Working on a tight budget doesn’t mean you have to forego using a model. These seven experienced photographers offer their best advice on finding models who work for free.

The difference between a good photograph and a great photograph can, and often does, come down to the model. Think of some of the most iconic photographer-model pairings throughout the decades: Richard Avedon and Dovima in the 1950s, Barry Lategan and Twiggy in the 1960s, Helmut Newton and Catherine Deneuve in the 1970s, Peter Lindbergh and Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista, and Tatjana Patitz in the 1990s. A photographer, when joined with the right model, can make history.

With the help of digital technology and the internet, it’s never been easier for photographers to find models. There are websites, forums, and communities devoted entirely to creative matchmaking, but in a world with so many options, hiring a model can seem daunting and expensive. Is it possible to make beautiful pictures at an affordable cost? Of course it is. We asked seven experienced photographers to take us behind the scenes and reveal some of their best secrets not only for finding models but also for collaborating with talent for free.

1. “I look at social networks. There are so many groups focused on this process. Secondly, there are several online marketplaces to find models for photo sessions.”

popcorner

7 Photographers Share Their Secrets to Working with Models for Free — Look at Social Networks

Image by popcorner. Gear: Canon 5D Mark II camera, 100mm lens, Profoto studio light. Settings: Exposure 1/100 sec; f13; ISO 100.

What’s the story behind this photo?

On a commercial photoshoot, a stylist and I had a great conversation about Shutterstock. I told him I was looking for models, and he let me look through his phone at his friend’s photos. I liked her style, so we arranged a photo session. Soon after, we had some more successful shoots with her and her boyfriend together.

What tips would you give to other photographers about hiring and/or finding models for free?

First of all, I look at social networks. There are so many groups focused on this process. Secondly, there are several online marketplaces to find models for photo sessions. You can add a request to work on a TFP (time for prints) basis to your profile. In these cases, a model works for a photographer without a cash payment. Instead, the model is given a pre-arranged number of prints and/or enlargements as payment. Third, don’t hesitate to invite your friends. I often shoot with friends. I’ve even found models in the street.

7 Photographers Share Their Secrets to Working with Models for Free — Check Online Marketplaces

Image by popcorner.

Where do you find inspiration?

Sometimes I’ll watch a video clip or a movie and suddenly come up with ideas. I prefer working following a plan: I pick the date and time and choose exactly what to shoot. I also keep in mind the audience I shoot for. I examine what has been done by others and search for a way to be unique and surprise people. Based on that, I choose a model.

2. “Some of my best models are my parents, and I have a lot of images with them that have sold well.”

View Apart (Mirko Vitali)

7 Photographers Share Their Secrets to Working with Models for Free — Ask Friends and Relatives

Image by View Apart (Mirko Vitali). Gear: Sony RX100 IV camera, Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* 8.8-25.7 lens. Settings: Focal length 13.16mm; exposure 1/800 sec; f3.2; ISO 200.

What’s the story behind this photo?

These are my parents on a trip to Thailand. I told them to play as if they were children. They did. And my heart was full of joy because they really had fun!

What tips would you give to other photographers about hiring and/or finding models for free?

My best tip is to start with close friends and relatives. Some of my best models are my parents, and I have a lot of images with them that have sold well. I also love to travel around the world, and a couple of times a year, my parents travel with me. I have the best free models for the “retired senior couple traveling” theme! Get out of your comfort zone. It’s the key to a successful career in the microstock world.

Pictured: [1] Image by View Apart (Mirko Vitali). [2] Image by View Apart (Mirko Vitali).

Where do you find inspiration?

My inspiration is everyday life, travel, and modern, trendy concepts. I take a look at what’s already available on the market, and then I try to do it differently and (possibly) better!

3. “…if you want a thing done well, do it yourself. This means that you can be a model and a photographer at the same time.”

haveseen (Nikolay Okhitin)

7 Photographers Share Their Secrets to Working with Models for Free — Be Your Own Model

Image by haveseen (Nikolay Okhitin). Gear: Nikon D3X camera, Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G ED AF-S lens. Settings: Focal length 24mm; exposure 1/200 sec; f8; ISO 100.

