How to Build Your Fashion Portfolio on a Budget

How to Build Your Fashion Portfolio on a Budget

Building a quality portfolio can be an expensive endeavor, especially if you don't budget and carefully consider your costs. Putting together professional quality shoots on a budget can be challenging. After experiencing some of the wide variations in cost for things like models, makeup artists, and the other essential pieces of a shoot, I wanted share my experiences and lessons learned the hard way.

Building a portfolio is something I’m not new to at all. Five years of art school, 2 years of graduate art school, 10 years total in photography, and 7 years teaching art and design with students working on putting together their own portfolios has given me some insight and experience to the process of portfolio building

Also, shooting to build an updated body of work isn’t a one-time thing, it's an ongoing process that we as photographers continually do in order to grow in our art, a process that lasts for potentially our entire careers. When planning a personal shoot I find it very easy to overspend. I get so wrapped up in the image and the end result being perfect that I become carried away and can easily justify almost any financial hit in order to get the final result I have envisioned. This attitude, while not completely wrong necessarily (at the end of the day the most important thing is the image), has led to some buyer's remorse on a few of my personal shoots. It's a feeling I would like to help some of you out there avoid.

Below are a list of the main components for a fashion shoot. The rates are based on half-day shoots, and the experiences and dollar amounts are relative to my market, New Orleans.

1.) Model $0 - $600

For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to assume we’re shooting with one model. The range of cost here can greatly vary. At the higher end I’ve paid rates around $150 an hour. At first glance this may not seem too crazy, but when considering I live in a market where even the stronger girls have little to no print experience, and we’re dealing with work that doesn’t require usage (being used only for portfolio and unpaid editorial submission), spending $600 plus for a half-day shoot can be a little pricey.

Getting a better rate: By working with agencies that are experienced and that you have built a relationship with, you are more likely to: (1) get better girls, and (2) get better rates. Once I’ve built a positive relationship with an agency, they are more likely to send models that are happy to work with me because they know they will get strong images. Also they don’t mind shooting for a lower rate, which can be somewhere around $25 to $50 per hour.

But even better then a low rate is no rate, right? Models will at times be very happy to do TFP (test for print). To put it simply, they work with you for free because they want to build their portfolio as well. If you don’t have quality work to show, you will be less likely to get models (who you actually want to work with) who are willing to do TFP work.

You may even be able to work on trade. I have had the experience of trading shoots for shoots. This means I’ll shoot something for you that you want or need, maybe your new headshot, and then you will work with me on my shoot in exchange. I have personally had very positive experiences doing this.

2.) Hair and Makeup: $0 to $600

I’m grouping these together because the price points can be very similar, but it should be noted that these are most often (in my experience) two different people with two (slightly similar but) different rates. On the higher end I’ve spent and/or been quoted $300 for a four-hour shoot for a makeup artist and another $300 for hair.

I also find it much more likely and easier to find talented hair and makeup artists who are willing to work for free so that they can build their portfolios.

I personally like feeling good about bringing someone into a shoot. I want to know and feel like they are excited to be there, either because they are making money or because they really love the concept of the shoot and the images being produced. If the concept is coming from the makeup artist, then I know it's something they are passionate about and I know they will be highly engaged on the day of the shoot, so I don’t mind at all not paying. Although if it's my shoot and my concept, I don’t like not paying even if they offer. Not because I don’t like my money, I certainly do, but like I stated previously I want them to be excited and engaged. Paying them, even when they offer to work without charge, lets them know that you value them as a professional and value their time. People appreciate being appreciated, and when people are happy working with you it figuratively pays off. In these cases, and in most cases for my personal shoots, I wind up putting out about $300 total for both hair and makeup (approximately $150 each). I should note that it’s not all that uncommon to have someone that is talented and can do both hair and makeup. This is just a personal thing, but I like having one person that is completely focused on their singular task.

3.) Stylist: $0 to $2,000

This can possibly be the widest range of cost for the shoot. Now I don’t think that most of us on a relatively small budget would fork out $2,000 for a stylist on a half-day portfolio shoot, but this price point is very realistic. If a stylist is pulling looks for you, there is a possibility they will have to pay a “studio service” fee to the stores they are pulling from. The studio service is basically a rental fee often billed as a re-stocking fee that can vary on average from 10 to 30 percent of the actual cost of the merchandise. Based on these numbers, those of us familiar with the prices of higher end fashion know that the $2,000 price point could easily be blown out the water. Paying a studio service fee plus the stylist fee can quickly leave us with a much lighter wallet.

