How to FIND the BEST Models & What Makes a GREAT Model?
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Before I dig in, please listen closely to what I am about to say — I am going to share my experience, which began working with agency models that my clients hired and then evolved to working with the models to craft their portfolios so that they could get signed by agencies and hired by clients and then evolved to today where I work with models mostly on creative projects. I started working with models in 1984. I have worked with the best and the worst.
I am also going to share some things with you that will not be politically correct in today’s social climate. Please listen closely to those statements. They are not my opinions, they are observations. As you will hear me say — don’t take my word for it — look around you — do some of your own research. Sometimes reality is not ideal, but I assure you that I am a person with a liberal and progressive mindset and my only agenda here is to help you.
With that being said — let’s talk about what makes a great model. I think it will make the discussion easier if we create three categories to begin with — Agency Models, Freelance Models and Acquaintances. Just like photographers, there are many types of models.
If we start with the physical attributes, my personal taste and my preference in a model is a woman or a man who is beautiful or handsome. Remember the famous line, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. For my work, I want a face that is unique. I love eastern European jaw lines that are strong and distinctive. I try to avoid top heavy faces — in other words faces that narrow to a pointy jaw. In my opinion they are harder to photograph.
Science has taught us that one of the most important markers that our brains use to determine beauty is symmetry in a face. The irony there is that no human being is completely symmetrical. One eye is always larger than the other, one ear is different from the other and so on. It’s very important to me that my model has beautiful eyes with no major discrepancies in size. If one eye is considerably larger than the other, I am very limited in how I can photograph that model because I will want to balance the size of the eyes. You can learn more about that in my video on How To Find The Best Side Of A Person’s Face. The same goes for ears, if one ear is considerably larger or sticks out a lot more than the other, I’ll be limited in the angles that I can use. It’s one of those “It’s not a problem until it’s a problem” scenarios. A bigger eye or bigger ear isn’t an issue until you notice it. Once you notice it, you can’t look at the image without seeing that discrepancy first.
In addition to symmetry, I want big interesting eyes, good skin, great hair and the one feature that is rarely discussed— I want full even lips — especially the top lip. Why the top lip? Because when a person smiles the top lip rolls under and becomes thinner. Another great reason to NEVER use the word smile with a portrait subject. There are better ways to get a relaxed, natural smile.
Let’s talk about the top lip. You will hear or read very little about it when learning about models or modeling, but don’t take my word for this — start paying attention to advertisements or magazine covers that feature models — the overwhelming majority of the models have nice full lips. This applies to women and men. There are always exceptions, but I am speaking statistically, the majority of the models you see have full luscious lips. Even though it is rarely discussed, I am sure it’s because as humans we find full lips to be attractive and sexy. That would have a lot to do with why young girls make duck lips for their selfies and spend millions of dollars a year on fillers and creams to enlarge their lips.
Aside from what is above the shoulders, if I am doing three quarters or full length shots, I prefer models who are in good physical shape. I am not into the too skinny, anorexic looking models, but I do want a model who takes care of themselves. Most of the female models that I choose to work with are size 2 or 4 and an occasional size 6 if I am photographing anything other than headshots. For headshots, beauty portraits or fashion portraits, I am not as particular as long as the model still has a well-defined jawline and neck. Again, I have just given you my preferences.
For a model who is interested in working professionally through an agency, New York Fashion agencies generally require women to be at least 5’9” in height, and they want the majority to be between sizes 2–6. There are always exceptions, but believe me — that exception is a truly unique human being who is considered to be very marketable. Men are usually expected to be 6’1” to 6’3” and physically fit. I know there is some controversy around all of that, and I am not going to address that in this discussion. We’ll save that for another time. If you have specific questions, I will gladly take them during the Q&A.
Certainly if a shot requires, I may be more concerned with hands or feet. In my case feet are rarely a concern, but if I am showing hands, I want long thin fingers. Look at the hands that you see in advertising. No short stubby fingers — no chewed off nails or cuticles. The hands are well-kept, usually with clear coat or nude polish and thin french tips. Fingers are long and thin and skin is healthy and moist.
That about sums up the physical attributes but the topic that is not talked about often enough is personality. Models are people not objects. That means they have different personalities and different mannerisms. Just like people, some are more outgoing and some are more reserved. Just like people, some have special skill sets like dancers or athletes.
Hopefully it goes without saying that if you want to do a dance themed shoot — it makes sense to find a dancer to be your model. That skill set will make your job easier and will make the images much better.
