How to Build a Model Portfolio

How to Build a Model Portfolio

As a fashion and portrait photographer, one of the questions I am most often asked is how to get started. Working with trained models is the goal for many photographers because the imagery created almost always elevates an existing portfolio.

But what if the model is brand new? Knowing how to shoot a model portfolio for an aspiring model is also a valuable skillset to add to the arsenal.

How to Build a Model Portfolio

Whether you are new to model photography or looking to improve your skills, we have an incredibletutorial with Elizabeth Wiseman that can be reviewed prior to the beginning model portfolio shoot for inspiration.

Elizabeth gives a comprehensive look into the business of modeling and testing and delves into what the agencies are looking for pertaining to posing and overall imagery in a successful shoot. This education can help serve as a guide for orchestrating the beginner model portfolio shot list as well as elevate future model test shoots.

The necessary research and production in tandem with the required art direction of shooting the various looks while building the mood during a model portfolio session is a slow burn. The goal is to put the model’s angst at ease, develop a level of trust, and also seriously level up their modeling skills.

How to Build a Model Portfolio

In one long day shoot or two half-day shoots, we are single-handedly creating a portfolio that appears as though it was captured over the course of five or more different photoshoots. Additionally, refining this skill allows to up the ante and always push further in future test shoots with trained models.

Planning and successfully executing a model portfolio photoshoot requires a lot of preparation and due diligence. Below are some tips on how to properly implement that plan in order to get the most out of the session.


The world of modeling is an encompassing and multi-faceted industry spanning the likes of editorial, commercial, fitness, runway, and print to name a few. To be of the best service to the model, it is a prerequisite to be well versed with the various facets as well as the specific market locations.

For instance, a photographer should not only be studying the primary high fashion and editorial images coming out of New York City, Paris, and Milan, they should also be following the trends in the secondary commercial markets such as Seattle, Denver, Miami, and Atlanta.

How to Build a Model Portfolio

This means researching many specific modeling agencies, studying their models as well as their portfolios. Pay attention to the lighting as well as the angles and lenses used to create the desired effect, the amount of retouching, and the choice of color grading.


This knowledge makes it easy to quickly identify which areas and markets the aspiring model’s portfolio should encapsulate as well as the direction that should be taken for their portfolio. The entire photoshoot will be centered on featuring the model as a blank canvas with various looks to showcase their range.

Create a mood board with multiple looks that represent these genres and reflect that desired market. Pull image examples for specific outfits or “looks”, hair and makeup, accessories, location, and overall mood.

How to Build a Model Portfolio

In the image examples for this article, it was determined that the model’s height and size were the best fit for fitness, lifestyle, and commercial modeling. Her goal was to bypass the very small local market and begin her journey with a mother agency in a secondary market with the end goal of working in LA.


Stylists are usually the most difficult members of the creative team to come by, especially in the beginning stages, so be prepared to act as one. Be intentional with the fashion choices and plan out every look from the clothing to the accessories and right down to exact hair and makeup.

The selected looks should be modeled after fashions that are specific for their market. Additionally, the overall look from head to toe in the proposed environment should make sense.

Communicate with the model beforehand about the different looks from head to toe that will be photographed throughout the shoot. Whenever possible, opt for new clothing or items that are very well taken care of. Not only will it look better, but it will also save hours of editing on the back end.

How to Build a Model Portfolio

This is an area in which every model is unique. Sometimes the model may already have an existing wardrobe that satisfies every concept of the planned shoot. In these instances, make sure that the items of clothing are freshly laundered and pressed when necessary.

More often than not, the model will opt to purchase every article of clothing and accessory recommended to them, only returning what will not be worn again. If this is the case, it is imperative to respect the clothes and only return them in the condition they were found.

Last but not least, hire a creative team that is up to the challenge and will elevate the overall aesthetic as well as the model’s experience.


The expectations of today’s modern test shoots are already bountiful, so naturally, the demands of producing an entire portfolio with quality imagery while building a brand new model in a day’s time or less only adds fuel to a barrel already on fire.

The purpose of pre-production is to organize and troubleshoot in order to ensure the day goes as seamlessly as possible. The means planning every detail of each look from the outfit, hair and makeup, accessories, location, and necessary lighting.

