TFP and Model Photographers: The Truth Behind the Fake Profession

TFP and Model Photographers: The Truth Behind the Fake Profession

The internet has sold photographers the lie that there is a profession to be had photographing models, "model photography." After reading the comments section in a recent article, I thought I would try to shed some light on the matter.

There  was a recent article on Fstoppers about what TFP (Time for Print) is doing for and against the industry. The article set about looking at the pros and cons of it all. What was as fascinating though, were the comments and the online discussion about why models should be paying photographers. This is where I want to pick things up. 

Time for Print

Time for print is an age old tradition where you get a bunch of like-minded people together to collaborate. If you are some big hot shot, you can probably get some big names in on the gig. If you are a local camera club attendee, you are probably not going to have the greatest pool of people to chose from. The benefits for time for print are that with little expense for a shoot you can all come away with something new. The down side is that you will always be working with people at the same level as yourself. The chances of me getting Karlie Kloss to sit for me, are slim to nil. Yet if I do want to improve my fashion photography (I am not a fashion photographer I should add, just an example) I need to be working with people who are the next level up. My personal belief is this: If you need to test a concept, shoot TFP, if you need something for your portfolio, don't.

Why Do Models Always Ask You For Money?

Time for some hard truths. In the comments I saw people complaining that the model always wants paying when the photographer is bringing all this gear along to the shoot at great expense. I can promise you that models are not interested in that, they want to see if you have work that will add to their portfolio and pull them up to the next level. Whether that comes in the form of being signed to their first agent or moving on to a bigger agent. If they are asking for money, it is because what you offer isn't worth them giving up their time. The hard truth is that most of them have a friend with an iPhone who is better than a lot of people who owning $5,000 of pro gear. People's time is of great value. I wont go for a coffee with someone who wants a chat if it means losing time to see my family, so why would they spend half a day getting bad photographs taken of them for free?

It's Time to Pay the Model

I often do test shoots. As a food photographer we have had to hire in hand models, models, stylists, home economists, prop stylists, and assistants. When it is a really important shot then we have to suffer the costs. If I were shooting fashion and I wanted to up my game, then I would have to pay an agency for a good model in order to create the work of the standard I need. At this point you need to dig deep and pay your team. When you are the worst person on set (and we all are at some point) we pay to have those around us elevate us to the next level. 

When the Model Pays You

Once you are established, and established to a point where everyone in the industry knows who you are, you can then charge for test shoots. However, these are slightly more reduced fees than editorial work and usually only to cover the costs of shooting and retouching. Compared to a $20,000 shoot for a fashion brand, we would be talking under $1000 and the work you would be producing in this shoot should be of vogue quality, although obviously lacking in production.  

The Profession of Model Photography

I have no idea where this myth comes from, but there is no profession of model photography, unless you are photographing model trains for a living. There is lifestyle, fashion, editorial work in various genres, ecommerce, and a host of other occasions when a professional model is required. However, there is no business model where a photographer makes a living from photographing models who are paying them. Where does one suppose the models income is coming from to keep paying you?

Sadly, these seems to be a growing hostility online from male photographers toward female models who wont work for free. I noticed this about a year ago and from others who I have spoken to in the industry, they have been feeling it on both sides. A lot seems to come from the misconception that there is a business in here and that models should be paying photographers to be able to afford the gear they want to use to photograph models. In any other walk of life this would be laughed out instantly, but photography as a profession already has a chip on its shoulder about being under valued and ripped off, so to be attacking another profession in a such a way for the exact same reasons is just daft. It is the same as photographers who pirate software and tutorials, but then get on their high horse about image theft and underpayment. 

Models and photographers are both hired and paid by the same people. If you want to be a portrait or fashion photographer then you need to be looking to ad agencies and photographic agencies for your paycheck, not toward the models. 

What Now?

So we are now in a situation where photographers feel that they should be paid, models also feel that they should be paid, but both seem to be looking to one another to float their industries. From the outside, as a food photographer it would be like me trying to get food stylists to pay for for shoots, it just isn't a viable option. There is clearly a need for things to move on and I think the best way to do so is to be clear as to what you are trying to achieve from a shoot. Are you testing a concept to later perfect? Great, TFP. Do you need some new work for your portfolio? You need to hire in someone who is the level above where you are atm. 

Your Ego

Now the above is all well and good, but the problem seems to get a little out of hand when a photographer is told that a model would only work with them for money. You just need to suck it up and realize that it is not worth them giving up their free time to shoot with you. Either you are not as good as you think you are or they just don't need more work in their portfolio atm. 

