How to Direct Your Models in a Photoshoot?

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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 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 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 behaviour.

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, most 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?

Fashion shoots can be a lot of fun if you know what you’re doing. From different costumes and makeup to cool poses, there is plenty to work with.

Regardless of your own experience, it is always good to remember a few tips to make every photo shoot you do fabulous every time! Whether you are directing professional models or first-timers, here are some tips to help you run your photoshoots as successfully as possible.

Check Your Mood

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Have you ever been served by a rude shop assistant or waiter that was in a bad mood? How did it make you feel?

Your mood on the day of your shoot will have a significant impact on the people around you. If you want the people you photograph to look and feel relaxed, you should look and feel comfortable.

Try to Be Interested Rather Than Interesting

A great portrait photographer knows how to speak to their models and make them feel comfortable, confident and relaxed. A person’s name is the sweetest sound to their ears, so remember it and use it often.

Most people’s favourite topic of conversation is themselves. Ask questions, be interested and listen to their answers.

Ditch the boring clichés, saying stuff like “make love to my camera” sounds creepy

Work with a language you are comfortable with. If you are softly spoken, then this is how you should give direction. Trying to be someone else will make directing awkward for you and your model.

As the photographer, you should always be the first to arrive and the last to leave.

Always have your lighting, poses and location worked out in advance. Your model will already be feeling nervous and vulnerable. Subjecting them to lighting tests and your uncertainty is only going to make them feel worse.

You Need to Know How to Pose

Practice posing to learn which positions will flatter a body and which shapes look good from different angles. Or be a model for another photographer and experience what it’s like to be directed by someone else.

Then explain the pose in different ways:

  • Get in there and do the pose for them. Show them what you want.
  • Could you explain it to them at the same time?
  • Then get your model to do the pose before you start shooting.

This is not only the quickest and most effective way to get your sitter into the pose; it helps you develop a rapport. Once your model knows how nice the pose looks on you (and realizes they won’t look foolish), they will be much happier to do what you’re asking.

Use Visual Rather Than Verbal Cues

The quickest and most effective way to direct a person is by giving them visual rather than verbal cues. Telling your clients how to stand with verbal cues would sound something like this:

“Stand with your feet adjacent to each other, weight on your back foot, hips side on, front toe to the camera, right arm on hip, left arm in the pocket, chest ¾ to the camera, head slightly right; No sorry, my right. Now move your head left; sorry, I mean right. Now step left; sorry, I mean right…”

Verbal cues become incredibly confusing and can diminish rapport with your client. You become frustrated because your client keeps moving the wrong way, and your client is confused, uptight and lacking in confidence.

Visual cues are by far the best way to pose your clients. Once your client is in the correct position, continue to use visual cues to direct them.

Some examples of this would be:

  • “Turn your face towards that tree” instead of “turn your face to the left.”
  • “Move your face towards the window and move your eyes back to look into my camera” instead of “turn your face to the right and look at me.”

Praise and Encourage

Give positive feedback when your model is doing the right thing. It’s classic positive reinforcement, but it works.

Ignore the bad and praise the good. Talking to your model will keep them relaxed, so they don’t worry about what you’re thinking behind the camera (because that’s precisely what they’re worried about).

One Size Does Not Fit All

It’s essential to choose poses that fit your model.

Trying to impose a particular style and attitude onto the shoot is a shortcut to your model looking and feeling uncomfortable. Most great portrait photographers are masters at letting their model’s personality come through in their shots?

Eye, Eye, Eye

Everything you think about is mirrored in your eyes. I notice this in the eyes of women more than men.

Even if you’ve nailed the pose, the lighting, and the location, an insincere smile or eyes that lack emotion can ruin your shot.

How do you get your sitter to switch off?

While you can’t stop your sitter from thinking, you can direct them to a better headspace to reduce negative thought patterns.

Here are a few visualization techniques:

  • Favourite holiday destination
  • Dream job scenario
  • We are meeting one of their idols.

Ask your sitter to look away from the camera and then back again after each frame. This is especially useful on a long shot as it distracts your sitter long enough to give them fresh, thoughtful eyes for each image.

Make slight variations on the pose to make it a little more interesting, such as asking your sitter to make their smile bigger or smaller.

The Quiet Moments in Between Frames

Some of my best portraits have been captured in those moments between frames when the model thought I wasn’t shooting and relaxed their “pose face” or glanced/laughed off camera. Watch for these moments. They are gold.

Before shooting, make your instructions clear and realistic to achieve.

It’s a good idea to discuss each look as the model is preparing to go on set, so there are clear goals and expectations. Giving the model an idea of how much freedom of movement they have will ensure your session goes according to plan. 

Get the Shots You Need

Make sure to cover all the shots you need before the model gets changed. Those might include the front image, the back shot and a nice close-up detail shot.  

Maintain a Good Flow

Show what you’re after if necessary. Keep regular communication going with your model during the session.

Give instructions when you feel like you’re not getting quite the photo you need, but don’t be too impatient. Sometimes you have to wait for the pose to look right. 

Work Together With the Model

Instruct and give direction but also provide the model freedom to do what they think is best. Even better, tell the model if you’re giving them more creative freedom – or if you’re going to be directing them to pose by pose. 

Inform the Model About Outfits

Inform the model how many outfits and variations you’re looking to photograph during a particular photoshoot.

Make Sure You Discuss Visuals

After defining your marketing brief and style guide, discuss the posing for the look before you go on set. Use a mood board and other visual cues if necessary. 

Add Marks to the Floor for Consistency

To help guide your model to stand in the correct position, it can help make some light markings on the floor or reference the ceiling. This ensures that framing, focus and lighting will stay consistent throughout. 

Dos and Don’ts in Directing Your Model

how to direct your models in a photoshoot

The Dos 

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 humour (well, your sense of humour), 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 hurry back to the elaborate light setup to continue happily triggering your newly acquired flash set.

Take care of their needs: food, drinks, comfy slippers, and clean bathrobes for 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 tip, 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 the National Headache Foundation commissions you).

Use music to help you out if needed, but cut it off if your model is distracted by it. 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.

It is great to show them what works and what does not; when they understand, they get excited with some models. 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 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 have not managed to direct them. Protecting your relationship with them is one of the essential things on a set.

Capture as Many Different Expressions and Poses as Possible.

There is nothing wrong with having your model(s) smile or use their go-to pose, but you do not want over a hundred photos with the same expression and position.

It is essential to mix it up for the best possible results. An experienced model may give you many poses and moods without much direction, but you may need to provide some guidance if you are working with an amateur model.

Do Some Research.

This might seem like a beginner’s tip, but it never hurts to have a refresher. What have some of your favourite and most successful fashion photographers done?

For example, the hair alone could make or break a fabulous shot. Learning how to position hair on longer-haired models or styling short hair can add a new edge to your photos.

The same goes for knowing how to pose different body parts to make the models look their best without digital manipulation.

Be a Conversationalist.

No, you don’t have to be a socialite, but talking with your models will help alleviate any awkwardness either of you may be experiencing. It will also make models much more comfortable with you.

Additionally, don’t forget to give positive feedback. How will your models know if they are doing a good job? Tell them! It will make for a better experience for both of you.

Keep Taking Pictures.

Some photographers have hundreds of pictures from the same shoot. This is because photographers know the more photos they have after a node, the more options they have.

Taking a ton of images is worth it if you find “the one” that could define your (and your models’) portfolio(s).

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 minded 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 are 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 say it with a thick Italian accent 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 lousy 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 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

Now, here is our 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 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 spend looking at the photographer when shooting or 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 vital 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 modelling profession. Could you do it? 

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