When first beginning a career as a model, you likely won’t have many contacts in the industry. Before establishing the kind of reputation that will open doors and secure bookings, the only way to get a start in the business is simply by having a really strong portfolio, full of top quality photography.
The problem is, when you’re new to the modeling world it can be difficult to identify all the different elements that go into making a good photograph. You might know what you like when you see it on Instagram, but the fashion world doesn’t always function in the same way as social media.
And so some of your favorite photos might not in fact be the ones that will get you jobs.
How do you go about putting together a professional looking modeling portfolio?
Which kinds of images should you include? And, perhaps more importantly, which ones should you leave out?
In large part this is a question of good taste. But taste is not something anybody is born with. And nor can taste be easily explained: it’s just something you come to instinctively know. Indeed, good taste develops over time, with experience.
Looking on the positive side, then, this at least offers some hope for those of us who still can’t tell the difference between a good and a bad fashion photograph: sooner or later we’ll acquire this knowledge. Yet knowing this doesn’t help us to solve the immediate problem of which photos to put in our portfolio.
Luckily though, even if you are still relatively new to the world of photography and styling, there are some pointers you can look out for when trying to decide which images you should – and should not – include in your modeling portfolio. Here we take a look at some of the most important ones in turn.
Know Your Market
The photos in your portfolio need to be appropriate to the kind of work you are suited to doing as a model. There’s no point in selecting super arty fashion images if your look is classic beauty and you’re more suited to commercial work – such as lifestyle advertising or swimwear catalogues.
Likewise, it would be pointless to fill your book with clean and romantic wedding-style images if you’ve got a strong, quirky, or characteristic face that will be more of interest to high fashion and cutting edge editorial clients.
As a rule, if your look is quite commercial, you’ll probably want to use photos with a fairly upbeat vibe, clean lighting, and showing you in scenarios of the kind typically seen in lifestyle advertising campaigns. On the other hand, if your face is more likely to end up on the cover of I-D or Dazed than helping to sell coffee or toothpaste, then you will want to avoid overly clean and commercial photography and go for more arty, moody, and even aggressive images.
This means that you need to have a clear and objective understanding of your look as a model.
If in doubt, ask for advice from photographers, stylists and other industry professionals.
Consulting friends with no fashion industry experience is probably not a good idea though, as the average person has a very inaccurate understanding of what makes a good model – usually just assuming that the main qualification is classic physical attractiveness. So asking your mom, partner, or friends whether they think you are best suited to mainstream advertising or edgy editorial will likely not prove very illuminating.
Also, note that the kinds of photos required for a good acting portfolio usually differ somewhat from those appropriate for fashion modeling. For actors, photos tend to be less about strong atmosphere and style, and much more about clearly showing your face and personality. Indeed, acting photography is often quite simple and neutral, with more emphasis on expression and movement, and showing the actor’s ability to adapt to a wide range of characters and roles.
Naturally, some models will need to cover more than one market – say commercial advertising and acting. If this applies to you, you’ll probably need to include both styles of photography in your portfolio.
There’s a reason why people hire professional stylists: not all of us dress as well as we think we do. Just because you’re aiming to put together a fashion portfolio doesn’t mean you should fill it with lots of obvious fashion items. That’s the stylist’s or client’s job once you get booked for a shoot.
But if your portfolio contains unsophisticated styling – overly fussy outfits in cheap synthetic materials; fast-fashion; clothes that are no longer on trend, or perhaps never were – then you may never get that booking in the first place.
Your portfolio needs to show off your potential as a model, not your talents (or lack of them) as a stylist. Many industry professionals will be seriously put-off by bad styling in your photos. And if they are too busy looking at glaring fashion crimes, they’ll likely not be paying all that much attention to you and your true talents as a model.
However, if you don’t have a good stylist who you can work with, then clearly you’ll have no choice but to do things yourself. But even if you feel confident in this area though, try to keep the styling as neutral as possible. Any item of clothing that is super on-trend today will be totally out of fashion tomorrow – meaning that your photos will have a very short lifespan before they become embarrassing and unusable. Be particularly cautious about adding any showy accessories to your outfit.
