My high school enemy is my new best friend. I'm talking about a glorious thing called "tests." In the photo world, a test is a shoot set up for the sake of portfolio-building, experimentation, fun, or all of the above. It's not a paid shoot, but these suckers pay off big time. A test shoot is when you book a model (we'll talk about how) to shoot a concept that you put together. As I'm writing this, I actually have my journal open on my desk in mid-plan for a test that I'll be shooting later this month. Let's talk about a few reasons why testing is so important, how to find models, reach out to agencies, and what you need to do once your model is booked. Dig in!
Whether you're looking to build your portfolio, to stay creative when work is slow, or to experiment with new techniques, tests are the way to do it.
Looking to land big jobs but don't have much work to show? It's that classic paradox: you need experience to get the job, and you need the job to get experience. This is where these unpaid shoots come in. Since a test is an unpaid shoot, you don't necessarily need the experience that a paying client might be hoping for, but it will give you the experience that a paying client might be looking for. That's a freaking huge win-win in my book. In almost every instance, you have complete creative control over your test shoots, which means that you can build a portfolio full of the type of work that you want to be booking more of.
Let's be real here for a second. Forget money. If money wasn't a thing, would this be the career path you chose? If so, congratulations! You picked the right job. I think it's pretty safe to say that almost everyone of you reading this is a photographer because you love to create. It's why I am, and it's why I love testing. I found out pretty early on that it's massively important for me to take time to create outside of paid work. Sometimes, that meant I took advantage of the times when nobody wanted to book me, and other times, it meant that I blocked out time in my schedule to turn down paid work for the sake of having the free time to create on my own. The shoots that I've put together on my own time often end up being some of my favorites because I had complete creative say over everything: wardrobe, location, concept, etc. Tests have saved me from the brink of burnout, creative ruts, and slow winters. If you're in this job to create awesome things, put in the effort to make that happen, paid or not.
Something I preach at just about every workshop or conference I speak at is that experimentation fosters progression. That doesn't mean that every experiment will be a success, but it does mean that if a certain experiment didn't work (that's okay), now, you're able to figure out why and move on to the next one. It's how we learn, and it's how we push our work forward. During paid shoots, I often step out of my norm with a thought like "let's try something weird!" However, the meat of what I deliver is in my current style. It's what the client is expecting and what they hired me for; so, I'll deliver that, with some little experiments tossed in. Since tests are unpaid, I don't have that limitation. I have free range to try new techniques and to play with any idea that inspires me. When I find something I love through one of those experiments, I begin to work it into my portfolio so it becomes part of the style that future clients hire me for - hence, progression.
We all start somewhere; I get that. My first model was a cat, and she didn't take direction well. Below are a couple of ways to find models depending on where you are in your career.
Are you the ugly one in your friend group? Perfect! That means you probably have some decent-looking friends that you can ask to model for you. Unless you happen to be friends with a lot of professional models, this should be a stepping stone of a resource. It should be a great way to get some practice in and to build a small portfolio before moving on to working models. I don't mean to say that shooting your friends isn't great, but if you're looking to create a portfolio that will get you hired in the commercial industry, you'll want actual models in your portfolio. Just about any creative director looking to hire you will know the difference, and there is an industry standard in terms of talent, trends, etc. that they may not see in your portfolio if you are only shooting friends (this isn't true 100% of the time, but it's a pretty safe generalization). Aside from that, you may realize that your friends don't know how to model all that well, and the experience that a model brings to the set can boost your work to the next level.
With all of that said, friends rock. It's how most photographers start out. Grab a friend, dress them up, talk about the shoot, and go play. If nothing else, you'll learn some things and have a great time.
I know, it sounds like I'm talking about some sort of weird but gorgeous fight club. Model Mayhem is a networking site for everyone: photographers, models, makeup artists, hair stylists, wardrobe stylists, etc. You can sign up for an account, search for models in your area, and get in touch! Easy enough, right? Fair warning: you will have to sort through plenty of weirdos (yes, really weird) to find great models. To be honest, you may look at the site for a minute and close out the window before you dig in more, but trust me. There are some killer models in there (both brand new and agency signed). In fact, probably about 30% of the models in my portfolio are ones that I either found on Model Mayhem or that have accounts on there. When you contact models through MM, you're reaching out to them directly (different from agencies, which we'll talk about next). Once you've done your browsing, passed by the weirdos, and found a model that you think would be a great fit, you can message them directly through the site to see if they are interested in shooting with you. Be brief, informative, and personal. I always send along the concept (usually in the form of a mood board, which we'll talk about in the Agencies section), dates I have available to shoot, and some sort of personal note. To be personal, look through their work, and compliment them on a specific shoot. Even if they aren't able to shoot with you, a compliment always rocks. From there, they'll let you know if they're interested!
