How to Avoid the Top Four Complaints Models Have With Their Photographers

How to Avoid the Top Four Complaints Models Have With Their Photographers

"Collabs" are the new currency between aspirant photographers and content-pressured models. Both parties are looking for scroll-stopping images to gain attention as they rise up in their respective industries. What happens when the images don't measure up to the expectations? Are models expecting too much from growing photographers who are shooting for free, or are photographers hyping up their skills and not delivering?

"Michelle, can I call you? You will not believe this!" I get my popcorn and sit back as my models and friends call me to vent. The stories I've collected fall on the spectrum of entertaining all the way to preposterous. Last week's story included a photographer hanging his camera from a crane and trying to get an aerial shot as the wind blew the camera back and forth overhead.

I try not to laugh; I know it's frustrating for the aspiring stars. The truth of the matter is I was once fumbling through the learning process myself. We all were. Still today, on year 14 as a full-time photographer, I stumble and fail though my ideas at times. That's part of growth.

On the left is me in 2002 at the University of Central Florida. On the right is me in 2021, almost 20 years later, as a full-time artist. 

I look back at some of my earlier work and cringe. I had great ideas and a lot of passion, but I was missing many important skills, which I picked up one at a time over the years. It's a process, and we must go through all those rookie mistakes to reach the mastery of the craft. In this article, I will relay the most common grievances that models share about working with rookie photographers and tips to improve in each area. 

1. Be Personable and Make the Model Feel Comfortable 

Image by Luis Rafael of model Tony Manolo

This was overwhelmingly the most popular response in my survey. One after the other, models brought up "awkward" photographers and how it was hard to feel comfortable in front of the camera if the photographer didn't create a relaxed and positive space. Models expressed that when the photographer doesn't create a space that's comfortable, it's problematic for them to deliver their best work. 

Tips

You can create a good atmosphere for the client with a few simple steps.

  1. Play music. I choose my playlist based on the type of expression I want to extract from the model. Music has a way of instantly lifting the mood and injecting contagious energy into a space. Not every photographer is an extrovert, and if you're not, this is a great tool for you. The music doesn't have to be loud or disruptive to the environment you're working in. You can launch a playlist and have the model place the phone in their back pocket as you go about your shoot. 
  2. Give positive feedback. Always. I never say negative feedback. The horror stories I have heard make me cringe. If your subject is not delivering what you want, criticism is not the way to get it. Try redirecting them in a positive way: "Great, I got several shots of that. Now, let's try a different approach. I want you to..." Always redirect in a positive way. In addition, if they do something successful, say so. "Oh, I loved that look — very powerful. Give me more of that. This is looking great!" You want to empower the model. That's how you will get their best work.

2. Have a Developed Mood Board and Creative Ideas

Image by @opticalwaves of model @lilpinkting

Another repeated theme the models expressed was that it was common for beginner photographers to lack a developed concept for the shoot. Models expressed time and time again that they find themselves in situations where the photographer is asking them for direction and ideas. Jasmine Nichole expressed it well: " Amateur photographers need better concept building. If they reach out to me first, I shouldn’t be the creative director too.” 

Along the same lines, KJ added: “Make your photos more cohesive. Anyone can get one good shot, but cohesiveness takes experience.”

Image by @islandboiphotography of model @anika_50

“Have a specific aesthetic for your brand,” Ann Neika stated, adding that photographers should work specifically with people who align with their aesthetic.

Tips

A big part of the journey as a photographer is finding your style. Painters go through this process as well. We all know the contorted cubist portraits by Picasso, but the earlier part of his 79-year career included the Blue Period, the Rose Period, the African Period, Neoclassicism, Surrealism, and a whole slew of art that reads like a curious copycat artist without direction. Part of learning what feels most "you" is trying things. It's a natural process. The downside to it is that people don't know what to expect from you. A photographer that follows me on Instagram recently asked me for an honest critique of his work. He had some great images, clever ideas, and a good base of skills. What he didn't have was a defined style. After applauding his positives, I expressed to him: "If I'm thinking about working with you, I'm hesitant. Looking at your portfolio, I'm not sure what I'm going to get. These images I love, these images I really don't like, and I'm concerned about what will be delivered to me." You may still be on a journey of finding your unique aesthetic, but even in that process, be intentional about each shoot as you go into it. Have a defined idea, a specific style, and an outlined look you want to achieve. 

3. Understand Your Lighting

Image by @MajiRamirez og model @_mx.kj

Shadows are trending these days. From the pages of fashion magazines to the feeds of sports brands, shadows are getting the limelight.

