How to Direct Models During Portrait Shoots

A great portrait is not just a great face! There is much more behind it! We will concentrate on some basic ideas that will help you in either of these scenarios. First off, the rules of engagement. How do you create an atmosphere of comfort that inevitably allows your subject to be photographed? 

Most people are not used to being listened to. Interact with people and be genuinely interested in their stories and experiences. Smile a lot and listen. Promote discussion and exchange ideas where the subject feels important and supported. There is no judgment – only compassion, empathy, and understanding for another human being.

If you find yourself to be in a nervous or anxious mood, your subject will feel and respond to it by shutting down. The sooner you relax and check your insecurities at the door, the quicker you will both find yourself in a space of trust.

Trust yourself. Trust that you can always count on doing your very best. Mistakes happen, but you should not let fear of failure guide you. We have all been in situations where batteries fail, memory cards fill up, equipment breaks…. Perhaps the scariest one is when your creativity fails you, when you just cannot find the magic, when you run out of ideas. While we cannot always have fantastic shoots, remain positive and trust that your different photo experiences will make you grow!

Be grateful for these amazing moments in time you get to share with different individuals.

Something very useful for women, is to offer them the opportunity of having their hair and make-up done. There is nothing like a little glam session to help a woman unwind. Make sure you trust your hair and make-up person – remember that they are there to assist you in getting a good image of your subject. Always have the make-up and hair person come to you, at your studio or home or wherever you will be photographing and be present while the glam is happening.

Proper clothing is essential. The clothing must fit well. It isn’t enough that the subject likes the item of clothing – if it does not fit properly, it will not photograph well, and in turn, the subject will not like the final image. Encourage them to bring a few items of clothing and sway their final decision towards something that fits them properly. It is all about helping your subject feel confident and comfortable.

Encourage your subject to feel confident! Talk to them throughout the photo shoot. Ask them about their favorite activity / book / sport. Ask them about their children. Most people will clench their fists, tighten their jaw, or sweat when they are feeling uncomfortable. Remind them that they are doing just fine. Most people will lean forward, or tilt their head down. Remind them to lift their chin and stand comfortably. Talk, talk, talk! Notice angles and light. Notice how the light hits their face / body and adjust accordingly. Remember body language and understand the power that an image has in conveying a message (e.g.: crossed arms might make your subject feel more comfortable but might send the completely wrong message).

The last few tips are not necessarily applicable when photographing models. Models are used to being photographed and so your role will be quite different. There will be less of a need to ease your subject into the idea of being photographed. Most models are “on” as soon as they are in front of a camera. Your role will be more that of an artistic director – placing the model in a scene, effective composition, etc. You get to play and push yourself photographically!

Lastly, be sure to thank your subject when the shoot is done. There are no rules set in stone; it is all trial and error. What works for others might not work for you and vice versa. But you can rely on the first 4 tips….

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