6 Ways to Treat Your Modeling Career Like a Business

As a model, you are a freelancer and in business for yourself. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been talking with fellow models and hearing them gripe about how their agency doesnt get them enough work.

Models have to remember one clear and very important point: the modeling agency only gets 20% for a reason. It’s the model’s job to treat their career as a business and invest time, effort, and money into it.

Bonus Tip: About to go on a casting for Kohl’s? Check out their website and social media profiles to see what look and vibe they went for in their last campaign and try to dress and style yourself accordingly.

Invest Money into Advertising:

What business do you know that doesn’t have an advertising budget? Not a very successful one. Some examples of our advertising costs as models are our portfolio, comp cards, and agency/web fees. It takes money to make money, so set aside some money from every job in a separate savings account and do a full book shoot at least once a year.

You can check out my last post for a more in depth look at creating your modeling portfolio.

If the casting people see the same photos submitted year after year they may think you aren’t working. Work attracts work. Do test shoots based on the jobs/clients you want to book.

Bonus Tip: There’s a difference between paying a modeling agency up-front fees (something you should never do), and setting yourself up for success with quality marketing materials, such as a modeling portfolio and comp cards. Investing money to create the best advertising materials possible will have an exponential Return on Investment (ROI).

Take Your Health Seriously:

A model’s body, mind, and spirit are quite literally his or her biggest and most important assets, period. If you’re one of the extremely fortunate, genetically gifted models who can eat pizza and drink beer and have a perfect body, then you have a one-up on many of us, but how’s your head? The modeling industry can feel like a rollercoaster sometimes, with exciting ups and dark lows, so it’s important to take care of your mental and spiritual health, too.

Businesses invest in assets to make more money. Just as you should invest in yourself in some or all of the following ways: a fitness program that works for the results you want, whole and healthy food, quality skin care products, and any other form of support for your body, mind, and spirit that you see value in.

Show Gratitude and Give Gifts:

Who doesn’t love a handwritten “Thank You” note or a treat? Most modeling agents do. You have to understand that for some lucky models, there’s a low barrier to entry, many of whom were scouted out of nowhere and can be young and/or not take the job seriously, so modeling agents deal with a lot of flak. They have to work with all different types of personalities from the client, model, ad agency, sometimes stylists, etc, and will see you more favorably if you thank them or treat them every so often.

Be the model who sends a handwritten “Thank You” card a few days after your booking. Or, next time you stop by the agency to pick up a check, bring your agent a sweet treat. You don’t have to spend a lot of money either because it’s the thought that counts. Not only is it a nice thing to do, but you may be more likely to be top-of-mind when your agent gets a request for 8 models and she has to choose between you and someone with a similar look to submit.

Submit Yourself and Get Creative on Social Media:

You can scan different sites like Model Mayhem, Craigslist (carefully…), Back Stage, etc. for more work.

Please note: if you are under an exclusive contract with your agency, all bookings likely need to go through them.

If you are non-exclusively freelancing with your agency/agencies, go ahead and try to book some gigs on your own. I’ve booked small jobs for myself off Craigslist, and the shots from those jobs lead me to much larger bookings through my agency. You really never know where your next job will come from. As always, just be careful and vet these clients and photographer’s you find by yourself thoroughly, because if something goes down you won’t have the agency to back you up.

Bonus Tip: Don’t be afraid to tag brands you’d like to work with in relevant social media photos. You can submit your photos directly to clients on Instagram. Hey, you never know who’s checking those DMs and it could lead to a job.

Capitalize on Different Areas of the Modeling Industry:

Who says the client needs your pretty face? Maybe they just need a hand – literally. I have a separate “parts” modeling agency, which books me for clients who only need hands, legs, feet, shoes, lips, obliques, etc. Over half of my work as a model is totally unrecognizable, but guess what? The rates are usually the same and sometimes more than a fully recognizable gig.

Maybe it’s promotional modeling, being a brand ambassador, or hosting – how can you maximize your income potential as a model? I was on set last month with a model who makes a solid side income by contracting her on-camera hosting talents on Fiverr. Another great example is fit modeling, where models work directly with designers and buyers to help create the best fit for new clothing. Many models make a highly lucrative modeling career off of this work alone.

