When I was getting started in photography several years ago, one of the hardest things for me to do was muster up the courage to get somebody in front of my camera. I wanted to do portraiture, but I had no clue where to start with people, so I simply stuck to landscapes. At this time I read every article and book on photography I could get my hands on, but I couldn’t find any materials that actually answered any of the questions I had. So I’m writing the article that I wanted to read all those years ago. The following is not only about posing, but more importantly, how to work with another person and effectively communicate what you wish to achieve. You may already know much of what I’ll discuss below, but I’m going to proceed assuming that the reader is new to portrait photography.
Taking pictures of people is one of the great joys of photography. I don’t know what it is about our species, but we sure do like looking at ourselves. Shooting portraits is unlike shooting any other subject, as it becomes a give and take where the model often brings as much, if not more, to the table than the photographer herself.
The Basics of Professionalism
This should go without saying, and you probably already know this, but it is crucial in any creative endeavor to be professional at all times. You want your model to take your shoot seriously, so you better take it seriously yourself.
You’re asking a model to be in front of the camera, and by the very nature of doing so, be vulnerable for you. Your job is to make them comfortable by being professional and knowing exactly what you’re doing. This also ties into having a vision, which is something I will discuss further in the next section.
I keep mentioning the concept of acting ‘professional’. What exactly does that mean, somebody from the back row asks. Well, in the world of photography, it largely comes down to not being a creep. This is a huge, HUGE problem for male photographers, and something that drags down the entire industry. From the highest tiers of professional photography to the guy who just found a camera yesterday, photographers are constantly abusing their position to hit on models and put them in compromising positions. Allow me to emphasize the following:
Do not hire models for the purpose of trying to date or hook up with them.
Do not attempt to flirt with or harass a model on set under any circumstances.
Always ask if a model is comfortable with the setup, and if they are not, do not push them to do it anyway.
If a model has a fee, respect it and move on if you cannot pay it.
It’s sad that this kind of predatory behavior is so prevalent, but it’s a reality to be aware of. If a model asks to bring an escort to a shoot, always let them. They have that right, and it is often crucial to their continued safety. For those of you interested in boudoir or nude shoots, underline everything I mentioned above.
Trust is crucial to any creative endeavor, and it is up to the photographer to create a safe environment. Be courteous, be confident, be kind, be fun, be professional.
Having a Vision
Now that that is out of the way, it is essential to your shoot to have a vision of what you want to do. There isn’t anything worse than standing the model in front of your camera and then… you got nothing. Have a clear idea before the model shows up of what you want to shoot and what look you’re going for. Explain to the model at the beginning of the shoot what you’re trying to do and how you’re going to do it.
Find and inspect the pictures that inspire you, think about the pictures you want to make, and create a plan to get the shots you want. Don’t overlook crucial elements like location, set pieces, props, and lighting. Get it all together before the shoot, and be sure to write a list of what you want to get. I find that when I’m caught up in a shoot I can’t remember hardly anything, so it’s extremely helpful to have something written down that I can refer back to.
Having a vision doesn’t mean restricting yourself. To paraphrase a wise military man, having a battle plan is crucial to success, but it’s also the first thing to get thrown out the window in a battle.
Directing the Model
Directing a model can be one of the more difficult aspects of a shoot, especially if you’re working with an inexperienced subject. Professional models will make it easy on you, as they will essentially direct themselves. However, if you have a clear enough vision and are capable of directing an inexperienced model, you will be able to create amazing work with a pro.
Don’t be afraid to tell the model exactly how you want them to pose. Most models will appreciate the clear direction, as they are trying to help you get what you want. One of the most effective ways of communicating what you want the model to do is to show them the pose yourself. Don’t worry about feeling silly or self-conscious, the only way to look dumb is to not get the image you want because you were worried somebody would laugh at you.
The beginning of a photo session is always the most awkward. It takes some time to get in the rhythm of a shoot for both the photographer and the model, so save your most important setups for later. I always like to talk to the model and get to know them a bit at the beginning of a session, especially if it is the first time meeting them. Throughout the shoot, keep the model informed about what you’re planning and what you’re thinking.
