THE MODEL - PHOTOGRAPHER RELATIONSHIP: 5 THINGS TO CONSIDER

I tend to ask a lot of questions during my shoots. It’s not that I’m naturally chatty, it’s just that I am curious about people and want to hear their story. Who are they? Why do they do what they do? What brought them here? And, last but not least, “what can I learn from you today?”

It’s not quite as self-serving as that, but it’s true that I am always looking for opportunities to learn something from each person I meet. So when I started shooting studio fashion photography I made it a point ask the models I worked with about their experiences working with photographers in the industry. My favorite question? “What was the worst shoot you have ever done?” For the most part I expected to hear things that I could file away as ways to avoid a train wreck. Things like “…and then the stupid flashes broke” (ok, remember to bring spares) or “…the studio was soooo cold” (ok, remember heaters), or “…that photographer took so long to set up” (right, make sure I’m set up ahead of time). As time went on I started noticing common themes woven throughout almost all of the worst experiences I had heard and it occurred to me that many of these things can be avoided with just a bit of awareness and forethought, so that is basically the point of this article. I want to share a few things that you should keep in mind while working with a model that will help keep the ship from running aground. It’s part feedback from the models themselves, part common sense, and a number of healthy servings of my own obliviousness over the course of developing as a photographer.

Make sure you and your model are on the same wavelength before the shoot… not to mention the same season.

Make sure you and your model are on the same wavelength before the shoot… not to mention the same season.

1. “WHAT WE HAVE HERE IS A FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE..."

I once hired a model to do a swimsuit shoot on a river bank I am particularly fond of in the foothills below Mt. St. Helens. I explained the location to the model in detail, adding that it was only a couple hundred feet from the parking lot. “Not an extensive hike or anything at all” I think is how I ended up describing it. What I neglected to mention, however, was that the “couple hundred feet” was all off-trail. Over wet rocks. Covered with moss. Along a raging river swollen with near-freezing glacial water after the spring thaw. Oh, right, and then there was that cliff we had to climb down…

Yeah, she wasn’t too happy. And rightfully so, I would have been pissed! Those details were kind of important, you know? But the fact is I didn’t even think of them. I was so familiar with the area (I had been going there since I was in high school) and so wrapped up in all of the artistic details of the shoot that it just didn’t occur to me to discuss such mundane details like “bring hiking shoes… and maybe a climbing harness.”

And it’s not just the technical details that sometimes get overlooked, either. Only you, the photographer, truly understand what your vision is for the shoot, and you best be sharing every detail you can about that vision with the model so they can do everything they can to bring it to life. I have found this is a 1:1 relationship, the more the model knows about your vision the more they can do to make it a reality. 

Now, I keep a checklist and one of the things on that list is an entry called “The Model’s Shoes,” and no it doesn’t have anything to do with footwear. It’s to remind me to take a moment and put myself into the model’s position and ask myself if I have given them all of the information I would want myself before walking into a shoot. I have one for the MUAH, wardrobe, and assistants as well, and it’s been pretty effective so far. Whatever method works best for you just be sure you are over-communicating with your team.

And remember, we aren’t just talking about before the shoot, either. Good communication is critical at all stages of the shoot, from start to finish. We will talk more about this later but remember that the model is your partner here, your teammate. Let them in! Give them feedback during the shoot, ask them what they think, tell them what you are seeing and what ideas you are getting as the shoot progresses. The performance of any team is only as good as the communication between its teammates.

“But the expression was perfect…”

“But the expression was perfect…”

2. KNOW WHEN TO HOLD... AND WHEN TO FOLD

Another kind of amusing story to share with you. Last year I was contracted to shoot actor portraits and “behind the scenes” images for a feature film being shot in Portland, OR. I tasked my lighting assistant with being my second shooter during one of the big scenes since so many of the top-billed actors would be present and I wanted to cover as many angles as possible. My assistant ran off and dutifully lurked around, unseen, shooting candids of unsuspecting actors through the evening. Eventually she focused in on the lead actor.

Assistant (mumbling to herself): “That’s a good shot <click><click> Cool… <click> Yeah, look over here, big shot… <click><click>”

Actor (not mumbling in the least): “Um… miss, do you MIND…?

Assistant: “What? Me? I’m just shooting some BTS shots while you’re, um, oh, changing your pants… Heh.. oops…”

Yeah, that resulted in a bit of an uncomfortable discussion with the producers. But it goes to show how easy it can be to get so wrapped up in the objective that we lose sight of what’s going on around us. She was shooting headshots using a long lens so she didn’t even see what he was doing as she took the picture, she just knew he was caught in some sort of moment that she wanted to capture.