Now let's come back down to earth and talk about more practical options and rates for getting looks for a shoot. For one, some stylist may be able to and/or willing to outright purchase the clothing and then return them after the shoot, negating that cost for the clothing itself. Then you are looking at only the stylist rates which can also vary. Just like with models and MUAs, some newer stylist may be looking to build their portfolios and be happy to work with you on your concept without charge.

The other option, and the one I would recommend and do the most often, is working directly with a boutique or designer. Call them, show them your work, explain what your trying to do, and many will be happy to allow you to use their clothing and will even style the looks for you. This can even be a great way of showcasing your talents to them and potentially nabbing a new client. The counterpoint is, you’re giving them free work and you need to be careful not to devalue your work or the work of other photographers by giving it away too frequently; There’s definitely a balance to it.

4.) Location: $0 to $500

I’ve capped this at $500 to be reasonable, but there are certainly locations that are more expensive to shoot at. There are some great locations in New Orleans that are willing to charge in the range of $300 an hour. So if you wanted to spend $1,000 plus on a personal shoot's location you very well could. The $500 comes from the higher range of renting studio space in my area. The studio rental options I have available to me range between $200 and $500 for a half-day shoot. Also many of you out there, like myself, may have studio spaces they can use for no cost at all.

The other much cheaper option is to shoot in a free public space. Some public spaces may not like you being there, but there are certainly many great spaces around urban and rural areas to shoot at that don’t cost a cent. As long as they fit your concept, they can be the way to go.

Gear: $0 to Infinity

I, like most of us, love gear. A new light or new modifier is always tempting. I very often when planning out a shoot think to myself, “It would be cool to shoot it with…” insert some unnecessary piece of gear I don’t have. Sometimes it's just time to get that new strobe, new modifier, or new boom. However if you have what you need to do the job successfully, I would encourage you, as I would encourage myself, to fight the urge to purchase new gear that you know you don’t need.


It may be difficult when starting out to get quality professionals to work with you. While you may be able to get inexperienced hair stylists, makeup artists, and models to work for lower rates, you may also be wasting your time and money if the work produced is not usable. Producing strong images will not only help you book the jobs you want, but will also start the exponential effect of drawing stronger professionals in that want to work with you and are also happy working for lower rates.

Total Cost Range: $0 to $3,700

Typical Approximate Cost On My Shoots: $500

Keep in mind this is per shoot, and putting together a new body or work may include 10 shoots or more.

My advice is to pay up at first. If you're confident in your ability and you know that if you have strong quality people around you, then you will be able to produce strong work. As you build up your portfolio and personal relationships, you will have the option of saving significantly on future personal portfolio building shoots.

I hope some of you find this helpful and insightful. I would love to hear about the experiences of building your own portfolio, rates, etc., from those of you out there in various markets.

Lance Nicoll's picture

owner of Lance Nicoll Wedding Photography - Fine Art Wedding Photography Studio

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Great write up Lance!

It's articles like this that draw me to Fstoppers so thank you for the educational piece.

I've had my own personal experiences with models and it seems that you get what you pay for. You can find rookie models that are super comfortable in front of a camera fir TFP but it seems to be more rare in my area. If I were perusing a strong model rich portfolio build I'd be feeling inclined to focus my budget on model rates. If not for anything else, a decent camera paired with a talented model can go a long way.

I agree, when building my portfolio devoted much of my budget to talent acquisition as opposed paying for locations or stylists. After shooting a few published models it was easier to find girls who'd shoot TFP.

Thanks so much Michael. Definitely, having a model that is experienced and comfortable is a huge plus. Thanks for the feedback really happy you enjoyed the article.

Great article, Lance!

You typed what I was starting to feel after looking to put together some really good portfolio building shoots. After looking at all the "free" folks out there I feel like I would rather have a better guarantee of a quality end product than taking a chance on folks who are working for free. Sure if you have people you know and trust that's great but sometimes it's just better to not have someone who is 100% committed to your vision.