A friend of mine told me she once modeled for a photographer who was completely silent and stood staring at her for a half hour before finally taking a single photo. She asked him what she should be doing and he refused to tell her. Don’t be that photographer. Communication is crucial. The model wants to help you achieve your shot, so be sure to let them know how to do it.
The Technical Stuff
The technical side of the posing, lighting, and framing that goes into taking portrait photography has filled many a book. In fact, the vast majority of the information out there is about just this side of a shoot.
Personally, I think the best way to learn is to get out there and shoot, shoot, shoot. Sometimes you’ll be frustrated, sometimes it’ll feel effortless. Think about what you’re trying to achieve, and when you finish a shoot, look at what images were successful and which ones didn’t quite work out. Pick them apart. What made one image compelling, and another not? What type of image is speaking to you? What photos you took in the past are still exciting to you, and which ones now seem dull as your range of techniques increase?
As you shoot, make sure you shoot a wide variety of types of portraiture. You never know when you’ll learn something taking fun pictures of a newborn infant that will end up helping on a costumed superhero shoot you do the next day. Try different lenses, different formats, different tones, and different styles. Also make sure to play in other genres that don’t include people at all, including landscapes and abstract photography.
With that, I’ll share a personal philosophy that I try to follow with much of my portrait photography. If an environment or setup won’t look good without the model, it’s not good enough for a portrait. Great landscape photography leads directly to great portrait photography.
Makeup, Hair, and Costuming
On simple shoots, it is perfectly acceptable to ask the model to provide some options for outfits and to do their own makeup. However, if you have something specific in mind, or if you’re working on a project that actually has a budget, you will need to help provide the outfit as well as either pay for the makeup needed or provide a makeup artist.
Makeup artists are worth their weight in gold. They are expensive to hire on a freelance basis, but if you can find somebody to team up with, they are indispensable on set. They will watch the model, making sure the makeup is perfect and that there isn’t a rogue hair ruining the shot. When I’m working alone, I often kick myself later when I find something has gone awry with the model’s makeup or outfit and I didn’t catch it because I was too focused on getting the image itself.
Finding Models to Work With
Don’t be that photographer who only takes pictures of his or her girlfriend. Find different people to work with and you’ll build up a pool of models that you can depend on. Not everyone is going to be a perfect fit, which is why I like to do small shoots with a new model before working with them on a major project.
When I started out, I was extremely shy about asking people to model for me. But I realized a funny thing about human nature: people love getting their picture taken. They may act bashful, but we all love the attention, and what is more attentive than a photographer taking pictures of you? So if you have people that you know that you think would make for good subjects, ask!
While taking pictures of people around you is a great beginning, eventually you’re going to want to expand your network. Model Mayhem is a great place to start. The website is a bit of a mess, but I have found many wonderful people though the site. Because the site is chock full of strange photographers, here are a few pointers. First, when you find somebody you want to work with, send them a detailed message introducing yourself and explaining what the project is that you would like to work with them on. Second, make sure your photo portfolio on your site is representative of what you generally shoot. Third, be friendly and most of all, professional, even if the other person isn’t.
If you have a budget, talent agencies are great places to find exactly the model you need. Just Google search your area see what’s out there. Often times, photographers that are already experienced but want to build up their portfolio further will reach out to agencies and offer to take photos of new models for free. I haven’t done this personally, but it’s a great way to get in touch with high end talent without having to pay for it.
Contracts and the Legal Stuff
You don’t have to be a lawyer to take care of yourself legally. Especially if you have a plan to sell your images, you need to have your model sign a clear, understandable release form. Once I figure out an easy way to get it up on this site, I’ll post a download of the plain English contract that I typically use. You’re welcome to use it.
Discuss with the model how they would like to be credited, where you will be displaying the images, and what you plan to use them for. Clear communication is always helpful, and makes sure that there is no confusion or hurt feelings down the line. What you don’t want to do is to simply overlook having your model sign anything. Worst case scenario, you’re going to end up with images you can’t use.
If you want to shoot portraits, get out there and take portraits. As with any form of photography, your skill is directly correlated to how much you shoot. Take pictures of anybody and everybody, and you’ll eventually find your style and the type of subject that interests you most.
Good luck and happy shooting!
For more information on shooting instant film cameras, check out my introduction to Polaroid cameras.