The ability to direct models (any model) in your shoot is key to any visual project. You might have the best location, styling, and lighting setup, but if you don’t have the right kind of emotion in your model's face, it will all have been for nothing. Your mission is not just to press on the shutter release, but to also be a director. Here are the dos and don'ts and a little bonus at the end.
If you have done any kind of assisting for a photographer or a cinematographer, you will have witnessed different ways they approach their models. Some ignore them, some shout, some small talk, and some seduce. It all depends on who they are and what kind of an image they want. Yes, on some high fashion sets, photographers don’t even speak to their models; they just sit on a chair, get handed a remote trigger, and give a nod that the show is about to begin. Granted, these are most often dinosaurs stuck in the eighties or creative divas, but they work with the best models out there. They can afford that kind of behavior. Their models get a mood board and need no other direction; they know their bodies, what poses suit them best, and how to show off the clothes they have on their back. Nevertheless, the majority of your models need direction on what you expect of them and what your project is all about. When working with amateur models, it is even more crucial. So, how do we get there?
I believe in one do and a set of don'ts.
The Do: Adapt your behavior to the personality of your model.
As there are different kinds of photographers, there are different kinds of models. Let’s not forget that we are just human beings, after all. Some of us are Duracell batteries, while others are charged with a manual crank. Some of us love mornings and others can’t focus before noon. Each model is unique, and whether he or she is a professional does not matter.
Take some time to engage in small talk with your models in the morning: ask questions about who they are, see if they have a sense of humor (well, your sense of humor), and most importantly, show them what you want to do and why they were chosen. A few compliments are always welcome for a good start. Make them feel special; we all need validation. And yes, all that can be done in ten minutes so that your nerdy self can scurry back to the intricate light setup to continue happily triggering your newly acquired flash set. Take care of their needs: food, drinks, comfy slippers, and clean bathrobes for when they are getting their face done or changing wardrobe. If you show them you care about their well-being, they will go the extra mile for you.
When the shooting starts, adapt to the energy of your model. One thing that I often use is the idea that photographing somebody is like a dance. The photographer is the lead, the model follows. If you are stepping on their toes, you won’t get the stride you want. If they need a soft lead, speak calmly and softly; if you need them to connect with their inner Bowie, behave that way as well. If you want to make them laugh, start laughing. If you want them to shout and be angry, ask your whole crew to scream at the top of their lungs as well (unless you are commissioned by the National Headache Foundation). Use music to help you out if needed, but if your model is distracted by it, cut it off. If they are super shy, ask the rest of the crew to leave your set for the first shot until they get comfortable.
You are the mirror of what you want your model to become. Lead them into your world, but adapt the way you do to their personality.
When I shoot corporate portraits, I always get the middle-aged shy guy/girl who hates his/her looks at some point. I will flirt with the guy and compliment the heck out of the girl (even her choice of earrings). If I am working with a shy girl and need her to get loose, I will become a clown until she relaxes and loosens up. If I am working with a model that has seen it all and done it all and that gives me attitude, I will jokingly ask them: ”Oh, c’mon, is that all you can give me?” to pinch her self-esteem as a professional.
With some models, it is great to show them what works and what does not,; when they understand, they get excited. Do a short edit on your laptop screen with them. Reassure them that they look good. Even the very tall, skinny models have image issues! Some models who have had more experience fall into the Narcissus Pond: if you shoot tethered, they will be looking at that screen after every shot. Get that thing out of their sight; they have to connect with you, not their image.
Your model is your partner for a day. Your model is your canvas, the physical expression of your creativity; what they give you is your end result. Excluding some models, who have descended from mount bitchiness, if they fail to deliver it, it's your fault: you have not chosen them wisely, or you have not managed to direct them. Protecting your relationship with them is one of the most important things on a set.
I was on a beauty shoot commissioned by a magazine a while back and the stylist and hair guy were going nuts (I think from stress): they kept touching the model, changing her hair, adding and taking off accessories so that I was unable to get a decent shot, and my model was getting irritated to the point of no-return. They kept commenting on all the bad things in the images that were coming up on the screen loudly enough for the model and me to hear. They were cutting off the momentum we were building and I was losing her. And there was the pressure of shooting in a specific time-frame as it involved high-end jewelry from different designers who sent their products with numerous bodyguards who would not be inclined to stay longer, as other sets were waiting for the same products.
So, I did something I had never done before and did not think I would ever be capable of: I screamed my head off at them, ordering them to get the **** off my set, go for a coffee, or a vodka shot — whatever they needed for them to calm down. I got shocked looks from them as they were leaving, intrigued grunts from the bodyguards, muffled laughs from my assistants, and love from my model. That instant, we became partners in crime together. She gave me all she had on every look until the end of the day. Most surprisingly, I also gained a lot of respect from other crew members, including the magazine representative. Connect with your model.
- Do not think that your model knows what you expect from her/him if you have not explained it in a language she/he understands; models are not mind readers.
- Do not expect models to forget about cold and hunger. Be sensitive to their physical needs. If you are shooting on location in winter and your model is in summer clothes and freezing, share that pain with her/him. I often tell them that when we will be shooting, I will take off my warm and comfy parka and be in a t-shirt so that she/he knows I will not push them more than I could take myself.
- Do not use weird vocal commands: unless you are saying it with a thick Italian accent in order to get a laugh, phrases like “make love to the camera” are outdated. Seriously, they are!
- Do not show that you are unhappy with a result or lost on what to do; you might be scratching your brains on why the light setup is far from what you planned, but your model might think she is not doing it right or that you are just a bad photographer who does not know what he wants. Both assumptions are lethal for you. Your mood as the leader is contagious; if you doubt, everybody will doubt. So, if you really are freaking out, keep calm and confident on set while doing your wall-versus-head bashing in the privacy of a restroom.
- Do not touch the model unless you have asked and obtained permission. This is so much more important if you are a guy. Sometimes, it can be helpful and faster than words when you are going for a specific pose; it can even create a certain intimacy, but always ask before you do. I’m a chick and I still do it.
The secret to really understanding
If you have managed to read until the end, thank you so much for your focus. It’s very flattering.
Now, here is my last piece of advice: you might ask a thousand models what they like or don't, and you might certainly gain a lot of information. Understanding them is another story. There is only one way to do that: experience it firsthand; become a model yourself for an hour or a day.
You have colleagues; they might want to test some new equipment out or just have some fun. Pose for them, or even ask them to do a portrait of you. When you go to the other side of the camera, you see things in a different light. You realize how much time you actually spend on looking at the photographer when shooting or when waiting, and how their mood influences yours. You will feel the first minutes (or hours) of being weirdly self-conscious and maybe even super shy (yes, that happens, even to the confident ones). You will see how getting direction is key for you to let go and trust the photographer. You will experience how fast you can get bored. You might realize that it is not as easy as you thought and have a bit more respect for the modeling profession. Do it!
My first experience was getting stark naked for a photographer friend in a forest. I realized mosquitos can bite in very weird places, that the sun really does hurt your eyes if you have to keep staring at it, and that after only two hours of trying to deliver what the photographer wanted from me, I was exhausted and cranky. I am not necessarily recommending the extreme scenarios: you don't need to go to a forest; getting naked in a studio is challenging enough (kidding — try a portraiture session)! Anything works. The point is to realize that modeling demands skills, and so does good directing. Off you go! Get yourself waxed and enjoy!