10 Ways to Direct a Portrait Shoot like a Pro

10 Ways to Direct a Portrait Shoot like a Pro

In this post Gina Milicia – author of our brand new eBook “Fast Flash: Flash Photography for Portraits” shares 10 tips on directing a portrait shoot like a Pro.

Mallory Jansen New York: photo by Gina Milicia

1. Check your Mood

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 is going to have a huge impact on the people around you. If you want the people you photograph to look and feel relaxed then you should look and feel relaxed too.

2. 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 persons name is the sweetest sound to their ears so remember it and use it often.

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

3. “Be yourself, everyone else is already taken.” Oscar Wilde

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

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

Daniel Macpherson: photo by Gina Milicia

4. “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” Benjamin Franklin

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.

5. YOU need to know how to Pose

Practice posing to learn which positions will flatter a body and which shapes looks 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.

  1. Get in there and do the pose for them. Show them what you want.
  2. Explain it to them at the same time.
  3. 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.

Lachy Hulme: photo by Gina Milicia

6. Use Visual rather than Verbal Cues

I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” – Confucius

The quickest and most effective way to direct a person is by giving them visual rather than verbal cues.

Telling my 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 camera, right arm on hip, left arm in pocket, chest ¾ to 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 really 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.

I have found that visual cues are by far the best way to pose your clients.

I simply swap places with my client walk onto the set and go into the pose so they can see exactly what I’d like them to do.

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

7. 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 exactly what they’re worrying about).

Shaun Micaleff: Photo by Gina Milicia

8. One Size does not Fit All

A photograph is just a tiny slice of a subject. A piece of them in a moment. It seems presumptuous to think you can get more than that.” – Annie Leibovitz

It’s really important to choose poses that fit your model.

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

9. Eye, eye, eye

You can’t hide your lying eyes” – The Eagles

Everything you think about is mirrored in your eyes. I actually 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 actually stop your sitter from thinking, you can direct them to a better headspace to reduce any negative thought patterns.

Here are a few visualization techniques I use

  1. Favorite holiday destination
  2. Dream job scenario
  3. 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 shoot as it distracts your sitter long enough to give them fresh, thoughtful eyes for each shot.

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

Just keep talking

10. 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.

Gina is the author of five dPS eBooks including:

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Gina Milicia has been a professional photographer for more than 25 years. She has photographed some of the world’s most high-profile people including royalty, billionaires and A-list celebrities. Often travelling the world, Gina also runs photography workshops and private mentoring sessions. You can sign up for her free ebook on "Portrait and Post Production Essentials" and see more of her work here. Check out her podcast “So you want to be a photographer” on iTunes.

Some Older Comments

  • Amit July 11, 2013 02:35 am

    Fantastic for a beginner like me . Cheers!

  • Roostabunny June 10, 2013 10:28 am

    One of the best posts I've read on DPS, thanks! Particularly knowing how to pose (including practicing it or modeling for another photographer!), and helping a model to think about something that invokes the mood you want. I've tried both those things in the past (well, more the second, though I've studied the first), but I'll keep them more front-of-mind on future sessions!

  • Jackie March 9, 2013 10:44 pm

    Really useful. I went and modelled for a photographer and it has really helped...I was actually quite good too even if I do say so myself ! It gave me an opportunity to practice poses that I could then direct others to try ...

  • Scott February 27, 2013 06:48 am

    Brilliant post and very timely for me as 2013 is the year of the portrait for me, I've just shot my 1st model on location and loved it. I've realised I'm quite a technical shooter and need to learn to trust my instincts with camera setting and focus more on the composition and poses of the model. I'm also quite shy and much prefer the collaboration type of shoots then me just directing a model.

    I suppose this may change with experience and confidence.

  • Brooke F Scott Photography February 24, 2013 04:20 am

    Spot on! I'm bookmarking this post to reread before shoots. Thank you!