Scott Choucino's picture

Food Photographer from the UK. Not at all tech savvy and knows very little about gear news and rumours.

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One of the best articles I've read here in a long time, Scott. Thank you!

LOL oh man...well done.


All this rings true and jives with my very limited efforts to try and work with models in my area. That led me to the conclusion that it is not worth the hassle. Also what I see, is that not only are there too many photographers wanting to participate in this genre, but also way too many models who believe they can make inroads into a very limited field.

I was just going to write an article about this about food photographers. Chef’s spend a lifetime learning to make food pleasing and food photographers swoop in there expecting to be compensated so they can buy lights and macro lenses. I don’t know where this sense of entitlement came from.

Excellent article. Does not apply to "model photography" only. Very simple concept. You need pictures for your portfolio - you pay the model or the restaurant chef. If you are hired to take pictures for restaurant window - you should be paid. If you take food picture to post on your Instagram or Facebook - nobody gets paid (but you pay for your dinner.)

> Chef’s spend a lifetime learning to make food pleasing and food photographers swoop in there expecting to be compensated so they can buy lights and macro lenses. I don’t know where this sense of entitlement came from.

You also don't know anything about food photography:

1. The food shot very often isn't food; it's fake

2. Chef's don't pay for it. Big corporations selling a product are the usual customer and they employ both the chef and the photographer.

The person who wrote this didn’t know anything about fashion photography.

I think the larger problem is models having to play hide and seek with photographers actually wanting to create work in a sea of perverts trying to get compromising photos of women. Some of the models I've shot with have no idea what pro gear looks like or if the guy bought a $300 camera from Best Buy and is now calling himself a photographer. Usually I try and educate them so they can see the red flags but dream jobs are where the biggest scams and dangers are because everyone has starry eyes. Work on your portfolio, find a style that isn't like a thousands others out there, gain the trust of the models by being professional and business will come.

I agree with your larger point, but I don't think the cost of a photographers gear has anything to do with their artistic integrity.

Rob, I agree with David about the perverts especially these days. It's like the old analogy, one can buy the best most expensive golf clubs and still suck at the game as one who has shitty clubs crushes it strait down the pipe. I understand what David is saying about educating models about equipment. However the price of the club does not make you a better player if you do not know how to use it. So the guy with the $400 Best Buy two lens kit has mad skills and takes top notch photos while the guy who dropped 30k can't get it in focus. Can't always judge people buy their equipment, have to judge them on their skills. So yes Rob, I agree with you on artistic ability.

I worked as a model for a dozen years back in the late 80's till 90's, so I have a unique perspective on the subject. A photographer friend got me into shooting and I did paid tests that paid my bills for a few years. I read the book, Model: the ugly business of beautiful women by Micheal Gross early in my career and it explained why models paid photographers.

The industry has certainly changed but there are reasons for both sides of the debate. For me, it allowed me to strengthen my book, get my act together before working with large clients and meet others that were pursuing a career in the business. Eventually, the tests turned into Editorial shoots then Marketing and Advertising level projects. I then discovered the Food genre and I haven't looked back.

I think you paint in broad strokes here. For one thing, I think you are far too dismissive of the community aspect of photography. You point out a few times that you need to work with people who are on a higher level than you are. As if you would automatically become a better photographer if you work with a model who poses better. That's not the case, you become better by working. Sometimes you have the funds to hire a model for a specific shoot, sometimes you don't and need TFP. In either situation you should be aiming to become better and learn just as much no matter who you are working with. I have working with models who were TFP when we met, while working together they progressed as I did. Neither of us on the next level but instead, growing together as a team. When they had a portfolio that justified people paying for their time, we still worked together TFP because we knew we benefited each other. The relationship is what was important there, not who is on the next level.

This article seems to be focused on the top photographers in their field? I don't see Peter Hurley commenting on this thread yet but if he shows up he might use some of your advise. To advise the vast majority of photographers how to conduct their test, paid or TFP shoots doesn't seem to track with me. Could you relay some experiences of when you were up and coming or trying to build your portfolio? You mention only doing certain things when you become a well known name in the industry. How many of this sites readers are at that status or set to achieve it? Or even want it? I think there is a large set of photographers who enjoy photography as a passion, and want to work at their best levels. Some of these people are really good, really really good. But for whatever reason are not full time photographers. These people still need to navigate the TFP vs paid situation like everyone else. To set out hard line rules of what to do and when seems, disconnected.

