise you on is to make sure your photos give someone a reason to want to book you as a model.  Having a local photographer call you up to do some trade (TFP) shoots is flattering I'm sure, but sitting there in front of the camera doing some fake pose and hoping the photographer will make you look good is NOT modeling.  Think you're pretty? Great. No one cares by the way, except your your friends.  In this business, models are not only usually very gorgeous, but they know how to make a great shot.  Just standing there in front of a camera relying on your looks will only get you compliments from your Facebook friends, but is worthless in the fashion and beauty industry.  If you're a girl and it's cheap-looking glamour portraiture you're interested in, then you can pretty much just stand there and let your boobs carry the shot.  A portfolio will be helpful for this kind of work because you probably won't get any real agency to represent you, so you'll just be marketing yourself.  Your portfolio can be full of those glamour-portrait shots, and although boring and talentless, you can book that kind of work based on your lack of clothing alone because those types of jobs don't require any ability anyway.  On the other hand, if you're wanting to model swimsuits in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, then you will need to know how to really bring an emotion to the shot in your eyes and body language- and that's what you would need to show in your portfolio.  Make sense? Let your portfolio show your ability to convey emotion and personality, and not just another generic girl trying to look hot (yet clueless) in a photo.  Make photographers want to shoot with you, not want to hit on you.  Make them want to call you back because you make their portfolios better.

Again, it's great to get out and work with photographers to create beautiful images, build experience, try out new ideas and make connections.  For most young women, shooting a portfolio will never have any more purpose than just fishing for compliments on their Facebook page (it shows in their work). But for the very few who actually want to pursue the hard uphill climb of a real modeling career, a portfolio is a valuable tool in getting bookings.  For the most part, you don't need a portfolio to get started in fashion.  You just need a positive attitude, very thick skin, a very hard work ethic and a professional acumen.  More to come..