Intro to Freelance Modeling

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: 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?

Sierra McKenzie for Colette Patterns
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 and her blog is

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43 Responses to “Intro to Freelance Modeling”

  1. January 29, 2016 at 7:40 pm, Luanna Kwok said:

    Amazing article! This is going to help me A LOT! Thank you Sierra 🙂

    MM# 3807965


  2. December 14, 2015 at 2:36 pm, Gary Seewald said:

    We are looking for new and existing models for print and general advertising photo-shoot projects …models should be 18 years or older to apply contact me [email protected]


  3. August 02, 2015 at 10:24 pm, Soyeon Yoon said:

    Sierra! Thank you so much for this post. It’s my first time starting this freelancing modeling and there was many tips that really help me. Great to know that group of models support each other in this industry. 🙂


  4. July 06, 2015 at 10:27 am, Kristina Gratton said:

    Awesome post! I enjoy modeling, but due to my height I will never get signed to an agency. So I will have to stick to freelancing.

    Thanks for this guide… I am bookmarking it for future reference.

    Mayhem # 3637242


  5. December 11, 2014 at 5:39 pm, Katy G. said:

    From a makeup artist, I think it’s noteworthy to add a reminder about grooming. Be ever mindful of the state of your hair, skin and nails. Especially for trade shoots! Roots, mustaches and chipped polish can ruin a collaboration! 🙂


  6. December 11, 2014 at 5:32 pm, Arnette Melvin said:

    I agree..


  7. December 10, 2014 at 8:24 pm, Eric LovislovPhotography Costl said:

    Nice advice


  8. December 10, 2014 at 6:13 pm, Cynthia Popper said:

    Excellent article and super pretty photos!


  9. December 10, 2014 at 4:31 pm, Bella B said:

    This helps me so much! I need to get started ASAP!


  10. December 10, 2014 at 3:03 pm, kendalinwonderland said:

    Thanks! I’d be interested in learning more tips on how to find castings, are there other websites that would be useful to have a portfolio on? Especially for other countries. I like to travel around and would love to have modeling pay for some airfare.

    I’ve also been trying to find tips on what specific agencies are looking for. I’m sure they all have slightly different “looks” that they are attracted to, and I’d like to approach agencies soon, but not waste my time on ones that don’t represent people like me.


  11. June 18, 2014 at 11:41 am, Jia Jia said:

    Sierra this is so helpful and awesome! thanks for sharing, it means a lot for a new frelance models! You looks very good too in all those shot! Have a nice day! =)


  12. July 24, 2013 at 11:53 am, Tamara said:

    Thank you so much for this info. It’s very helpful and encouraging.


  13. July 14, 2013 at 9:53 pm, Ambrozia said:

    Thank you for this. Very helpful. Also, there’s a spelling error (grammar Nazi here!)


  14. July 11, 2013 at 9:20 pm, Angel Long said:

    Love the article and the advice. I have been lucky so far in that I have pretty well followed the formula you lay out without having a mentor or “sister” model to guide me. One piece of information that I learned the hard way – talk to the photographer in depth before the shoot as to what he/she is looking for in the shoot. Make sure that you know what clothing styles they want to see and what makeup/hair themes they want as well. Example – you don’t want to show up for a Victorian shoot with a purple punk hairdo and fairy style makeup. And as Sierra said – make sure you know whether the photographer is expecting to shoot nudes beforehand rather than to be surprised at the shoot.

    Also, get the photographers phone number at least two weeks before the shoot expecially if they do a lot of traveling to do shoots or you do. Sometimes email (even MM mail) is not the fastest way to reach a photographer especially as you get closer to the date of the shoot. And check with other models that have worked with the photographer to verify that they are who they say they are and not a sexual predator especially if you are contracting to do nudes. Stay safe at all costs and if anything about the shoot or the photographer makes you uncomfortable – insist on an escort or walk away!!

    Goodwill, Salvation Army Family Stores, etc. are great places to find clothing for a modeling wardrobe and you can sometimes even find things like Victoria’s Secret lingerie that still has the tags on it and has never been worn for about 10-25% of the original price OR LESS!! You can even find things like costumes for cosplay, hats, props like handfans, etc. dirt cheap!!

    Look forward to more articles from you Sierra. Keep it up!! Us novices need all the advice that we can get when first starting out in this business!!

