I’ve had a lot of inquiries lately from people wanting to model but unsure where to start. Making money freelance modeling can seem vague, confusing, and overwhelming for those unfamiliar with it. This is by no stretch of the imagination a complete guide to the intricacies of the business, but instead intended to be a clear point zero for aspiring professional freelancers to build from.

Where to Start

Model: Sierra McKenzie; Photographer: TrueLifePhotography
Makeup Artist: Shiree Collier; Clothing Designer: Deanna DiBene Millinery

Model Mayhem is a great place to start. Having an account on this website is a smart first step. It’s a good place to find photographers to pay or trade with when you’re starting out, and is one of the best networking sites for getting paid work. In addition to Model Mayhem, it may also be interesting and helpful to keep a blog of your exploits. Tumblr is my favorite site for this, as it is easy to use, has no censorship, and has a lot of amazing artists and potential fans as current users. If you’re thinking of doing ANYTHING you wouldn’t want everyone you know to see, or a future employer to see, come up with a fake name (and think very hard about your limits).

Can You Really Model?

Model: Sierra McKenzie for Colette Patterns

Yes. Although it may not be all you dreamed of. If modeling is something you’re seriously interested in, and you’re willing to put the time and effort, I suggest giving it a go! I think people of all body types, heights and quirks can model. You just have to find your niche. Many people think of modeling and think of high fashion runway models, but that is just one tiny slice of the pie.

Models have flaws. Models are just people! Everyone has to learn to work their angles and get over being self-conscious. It’s okay to be known for something. It’s okay to be the curvy model, the bald model, the short model, the model that always has a different hair color. A lot of the things that make you nervous about the idea of modeling can be what set you apart and intrigue photographers and fans. And what you look like is only one part of the puzzle too. The number one thing about modeling is to be professional. Speaking of which…

Be professional

Just as or more important than what you look like is being professional. Have clear communication before a shoot. Show up when you say you’ll show up. Show up prepared, or even over-prepared.

Bring your ID to every shoot. Check references beforehand to try to avoid feeling uncomfortable or needing to bring someone along. (Unless you’re a minor; then always bring a parent along!) Be open to new ideas. Take risks. If a photographer wants you to jump in the mud, jump in that mud! This is much easier to do once you know what ISN’T in your limits. So make sure to…

Set Your Limits

Model: Sierra McKenzie; Photographer: kg; Hair Stylist: Andy Tseng 

Before you set up your first shoot, know your limits. Are you willing to do nudes? Implied nudes? Lingerie? Video? Fetish? None of the above? This is incredibly important. Once you set boundaries, stick with them unless you decide to change them on your own. Don’t let anyone bully you. And especially when you’re starting out, if the content wasn’t talked about while setting up a shoot, don’t do it when you show up to that shoot. If you show up for a non-nude lingerie shoot and then they want you to do nudes, just say no. If you think you might be comfortable with that, say you might be willing to set up a future shoot with that content, but that you’d rather stick to what you agreed to for that shoot.

Build a Portfolio

Model: Sierra McKenzie; Photographer: Alden Ford

Some new models get caught up in over stylized and edited photos early on. Remember that the base of your portfolio should really show what you look like. I highly suggest either trading for or paying for a really good headshot and body shot. This should be with no or little makeup, very minimal styling, and no to little editing. Polaroids can work well to set up this base too. And then build from there. Think about what genres you’re interested in and what genres you’re seeing casting calls for. If you want to get booked for a certain kind of work, you should be able to show it in your portfolio.

Trade vs. Paid

Model: Sierra McKenzie; Photographer: ByteStudio; Clothing Designer: Helene Hawthorne

When you’re starting out or branching into other genres, it’s likely you will be doing a fair amount of trade work.

Trade work means nobody makes money, but the model gets some of the images (although copyright still lies with the photographer). Different trade shoots will give different amounts of images/edits (but also remember quantity does not equal quality). Do this wisely. Over-trading can make it really hard to turn pro, especially if you’re somewhere with a limited amount of people in the industry. Once you trade with someone, it is unlikely they will ever hire you for work.

If you are thinking about a trade shoot, think about the following: is this something I don’t already have in my portfolio? Is this something that will get me more work if I have it in my portfolio? Is the photographer’s portfolio consistent, and can I picture the type of edits I’ll be getting after the shoot? There are many reasons to trade, but if you’re looking to model professionally these are good things to keep in mind. For many of the same instances you’d accept a trade shoot, it could also be worth it to hire a photographer.