  • Joseph February 19, 2013 08:41 am

    Had a portrait shoot this weekend and was hyper sensitive to my mood and how I was directing. I didn't really show people as it was an engagement shoot,(not wanting to slide in behind the groom and put my arms around his neck;) but I was very clear and was sure to tell them what the objective of each shot was. I have a very photojournalistic style and it's often difficult when you are forced to 'pose' people. But I did find by being very specific and demonstrating where I could that I was able to get shots that were just what I wanted. Sexy, funny and with a little implied naughtiness. I sent out a preview and her comment to me was: "You made it so easy".

    Turns out old people can learn. Who knew?

  • Heidi Y February 18, 2013 02:48 pm

    Fantastic tips - I needed these today,..I bought your book, haven't had a chance to read it yet...but after reading through this post- guess what I will be doing tonight!!! Will definitely make use of your advice in my next session. :-) Thanks!

  • Gina Milicia February 7, 2013 08:06 pm

    Thanks so much geo,Brian and Jeruel really appreciate the positive feedback.

    Joseph,I agree, mood is everything in a portrait shoot and can be the difference to an "OK" shot that's technically correct but lacks warmth to one that has a real connection. We can all act a certain way but the eyes and posture always give a persons mood away. Thanks for sharing your comments.

    Toula, thank you very much. So pleased you enjoyed the book!

  • Toula Karayannis February 7, 2013 11:26 am

    Great book Gina! As a passionate amateur I always feel like there are huge gaps in my understanding and confidence. You've written a book that goes a long way to narrowing the gaps. You have such a beautiful way of making someone feel like you are not just teaching but cheering them on. I can't wait for more books from you. P.S. You should have your own comedy show!

  • Jeruel February 6, 2013 05:45 am

    Great post! So much to learn to improve the results. Thanks for this very informative ideas. :)

  • Brian February 6, 2013 04:20 am



  • Joseph February 6, 2013 02:17 am

    Gina thanks so much for this. I'm in the point in my career where I read articles such as this and don't usually learn a lot (because of generalized info that I already know…not because I know everything) but this was so helpful. I find my mood is paramount to the session going well and produces the best shots. When people sit in front of a camera, most of them want to please!

    This will be very helpful going into the upcoming portrait season!

  • geo February 4, 2013 12:26 am

    great post!! thanx Gina!

  • Gina Milicia February 3, 2013 01:46 am

    Thanks so much for all your positive feedback Mridula,Sam,Abigail,Scottc,Jalynn Baker ,Barry E. Warren, Chris,Scott,Joe

    Joe,Rhonda and Guigphotography, My photo shoots always get the best results when I direct by example rather than speaking my directions. Thanks for your remarks.

    Jai Catalano #11 is an excellent addition. Thanks.

    Jon Bromley Thanks and good luck with your shoot!

    Kayla Illies Not every client is going to feel comfortable working with an extrovert either. Your shyness also means you are extra sensitive which is a beautiful trait to have as an artist.

    Karen, I totally agree,your mood is so important to the outcome of a shoot.Leaving your mood by the front door is an excellent strategy. Thanks for sharing.

    Stephen,James and Kieth thanks for you remarks. I've gotten some of my favorite images ever in those in between moments

    Paolo, you will find the more you shoot the more these techniques will become second nature. I could barely remember to check shutter speed and aperture when I first started out.

    Piotrek Ziolkowski using humor is an excellent technique. It's the best way to capture an authentic moment. I also try to capture the moment immediately after someone has laughed when the smile is still reflected in the eyes. Great point and thanks for sharing your work.

  • Guigphotography February 2, 2013 08:08 pm

    I particularly like number 5. I'm guilty of being welded to the camera and getting round the other side with the person is a simple but great reminder. Thanks!

  • Stephen Decato February 2, 2013 09:20 am

    All very good tips, I agree that the in-between moments are the ones to be ready for.

