Model Portfolios
First Time Shoot With A Beginner

A typical head shot. Laying on the floor on a white seamless, I've got one soft light on each side plus a silver reflector aimed up at her. Notice the three catchlights in her left eye. (Nikon N90 with Kodak T400CN film; zoom lens at about f/11; clear acetate used for diffusion. Model: Kelly Gittlein.)
Photos © 1999, Steve Bedell, All Rights Reserved

The call typically goes like this. "Hi, my name is Sandy. My friends keep telling me that I should be a model. I don't know about that, but I need some portfolio pictures so I can show them to people. Do you do that? Can you tell me how much you charge?"

Sandy is usually a young female, 17-25 years old, quite attractive if people are telling her she should be modeling, and unsure of the first step she should take. I usually talk to her a little about what she's looking for, invite her in to see examples of our work, and discuss pricing. Sometimes the discussion is over after we talk about pricing. Model portfolios are not a big money maker for me, but I do enjoy them and many times do find a subject that I will use as a model for personal or commercial work in the future. I will not shoot a session for free unless I'm the one making the call and I want to shoot a particular subject. There are people that you've never met who think they're doing you a favor by stepping in front of your camera even though they are not an experienced model. I avoid those subjects because more than likely they will give you a hard time and expect you to work for nothing.

Assuming we have someone serious about having a portfolio shoot, we invite her into the studio to look at other samples, discuss what she wants to accomplish, and talk about hair, makeup, clothing, and location. Then we set a date for the shoot, often times suggesting that she bring a girlfriend (not her mother) with her if she'd like, to make her feel more comfortable. Having an authority figure like mom around is usually counterproductive to the rapport that should develop between the photographer and model. As in any photo shoot with people, expression is critical and I don't like to feel hindered in any way. Boyfriends are also detrimental to the process.

I do, however, like it when they bring a girlfriend. This accomplishes a couple of objectives. First, it makes them feel more comfortable since they don't really know me all that well yet. I usually involve them in the shoot as an "assistant," whether I need them or not. They have a good time doing it and it creates a very casual atmosphere. Secondly, since I'm not alone at any time with the model, it prevents me from any allegations of misconduct. I certainly don't want even a hint of scandal about me or I can kiss my business good-bye. Sure, they could both say I acted inappropriately, but I think the likelihood of that is very remote. My wife is also not usually too far away. While I'm on that subject, I never take anything even approaching nudity of a model on the first shoot. I feel I have to know them better to be comfortable with that, even though they may be. And even though 18 may be "legal," I wouldn't do anything remotely suggestive with a model under 21.
Now let's talk about what we need to accomplish.

This was shot outside using the strong sunlight as backlighting, which results in very flat, even light on her face. Keeping it simple allows us to focus on the model. I racked the lens all the way out to 300mm, probably shot at 1/250 at f/8. No diffusion. (Nikon N90 with Kodak T400CN film; zoom lens at about f/11; clear acetate used for diffusion. Model: Kelly Gittlein.)

While it may seem self-evident, the whole purpose of the model portfolio is so someone can look at a photo of the model and see what she looks like, and if she has the particular qualities the person desiring the shoot is looking for. How tall is she? What color are her eyes? Hair? Does she look like the girl next door or is she exotic or ethnic looking? Is she wholesome or sexy looking? Does she look better smiling or serious? How are her hands, nails, and teeth? Is she thin or average, small or large busted? These are all things that should be answered in your photos. There's so much information to convey that it usually takes more than one photo to do it in. That's why most models have composites made of at least three pictures--a "head shot," a full-length pose, and a third that can be rather flexible to show what she wants. Let's look at each one individually.

Head Shot: This is usually the first shot a model or actor has taken. It's taken up close, either filling the frame or with very little background showing. They're usually much "tighter" than a portrait head and shoulder pose. I do more of them in black and white than color. Most of the comp cards I see are black and white, and it has a great look. Sometimes the model will need many copies of their favorite head shot to send out. Make sure you know ahead. There are many companies that will copy your photo and make lots of cheap copies. That's really OK with me if I've built that in the pricing up-front. It's not like portrait work where you make the money off the finished prints.