I also think that once you get a few high quality pieces created things would snowball from there and one can more easily convince folks to stretch a little and work with you.

And for the general masses here....I have to ask WTF is up with Model Mayhem? There seems to be crazy people on there. From "photographers" who look like they are just trying to get some trashy naked shots on what looks like an iPhone to "models" who are taking selfies in their basement and making demands as if they were Tyra Banks I'm just perplexed...seems like a cesspool. Not to mention the fact that no matter how awful the photo is there's tons of folks saying that it is amazing, beautiful, classy, or breathtaking.

I've had wildly mixed experienced with MM. Worked with a couple of amazing models who are super-collaborative and engaged. But I've also worked with models who just want to collect some easy money and get out ASAP.

Whenever I work with someone from MM, I always make a point to ask about their weirdest experience in working with a photographer through there. I've heard some of the craziest, creepiest stories.

My advice is to use MM sparingly. Meet some good people and then network through them to find others. Pretty models always know other pretty models. And if they're experienced, they probably know talented hair/makeup people and stylists too.

Solid advice Geoffrey..thank you!

Good advice Geoffrey

Thanks Jason! Model Mayhem was one of the first spots I looked when I first started shooting, I quickly moved on. I know there are photographers who have success on there but I also ran into a lot of suspect options on there. Thanks for reading.

Model Mayhem is an invaluable first 'stepping stone' for someone who has absolutely no portfolio. One should use it for what it is, properly, then move on. I wrote this very long kind of article on how to use MM as a stepping stone to shooting paid agency tests in a year. It's a long article, but I receive an email a week thanking me for helping them use and then ween off of MM, step by step.

I have mixed feelings about MM. It's a cool place to network with aspiring artists however most of the users appear to be hobbyists. I've reached a point where I'm compiling images to present to potential clients and companies in an effort to be commissioned for paid work. It's like I'm reaching the end of the line with model mayhem.

MM is a great first stepping stone. It's a great tool for getting some of those first steps. When you first start out shooting models...despite what you want to think, because you have no portfolio, YOU are the "guy with camera" so, you use MM as a tool and stepping stone to get "something" then build from there. For that, it's invaluable, but your work should eventually ween you off MM pretty quickly.

Good advice! I think it is better to invest in a good model and stylist than buying a new lens.

Thanks Roman. Ya, your gear may help you get a better image but its your portfolio that books the job, not your camera bag.

This article fits my experience in trying to build my book. One cost-saving trick I would add here is this... most of the time you're paying models, stylists and hair/makeup people cash which can be hard to reconcile with accounting at the end of the year. It's all under the table so you're not sending 1099s to people and writing off the money as an expense.

To counteract this, I make an effort to boost my legitimate expenses by offering the people on set a slightly lower rate, but then insist on covering lunch and/or a car service to/from the location/studio. I put the food on my business credit card and use a car service I have an account with or use Uber (which is connected to my biz cc). This way, I have a legitimate expense that I can write off at the end of the year and lessen my cash expenses.

This trick also has the added benefit of making the people who are helping me feel really appreciated. In NYC, offering a car so people do not have to take the subway is gold. And a lot of times, stylists and makeup artists have boxes and heavy makeup cases to carry. I've had people work for hundreds less than they would normally get for a day of shooting with this approach. Everybody wins.

I live in NYC and the car idea for this particular area is genius!!

Hey Geoffrey, thanks for the comment. I could not agree more that appreciation goes a long way. Often people will work harder or even stay at jobs that pay less when they feel valued and appreciated, it goes a long way.

Apparently Von Wong does it without ANY cost... literally from his mouth... I love the guy's work, but his methods is too hard to believe but right now I do believe he can get away with shooting at no costs to talent and other creatives and even locations, but when he started I highly doubt it... Starting out, shooting fashion on a budget is beyond difficult much more than those already established like Von Wong, even harder if you do not live in or near fashion capitals around the world. Heck, if you don't have quality work as good or better than Von Wong's, my best advice is mastering persuasion. - Just a side comment before even reading the article lol.

