Many people, especially new models, often assume that when you sign to an agency, the cost of things like your portfolio, comp cards, or test shoots will be fully covered by the agency. The reality is, though, that these are the exact things that a model may be expected to pay for out of pocket.
When you first sign with an agency, you may be a little overwhelmed at all of the things they are going to want you to get started on so you can start working. One of the first things they may want you to do is your first photoshoot for the purpose of building your new portfolio and your comp card.
Of course, all of those things cost money, but who is supposed to cover the cost?... Shouldn’t my agency cover it?... What about test shoots?... Prints?
There is unfortunately no direct answer to this question, because once you sign with an agency, it is up to the agency to decide how they want to handle the costs of your portfolio shoot. There is also no one-size-fits-all standard for how an agency makes this decision. They may do one scenario for one model and another for a different model. Agencies in smaller markets often don’t have the budgets needed to cover model portfolio expenses, but sometimes larger and well-known agencies have models pay for their portfolios even though they could easily fund the shoot.
Some agencies who won’t cover the cost simply don’t want to risk losing money. You can’t forget that an agency is a business, and businesses must make money. If they go all out for a portfolio shoot and then the model doesn’t end up getting any work afterwards, they end up taking a loss financially.
They usually handle the situation one of four ways:
1. You pay for it out-of-pocket. This unfortunately isn’t uncommon; many models have to pay for their first (and sometimes multiple) portfolio shoot, prints & comp cards.
2. They will arrange a test shoot with the photographer & style team of their choosing. This usually means you won’t have to pay for the shoot, or if you do it will be steeply discounted. Sometimes the shoot will be free, but then you cover the cost of prints after.
3. The agency will cover your portfolio shoot, prints, & comp cards up front, but will basically set up a 'tab' for you and later take the cost of your shoot back out of your paychecks once you start booking work. They may take it back all in one chunk, or small payments at a time.
4. You set up a trade shoot with a photographer on your own. This can be a great money-saving option for you if you have a good relations ship with photographers, but this option isn’t always accepted by agencies. They want to ensure you get strong photos for your portfolio, especially if it’s your first shoot, so they may prefer that you shoot with a photographer that they have worked with before and know does great work.
Again, it is up to the agency to decide what option they prefer in the given situation. You should never assume or expect an agency to cover your portfolio shoots as it's simply not the standard. I am a HUGE advocate for models not getting scammed into paying for things, but a portfolio shoot must be looked at as a worthy investment for your career that you will quickly make back once you start booking jobs. If you absolutely can’t cover the costs of the shoot upfront (trust me, I’ve been there!), talk to your agency and see what your options are.
I do want to make it clear though- DO NOT pay an agency for anything unless a contract is signed and you are officially represented by the agency!
A few other things to keep in mind after your portfolio shoot is over:
- Models must anticipate the cost of prints. Usually, the print cost is covered in the photographer’s fee, but there is often a limit to how many finished prints they will offer. If you want more than what comes in their ‘package’, you are expected to pay for those out of pocket.
A great cost-saving option is to get the high-res digital versions of your photos and get them printed on your own. Not all photographers will grant you this option, however, so be sure to discuss this with them before the shoot so you know what to expect. Also, if you print them on your own, make sure that you print on high-quality photo paper at a professional printer. The last thing you want to do is spend hundreds of dollars on phenomenal photos, only to go cheap on the prints and have them look terrible.
Some agencies are actually moving away from the printed portfolio, and instead have model put their portfolios on iPads or Tablets. Make sure you discuss this options with your agency before spending the money on prints!
- Now that we are in the digital world, modeling agencies post their models’ portfolios online as well as having the print version. This usually results in a yearly “website” fee, which again can be paid for out of pocket by the model or taken out of paychecks from bookings. Some agencies don’t have this fee, but don’t be surprised if it is something that you are required to pay for.
- There is also the cost of comp cards. Most of the time, agencies will put these together and print them themselves, but the model may still be responsible for covering the cost of printing. This may be handled in the same fashion the portfolio shoot is handled and the cost will just be pulled out of the paychecks you earn from bookings. Another option that some agencies offer is to send the models the digital version of the comp card and let them print it themselves. Again though, this is not the time to cut corners and go super cheap with printing. This is what you’ll be giving to a client, so make sure you leave a good impression!
I hope this post helped clarify this very confusing topic! I know too many people who have misconceptions of what the right answer is. I have been on both sides of this topic, having paid for some shoots and getting others covered. It's just a part of the industry and an investment you make for your career.