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.

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.

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.

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!

Jason Parnell-Brookes's picture

Jason is an internationally award-winning photographer with more than 10 years of experience. A qualified teacher and Master’s graduate, he has been widely published in both print and online. He won Gold in the Nikon Photo Contest 2018/19 and was named Digital Photographer of the Year in 2014.

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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?

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

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.

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.

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.

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

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

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

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...

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.

I honestly believe, at least here in the USA, that we are becoming more and more dependent on alcohol. To Cosmo magazine doing a serious article about how to smuggle in hard alcohol into a movie (just go 2 hours without a drink!)
To everyone making it more and more acceptable to show up hung over at work, as though its not a big deal.

Asking the model if they feel they have a better side is always a good ice breaker as it engages the person in the process. Of course, this can't be used for pet portraits...