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Modeling in Japan: Portfolio Building for Fun and Profit

Here are a few tips on getting the right headshot, creating a comp card, and building your portfolio.

By 4 min read

Recently, I’ve gotten email from girls asking about how to put a portfolio together: what kinds of photos you need, how many, and who to get them from. This is sort of an oblique follow-up to my Guy With Camera piece (which, BTW, if you’re a new or aspiring model—please read!), and I thought I’d answer some of the most frequently asked questions about portfolio building.

FAQ 1: I did my first headshot shoot but how do I pick the right photo?

I never pick my own headshot—I let my agent or booker do it. Why? Because they know what model inventory they already have and they know what looks they need represented. It also depends on what kind of work you want to do: are you the aspirational corporate lady or the swimsuit super fox?

That’ll dictate not just your headshot, but the entire story you tell with your book. Headshots are now 8 x11 (they used to be 9 x 12 when we ran around with giant black books) but for online use, it doesn’t really matter, so long as the shots are high resolution.

Japan’s a little different because chances are you’re registered with a few agencies, but my suggestion is to let each agency pick the shots they want to use. Even back in America I had three different agents for different areas of the country, and each of them selected different photos.

My “mother” agency (the one I got the most work from and had the longest relationship with) was the one I took the most direction from for ZED cards and my online portfolio. Send your best five to the agencies and let them shop your look.

The shot below is an awesome headshot. Notice she’s wearing no jewelry. Notice her top is solid color and really simple. No crazy makeup. She’s not over-photoshopped. A little fan and gorgeous soft light. All you see is her wholesome foxy face.


FAQ 2: What’s a ZED?

A comp card (or ZED) is a composite of a few of your best looks on a small size card.  ZED shots are also the key looks for your starter portfolio. Japan agencies will ask for headshots, but I’ve yet to have one ask for a ZED because they like to pick from your shots and make them for you.

ZEDs are usually 8.5 x 5.5 and have your headshot on the front and a 3-4 different looks on the back. The key shots are:

  • A relationship shot: with a partner, child or animal. Warm, smiling, affectionate.
  • A sports/athletic/full body shot: something that shows your body from head to toe. You can go a little sexy if you want but keep it PG-13. Hot surfing/yoga shot, yes. Rachet-ass ho lingerie shot, no.
  • A corporate look: so key. This shot isn’t the fun one, but it books a ton of work. Professional, crisp, says “I can sell insurance, finance, real estate, pharma.”
  • Another contrasting look: to show your range. Maybe a bold expression, maybe a crazy creative art shot… show us what you can do that looks completely different than your corporate, wholesome, sexy self.


This is a pretty rad comp, despite not having a partner shot. One: she booked a cover and used that as her tear sheet. Two: she’s not going for standard commercial work– this is a hot girl going after her market, YET, she still has range. And I like that she’s a smokin’ hot model who’s photos aren’t the least bit slutty- her body looks great without being in-your-face sex pot. And again, no jewelry, simple hair and makeup for the front headshot. Awesome!

FAQ 3: I’m broke. How do I get photos?

Great headshot shooters will cost you and they are completely worth the money. If you invest in any one shoot, it should be this one. Rates vary dramatically but I find that the ones who have makeup artists and stellar portfolios are the ones you want to shoot with. Unless you catch a lucky break through networking and get a TFP (trade for photos), you should pay for this one. It’s important to remember: you’re starting your own business when you model. If you’re serious, I suggest putting some time, effort, and money into your start up.

The rest of the shots, you can play with a little. Check out Model Mayhem for shooters who will test in your area (be careful for the naked girl hunters) and see if you can do a trade. Contact photography workshops through meetup.com and see if they need subjects for upcoming workshops. The more networking you do, the more opportunities to shoot you’ll find.

A note on headshots: They don’t last forever, especially if you’re a really young model (16-21). You’re face and body are still shifting around, so update this shot one a year MINIMUM… maybe more frequently if you change your hair, get your teeth straightened, gain or lose weight. The rest of us it’s usually about every two years, but again, Japan loves fresh and new. I just did a new test and am submitting the new shots for a refresh, and I’ve been with the agency less than a year.

Break a leg!

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