Face To Face: How Finding The Right Subjects For Your Photographs Can Make All The Difference

Face To Face: How Finding The Right Subjects For Your Photographs Can Make All The Difference

Have you ever gone to the see a romantic comedy and absolutely fallen in love? Have you ever gone to a romantic comedy and spent the majority of the film’s running time politely sneaking peeks at your watch? Have you ever realized that both movies were essentially the same story and wondered why you couldn’t get enough of the first, and got way too much of the second?The reason is simple. Casting. If you’re a guy watching a romantic comedy, you have to fall in love with the female protagonist and want to be/or empathize with the male protagonist. Or vice versa for the female viewer. No matter how well it’s shot, directed, or scripted, nothing matters unless you have the right two people on screen.

Even for still photographers, whether you’re shooting advertising or documentary portraits, the same value holds true. Of course, as photographers, we like to think it is all about us. It is photography we are talking about, after all. So, it stands to reason that the most important element in the process is… the photographer.

There is some truth to that. It’s is our artistic vision that separates the wheat from the chaff. It’s our combination of craft and art that makes us professionals. We know how to operate a camera. We know f-stops from aperture. We understand lighting ratios, lens choice, and shutter speeds.  

But despite all these attributes we bring to the table, it’s simply a fact of life that none of that will amount to a hill of beans if what you're shooting isn’t interesting to begin with.  

This is especially important if you are a people photographer making the choice of who to photograph.

As you grow as a photographer, the nature and extent of your casting choices are likely to evolve over time. When you’re learning, you’re more than likely to start shooting the people around you. Family. Friends. After all, who else has the patience to stick around while you fumble about popping off frame after frame before realizing the images would be so much better were you only to have remembered to remove the lens cap.

You may stop there. Perhaps photography is more of a hobby than a career choice. And maybe all you really want is a way to document your life. Nothing wrong with that.

But if you’re looking for your pictures to resonate outside of your immediate community, you are more than likely to start thinking of ways to expand the number of faces that pass before your lens. You need models.

But where do you find them?

Who Are You Looking For?

Before we get to the “where,” it’s first important to address the “who.” Different projects call for different faces. And there is no one size fits all when it comes to casting.

At this point, it is probably worthwhile to point out that the term “model” is more of a loose suggestion. A subject doesn’t have to be a professional, or in any way fit for a NYC runway show, to tell the story you want to create with your photograph. In fact, in many cases, you may not want that at all. If you’re trying to create a portrait series celebrating the joys of being an average joe, it probably doesn’t make sense to hire models who were born with six pack abs and cheek bones chiseled by Michelangelo himself.

So before placing a casting call, ask yourself “what type of face would best help me to tell this story?”

If you’re creating an ad for a high-end beauty product, you probably are going to need one of those genetically gifted Models with a capital M.  

Or, if you’re trying to create a street style series, you’d probably be better served finding the guys and girls with a built in sense of style than the guy with the wrinkled polo shirt and khakis. Unless, maybe your series is about khakis.

A lot of the time, a client will specify in a brief that they want the models to be “real people” as opposed to looking like, well... models. They may actually prefer men with beer bellies and receding hairlines or women with no interest in fitting into the sample size dresses, because it better helps the brand to connect to their target market.

Do you need a more commercial looking model? Or a high fashion model? Those can be two very different things. And it’s rare that the same model will excel at both.

In photography, you have to tell your story in a single frame. You have to select faces that convey your story in a split second to your audience. A dull or uninteresting face, will lead to a dull or uninteresting image, no matter how well you expose it.

Where Do You Look For Them?

Trying to find the perfect face can often feel much like finding a needle in a haystack. The further you progress, the harder it gets, as you become more and more demanding about who you want to shoot, and who best reflects the style you wish to obtain. So let’s consider our options.


Where do we look for anything these days… the internet. There is an absolute wealth of resources for finding talent online. Of course, each comes with strengths and weaknesses. But in most cities and decent sized towns this is a good place to start.

When I first outgrew shooting my immediate family, the first place I turned was Backstage.

Backstage is primarily a place where filmmakers will go to find actors and actresses. Since, I arrived in the still world by way of filmmaking, this was the first place I thought to look. Unless you live in LA or NY, this is probably not the first place you will choose to go. And, off course, while actors are often equally pleasant to look at, they are not models. But for a Los Angeles photographer they did offer the benefit of being both plentiful and in constant need of new photographs. This was important starting out because, since I had no budget with which to pay them, I needed to find subjects with an added incentive to let me practice on them.

