A Guide to Working With Modeling Agencies: Part 1

A Guide to Working With Modeling Agencies: Part 1

If you are into photographing people, the idea of working with professionals has probably been on the agenda at some point in your career. Whether an editorial photographer, fashion and beauty shooter, or just someone who likes creating awesome fantasy composites, the use of professional models will invariably improve your work.  So how do we go about working with these gatekeepers of the people photography industry?

I'm glad you asked!

It's really pretty simple (yet complicated). There is a lot of nuance to this relationship that I'll attempt to put into text for you, but the bottom line is; You are dealing with people and everyone is different.


Before we begin, let me get one major misconception out of the way.

"professional models cost money"

Yes, and No. For your purposes, an upcoming photographer working on building their portfolio, what you are looking for at agencies are models to "test".  A "test" is just what the word means. You are trying out some new stuff, be it equipment, lighting, a new makeup artist, or even the model. A Test is the practice day in our industry, and is generally accepted as a free gig.  Some models test, others don't. For example, you won't be able to call up IMG in New York and request Karlie Kloss for a test next Friday. However, you could call up a smaller agency to see if they have any new faces available, and have a much higher chance for success.  At the end of the day, Agencies need new photos for their models all the time. Often, their new faces are sent out on shoots just to get experience on set.  It's a mutually beneficial relationship.

Now when clients come in to play, just assume if you are getting paid, the models need to be paid as well. Getting professional models for a "test" that you are being hired by a client to shoot is one of the biggest ways onto the agency's blacklist.

So. Now that that's out of the way… Let's get you working with some agencies shall we?

What you'll need to do first…

You'll need to get a book together. "Book" meaning a collection of images that sell yourself as a photographer. Your book, can be a printed book, on a tablet, simply your website, or what has become more and more common, a well designed PDF.  Your book is the most important selling tool (beyond a Website), because it can be tailored specifically to your potential clients…in this case a modeling agency.

"What if I don't have any good 'people' shots in my portfolio?"

Well, that's okay believe it or not. Agencies have one major concern and that is the wasting of their model's time. If you are a car photographer and have beautifully lit shots of your Hybrid in the driveway, show them! Agents are in the business to identify beauty and they are much more savvy than the average viewer. You want to show them, at the very least, you are a competent photographer that just hasn't had the right materials to work with yet.

On the flip side, there is no need to pull out all the stops either. Let's say you've been using online resources to find models and have a pretty solid collection of images. Don't inundate the agent with every image you think is cool. Tailor your book to the agency (yes, even agencies have styles). Give them about 10-15 images to look at…that's it. You are just trying to get your foot in the door at this point. You'll impress them later with shots of their models.

You have your book ready to roll…now what?

Pick up the phone!

Do NOT email agencies. It's the easy "passive aggressive" way to make initial contact and it's also the most used. You don't want to blend in with the crowd.  Agencies spend their entire day answering emails. From new clients, to bookings, to green photographers fresh out of art school. It's just too easy to get lost in the shuffle. Calling the agency gives you a leg up on the rest and allows you to show off your personality a bit. Besides, you'll do plenty of emailing once you get in with them.

What to say when you get someone on the phone
Introduce yourself, explain that you are a photographer in the area, and would like to meet with them to discuss the possibility of using their models in some upcoming projects.

Easy. That spiel will almost always guarantee you a meeting, if not at least a request to see your work (good thing you have your book ready).

The Meeting.

Your first meeting with the agency is pretty much a job interview. Treat it as such.  Dress nice!  I know, "You're an artist and like to express yourself with your style", but play it safe, and let your work do the talking. Arrive around 10 minutes early but be prepared to wait 20 minutes. Don't forget to bring your book and some business cards.

Once you are in, you will likely be meeting with one of the bookers (not the head of the agency). A booker is an employee of the agency that is usually assigned a group of models to focus on…i.e. New Faces, Men, etc.  From here, just talk to them like a peer. Most bookers you will meet will be genuinely nice people that understand where you are coming from. Occasionally, you'll run into one that likes to throw their weight around but in those cases, just roll with the punches, and indulge their ego.

Typical questions a booker might ask you...

How long have you been a photographer?
Who have you worked for/shot for in town?
Why do you want to photograph their models?
Do you work with a team? (Makeup, Styling, etc)

Just a heads up. A new trend that I think is absolutely warranted, is for agencies to request a background check before giving you models. I know in this day and age we are sketched out by people that need our personal info but consider that this agency just met you, and is deciding whether to send a model (sometimes a very young model) to you, a complete stranger, to get some pictures made.  Sounds creepy doesn't it? So be thankful for that background check.

