Working with Models: A Beginner’s Guide
Running a shoot from start to finish can be pretty demanding—working with creative staff, managing your camera, adjusting settings, directing, and ensuring that everything is going smoothly. It can be pretty daunting with the prospect of trying to handle all of this right?
One of the more challenging aspects when starting out can definitely be getting comfortable working with the model(s) on a shoot, and how to ensure everyone comes out happy and satisfied.
In this article I’m going to tell you:
The principles and attitudes behind successfully working with models from all walks of life;
How to talk to models, and how to get over that initial nervousness of being a director on a shoot;
How to treat models on and off set to ensure a solid and strong professional relationship can be developed.
Preface – Getting into fashion photography from other backgrounds
Chances are if you are reading this you may be interested to get into the world of fashion and portrait photography. You might be a fashion enthusiastic, you might want to get published in a magazine, or you may simply want to get incredible shots of people. Hopefully it would be all three of these.
“But I have only shot wildlife and landscapes before!”
Join the club! I have a background of shooting exactly those things, and suddenly came into enjoying shooting portraits when a friend of mine asked me to pick up the camera and get a basic photo of them for their Facebook profile. I had no clue as to how to direct or work with models back then but I snapped a photo, and loved it. From then I decided I’d give this whole portrait photography thing a try.
That was two years ago!
So don’t fret if you haven’t got the background, we all need to start somewhere, and in this article I’m going to give you a thorough breakdown of how you can effectively work with models.
Part 1 – Fundamental principles of working with models
Let’s lay a solid base here. Having the right attitude and personal principles in place is essential. The following principles are what I abide by, and what I feel makes the whole experience of working with a model professional, personal, and fun!
Principle 1: Models are people too!
This is perhaps the biggest point I want to highlight. You have to remember that models are people too. These are people who have hopes, fears, anxieties, and dreams just like you or anyone else. They are not soulless objects, nor items without motivation. These are people who want to have fun, do the best they can, and be able to showcase some awesome work.
They can get nervous before shoots, worry about whether the makeup looks right, and overthink if they perhaps didn’t do a pose completely right. I’m not saying all models are like this at all, but these thoughts are probably more common than you think!
Please remember that! It is also important when we move onto Principle 2.
Principle 2: The model’s comfort is your top priority, and they deserve your respect at all times.
I like to make a point of this again and again, and here I go again; on a shoot, the model’s comfort should be your top priority. By that I mean if at any point a model isn’t feeling comfortable with what is happening, the shoot should stop, and if the discomfort can’t be rectified immediately, the shoot should end. Period.
I say this for a number of reasons. The first is common human decency. Come on. If you are in an environment where you can usually easily stop what is going on, and someone isn’t happy, you should just stop. No photo is worth putting someone through something that could physically or emotionally hard them.
Nay sayers may say that this is me being over the top, but I can hand on heart say that I could turn away from any photo and be sure to capture another amazing one with the same team at another time.
The next reason is that if you have a model who isn’t feeling the shoot, and who isn’t comfortable, that is going to reek through the photos. If you are taking a photo of someone who doesn’t want to be there or isn’t interested in the shoot, you are going to see it in their eyes, in their posture, and in the end results.
Finally, one point to hammer home is that you should always ensure that everything that happens on a shoot abides by the rules of consent. That is ensuring that if you agree to do a fashion based shoot, you won’t be encouraging a model to remove clothing, or asking them to get into positions which are not in line with what was originally agreed with in the shoot.
This comes down to basic respect, and also (to put it bluntly) not being a sleazy creep who exploits models just so you can see a bit of skin. 200% not cool, creative, or in line with great ‘photography.’
Principle 3: Realise that photographers have it easier than models in the majority of cases.
This may be a heated discussion point but I’m going to give you my opinion here. Photographers have it way, way easier than models do, in terms of what is expected, and behaviour.
Let me explain. As a photographer, on average you have to put your trust in the model being polite, able to listen and dressed as agreed, as well as making sure they credit your work properly post shoot.
Models on the other hand have to trust that the photographer will:
Conduct themselves in a professional manner before, during and after the shoot;
Be polite and respect agreed boundaries;
Take photos that are flattering and suitable for the direction they want to head in with their modeling career;
Edit the photos to a respectable standard and not go overkill on the editing so it looks fake (unless of course that is the agreed aim);
Credit the model properly on social media;
As you can see there is a lot more expectation and trust needed from the photographer when it comes to shooting and processing a photoshoot. Fair enough, this also highlights the hard work a photographer has to put in, but consider the above as a mindset of the trust models will put into you.
Principle 4: Don’t be intimidated by the model, and the perceived fame of modelling and the fashion industry.