Instead, go for classic and unfussy items, in just one or two simple colors, as these will be much less likely to date quickly. You can also ask the photographer to make less of a feature of the clothes by means of the lighting or framing.
Skillful use of studio lighting can transform a good photo into an amazing one. But bad studio lighting will look cheap and amateurish. The problem is, if you are not an experienced professional photographer, you are probably not qualified to judge what classes as “good “ or “bad” studio lighting.
However, many of the people viewing your book will have years of experience in this area, and will immediately be able to spot the difference. And if they don’t like the lighting in your photos, this will detract from their overall impression of your portfolio.
Rather than going for dramatically lit photos that risk alienating your audience, better to stick to ones taken using natural light, as these are less at risk of looking cheesy or fake. In any case, natural light is incredibly versatile, and a talented photographer will be able to work with the available lighting to create a variety of moods.
With that said, if you’ve worked with an experienced photographer who is already at a high level in their career, and they used studio lighting on your shoot, you should of course put your complete trust in their photographic abilities. Just bear in mind that in photography “a high level” does not simply mean having lots of Instagram followers, but actual commissions from prestigious magazines and clients.
Framing and Point of View
Photos in your portfolio should be about you, not about showing how talented the photographer is. Mostly you’ll want photos without any distracting elements coming into frame, and maybe with the background nicely blurred out. This way you can be sure that the viewer is looking at you – not at the photographer’s clever composition, or worse still, at some annoying detail the photographer accidentally included in the background.
Be wary of selecting photos for your portfolio that were shot using a wide angle lens, as these distort perspective and are unflattering for the face. They are also likely to include much more background in the shot, while also keeping these background elements relatively in focus – and therefore potentially distracting.
Similarly, avoid using any photos where your position in the frame coincides with background elements (blurred or otherwise), as these can be annoying for the viewer. Classic examples of this are when trees or lampposts appear to “grow” out of a model’s head.
In short, try to select images with a simple, graphic composition and which don’t include a lot of unnecessary clutter and distractions in the frame.
Expression and Pose
For some reason, when people think of high fashion photos, they often imagine melodramatic and over-the-top poses. Or models looking longingly off into the distance, their hair glamorously tussled by a wind-machine. Yes, occasionally a well-known photographer might go for a very stylized and camp look (some, like David LaChapelle, have even made a career out of it). But such photos tend to be the exception. In any case, when poses are seriously exaggerated in this way, it’s likely because the photographer is looking for an effect that is quite tongue in cheek.
For the rest of us, though, it’s better to avoid the “arms in the air and shielding your eyes from the atom bomb” pose. Or indeed anything remotely similar.
Even quite simple and undramatic poses can look bad if they are stiff, unnatural, or make no sense within the context of the photo: for example, one leg slightly raised or a hand touching the wall for no apparent reason.
And watch out for nervous reactions such as running your fingers through your hair or placing a hand on your temple or forehead. For some reason the latter is a favorite pose of non-professional male models – perhaps because they believe it makes them look pensive and mysterious, like James Dean.
In reality, what these poses actually look like is that the photographer didn’t give sufficient direction to the model; and feeling self-conscious in front of the camera, the model tried to think of something to do with their hands. Even many top models feel self-conscious when being photographed. That’s totally normal. What’s important is that the self-consciousness doesn’t come across in the photos: rather than striking weird poses, focus on building inner strength and charisma.
A good fashion photograph has a lot in common with a good portrait. And just as with a portrait, where you place your hands (or indeed any other part of your body) isn’t as important as what’s going on inside your mind. Get into the right mood and mental state, and this will show in your posture, on your face, and in how you play with the camera. I.e. work on how you feel inside, and your external pose will come naturally. After that it’s the photographer’s job to capture the moment.
And here we get to one of the most important points: the pose you strike in a shot is only 50% your responsibility. Fashion photography is always a collaborative process, and the results depend upon there being a strong rapport between model and photographer.
This might mean that the photographer gives you clear instruction as to what they want you to do, explaining their concept and objectives in a way that’s easy to understand. But it can also be as simple as demonstrating respect for you, and leaving you room to be yourself. Or developing a relaxed and positive working environment. Even if the shoot takes place in near-silence, there can be an unspoken understanding; like you are both tuned into the same vibe, with the same goals.