Set Your Rate

Model: Sierra McKenzie; Photographer: ByteStudio
Makeup Artist: BKaye MUA; Clothing Designer: Helene Hawthorne

You should set a rate when you are asked a rate, or when someone wants to shoot you for trade that won’t add to your portfolio you should offer a rate instead. Setting a rate is hard, but you’ve got to start somewhere.

Some models have tiered rates; some models have flat day rates; some models have minimum bookings, etc. Different things work for different people. I currently have a singular hourly rate and then do discounts for shoots over 4 hours, or if content is entirely G rated, or I’m working with a full team. When you’re starting out, I’d suggest doing an hourly rate for non-nudes and an hourly rate for nudes (if you’re doing nudes). Be flexible within reason, but also don’t deal with extensive haggling. But also remember that it’s okay if some people say no! There are a lot of photographers out there that don’t like to hire models. Don’t let that get you down. Don’t lower your rate every time someone says no. In terms of raising your rate, raise it when you start to get overbooked! If you’re having to schedule things three weeks out it might be time to start thinking about adjusting! To give you some idea of rates, from the models I know who work full-time freelance as well, 100/hr seems like the general cap for professional freelance models who do nudes. But ALSO worth noting about paid work: if you were paid for a shoot do NOT beg the photographer for photos afterwards. Most photographers will send you photos because they want you to have them, but you don’t have a right to them from a paid shoot. Treat photos as a bonus or tip! (The one exception to this is if you talk specifically beforehand about negotiating. If something seems sort of in-between trade and your full rate, it is sometimes possible to offer a discounted rate in exchange for guaranteed images.)


Model: Sierra McKenzie; Photographer: Jeff Waters Photography

I highly suggest not to copy posing. It doesn’t look natural. Be exposed to as many genres and styles of modeling as you can to get an idea of different posing styles, but don’t try to copy a pose exactly. A lot of new photographers will have you do this, and if you’re being paid go along with it as much as you can, but this generally results in an amateurish, posy, and tense looking photo. I’d suggest to not be afraid of movement and expression. It’s okay to take risks too! A lot of models say to practice in a mirror, but I think more important is to be able to see full-rolls from shoots you’ve done. Have a friend play photographer with a point-and-shoot or an iPhone. And then go back through all the shots. See what works and what doesn’t. Give yourself a critique. You may discover some things you felt were working looked silly, and that some things you thought were silly worked brilliantly! Doing this allows you to learn what risks are smart risks, without all the pressure. When you’re starting, you may even work with photographers that are okay with you seeing all the unedited shots. That can be a really great learning tool for posing, as well as your styling/hair/makeup decisions.

Behind the Scenes

Most of freelancing is behind the scenes. It’s responding to emails and messages and uploading photos, and responding to a million casting calls. I spend hours a day doing exactly those things. If you’re not spending the time on this end of things, you won’t be getting as many shoots, especially as many paid shoots, as you could be. So hit that keyboard!

Other Skills

Model: Sierra McKenzie; Photographer: M Y C

Really play to any other skills you have, and build up some that aren’t as natural. If you can act, that can help you branch into more similar styled acting work like music videos and commercial acting. If you can dance or are an athlete, there’s lots of additional work out there for you. If you’re a photographer, self-shots can be an awesome addition to an online presence. And work on hair and makeup!

As a freelance model, being able to do your own hair and make-up will be crucial to making a living. Learn what you can from working with hair and makeup artists, YouTube videos, and practice on yourself! In the same vein, build up a wardrobe collection! I have trunks of lingerie that I wear for shoots that I have very little need for in everyday life. The kind of wardrobe you’ll want will depend on the genres you’re getting the most work in. Being thrifty/crafty/sale hunting can be really helpful!


As I said before, Model Mayhem is a good place to start (and make sure you take advantage of the casting, travel and availability sections), but also check out the gigs section of Craigslist, and keep an ear out for any sort of Facebook group for castings in your area and the like. I’d suggest Tumblr and Instagram for further social networking. If you’re doing nudes/glamour and are working with photographers who have Zivity accounts, it can be another little side thing to build exposure and maybe earn some lunch money.

You will find what works for you. There’s no exact formula. Embrace the trial and error nature of freelancing. I hope you found this helpful. Good luck!


Sierra McKenzie

Sierra McKenzie is a full-time professional freelance model with over 4 years experience. She is based in Seattle, WA, and travels often. Her website is www.sierramckenzie.com and her blog is sierramckenzie.tumblr.com.

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