I wrote this article on how to become a professional model for a South African photography magazine back in 1991, and I have recently edited it to make it more current with the changes in photography and technology. As for my advice, it remains the same today as it was back some 15 years ago. I am often contacted via phone and email from prospective models wanting to break into the glamorous world of modeling that they see on their TV's and movie screens. The intention of this article is to educate prospective models on what to do and what not to do, and about the reality of the modeling industry.
First of all, the advice I am giving you on how to become a model is only one photographer’s opinion, but an opinion that has served me well in the past 20 years being involved with the launch of many successful modeling careers.
Every model agent, every photographer and every model will have their own opinion and story of the best way to get started, but there are many ways to become a model. You just have to choose the right approach that works for you.
Ask lots of questions and learn from the people around you, but don’t necessarily believe everything that you hear. Some of the advice might have an agenda, and might not really serve your best interests in getting started in a career as a fashion or photographic model. Different models will have had different experiences. Learn to sift through all the BS you are likely to hear. And formulate your own plans and agenda.
And remember that there is an entire modeling industry that is built around your hopes and dreams of becoming a model, trying to make money from you, so tread gently and carefully and keep your eyes and ears open. I will hopefully be able to shed some light on the journey you are about to embark upon.
Gather information from professional models and others in the industry.
If you know a professional model or have access to a friend with modeling connections, pick their brains. Find models, agents and photographers that have been in the industry for some time. They will all have moved through their modeling careers through a variety of routes, and they will all have as many horror stories as success stories to tell you. They will have lots of advice – some of it will be relevant and some of it will be personal as it applied to them in their careers. So once again I advise you to listen and absorb and then make up your own mind.
Everyone tells me that I need to start with good photographs– why?
If you are going to go and see an agent, photographer or talent scout, while you may blow them away and make a great first impression, the minute you walk out of their door, another stunning model is going to walk in and you will soon be forgotten. Having a great photo, or comp card to leave behind is the best way to make sure you are remembered after you leave. And this is why it all starts with good photography.
How do I find a professional photographer to shoot my first modeling photos?
As a professional photographer myself I am constantly approached by models wanting to get photos for their comp cards or portfolios. I also get referral work from modeling agencies who feel that a prospective model might do better with some professional shots in her book.
When approaching a photographer make sure that his style of photography coincides with what you want to portray. If you are dead set on high fashion catwalk work, then don’t go to a glamour photographer – go to a fashion photographer. But if you don’t fit the height requirements of a fashion model then you should consider that glamour modeling is possibly what you should be chasing and approach a photographer with credentials in the field of glamour and print photography.
Always ask to see the photographer's work. These days this can easily be viewed on the photographer’s website. Do you like his style of photography? Does he appear to be reputable and is he a published photographer with clients whose names you recognize?
What makes a good photographer? Obviously this is an open ended question with thousands of permutations. But I would recommend that you find a published photographer – that is a photographer whose work is currently appearing in magazines and commercials that you would like to be published in.
Professional photographers will always welcome you bringing a chaperone or a friend on your shoots or go-sees. Beware the photographer who insists you come on your own!
Why do you recommend that I use a published photographer?
Being published means that the photographer is creating photographic work of a sufficiently high standard and quality that magazines and clients are paying him to use his work. There are thousands of photographers who have never had any images published anywhere and using them to do your modeling portfolio might not have the desired effect you were looking for. And most importantly, published photographers are in the loop with magazine editors, clients, make up artists, hair stylists, fashion coordinators, and more especially they have access to professional talent and modeling agents.
With this network, published photographers are very quickly able to recognize if you have that something special and often refer you to an agent that can accelerate your modeling career. A professional photographer whose work is published on a regular basis can give your modeling career a significant head start. They might not be the cheapest, but in the long run, a published photographer will save you a lot of time and money, and will often help you start earning money much faster than a non-published photographer.
My photographer suggested we do a TFP. What is a TFP or TFCD?
TFP is and acronym for Trade for prints. In this exchange a model trades her modeling time in exchange for the photographers shooting time and receives prints as a payment. These days this has evolved into TFCD, which is an acronym for Trade for CD (as in compact disc) whereby the photographer supplies the images to the model on a CD.
Generally TFP's and TFCD's are ways for inexperienced and amateur models and photographers to both acquire images for their respective portfolios without spending much in the process. But if you are trying to break into the modeling world and proceed with a modeling career, then it stands to reason that you want a published professional photographer who knows what he is doing to take your model portfolio photos. Getting an amateur to shoot your photos is a sure fire way to ensure that your career remains amateurish and flames out before it has started.
Experienced professional photographers generally do not need your photos for their book. But you definitely need their talent, expertise and experience to produce exceptional photos for your book. And for this you should expect to pay their professional photography fees / rates.
