Don’t Pose, Give Direction
If you are a lifestyle photographer one of your jobs is to make your images look natural- not stiff, not awkward, and definitely not staged. Your audience should see your images as moments that were going to happen regardless of whether or not you were there to capture it. The imagery that Roxy uses in their advertising is a spot-on example of this. Their photographic brand is made up of images of surfer girls living their carefree, summer lifestyle. Each image is a moment. A moment of a girl cruising down the road on her vintage bike, a moment of a surfer having a blast on the summer waves, and many more. These images show that the type of girls that wear Roxy are fun, carefree, and happy. Are these models in the images really carefree? Of course not. They have to pay the bills and do the dishes just like the rest of us but during their shoot they were directed into that carefree character and they embraced it which made us believe that they were. Your job is to direct our models into the role that fits and adds to the mood of your shoot. This will help bring out that candid feeling and will make your images seem much more natural.
Canon 5d II + 35L and 50L / In these two frames I directed Megan into slightly different characters in order to give a bit of variety in the set. In both frames, her persona is soft, innocent and calm but in the frame on the left she is much more attentive and aware of the camera while in the frame on the right, she was directed into a scene where she is lost in her head. Directing her into that persona and those scenes allowed her the freedom of becoming the character and acting it out on her own instead of only posing how I told her to pose.
Since every photographer likes to work a little bit differently, I always let my models know how I prefer to work. Even if your model has been on 100 sets, they won’t have any idea how you like to work unless you tell them. Personally, I prefer that my models act instead of pose. Instead of remaining stiff, I tell my models that I prefer for them to be moving and trying new things. I always make it a point to tell them that I know that not every movement is going to look perfect, but that is okay! More action means more opportunity to find the image that I am looking for. Once your model knows how you like to work, your job will be to direct her into the character that fits your the mood of shoot. When you are directing, think of yourself as a movie director, not a photographer. Instead of telling them to stand this way with their head slightly tilted and their eyes looking two inches to the left of the camera, tell them about the persona that they need to convey. Give them a character and let them evolve into it. For example, if I was shooting on set for Roxy, I would tell my model that she is a carefree, fun-loving surfer girl. She has no bills, no homework, and nothing to worry about. She thrives in the sun and lives for the freedom of summer. This type of direction will allow your model to explore her options more freely and will create a set full of open creativity instead of a one-sided set with you barking orders for your model to blindly follow.
Canon 5d III + 50L / If I needed to direct Lindsay into her character, I would have told her that she is someone who lives for winter and wilderness and she was finally able to step away from her busy life to come be in awe of what is around her. The truth is, I didn’t need to say any of that on this shoot because we were all in awe.
As soon as you can, kick your posing habit to the curb. Don’t get me wrong, giving your model an exact pose every now and then can add to your shoot in a beautiful way, but if you want natural-looking imagery, don’t rely on pose after pose. A great way to rid yourself of the posing habit is to create a scene for your model. Once they know the character or persona that you want to see conveyed, give them a scenario in which that character can come alive. For example, if I was shooting a soft morning camping shoot, I would tell my model that she just woke up to a cold morning after being bundled up under the stars and is going to sip her coffee while she takes everything in. In a more dynamic beach shoot, I might tell my model that she is on vacation with her new boyfriend who is chasing her with the camera as she (flirtatiously) tries to dodge his picture taking. These both give specific scenarios for your model to act out but don’t lock them down to any specific poses. Instead, it offers them an open-ended task, allowing them to explore their options and add to the creativity that you have already brought to the set! Creating these scenes will not only help your model’s character to come alive, but it will bring forth images that have natural allure to your viewers. Since posing isn’t something that people do in daily life, images of posed models can be harder to connect to. By creating scenes that could easily happen in real life, we are instantly providing an easier and more meaningful way for our audience to connect to our images.
Canon 5d III + 35L / In this shot Melissa was directed into a scene where she was in the middle of a photo shoot and had friends off camera who were being goofy to distract her. I use that one pretty often to get those happy little interactions that make for beautifully candid lifestyle images.
Working with models can make it easy to shoot away and rely on their skill as a model but the truth is that models are people too. They get nervous and shy just like the rest of us. If you give your model a scenario to act out and you see them tense up, nip that nervousness in the bud! As soon as you see that little bit of shyness peaking out, step in and show her that there is no reason to be shy. This happens every now and then on shoots (mostly with newer models) but once I correct it, we are right back on track and ready to roll. When I see a model tense up, I immediately step in to demonstrate the action. Not only do I demonstrate it, I overdo it. I make sure they know why I am a photographer and not a model. When they see me running around flirting with the camera, or whatever the scenario is, they suddenly realize that there is no way that the could possibly look any more ridiculous than I just did and their tension seems to fade away. Taking away that pressure of performance and making yourself look silly can do wonders when you are on set with someone who may be a bit more shy. Once the model takes over after you are done making a fool of yourself, make sure you give them plenty of encouragement so they know that they are doing it right!
Getting natural expressions out of a model can be a tricky thing but most of the struggle lies on our shoulders. It can be way to easy to rely only on our posing (which can lack that emotion) instead of trusting a model with the character we want to see come alive and allowing them to act it out on her own. Give them a character, give them a scene, and encourage them along as they act it out. Easy peasy.
One of my favorite little tips for getting great expressions out of a lifestyle shoot is to have your model laugh while saying the vowels (a, e, i, o, and u) out loud. This not only gives you a huge variety in the look of their smiles (go ahead, try it in the mirror), but it also usually end up making them actually laugh. That means you get variety and a huge natural laugh out of them. Win!