Beauty, Glamour + Fashion

The Do’s & Don’ts of Working with Modeling Agencies

October 9, 2019

By Angela Marklew

© Angela Marklew

An example of the give-and-take of testing with modeling agencies. I really wanted to shoot some makeup-heavy beauty looks with Nadya, but her agent was looking for some clean, fresh beauty images. Even though I don’t need to add any more clean beauty to my portfolio, I agreed to shoot what the agent was looking for in order to also get what I was looking for.

There will come a time where as a fashion or beauty photographer, you’ll want to start working with agency-signed models. I know from experience that it can be daunting reaching out to agencies for the first time. All sorts of questions and doubts inevitably come into your head: Is my work good enough? What if they say no?

I asked the agents with whom I have built relationships about what they look for in that initial email from a new photographer, what turns them off, and what kind of advice they have to build on the agency-photographer relationship.

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The Initial Email

“The photographer should provide links to their work as well as any team members’ links. Mood boards are always important. What photographers need to understand is that models want to know exactly what they are getting into before agreeing to shoot. I will never send a model to a shoot I don’t think is safe, or if I do not think the shoot is appropriate for the models’ book.” — Michelle at L.A. Models

“Keep emails brief. Photographers’ websites and Instagram pages should have a very tight edit of their selected works, and there needs to be an immediate, easily identifiable style. If their work is all over the place, I get really confused and am less likely to work with them. I avoid heavy-handed retouching, but on the flip side, I don’t want images that are too raw and obviously unedited.” — Anthony at Freedom Models

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“If you don’t have a website, at least put together a deck or PDF so we can view your work. It also really helps to have a mood board or creative references to show what you are planning to get across with the shoot. It does wonders to write clear and concise emails when reaching out to agencies. Too many words will scare anyone, especially if you don’t already have a relationship with the agency.” — Sydney at VISION Los Angeles

“Find out who works on testing at the agency, send over a quick and concise intro email with a sample of your work, and ask if there are any models available for testing. I like to see a mood board, too. Keep it simple and current! I’m always looking for photographers who are shooting how our clients in Los Angeles are.” — An agent at Wilhelmina Models

My Advice: The key to the initial email is to provide as much information as possible about who you are and what you’d like to do without writing a novel. When I reach out to an agency for the first time, I simply introduce myself, provide links to my website and Instagram, and then let the agent know that I’m looking to specifically shoot beauty.

If you don’t receive a reply within a week (agents are busy, emails get lost or accidentally skipped over), send a follow-up email.  

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Things to Avoid

“There are photographers who will rush a test, and then I have to wait 6 to 12 months for images. If you have the time to shoot, you should also set aside some time to retouch and send images back to the agency within a month’s time. Photographers must be transparent with the placement of their shoots (saying it’s a test but then the images end up on the website for a clothing line, for example). Pushy photographers will make me not want to work with them. If you email me on Monday (the worst day to email, as I am catching up on all the emails sent over the weekend) and your follow-up email is on Tuesday, forwarding your original email with the addition of a ‘?’ in the body—I will delete that email.” — Michelle, L.A. Models

“Be polite. Be kind and respectful. If an agency has a company policy like, ‘Don’t reach out to models directly,’ or, ‘Only send images with this app,’ respect their policy. Be organized: We should be able to schedule a test in a few short emails. If the email chain goes on and on, an agent’s patience will begin to wane. Don’t send an agent a wide date range and ask them to check 14 different model’s charts. Get everything planned, then reach out for a model. Also, schedule everything over email. Don’t text or DM—it’s way too difficult to manage.” — Anthony at Freedom Models

“There are a couple of reasons why we would stop working with a photographer. Firstly, if we receive images from a shoot that aren’t at all in line with what we are looking for in our models’ books. We need to make sure the shoot is beneficial for the model just as much as for the photographer. It also goes without saying: Any sort of inappropriate behavior towards a model will immediately cause us to end working with someone.” — Sydney at VISION Los Angeles

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“Poor communication, unpreparedness on set, diverting from the original plan or mood board without a heads up, and slow turnaround time can make it difficult for an agency to work with a photographer.” — An agent at Wilhelmina Models

My Advice: From your mood board to image placement, always be honest and transparent. When you provide a mood board, you’re essentially letting the agent know what kind of images they can expect. This influences which models they send you to choose from (as different models are marketed for different things and are looking to build their books in certain directions). The images you create don’t have to be exact copies of the references (and they shouldn’t be), but they do need to be in that world. Stick to the plan you discussed with the agent and if you have time, then feel free to experiment with new techniques or a different idea.

When setting up a test shoot, agents typically ask what the photos will be used for (are you planning to shoot an editorial story to submit to publications, or are you simply wanting to shoot some images to build your portfolio?). The one thing a photographer should never do is allow a brand to use an image from a test shoot for the brand’s advertising. If a brand approaches you wanting to use an image, you have to get permission from the model and agency first.

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Maintaining the Relationship

“Consistency, transparency and being realistic are all factors that keep me working with a photographer. If you don’t have a team, that’s okay. But don’t expect to book a top girl who has just booked a worldwide fashion campaign.” — Michelle at L.A. Models

“Trust is essential. You should trust the agent if they’re sending a new face, and I need to trust the photographer if they are requesting to shoot an established girl. The more support and talent you show, the more likely you’ll win over the agent’s trust, and they’ll start sending you better and better girls. My favorite photographers understand the needs of the industry and that last-minute cancellations happen.” — Anthony at Freedom Models

“I have the best relationships with photographers who are great communicators and are passionate about working together to make great images for both their portfolios and the models’ portfolios. This also means being willing to hear criticism and apply it on future tests. In a way, photographers and models’ are both working to gear their books towards the same clients, so having a collaborative mindset is essential.” — An agent at Wilhelmina

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My Advice: Working with a modeling agency is a give-and-take relationship. We all want to be photographing top models, but you need to put the work in to get there. Expect your first few shoots to be with their new faces. Once the agents see that you can deliver consistent images that are beneficial for their model’s books, you’ll be able to start requesting to shoot more established girls.

Keep abreast of the type of images the agencies use in the model’s portfolios. This gives you an idea of what kinds of concepts they are most likely to approve and can also help you find the agencies that are the best fit with your own creative aesthetic.  

Angela Marklew is a beauty, fashion and portrait photographer based in Venice, California. Before she was a photographer, she worked as a chemist testing explosives for the Canadian government.