My 3 Favorite Tips for Photographing Models

Photographers: if you're looking to have a smoother shoot, you might want to try these few tips that really contribute to my photography sessions. Remember, it's how you manage a shoot that really contributes to someone's opinion of you, assuming the photography is already done well.

Here are the three tips, and then, the video will go into greater detail to help you.

Flip It and Forget It

People see a distorted version of themselves, and that's how we all see ourselves. We see ourselves in the mirror, and that's not exactly how society sees us. The mirror flips the image 180 degrees, and it's not a true representation. On many cameras, you can adjust the settings, but the image on the back screen hasn't flipped the way we see it in the mirror. That's why models (new ones) are uncertain about liking an image because they aren't familiar with that person. They see themselves one way, and the world sees them another. 

When I see a model hesitant, it's usually a newer talent. I'll take the image and quickly drop it in LR and flip the image. The result is a model that feels calm and confident again. I'll even explain to them why I'm doing it. The final image is up to the photographer. You can flip it one way or another; it's your art. 

Lie to Them

When I see someone nervous in front of the camera, I'll take 100% of the blame. I'll tell them repeatedly they're doing great and they look great. The problem is on my side. Then, I'll adjust the camera and pretend I'm playing with the settings. Often, I'm just hitting the ISO button without making any adjustment to the ISO settings. Then, I'll fire off a few shots, look at the camera again, and pretend to make another round of adjustments. I'll then shoot a few more images and keep reminding them that the issue is with the camera, not the model. In fact, these are generally my exact words:

You look great! I'm just trying to figure out one little setting here, but it's on my side, not you. You look great; just keep looking at the camera so I can fix my settings over here.

It's essential they keep looking at you. It works; even with bad acting, it'll work.  

Warning: This trick works once, and then, they're on to you! And you want to keep this trick under four minutes. If it drags out, they'll lose all faith in you and start doubting their decision to shoot with you. I tell them each time it was a trick. I've never had one person respond in a negative way; it's just about the delivery. 

Be Explicit

Be explicit in your direction. Be exact, and paint them a situation they can imagine. Often, I'll hear a photographer say: "Beautiful! Now, give me sexy," and this poor model who is in front of all these people starts to look around, nervous and unsure of what they're doing. 

Give them exact scenarios. Everyone is an adult and they want to do a job. Here's an example of being more detailed in your explanation. Also read it in a straight-forward voice, just factual and straight-forward.

Give me a little bit of that Ariana Grande sexy, so not in your face... just very subtle. She does that for a lot of videos and record covers. It's all in the eyes; she looks down and then glances up at you. Give me that and then turn your body away from the camera a little, so you're just being playful and shy at the same time, but still in control.

Skincare photoshoot

Skincare photoshoot

The model who receives that type of instruction will feel more comfortable. I gave her a pop culture reference, followed by other notes on her body, which facial features to use, etc. You're the photographer. You're the director, so direct the talent!

Ultimately, I want you to humanize your photography. Remember that I can buy your camera. I can rent the same lights you have. I cannot be you, and I cannot direct like you. Take advantage of being unique, and let that part of you shine. Humanize how you run your photoshoots, and that will be a great way to stand out from the rest. 

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24 Comments

Daniel Medley's picture

I think that one of the biggest problems is that many photographers have a tendency to over pose models; stand this way, now tilt your head just so, put your hands like this, etc. Another problem is that many photographers don't talk. The only talking they do is to over pose with little or no feedback.

Another thing I'd point out is the importance of tethering. A model being able to see images as they roll out on a computer screen can be an absolute game changer.

Something else I would mention is that if you're doing a portfolio shoot for either you or the model it's likely going to be a completely different approach than that when shooting a look book, e-commerce, or, say, makeup campaign. But that's a whole other topic.

Wolfgang Post's picture

Good ideas, here my 2 cents.
1) 'Mirror flip is not 'flipping by 180 degrees' - that would be rotating, a big difference. But that's geometry.
2) If you try to comfort the model from behind the camera then it's too late. Do that before the camera comes in.
3) Ariana who..? Copying some celeb might not work, simply because your model someone else (unless you have an lookalike talent). Observe the model, try to find poses and expressions that come naturally. I found that letting the model look around and find something interesting, observe things happening around gives a really good, engaged expression. Works better for outdoor, though.
I don't do tethering, here the flip screen of the camera comes in really handy to show the result immediately, or after a certain series. This feedback is a real mood booster because many models are surprised about the angles and expressions I can see from behind the camera - which they haven't seen in themselves.
Last but not least: have breaks to losen up the atmosphere.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

The flip it trick? I haven't heard that before but it might be a good idea for beginners.
But experienced models are very used to seeing themselves in both photos and mirrors.
They know how they look and they know which side is their good side.
I guess it could help.

