How to Work with Unsigned Models as a Photographer


Not every photographer needs to hire agency models for their projects, and, fortunately, there are many freelance models to choose from, however, finding and hiring can be a daunting process for some.

Although professional agency models carry the reputation of the agency they represent when they are on the job, which, generally, is expressed as high-level professionalism, ability to interpret the assignment, and punctuality, there is also another world that photographers, especially beginners or those who need models for smaller projects, can explore, and that is the freelance model market.

When photographers start out and want to explore the portrait and boudoir genre, it can be tempting to ask their friends or family members to join in and model, but that can create some uncomfortable moments for everyone involved. If friends or family members are eager to offer support it doesn’t mean that it’s always the best option, especially if as a photographer you want to push your boundaries by experimenting with different styles, which requires someone in front of the camera who can adapt and interpret your vision.

There are occasions when family members are a great fit for certain shots but if you want to progress your creativity, enhance your portfolio or particular aspects of it, or you are working on a smaller budget shoot, that doesn’t have a lot allocated to hiring an agency signed model, you may want to consider working with a freelance model, instead.

The Differences: Agency vs Freelance

When an agency signs a model, they are confident that the model fits what the agency as a brand stands for in the industry. Traditionally, agencies used to be orientated towards fashion, commercial, or both, however, nowadays there are many agencies that have a diverse roster of professionals, which makes it easier to find a suitable model for any type of project.

These models are hired through the agency, which means the fee of hiring a professional will generally be higher because agency fees must be accounted for, compared to freelance models who are their own agents, essentially. Most agencies also have a publicly available catalog of their models on their website, often categorized by age or other characteristics, such as acting or other special skills, which makes it easy to browse through their talents to find exactly what you need.

Undoubtedly, agencies make it convenient to find talent but it comes at a higher cost which can be a dealbreaker for many who don’t have the budget for it. By comparison, working with a freelance model, the photographer is likely to find and hire someone local to their area and often at short notice, and also forego any additional agency costs they would have to pay otherwise.

Freelance models still carry a high level of professionalism and many have years of experience in the industry, they are often happy to travel to locations, and also have a portfolio of previous work to show to photographers looking to hire. The risk, however, is that there is an absence of accountability through the removal of an agent in the middle of the process. This means that if your model has a last-minute change of plans or if a bigger job comes along, they may cancel on you but this risk is reflected in a lower model fee compared to agency talents.

Finding a Freelance Model

Portfolio Websites

You may struggle to find a freelance model by simply searching online as you would for an agency but there are a few ways to find talents in your area. Several portfolio-based websites, such as Model Mayhem, or Madcow Models, and Purpleport in the United Kingdom, allow photographers, models, and other creatives, like makeup artists, to connect. These types of websites are only regulated to a certain extent by their own moderators, which means that although certain things are not permitted, there is no underlying standard to hold anyone to.

Talents will join and most will be accepted, which can make it difficult to filter through to find the type or standard of the model you want to hire for your project. Any and all action taken, such as communication or the conduct during the shoot, is down to each individual because these websites don’t act as a guarantor in any shape or form and tend to police serious breaches of code of conduct only on the website itself, for example, if someone is abusive.

The risk aside, these websites can be an easy way to quickly find someone in a particular area and you can also set up a casting call, which allows models to get in touch with you if they are available for your specific shoot. If it’s a paid shoot, it’s understandable that you will receive a higher volume of responses because most models on these portfolio websites tend to do it as a part-time or full-time job.

Before you search for a model, you’ll need to create a profile first. You will be expected to show at least a few example images and set up your profile information so any prospective models can read through and consider if they want to work with you. You don’t need a professional portfolio but if you don’t upload any of your work, you’re unlikely to receive any responses to your casting calls.

Social Media

Many freelance models tend to have a separate social media profile for their modeling, with Instagram being my favorite app of choice. For example, on Facebook, unless you know their name, you will struggle to find them in the search bar, whereas on Instagram, you can make the most of hashtags. For example, a hashtag that is a combination of your location and the word “model” will show you both the top posts as well as the most recent ones under that hashtag.

Similarly, if you search for local photographers or makeup artists, in the same manner, you can easily see on their feed which models they work with on their projects. This is a great way to find creatives in your local community and you can start with just a couple of people who have tagged others they have worked with and slowly expand your network.

Facebook Groups

Community groups on Facebook will give you a pool of creatives who may respond to your casting call. Generally, you will find groups that are specifically just for photographers, to share and discuss work with, as well as sell equipment, but there are wider groups that include models, makeup artists, stylists, and more. Similar to Instagram, simply search for “photography group” and add your location or the wider area name in the search, too. Even if you join a photographers-only group, you can ask for any recommendations for any local models that others have worked with.

Group Events

Non-profit photography groups, as well as local members-0nly photography groups or communities, often organize events where photographers can participate to photograph several models. As these are group events, don’t expect a great deal of one-to-one with a model but it can be a good opportunity to meet a handful of models that you can hire afterward for your own projects. Before you participate, take a look at the models who will be hired for the event because it won’t be only local ones but also those who do tours across the country, which may not fit what you need.

Hiring a Freelance Model

When it comes to hiring freelance models, there is no one-size-fits-all. Because agency between the model and photographer is removed, models set their own fees and payment methods. Some models will require a booking fee to secure the shoot, with the remaining balance paid in cash or via bank transfer or online app, while others may request the whole fee upfront or at any point during the shoot, like at the start or at the end, especially if the shoot runs over the agreed time.

As with clients, it’s advisable to draw up an agreement so both parties feel comfortable knowing what is expected, especially in regards to the payment and cancellations. Also, if you both agree on the model getting paid with a partial payment and edited images or just images, it’s important to set the expectations in writing so they are aware of what they will receive and when, including a signed model release. It is a business transaction with a professional and should be treated as such.

You should also be aware that every model will have different working guidelines, like the levels of modeling they are comfortable with, from clothed to nude, as well as any security precautions they may take when working with new clients. It could be them simply checking it with their partner or a trusted person before and after the shoot, sending them the address of your shoot location, bringing a chaperone, and more. If you are unsure, communicate this with your model prior to the shoot so you are aware, especially if they intend to bring a chaperone. They don’t need to be present during the shoot if you prefer not to, but it’s likely that they will be waiting in the area, while they may go to a coffee shop or elsewhere, or in a room next door if you are working in a studio and space permits it.

The most important thing to keep in mind is those freelance models, just like any other professionals, such as dancers, actors, or stylists, do this as a job and must be respected, especially as the power relationship between the photographer and the model is not always balanced. Safety and professional courtesy should be clearly present in each and every shoot that photographers do, although personalities may clash at times which is just a part of being human and navigating communication.

There are many experienced freelance models who can help enhance photographers’ work and creative vision using their posing and acting skills, while others are also photographers and can help with technical questions, too. Sometimes it might take a while to find that right model to come along, but when you do, it opens up many opportunities that can only be achieved with someone who is natural and expressive in front of the camera.

Image credits: All images by Anete Lusina.

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