How To Get Models for Portraits When You're a Beginner

How To Get Models for Portraits When You're a Beginner

Portraiture is one of the most revered genres of photography, with many photographers dreaming of capturing great images of people. But, how do you get started?

Anyone who has read a few of my original articles lately will know that while it was macro photography that drew me into buying my first camera, it was street photography and portraiture that I was and am passionate about. I remember reading a study some years back, which found that portraits were the images that viewers looked at for the longest, and that made sense to me. But, I remember wondering how anyone gets started. After all, how do you convince somebody that they should let you take their picture when you have precious few portraits to your name?

Well, I'll give you all the advice I have gathered from my own experiences, as well as the insights of others. There is no doubt there is some more advice to be had out there, and perhaps my methods won't work for everyone, but if you're stuck, it'll get the ball rolling for you.

Setting a Foundation: Friends, Family, and the Self

Creating any portfolio from scratch is a challenging task, but the trick is to not start from zero. What I mean by this is you should first take portraits of people you're close to and self-portraits. You need to get comfortable with the basics of photographing people, which extends outside of your camera. One of the most difficult aspects is directing your subject, so use those who love you enough for you to command their time to practice this.

Self-portraits are a brilliant way to learn, and you needn't take anyone's time and don't have to worry about self-consciousness with being a beginner, though you're swapping that self-consciousness for a different brand in most cases! I would be as bold as to say that most of my lighting knowledge and techniques were created using myself as the subject first.

Your aim here isn't to create a portfolio, but rather to build familiarity with the process and have some example images ready for approaching models.

Rachel Wilkinson

Acquaintances and the Cold Approach

If you want people to model for your portraits as a beginner, you ought not to look for agency models, unless you have reasonably deep pockets. Models for your photographs needn't be signed models; they can really be anyone. Once I had decided I wanted to start building a portfolio of portraits using a varied selection of people, I knew I had to find subjects that would give me the time of day. I approached this in several ways, all at the same time, and with a degree of success. The important thing to remember is that somebody saying "no" to you is far from a tragedy and certainly nothing to fear. I usually approach people with my idea and immediately give them a way out. This is the opposite of sales, but I don't want anyone to feel pressured into it.

I would also like to note that being one of those genetically fortunate and beautiful, and being photogenic aren't necessarily the same thing. Finding models for your photographs isn't just the young and the toe-curlingly handsome. While they do make for excellent subjects, it's worth looking for anyone photogenic. It takes time to develop a cultured eye for who is and isn't photogenic, but sometimes, an interesting face is a thousand times more powerful for your portraiture than another copy-paste, on-trend model.

Once you've exhausted your friends and family, start looking nearby. Some of my first portraits outside of my immediate connections were either acquaintances or friends of friends I'd never spoken to, but had an "in." You'd be surprised how many highly photogenic people have never been asked to pose for portraiture and are receptive to the idea. In fact, if I remember rightly, the first three people I asked that I didn't know all said yes. They had reservations and the same self-consciousness we all suffer from, but I assured them that all they have to do is turn up, after that, it's on me to make it work.

It is sometimes worth asking friends or people you know whether they are aware of anyone who is photogenic or "could be a model" that you could take pictures of as you're looking to build your portfolio. You'll always get suggestions, and some you may want to take them up on and some you may not, but it's a strong starting place with a warm opener as you have a connection. If you're feeling more confident, you can try the cold approach.

The cold approach is simply asking somebody if they would be interested in you taking portraits of them, but that somebody is completely unconnected to you. I haven't done this in a few years, but I did it whenever I found someone that I thought would be a great subject. Thanks to certain names in the industry, I went completely out of my way to come across as far from creepy as humanly possible, particularly with the opposite sex for me. But, again, remember that "no" doesn't hurt at all. I'd always offer them a way out or encourage them to think about it and give them my card. There was a young lady who worked in a high-end fashion store that I went in and explained I wanted to photograph her. She had the most endearing appearance I'd seen in some time and I knew it'd translate perfectly in photographs, but she said she didn't like being in front of the camera. Nor do I for the most part, so I completely understood, though I was of course disappointed. However, she (hopefully) took my approach as a compliment, and that was that.

Cold approaches are difficult at first, but from them, I not only landed lots of subjects (including some actors and TV presenters), but it led to paid work too.

