Is There a Difference Between Agency Models and Amateur Models?

If you are a beginning photographer who has only worked with amateur models, it may be your dream to work with a professional model one day. Is there a noticeable difference between working with a professional model and an amateur model?

I work with both types of models pretty regularly, and while neither is inherently better than the other, there are indeed some distinct differences between the two. I don’t have a preference. For me, it always comes down to who is the right person for the specific project I am shooting.

One difference between agency models and non-agency models is that the non-agency models tend to be more agreeable when it comes to being photographed outside the established parameters of the shoot. If the agency model was hired to shoot footwear in a photo studio, she may not have any interest in doing a portrait on the rooftop during her lunch break. Last week, I was on set and there was a model present who had been booked through an agency as a hand model. I was on set in the capacity of lighting and digital tech. I had also been shooting BTS images of her throughout the shoot. At the end of the shoot, she put on her coat and then a colorful head-wrap. It was an interesting look. We were both standing near a ring-light style makeup table. I asked her if she would take a quick photo looking into the mirror. She replied: “I am sorry, but I am really tired.” During the shoot, she was very cooperative, even going beyond her expected tasks. She assisted the photographer with slicing the strawberries needed for a scene and even helped swap out the background paper. Her denial of my request had nothing to do with the actual work of posing and everything to do with the photograph that would have been created. Perhaps she wasn’t comfortable with her makeup-free face being photographed, or maybe she simply didn’t trust my photographic ability to capture a strong portrait of her in that setting. It is possible that she had checked out my Instagram and did not want to be featured there. I have no problem with her refusal to be photographed by me, and I knew when I requested that there was a chance it would be declined. An amateur model would have had more trust in my vision and would have likely been eager to be photographed. That same amateur model might have even suggested the makeup table shot herself. When I am shooting multiple models for a beauty shoot, I don’t photograph them together but I have normally had several occasions where an amateur model has bonded with another model on set and asked if they could be photographed together. I find amateur models are always interested in being photographed once they are on set.

The agency models may not be as much fun to work with as compared to their amateur counterparts. This may or may not be important to you. If your goal is to schedule a four-hour catalog shoot and complete that shoot in the allotted time, you probably don’t care how many times the model might make you smile. You want to work with a professional that will get the job done. However, if you purchased a brand new state-of-the-art Nikon Z 9 and you want to book a full glam squad and film a YouTube video about it, you might want a model who helps make the day fun for everyone involved. While I’m usually having a blast on any given shoot, I’ve worked with many agency models who seem to be just going through the motions just like someone who is working a 9-to-5 job. During downtime on set, it is common to see a non-agency model taking selfies and asking everyone for their social media handle. Conversely, an agency model might be just sitting in the corner quietly scrolling through her phone. I’ve photographed lookbooks (a catalog featuring 20-80 photographs of a model wearing the latest collection from a clothing line) with agency models where we were on set together for more than five hours but barely said more than a few sentences to each other . The agency model might not mention your shoot on her social media or follow your account when the shoot is over. If she is booking jobs regularly, it is possible that your shoot isn’t worth mentioning on her IG. If she has photographed something similar many times in the past, your shoot might not be representative of where she is trying to take her career. By contrast, the photos you take of the non-agency model may be the best photographs she has ever seen of herself. She might ask you for the full take of images from the shoot, and if you were to give them to her, you can rest assured that she’s going to post every single photograph you took of her.

This article is not meant to judge either type of model. I’m simply sharing my observations. I’m making generalizations here, and things don’t always go exactly as I am describing, but the statements I’m making are based on my experience on set for many shoots with both types of models. It should be noted that the agency model may have learned that if she is too friendly on set, it is easy for males to get the wrong impression about her. If she is modeling swimwear or lingerie, or if she is alone in another state or country, it is wise for her to be sure that everyone on set understands that she is a professional who is there to complete a job. Party time can take place when the work is done, under her terms and with whomever she pleases. For the non-agency model who may work a boring office job, your shoot could easily be the highlight of her month. All eyes are on her, and she has a full team of talented artists working on shaping her into the most beautiful version of herself that she has ever seen. So, it is understandable that she is fully engaged in the experience of being on set.