It's not as easy as it may seem, though. Many models chimed in that they're being placed in patchy lighting, only to receive images with random hot spots and poorly placed shadows. 

Tips

Shadows are a great concept to play with, but as in all elements of design, you have to use them strategically. Here are a few tips to file away.

  1. Use the highlights as a focal point of interest in the composition. Don't place highlights and shadows randomly. Place your model so that the highlight falls on the point of interest. 
  2. Expose for highlights. If you overexpose an image, you don't have pixels to recover. When you're shooting, always expose your image for the highlights, and if need be, you can easily brighten the shadows in post.
  3. You can still add light. Even if you're playing with naturally occurring shadows, at times, the contrast is too strong. Try using a reflector to add a little fill light while still retaining the shadow play. 

4. Be Honest About Your Abilities

To show or not to show: that is the question. I've been back and forth on this issue myself over the years. There's a certain insecurity we carry as photographers about showing unfinished work. Viewers don't always understand the process.

I was on a food shoot once where we were working on a high-contrast, hard-shadow, editorial food spread on a white tablecloth. The marketing liaison for the restaurant hovered over me and commented many times, "that seems too dark." I explained to her that blown-out highlights are unrecoverable, and it was essential to expose for highlights and lighten any shadows in post. She just could not let it go. Models, similarly, can be guilty of nitpicking. As photographers, we feel protective of our work. We don't want to be judged on it while it's still unfinished. All of those rationalizations standing, I've made the switch to allowing clients to see work as I'm shooting. As apprehensive as I feel about showing unfinished work, I know that most of my models really benefit from that feedback.

Tip

  1. Before showing a model a scroll-through, I hedge their expectations: "A successful shoot will mean you love about one in 20 images. Five you will hate, a dozen will be mediocre, and one will be killer." This helps curb their expectations before you flip the camera around. 

One of my images with model @thurmb

Now that we've gone through the most common complaints from models, let's revisit the original question: Are models expecting too much from growing photographers shooting for free, or are photographers hyping up their skills and not delivering? This is a tricky one. I believe there needs to be space for growing photographers to learn and practice, even more so if they are shooting at no charge. Equally, the frustration of models taking time off work to collaborate is justified; they have the right to expect a certain level of ability. A model recently told me of a collaboration session where both parties split the cost of the two-hour studio session rental, but the photographer, who had little experience with off-camera lighting, took an hour and twenty minutes to get the lighting correct. I think Thurman Brown's contribution is poignant: be honest about your abilities going into the shoot. 

What are your thoughts? Do you show images as you shoot? If you identify as a growing photographer who struggles with some of these points (it's okay, we all have), should you have the space to learn and fail? If you're a model, what's your standard that photographers should meet regardless of the price tag on their time?

The best part of the articles is in the comments below! I would love to hear your thoughts.

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21 Comments
Black Z Eddie .'s picture

Hey, Michelle, all your outline titles are the same: :)

1. Be Personable and Make the Model Feel Comfortable
2. Be Personable and Make the Model Feel Comfortable
3. Be Personable and Make the Model Feel Comfortable
4. Be Personable and Make the Model Feel Comfortable

Alexander Petrenko's picture

I almost know what is item 5 in the list…

Michelle VanTine's picture

oh dear! something happening in the review process. Thank you I'm having the team fix it!!! Geez. Alexander Petrenko how intuitive of you... how did you know that would have been #5?

Michelle VanTine's picture

Fixed! weh

Patrick Hall's picture

I'll add #5 which for me is the most important, show your talent the images you are taking. If you are doing some crazy lighting setup, there is little chance they are going to understand what is happening when 5 strobes are firing. The mood will be completely different than the natural ambient light in the studio. If you are asking someone to make a crazy face, show them how graphic it is and why it is working. If your shoot involves showing some skin or doing something provocative, showing the images can ease them that you aren't some how taking advantage of them but instead are creating something really cool and worth shooting.

I've been showing my clients images since I first started shooting weddings and continue with every more commercial or experimental shoot I do today. I remember Peter Hurley showing me that by showing his headshot clients the full set of images he is taking, he can also coach them into expressions that look better.

Michelle VanTine's picture

Yes! I completely agree. I discussed this in #4: to show or not to show the back of the camera. I agree with you completely- it helps the models feel at ease to see that they are producing great images! Great point also that it allows them to see the concept you are creating as it sometimes is not easily visible from their perspective

Patrick Hall's picture

Ah I missed that last paragraph when I read the article. Yeah it's an important part of any shoot IMO.

Barry Strawbridges's picture

Provide water and snacks

Michelle VanTine's picture

That's a GREAT ONE!