I think acknowledging that every situation is going to be unique, and that they need to take it one shoot at a time would be more productive. I used my monthly budget on a shoot last Saturday. A model submitted a late entry to my casting call and I informed her that I couldn't afford another model for this month but I would be sure to get back to her. She then said she would do the shoot TFP and we are booked. Each situation deserves attention and an open mind because you never know what peoples motivations are until you communicate with them. Photographers being mad at models for expecting payment is wrong, and vice versa. But it doesn't call for a whole set of rules that dictate how one should behave now and moving forward. Teach respect and understanding for each other, and this can affect every aspect of the shoot, relationship and the work.

I mostly stick to modelesque friends and family to help me perfect my lighting and frankly, just for the fun of shooting. I have paid models before: ballet dancers. But, that's unsustainable in my situation as photography is not my profession. I have no ego to bruise as I know I'm on the bottom rung of things photographic.

Bravo. :: standing ovation ::

As someone who shoots models, this sums it up perfectly. I've been doing it a while and consider myself decent -- so if you have no portfolio/experience -- yeah you should pay me. If you're an established model that will boost my work and we're on the same level and agree on TFP, awesome. If you're a step above me, well yeah -- I should be hiring you. In the ideal world, we both get paid by a client.

The cost of the equipment, attractiveness of the model, and experience level of model or photographer is all irrelevant. All that matters is perceived value and the opportunity cost of each person’s time. Some people want some money, a lot of money, or none at all. It’s up to you to negotiate terms and it won’t always work out that you get what you want.

The fact that being a model or a photographer is considered fun by a lot of people means there will be people willing to do it for little to no money. There will also always be greedy, egotistical and unreasonable people out there but they still have the right to refuse to work with you if you won’t meet their price.

Nine out of ten new businesses fail. Buying photography gear is no guarantee of profit, even if you are skilled with artful results. But if profit is your motive, you’ll likely have better results pursuing business that isn’t fun and easy and that generally means commercial work not models or nature.

> When advising models (when asked) I will tell them to not sign any release for TFP shoots.

I'm not sure that's great advice. Under UK law - and I think the US is the same - then all rights simply default to the photographer. So no release is a worst case. If you're really concerned then a simple "Portfolio use only; no commercial use" agreement is much better - it can literally be those words, two signatures, and a date.

Please tell me more about model train photography and how I can make a living doing that.

Blair Bunting has some fantastic train photos he's taken. You should check out his site, it's amazing what he did with the 20 year old Nikon D1.

I have a friend who really does make part of her living photographing model trains for a local manufacturer. (And she's a part-time model: go figure.)

That's the coolest thing i've ready all day lol.

What’s the zenith of the “professional“ model photographer’s journey?

I guess it's when Kim Kardasian gives you a call to take her picture for free.

Scott always pull together an honest point of view and creates original content which is pleasing to see. Cheers Scott.!

Personally I’ve always paid models for their time when I’m shooting for my book, there are several reasons for this.
Firstly he/she is hired talent to do a job, which translates to its your shoot, your direction, the end product you wanted, not theirs.

Secondly once you’ve paid them you DON’T owe them any retouched pictures, at all, ever... you’ve paid them, ‘thankyou, you were wonderful..bye bye for now..’

Also they cannot ‘tweak, adjust and screw up’ your work if you haven’t gifted them any files.

I see a lot of non agency models these days asking to be paid AND then hassling a week later for images.... ‘no... you were paid, many thanks...’

Essentially you are paying this talent to help create what you have planned, not what they want for their book, so stay in control..

I’d add that once you’ve done a few TFP shoots and gone on to paid shoots you should go and talk to model agencies and look to spend your money on experienced models and production (styling).

It seems like a fortune but it’s what elevates your book.

New camera/lens/lights...? Forget it, go spend that 500-2k on a stylist, a model in her 20’s who’s experienced and go shoot in the next state/county/region....

Those images are what art buyers will notice, not some overpriced/hipster lens with smooooth bokeh...

A word on paying for MUA & hair... just pay them, try out different ones and if you feel that you three click then book them again, you have a tried and tested team who will want to work with you again when paying jobs come in..


Yep, and that's why assistants get paid too.

This is why I don't work with professional models. I can find better looking girls on instagram for free for tfp work.

Yes, but you're actually shooting real commercial fashion. Most of these people aren't and wouldn't know how.