Walid Azami's picture

Experienced models can even see the post process once they see it tethered or on the back of the camera. You're right! This is more for new models.

Dana Goldstein's picture

Wow. Seriously? Women don't want to be told to "give me sexy" even (or especially, if they're over age 16) if there's an Ariana Grande reference. Women -- including models -- don't "give sexy" on command, not happily and comfortably. Tell women to show strength, to show honesty, to show gentleness, openness, power, calm. Tell them ANYTHING but "sexy." Study how Peter Lindbergh used to work with his models. Such respect for them. There's such a "creepy dude with a camera" vibe about "give me sexy." Just. Don't. Do. It.

Stoopy McPheenis's picture

Yeah, that one definitely made my skin crawl.

Walid Azami's picture

Often, I'll hear a photographer say: "Beautiful! Now, give me sexy" and this poor model who is in front of all these people starts to look around, nervous and unsure of what they're doing.

Translation: Often, I'LL HEAR A PHOTOGRAPHER SAY.... (didn't ever say that's what I say)

Those are NOT my words. That's what I hear from owning a studio in DTLA for years. I've heard women say that and I've heard men say that. They filmed big productions in my space and all highly professional.

Dana Goldstein's picture

You didn’t get the point of my comment. I clearly stated that even using the word sexy with a qualifier of like so and so doesn’t change the fact that the word shouldn’t be used. Models are very vulnerable to judgment and are afraid to say when they feel something inappropriate has been said or done. Just because no one has told you it’s wrong, doesn’t make it ok to continue doing it. Please stop.

It was «sexy», not «sex», after all...

Dog style and doggy style mean absolutely the same.

Rod Kestel's picture

Yeah, that could go badly wrong. For me the overriding thing is a strong rapport, empathy with the model male or female. I'd only ask for the 'sexy' thing with humour and if I knew the person really well. Otherwise, absolutely not.

Michael Kuszla's picture

Who is Ariana Grande?

I had a client once who didn’t know who Bruce Willis is...

Did you ask the model to "Give me sexy, like Bruce Willis"? I'd be confused by that too! :D

Not, it was just encouraging «oh, you have sexy hair, like Bruce Willis»

Walid Azami's picture

She's a starbucks drink

Michael Comeau's picture

#3 makes me cringe.

Just make people laugh and don't be creepy - then things pretty much take care of themselves.

Catherine Bowlene's picture

I liked the last advice but the first one is questionable. Everyone knows we don't look like our mirror reflections to other people and I wouldn't believe that any model has her first photos ever done at this particular photoshoot! In other words, you don't have to flip the photos because any normal person already knows that he or she looks different from the reflection.

Walid Azami's picture

Maybe everyone you've come across but not me, and I don't find them abnormal to not know that.

Catherine Bowlene's picture

Well, you see, there are even jokes on the Internet about how is it so that I look much better in the mirror and the photos are just ugh. It is a common problem

Mark Rowe's picture

I found this article really useful, I don’t shoot portraits but I would like to start. totally agree that the model (experienced or not) needs to feel comfortable and that’s within the photographers control.

On another note - am I reading the comments in the wrong way on some of the other articles.
It’s just that it seems on quite a few the comments section seems to be very negative towards the writer and photographers giving advice, and who are most of the time, experienced in their field. There seems to be a real desire to try and use the comment section to overpower the advice being given. Confusing.

Walid Azami's picture

Thank you, Mark. I think a lot of people look to hyper-critique but I was told it's more about making themselves than to anything else. So I won't get in the way of that but the comments on this website are lethal and it's the culture that's tolerated, sadly. I still write for this site because there are people (like you) who are willing to review the advice of another photographer without trying to dissect it and find something to be offended by. There's a lot of "Don't do this, don't say that, not all ________, etc...." and you just have to ignore that.

Dana Goldstein's picture

Your entire article was about what to say and do. People disagreed with you. Everyone’s got a right to comment. And yeah some of us do know what we’re doing, but I guess it makes you feel better to think you’re above everyone commenting. What a shame, when you might learn something yourself, if only you’d be open.