Remember: If you feel uncomfortable (either physically or in any other way); you probably look uncomfortable. Conversely, if you feel relaxed, confident, and at ease; you’ll likely look great. If the photographer has put you in an unusual pose, ask yourself why? What’s the point? And if you can’t think of any reason why somebody would naturally assume that position other than because a photographer asked them too, then it probably doesn’t work. And if it feels awkward, it likely looks even more awkward.
Really though, the word “pose” is part of the problem, as it suggests a fixed position. Good photographs usually come out of a situation that is more lively and spontaneous, or just simple and relaxed. Look at campaigns for the brand Margaret Howell by Alasdair McLellan: one of the most important fashion photographers working right now. There’s no ridiculous posing. No exaggerated facial expressions. Just simple, confident postures and a good dose of attitude from the model.
Retouching and Filters
As with pretty much anything in fashion photography, the higher you move up in the industry, the more subtle and under-stated things tend to become. Again, there are exceptions here, but most top-end fashion photography will at least look like it hasn’t been messed around with too much in photoshop. In reality of course, a lot of postproduction work may have been done to the images – but this will rarely be apparent to the average viewer.
Photos that rely upon a lot of heavy-handed postproduction in order to “pop” (e.g. crazy colors and exaggerated sharpening effects) are not good photos. Avoid using obvious Instagram-style filters that radically alter the colors or contrast of your images. And forego the temptation to add a dense, black vignette around the edge of the frame. Other effects that will cheapen the look of your photos include HD (high definition) photography and the old trick of turning a photo to black and white, leaving just one element still in color (red shoes, blue eyes etc.).
And what about skin retouching? Well, there’s a big difference between removing a few imperfections and adjusting skin tone so it looks healthy, versus the amateurish application of Photoshop “frequency separation” techniques (you know, the ones that leave the model’s face looking like a featureless, glowing pancake).
Again, if it looks natural, it probably looks good. But if you can easily see what the photographer has done, that’s usually a bad sign.
Watermarks, Logos, and Graphics
As mentioned in our recent guide to managing photographer’s image rights, adding a watermark or logo to a photo isn’t particularly classy. And while graphics of this kind tend to be more tolerated within fully commercial styles of photography – particularly wedding photography for some reason – they are definitely off-limits for anyone trying to build a modeling career in the edgier, more creative, and higher end of the fashion industry.
Of course, it’s perfectly reasonable that a photographer might want their work to be credited in your portfolio – especially if the photo was from an unpaid test shoot. However, there are more subtle and sophisticated ways of achieving this than by adding tacky graphics directly over the image itself. If a photographer has provided you with the files from a shoot with a watermark or logo already on them, you’d do well to ask for clean copies. Instead you can offer to add a simple typed credit next to the photo in your book and promise not to share these files without the photographer’s permission.
It almost goes without saying though, that the above advice only applies to graphics of a “personal branding” variety. But if the photos are from editorial work or an advertising campaign for a prestigious client, you will of course want to show this off in your portfolio by using tear sheets or original digital files – complete with branding and logo etc.
Nobody expects your portfolio to be filled with totally cutting edge fashion items and world-class photography right from day one. Anyone in the fashion industry who knows what they are doing will be able to spot your potential without the need for you to spell it out with over the top photography and styling.
In any case, individual photographers, stylists, and clients tend to vary considerably in what they are looking for in a model’s portfolio. While some will definitely be paying attention to the photography and clothes to get an idea of the kind of editorial and commissions you’ve previously worked on, others will mostly skip the professional images and go directly to your polaroids at the back of the book.
This is because some people are less interested in learning how another photographer or stylist has used lighting, clothing, hair, and makeup etc to change your appearance. After all, they might not even like that particular photographer or stylist’s work. Instead, they want to see who you are “in the raw.” To find out what makes you you, so that they can interpret your talent in a way that works with their own creative vision.
For this reason, when putting together a modeling portfolio, you should try to select a good mix of images: from strongly styled and more obviously fashion-oriented shots to some very neutral “straight up” portraits that show who you are in your more natural state.
As a general rule though, the simpler and more natural looking a photograph is, the better a candidate it’s likely to be for putting in your book. Keep the photography subtle and understated, so it’s you that shines.