I'd say 90 percent of my portfolio work is done in 35mm. The main reasons are fast motor drives, autofocusing, long rolls, and film variety. It's really nice to be able to shoot handheld and not have to keep stopping to advance film and check focus. With 36 shots on a roll, it keeps me from being interrupted constantly with film changes. Unlike portrait sessions, I'll usually "work" a pose with the model, taking several that are similar but with small changes in expression or pose. This results in several different "looks" that the model can choose from. Since they usually get the contact sheets also, a person looking at the contacts can usually get some idea of how versatile the model is when it comes to expression.

I usually shoot Kodak T400CN black and white film so I can process it right off at the lab across the street from my studio. I then have proof sheets made and inspect them with the model with the aid of a magnifier. If I had a projection viewing device like a Tamron Fotovix, I'd probably use that to help see the small images. My next most popular film is the Kodak TMZ-3200 film. I use this sometimes and just shoot using modeling lights in the studio with no flash. I really like the high grain look of the film, plus its speed allows me to shoot outside or using window light when it's just too dark to use anything else.

This high contrast toned look was created by printing Kodak Tri-X 400 film on color paper at the minilab. Taken in a dumpy old building using window light. The lens was at 150mm, probably 1/30 at f/5.6. (Model: Shannon Comstock.)

Even though I consider outdoor photography to be my strong point, I prefer doing the head shots in the studio where I have precise control over the lighting and contrast. I use very even light, usually two flash heads with an umbrella or big softbox on each side. Many times I'll augment these with a silver reflector placed just out of the frame and below to remove any eye lines and give me a big catchlight in the bottom part of the eye. I shoot at about f/11 with a 70-300mm zoom lens that allows me to change my cropping instantly without moving. When doing a head shot outside, I prefer very even light also, and usually kick light in again from below with a silver reflector. You can see this is a good job for the friend she brought along.

Body Shot: For lack of a better term, lets call the full or three-quarter length shot the body shot because its purpose is to show what the rest of the model looks like. Many times these are done in a swimsuit or shorts and a halter top. I don't usually like to do anything too revealing if it's a new model and I'm the first photographer she's been to. I don't want them to think removing clothing equates with modeling. After they've had a few sessions with me or a variety of photographers, they'll know what they want and tell you. I like shooting the full and three-quarter length poses outside. I like the infinite variety I've got with backgrounds and I always discover new things. I usually use just daylight with a reflector sometimes added. Shooting in January in New Hampshire does sometimes put the old kibosh on outdoor shooting though. If that's the case, I'll usually just keep things pretty simple and shoot with seamless rolls. I use white most of the time so the attention can be focused on the model. I'll once again keep my lighting as simple as possible. Using the two light setup described earlier, I meter the flash across the length of the background, keeping my exposure within a third of a stop across the entire width. This allows the model to move from side to side in different poses and I don't have to worry about changes in exposure or contrast differences.

For the third shot, I discuss some ideas with the model and many times have them bring in photos from magazines that they like. Then we usually use that as a springboard for some ideas that we both come up with. These are usually the most fun shots. I may do a window light or something a little more artsy than the other ones.

I usually price by how many rolls I shoot and make sure I get my money up-front. Portfolios can be a lot of fun to do, but I find them among my least profitable types of jobs. Many 18-year-old girls have little money to spend on photo shoots.

I try not to encourage girls that they are going to be the next Cindy Crawford. I hope they will be, but most get in it for some fun and a few bucks, and that's fine. I warn them that the modeling business must still be approached with trepidation as there are still unscrupulous agencies and photographers out there who will take advantage of them. And while I don't like parents in the camera room, I do like meeting them so they can be assured we are reputable. I warn them to be leery of schools that are combined with a photographer because many times they are nothing more than a way to make money on the photo sales. I tell them to look first for an agency and to not spend a lot of money on pictures until they've met with an agency and they have explained the business to them a little. If they're serious and start booking work, they should have photos from several different photographers in their book because we all have our own way of seeing and doing things.

Many of the models I use for personal work have come through portfolio shoots. Working in an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect can result in a wonderful relationship and great photos. Once I've got the basics covered with them, I usually try for something edgier that lets us both create something unique. And that can be the most rewarding result of all.