There's alot of factors that come into play though. It depends on where you live. Also networking skills are a big factor. I am American and live in Germany and I have shot in nightclubs, pool halls, ballrooms, dance studios, yachts, bars, gyms, used exotic and classic cars, etc all for free. You just have to network and know people. So I have no doubt Von Wong could do the same in the US where you speak the language and the people are not so uptight like Germans here...

"I also find it much more likely and easier to find talented hair and makeup artists who are willing to work for free so that they can build their portfolios."

I don't know... in the "middle of nowhere" (which is basically anywhere outside of NYC in the US, I had 1% success rate in finding MUA/Hair Stylist willing to do trade shooting. I honestly think they couldn't care less about having a portfolio. I don't know if its the educational systems around me teaching them resume is beyond more important than a visual portfolio but in my experiences in PA, they could not care at all for their own work in images from anyone. Stock books (or even magazines) is "Good enough" for these creatives that have a salon or even on-location services.

Even for my experience in NYC visits for shooting models for fashion shoots. I know I am no Von Wong in my work, so yea they can easily ignore me as they have a lot more photographers to work with that are much better than I in the NYC area but I had some interest from these creatives just no REAL interest (ModelMayhem) to actually doing the project without USD motivation. Heck recent experience I had no choice but to hire a MUAH literally days before my big TF shoot since the TF MUA lost interest.

Chris, thanks for sharing your experiences with MUA in your area. A good number of the MUA's here in NOLA have their own sites or are working towards putting together an online presence so they seem happy about getting port work. Thanks for your post.

Lance, perfect question on something I've been trying to figure out since started doing my taxes this year, for 2014... Which I did tons of research regarding doing write offs on this specific type of expense "personal shoots" aka "personal projects" aka "experimental/educational shoots" etc, etc... Some people avoid it like the plague and some people write it off in the photography world... its a literal gray and blurred line for some reason and I know I should just ask my CPA. Right now I do not have a dedicate CPA, just local H&R block right now, asking them industry related questions specific to my industry on taxes, they won't know it. What do you do, do you write off your costs regarding personal shoots or not?

Chris, I don't know if I'm qualified to give out tax advice, haha. But I consider things like this to be promotional cost, just like if you paid for advertisement of some sort. But really please don't go on my word with this, ask a professional like your CPA, I wouldn't want to steer you the wrong with this.

One word of caution about paying models above the table: My wife is a producer for still advertising shoots. She was just audited by the NY Department of Labor. The DOL has a strange and narrow definition of what constitutes an "employee" and they were trying to say that the dozens and dozens of models that she pays every year (on behalf of the agency or photographer) fell within that definition. And because they were employees, she needed to pay unemployment taxes for all of them.

It's a story too long to type in this comment, but she fought it and ended up only have to pay a small amount for one particular model. However, she knows other producers and photographers who have had the same experience. She now runs everything through a payroll company or insists that everyone she works with is incorporated (LLC, etc.).

For most people here on FS this is probably not an issue, but it's something to talk to your accountant about if you're going to keep things above the table.

I think it matters for those who hire 1 specific freelance worker for certain amount of compensation paid to them. Like if I pay $500 (as a whole) in a year to 1 specific freelancer you or/and they'd need some kind of tax document for taxing purposes to avoid the DOL thing from what I heard. But yea confirm with your local CPA as this is different in every state but it is similar.

The amount you pay a person is the IRS' concern. The DOL is interested in what they're doing for you. For example, one of the criteria they use to determine if a person is an employee or not is whether you tell them when and where they have to work. Obviously with a model, you need them to be on set at a specific time. Because of that, the DOL could consider them your employee.

It's complicated, but that's the basic issue. The law is designed to protect freelancers. They want to keep businesses from cheating the system by having them work as full time employees in house.

After reading the article, its a good read. I'm sure most readers may already know but this is all dependent on geographic locations on the photographer and photographer traveling to that specific market/geographic locations. The more closer a photographer is to a "Fashion Capital" the easier and less costly to coordinating a personal fashion photoshoot. Less costly due to supply and demand, I found MUA & Hair Stylists in NYC costing me at least 50% less than the ones in my area for the same amount of work, but of course there comes the variable of skills to skew the numbers. Another thing is modeling agencies, not so many of them, other than the ones who are known or future scam agencies. From my experience in researching that area, the non-scammy agencies generally are in the Fashion Capitals, like NYC, Paris, etc. Pretty much everywhere else in the country they require up-front cash from the models/talent which I consider is a fraudulent business practice from these "agencies". And working with an agency, in NYC or other fashion capitals, will be extremely difficult with the level of competition so if you want in you better have a very unique style in your photography.

