A nice portrait is made up of four elements: composition, lighting, post-processing, and subject. The first three are easy to learn about and improve on your own, but after annoying your friends and family and getting sick of Facebook and Instagram, how do you improve?
A common way for portrait/fashion photographers to get their start building their book is by working with friends and family, followed by Facebook/Instagram models, and then moving up to agencies, but it can be hard to know how to do that last part. Working with an agency sounds scary, but it really isn't.
The Initial Contact
When you reach out to an agency, you want to find the person responsible for the New Faces or Development board; that person's information is generally on the agency's website. When writing an email, you have to remember that an agency doesn't know who you are. They get emails like this relatively often and need to do what's best for their models, so keep it brief and to the point.
In your email (or call, I like to email for these sorts of things so I can show my work), you want to introduce yourself and try to weight the introduction more so about you helping them get photos for the models, not the other way around.
A hard truth is that paid model tests aren't so much a thing anymore. They still happen, but not so much with the New Faces board; there are too many photographers and not enough models. Paid tests are usually for incredibly visible photographers who can get the faces in front of brands and for models looking to update their book.nThis is not an absolute truth, but kind of a general rule.
When it comes to the types of images to show off, agencies need work that is clean, simple, and with the focus on the models. A good thing to do is go onto their website and see the type of work they use to advertise their models and show off work similar to that. Leave the boudoir and super artsy photos at home.
When and if the agent responds back, they will want to know a few things: location, time, and who you want. On your first interaction, they will likely just send you one person, but after that, they will likely give you options. I personally feel that it is best practice to ask if there are any specific image references they want. Some agents are very relaxed, and others are very specific.
I always recommend finding a makeup artist; there are many out there who will work for free or cheap that can really help you concentrate on other things like lighting and composition.
As you can see, I wanted to keep the lighting clean and fashion-y. I wanted to show off Abi's face and body in a clean, but still eye-catching way. As you can see, you can go a little bit into the editorial world, but still make things interesting.
When it comes to retouching, keep it simple. The last thing you want is an agency client seeing the photo and booking someone only to get angry when they look totally different.
The Why of It All
The big question is "why?" Why do free photo shoots for a company to help them make money? In this case, it's because they will help you build out your book, and more importantly, if you are doing a creative shoot some day, you have an idea and want to execute it. Your relationship to different agencies can really help you out by having them sending you models for a shoot you have in mind. You scratch their back, and they will scratch yours. The advantage to this over random people from Facebook or Instagram is you can get people that know how to pose properly and, oftentimes, have the ability to give totally different looks based on the situation. You can also get models with big followings if that's what you care about, but I recommend not caring as much about that. The more you work with an agency, the better your relationship with them gets, and the more likely you are to get one of their top people to help you out.
In conclusion, getting your foot in the door with an agency is a fantastic way to really step up your work and get photos that can really be brought up another level. Many times during the Fstoppers Critique the Community, we have seen Lee and Patrick say: "This is a great image, but I wish the model was better." Getting started with agency models is a path to begin getting photos that have great lighting, great composition, and great posing and expressions.