Photo Tips on Working with Models

Last week I had an email from a very accomplished photographer, Marie Maher, who was going to be working with a model for the first time. Even though in her genre, surrealism (?), I don’t think she needs any coaching, I told her that I appreciated her email, and agreed with her that the first time one photographs a model can be daunting.

Do you work with a professional model. Do you trade or pay? What should he/she bring to the shoot? What should you have ready for the shoot? Where DO you shoot? Should you rent a studio?

As you can see, there are many choices, and while there have been a multitude of books written about the subject, one thing is sure, every photographic session with a model is different. With that in mind, here are some basic tips for your first time shooting with a model.

1. If you have never photographed a person for a particular project, set up a few practice sessions, first. If it is the model’s first time, she may be just as nervous as you. It is best that (for the first time) you work with no project in mind, just a “get to know you” session. Many times before I work with  new model, I will meet with her over a cup of coffee/tea/wine to discuss what we each may want from the session. It is easier to get to know each other in a “safe” place, rather than in an intimidating studio, or talking with someone with a monstrous camera in their hands. Once you “break the ice,” then you can go on to the session, itself.

“My models come from my circle of friends and fellow students in dance classes. I prefer models who pose from the heart and from the natural inclinations of their own bodies. I often use myself as a model. I’m available at the right times, and I know what the photographer is looking for.” Brigitte Carnochan, artist

2. Whether you shoot with a professional model or not, is entirely up to you. My recommendation (again, for your first time), is to work with a friend, first. That way, you are not on the spot to produce that award-winning image at the first get-go. If you plan a shoot with a model based on what was discussed over the phone or in emails, but don’t “set up” the shoot properly, it may not turn out to be good session for either of you. Working with a friend can put you both at ease, and enable you to become more relaxed while working with people.  

3. Bring samples of what you might want to acheive from the shoot. If you are an artist and can sketch out what you have in mind, all the better. If not, go through some magazines that cover the subject and bring them to your meeting. Showing your model what you have in mind displays to the model that you have specific goals, and don’t just want to do a random shoot, with absolutely nothing in mind. Picking up appropriate books from the bookstore is a very good idea. In my photography book collection I must have a least a dozen books dealing specifically with portraiture.

“The model is not just a plug in person; they are an integral part of the photograph. Their personality, their movements all come together with the photograph to make a whole. I find that I need to photograph a model at least three times before a trust and willingness to continue can be achieved.” Kim Weston, photographer

4. When you are trying to decide where to shoot, keep in mind what you want the outcome of the shoot to be. Most of the time, a new model will probably want to shoot outdoors. This is fine. You should also remember that on this first attempt, you may not get any “keepers,” so it really doesn’t matter where you shoot. The point is to become comfortable with the model, and that can only occur when you have shot with him a couple of times. Don’t put all (or too many) of your hopes on the first session. Shooting outdoors, in a public setting, can put you both at ease. the model, because there may be many people around, and she may have a tendency to feel more at ease. And you can also feel more at ease, because there will be less pressure between you and your model.

“Preparation via one thoughtful and honest conversation can allow us to avoid wasting time with one awkward, unproductive shoot. Instead, I want to walk in feeling confident that I know what this person wants to see and having thought about how those wants translate into specific poses. This way, we can focus on refining subtle details about a pose rather than starting in a vacuum.” Rose Bryan (model)

5. To pay or not. For your first series of sessions working with a model, I think it is better to not book a professional. It could end up being a waste of time, for you, as well as for the model. You may not know exactly what you want, and the model will work off your “signals.” Again, working with a friend for your first couple of shoots is usually the best path to take.

6. It may be best to not plan on any wardrobe changes for your first session with a model. This will serve to put both of you at ease, and you can just work on posing, without having to think about which garment you may want next. The point is to work toward getting you both to a point where the session can go smoothly and without any additional stress. Believe me, there will be enough “uncharted” stress, without any being added by the pressure to get the clothes adjusted, or to think about when to make a wardrobe change.

So, these are just a few ideas to get you going, and, hopefully, to enable you to become more at ease in your effort to become the best photographer of people in the world.

All quotes are from “Poser: a sketchbook of ideas for artists and models,” Timothy B. Anderson, Cygnet Press, 2007.

About Tim

Tim Anderson is the former publisher/managing editor of CameraArts magazine, and now produces Red Dog News, a bi-weekly photography-related e-newsletter that goes out to more than 15,000 subscribers. For his personal photography, he specializes in fine art nudes, and recently participated in the show, "1x15." Anderson is a co-founder of Rio Grande Workshops, and manages several photography Websites and blogs, as well as his personal site (www.timothybanderson.com). He has juried all around the country for Review Santa Fe, Review LA, Photo Lucida, The Center for Fine Art Photography, The Gala Awards, The Palm springs Photo Festival, etc. He is also a published poet, and recently released (www.cygnetpress.com) a collection of his work, "Frame of Mind."