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Modeling Portfolio 101

Modeling is a first-impression business, and your photos are usually seen by agents and clients long before they see you in person, so you must have a strong portfolio that will make a great impression when they see it. 


Your portfolio is your resume and will be a continual work in progress that will develop along with your experience. Knowing your portfolio needs to be strong and getting it to that point, though, are often two very different things, and many models need help knowing where to start. In this post, I'll go over the basics of a great portfolio and help you better understand how to figure out what yours needs to look like.


Commercial model portfolio images.
Images from my portfolio.

New models often think they need to put every photo they've ever taken in their portfolio, and the more photos, the better, but that's not the case. When putting together your portfolio, especially if you're doing so without the assistance of an agent, you need to go with quality over quantity and be very strategic about the photos you select. 


Before you jump right in and book a bunch of photoshoots or throw different images you already have together in a book, take a moment to determine what type of photos you even need to make a strong portfolio. If you have an agent, luckily, they will assist you in finding what you need and selecting the final images to put in your book. If you're freelance or just getting started, you will need to do a little research on your own to figure out exactly what kind of images you need.


If you're currently freelance but want to sign with an agency, I would highly suggest meeting with agencies before building an extensive portfolio because if they sign you, they may wish to change your look or have a specific category they want you to focus on (fitness, commercial, or editorial). You don't want to go through the process & expense of putting a book together only to have the agency not like any of the images and request you do yet another shoot to get them the correct images. Some instances come up where an agency is interested in you but is not quite ready to sign a contract, so they may ask you to do a 'test shoot' to see what your potential is in front of a camera. These images usually end up being the start of your agency portfolio.


Many new models also don't realize that not all modeling markets will require the same style of photos in a portfolio. A New York model's book will look vastly different than a Midwest model's book because the clients in those areas will be looking for different things. Your photos should reflect the type of modeling you will do in that area, whether commercial/lifestyle modeling or more high-fashion/editorial modeling.


The best way to determine the vibe in your market is to look at local agencies' websites and see what their current model portfolios look like. Once you get a feel for your market, base your own portfolio images off of that style since that is what the clients in that area will want to see. If your market is commercial (hello, Midwest), don't fill your portfolio with editorial-style images. Even if they're amazing, they won't book you jobs in your area.


Once you determine what you need for your market, you can book photoshoots to get that style of images. Booking many different photoshoots can become extremely expensive, so when booking a portfolio-building shoot, choose a photographer who understands the need for variety and who can give you what you need for your specific market so you can start a solid portfolio with just one shoot. Many agencies have go-to photographers they like to work with for building model portfolios, so never be afraid to ask them for recommendations. (**A red flag would be if an agency requires you to work with their in-house photographer. If this is the case, you need to look at the contract and evaluate if this is a good agency to be legally bound to. Chances are, they're just scamming you for money.)


While the option of doing free TFP (trade for photos) shoots may be very tempting, especially for new models, you need to be selective on who you shoot with and what type of images you're getting from that shoot. It's much better to shoot with fewer photographers and have great images than to shoot with a bunch of photographers and have a lot of sub-par images floating around. TFP shoots are also often over-styled and not in line with what an agency wants for your portfolio, so paying for one really good shoot with a photographer who can get you precisely what you need is better.


Even though the exact style of your portfolio may vary slightly depending on the market you're modeling in, for every portfolio, the images you choose need to show a range of expressions and poses. You also need to include a variety of photos, such as headshots and full-length photos, as well as some done in the studio and out in different locations. You should also have a mix of color and black-and-white images throughout your book.


During castings or when a client is scrolling your online portfolio, they often only flip through the first few pages of your book, so you want to make sure you have strong images at the very beginning to catch their eye and make a good impression. The first image in your portfolio should be your best headshot that accentuates your facial features. The photos in the middle can be more creative to show the clients your ability to move and express yourself in front of the camera. This is also where you can add some tearsheets from publications if you have them. You also want to be sure to have a good smiling shot somewhere in your book. Clients want to see your smile and, more specifically, your teeth. 


Never include runway photos or things like selfies in your portfolio. Clients don't need runway shots, and selfies make you look unprofessional. You also don't want to have the images in your book be too overly styled. The whole point of your portfolio is to showcase YOU as the model, not what you're wearing or random props or accessories. You want to ensure you're not lost in the wardrobe or have too much makeup to distract from people seeing you in the image.


Your portfolio is a constant work in progress, and keeping it updated with new photos and work experience is essential. If you find your portfolio is lacking in some areas or missing specific key photos, schedule a shoot to get the updated shots you need. It's also important that you maintain your "look". Once you get signed by an agency, you will be strongly encouraged to avoid making drastic changes to your appearance. If you make any drastic changes to your hair color/length, decide to get cosmetic work, or get any large tattoos, a portfolio update will be required to reflect your new look. 


In the digital age we are in, most models use digital portfolios instead of printed ones. Using an iPad or tablet, you can save your images to a folder on there or access your agency's website for them to view your portfolio. Never do this with your phone, as the small screen is unsuitable for viewing photos. It also is very unprofessional to hand over your phone to a client during a casting call. 


If you don't have an agency but need to be able to send your portfolio digitally, there's an easy way to do this! Create a Dropbox or other photo-sharing account specifically for your modeling photos. Save your images in a folder on whatever site you choose, and when an agent or client requests to see any portfolio images you may have, you can send them a link to this folder. Do not try to attach the photos individually in an email, as they'll most likely be too big to send, and a potential agent/client isn't going to want to have to download each image to view them.


While more and more clients are also on board with digital portfolios, some are still old school and like to see physically printed images, so it's a good idea to have both options! When it comes to a printed portfolio, image sizes usually range between 8×10 - 9×12., with 8.5" x 11" being the most common size. Many agencies have portfolio books with the agency's logo available for purchase, but if you have multiple agencies and want to use the same book for all of them, you can buy a standard black leather-bound portfolio at most art supply stores or online.


Your modeling portfolio will directly influence how much work you get. It will be in a constant state of "work in progress," and just like you as a model, it will evolve and improve with your experience. Always be strategic about what images you put in it, as that will directly reflect what kind of model you are, and remember, it's always quality over quantity!






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