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The PRO-Files: Breaking Into Work With Agencies & Models

The business of photographing models and actors for portfolios and to build a body of work that shows specific looks is built on a system of test shoots. That system provides a fairly accessible path to regular agency work. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s not typically the agencies that hire the photographers; it’s the talent themselves. The agencies are key, however, in providing referrals to the photographers they prefer. If it sounds a bit convoluted, that’s because it is. We spoke with lifestyle, fashion and portrait photographer Elizabeth Wiseman, who has a thriving photography business in the Midwest, to find out how to navigate a path to success. Here are five tips for becoming the kind of photographer agencies—and models—want to hire.

Keep It Simple

There are a few traps photographers can fall into when it comes to test shoots. First and foremost, you should keep it simple—particularly if you don’t have a sizeable professional crew working with you.

“A lot of photographers overthink model testing,” Wiseman says. “They do too much: too much crazy wardrobe, too much crazy makeup, too much crazy hair. The models are over posing, the lighting is overly technical. And really what an agency wants to see, and magazines too, they just want to see an interesting looking person beautifully lit and simply attired. Of course if you can do something creative and amazing, great. But it just doesn’t come off that way very often. So paring that back and just getting to the simplicity of a beautiful portrait is the best place to start.”

The ultimate goal of getting in the good graces of an agency is that they will direct paying assignments your way. So if they’re not seeing pertinent, useful imagery from your test sessions, or if it’s not work that can help their talent land more jobs, why would they continue to call?

“I think that’s an important part of going from the free testing to regular paid work,” Wiseman adds. “As a photographer you have to know what’s marketable and you have to know the industry enough to be able to collaborate with the talent. I have to know what casting directors are liking when they’re looking at actors’ headshots or models’ portfolio. It’s important to learn that so when you’re doing a shoot, you know what the talent needs even if they don’t fully know it themselves.”

The Chicken And The Egg...To Gain Experience, Get Experience

For a photographer without any pertinent examples in their own portfolio, it’s imperative to gain relevant experience. But that’s a classic chicken and the egg scenario. How do you prove you can take a great photo of an agency’s top models if you can’t get work with those models? The key is be working on your book all the time and if you don’t have access to professional models a good place to start is with people you know.

“Sometimes photographers will approach an agency wanting to test,” Wiseman says, “and the agency will look at their book and say ‘you’re not ready.’ That’s why you need to be building your book with friends and neighbors and maybe part-time models first. The agency won’t give their best models to someone who hasn’t proven that they are going to take a great picture.”

You Don’t Have to Be In New York

You don’t have to be in a modeling or acting center like New York of Los Angeles to find steady work. There are, literally, opportunities all over the country.

“It can absolutely work in any midsize market,” Wiseman says. “The smaller markets are sometimes going to be feeder markets, but even very small cities like my hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee have real business opportunities. There’s a big cable company headquartered in Knoxville, so even though it’s a smaller city, they’re booking local models and actors and sometimes really scrambling for them. There are definitely some top bookers in town. There’s money to be made and there are other ways people monetize it as well, and there are models who move from market to market. They may based out of St. Louis, but they’re modeling all over the country. That’s happening quite a bit.”

Consider Working For Free

The cardinal rule for photographers—like creators of all types—is never to work for free. But rules were made to be broken, and when a few small free gigs can lead to a decade of paid work, it may be worthwhile to test for free. That’s not really working for free as much as it’s making an investment. That’s simply how this industry works and there are benefits for all parties involved.

“In order to begin doing this,” Wiseman says, “most of the time you have to start doing it for free. Nobody likes to that, particularly in our industry. As soon as you start doing anything for free, it’s a slippery slope. But I think in every market—New York, Paris, St. Louis—any market that you choose, there’s a mix of paid testing and free testing. So what a photographer needs to know is that most of the time you begin by volunteering your time. So you start doing that and then communicating with the agency about what they would like to see. Sometimes with free testing you’re not obligated to give the agency anything they need at all, you’re just donating your time so that the model can get more experience. Of course, eventually you have to start giving the agency useful imagery, if you want to build a relationship and get paid work.”

Make Your Agency Relationship A Partnership

It’s the agency relationship, after all, that brings in new work. So meeting the agency’s needs and working diligently to maintaining that relationship is essential.

“When it comes to test shooting and volunteering your time with a professional model,” Wiseman says, “in my experience you’re better off going through the agency than with the model directly. Yes, if you’re frequently working with a particular model, the agency is going to see your name with the deliverables, but forging a relationship with the agency that way is much more difficult. The agency isn’t seeing the process; they’re not giving you the communication. That’s why I suggest that working through the agency is best.”

Besides loyalty, there are tangible practical reasons for working with the agency as well. “Fashion is all over the place from super edgy with tons of makeup and tons of hair, down to a very raw kind of Calvin Klein look, and everything in between,’ Wiseman explains.. “And there’s no wrong answer there. So models can come to you with a preconceived notion of what they think the shoot is going to be and what they think your work is going to look like and when they don’t have that agent to guide them and tell you what they really need, the results often lead to disappointment. My non-agency clients are my least satisfied clients.”

In the final analysis, when you build a strong relationship with an agency, you’re building a partnership. You and the agency are connecting models and actors with well-paying clients. Your ability to collaborate with the agency at the beginning and the talent on the set is the key to making it a win for everyone.

To learn more about Elizabeth Wiseman and see her agency work, visit www.wisemanphoto.com.

About the author:


William Sawalich made his first darkroom print at age ten. He earned a Master's Degree from The Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California. Along with portraiture, still life and assignment photography, Sawalich is an avid writer. He has written hundreds of equipment reviews, how-to articles and profiles of world-class photographers. He heads up the photo department at Barlow Productions in St. Louis.

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