Middleman Websites

Ten to fifteen years ago, there was a boom in the popularity of sites that aimed to connect aspiring photographers with aspiring models. The range of abilities and fits for both crafts was vast, but it could still hold value. While I had no — and I mean zero — success with these sites (primarily because I'm not based in Central London and my catchment zone became a little awkward), I know people who built portfolios off the connections made on these sites. The two I tried were Purpleport and Model Mayhem, and they have a lot of members, though as with anything, approach with caution.

Facebook Groups and Communities

Where I had my most success, I didn't expect any: Facebook groups. On a whim, I searched Facebook for "London Models" and found there were multiple pages and groups set up for it. (This can be replaced with any town or city, I even tested a few to check.) In one or two I posted a TFP (Time for Print, that is, no money exchanging hands) casting call, showed a couple of my early portraits, and said I was looking to practice. Remarkably, I was inundated with contact from various people, and I arranged two shoots immediately.

This method isn't one I've seen discussed anywhere, but it has been highly effective for me. I still occasionally want subjects for my one-on-workshops, reviewing lenses or cameras, or just for the damn fun of it, and I still gravitate towards this route.

Hanna Lyn Hughes — a subject I connected with through a local Facebook group.

A Final Note: Paying Where Possible

Many beginners to photography are young and do not have much money, but many aren't either of those things. If you can afford to pay models — even semi-professionals that aren't signed — I would highly recommend this path for two reasons. Firstly, modeling for portraits, whether they are a young and attractive woman or an elderly and charismatic man, is a skill. As with any skill, if somebody has taken the time to master it — or even improve at it — they ought to be compensated for their time. Secondly, paying people who have experience in front of a camera (not just models, but actors and presenters too) will yield better results most of the time.

How Did You Find Subjects?

We have some brilliant and talented portrait photographers here at Fstoppers, so I'll pass this question over to you: as a beginner looking to practice portraiture and build a portfolio, how did you find models? Which methods did you have the most success with?

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3 Comments

Simon King's picture

An enjoyable read thank you! Also, how refreshing to have an article on here that isn’t a link to someone’s YouTube video!

For me, and I haven’t done many portrait shoots, but certainly keen on getting more once we’re allowed to, I’ve found most success in sliding into the Instagram DMs of complete strangers who appear to be into doing photo shoots - just by searching a local area model related hashtag can make finding these sorts really easy. As long as you’re genuine in what you say, transparent, and not a creep, I’ve typically found most are more than happy to go for a shoot.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

Back in the day, I used to use Model Mayhem. Then, like a flip of the switch, it just died. There was hardly any models active anymore. This was before Covid. Then, Covid came along and was just the final nail in the coffin.

There's also Meetup.com. They have a meetup for almost anything. They are not as poppin' (for portrait photography) as they used years ago, but, you'll find photography groups on there. Some with fees and some without.

Nowadays, I use about 90% FB Groups, 8% Meetup, and 2% IG, more or less.

Daniel Medley's picture

Excellent article.

The approach you outlined is fairly close to what I did. except I didn't have too much in the way of family. I did use my wife a few times which was useful for getting my technical chops down.

What really got me started, though, was doing a 100 strangers project; approaching complete strangers in the street and asking them if I could take their photo and explaining that it was a "project" to take street portraits of strangers. It's amazing how many people are good with that. Between a few of the "stranger" photos, my wife, and an acquaintance I managed to piece together a little portfolio of about 5 good images. I then used this tiny amount of images to create a dedicated website, Facebook page, and Instagram page. I spent a little money on business cards too.

Then I just joined a couple of model/photographer groups on Facebook. Any metropolitan area is going to have at least a couple such groups. Using my little portfolio, I just let it be known on the groups that I was open to TF shoots. Also, I've cold approached people with business card in hand and asked if they would like to do a session. In fact some of my best shoots have come from doing that. The business card really helps to curb the "creep" factor.

Early on, for me, I found that Model Mayhem was a complete waste of time. It's been that way for the last few years.

Now, about 70 percent of my shoots come from IG, about 30 from Facebook. I occasionally do cold approaches; the hostess at the restaurant, the girl behind the counter at the coffee shop, etc.

I don't do very much TF anymore, most of what I do is paid. The only TF I do is for personal passion projects or if someone approaches me and I really want to shoot them.

And when using Facebook groups, I've found it's better to approach it as doing a "project" rather than just asking people if they will shoot with you. For example, I put it out there that I was doing an old Hollywood glamour project; replicating the look and style of Hollywood publicity photos from the 30s and 40s.