Also as a side note, while actors may like having pictures, many of them don’t exactly relish the idea of having their picture taken. Being good at portraying some else’s life on screen doesn’t always equate to being comfortable portraying yourself. As you develop as a shooter, you’ll realize that being able to relax talent and nurse an “honest” performance out of them is as important as knowing where to put your lights. It’s a skill set I use everyday, whether working with a professional model or a business owner.

After learning the basics shooting actors, I began to get the urge to shoot something different. While actors need pictures. They mainly need headshots. And while headshots are an excellent business to be in, I knew I wanted  to create something a little more interesting. And to do this, I knew I would need actual models.

That is when I found Model Mayhem.

If you’ve been photographing people for any amount of time, there is a high likelihood that you are very familiar with this site. Think of it as Facebook for photographers, models, stylists, makeup artists, or anyone else wanting to be part of the fashion and commercial industry. It allows you to enter the specs for the model you're looking for and it will bring back results of those available in your area. You can also get a sense of the model’s level of experience, see their portfolio, and send them a direct message.

While not without issues, Model Mayhem has a lot of advantages. One, the basic profile was free. Very important when you are starting up. The models may or may not be free. That will generally depend on what you are shooting, their own level of experience, and how badly they want to work with you. So, if you don’t have much of a portfolio yet, you’re probably going to focus your efforts of models with equally limited experience. That may, however, not be an altogether bad thing as it is possible to find diamonds in the rough.  

Or, if you want someone with more experience, you can pay them. The exact amount will be a negotiation between you. The models on the site range anywhere from serious professionals who make a good living as independent models, to agency models trying to get a little extra cash on the side, to good looking people with little to no interest in modeling at all but a vested interest in receiving cash from photographers willing to shell it out.

As you gain experience, you’ll get better at reading profiles and being able to determine who is who and what highlights and warning signs to look for in a profile. You’ll be able to notice which models fit into your aesthetic. Which are really interested in modeling and will show up on time and with the right attitude to work. And who will show up, stand still with a bland expression, and spend half the time texting. Or, who is likely to accept the assignment, the not to show up at all! You get all types.

There are now a multitude of sites like Model Mayhem that offer a similar experience. And, of course, now that most people use Instagram to portray themselves as supermodels, seeing an interesting face can often be as simple just swiping up.


Sourcing non-agency models from sites like this is always a mixed bag. Which inevitably leads you to the next link in the food chain, the modeling agency.

Working with modeling agencies can seem like the holy grail to many a photographer. Presumably, they have the best models. The most professional models. Carefully curated by industry professionals paid to spot talent. And, for the most part, this is true.

Working with modeling agencies, you benefit from their experience in finding faces that resonate with an audience. You also benefit from their reach. They know people in the industry that you don’t, and it’s never a bad idea to open up avenues for potential clients to learn your name. Agency models are also USUALLY more dependable than someone you may find online. If they skip out on you, they not only upset you, but they upset their agency. Therefore, they have added impetus to be professional. And if they do need to cancel, a reputable agency should be able to substitute another model so that you aren’t left in the lurch.

A modeling agency’s reputation is based on their talent. They have a vested interest in representing the right people. They also, however, have a vested interest in having their people represented in the right way.

So what does that mean for you?  

There’s a reason why I didn’t get to start working with modeling agencies until after my training-wheel time shooting friends, actors, and aspiring models from Model Mayhem. If you’re talking about working with the better modeling agencies, then they want to work with the better photographers. And like anything else in this business, you need to be able to prove you can create imagery worth their model’s time by showing a strong portfolio. If all you have are a handful of shots in your backyard with your sister, they probably aren’t going to answer your email. Unless your sister happens to be Kate Moss.

If you have the budget, can’t you just pay the agency, you ask? Yes. Like all matters in life, everything has a price tag. And, if you have the money to continually afford the day rates on an agency model, agency fees, etc. then by all means, reach for the stars. But unless you have deep pockets, or are shooting for a brand that is footing the bill (completely different situation), you are more than likely to go broke rather quickly. There are also certain usage limitations that come when shooting through an agency, that don’t necessarily arise when sourcing an independent model.