Increase the Number of Leads for Modeling Jobs:

There are a lot of agencies and markets outside of the two or three major ones (at least here in the states). A lot of freelance models work with agencies all around the United States and even abroad. They’re shooting a lot of work in Chicago, down South, and beyond. There are some smaller agencies in states like North Carolina, Ohio, Floria, Arizona and surely other states, too, that are booking their models on great work today. Do your research and give it a Google.

Please note: If you’re signed exclusively with your agent or have a manager/mother agent, it’s probably best to check with them before randomly sending your comp card around the United States.

Final Thoughts on Treating Your Modeling Career As a Business

It’s easy to get complacent as a model, especially if you have some great work behind you, but always remmeber to treat your career like a business. Keep good records and save relevant write-off receipts.

Bonus Tip: That porfolio test shoot you paid for? Save the receipt, and if you paid with Venmo, make sure you write “Porfolio Test Shoot, 5/28/19, Joe Photographer” in the memo section and screenshot the transaction for your records.

If you’re just beginning and have never been on set before, you can get a competitive advantage by taking your career more seriously than the average model. Treating your modeling career like a business will help you book more work, be taken more seriosly, and grow exponentially for your next business venture.

Bonus Tip: There’s a great book by Cal Newport called So Good They Can’t Ignore You. In this book, Newport talks about the concept of “Career Capital,” which for a model is their portfolio and tearsheets, posing abilities and ability to convey emotion through photos and videos, and their physical body and overall look. These are skills, talents, rare qualities, and on-the-job experience that set you apart from the pack and contribue to your niche in the market and overall bookability.

How to Create a Modeling Portfolio

A lot of people write me asking how to get started as a professional model. To start your journey, you’ll need two types of photos:

  • Clear digital snapshots of yourself in form-fitting clothes with a clean face.
  • A professional modeling portfolio to show clients your look and versatility.

For the first set of photos, have a friend take basic photos of you. You can also do what I do, which is set up a self timer camera and a tripod and do it yourself. Generally, the agents/clients want:

A straight-on headshot from the shoulder up
A straight-on shot from the waist up
A ¾ profile shot of your body
A head-to-toe, straight-on shot of your body
A profile shot

As for your professional modeling portfolio, this will all depend on your look and the place in the market you want to enter. For a lifestyle model, the agents and clients will want to see smiling, off-camera type shots, photos of you participating in a moment, whether it’s a family picnic, a sports match, laughing with a partner, or some other real-life scenario. Check out the type of clients you’d like to work for and see what the models are doing on their websites and catalogues. Is LL Bean your dream client? Maybe set up an outdoors/hiking shoot with a partner model.

An example of a lifestyle modeling image – biking in Central Park. Photo by Jeff Jeffries. Model credit: Lela Hazary
More lifestyle modeling: a young tech team in a business meeting. Photo by Simone Bicchetti. Models are Lela Hazary, Emily Stockdale, Andrew Pagliara.

For fashion, these shots will be punchy, moody, edgy, can be revealing, the posing can be unique but not too unnatural, and generally a studio shoot works well.

An example of a fashion model portfolio image. Photo by Brian Jamie.
A male fashion model portfolio image. Photo by Antonio Annobile.

It’s always good to have a decent array of looks in your portfolio no matter what facet of the market you want to enter because even lifestyle clients will book a model from a cool fashion shot. It’s happened to me before when I booked New Balance. I got on set and saw the shot they booked me from and was really surprised. This is one of the shots they booked me from.

Photo by Don Frasco for I Feel Elated Philippines

Whatever you decide based on your research, it’s important to choose a photographer with high-quality and current, professional images – someone who is working with a lot of models who are booking work. You can check out different modeling agencies’ Instagram pages and see if the photos have the photographer tagged, then reach out there, or through the photographer’s website.

Note: sometimes you can just submit Polaroids to a modeling agency through their website, especially with fashion agencies, and they will want to meet with you just based on those shots. You do not need to pay for professional images to enter the modeling industry. Sometimes it can help, though.