When you reach out on MM, there's another little thing to note: money! Instead of being vague and not mentioning it upfront, save yourself (and the model) some time and let them know that you are looking for a "TF" or a "test" shoot. Those both mean the same thing but for whatever reason, TF (short for "trade for photos") is used more on MM. Some won't be able to shoot without pay, but there are plenty of models on there who are looking to build a portfolio just like you are!
I'm about to blow your mind off its hinges. You ready? Another killer place to find models for test shoots is a modeling agency!
Okay, are you back? Day after day, month after month, and year after year, good looking hopefuls reach out to modeling agencies hoping to be signed. On top of this, agencies have scouts that they send to events where the aesthetically pleasing among us tend to hang out (fashion shows, surf competitions, etc.) hoping to find new models to sign. The great part about this for us, is that when one of those lucky few does end up becoming part of an agency's family, they now need to build a portfolio before they start booking the big jobs. These new models are referred to as "new faces," and when you reach out to an agency looking for a model to test with, that's who you'll be looking to work with.
If it was as easy as just asking, I wouldn't be writing this section. Believe it or not, you aren't the only one looking to test. Agencies get hit up all of the time with these requests; so, it's important to make sure you are helpful, brief, and worth emailing back. Just like with the messages to models on Model Mayhem, I like to include the dates I'm planning on testing, the concept, and a personal note. Aside from that, it's also good to give them an idea of the type of model you are looking for (tanned, blonde hair, pale, dark hair, etc.) so they have a better idea of who would be a good fit for you. Most agencies have contact links, and some even have direct emails to the agent in charge of new faces. If you can't find any, give them a call, let them know that you are looking to test with some of their new faces and you'd like to know who you should email. Below is a sample email that I might send to an agent:
My name is Ben Sasso and I'm an editorial/lifestyle photographer. I'm reaching out because I'm looking for a model to test with during the first week of December, and I'd love to see if you had any new faces that I could work with! You can find the mood board for the shoot here. Ideally, I'd love to shoot someone who fits a more innocent vibe (pale skin, large eyes, etc.), but I know you may have some other girls that need similar images as well.
I'm sure you're busy, and I appreciate you taking the time to read through. Looking forward to hearing back soon!
PHOTOGRAPHER | EDUCATOR | HECK YEAH!
It's sweet, simple, and to the point. You'll notice that I included a mood board in there. They take about a second to create (mine are just pages that are only available if someone has the link) and are a killer way to get your vision across quickly to someone who doesn't have much time to spare. I used my own images in this one, but you don't have to limit it to your own work (I usually don't) since it is just to pitch a vision. This mood board will actually come in handy later too; we'll get there!
Also, I'm no expert in reaching out to agencies. I thought it might be helpful to include some advice directly from one of my favorite agencies to work with, Newmark Models. Below is a little blip of insight from Jules at Newmark. Thanks for contributing, Jules!
Are you ready to test with an agency? Take the time to really consider your work and editing style and make sure it matches with each agency's aesthetics before reaching out. I find the best way for photographers to contact agencies for testing is to call the agency and get the name and email of the person handling tests. Next, craft a short, friendly email including a bit about your experience, why the models needs your work, a link to your website, Instagram, and a picture or two of your latest work. Agencies are bombarded with inquiries; so, keep it quick and interesting. Once you start a conversation with the agency, set up a test that makes sense for you and the model; this isn't the best time to try out that one idea you have a gut feeling may be too avant garde. One of my personal pet peeves that will send you quickly to the blacklist is asking the models to shoot nude or implied after never initially discussing it with the agency. Once you've set up a shoot, realize this is also a test of your relationship with the agency. This could lead to job recommendations or just a great reputation in what is a very small world.
Helpful Things to Note
Know Your Level
Hierarchy is a thing in any industry. You aren't Tim Walker (and if you are, thanks for being amazing, sir). If you're reading this, it most likely means that you haven't yet built a large portfolio, and you're looking to break into a new realm of the photography world. There are the top agencies (Wilhelmina, Ford, Next), there are midsize agencies, and there are smaller boutique agencies. Places like NYC, Paris, and LA have the whole spectrum, and just about anywhere else will have small-to-midsize agencies. If you don't have much in your portfolio yet, start small. Reach out to agencies whom you truly feel will benefit from having you shoot their new faces (and be honest with yourself). As your portfolio builds, start moving up the ladder!
See that sample email up there? That's what we call a "cold" email. I'd send it to an agency that I've never worked with before and where I don't know anyone personally. Thankfully, I don't really have to send those much anymore. Over the years, I've been able to build relationships with agencies that I can now reach out to, saying something more along the lines of: "Hey Mark! I'm setting up some tests next month. Do you all have any girls who are open for tests?" It's a wonderful place to be in, and it all starts with that cold email and then consistently being easy and valuable to work with.
