Everyone has a different feeling on collaboration. I feel that it's a very good thing for a new photographer, but I also feel it can be greatly misused or misrepresented. I used a model/photographer finding website to gain skills and experience via collaboration, and I feel it was a shortcut to what would otherwise have been years of work.
Working for Free
When I transitioned from working for a full-time studio to running my own business, I knew that I wanted to produce quality, but I had lacked some basic knowledge that would be necessary to produce the level of work I wanted to produce. This is where shooting for free I feel was paramount. Many people subscribe to the “fake it 'til you make it” philosophy, but I do not. I feel that's doing a disservice to anyone who hires you to create images for them. As a professional, I feel there is and should be a certain expected standard. Others have argued about that with me claiming the old standby “photography is art, and art is subjective,” and while that's true, I still think there needs to be a basic standard for a pro. When I see blue people from terrible white balance, or a very unflattering pose for a heavy subject, it speaks to me about the experience level of the photographer. This is where shooting for free (usually models, or girls who want to be models) really can help.
By a TF (trade-for) arrangement, you are taking pictures and the model is getting pictures. You can do an infinite amount of this until you feel that your quality is where it should be. What I used to do when shooting a certain type of photo, be it outdoor, city, or whatever it may be, before the session I would gather inspiration photos from anywhere I could that had the look I was after. After the shoot, I would go back and take my pictures and literally compare them side by side to see what was different, make notes, and try to do better next time. When you do this, you should certainly be able to see that there's a difference and you need to make changes. Imagine how long it would take to learn the same amount from doing only work from customers.
I rarely shoot collaborations now. If I do then it's something really special that I really feel will make a signature piece for my gallery and website. But what I can say is that the shooting for free, given the number of free sessions I did versus the average number of clients per year that are served, I'd say I shaved 10 years of gaining experience off had I only done that same practice on actual clients. It made a huge difference, and it was worth it.
I also rarely use Model Mayhem anymore, but it was a big part of how I got started as I used it to find models to work with. I would seek out models that didn't have first class images in their portfolio, as they would be more likely to want TF work so obtain the best pics they possibly can. I always had excellent luck with models that were friendly and things went well. It goes without saying, but I'll say anyway that it's very important to behave in a professional manner with them, and respect. One flirt and your reputation can be shot before it ever gets started.
I was able to find enough models from this site alone to build a portfolio and then continue growing with each session. I still do that to this day, I always go back and ask myself how could I have made it better. Then each time I would get a better picture that was similar to something I had, I'd remove the old and add the new. Over time I found that I finally liked what I was producing.
I feel it's very important to put only your best work on your portfolio. We all have images that may be salable but aren't our best. Leave those out.
Using Model Mayhem
Using Model Mayhem can be greatly enhanced especially with one of the paid tiers; mine has been $6 per month. When you do that, it enables more images in portfolio and some other features such as how many messages you can send in a day to non-friends. But the real power is in the ability to use BBCode. Just like any forum, you can use BBCode to include links (useful for your website) or embed pictures right into the message which is helpful for collaborating on outfits, style suggestions, etc.
The way I have made this efficient is to have some preset messages and replies ready to go and saved in a Google Doc, much like I mentioned before which was in regard to social posting. This way, when I am traveling and want to find a model to shoot in the city where I am, I can easily on my phone write to one and have a preset message ready to go, saving me from the effort of trying to type something professional on the little phone screen. Having the signature image (I use a screenshot of my website gallery) and a link to website in the message really helps you stand out in a platform like this where 99 percent of all users just type plain text replies and makes you look more professional. I have found it's all in the details for impressions and how you present yourself, especially to a new model you have not worked with before.
I will admit that I don't use the site much anymore since I don't really do collaboration work often, however it was instrumental in getting to where I am today and I do recommend it for growing your skills and giving yourself the chance to work with different people and produce different looks.
As with any website, obviously put your best work in your Model Mayhem gallery. Don't put everything you shoot there. Less is more. A few really good images speaks to someone who doesn't know you as “this person takes great images every time” versus a gallery of 100 images with a few great ones speaks “this person takes a great image once in awhile.” Big difference in how you are seen.
The Before and After
Here's a few images from when I had first started working with models. I am mortified to post these, but I believe it's important to go back and see where you were so you can realize how far you've come.
Whew, that hurt to share publicly.
Here's a few samples of recent work, all of which I believe would have been much different had I not used the modeling site to get a lot of learning basics out of the way.