Charles Mercier's picture

If that Instagram photographer was great at everything, why does he have to stick with one style? If he's pitching to a client in fashion, he can show them examples of that and he's trying to get a food product job, he can show examples of that genre.

Michelle VanTine's picture

That's a great point you bring up! I actually shoot a range of unrelated work. My work is most recognized in sports, and on the complete other spectrum in product beauty shots. There are many people who say photographers should specialize in one genre, but for my own career I haven't gone that route and I like the range. What was expressed here was more about having a recognizable style to your photography regardless of what you're shooting. Some of the photographers I respect the most shoot a range of subject matter, but their work is instantly recognizable as theirs. "Oh that's a ... shot I bet", I look at the name. They're successful for many reasons, but one of them surely is their trademark look- that's why they're hired.

Mike Dochterman's picture

if it's 'my shoot'..yeah..I better have some idea of what I want to achieve.. but if it's a 'collab' - I want the model to bring something other than a pretty face... what are her ideas? what has she been wanting to do?? at least for part of the shoot anyway. I already know what my stuff will look like (mostly) - I want to see a new perspective sometimes

Catherine Bowlene's picture

Great article and I absolutely agree with the point above, the one about sking the model for ideas, too. I'm not saying they have to prepare a whole smartshow 3d video explaining their views on the shoot but a few ideas or shots for inspiration would be nice. Again, not to follow them completely and it's fine if all of their and my ideas get rejected and the shoot takes an absolutely new direction, but having some references helps to build the creative path easier.

Michelle VanTine's picture

That's interesting! I got the opposite response in my survey from the models. I did work once with w model who also called herself a creative director and that was very much the approach: we discussed together and came up with the plans together. I think the main point the models had was when the photographer came with no clear plan or direction and seemed unprepared for his/her vision with the shoot.

Catherine Bowlene's picture

And that's pefectly reasonable! My point is that the idea could and should be worked on together and every party has their own equal say in how the shooting goes, it's not like only the model or the photographer should be responsible for the idea. No detailed plan is needed but at least some ideas are welcome.

Ryan Cooper's picture

Personally I’ve always found communicating a concept to be much harder than developing it. Mood boards are my nemesis because it involves hours of scouring the web praying that someone else already did something similar enough to my idea that it communicates what I intend to create. Futhermore, I find that everyone reacts to mood boards differently and it generates expectations that can lead to disappointment or disagreement.

Michelle VanTine's picture

I can see what you're expressing there. If you're having to find images for a mood board, you're not creating something new and it's sometimes hard to articulate with already existing work. It's always great to put a new set of images out that's unique to your mind. I think the models main point in their responses was just the frustration when photographers show up without having planned anything in their mind, and stumble through the shoot without direction or concept. If you're developing a concept that's new and different, and coming with an artistic idea, I think you're crushing it.

Mike Dochterman's picture

I've had models link me to their "mood board' - and seriously.. I had no idea what they were trying to show me..the lighting? the clothing? the poses? the makeup?...turns out it's usually more of a 'stuff I like' than mood board and maybe..maybe might help (them) a bit if it happens to be a pose they like.. but yeah...mood boards are 89 percent of the time..a waste of time

John Roads's picture

In some cases, I think you're right, though your oddly specific number of 89% is suspect. ;) Right off, I'm not a fan of the term "mood board" (a little too buzzwordy) though I know it's not going away anytime soon. I will completely agree that many people misuse it to just lump together random photos and looks they like with no cohesiveness or direction and that helps nobody. I keep folders of photos like this for ideas, but they're only for my own use to browse for ideas whether it be a subject, a style, location, etc. I do like to pull together themes of ideas for specific projects to show people I'm trying to interest along with a fairly detailed explanation of what I'm looking to do - and what I'm not.

John Roads's picture

Here's one more idea that could save some time and heartache. We all know that regardless of how well you plan your concept and details of a shoot, that old Murphy's Law can crash the party when you least expect it and make things difficult. Maybe weather interferes during an outdoor shoot, a model has second thoughts about certain ideas, equipment fails, and so on. During your concept planning, it's good to come up with a plan B, maybe a plan C for alternative shots, nearby locations, and so on. That way, you're not wasting your model's valuable time, or your own. Also, I love the "provide water and snacks" suggestion elsewhere in the comments.

Michelle VanTine's picture

Oh man I got a hard "crash" from Murphy's law at my shoot last week. GREAT feedback. I also loved the water one. I brought water for my shoots last week and both times my clients were so thankful. It was such a little thing that made a big impact. I love you feedback John about the plan B