In addition to agencies (in fact, probably before agencies), you'll find yourself building relationships with models you've worked with. That can mean that not only do you have someone you can reach out to when inspiration strikes, you'll also build relationships that turn photoshoots into something more like a collaboration between you and a model who has learned your style and can deliver what you love without as much direction.
This is pretty dang important. Usage dictates how you are allowed to use the images from a test (or any shoot from that matter). Typically with testing, you are allowed to use the images for your portfolio and social media. What's more important is what you aren't allowed to do with them. Unless discussed already, you aren't allowed to sell images (in a print shop or to a company), or submit them for publication. If you have an opportunity to do either of those, get in touch with the booking agent first, and confirm that it's okay. Sometimes, it isn't a problem, and sometimes, you can, but the model will have to be compensated. Always ask permission, not forgiveness. Otherwise, you may burn a bridge to that agency and have to start sending cold emails again (bummer).
Get Used to "No"
Well, that's not entirely true. I actually don't think I've ever gotten a "no" email back after sending a cold email (I'm just realizing this as I'm writing it). Instead, I just don't hear back. So, get used to that instead, especially early on. Don't worry; it doesn't mean you're hopeless. It just means that you might not be the right fit for that particular agency or that they just aren't currently looking for photographers to test with. Keep at it!
They accepted! Now what?
First of all, HECK YEAH! Congratulations. You've officially made it, and now, the road to success will be lined with gold and so many diamonds that you should probably buy ice skates (disclaimer: exaggeration). It might not be that easy, but hey, small steps.
If an agency accepts your request for testing, they'll most likely send you what's called a "package." This will be a link to a selection of their models (usually around 3-10) to choose from. It's a pretty easy process from here on out. I typically send them my first choice and a backup (in case my first choice isn't available on the date, etc). After that, you'll talk dates, locations, and details to lock it in!
Hair and Makeup
Often, this will be brought up before this point (but it fits best in the blog post here), when you're first reaching out to the agencies. They might ask if you have a "team," which means: "Will you have a hair stylist and/or makeup artist?" If I know I will, I usually include it in the first email. If not, I don't bring it up until they do. It's not usually a deal breaker if you don't; it just helps if you do.
If you have the budget for it, you can typically find a hair stylist and/or makeup artist pretty easily on Google, at a salon, or through wedding websites (blogs, etc). If you don't have the budget, you can also find them on Model Mayhem! Just like there are novice and professional photographers on there, you can also find the same range of hair and makeup artists. If you're looking to collaborate with someone who is also starting out, you should reach out to them just like you would to a model (date, concept, etc). Let them know if you are looking to collaborate for free or can offer what is called a "kit fee." A kit fee is a term for the cost of the actual product they use for your shoot (typically anywhere from $25-$50).
Don't forget to pull clothes for your model! Once you have their sizes (which the booking agent can provide for you), there are a few different options for this, depending on what you have in mind.
Option 1: Studio Rental Policy
Some stores (especially in places like LA or NY) have what they call "studio rentals," where they allow you to rent wardrobe from them for a week at about 10% of the cost of the clothes you decide on. Yay!
Option 2: Wardrobe Stylist
If you have the budget for it, a stylist may be a great person to have on set with you! Find someone who fits well with your concept, decide if you want to collaborate for free or pay them, and start reaching out. There are plenty on Model Mayhem who are waiting for your message! If you decide to hire a stylist, they will not only provide wardrobe for you, but they'll also be on set with pins, clamps, and just about everything else to make the clothes look great.
Option 3: Designers
Just like a model needs great images for themselves, there are plenty of designers looking for great images of their own work. If you're just starting out, Etsy is a great place to look for designers who might lend you wardrobe (dresses, jewelry, shirts, etc). If you find someone whose work you like, just send them an email letting them know what you have planned, that you have an agency-signed model (if you do), and that you'd love to include some of their work. If you're a bit farther along, you can also reach out to larger designers to include their work.
This is it. Everything is set, and you're ready to go! A "call sheet" will be the final list that includes the address, call times for the model, hairstylist, and makeup artist, and the different looks that you've decided on for hair and makeup. Essentially, this is something that gets sent to everyone to make sure that you are all on the same page and that everyone is where they need to be when they need to be there. Remember how I said that the mood board would come in handy? Now is the time. Once I book a model through the agency, I turn the mood board into the call sheet and start adding details there. I include a link to a sample call sheet here!
Okay, got it! Now what?
Great job, friend! Now, just show up on set, rock it, and deliver a set of images that proves to the booking agent that you were worth the shot. Continue to foster those relationships you've made with the agent to make your job that much easier next time. Lastly, dang. You just made it through this whole thing, I hope it was helpful! Now, go get yourself a bowl of ice cream, you deserve it.