What’s the story behind this photo?

Here is a shining example of what I said above. It’s a photo of me and my wife, made with a tripod on a beautiful beach in the Maldives. It was pretty easy and simple, but this is a bestseller. All you need is a perfect beach and perfect weather.

What tips would you give to other photographers about hiring and/or finding models for free?

I basically shoot my family and friends. My passion is travel, and traveling with pro models is not cheap at all. So, here is my tip: if you want a thing done well, do it yourself. This means that you can be a model and a photographer at the same time. I have plenty of photos of myself as a model, which were made using a tripod. And there is another bonus: you not only get stock photos, but you also have great family shots.

7 Photographers Share Their Secrets to Working with Models for Free — Enlist Your Significant Other

Image by haveseen (Nikolay Okhitin).

Where do you find inspiration?

Travel inspires me, especially road trips, when I drive a new road or some beautiful scenic highway. I always dreamed of traveling around the world and making photos for major travel magazines, and working with photo agencies comes pretty close.

4. “Modelmayhem(.com) is free, and, depending on the country we’re in, the selection of models can be broad and cover all our needs.”

Diego Cervo

7 Photographers Share Their Secrets to Working with Models for Free — Try Online Services

Image by Diego Cervo. Gear: Samsung NX1 camera, Samsung 45mm lens. Settings: Exposure 1/80 sec; f1.8; ISO 200.

What’s the story behind this photo?

I met this couple at their own computer shop. My girlfriend and I went there to buy a USB memory stick. Shortly, I realized that I was missing pictures of a shop like this in my portfolio, so I asked the owners if they wanted to pose for me. They accepted, and we soon become such good friends that a few months later, when my girlfriend and I got married, they participated as our wedding witnesses!

What tips would you give to other photographers about hiring and/or finding models for free?

Social networks are extremely useful for finding models. However, when my colleague Roberto (aka Dualstock) and I travel abroad to produce stock photos and videos, we are generally on a tight schedule and prefer to rely on modelmayhem.com to get in touch with people for our shoots in Europe and East Asia. Modelmayhem is free, and, depending on the country we’re in, the selection of models can be broad and cover all our needs. Modeling fees may vary, but there are people interested in working TFP (“time for prints”) to add some new pictures to their book.

Pictured: [1] Image by Diego Cervo. [2] Image by Diego Cervo. [3] Image by Diego Cervo.

Where do you find inspiration?

Inspiration is everywhere, and everything can be a stock subject. We are constantly receiving so much input from the internet, films, TV series, books, and so on that I think it’s impossible for a stock photographer to get short on ideas. Sometimes I even find inspiration from my own pictures. I might go back and repeat a shoot in order to explore angles and topics that I didn’t consider the first time.

5. “After one has exhausted the resources of family and friends, social media networks can offer opportunities through hobbyist or professional groups.”

Shannon Fagan (XiXinXing)

7 Photographers Share Their Secrets to Working with Models for Free — Try Hobbyist and Professional Groups

Image by Shannon Fagan (XiXinXing). Gear: Canon 5D Mark II camera, Canon EF85mm f/1.2L II USM lens. Settings: Exposure 1/25 sec; f3.2; ISO 100.

What’s the story behind this photo?

This image was part of a series created in an office in Beijing, China. The models were street cast and/or recommended by other models attending stock photo shoots. The office was obtained by location scouting. The concept was “a day in the life” of a small business.

What tips would you give to other photographers about hiring and/or finding models for free?

After one has exhausted the resources of family and friends, social media networks can offer opportunities through hobbyist or professional groups. For fitness shoots, for example, it might be advantageous to join sports communities online, communicate within the group, and then specifically approach people about participating in images. If it’s not for free, perhaps there are other means to compensate people, such as a gift certificate or a charity donation.