Pre-production also means coaching the model beforehand to practice their expressions such as “smizing,” keeping their lips slightly parted, and learning the best angles to accentuate their features in front of a mirror before the shoot.

How to Build a Model Portfolio

Think about what is necessary to make sure everything goes right.

  • Location scout around the studio and plan for each look to work most efficiently.
  • There should be Gaffer’s tape on set to cover the bottoms of new shoes, clamps to ensure the clothing fits as intended, and towels to place over the model’s face so that makeup doesn’t wind up on the collar.
  • Make sure there is a clothing rack with plenty of hangers, an iron, and an ironing board as well as a steamer.
  • There should be adequate space for the hair and makeup artist to work with plenty of light.
  • Layout each individual look with their accessories in the order they will be shot and coordinate with the creative team.
  • Prepare and plan for each changing location.
  • Last but not least, make sure there will be plenty of fluids and snacks on set. If it is going to be an entire day shoot, make sure that lunch is planned for.

Gear Selection

One of the best ways of guaranteeing variety in a large production shoot such as this is to select the best gear for the job. It is easy to change the overall mood of a set of images simply by changing a lens, the angle, or the light. Planning out the details in this fashion will save valuable time that can be better used elsewhere during the shoot.

If there are going to be multiple lighting setups, have those sets organized with the lights and triggers, applicable umbrellas and beauty dishes, as well as any additional bounce cards or flags, organized ahead of time so that there are only minor adjustments needed when shooting.

How to Build a Model Portfolio

Gear Used For This Photoshoot


I have found that it is easier to start simple and gradually build as the day unfolds. Starting with the basics of shooting digitals in jeans and a T-shirt sans makeup and fancy hair without the pressure of having to immediately emote alleviates a lot of angst from the beginning model, thus building trust and rapport. It also allows you as the photographer to start learning their angles.

How to Build a Model Portfolio

Each new look should be a subtle succession, adding to the existing makeup and introducing new challenges to the model such as adding movement and expressions that are easy for them to bring to life. Remember that each look and overall feel of the captured set of images should feel unique to the others. This is easily done by changing your angle and utilizing different lenses.

Begin teaching their angles, the basics of posing, and how to find the light. Provide constructive feedback by showing the model examples of what does and does not work during the shoot with an explanation of why.

How to Build a Model Portfolio

Once the movement memory begins to resonate, paint a picture of a character in a storyline that they can act and learn to properly emote, finally putting it all together to create the overall desired mood. Put an emphasis that they should exaggerate their expressions as often it doesn’t translate to the picture as much as they think it does and show them why.

Providing the model with real-time feedback of what works builds their confidence and expedites their growth. As is often the case, this incremental improvement usually comes at the latter half of the shoot and it’s quite enjoyable to watch them try to improve upon an already good image at that point. This is why we save the best and most demanding for last.

Image Selection & Editing

One of the most challenging aspects of the model portfolio shoot will be the culling of the photos and post-production. In a shoot that is this arduous, there are bound to be a large selection of high-quality images that work and can be retouched. Whether or not you choose to outsource to a retouching company or edit in-house is a personal choice.

The final edit should meet industry standards while aiming to have longevity in a model’s book. A simple, light-handed approach is always a good idea.

How to Build a Model Portfolio

When making final selections for the images that will be sent to the agencies, remember that the final portfolio should be an advertisement for the model. The images that make the cut of the portfolio should include digitals that show the raw model as a blank canvas as well as those that highlight the model’s range while demonstrating their versatility.

Simply put, the finished portfolio should fit among the existing model portfolios on their website; the only missing from their current roster should be the model’s unique look.

Final Thoughts

Model portfolio shoots are one of the most challenging areas of photography to execute. There is a lot of value in being able to appropriately develop models for their markets and help get them placed.

Mastering the skill to produce quality no matter what not only increases confidence as a photographer, it will also improve all subsequent model tests in the future and build lasting relationships with the various modeling agencies. Not to mention that the production and art direction learned can also cross over into other profitable areas of portraiture such as branding and boudoir.

Below is the final portfolio.

How to Build a Model Portfolio
How to Build a Model Portfolio
Brittany is a fashion and portrait photographer working in NYC, Montana, and LA. She specializes in the development and placement of models.

If you are new to Fashion, you may also find this article helpful from Pixpa.

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