After a few minutes of chit chat and them flipping through your book. You'll get this:
"So what are you looking to shoot?"

When just getting started with agencies, you'll get this question virtually every time. Be honest, and share your creative ideas with the booker. They know their board (list of models), and their job is to help you find the best one for your project.  Eventually after building a relationship, they'll stop asking for concepts, but I encourage you to use them as more than just a Fast Food Drive Thru.

agency cards

At the end of the meeting, you'll likely be presented with a bunch of comp cards to choose from.  Typically these are from the new batch of models that need pictures, or some of the less popular models that need photos as well.  If this is your first rodeo don't be picky. Discuss the models with the booker, and show an interest in a couple of them (even if they really aren't your ideal models).

This is an important step that, until you have built a great book and or reputation in the industry, you'll have to deal with. It's essentially an audition.
They won't be giving you the $25,000/day models, they want to see what you can do with the typical model they represent. So take it and run with it.

That will usually be the end of your meeting. You'll exchange business cards, and will probably have arranged to send ideas/tears to the booker for a future shoot, if you haven't picked a model already.

Now the fun begins!

Notice I didn't mention being rejected?
You need to go into this process confident in your abilities, and be brutally honest with yourself about your abilities and needs, because the agency will be.
If on the off chance you are denied the use of their models; you will undoubtedly be told why (if not ask). They'll likely explain what you are missing in your book, experience, and knowledge. Take that input, build on it, and move on. Don't harbor any ill feelings, remember this is a business.

Now! Go forth and be confident, and make Awesome!

Part 2 of Working With Modeling Agencies is now up with information on actually booking models, and what is expected of you as an emerging industry icon.

Working with Modeling Agencies Part 2

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Kristopher Armstead's picture

Great read Rich! If you do not work in the same city that the agency resides in, what will change about the conversation you have with the booker? How far will they let models travel for tests?

Rich Meade's picture

I've found that I don't need to change anything. The only change might be the inability to actually meet face to face because of travel scheduling, and sometimes that's not even a problem.
I've worked with an agency in Vegas multiple times, and I've only spoken with them on the phone and via email.

I scouted for a national agency through their regional office a couple of years ago and had a model I photographed signed to one of the top agencies in the world. I've had no success otherwise getting in as a test photographer even though my portfolio is very strong. It's all about who you know and I don't know the right people I guess.

Rich Meade's picture

Like I said, we're dealing with people, and everyone is different.
But I'm just talking about getting access to models at this point, not being "hired" by agencies. That's a WHOLE other article.
I can honestly say that I've not known a single photographer (personally) that was flat out turned down by an agency. That's not to say I have the most amazing photographer buddies...It's to say that the biggest hurdle most people have with agencies...Is just getting the courage to call them.

This is just what I needed. Thanks!

Adam Rasheed's picture

Finally, an article with real insider knowledge about the industry and how to go about building a strong book!

Matthew Odom's picture

Lord bless your soul. I've been itching to find out how to do this!

Love this and highly useful information that I'm going to be applying very soon =D

Mark Schueler's picture

Thank you so much for this! I am a portrait and wedding photographer who has been looking for ways into commercial/fashion photography--this is post is definitely illuminating and very helpful!!

Without any doubt, this was one of the best articles I've read here. It actually gave me a little courage to try this out hahahaha So many projects I'd like to try out with a professional model. Thank you very much Rich.

Great post. Thank you.

I had previously sent out emails to a bunch of agencies asking to shoot with new faces and got zero response. I figured it was just my lack of talent, but maybe it was the whole email part...

Feel like I can take on the world now or at least an agency or two. Thanks Rich and great read!!!

so when i call them for the first time should i tell them that it is for test shoots or not??

Rich Meade's picture

Yep, unless you have a client's money behind you it's almost always for a test, but better to put it out there right away so there is no confusion.

Is it possible to approach a modelling agency with a box of prints of your work, or does it have specifically be a book?

Vivian Devore's picture

Thanks for this article..I've been following these guidelines for my friend auditions. And yes, it's not easy..but in Gods perfect time everything will come in the right time..And here are some tips too from these article for those aspiring models http://www.exploretalent.com/articles/7-crucial-things-know-modeling-aud...

irida mete's picture