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:
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.
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.
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.
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!