I say this in the most respectful way to everyone involved in fashion photography; don’t be intimidated by the fame or glitz of the fashion industry. You will work with models who are incredibly beautiful people, and whom you could find intimidating. Society always pens a lot of weight onto someone’s looks and of course you will be working with people who can sometimes be exceptionally good looking.
Why am I saying this? Because I want you to remember Principle 1: models are people too. You are also a person as well, and the fashion and portraiture industry is open to anyone who has the gall and passion to work professionally and create beautiful artwork for everyone involved. Heck, I used to do wildlife photography, and had a very, very loose grip of fashion before I started working in portraiture. However, I channeled the passion I had to learn more about it, and this is where I am now. You can do it as well. Don’t ever feel like you can’t, because that is complete bull.
As an example, I recently was fortune enough to shoot with the absolutely stunning Stefania Ferrario. Those of you who know her may know that she was recently voted Sexy Australian of the Year, is Dita Von Teese’s Australian Rep, has over 450k Instagram Followers, and over 200k Facebook Fans.
Now I’m not stating these facts to attribute Stefania’s only worth down to numbers, but more as a comment on how social proof and following can lead some people to think “I could never work with her, I’m not worthy enough”.
I can tell you first hand that Stefania is an absolutely lovely person. Throughout the whole time I have known her she has been nothing but fun, approachable, and so incredibly easy to talk to. Stefania, like so many awesome models, is also a real community engager, and has shot with a whole incredible range of fantastic photographers, from novices to industry pros.
Don’t be intimidated by these numbers; behind the fandom and well deserved following these models have lies a real person who has a real passion for the industry they work in (I appreciate I sound like the most broken record in the world right now).
Principle 5: You should be aiming to develop a strong, personal, and professional relationship with everyone you come into contact with.
As with so many art scenes and industries, it isn’t always what you know, but who you know. I have seen photographers who don’t have the technical skills when it comes to shooting as some of the big name photographers, but they have a huge following and people will sing their praises constantly, because they put the effort in to build strong working relationships with people.
This can be anything from offering help to another photographer, trying their best to assemble a team so that they can get a model published in a magazine, or giving a recommendation to other photographers when asked about a potential job when you may not be available. The fashion and portraiture is stronger as a community, and people who take the time to help each other do not go un-noticed.
For example I once was contacted for a professional paid shoot because a model I worked with had told her friends that I gave her free advice on how to improve her iPhone photography. This conversation I had maybe took up about 5 messages over Facebook over the course of about 2 hours.
Saying that, you have to be genuine. People will always value others who are honest, genuine, and passionate. Don’t expect anything in return and do it because you want the community, of which you are a part of, to grow as a whole.
Part 2 – Best practices and techniques for working with models
With the above principles in place, you should now have a good mental base for now learning how to actually set up a shoot, and most importantly, how to communicate and work with models effectively.
I want to give you a breakdown of how I work with a model at different stages of a photoshoot.
Arranging a Shoot
I’m not going to go into a heap of detail on where to find models here, but I will tell you that one of the most common ways to arrange a TFP (Time For Print) photoshoot, is by joining your local area’s Modelling Facebook Group. Trust me, unless you live out in the wilds, there should always be a local one if you search on Facebook; and if you can’t see one for your local area, set it up!
Here is how it usually works; you will go onto the Facebook group, and post something like:
''Calling all models / MUA / creatives!
I’m new to the fashion and portraiture world and am looking to set up my first shoot with some willing creatives! I’m 30, and have previously shot real estate and wildlife but am really excited to get into the fashion world!
I’d like to arrange a shoot with a natural boho theme in the local national park this weekend.
Please find below my recent work, and inspiration photos for the shoot!
My Facebook page is www.facebook.com/whoshothim if you want to check out some more or my work and a bit more about me.
Looking forward to hearing from you!''
This instantly lays a good base for you to then arrange a shoot with people who will PM you in response, or reply to the request. From there you will want to see who replies, and if you feel the model is a good fit, you can get them on board for the shoot.
So just some basic pointers for when you do talk to models for the first time:
Use correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation. I can’t stress this enough. Please. If you can’t be bothered to spell the word ‘there’ properly, how can you assure someone that you can be bothered to edit their photos properly?
Don’t be demanding. Remember that people do have busy lives, and the majority of people who do TFP shoots aren’t able to supplement their entire income with modelling gigs. If a model says they want to shoot but when you send them a message they don’t get back to you, leave it. Archive the message and move onto who is interested. This isn’t being mean but maybe they have changed their mind, or something has come up. Don’t blame, persecute, or harass people. This is unprofessional, rude, and just not appropriate. You can find out a bit more about the model in terms of what they have done previously, but keep it based around the job at hand. By this I mean don’t start asking personal questions about their private life, when not everyone is comfortable about that. Remember this conversation is about working on a photoshoot, not about how long they have been with their partner for.
