Five Ways to Put Models At Ease for Better Portraits

Five Ways to Put Models At Ease for Better Portraits

Not all of us work with professional models that can turn on the natural-looking poses when the lens is bearing down on them. Whether it’s Auntie Jean or an aspiring model-to-be, some people just don’t feel comfortable in front of the camera, and this often makes for awkward-looking portraits. So, here are five tips you can use on your next photoshoot to put them at ease and take better portrait photographs.

Put on Some Music

Now, you don’t want heavy metal here or anything with explicit lyrics, nor do you want something that’ll put everyone to sleep. Easy ambient, chill-out music is good, something with a bit of tempo to keep things lively. Jazz is always a good option or electronica. My favorite is Bonobo. However, ask your model what they’ve been listening to recently or if they have any requests. Avoid the question “what music do you like,” as everyone always falters at that one, because the question is too broad. Also, an extra tip is to place the speaker somewhere equidistant from you both and turn it up until it’s just loud enough to hear. This means you can both hear each other easily so the model can ask questions and you can direct poses without feeling awkward.

Image of loudspeaker playing music during a shoot

Choose some ambient music to fill awkward silences between photographer and model

Offer a Drink

After the meet and greet, it’s always a good idea to offer your model a drink, if you can. Tea or coffee are okay, but if you’re planning on shooting that bright, beaming smile, perhaps steer clear of drinks that could stain the teeth and lips. Soft or alcoholic drinks are fine, just bear in mind that alcohol could relax some people a little too much, which makes your job that much harder. Stick with soft drinks such as cola, soda, or juices if you want to play it safe.

Tonic water poured for models

Soft drinks and water will whet their whistle and keep them focused on the shoot, whereas alcohol might make them a little too relaxed.

Talk to Them First, Without the Camera

This step is especially important if you’ve never met your model before or you don’t know them very well. Get to know them and ask how their journey was. Talk about what they’ve been doing the week prior or where they’ve been on holiday — anything to get the conversation moving so they can relax. Or, if you’re British, as I am, you’ll find yourself talking about the weather!

Shoot Them Without Using the Viewfinder

Eye contact with your model is brilliant for making them feel at ease. Putting a big, scary camera and lens between you and them is a good way to make them feel like a rabbit in the headlights. Put your camera on a tripod and use live view or tether to a laptop so you don’t have to look through the viewfinder. That way, you can keep your hands on the camera and snap away, and the autofocus will remain at the right point as long as the model is stationary.

Use live view on the camera to shoot, instead of the viewfinder

Freeing up both eyes means you can make a better connection with your subject, instead of hiding away behind the lens

Take Breaks

A five-minute drinks break here and there will let your model lower their guard, so they don’t feel like they’re constantly performing. Gradually, as they move between shooting and relaxing, they’ll realize there’s nothing scary about the photoshoot, and the rest of your time together will become much easier.

These are just a few techniques I use to help nervous or shy models relax during our photoshoots, but I want to hear what you have to say. What are some of your favorite ways to get people relaxed in front of the camera? Perhaps you've found that heavy metal really helps? Leave a comment below!

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32 Comments

LA M's picture

Drinks on set are a bad idea...IMHO. Especially when you are dealing with young, female models.

Logan Sorenson's picture

Yeah some instances sure... What about an on location couples shoot? What about a wedding party shoot? what about....

LA M's picture

I've never needed any of the above...in 10 years unless the clients specifically ask for that as a component.

Jason Parnell-Brookes's picture

That's a good point, and something I didn't include in the piece, but you're right. It depends on the situation. Climbing up a mountain you're unlikely to have anything but a flask or water, for example.

Miha Me's picture

"You can have any brew you want... as long as it's a Corona."

Jason Parnell-Brookes's picture

Make sure you wash your hands afterwards to the tune of happy birthday sung twice!

Jason Parnell-Brookes's picture

Agreed, but soft drinks like orange juice or lemonade are okay, right?

Nick Viton's picture

That's a D750. You know how I can tell? It's missing the eyepiece! haha

Jason Parnell-Brookes's picture

Absolute legend! A fellow D750 shooter, I see? Those damn eyepieces - I've given up with it to be honest.

Peter Mueller's picture

Quite off-topic (sorry); Lost a few eye-pieces off Canons as well. Finally trimmed with a little chunk of black gaffers tape over side of piece and body... has not gone missing since.

Simon Patterson's picture

Sony a6000s eyepieces are also well worth giving up on very quickly.

Evan Richardson's picture

Finally a post without someone trying to earn money by posting a video full of ads.

Jason Parnell-Brookes's picture

Thanks Evan. I'm not usually one to make videos (although I've presented a lot of them) images are my passion.

Teresa Oldenbourg's picture

You should be able to build some kind of communication with your subject, and get a feel for them. What iv noticed is a lot of people feel like photographers notice more flaws. They get insecure thinking about us zooming in and seeing every little detail. So it helps to give real, but appropriate complements when you can. Iv also noticed that it helps sometimes for me to demonstrate what I would like them to do. This way they dont feel like they will look silly, if I myself would pose that way as well. Idk, could be talking out of my ass though.

Jason Parnell-Brookes's picture

This is absolutely brilliant advice, Teresa. Lead by example.