Though “free” models are advantageous for managing expenses, one problem is that without monetary compensation, people tend to find excuses to cancel or postpone. It’s not just about the amount of money involved but also the time and energy. Working with free models can be successful, however, when you work with people who are particularly dedicated to a skill or talent portrayed in the images. In these situations, the images will reflect their own interests and become something that they can share with family, friends, and professional colleagues.

7 Photographers Share Their Secrets to Working with Models for Free — Offer Other Forms of Compensation

Image by Shannon Fagan (XiXinXing).

Where do you find inspiration?

Much of the inspiration for what to shoot for stock photography comes from compiling sales statements in conjunction with access points to affordable locations. This is based less on individual image sales and instead on overall project subjects. For creative inspiration, trend reports are helpful for often-overlooked ideas in business, family lifestyle, healthcare, education, and other genres.

6. “The models in my portfolio are friends and people from social networks. One of my first models was my classmate Julia, who worked as a fashion designer.”

Dasha Petrenko

7 Photographers Share Their Secrets to Working with Models for Free — Let Your Work Speak for Itself

Image by Dasha Petrenko. Gear: Canon 5D Mark III camera, EF 24-70 f2.8 II USM lens. Settings: Focal length 55mm; exposure 1/250 sec; f2.8; ISO 160.

What’s the story behind this photo?

The models in this photo are Natasha, Julia, and Katya.

What tips would you give to other photographers about hiring and/or finding models for free?

The models in my portfolio are friends and people from social networks. One of my first models was my classmate Julia, who worked as a fashion designer. Working with lookbooks was good practice for me as a beginning photographer, and from there, we realized that we also needed a makeup artist. I began my search through our local social network VKontakte. The artists became my models as well. Our makeup artist Natasha offered her ideas and found new models.

Over time, my friends began to understand that photography was no longer just a hobby, and they agreed to family and pregnancy shots. I continued to write to potential models, and three years after I started working with Shutterstock, a woman named Katya wrote to me on VKontakte. Katya did not know me personally; she had just seen my photos. She asked if she could become my model. I held a photoshoot for her and her boyfriend, and they have been modeling for me ever since.

Pictured: [1] Image by Dasha Petrenko. [2] Image by Dasha Petrenko.

Where do you find inspiration?

I am very grateful to everyone who has modeled for me. My inspiration is found in people and the emotions that they share. My photography is another reason to have a good time.

7. “You have to ask your friends, parents, sisters, brothers, etc. if they know interesting people who would like to be photographed.”

DisobeyArt (Pontigia Niccolò)

7 Photographers Share Their Secrets to Working with Models for Free — Use Family Connections

Image by DisobeyArt (Pontigia Niccolò). – Gear: Sony RX100 III camera, Sony Zeiss 16-50mm lens. Settings: Focal length 16mm; exposure 1/1250 sec; f4.5; ISO 500.

What’s the story behind this photo?

I found this wonderful family in Switzerland one year ago. My girlfriend is from there, and I had the idea to organize a trekking set in these beautiful mountains with a big family. I asked her if she knew a large family to shoot with. And they were perfect—they had a dog and a little boy too! I imagined that it could be a great shoot, and I was right.

What tips would you give to other photographers about hiring and/or finding models for free?

Start by shooting family members and friends as your models. In this business, you can’t be shy. You have to ask your friends, parents, sisters, brothers, etc. if they know interesting people who would like to be photographed. It’s always difficult to stop people on the street and explain stock photography and model releases to them, so I prefer to prepare the set and some creative ideas beforehand. This way, I can focus on the details.

After you’ve sold some photos, you should have a little budget. I would invest in paying interesting, non-professional models. A lot of the time, I prefer to work with these people because they have more natural expressions. Some professional models are very good too, but they are more expensive.

7 Photographers Share Their Secrets to Working with Models for Free — Work with Amateurs

Image by DisobeyArt (Pontigia Niccolò).

Where do you find inspiration?

I find my inspiration by studying and following future trends. In stock photography, you have to stay ahead of the game. It’s also important that you focus on what you like. If you like what you’re shooting, you’ll put more passion into it and have better results.

Top image by DisobeyArt (Pontigia Niccolò).