If you want to, arrange to have a coffee together to introduce yourself; however this isn’t necessary or possible in some cases. When I first started out, I did this with every model, as I wanted to show off my portfolio in person, and explain what I’m all about. This was especially helpful considering I didn’t have a huge portfolio, and nobody really knew me. I highly recommend doing this for photographers new to the scene. It goes without saying that you pay for the coffee as well.
If a model doesn’t want to work with you, or isn’t available for a shoot, don’t take it personally. There can be a lot of ego involved in photography, and as per Principle 5, you want to make sure you are helping build a strong community. So if it turns out that it just doesn’t work with a model, don’t take offense. There may be a whole myriad of reasons you don’t know about for why they don’t want to do the shoot, or arrange a shoot with you.
The Day of the Shoot
So now that you’ve set up the shoot, here comes the big day; shooting and directing the model. It can see pretty daunting right? Well I have a great series of points here which showcase exactly how I operate, and how you can direct a comfortable, fun, and awesome photoshoot.
These little points are all based on basic politeness and decency. These are some of the key things I do:
1. Chat with the model
As previous mentioned, you have to remember that at the end of the day, models are people too. When I first meet up with a model on location, I will more or less always ask “How has your day been?”. This is a simple opener to help everyone relax and get into a chilled conversation.
2. Remember to compliment the model
Models will go to a lot of effort to get ready for a photoshoot, and there is nothing more flattering than a simple “you look amazing!” from the photographer. Don’t be fake about it, but obviously they will look incredible as you got them on the shoot, and this is a perfect little confidence and ego boost!
3. Ask the model thoughtful questions about their experience with photoshoots, and anything else that isn’t too personal.
People love to talk about themselves. This has been proved by a mountain of scientific studies, and of course every day life! You love to talk about yourself when asked a question right? I’m not going to lie, I do!
So when you are working with a model and in-between shooting, ask them questions about what they enjoy about modeling, if they have done any shoots lately with any other photographers, and if they have been published before. I do genuinely find these kind of chats interesting and have learnt a lot about the local fashion photography scene as a result!
If you are on good terms with the model, then feel free to ask other questions about how they are finding work, and if they have been busy; but only do this if you are on good terms as it can sometimes wander into the realm on ‘too personal’.
4. Do not touch the model or their clothing without first asking permission, and only do so if it is necessary.
Another key philosophy I have when it comes to working with models is that you shouldn’t need to touch a model on a photoshoot. I believe it can be a little bit too personal, and opens the possibility of photographers breaking boundaries and acting inappropriately.
Directing can be tough sometimes, and it does take time to get comfortable. However one thing I will always say is that if you are having a hard time trying to direct a model into a pose, do the pose you want yourself (yes, yourself!) and then get the model to mimic you. Not only does this work well, but also will probably elicit a laugh or two which eases the pressure off even more.
In all of the 100+ photoshoots I’ve done, I only probably had to touch a model once or twice, and that is just because a leaf was caught in their hair and it was easier for me to remove it for them. In this case as well, I told them “there is a leaf caught in your hair, would you be ok if I got rid of that?”, and only when a “yes” came back, I’d do it.
5. Tell everyone on set that you will need five minutes to scout out the next shot before setting up
This was probably one of the biggest game changers for me when I learnt how to do fashion photography. With so much rushing around and perceived pressure, it is so incredibly easy to rush around and try to get a hundred shots in ten minutes.
Simply stop and tell everyone that you’ll need five minutes to get an idea for the next shot, and they can relax. People will be more than happy to find another few minutes to relax.
6. When it comes to directing, if you try something and it doesn’t work, don’t stress
Directing was a big challenge for me when it came to my first experiences with moving a model into place, and setting a scene up. After doing over 100 shoots I can honestly tell you do not get stressed or worried if something doesn’t work out.
So what do you do if you pose someone and it doesn’t look great? I have the solution. Simply tell the model to ‘relax’. This will put them at ease, and stopping the pose, hitting the reset button and allowing you then to take a few minutes to reassess what you want to do next (as per point 4 above).
Please trust me when I say that I have had a whole ton of posing directions which didn’t work before getting that one pose which did work. Don’t let it get to you, and above all just take your time.
7. If the model is going to be changing half way through the shoot, respect their privacy and give them time and space to change
Yet again I feel like I’m wandering into OTT territory here but if a model is going to be changing outfits through a photoshoot, you need to give them privacy. I use a pop-up changing tent which I got from eBay for about $100 and it works like a charm; alternatively if you are shooting in an urban area see if there are any restrooms nearby.
If none of these are options and the model needs to get changed out in the open (for example in a forest or in a car), then tell them you are going to give them privacy and leave the immediate area until they say it is all good to come back.
Bottom line: be respectful.
8. Welcome partners, friends, and family on the shoot
This was mentioned in my post about the importance of crib sheets for a shoot, but in my opinion don’t be afraid of offering the opportunity for family members, friends, and partners to come along on a shoot.
