I admit that one of the reasons I don’t work with many human models is that I’ve had mostly bad experiences. When I go to photograph eagles, bears, wolves, race cars, mountains, streams, etc., they are always there – when and where they are supposed to be. But working with models; especially very young or inexperienced models, can be a very trying experience. I’ve been burned too many times to count. This post is designed to make you aware of the pitfalls of working with models, how to avoid the flakes and lastly, to let you know this could be a big problem for those of you who aren’t aware of it.

What do I mean by flakey models? Here are some examples. I was teaching a workshop. We used Model Mayhem to find models, offered to pay the girls, and give them prints. I think the offer was generous. We selected six models. One just didn’t show up. No phone call. No text message. No email. No nothing. Well no problem because being experienced at dealing with flakey models, I booked twice as many as I needed so we were down to five.

The first girl to show up literally stunk. She apparently had been out partying all night and smelled – badly I might add. She also appeared to have the DTs. I am guessing she is a drug addict or alcoholic but we just couldn’t work with her – and sent her home.

The other four girls all showed up, two of them late. Two of them on the wrong day. But they were talented enough that we got what we wanted from them so all was not lost.

I attempted to do a follow up shoot with one of the models. She had moved to Oregon. She re-scheduled six times and then dropped off the face of the earth. Young models are in a constant state of change. Remember that. Count on that. They come and go like TV series in the Summer. Frequently.

For another workshop I used an agency which was supposed to have a good reputation. I asked for a young, fit, natural model to do some glamour work. I was making a training tape with Matthew Jordan Smith. The model showed up. She was far from young. She had implants the size of basketballs, and was a bit rough around the edges. We shot her but never used the images. We had to reshoot. Moral of that story. Don’t always believe the picture the agency sends over represents what you will actually see in your studio. Make sure it’s a RECENT photo and that it is full length, front and back. Know what you are paying for.

My last sad tale involves a young model, 20 years old with oodles of talent. So much so that I tapped her to become a star. I put a lot of time into working with her. I took smaller gigs just to involve her thinking she might be a star. And she still may. Just not with me or any of the people I work with. She worked with me on a workshop, then a spec job for a car company and then a couple of other projects. Like many of the younger models I worked with she was usually late, but at least she showed up. She was polite, skilled, attentive, beautiful, friendly and I liked working with her. But then – as usual, the flake-factor figured in. She cancelled three shoots with me. The last one with 24 minutes notice. I had turned down a fairly lucrative job earlier in the day because she confirmed her availability six hours before. She cost me a chance to make $4000. What happened? She got a call to be an extra in a TV show. She decided that was a better gig and burned me. What she doesn’t know is that the car company liked her spec shoot – a whole lot – and if she were reliable – she would have made thousands of dollars on a regular basis appearing in a series of ads for them. It probably would have led to a big agency deal or at least an income significant enough to support her full time. But when they asked for her I had to say she wasn’t available. I couldn’t trust her. I didn’t feel comfortable putting my reputation on the line. She lost money and exposure and so did I. But I wanted to save the relationship with the client and sometimes that means being honest about bad news. Had I booked her and she bailed again, it would have not only cost me one job, but many future jobs.

Why do the models act this way? Why are they so irresponsible? I don’t know. They don’t seem to understand that the photo community is small. Once you burn one photographer, you’ll find it hard to work with any in your area. None of them will be able to count on you. If the models do understand that, I guess they don’t care because if I were to keep score, I’d say I’ve been burned more times than not.

So what can you do about this as a photographer? Sometimes not much. But there are a few suggestions that might help you avoid flakey model syndrome.

1. Remember like with all things in life – you get what you pay for. If you’re offering a low salary or trade for prints, it will be easier for the model to take the next gig and blow you off. If it’s important, budget accordingly and your chances go up. It’s no guarantee, but it helps.

2. Work with established, professional models who understand the consequences of blowing off a gig. The more experienced the model, the less likely she will flake. And if she does bail out on you, the experienced model will at least give you sufficient advanced notice that you can replace her. The really good models will even suggest a replacement.

3. Work with well-established agencies. This isn’t fool-proof, but it helps. The bigger, and the more well-known the agency, the less likely the model will stand you up. Of course you will probably pay more for this too.

4. Have a firm contractual agreement with your model BEFORE the shoot. I’ve started making my models sign a contract on booking that has a clause which allows me to sue them in court for lost wages if they are late or don’t show up. Put some teeth into that agreement so they know there is a cost for bailing out. If the pain point in NOT showing up is bigger than the perceived uptake in the gig they perceive as better, you may end up getting them to show up.

5. If you find a good, solid, reliable model do whatever you can to hold on to that person. Pay them well. Treat them with the utmost respect. Go out of your way to make them feel like a valuable part of the team. Do whatever it takes to make them happy. That will make it easier for them to respect you and harder for them to dump on you.

6. Remember the two for one rule. If you need four models. Book eight. You might pay a little more if all of them actually show up – but that doesn’t happen often. And even if you do – you might end up with something special that you never thought you’d get.

7. Talk to other photographers, make up artists, and studio owners. Ask them who is reliable and who isn’t. Ask for references from potential models and check them.

I certainly don’t mean to imply that ALL models are flakey. I know several reliable, talented, hard-working models. Some of my best friends are hard-working, reliable models. But they are – at least in my experience – the exception rather than the rule.

Let the buyer beware.


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