We all want “that” shot, the one where the subject is in their element, wrapped up in the moment, and oblivious to the lights, camera, and action that surrounds them. Trouble is they might also be adjusting their boob or something at the same time, just be aware. The model is trusting you to capture them at their best so we need to make sure they don’t think we are immortalizing something awkward or private. When that happens just get up for a moment and take the camera out of shooting position, that’s all that is needed to communicate to them you aren’t capturing anything not meant for the public to see.

Communication applies particularly to capturing images that incorporate implied photography (using models who are nude but strategically covered). This is a very powerful style of photography used for everything from fine art to fashion to commercial and can be stunning when done right, but it’s all about angles. A few inches in either direction and suddenly you are shooting an entirely different genre, if you know what I mean. Again, the model is placing an enormous amount of trust in the photographer that they will respect the boundaries of the shoot and not end up snapping images they never intended to be captured. So again, be aware. Communicate the angles you are using with your model and give them feedback on what you are seeing in camera. It will go a long way towards building that trust.

Public Safety Tip: let the model adjust the bra strap.

Public Safety Tip: let the model adjust the bra strap.

3. "YOU'VE GOT THE TOUCH..."

Touching the model. On the surface this one seems pretty simple: just don’t be a creep. Everyone agreed? Great, next topic. But seriously, most of the time when I see issues with this it doesn’t have anything to do with photographers trying to take advantage of models, it’s usually just absentmindedness. And I get that, when you are wrapped up in a shoot and you’ve almost got “that shot” save for that one rogue frock of hair or that unsightly gap in the models clothing it’s all too easy to just walk over and fix it. The problem with that is the all-important force field surrounding every person on the planet called “The Bubble.” “The Bubble” is particularly important for models who have to perform a very difficult job while wearing all manners of strange dress (or undress, as is sometimes required) in strange places surrounded by strange people. If the model doesn’t know what’s going on and you start stepping into “The Bubble” without asking or explaining what you intend to do then of course they are going to feel uncomfortable.

Again, this all boils down to communication. You and the model are a team, act like it. Let your teammate know what you see. Delegate, let them fix it, and if they can’t fix it or aren’t in a position to fix it then simply explain to them what you are doing and, most important, ASK to enter their bubble and if you can fix it yourself.

This last part is really important especially for photographers just starting out shooting models. If there is one thing I want to impress on all beginning studio photographers out there, it is to get into the habit early on of asking your teammate (ie model) before you enter “The Bubble” every single time. Sure, as you work with a specific model and build trust with them you will develop a deeper professional relationship and things will get less formal, but even with models I have been shooting for years I will still ask them before setting foot within that bubble. It’s just best practice and one of the foundations of creating a professional, comfortable environment.

“Leather, Wesson Oil, and a rubber chicken… what’s not to like?”

“Leather, Wesson Oil, and a rubber chicken… what’s not to like?”

4. "UM" MEANS NO

I hope by now everyone is starting to see a pattern here. Basically, all of these things come down to good, healthy, professional communication but there are some realities we need to be aware of as photographers that require us to do a little more than simply listen to the words a models is speaking to us. Think of it this way: you are a new model and you just landed a gig with a new photographer. You have seen their images and really respect the work they do, so you are excited to create that level of art with this individual, not to mention a little intimidated. You show up to a studio you have never been to in a part of town you are unfamiliar with to shoot pictures in private with someone you have heard is cool but have never actually met, and all you want to do is knock this gig out of the park so you can get some awesome photos and even better recommendations to other photographers. Yeah, no pressure.

So the shoot goes well, seems like you are getting some good images, and the photographer’s feedback seems to indicate you are doing a good job. Then they make a suggestion… “Oh, I have this outfit I’ve been meaning to shoot. It’s really cool and I think you would be perfect, let me go get it!”

I’ll leave it to your imagination regarding what this photographer came back with, but in reality it is academic. The point is this: who is in control of this situation? Who has the position of authority here? In other words, who has the uphill battle if the photographer comes back with something ridiculous/demeaning/offensive/or simply outside of the model’s comfort zone?

As photographers we need to understand that we inherently sit in a position of comfort and control. It’s our studio (usually) where all this is going on, it’s our concept (typically), we are the ones hiring (and paying) the model, we are the ones directing the shoot, etc, etc, etc. So the model is at an inherent disadvantage if a suggestion is made that they don’t feel comfortable following through with and we must be cognizant of that. True, you never know when inspiration is going to strike and there is nothing wrong with suggesting something spontaneous to the model, but handle it with kid gloves. Don’t dare them to give you a “yes” or a “no,” notice their body language. If they hesitate, close up, shrink away, or have to think about it then that’s a “no.” Respect that and don’t push it. You aren’t the stranger in a strange land here, they are, so don’t make this a test to see how well they stand up for themselves. Show respect.