(Also, you're not actually up to even a first shoot standard of posing for a model with a decent agency: you mess up hands too much - generally you have them huge, at wrist angles that make them broken, and with all sorts of ugly knuckle etc detail too prominent. Any competent pro model would pose better than this. Modeling *is* a skill.)

Actually I don't need model to know how to pose. I like to pose models myself. I'm a bit of control freak. I pose everything even fingers before I press the shutter button. IG stunners holds no weight for me. I always try to go for natural beauty instead..

That's because you're not a real fashion photographer: looking at your website, you shoot portraits and weddings. If you were shooting commercial fashion, you really wouldn't have time for that degree of OCD on a eg catalogue shoot.

Where's your website?

I don't shoot models much but I am definitely on the side of pros who use them on commercial shoots. An agency should filter the weak ones but sometimes there is shortage of availability and I have seen very untrained models show up and really fail everyone. When you have a big shoot with 20 people from, stills, video, to make up to stylist and so on all getting paid on a location set this really sucks for all the creatives involved. Once one talent was told to go home. Luckily there were more talents on the set to improvise but it gave us less options as well. I feel for models who get used in a trade for someone's personal portfolio and don't get the training they should get.

A rational contribution to the discourse!

Hi Scott, you're right, however most of the photos I upload to Fstoppers are TFP because my paid work comes from weddings and I sincerely need to shoot for fun.

Some good points here, but I think you may be missing a key element of all of this. If you're still building your portfolio, and either don't have a lot of work with models to show, or that work just isn't very good, then no, you won't be able to work with high level, agency-signed models for free. However, if you're still building your portfolio, and still improving your skills as a photographer, you probably won't be getting much value out of paying to hire those models either. You'll end up with mediocre photos of beautiful models, which won't actually help you in the long run. If you happen to have a huge trust fund at your disposal, then by all means, hire great models for all of your shoots while you're learning, but if not, just stick to models who are at the same level that you are, and work on improving your skills.

I've been shooting fashion/editorial work for a few years, and I've never paid a model for a test shoot. No one is taking advantage of anyone else, I've just found models at a similar level to me, who needed something in my style for their book, and we have collaborated on mutually beneficial shoots. I've been able to improve my portfolio, and as I have, I've been able to get better and better models.

Also, there are a number of photographers who make a significant amount of their income from paid model tests, particularly in the larger markets. They wouldn't call themselves "model photographers" because their main focus is usually editorial or commercial fashion/lifestyle work, but once you're at that level, you can certainly charge newer models for tests, because it's valuable to them to get high quality photography in their books.

Start by shooting your friends, then move to model mayhem, then, when your portfolio is ready, reach out to modeling agencies. And BE NICE TO MODELS.

I shot models...for agencies..for a living....for over 10 years. But here's the big catch. It was 1985 to the late 1990's!! Do I expect that to happen now? Not a chance.

Good article. Actually I have been thinking about this for quite a long time. Even though I am a poor photographer in a very big sea of photographers I need to get a person who can not only pose, but teach about the business. I'm at the bottom of the pile and need someone who can pull me up to another level. I don't need someone who is on the same level as me and knows what I know. Yes, it's time to pay some cash.

"If I were shooting fashion and I wanted to up my game, then I would have to pay an agency for a good model in order to create the work of the standard I need." That's not the way it works. As just some photographer working on his portfolio, you can't just hire a model from an agency (at least from a reputable agency). If an agency thinks you're good enough, they'll give you a model for a "test shoot" to benefit both the model's and photographer's portfolio (I don't know, but maybe that's even how "TFP" got started). But in any event, it's still how things work in fashion. The "upping your game" part comes from paying for better stylists. For a fashion portfolio, it won't matter how great-looking the model is if the clothes aren't very good.

Should a model ever get paid?

Sure, for commercial jobs, where the photos will be used to sell something (that is what fashion photography is). Just like a photographer should get paid for that, too. Basically, either both the photographer and model are getting paid by a client, or neither are.

I believe this article misses a glaring point about the fruition of the amateur model and photographer community. It's simply obscene as to how many people that either purchase a camera or told they are attractive start charging fees. Since there is no diploma, license or certificate saying you're a professional photographer or model it's open season as to what anyone may call themselves. It's like a never ending cycle that generally brings 0 credibility or growth to either party. Right out of the gate I see people who claim to be models charging hilarious rates. The same goes with photographers. There are some amazing traveling and freelance models that appropriately charge their worth but their end client will always be the photographer. In turn, the photographer will probably never receive a dollar charging a freelance model because there is an insane plethora of photographers that will line up at the drop of a dime to photograph any attractive model that asks for pictures. That formula for an "industry" is certain failure. Everyone just seems to be a photographer or model but nobody seems to be making money if you are in this circle.