Even if you are paying a model through an agency, the usage of the final image is likely to be limited by time duration. It’s not like when working with independent models where you put a model release in front of them and they sign over their image for use indefinitely. Agency models generally only sign releases set for a limited number of years set out in the standard agency generated release form. Anything beyond that will need to be negotiated separately. In other words, it will cost you even more money.

But for those looking to work with modeling agencies, and still pay rent, there is a secret. Models and their agencies need a constant stream of photos just like the actors and actresses I talked about earlier. And if your book is strong enough, agencies will actually give you models to work with free of charge.

There are limitations, of course. Test shoots, as they are called, are limited to images intended for your portfolio. You can’t, for example, shoot an unpaid test shoot, then turn around a license the images to Coca-Cola. Models get paid for that. You may or may not be able to use them for editorial, but that would require a conversation with the agency. A safe rule of thumb is that if they aren’t getting paid, you’re not getting paid. It’s not so unreasonable when you think of it.

As it is an exchange, you are also expected to deliver the final images to the agency within a reasonable amount of time so that they can use them in the model’s portfolio. Remember, the whole reason they are doing this is to generate paid gigs for their talent. You are using their talent to generate paid gigs for yourself. That’s the trade.

Going the agency route, I tend to get better images with better talent for less money.  I’ve generated a lot of my best work this way. Then again, if you hire someone off of Model Mayhem and pay them a fee, the model may not be as good, but you may have more latitude in terms of what you can shoot and how you can use the final image. This is great when you’re shooting for stock or intend to sell the image somewhere down the line. Your situation will dictate your approach.

Walk The Streets

There is, of course, another casting method that is both free and devoid of any barriers to entry.  Street casting.

In an age where we procure everything from romance to exercise tips via our smartphone, actually meeting people in person seems to have gone by the wayside. As easy as it is to swipe left or right, we seem to have lost the ability to simply walk up to a stranger and say hello.

I get it. As out of practice as we all are when it comes to approaching people, the world seems equally thrown at the prospect of being approached. A combined “excuse me” and extended handshake is often met by a suspicious glance or eyes looking for the nearest exit.

But, if your objective is the photograph “real people,” why not start with casting real people. True, they may not all be 5 foot 11 inch Amazons built for the pages of Vogue. Maybe they don’t have any experience in front of the camera. Likely their theme song is closer to “My Funny Valentine” than “Sexy and I Know It.”  

But unconventional does not mean uninteresting.

The greatest portrait artists excel at bringing out the most interesting details in their subjects. They are supreme artist in the pursuit of drawing out the beauty in the seemingly mundane. Detailing aspects of someone’s face or personality that are present everyday, but more than often go unnoticed.

Street casting can encourage you to find the extraordinary in the ordinary. It allows you to bring more to an image than just another pretty face. It can allow you to portray a real character with whom your audience can identify.

Perhaps there’s something unique about their face. Maybe it’s their sense of personal style. Maybe they have a specific talent that you want to capture on film. Maybe they are simply the most beautiful person you’ve ever seen in real life. Whatever it is, they stand out from a crowd. They are interesting. And, when combined with your photographic skill, should produce an interesting image.

There is really no end to the places one can find the on-camera talent to take your images to the next level. Depending on your skill set, budget, location, and any number of other variables, you’ll likely find over time a favored method that works for you.  

But, whatever method you ultimately choose, always remember that regardless of our talent level, we are only as good as the subjects we photograph. Find an interesting face, and you can create an interesting image for the whole world to enjoy.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

Log in or register to post comments

I never had much luck with the agencies. Another option is brouse agency websites for models and then contact them directly on facebook. This way you're cutting out the middle man. Granted some will tell you to organise it through their agency, but I find some agency represented models are willing to do TFP if they like you work.

That works too. Good suggestion. Agency priorities and the models priorities aren't always aligned, so it is possible to contact the model directly as well.

That is the case with some agencies alright, but then I have never actually worked with models who weren't allowed to do shoots outside of their own agency, and they made that clear when I contacted them. However I know two agencies in particular where this isn't problem so I tend to stick with those. I wouldn't push a model into doing something that could cause her to get into trouble.

My problem is the reverse ... I'm contacted by people to shoot them all the time and have to come up with how to choose the right photograph to take of my subject.