This is especially important when making any suggestions outside of the original genre that was intended for the shoot. It’s one thing if you are shooting a blue dress but think the red dress in the back would be a better fit, but it’s a completely different thing if you hired a model to shoot athletic wear and walk out with a Victoria’s Secret catalog. My recommendation is that if you want to switch things up and shoot a different (ie. edgier) genre then set up another shoot. It will give the model the freedom to walk away and think about it without being pressured, not to mention demonstrating to them you are willing to continue to invest in their services rather than just “slipping it in” at the end. But understand, a change in genre usually comes with an increase in price, be prepared to pay it.

There is one last thing I want to say on this topic. Up until now I have been pretty “gender neutral” in regards to the model/photographer relationship. But in some situations when you are talking about a male photographer and a female model it changes things significantly. I remember discussing male/female politics with a friend of mine once and she said something that has stuck with me ever since. She said “I know it’s hard for guys to understand but they don’t live in a world where literally half of the population could physically do whatever they wanted to them if they wanted to bad enough and be powerless against it.” It really made me think. Yes, I’m generalizing here and there are plenty of women out there who can take care of themselves but, on average, if you put a young female model in a private room with a older male photographer and things get physical… well, you can see her point.

I want to stress that the vast majority of male photographers out there are decent, respectful, honest people who would never dream of doing anything to take advantage of a young model but the fact is predators do exist. Far too many of the models I have worked with have at least one really scary story like that to tell and it simply shouldn’t be that way. This is one area where we have to be an example. If you suggest that “great idea” and the model isn’t looking comfortable with it, be her advocate. Be that photographer who demonstrates to her that she has a right to decide her boundaries and have them respected. 

“Meh, it’s not like you’re paying me for these, you know”

“Meh, it’s not like you’re paying me for these, you know”

5. ALWAYS DELIVER YOUR BEST

As photographers we are all committing to a journey. Photography is a craft, a skill, and an art form. As a craft the value we create is intimately tied to the quality of our creations. As a skill we are in a constant state of developing those abilities we use to create those images. And as an art form a huge part of that “quality” is left to the interpretation of the viewer. “Quality” is, hence, both objective and subjective, and I think that is an important point for every photographer to remember. YOU are the judge of your art, you are its most important audience, and you are ultimately the one to decide how effectively you have rendered your vision. But all that being said the objective side cannot be ignored. The craft and skill of photography provides an objective framework around the subjective-ness of the art. As such there are rules, a generally accepted right way and wrong way to execute, construct, and create.

It is these objective traits that I am referring to when it comes judging the “quality” of the images we deliver, our technical ability to deliver great images.

In the studio photography industry, particularly with people just starting out in it, there is a concept called “TFP,” or “Trade For Prints.” The idea is that a model or other artist will trade their services in exchange for the photographer trading theirs, usually in the form of a series of finished digital images. It a GREAT way for people to collaborate, build their portfolio, try out a new concept, network, or just get some more practice, but there seems to be a lot of confusion regarding TFP considering just how often I hear people complain about it. I think the root of the issue boils down to this: TFP does not mean “for free.”

“Trade for print” is exactly what it says. In other words, the model is trading something of value in exchange for the photographer trading something of value in return, and the amount of value we are providing is directly proportional to the quality of images we produce. So before agreeing to your next TFP shoot do a gut check, are you prepared to deliver your best? I’m not talking about spending hundreds of unpaid hours in the editing room, I just mean are you prepared to deliver solid work that is in line with your portfolio (which happens to be what the model used to decide to work with you in the first palace). If not then that’s perfectly fine, but just be honest with the model about what you are prepared to deliver and don’t commit yourself to something you aren’t going to follow through with.

Again, the important thing here is communication. TFP means you are the model’s client and they are yours so treat them as such. Lay out exactly what the images are going to be like, the quality they can expect, how many, what format, and how long they are going to have to wait before they get them. And always deliver your best work, people know “meh” when they see it.

COWRITERS... NOT CLAY

I hope you find some of these points thought provoking. In conclusion I want to touch on a broader subject regarding the relationship between models and photographers. I hear quite often photographers referring to models as “clay.” A “muse” sort-of-speak to inspire and then be molded into whatever final form the photographer so desires. I want to submit for your consideration a different approach, the model as our “cowriter.”

I approach photo shoots kind of the way I approach writing a song. I have an idea and a direction, but I don’t necessarily have a destination. The destination becomes set when the rest of the band steps in, each contributing their piece of the puzzle, until a fully realized picture is formed. I like to think of my relationship with the model in the same way. We have a goal, we have a direction, and we have a message, maybe even a horizon to head towards, but the final destination remains to be discovered. On your next shoot try letting the model really be an active participant in that discovery. Let them “co-write” that image with you and see where that takes you, what you come up with could be amazing!

Happy shooting!

Photography and Author: Grey Proctor of Infinity Point Studio