The Fashion Portfolio Problem

Ariana Aspiring models and aspiring fashion photographers share a Catch-22 problem. Neither is likely to find paid work without a portfolio of professional quality photographs. To have such a portfolio, the model needs to have been photographed by skilled photographers, and the photographer needs to have photographed beautiful models. But how do you develop a professional-looking portfolio before working professionally?

One answer is to pay a professional model or photographer for their time. If a top agency signs a model, they may pay a professional photographer to create a portfolio. For an aspiring model to do this herself would be expensive. This makes young women who want to try modeling vulnerable to scams, and there are many disreputable agencies and photographers who will gladly take their money.

Yet aspiring models do need good photographs to demonstrate that they are photogenic (not always the same as being beautiful in person). Normal human vision is stereoptic and three dimensional. A single-lens camera can only record two-dimensional information, and our perception of shapes in photographs depends on the angle and quality of light that falls on the subject, as well as on how the subject reflects that light back. Faces with strong bone structures and unusual features may photograph beautifully because they reflect back well-defined shapes and shadows (notice the above model’s unusual eyes). Makeup can also be used to create dimensional illusions. Experienced photographers are always concerned about how the light falling on a subject defines it dimensionally.

Posing-jessConversely, aspiring fashion photographers need to work with photogenic models in order to build their portfolio. They can ask their friends and acquaintances, but as one workshop for aspiring photographers put it bluntly, you need the chance to work with models who photograph at 8 or above on a 10-point scale (something few people do). Photographer workshops sometimes provide students with models and some coaching, but for workshops the students must pay a fee. In better workshops the ratio between students and models is low, such as 2:1. In the photo at right the student is getting a chance to work with a model 1:1. Notice how side lighting is helping the muscles in the model’s leg look exceptionally well-defined, but also leaves her face in shadow. One solution would be to have an assistant use a white reflector to bounce more light to her face, but finding a solution first requires consciously noticing the problem—that the light falling on her face fails to define her features in a way that a camera can clearly record. If the student does notice the problem, then he might decide to add light, change her pose, or change locations. He has to learn to be constantly aware of the relationship between his subject and the direction and quality of various sources of light.

While researching this post I looked at several websites listing would-be models. Looking at some of these sites  made me sad. (Two examples are here and here.) Many individuals listed would appear to have no chance of becoming paid models (as is true of most people). But, regardless of that, far too many of them were represented by terrible photographs. Many have posted casual snapshots of themselves taken by someone who was obviously not a photographer. These snapshots typically featured no careful hairstyling or makeup, a depressingly mundane location, and truly horrible lighting. Such photographs work against any chance they have of being hired as models—their photographs brand them as non-professional.

One possible solution to building a strong portfolio is a barter system. Realizing that it can be mutually beneficial for good models and photographers to work with each other, there are a number of internet networking sites for them. Some members of these sites will exchange their time for either CDs of images (TFCD) or prints (TFP). In this way both models and photographers can build their portfolios. Naturally, the more work the members have booked as paid professionals, the more likely they are to seek monetary payment for their time. 

City-style-and-living-shoot Flickr contains photographs from a number of fine photographers and photogenic people, and Flickr images can be easily searched. The image at right and the first image in this post were found on Flickr, and both contained a link to the Canadian site Model Republic, a fashion networking site for people working in all aspects of the industry. You can find some impressive model and photographer portfolios on other networking sites (such as Model Mayhem and iStudio). Some of these sites require potential members to submit images which are screened for quality before they are allowed to join.

Aspiring models need to be cautious about donating their time. They don’t want to find themselves posing for an untalented and potentially creepy GWC (guy with camera). A t-shirt proclaiming the wearer is a Professional GWC is not a reference. If a photographer has done good work, he or she should be willing to show samples.

One tongue-in-cheek member of Model Mayhem is GWC, a fictional nerd photographer from Baltimore who offers “drive-by shooting workshops.” For these workshops “students” pay a fee to sit in the back of his pickup, and, beginning and ending at a Hooters parking lot, he drives around spotting “hotties” to photograph on the move. His gallery of photos includes an out-of-focus portrait and a magazine cover titled “Perfect 5½” that features “the best models we can afford.” His fictional character personifies just the sort of GWCs that models hope to avoid.

Railroad-shootWorkshop photo shoots happen all over the world (the workshop shown here was in Singapore). People in some Asian countries seem particularly open to posing for and taking glamour shots. I have often seen young Japanese women strike fashion poses as soon as a friend turns a camera their direction.

The young men shown in this workshop photo shoot are likely enjoying themselves, despite the 6:1 student-to-model ratio. Perhaps each fantasizes that someday he will be paid to take photographs of an endless supply of beautiful models. It’s an unlikely dream, but if nothing else they are learning by trial and error that you need a lot more than just a camera and a beautiful subject to produce a professional-looking fashion photograph. Aptitude, and hard-won knowledge and experience are also essential requirements.

["Ariana" and "City Style and Living Shoot" are from's Flickr photostream. "Posing Jess" and "Railroad Shoot" are from madaboutasia. All are used under the Flickr Creative Common's license.]