Once you’ve chosen a photographer, decide if you want to style yourself, or hire a wardrobe stylist and hair/make up artist (HMUA). Back when I first started modeling I never would have considered hiring a team, but there are tons of freelance stylists and HMUA’s eager to book side jobs for a decent rate. Sometimes it’s easier to have a team in place so you can sit back, relax, and focus on being the model and getting the best shot.

Depending on the market you are in (I’m in NYC, so I can only speak for this market) you should be ready to spend between $400-1200 on a full portfolio shoot with anywhere from 4-8 looks and 8-20 final, retouched shots. This can vary widely based on the photographer’s scope of work, availability, etc. This price range quote is just for the photographer; if you choose to hire a stylist and/or HMUA, shop around and see what the best rate you can get for a quality professional is.

Note: the lowest quote isn’t always the best bet.

Note: you can always do Time for Print (TFP) shoots, which are free shoots for the model and photographers’ portfolios. Check out sites like Model Mayhem and even Craigslist (be discerning…) to find these kinds of collaborations. Just remember when you are submitting to a professional modeling agency, especially in a major market like New York, they will want to see high quality images. So, you can do 5 free shoots with beginner photographers and only get a few usable images for your book, or pay to work with a more experienced professional and get way more for less time. Time is money.

Before your big day, make sure you get enough rest (6-8 hours the night before) and definitely don’t drink alcohol or overeat the night before. Stay hydrated and use some good under-eye cream before bed to minimize puffiness.

The morning of your shoot, make sure to eat a healthy yet light breakfast with some protein in it and nothing too heavy/sugary.

Iron and carefully pack any wardrobe you’re bringing with you, and make your way to the location. Once you’re on set, have a quick chat with the photographer about what you hope to get from the session. Bring some inspiration shots you can pull up on your phone to help execute your vision.

Once you’re on set, make sure you are breathing. I know it sounds dumb, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been shooting while holding my breath. The most important thing is to breathe, and then be as natural as possible. Find your flow with the photographer and don’t be afraid to take some chances, but also remember your research from before – go for poses you think would appear in the clients’ advertisements. Oh ya, and remember to have fun!

Once the shoot is over, you can expect anywhere from a week to a few months to get your final selects back. It will all depend on how busy the photographer is. I’ve had test shoots where I got the images back within 48 hours, and one time it took 3 months, but both times the images were of high quality because I followed the aforementioned steps.

When you’re sending photos to modeling agencies, be sure to submit via their standard website. Also, get creative and crafty – look on Instagram and see if you can find any of their models’ profiles. Oftentimes, especially if the model is exclusive, they will have their agent’s email address listed in their Instagram page.

To go even further, get your portfolio professionally printed. I know a lot of people say you don’t need to do this if you have an IPad, which can be true, but it looks very professional to go into a casting or agency meeting with a physical, composed, professional modeling portfolio someone can hold in their hand and leaf through. Do your research and find a printing studio that specializes in model portfolios and/or actor headshots.

Important: make sure your portfolio prints are 9 X 12.”

You should also have a composite card (comp card) printed. This is a roughly 5 ½ X 8 ½,” two-sided card to advertise your look and versatility as a model. The front should have a high-quality headshot showcasing your look, with your name on the bottom. The back should have 4 images in different looks and styles showcasing your versatility as a model. Also, on the bottom of the back you should list your stats and contact information. See my card below:

Note: I just cut my hair and changed my look, so I am currently following my exact words to you and shooting with quality, experienced photographers, and will be creating a new comp card and printing new photos ASAP.

Once you have all of your supplies, you’re ready to submit to modeling agencies! Also, in this modern day of social media, make sure you post your best photos to your instagram page, and always make sure to tag the photographer if it’s a professionally retouched shot they did. Make sure you talk with the photographer before posting.

Also, added bonus points if you have a namesake website to showcase your images and tell clients a bit about yourself.

Note: never put “model” in the name of your website or instagram handle. It looks amateur-y. Trust me, my Instagram name for years was “@modelmylesellison.” Do you think I booked much work then? Nope.

Lastly, be confident, easy to work with, professional, and yourself. Find a connection between you and whomever you’re speaking with, whether it’s at an agency interview or on set. Always thank people for their time, never act desperate or confrontational, and take each experience — whether it’s positive or negative — as a chance to grow and learn more. Good luck!