Lots of starting photographers and models do free shoots to kick-start their portfolio and to practice. Some people never move on to monetising their hobby, while others badmouth their fellow creatives who are driving the prices down with free services. The practice is called TFCD (Time For CD - for the Gen Z reader: CD was a physical manifestation of a Folder), later semi-successfully renamed to TFP (Time for Pictures - for the Millenial reader: Time was something you had when you were not working two jobs). But is it even a working concept?
The pros and cons
You get to shoot models for free! Well... it's not really free, you will probably pay for the studio. And it's not really a model, it's more of a rando who wants free pictures. Meaning don't expect them to have great posing, the most chiseled body and don't expect anyone to undress for free for a photographer who doesn't have a proper portfolio. It's going to be harder than working with a pro... which is a good thing! If you will become a professional that's exactly what you need to be able to handle if you are shooting clients.
If you are lucky you will find a model who actually wants to make this as her profession and in that case you two can learn and grow together, build a portfolio and an audience.
So how to get models?
There are several places where you can start... you know those modelling websites? Yeah, not those... they suck. At least I have never got any gigs from there, paid or non paid. But Facebook groups are pretty effective. Usually there is a group for every notable city or area that you can join and make a post explaining that you are starting out and you are looking for people to cooperate with. Always have some reference photos attached (but Daniel, I don't have any photos! - Shoot your friends, dummy) and explain your concept if you have one, or at least the genre you want to create in. Be aware that the effectiveness of these group largely depends on the local scene and mentality as well... I had much easier time finding models in Budapest, Hungary than in any german city.
Sliding in DMs are an option too. Yeah, I know it's cringy, but you will build resistance to the cringe. Just write a message to people on Instagram who have a somewhat relevant tags under their photos, like #model. Just be respectful, don't be pushy and especially don't be creepy... also leave with dignity off if they are not interested, don't harass people. Hopefully that was needless to say.
But when do I get paid?
So greedy... If you are living under capitalism, then the market decides. You can start to offer your services for money any time and see if someone finds value in them to pay you. But your chances are better if you have a strong portfolio. Build it and network. If you are connected with models who grow their following or land better gigs, they will remember you if you have done a good job. I told every model that I am shooting them for free, but if someone asks, my prices start from XY amount. If they refer me to someone I am more than happy to give a slightly reduced price to their friends.
Some tips if you really want to do this
Vet your models. Don't shoot anyone and everyone for free, only if there is something in it for you too. They might have a large following that can be beneficial for you, or are experienced and you can learn a thing or two, but the best is if they inspire you - If you are not into the shoot, the pictures won't turn out the best.
Share expenses. If you rent a studio or buy clothes and accessories, you should split the costs with the other participant. It shows that they are serious about it as well and willing to sacrifice a bit on the altar of art, but it will also help you not become a starving artist. Well, it lengthens the process to the double, but still. If you are on a tight budget, you can always do some outdoor shootings - here is my list of places for Budapest, but I am sure there are plenty of locations wherever you live too.
Prepare and help the model prepare. There are plenty of tutorials (like my article about preparing for a shoot) out there for posing, lighting that you can research and your model can research. Experimentation should be a goal and the stakes are never going to be lower than on a free shoot.
Do your best. Wow, so helpful, right? But seriously, the point of TFCD is that the both of you are trying to do something bigger in the future. If you want to be a pro, you might as well start to act like one now. If you do that, you can have the same expectations from your model.
Am I ruining the industry?
Some people will say that free shoots are harmful. They are untalented insecure bastards. Vogue is not going to feed on free shoots, neither will a client who wants something high end. And if they do and find a photographer who does it with joy, does it even matter? The point is that if you develop something unique that is not replaceable by some newbie, you will be safe as a professional. And you get there with lots of practice, which you can always do for free.