Always remember that ULTIMATELY, ONE GREAT PHOTO can be the difference between a successful career and a failed career. Never go for quantity - always chase the quality.
What is a Model Portfolio and what photos should I put in my Model Portfolio?
A modeling portfolio is a book that you can carry around with you that contains your modeling photos. Make sure that you only put your very best photos in your model portfolio. Your portfolio is only as good as your weakest shot. If you only have 5 strong shots then only put five photos in your portfolio. Remember – always quality over quantity and always leave them wanting for more.
Decide what kind of modeling you want to do – high fashion, glamour, fitness, health, lifestyle, etc. And then put images that show you in those kind of settings.
Develop a great portfolio – always make a great first impression. Choose a durable classy looking binder. Mix your images – follow a good headshot (portrait) with a good full body shot. Don’t put similar shots in your portfolio, for instance two shots of the same look. Choose one, and discard the other. Mix black-and-white with color shots. As you get better photos replace your older photos with newer ones. Never just add photos. Always keep your book limited to your best images. Always select images that reflect the type of modeling you want to do. Keep it classy and keep them wanting for more!
What is a Comp Card? (Z-Card / Zed Card)
A Comp Card is a card with one or more pictures on it, with your name, contact information and vital statistics: Height, weight, hair and eye color, bust, waist, hips and dress size. It’s called a comp card because it normally comprises several images in a composition (composite). Very often your compcard will have a headshot on the front and several different looks on the back. You can have a one-side or two-sided comp card. The size of the comp card can vary but is typically in the 5x7" range.
Comp cards are designed to be printed in mass so that you can leave them with every agent, talent scout, and photographer you meet, so that they have something permanent to remember you by and also your contact information to get hold of you in the future when they need you to come and get your first paid modeling gig!
How do I go about getting my Comp Card?
Start off by finding a good photographer whose work you like and admire. A photographer who regularly photographs models. Book a model portfolio session with your photographer. Do headshots and body shots in several different looks. Do as many different looks as you can afford, and don’t be shy to experiment. Often a photographer will see something in you that you did not know was there. Take their direction – trust your photographer’s eye!
A starter model portfolio session can cost anything upwards from a few hundred dollars to several thousand depending on the photographer and the amount of time you need.
From the shoot select the best images for your comp card – never more than 5 or 6 at the most. Take them to a local printer or email them to online comp card printers. They will tell you want size and resolution they need. Your photographer might also be able to arrange to have them done for you or point you to a good local printer. Get 100-200 cards printed. 200 Comp Cards should cost under $200. Most comp card printers have templates and can advise you on the design and look of your comp card.
What should I do it a photographer approaches me on the street or public place?
If a photographer or model agent / talent scout approaches you on the street or in a public area and asks you if you are a model or want to model, by all means take their business card, number and details. Don’t offer out your own phone number until you know who they are. Once again do your homework and check up on the individual or agency and check that they are reputable. I have approached many a new face on the street or at the mall and handed out my card. Sometimes I just see something in a particular face that catches my attention. Several of those individuals went on to pursue successful modeling careers. Photographers (professional photographers) know what they are looking for and often it might be something that you have – you just never know.
How do I succeed as a professional model?
There is no substitute for hard work and commitment. As a professional photographer who works with hundreds of models each year, both amateur and professional, I can tell you that there is one thing that all successful professional models have. And its not their stunning looks or awesome figure.
Sure it helps to be great looking and have a perfect figure. But if you are lazy, don’t like wake-up calls at 5:00am, show up late, don’t keep yourself in shape, start whining because you are cold or hungry or tired, then believe me your days in the professional modeling industry are numbered. Models that succeed do so because they have a great attitude, on top of their looks.
They show up on time, they are prepared, they answer their phone, they return their missed calls, they get a good nights sleep the night before, and they never complain no matter how hard and unpleasant the shoot might be.
Remember that there are literally millions of models with the same dreams of stardom that you have, that all want to succeed at being a professional model. Those that make a living from modeling work at it, all day, every day. It’s a job, and sometimes it can be a grind. It might look glamorous from the outside, but stand half naked on a snowy street in winter while the photographer waits for a cloud to pass overhead, and see if you can look sexy and sunny!
As far as I am concerned, having done this for years, I would any day rather work with a not-so-pretty model with a great attitude than a stunner with a prima-donna attitude.
If I want to be a fashion model how tall must I be?
Fashion modeling is the most glamorous of all modeling genres and commands the highest fees. The world’s super-models command fees of several thousand dollars per day, but unfortunately there are very few that are able to attain this level, and thousands are knocking on the door every day. If you are a female model and want to walk the runways of New York and Paris, you will need to be at least 5’9” and taller. Male models will be 6ft or taller.