There's also the phenomenon of models wanting to be paid, plus receive all the photos, and then sell the photos on Patreon or OnlyFans. Unbelievable.

As a veteran of the days of testing (I won't refer to it as TFP, but that is just me) there were reasons other than getting to shoot pretty girls.

Agencies were in the position to recommend photographers to clients who wanted a recommendation. Working closely with agencies to test newer girls (I rarely shot men) meant that I was top-of-mind when those times came. As well, working with new girls would give the agency an indication as to whether the model would be good enough to work for money at some time in the near future. It was important that the girls get as much experience as necessary.

Initially - and occasionally - those tests were gratis the photographer. 8 - 10 rolls of film, processing, and prints cost money so after a few 'tests' by the agency to see if you were qualified to shoot the models, there would be a small stipend for your expenses. We would get $100 for a headshot, $200 for a three shoot package. Barely covered expenses, but still, it kept us top of mind with the agents, buyers, and models who were in the position of recommending us to possible clients.

Where money was to be made were the 'wannabes' who would try to put their books together to take to the agencies in hopes of being accepted. These shoots would be billed at between $500 - $800 (I am in Phoenix, your rates may vary). This type of engagement was not a model test, they weren't models, this was a commission from someone who needed my expertise and brought nothing to the table as far as reciprocity.

After that initial period, and if the photographer had shown themselves to be good, solid, creative, and able to make shots that met expectations with an interesting style, the top models would be interested in shooting with you so they could have an opportunity to have your work in their books. I never charged a top model for work.

At that point, the work you did together was truly a creative endeavor where the model, MUA, stylist, and others would be working toward a specific image that would benefit all.

Those were wonderful and heady times and I do miss them... I do.

But probably the best reason for a photographer to test models (agency models) was that the models saw far more clients than the photographers could ever possibly hope to get in front of. A model may be going on 10-15 go-sees a week, while a photographer would maybe get one or two portfolio showings a month. (These numbers are far more skewed these days.) So it was of great marketing value to have your photographs being shown to clients in editorial, advertising, and PR. I got many gigs from models showing my work and having the client comment on "who did that"... well, it was me.

The digital revolution as it is called did away with that imperative in all but the places where fashion is actually being shot. And there are several; Manhattan, Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn. That's it.

(Sorry, and feel free to fire away your anger, but shooting girls in underwear, skimpy dresses, and naked is not, nor has it ever been, Fashion.)

What happened in the digital revolution was to remove the financial burden from shooting tests with models, as well as the gateway to getting a model (the agency). Agencies were still valuable, but models who could not get signed would simply create a Model Mayhem or (that other one, I cannot remember) profile and start hiring herself out. I wasn't the least bit interested in working with newbies, talentless hacks, and young women for whom their opinion of modeling was fishnets and stripper heels.

Several clients decided they would go with MM girls because of costs. I always had them do the hiring and when they did, I included a kill fee that was 3/4 of the total fee explaining that their cheap model had about a 50/50 chance of even showing up. Even when being paid. After a few of these disasters (and I cut them some slack), they were back at the agencies.

It is really special when someone who has no experience, no practice, and a very slim interpretation as to what the job actually entails demands money for doing it. LOL... yeah, that's how life works.

As the author said, there really is no business or industry called "Model Photography"... but in reality, there is nothing wrong with that at all. I do not think he is making a judgment, and I am not either.

Having fun making images whether as a photographer or a 'model' is great. It is a super exciting thing to be involved in, and making images is a noble and creative endeavor no matter what the end use is.

Just beware those who want to sell you stuff in order to get into the amazing and lucrative market of "Model Photography".

It doesn't exist.

I've never paid a model to photograph them. I've had models pay me to photograph them; typically for their agency profile page or for building their portfolio.

I've reached out to models to see if they would be interested in collaborating on something in which I'll do a TF shoot and not charge them. I've never had a model ask me to pay them.

Recently I've had someone approach me offering me money to do a "clinic" at a studio for photographers wanting to learn about posing, lighting, etc. For that I would definitely hire a good model and pay them.

No one should be expected to do something for free, but payment does not necessarily have to come in the form of money. If something can be mutually beneficial, that is certainly a viable option. For example I've done TF shoots that resulted in paid shoots for both me and the model.

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