The Secret to Directing Models: The Dos and the Don'ts You Need to Know as a Photographer

The Secret to Directing Models: The Dos and the Don'ts You Need to Know as a Photographer

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.

The don’ts:

  • 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! 

No way am I showing the nudes, but here is a session of portraits done by photographer Audray Saulem, who just does not give up and managed to get something good out of the lost cause I am in front of the lens.

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13 Comments

Glen Grant's picture

Your approach and perspective from both sides has lead to a very good article that yes, I read to the end :-)
Well done, Great pointers and I laughed having gone thru some of your similar experiences in production shoots etc. {thumps up}.

Brian Reed's picture

My favorite part of the article is "The secret to really understanding" portion. I just went through this myself. I have been a photographer in the Body Paint Community of Colorado for five years now. Let's just say I lost count how many hundreds of models I have worked with over the years who got painted. Finally in August, 2015, I went "under the brush" myself. I got my entire torso painted by Mr. David Caballero, The Denver Face Paint and Body Art Jam Group (Denver Body Paint Group) Director. As Anna pointed out in her article, it was quite the experience, for sure. And I had only my torso and heck painted. Many models get a FULL body paint.

Honestly ... I came away from that experience with a whole new level of respect for the models. It was already extremely high, as all the models would attest to anyway, but it got a whole lot higher after I went through the experience. Bertolt Brecht once wrote, "The world of knowledge takes a crazy turn when teachers themselves are taught to learn." The same concept applies to the old adage of the best teacher is experience. Once you have done it yourself, your understanding becomes much greater and you become far more knowledgeable than you can imagine.

Thank You Anna for such a GREAT article. Although I do have to say I respectfully disagree with the fact photographers should always ask before touching the model. I am from the camp/viewpoint of a photographer should NEVER touch a model for any reason. I realize, as you stated, it can prove to be easier to ask permission and then do it in a very respectful way, but ... Easier is not always better. I stick to my guns on this fact and I just simply never touch the model for any reason. I will have a female assistant or the HMUA or another model do that sort of thing for me. That way the model never becomes uncomfortable. :-) Too many times I have had models explain to me they respond with an affirmative response simply because they think it is what is expected of them as a model. No Way. No. Nuh-Uh. Sorry Anna. Just have to respectfully disagree on the touching the model aspect.

Anna Dabrowska's picture

Thanks Brian, so want to see that body paint image of your torso now! :) Yes I agree to some extent that no touching should be the norm but have seen sets where it happens and the vibe stays very cool. Depends on the photographer, the model and what you are shooting. If you are a beauty photographer and the point is to get a head tilt to the millimeter the MUA will not be able to replace the photographer.

Derek Yarra's picture

Great post! Directing models is definitely the most challenging part of being a photographer.

Daniel Simfukwe's picture

I laughed having gone thru some of your similar experiences in production shoots mostly

matt Knappick's picture

Great Read!! I am working with fitness competitors 90% of the time and I find we can normally find some common ground to talk about and make a connection, you are right about the subject feeding off the photographer. I really don't hold back on my reactions to viewing a photo if its a good one, Ill normally yell F*** YES or something like that which lifts the mood of the person im shooting dramatically. Sometimes they bring friends or family along to shoots and I can't really yell get the **** of my set to them but its good to remove the things that distract the model for sure.

I really liked the clarity of the article. Thanks for posting it.

I wanted to share my own do/don't which is literally about do and don't. I find it helpful to always phrase your requests to the model positively. Instead of "don't make your eyes squint so much" to "open your eyes a little more. Or "don't lean too much" to "pull back a bit from the lean." I think this helps set up a positive feedback loop so your model is clear on your requests and also feels good about your direction. Also, lots of honest praise and encouragement is helpful - "that position you hit looked lovely" "the tilt of your head was great." "I liked when you moved your arm here." You may ultimately not use tons of material you shoot, but I think you and the model will have a more positive time and get better results this way. Rapport on set is important.

Hey Anna, who is the model from the header (the cover photo). She is gorgeous!

Alexander Roan's picture

Hi, as someone that wants to get more into shooting fashion and beauty this was really interesting to read.

I wanted to ask you a little more about relaxing the models and getting them into the right frame of mind. I have read advice of 'don't tell a subject to look natural' as it will make people self conscious immediately. Do you have any other tricks for getting models into the right frame of mind.

If we wanted for example a loving look could we ask the model to close their eyes for a few minutes and pretend they are together with a loved one (think of a nice memory), I think body language follows our thoughts.. Or would that come across too weird on a shoot?

sacha grootjans's picture

Thank you for your post. I love the part of you shooting to the hair and mua folks.

QUOTE There is only one way to do that: experience it firsthand; become a model yourself for an hour or a day. UNQUOTE - This is the best piece of advice in your review (which I obviously read to the end).

I went to a workshop a few years ago where the model never turned up. The instructor asked the eight of us if somebody would volunteer as a model. Nobody did. So we waited for the model. Didn't come. Then I volunteered. For an hour. That hour turned into a full day. Taught me more than if I had been behind the camera.

David Moore's picture

"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." - Brilliant!

Solid article! Thanks for writing this. It's a great reminder for photographers just starting out and for all the dinosaurs out there. Got to the end and glad I did!