How To Work With Models

So you’ve decided you want to do portrait, and finally manage to get a friend or a model to pose for you. Now what?

First things first. In this article I am not going to tell you the technical aspect of doing portraits, but how to work with the models you are collaborating with. To keep things simple I’m assuming the model is a female (I am writing this for Kai) but a lot of the advices here apply equally well to a guy. I am also going to use the term ‘model’ even if your model isn’t a professional, because for the purpose of your photos, she is the model regardless of her level of experience.

The most important thing I’d point out is that you have to remember you are trying to get some photography done. This is not a date. You are not bringing out this pretty girl for a movie, or a picnic, or whatever interesting activity you have in your mind. Make no mistake: this is a portrait session and you have to focus on that. This sounds obvious, but this is very important. You need to get into the mindset of being a photographer.

For a portrait to work, a certain level of trust between the photographer and the model is essential. If your model is a friend you’ve known for some time and she agrees to pose for you, I believe the trust is already there. But even so she may only trust you as a friend but not as a photographer. If the model is someone you’ve never met before (as in the case if you paid for one), establishing that trust is even more important.

I suggest talking to her about your photography, even if you have never shot portrait before. Let her know what you are trying to achieve for this set of photos, and what the most obvious challenges are. Blame the weather if need be. If you are shooting outdoors, explain why you have chosen the location. Ask her about what kind of portrait she has done before, or what kind of fashion shots she adores.

When you start shooting, let the model know what you want. Do you want her to smile, to look cool, or moody? Do you want the model to look into the camera, or away? Pay particular attention to how the light is showering on your model, especially in her eyes. From your position you may not notice but the sun could be shining right into her eyes and making her blind. Unless you are going for that kind of look, it’s best to shift your position so she is not looking directly into the sun. If it’s not possible, try having the model close her eyes and on a count to three, press the shutter while she opens her eyes. Pay the same attention to your reflectors too. Flash actually fares better in this regard as they are not constantly on. (Unless, of course, you are shooting at an alarmingly rapid rate — something I do not recommend.)

I always let the model know from which direction I will be shooting her, and if I am doing full body shot, or just over the shoulder. When I have to correct a model’s pose and spoken language just won’t do the job, I will try to show her how to do it myself, even if that makes me looking like some kind of weirdo. Unless you have explicit permission to do so, do not touch the model.

Last but not least, try using the magic words: “Please” and “Thank you.” Be Polite and always, always respect your model. Do not treat her like she is some kind of foreground interest, or just a object on your golden-rule composition. Remember that portrait photography, even more so than any other photography work, is collaboration between multiple parties. At the minimum it is between you and the model, but depending on the subject matter, there will be inputs from art director, makeup artist, and fashion designers, just to name a few.

If these sound too much for you, there’s always self-portrait. That however represents a different kind of challenge and another article.

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