Tricks and tips for a first session with models

A couple of days ago I was browsing a subreddit where someone asked for advice when photographing a model for the first time. One day afterwards, another person asked mostly the same, tricks to make the model feel comfortable. This has made me think that perhaps there are many people around here who would like to start taking pictures about models and do portraiture, but they don’t feel able to manage a session and the responsibilities that it implies.

In my opinion, most of the insecurity a photographer suffers before doing his/er first session is just a consequence of not knowing what to expect, and disappears soon after the beginning of the session. Besides, I thought that the advice I provided could be useful for many people beginning to take portraiture pictures, so I decided to share them here too.


Know your ene… your friend!

One of the key advice I can give for this kind of session is: know the person you are going to photograph. It can be very uncomfortable and cold to take pictures of someone while both stay silent not knowing what to say. Confidence is important, as it gets reflected in the expression of the model.

I only photograph people I know, friends, people I’m confident with. This way there is no problem in finding a topic to talk about during the session and conversation will flow naturally. But, of course, you also want to photograph people you have never seen before. What I do is to convert them in “friends” before the shooting. A couple of days before the session I like to meet them to take a coffee (or tea if they are English gentlemen) and explain some details of the session. In this meeting (around 30 minutes, but it can be longer if the feeling is good) I explain the idea I have about the session so they can think about it. If they know what to expect and have a couple of days to think about it, they will feel more confident as all the process will sound familiar to them. I explain what pictures I plan to take, some details about the material, why I chose the place or any tips about posing that may be useful.

But I also use this meeting for another thing: knowing the model. The model is the center of the shooting, everything moves and evolves around him/er. This means that knowing how s/he thinks, what does s/he expects from the session and other personality features will help to design and adapt better the session. The meaning of a portraiture session is to show the person as it really is, capturing the essence. Also, knowing a little bit about the model allows to find topics in common to talk about during the session. This way is harder to get to a dead silent point where no one knows what to talk about.

A famous photographer once said that you cannot take a good portrait of someone without falling in love with them a little bit. Once you get to that point, you start to see the real subtle aspects of the person that make him/er unique, and you can use photography to share them with the rest of the world in a way that when people see the picture will exclaim: “wow, this picture is really him/er”.

You know... Just hiding

Even if your model is shy, you can use it as an advantage to take some pictures that show the personality. It’s important to adapt to the model, not making the model adapt your ideas of the session.


Have I ever told you about the weather in Madagascar?

This is another of the golden topics, so important that has already appeared in the previous one. You should never stop talking for more than a minute. It might seem hard at first, but it is really important.

In order to achieve a connection and complicity a good flow of ideas needs to be present. It doesn’t matter about what you talk as long as you keep a natural an fluid conversation. Use what you learnt about the model to bring those topics to the conversation. In the worst case make the model talk about himself. People like to talk about their lives and will bring up some conversation for a while.

Also, you can use some time to explain what you are doing, why you do it, and teach a little of basic photography. Knowing a little bit about the process will make the model feel more involved in the shooting, and by extension more confident about posing.

If the model gives you some ideas, never discard them. Even if it sounds dumb, you never know how well an idea will perform until you try it, and you might find it provides a good picture at the end that you would have never got if you hadn’t considered it. This will also make the model feel a part of the process, and feel his/er ideas valued and respected. Even if the idea doesn’t fit with the theme you had in mind for the session, taking a few more pictures is not expensive in time and money nowadays, and the model will be happy to have them. If you don’t like them, you are not forced to publish them in your social networks or blog.


Use props to distract the attention

Holy Week V
The prop the girl is using provides more interest and context to the picture than a picture just of her face. Her gaze from behind the prop is what gives strength to the composition

Another trick that I read some time ago and worked very well for me is bringing a small prop to the session. Sometimes the object is related to the theme of the shoot or something related to the model. Other times it is just something innocent that doesn’t hurt the image, like a lollipop, a small ball, a ring, or a bell. The point is that when the model has something to fiddle with, gets distracted with it and feels less nervous. It works as an axiety release valve and helps the model to feet attached to something. If the prop doesn’t belong to the session and is cheap, you can give it to her as a present, so she has a nice memento of the shooting.

If the object is related to the shooting theme, you can also use it artistically to show a new perspective of the model’s personality. For example, if the model plays a musical instrument, you can make some pictures using it. If s/he likes an sport, you can use clothes and a ball related to that sport or the favourite team. This way the model has a familiar object to distract with, and it can add a new dimension to the portrait and what you want to show.


Respect the space of the model

This is a so important advice that takes a paragraph only for it. Give the model space to move and act without interfering with him/er. The minimum distance should be the one that, even if you extend your arm completely to the front, you won’t be close to touch him/er. And also never touch the model to correct the posing. If you need to give indications, do it by voice, or do it yourself and let the model mimic you. Touching a model is usually one of the fastest ways to incommode him/er and make the session unpleasant.


Technical advice, because I’m never too much technical

Also some technical advice can help to obtain better pictures and feel better about the result of the session:

  • Use a short tele for portraiture. Between 70-200mm is recommended. Take into account the crop factor of your camera. In APS-C format, for example, a 50mm works like an 80mm, which is a good focal for this kind of photography. A zoom adds versatility, a prime lens allows you to take pictures with lower illumination level and take more advantage of the ambient light. Wide angle lenses might give a good portrait if you know how to use them artistically, but they tend to distort the face proportions, so use them with care. More than 200mm should not be used, as it compresses so much, yielding flat faces with low attraction.
  • Some people claim that for wide faces a narrow lighting should be used, and for a narrow face a broad lighting is the correct one. I believe it’s not a strict rule, and you can use both creatively, but taking this advice in mind gives you a good starting point for the session. This rules are made by experience and usually work well, but can also be broken if the creativity allows a better picture. Never avoid trying new approaches and experimenting a little bit, as you will be expending just a little bit of time in exchange for the possibility of achieving a great picture; but keep the rules at hand, as an average they will work very well.
  • If you do a close-up, you can cut slightly the forehead, but never cut over the neck. In case of doubt it’s better if you take the picture a little bit wider capturing everything and you recompose afterwards on the computer cutting on the right place.
  • If you feel that the model is appearing in the pictures with the face wider that what it should, make him/er to move the forehead slightly to the front. This will change the perspective and will help to dissimulate some defects. This Youtube video explains it very graphically.


The Pearl of Japan (Reprise)

This picture, taken using a focal length of 67 mm (full frame) shows the face keeping the proportions natural, providing a natural appeal.


With all this advice in mind, I think any first session with models will go slightly better. Do you have any other tip or trick you use in your sessions? Share it in the comments.


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