There are a few reasons for this.
Firstly, models may want to bring along family, friends, and partners for support. As I’ve touched on, it can be a pretty nerve wracking experience sometimes, and that moral support may mean a lot to the model. Not only that but it is a legal requirement for any shoots with under 18 year olds, that a parent signs off the model release form; this means it is more or less granted that parent will want to be on the shoot as well.
Secondly, and this is incredible important for more boudoir based shoots, they may want people there for safety. I once heard of a photographer who set up an erotic shoot with a model, and when told that she wasn’t allowed to bring her boyfriend to the shoot, the photographer stated that it was because ‘his male energy may interfere with the shoot’. Complete and utter rubbish. I’ve never had male energy be responsible for damaging my camera, nor for producing sub par shots. The entire premise comes across as creepy and inappropriate.
Now, one point I will make is that just because people come along doesn’t mean that you should also allow the shoot to be derailed by these familiar faces. I always say that the model can bring people along, so long as they respect that it is a creative shoot, and that the directing should be left up to the photographer.
I’ve experienced times where friends have said “maybe you should pose X this way?” in regards to setting a scene up. This may happen, and if it does a friendly “thank you, but for the moment I just want to make sure we get some awesome shots for X so we may try that later” will do. This isn’t being rude, it is just asserting that you are the one who has the experience in portrait photography and know best for the model!
Saying that, there may be some good suggestions as well but at the end of the day don’t let people interfere too much.
9. Remember to do your model release forms
A vital necessity for all TFP shoots is that a model release form is completed. Model release forms are vital for a legal point of view, ensuring that the model agrees that all images taken are your copyright, and this also acts as evidence that you did a TFP shoot. If you want to get published, Magazines will require this as well.
I use the Snapwire app for iPhone, which is unbelievably free. It is fantastic, and has a model specific agreement that can be altered if you wish.
For Android I used to use ‘Easy Release,’ although it does come with a bit of a price tag.
It is easy to get carried away with the shoot and call it a day at the end, but you need to make sure that you get this done.
10. Do not drink before or whilst on a shoot
I’m saying this because I have heard more than a couple of incidences where this has happened. Do not drink before a shoot to give you ‘dutch courage’ to get over your nerves. I have this as part of my crib sheet for models as well, and it is extremely rare that people do it but regardless, you should never be encouraging or taking the consumption of alcohol at any part of a shoot.
The only exception to this would be at weddings and events of course, but when it is a professional one on one session with an individual or couple, I don’t recommend this.
I have heard of these incidences once from a model who said she smelt the whiskey on a photographer, and second from a photographer who admitted he did this to get over nerves. We all get nerves in some form of another. I still do sometimes; but you cannot drink to try and solve this. It is not only potentially dangerous, but also sets a bad professional standard for the shoot.
If you want to get over your nerves, I’d suggest meditation before a shoot, or just run with the feeling and you’ll eventually get over them the more shoots you do. I know that isn’t the best advice when starting out but trust me, the energy and creative stress from nerves is actually a good thing!
11. Have fun
At the end of the day, you want to make sure everyone who is on the shoot has at least some fun! We don’t do photography because it is a chore (well I don’t!), but because we love to create beautiful images and experiences for people! My photography is my creative outlet in my life and I adore doing shoots because of how much fun they are, and the end result that is created from everyone working together.
Fashion and portrait photography is a social hobby / business, and so you should enjoy yourself, and find fun in the small directing mistakes you make, the comedy in a pose you joke around with trying, and the pleasure in getting that photo that makes you shout “yes!” as soon as you see it pop up on your screen.
Working with models can be challenging. Directing can be challenging. However, life is just a series of challenges to overcome, and you know deep down that once you get over a challenge, you can revel in the satisfaction of perfecting your craft, and the next big challenge that lies over the hill.
In summary, you should now have an idea that:
Models are people too, and may be equally, if not more nervous for a shoot;
The model’s comfort is your top priority, on and off set;
Chat and engage with the model and other creatives – people love to talk about themselves, and having a relaxed atmosphere can help everyone on set feel much more comfortable which will always lead to better photos;
Directing can be tough but there are ways to deal with it – remember the take a break rule which eases off the pressure from yourself so you can revaluate what you want to do next in the shoot;
Encouraging and being part of a strong community is the best way to build professional working relationships with creatives.
About the author: James Harber is a fashion and portrait photographer from Canberra Australia. Originally starting his journey into the world of photography in with Kodak Film at a young age, James has since expanded to shooting primarily fashion photography. He’s a big advocate of education and positive attitudes in the photographic community, and enjoys helping others, especially when it comes to understanding how to process photos.
Thanks for reading! Let me know if you agree in the comments below, and tell me about your experiences getting into fashion photography!