Female fashion models will be approximately 34B-24-34, typically size 6or 7, and they are mostly under the age of twenty five. Male models will typically wear size 40 regular and have can be older.
There is an emerging trend in the industry to more accurately reflect the body’s that exist in real life, and at several recent fashion shows, plus-sized models were walking the ramp along with their stick thin counterparts. Plus sized models are usually 5'7" to 6'2" and wear size 12 to 14.
I am not 5'9" tall - can I still become a model?
Many models who do not fit the height requirements for fashion and ramp modeling do very well in other genres of modeling. Girls with curvy figures can do well at glamour, pin-up, and bikini modeling. More athletic types might find more success as fitness, health and lifestyle models. And don't forget the petite modeling and kids modeling genres.
The shortest girl that I had featured in a magazine was a South African model at just 4'11" tall. All her curves were in the right places and in perfect proportion to her height, and she had a stunning angelic face, but because of her diminutive height she couldn't even enter any bikini contests. When we did her shoot, I carefully posed her so that there was no frame of reference in the images and no-one could tell her height from the photos. She went on to do very well as a sought after glamour model, but always had to deal with the surprised look whenever she walked into a photographers studio for the first time! So take my word for it, height is not an issue in glamour modeling, as long as you have the face and curves that make the whole package work.
And remember that there are always exceptions to the rules. No-one could have predicted the effect on the fashion industry when Kate Moss broke onto the scene at 14 years old. All the traditional thinking was turned on its ear. So don't get too hung up on your shape or height. Use what you have got and make the most of it. Work like crazy with what you got!!
I am not particularly busty - can I still become a glamour model?
I will be the first to tell you that I have had several models grace the covers and centerfolds of some of the world’s most prestigious magazines with nothing more than a 32A cup! Remember that beauty is always in the eye of the beholder. Every person is attracted to different things. Some magazine editors prefer fit natural physiques, while others might prefer more curvy models. In the early days of my photographic career, when I first started shooting models for a South African men's magazine, the editor had to pull me aside and tell me to stop supplying them with flat chested, blonde haired models. Without knowing it I had been shooting girls that I found attractive. The editor woke me up and made me realize that I had to shoot the entire spectrum of models from short to tall, thin to thick, flat chested to top heavy, blondes brunettes redheads and everything in between. And I learned my lesson well. Look at the images on this page and you will see the complete spectrum well represented!
Can I become a parts model?
There are models who have particularly beautiful parts and make a living as a parts model. This could be your hair, hands, feet, or eyes. Not all models with stunning faces have great feet or hands. Hand and ear models work mainly with photographers that specialize in jewelry photography. Smooth young skin is vital, as are ears with a minimum of piercings. This specialized work is not always available - look for a photographer or agent who specializes in it.
What kind of model fees can I expect as a model?
We have all heard of the super-models making thousands of dollars for a few hours work. Work that commands that sort of model fee is few and far between. The amount that you will receive is governed by the value that the client places on your ability to give them that look that they are after. If you are absolutely critical to the success of their product, brand or marketing campaign, well then you can expect to command astronomical model fees. But if your look is fairly common place and many models can nail the look they are going for, well then supply and demand ensures that your model fees are going to be somewhat more normal.
In South Florida brand new models with the right looks starting out making around $75 - $100 per hour and up, depending on the work and the client. In several cases I have paid $250 an hour for an outstanding model for a specific client. After a long day’s shooting with a great model and a top shelf client I have paid out model fees in the rage of $1,200 to $2,000. Not bad for a day’s work, but believe me they earned it. And not all my models make that kind of money. In fact many models pay me to take their portfolio and Comp Card photographs. They come to me because of my experience and connections in the field of modeling. Often those models that get their first ever portfolio shots done with me come back to model for me on paid assignments later on in their careers.
Model Agents and Model Agencies
Here in Florida, talent agents, model agents and modeling agencies all have to be licensed. This is to stop the ruthless scam artists from preying on naïve guys and girls wanting to break into the modeling world. Find yourself a reputable modeling agency that is licensed and that has a great reputation. Check on their status through the Better Business Bureau. type in "model agency scams" into Google and see if your agent has any bad history that give you reason to go elsewhere.
Call up the agency and make an appointment to meet with their talent scout. Model agencies are always scouting fresh new models. You might have exactly what they are looking for. Be well prepared – do your hair and makeup and keep your clothing simple. If you have a portfolio already, take it with you. Walk into their offices with a positive attitude.
How do I find local modeling agencies or talent scouts?
Start off with the yellow pages, or try your search online. If you are doing a search in Google or other search engine use strings like “model+agency+fort+lauderdale”. The use of the + and “ characters ensures that you only get relevant results from the local area that you typed in. Do not call model agencies in South Florida if you are based in Seattle. There are also many online modeling forums and modeling communities where you can post questions and get advice from other models starting out just like you.
