There are times when you can get away working with a friend or someone willing to model for you for free, but then there are those times where you save yourself money, time, and effort by simply booking a professional model! How to decide which one to go for?
As somebody who has been on both sides of the camera and worked on various combinations of paid and unpaid work, I can definitely attest there are occasions where exchanging time is a good enough deal that can benefit both parties. I have experienced and also heard plenty of stories and situations where models have given their time for a collaboration only to receive small and unusable images, unedited images or footage, and more. So, having lived through it myself and having heard about these situations from other models, I've always tried to deliver a great service as a photographer even if it's just a collaboration and no money exchanges hands. However, lately I have been thinking whether the effort and time that goes into finding and arranging someone to model in exchange of edited images is necessarily worth it.
You Can Get Exactly Who You Need
If you merely want to practice portraits or to try out something new with a particular piece of equipment or in a specific location or studio, generally you will not mind who models for you. These types of situations are ideal for working with either a willing friend or family member or with a model, who wants portfolio images in return. It's not so much who is in front of your camera, it's rather a question of who is available and interested. However, there are projects where we might need a model with specific appearance or attributes.
For example, I had a project where my brief was to photograph an ethnically diverse family because the company already had plenty of images of Caucasian families. I tried my luck by advertising a model call where each family would receive images in return, however, the only family I booked was a past client who already knew me. Another family, who had inquired, decided against it in the end when I reiterated that the images of them will be used in commercial capacity. The moment I advertised a paid model call on a model website, I received several responses of models who were happy to work with their child or children in front of the camera, and were also happy to sign a model release. I found exactly what I wanted in the matter of a few hours and I didn't need to keep spending time explaining the process to families who perhaps didn't quite understand what the images would be used for.
I am not somebody who regularly works with model agencies, so I definitely found it very refreshing to be able to pick out the right person for my shoot without spending additional time advertising for a collaboration. As with actors, sometimes you just have to fulfill a very specific and it helps move things along if you can choose the right model for it, either from the responses of a posted casting or from a model agency.
They Know Exactly What They're Doing
Okay, so perhaps you did manage to find somebody who fits your brief perfectly and is happy to exchange time for pictures, however, once the shoot starts, what if it's simply not working? When you're working with people who aren't models, sometimes you may need to factor in more time for the shoot to ease your subjects into a good flow and learn to guide them through it. Some people can be natural in front of a camera, but there are plenty who aren't. Consider this when you're looking for your next model. Sometimes, it's worth simply booking a paid experienced model who knows exactly how to pose, letting the shoot be a breeze. They will know how to use their hands when posing and work with any props or outfits, which can be crucial for certain shoots.
Professional models will also understand the need to sign a model release and everything else that goes with the photography shoot etiquette, which makes the process smoother. Equally, you will not need to worry about any post-shoot work or communication because you don't need to deliver any images to them. If you work with someone in exchange for their time, you will need to deliver what was promised, whether those are usable images or video footage. A middle road would also be to do test shots with professional and agency models, where you exchange model's time for your photographs or video footage. This way you both benefit from the shoot but it does mean you will need to deliver results that can be used by the model, which also means additional time spent editing and communicating after the shoot.
This is not to say that people lacking modeling experience cannot be good in front of the camera, however, the difference can be noticeable when you compare it to someone who has been doing this for a longer time. Consider what you are shooting and why, and let that be the deciding factor on whether you need a professional model or not.
But, You May Not Get Access To Unique Spaces
When it comes to booking models, there might be the odd time where you may find somebody who not only is a professional model, fitting for your project, but also has an interesting background in terms of their skills, hobbies, or talents. This doesn't happen often so for this situation, it's likely that you will be looking for a "general" person who will be willing to give you their time in exchange of photographs. I had this recently where I had to shoot images for the International Bee Day, so I researched and found a local bee keeper who was happy to invite me into his world. It would cost me a lot to set this up with a paid model and a hired location, and as somebody who shoots in a very relaxed documentary style, I was thrilled to have found someone who has actual real life knowledge and experience of this topic.
I did not need to pose or direct him; I simply observed the bee keeper going through his routine of checking on his hives, while I kept myself busy finding the right angles and compositions. The photographs look authentic because they were not staged. Photographing somebody who is going through familiar actions, whether it is a sculptor, a bee keeper, a jeweler, or someone else, will result in natural looking imagery because they will be engrossed in what they are doing. This means that their body language and hand gestures will appear natural, too. You may ask them to stop for a second for a particular shot, but generally the shoot will flow because they will be focused on what they're doing, allowing you to focus on what you're doing.
So, if you're looking to photograph someone in a particular profession or with a unique hobby, it's definitely worth asking local people instead of immediately booking a model. Not only will you gain access to something you wouldn't naturally be invited in, but you will also get to build relationships with local artisans and business owners which can be handy for any future work.
Frankly, there is no one way of doing this. Every shoot will be unique and as such it will dictate how you should approach finding a model for it. I think the most important thing is not to be set in your ways and be open to trying out new things because sometimes it can work out better than expected!
How do you usually find models for your work?