Doug Birling's picture

I find showing them the results of what I'm capturing gets then energized to keep going.

Jason Parnell-Brookes's picture

Yes! Just skip the ones where they've blinked though...

Tim Gallo's picture

I wrote a piece about this subject, if you interested...

https://medium.com/@timgallo/dontsaycheese1-e6dd0d2de326?source=friends_...

Jim White's picture

Tim, What you wrote on Medium is one of the best and most useful things I have ever read about working with portrait subjects. Is there a part 2 as mentioned?

Tim Gallo's picture

Oh, thank you. Part 2 is coming soon. it takes me some time to put it in english :) i wrote more articles about photography there so if you like this one _ maybe you will find other articles helpful

Eder Abogabir's picture

That 1,2 3 technique I learned from Peter Hurley, it's definitely one of the best advices I've ever took. Great article Tim and Jason.

Dana Goldstein's picture

Sorry but alcohol is an incredibly irresponsible recommendation. Do you want a model (of either sex) to claim that you gave them something to drink and that something happened? Your entire life could be ruined by something like that, whether it's true or not. And do you want to be held responsible for serving alcohol to someone underage? Do you intend to card your models? Is *that* going to make them feel comfortable? I have to wonder sometimes if Fstoppers doesn't put up "content" like this just for engagement, because some of us feel a responsibility to speak out on behalf of PROFESSIONALISM in photography, just so they can goose their numbers and their SEO.

Jason Parnell-Brookes's picture

Hi Dana. To answer your points, I would say if you’re worried about how someone might react then don’t offer alcoholic drinks, stick to soft drinks and water. If the person is under age then definitely do not offer an alcoholic drink. I’m not sure what you mean by ‘card your models’. I think it’s important to treat each person with respect and decency, and only shoot them how they feel comfortable in a safe environment. If, as a photographer, you’re concerned with the situation I’d say either don’t do the shoot or have them bring a chaperone and have at least one other person there as well to witness the shoot and make them feel safe.

But overall I think it's all about context. I've been at many high level shoots where there's been prosecco or wine offered upon arrival, much like at a hair salon, and it's been no problem. Generally, I would say if you are at all in doubt, err on the side of no alcohol for sure, as I say in the article "Stick with soft drinks such as cola, soda, or juices if you want to play it safe."
I don't think offering an alcoholic drink could be deemed professional or unprofessional, because it's a matter of context. For example, I was taking photos with my family recently at a birthday party and most people had one or two glasses of wine. It all depends on circumstance - I certainly wouldn't want any model to be drinking if they were driving home for example, no matter if they were of age or only had a sip.

Alex Yakimov's picture

Interesting and difficult discussion, mostly due to differences in cultures even the ones sharing the same language. I understand where Dana and you, are coming from, but have no idea how long it would take to make a concord between both of you.

Andy Work's picture

"I’m not sure what you mean by ‘card your models’."

That is to ask for an ID to verify their age.

Dana Goldstein's picture

Jason, I'm pretty sure that most female models especially (and I'm speaking as a woman in general here) would be very distrustful of a photographer (especially a man) offering a drink that isn't a sealed water or soda bottle / can. And unfortunately as women we have learned that we HAVE to be careful. Now, since you mention high-level shoots: My father was a commercial photographer for 40 years and worked with lots of celebrities, but he had a no drugs / no alcohol policy in his studio (and this was many years before such policies were a thing) and there were performers who couldn't work with him -- specifically because they didn't know HOW to be in front of a camera without getting high or drunk. Very sad, and some very big names. I think the last thing we want to do as photographers is continue a negative pattern that's so accepted in the industry that a website like this would publish an article with such a recommendation. TBH, it's a bit tone-deaf of you as a male photographer in particular.

Michael Roach's picture

You’re projecting your personal beliefs... a lot. It was a basic suggestion that he clarified with a response. Cultures vary.

Peter Mueller's picture

I provide pro-bono photography services for one of our local civic theater groups - headshots, cast and action shots; mostly for the programme. Most of them get told by their director that "photography is on Saturday, be there and be presentable (or costumed, or whatever)." A few of the actors are repeats and we sort of know each other, at least a bit. I get the actor situated in front of the backdrop, and chit-chat a minute or two - how'd you get into acting, what makes this a passion for you, etc., etc. Then I ask them to tell me all about their character/role in the production, and drill down on that. This is when my shutter starts activating. Although I may direct a little, I seem to get really good shots because they are so caught up in expressing their role that they forget they are in front of a lens.
Have not figured out how to make this happen when I volunteer at the animal shelter...

Jason Parnell-Brookes's picture

That's great advice, Peter. Getting them talking is brilliant, and actors are usually quite happy to perform when given the opportunity - I mean, that's why they're actors, right? Excellent technique, and yes animals still elude me, too.

Dana Goldstein's picture

Jason Parnell-Brookes I decided to take this question (regarding alcohol) to those that are impacted by it -- I did a FB poll on the topic in a group that's photographers and models in the NYC area with thousands of members. Here are the results over the past 24 hours. It seems based on that and the comments, that others are just as wary of alcohol on set as I am. Please keep it in mind.

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