How should I approach a modeling agency?
Get yourself into shape, exercise, diet and clean up your complexion. Call the modeling agency and book a visit and go and see them. If you have some good photos or a model portfolio, take copies of them with you. Obviously if you have tear sheets, add them to your book as well – every model agency wants to see what work you have done already, if any.
Your photos don’t have to be professional but they should be the best you have taken. One shot must be a clear head shot showing your bone structure and facial features. The other should be a full body shot revealing your type of body. Not nude, not necessarily a bikini, but just something that shows your size and body type. Be prepared to leave the photos with the agency so do not take your originals.
Do not give up if you are rejected at the first agency. Do not go home and wait for a call-back from an agency. Keep on hustling and go see as many model agencies and talent scouts as you can find. For one agency you might not represent what they are looking for, but for the next who knows, maybe you have that perfect look for their clients national advertising campaign! Don't be scared to ask the agency for advice and constructive criticism.
How do I know if a Model Agency is reputable?
Reputable modeling agencies will be in modeling hotspots, generally close to the action. Very often in high rent neighborhoods. Always do your homework. Check that the agency is reputable before you waste your time. You can even ask other models about their experiences with the agency. But also realize that models who might not have got work through them might have a different perspective than one who gets regular work. So as I said before, be prepared to listen and digest all the comments and make up your own mind.
If any agency tries to charge you to register with them, walk away and do more homework. That is definitely not a good sign. They should never be asking for money up front. It’s possible that they might suggest that you go and get some photos taken and come back later with them, but if they insist that you absolutely have to use their photographer (who charges an arm and a leg) now you are beginning to smell the faint aroma of a scam. Move on and find another agency that isn’t going to rip you off.
How do I recognize a model agency scam?
Modeling agency scams are unfortunately the rule and not the exception. There are thousands of unscrupulous greedy people hoping to capitalize on your hopes and dreams, insecurity and ignorance. Keep your eyes and ears open.
In my opinion I would advise you to avoid modeling schools - seldom do they ever launch any models careers - mostly they take your money and fill your head with dreams and broken promises. You can be three foot tall and three hundred pounds and they will still tell you that you have that special look so just sign up for the next class – “a bargain at only $500!”.
If a model agency asks a registration fee, move on. If a model agency insists that you do their classes, move on. If a model agency insists that you use their photographer or printer for your photos, move on. Find your own photographer and pay him directly. Take your images to your own printer to get your enlargements for your model portfolio. Get your own printer to make your comp cards just the way you want them made.
If a model agency promises you that they can get you work when they have just met you, move on. It takes time to see how you move how you come alive in front of the camera, or how you walk down the catwalk.
How much of my Modeling Fee does an agency keep?
Most model agencies will retain between 20 and 25% of your model fees to pay for their services. Never begrudge your agency their fee. Ideally you should be encouraging them to make as much money as possible by keeping you booked as much as possible. Great model agencies get their top models booked frequently, making a lot of money for both the model and the agency at the same time.
Should I sign an exclusive contract with a model agency?
When you are starting out, keep your options open and avoid signing any exclusive model representation agreements. However, once you agency starts landing you work, they have every right to seek an exclusive arrangement and if it’s in your best interest, then go ahead and sign it. As with all contracts, get your attorney to look it over before signing it. If the terms are acceptable then go ahead and sign up with your agency. Always keep and safeguard copies of all you contracts that you sign.
What is a Model Release and why must I sign it?
Model releases are legal documents that assign the right to the photograph to a particular person or entity. Any published image that is taken (except in a public arena) must be accompanied by a signed model release before it can published. Your photographer will always ask you to sign a model release before or after the shoot.
Any final words of advice as I start my journey to become model?
Please remember that what I have written above is purely my personal opinion, one formed over 30 years working in professional photography with both amateur and professional models. If you take the time to listen to many opinions from models, photographers, model agents, hairstylists, makeup artists, and talent scouts, you are sure to have enough good, raw unbiased data to formulate your own opinions.
Don't blindly follow those ahead of you. March to your own drummer. Do it with your own style. Make yourself unique. You have a much better chance of getting ahead if you are true to yourself.
I wish you best of luck in your pursuits - both in the modeling industry and life itself. Don't hesitate to drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org if you found this article helpful or inspiring.
How to become professional model - By Danny Steyn Originally written 1991 (edited & adapted 2005 and 2012)
I recommend that you also read this brief but very succinct article written by a young aspiring Florida Model - Peabo Powell. Click here for Peabo's advice - Modeling in the real world. This is a no-nonsense get-a-grip primer on how to succeed. Click the link above to read his article.