    Angel Long – Model


  15. July 11, 2013 at 6:58 am, Katja Rauhe said:

    Great article!! Thank you


  16. July 11, 2013 at 1:51 am, Jeff Norman said:

    Good posting Sierra. Very necessary.
    I have some notes of my own which I prepared for new models. One point that I emphasise is the model’s own safety and security. If you are going on a shoot, make sure that someone knows where you are, who you are with and when you expect to finish.
    If you work through an agency, they should have checked out the photographer. Otherwise it is up to the model. Personal recommendations from other models are good.

    I live in New Zealand which has a relatively small photographic and modelling community. I have had models respond to requests I have put on MM or similar sites like Starnow because they have seen my photos of other models that they know.
    Failing this, if you are unsure, either ask for references, turn down the shoot or take someone with you. No photographer should object to this as long as the chaperone doesn’t interfere with the shoot.
    I totally agree with you about professionalism (not a strong point in NZ). Always respond to texts and emails even if you just say thanks for the message.
    Very best wishes for the future.


    • July 11, 2013 at 4:00 pm, sierra mckenzie said:

      A lot of photographers actually do object to “chaperones”. And yes, as my article mentions checking references can be a really great tool to make everyone more comfortable on set. I could write a whole separate article on model safety. Personally, I check references if I notice any red flags and have never required someone else on set with me.


  17. July 10, 2013 at 1:09 pm, Stathena said:

    Great job Sierra! I do agree with Jim that following up after shoots is also important to keep jobs coming your way. It’s how I have shot with some photographers 5 and more times. It doesn’t hurt even once you are established to occasionally trade with an even more established photographer both to give your portfolio some updated photos (if your paid shoots have not been sharing) and to help get your name out there even more. Even if a trade photographer might not pay you directly, he/she might send other photographers to you who do pay. Word of mouth is still one of the best advertisements and a photographer will ALWAYS take the suggestion of a photographer they trust. And I also suggest to all start up models to read Success as an Adult Internet Model, it’s mostly common sense, but it really goes over some finer details like taxes, saving money, etc.


    • July 10, 2013 at 3:54 pm, sierra mckenzie said:

      Yes, I talk about trading for images so you get guaranteed images, and also reducing your rate to receive guaranteed images. And yes, repeat business is obviously important. Which is why I stress being professional so much. If you’re professional and easy to work with people will continue to hire you.


  18. July 10, 2013 at 12:55 pm, samantha miley said:

    Agreed.well said.


  19. July 10, 2013 at 11:25 am, Klarc said:

    Nicely done, Sierra! As a photographer, it’s refreshing to read your thoughts on professionalism, rates, portfolio building, communicating, checking references, etc. I will pass this article on to new models I work with in hopes that they can gain some perspective from someone who’s been there already.

    Good work!


  20. July 09, 2013 at 5:43 pm, Jason said:

    Thank you so much. This has been very helpful.


  21. July 09, 2013 at 2:52 pm, Kristy Jessica said:

    Sierra- this is awesome! thank you for posting!!! I love when models help each other out, love not competition! You rock girl keep doing what you do!!! I have mad respect for you, as a fellow full time freelance seattle model 😉

    *Kristy the Model MM# 779356


  22. July 09, 2013 at 2:14 pm, Tinker's Realm! said:

    Well written & informative! Your images are gorgeous!


  23. July 09, 2013 at 1:54 pm, Paul Whitham said:

    Sierra, very good article. The one thing I would pick you up on is the comment that it is unlikely that you will get paid work from a photographer if you do trade with them before. I know personally that the majority of models I have paid for commercial shoots have done trade shoots with me beforehand. This is because the TF shoots gives me an idea how the model performs and more importantly how reliable she is. Someone who does not show on a TF shoot will never be used on a paid shoot.


    • July 10, 2013 at 3:53 pm, sierra mckenzie said:

      It happens occasionally but not often. Many photographers promise future work when they never or rarely hire models anyway. If someones work is worth trading for then its worth trading for. Being told you may get future paid work shouldn’t be a huge factor in that decision.


  24. July 09, 2013 at 12:18 pm, Jim said:

    Great advice for models starting out.

    AND a Good topic for another article is how to find and keep clients. Its 10x times easier to keep an current client / photographer you liked working with, than going on 5-10 new casting to get another client who you might also never see again. Follow up with a thank you after the shooting, a request to come back and look at the pictures to use in your book, and checking back once a month or so on possible future bookings.

    95% of the models I’ve ever hired, have never gotten back to me after the shoot. And if they don’t show any future interest in my photography or working with me, I’ll move along to the next pretty face as well.