My personality preferences for models will vary depending on the shoot and any special needs. If I were to give you a general list, first and foremost I want to work with a person who is responsible. I avoid models who are modeling to build their own confidence and I avoid models who are doing it just because it’s fun, and they want to build their social media following because it boosts their ego. In my experience, they will all be a challenge to work with. I need a model who understands that I am not shooting a portrait. The photo isn’t about them or who they are. They are my subject, and they agree to help me bring my creative idea to life. Certainly if a model brings me a great idea — I’m all in. But if I am selecting the model for my idea, then I don’t want someone who will let their feelings about how they should or shouldn’t look get in the way of my shot. In short — I have no time or patience for divas. There will only ever be one diva in my studio and that will be me.
How to Find The Best Models
It’s actually incredibly simple, but so many photographers struggle, because it requires effort, and they are too lazy to put in the effort. Yes, I just said that and if it really bothers you — it’s probably because I just described you.
To find a model, you can call a modeling agency. But that will cost you a lot more money. Unless you have an incredible portfolio you need to understand that modeling agencies are businesses, and they only make money when a model gets work — so they don’t work for free, and they rarely encourage their models to work for free — unless it is an incredible photographer.
That means that your best option for finding models is the Internet. Back in the early two thousands, the website OneModelPlace was the go-to for finding freelance models and then along came Model Mayhem and PurplePort which both have their issues — and that is another discussion for another time. My go-to solution at this point is Instagram.
Pre-Covid, I was traveling all around the country doing workshops and demos for Olympus and I would have to find models in each city that I went to. We did pay the models, but we didn’t have a budget that would allow us to hire agency models. So the answer was to go to Instagram and do a hashtag search for the name of the city and the word models. You can do this for pretty much any city and find loads of results.
Now, let’s be clear — these are freelance models in most cases. These are models just like the guy who just purchased an iPhone is a photographer. Just because they tagged themselves on Instagram — that doesn’t mean that they have any skills or that they are responsible or that they have any professional experience — but it does mean they are willing and interested and that’s a good starting point. In other words — YOU still need to do some leg work. If you are willing to put in the effort, it is often possible to find the agency models on Instagram and contact them directly. Most will be smart enough to not work for free, but if you have a great idea, you may be able to get them inexpensively — without having to involve their agency and pay those fees. If enough of you are interested, ask me during the Q&A and I will share with you how to do it. But you better have my back — modeling agencies will not be happy when I share this trick
Before I go any further, let me point out that there is no single model who will make your career. You know — “If I can only get a shot of her in my portfolio — I’ll be a rockstar.” In fact photographing a model who has been photographed brilliantly by lots of other photographers only creates the risk that your images are not as good and then you wind up looking pretty bad. So for me — I avoid the men and women who are getting lots of attention and who have lots of amazing photos. Actually, I avoid them for a few reasons. I don’t want to compete with other photographers who have made great images of them. I am not into competing — that’s not why I take pictures. The other reason I avoid these models is that they come with bad habits. Well, maybe not bad habits but habits that have been enforced by other photographers — usually amateur photographers that have unknowingly encouraged the bad habits. I would rather work with a person who is not used to loads of attention and who is not in demand and who hasn’t had a chance to develop bad habits — it will make my job easier and it will make my images more original because it’s not a recognizable face.
Now that I have done the hashtag search and found a few thousand results — I am going to start working my way through them to find the faces that I like. In addition to the physical attributes that we discussed, I am looking for profiles that show me this person is putting real effort into modeling. I am more likely to contact a model who has an email address in their profile. Why is that a big deal? Most amateur photographers who are doing this will hit that DM and send a short message like — “Hey you’re hot — I’m a photographer let’s shoot — hit me up!” Sadly some people will respond to that — but if they are reasonably intelligent they won’t. I send an email and introduce myself and provide links to my website and portfolio and tell them exactly what I have in mind, not — “hey let’s shoot”. Just because you’re an amateur it doesn’t mean that you can’t act professionally. All it takes in this case to act like a professional is to act with respect.
Also, while I am doing the hashtag search and looking through images to find models — I am considering several things. Obviously the models’ appearance is a concern, and I am definitely looking for evidence that the images may have been heavily retouched. I want to be fairly confident that the model looks like the photos. I am also looking to see what kind of wardrobe the model may have available. If they have really cool clothes — that can be helpful to my shoot. Bottom line, the more I can learn about a potential model the better. Remember, photographing people is a relationship game. When I am working with a model it is a collaboration, and I am looking for good collaborators — not just pretty faces.
Now I am sure that quite a few of you would like to know more about how I prep models for a shoot and how I can be confident that a model won’t flake. I have never had a model flake on a shoot. I share ALL of that information and a lot more in my online presentation called Shoot Prep: The Photographer’s Guide To Setting Up A Successful Shoot. The next presentation will occur on Thursday, November 19th. I will drop the registration link in the chat and it is in the show notes below. If you can’t make it to the presentation — you can still register and two hours after the presentation you will receive a link to view it for 48 hours.
Live Online Presentation: Shoot PREP: The photographer’s guide to setting up a successful shoot