When it comes to their actual ability to produce a strong photograph, the biggest difference between the agency model and the non-agency model is not their look. Rather, it is in their efficiency in nailing a shot. If a girl has the right face for a beauty shoot, I am confident that I can produce a strong image no matter how little experience she may have. I enjoy working with first-timers in this regard. The difference in working with a professional, however, is how quickly I can get that shot. It might take 10 minutes with the amateur but only 10 seconds with the professional. When I’m doing a test shoot or filming a YouTube video, this difference may not matter at all, especially when you consider that I can book the amateur for free. For certain client jobs, however, expediency does matter. The total number of keeper images that I can create also matters on some shoots. Although I can guarantee that I will produce one killer image with the amateur, I can’t promise that I will deliver enough six-page spread. Anytime a client hires me for a catalog shoot where we will be photographing 40+ outfits, I insist on booking an experienced model who knows how to pose.

Raw video of Brittani Bader posing. Notice how she can flow for almost a full minute without coaching from me.

You can improve your ability to pose a model by working with a professional. If you are at a point where your lighting and camera skills are good, but you don’t know what to do with the model once it is time to press the shutter button, then working with an agency model can teach you a lot. I’ve worked with models who don’t need any direction from me. They may have poses or body movements that you haven’t seen before. These models can help you create shots that don’t even look like the work you normally produce, and that can help take your photography to a new level. On test shoots, I am quick to let the makeup artist, fashion stylist, or anyone else suggest a pose or concept. I am working with these people because I respect their creativity. Once I have photographed a model doing a specific pose, I now own that pose, and it becomes something I can use for my next shoot.

Agency models can also help you on a catalog shoot if they are keeping track of which specific images need to be captured. On a lookbook shoot, I usually develop a rhythm with the model where she understands that for each outfit we will photograph a sequence along the lines of front of the outfit, left side, right side, the back, and then close-ups of the shoes . If we reach outfit number 27 and I forget to shoot the left side, she will let me know. She understands that if we don’t get this shot, at some point later in the day, the client will be reviewing the images and realize that the shot is missing, and she will have to put that outfit back on just so we can shoot the left side. Similarly, agency models are good at noticing things like tags or loose threads that should not be in the shot. By contrast, a non-agency model is focused on herself, and she has no comprehension of what is going on as it relates to the different elements that makeup the shoot. Sometimes, I feel there is nothing a non-agency model loves more than taking a black hair tie from her hair, putting it on her wrist, and leaving it there for the entire shoot. Of course, no one on the glam squad ever catches this, and it falls upon me to remove the hair tie in post-production. For details on this process, check out this Fstoppers article: Tips for Removing Those Pesky Hair Ties From Photos.

The most important distinction between the two is in their reliability. If you book an agency model, she will be there, and she will be on time. With a non-agency model, you don’t know if she is going to show up until you see her open the door and walk into your studio. Even if she texts you, “I am 10 minutes away,” you cannot be assured she will show up. Non-agency models have no issue with not showing up no matter how much time or money you have put into the shoot. They don’t care about the four or five people who are on set waiting for them. Even though the amateur model generally stands to gain the most from the shoot, they are the only ones who are likely to cancel at the last minute. Many of them won’t even let you know they don’t plan on showing up. If I book an amateur in a studio that I am paying for or if I have involved other people besides myself in the shoot, I always book at least one additional model so we have someone to photograph if the first model did not show up. My policy when an amateur says she is running late is to keep my communication with her to the barest minimum. When she begins sending a series of texts explaining that she will be late, my replies consist of nothing more than “ok” or “I understand”. If she is a no-show, I will delete her contact from my phone and unfollow her on social media. I live in NYC, where we have thousands of models suitable for the projects I shoot. If someone is unreliable, I don’t want to give them a chance to work with me again.

Although the article details the positive and negative aspects of working with professionals and amateurs, I hope that your focus will be on the benefits of working with each type of model. Perhaps you’ll even consider booking the opposite type from what you normally work with when you plan your next project.

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