Maybe I'm blessed to be a market full of creatives wanting to work together. But I think the trick is build as strong of a portfolio as you can on as little budget as you can and then approach start to approach other creatives like stylists and MUH. If you can show your value to them they will want to work with you as a team and they will be key in finding top notch models who will shoot tfp with you. I feel like it's all becoming someone people want to work with. But at the same time there is something to be said about paying people.. They will work hard and mostly likely be on time or early.

Martin, your right on. Being someone people want to work, as you said, is a big part of it. I think your work as well as your reputation go a long way here. Thanks for your comment!

A must have that you left out is insurance. I would not dream of a shoot with models without insurance.

Thanks Tim!

Could you please explain more about insurance? I am starting in this field and know nothing about insurance. Thank you

Thank you for a very nice article. I have been shooting mainly on landscape/cityscape and now planning to move to fashion/model photography. I am about to sign a contract for renting a studio for 200$/months (unlimited use) and will go from there. As I have very limited budget, I plan to start with finding no experience model from MM for TFP and have my wife do some make-up if I cannot find MUAs from MM who can do TFP. I really hope things will go well. :)

Good Luck Hattanas! Glad you liked the article and found it helpful. Thanks for reading.

Liked the article, it was a great read. Gave me some ideas for my port as far as planning out and setting goals for myself. Going to have to start putting some energy into making a solid price point/budget for a shoot idea and then work to make it happen by any means without braking the bank. This line, "I would encourage you, as I would encourage myself, to fight the urge to purchase new gear that you know you don’t need." Hit home for me. I so often get caught up in what I don't have or buy it and then don't make a point in using it enough to get a return on my investment.

Yep, its a constant thing, always wanting that cool new thing, haha. Glad you liked the article Major.

Wonderful article, very informative!

I am always in the process of updating my books, primarily investing in fashion editorials. I feel that a great concept can negate most, if not all costs. Depending on the market one is in, there can be a lot of incredibly talented models and creative team members who will trade for images that are different than their usual work. In the Miami market, I've had great luck getting talented crew just for stepping outside of swimsuit and bridal images.

I've recently encountered a few snags, however. Location, location, location. I've had locations and studios with half-day rates of $1,000-$1,500, as you mentioned in your article, and it honestly blows my mind. I understand that their focus will be in commercial productions that can afford it in their budget, but I often wonder how many fashion editorials attain some of the stunning (and often permit-requiring) locations with their minimal, if non-existent budgets.

I concur on how important concept is! Its not just about how your shooting but what your shooting. Thanks Kendra!

Any fashion photographer who has to PAY agencies to shoot their models is doing something very wrong!

I've never paid to shoot a model (including agency models), ever. If your work is of a reasonable standard then agencies, models and other creatives like MUAs, Stylists etc. will also be happy to collaborate on tests/editorials. The only thing I've ever had to pay for is location/studio hire.

My advice for those wanting to build a fashion portfolio would be:-

1. Learn now to shoot fashion (Hint: this is not the same as shooting models wearing pretty clothes)
2. Test
3. Test more, with better people
4. Approach agencies and test with their models
4. Test more and shoot some editorials on a trade basis
5. Rinse and repeat

Stefano, thanks for the post. Ya as far as what I have seen, read, and heard from other professionals, its often the norm for a photographer to not pay for a test or get paid themselves to test, agencies down here seem foreign to that practice. Where, may I ask, are you based out of?

While on a trip to Berlin I contacted and agency there and said I will be in town for 4 days and asked if they had any new models that need to refresh they SC. I sent them a link to my site, and told them I would send them x amount of photos. They sent me 3 girls for free. The girls were new but still great and I was able to get some very good shots. Made a good relationship with the girls and the agency and I can now shoot with them or contact the agency for new girls anytime I am in Berlin.

I did this same thing in New Zealand and had the same results.

Give it a shot.