    • July 10, 2013 at 3:57 pm, sierra mckenzie said:

      I get rehired from photographers all the time. I think the best way to get rehired is to be professional and good at what you’re doing. I think hassling photographers for more paid work can sometimes be a detriment. Sometimes its better to let them email you as soon as they have a new project instead of pestering them for money!

      And most full time professionals don’t have time to come back and look at photos. Most prefer to get sent images online through dropbox or something similar.


      • July 11, 2013 at 3:43 am, PeteX said:

        Of course you should never hassle anyone for work, but I do think it’s worth following up afterwards. A good salesperson finds a middle ground between hassling his or her clients, and ignoring them.

        I used to run a company that designed websites (among other things). Sometimes we would install a website and then hear nothing from the client, and in that situation I would always follow up to make sure they were satisfied. I always had the impression that it was expected; the end of the project was that handshake where the client says they’re happy, and I thank them for the business.

        Switch to photography and it’s kind of strange. That handshake is often missing, at least between model and photographer. I find that slightly odd because I want to know that the project has ended with everyone happy. For example, if it was TFP and the model wasn’t happy with some of the pictures, I would want to sort it out—improve the editing, do more pictures, or just say sorry if that was all I could do!


        • July 11, 2013 at 3:56 pm, sierra mckenzie said:

          I think replying if someone sends you photos is an obvious thing to do. but otherwise I’d consider the shoot wrapped at the farewell at the end of the shoot.


  25. July 09, 2013 at 12:10 pm, royce said:

    Gr8 information Sierra….


  26. July 09, 2013 at 11:10 am, LaDaisha Jones said:

    This is very helpful and inspiring. It set up a boost within me, knowing more information. I always thought ALL models were just perfect until I saw “Flaws” on the website it took me a while to build up my confidence to make a profile here , I didn’t think I was as pretty as the other girls. But thanks so much for this it was well needed


  27. July 09, 2013 at 11:04 am, PeteX said:

    This is good advice, and I would certainly encourage people who are interested in modelling to give it a go. I think people (other than established models or photographers of course) tend to be unrealistic about how easy or hard modelling is. Some people think it’s virtually impossible, because any trivial physical imperfection will stop you making it. Other people think it’s an easy and glamorous life, somehow different to the jobs other people do that actually involve work.

    Of course neither is true. As a photographer, I don’t care if you have a mole on your face! It might add interest to the picture, but if it doesn’t, it’s easily edited out. Beauty doesn’t work like that. You will look beautiful if you look happy, animated, engaged—and if I fulfil my end of the bargain by providing good lighting and composition of the picture.

    The catch is that looking happy, animated and engaged in a picture is a skill. It’s not something you’re born with, like a certain body shape. You have to practise, ideally as the article says, with a friend who will take lots of pictures and show you them all.

    You also need to be a salesperson. Try to stay in touch with people you meet in the industry, so they will think of you when they need a model in the future. This is also a skill that you should practise.

    Do all these things and you stand a good chance of succeeding.


    • July 09, 2013 at 4:42 pm, sierra mckenzie said:

      Totally agree.


  28. July 09, 2013 at 11:03 am, Brandi said:

    Good advice. Dont get caught in a trade loop


    • July 09, 2013 at 4:43 pm, sierra mckenzie said:

      Exactly! A lot of models get advice that makes them think a trade loop is somehow normal or productive.


  29. July 09, 2013 at 10:33 am, Eric said:

    Excellent article! You nailed the points very well. I always try to express these same points to prospective models looking who are looking for help building their portfolio. Be professional and expect the photographer to be professional! I’ll start sharing this article with new models. Thanks!


    • July 09, 2013 at 4:44 pm, sierra mckenzie said:

      Thanks! And awesome to hear that!


  30. June 30, 2013 at 10:35 pm, Yesenia said:

    This is solid information for a new model to the wide world of modeling and the industry! Modeling is a hard job, many girls may not think that going into it!


  31. June 27, 2013 at 5:26 am, markfriedman said:

    Well thought out advice. Reasonable and informative.


  32. June 25, 2013 at 8:36 pm, Roberta said:

    love the posts….. I am an unpaid modle myself and have been wanting to make a portfolio but have no way of doing so but would be inerested in this kind of thing as I love to be in front of a camera.


  33. June 25, 2013 at 7:15 pm, Momo said:

    Great tips, I agree with the posing one because it’s easier for me to learn hands on with someone else helping me (photographer or just a friend with a camera) than just in my room alone in the mirror getting frustrated.


  34. June 25, 2013 at 12:09 pm, L Shima said:

    Great post girl! All great points, especially the professionalism aspect.


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