  • Daniel February 2, 2013 09:13 am

    HEy. I just did a short portrait "challenge" with some friends and here's the result. care to lok for it and give feedback??


    thank you. great post btw

  • Keith McMahon February 2, 2013 08:35 am

    Great article, I especially like the last point - catching people when they are relaxing often results in the most natural images.

    Now....I just need to get those babies to take notice when Im showing them how to look cute.......

  • James February 2, 2013 02:20 am

    Ive always found portrait photography particularly difficult. Its really dificult to make the subject interesting yet not over-do it. Great article, especially point 10. "The quiet moments in between frames" This is so true, so many people find it hard to relax when they know that they are being photographed. and they tense up. Thanks for sharing this. Here something a bit more artistic and crazy, perhaps, just for inspiration for everyone :D http://print24.com/blog/2013/01/expressive-portrait-photography/

  • Paolo February 1, 2013 09:23 pm

    Interesting article,with very usefull tips (simple and effective the most of them... they just need to be present in our mind when shooting,and become a second nature when working with models).
    Thank you for your tips Gina.

  • Piotrek Ziolkowski February 1, 2013 06:01 pm

    Hmmm, interesting article. I use most of these techniques without thinking really, I always talk to people I shoot as it was an interview. My weakest point would be poses - I know I need to work on this bit. I like to have a code word for smiles - a happy memory or a situation that always makes someone laugh. Two I remember are : baby tigers and someones wife (mum) farting in the car (dad and son shoot). If I can get away with it: a glass of wine or a pint beforehand;)
    Some of my portraits http://www.piotrekziolkowski.com/portraits

  • Rhonda February 1, 2013 10:45 am

    "Showing" is far better than "telling". I have run into this problem and actually doing the pose helps a lot rather than everyone feeling foolish because they aren't getting it and I am not directing them verbally very well. Then everyone is nervous. Verbal directions have to be very simple. Left and right aren't that hard until you are trying to direct someone who is facing you. One person is hard... a group... sigh. Looking at a specific thing rather than a direction is a very good idea. Thanks a lot.

  • Joe February 1, 2013 08:29 am

    Good advice -- I particularly like the idea of "Showing" them what you want rather than telling...

  • Scott February 1, 2013 08:05 am

    Great post...could have saved the $20...

  • Chris February 1, 2013 06:57 am

    One of the best posts I have seen on this site - great job. Very useful!

  • Kayla Illies February 1, 2013 03:27 am

    I just wanted to say a HUGE thank you for writing this article!!!!!! It really helped me out! I'm more of a shy person and am working on my people/social skills and how to direct my clients during a session or order. Wonderful wonderful pointers!!!! Thank you thank you thank you!!!!

  • Jon Bromley February 1, 2013 02:40 am

    Top tips thank you so much. I have a fashion shoot and a colorist/stylist shoot coming up and this will be a great help believe me!

    Thank you

  • Barry E. Warren January 31, 2013 04:50 pm

    Great tips, They should help me out. Thanks

  • Jalynn Baker January 31, 2013 01:38 pm

    Great tips! Thank you!!!!!

  • Scottc January 31, 2013 09:29 am

    I'm pretty certain I'll never direct a portrait shoot, but your article was a very interesting read with some incredible quotes inlcuded!


  • Abigail January 31, 2013 07:23 am

    Great post...I especially enjoyed it because I know this is an area I need practice in and this gave me some ideas to practice!!

  • Jai Catalano January 31, 2013 06:25 am

    Here is 11.

    Practice listening to the way you sound by recording yourself or by asking someone to listen to your verbal flow in a mini session.

    People don't usually know how the sound to other until they use a sounding board first.

  • Karen January 31, 2013 05:40 am

    I've been shooting portraits for 18 years. I've used some of your ideas before, but you've also given me some new ideas. I agree that your mood is critical. I've gone into shoots when my personal life was a disaster, but I've learned to leave that at the door. Being interested in them is also huge (and it helps me leave my personal stuff out too.)

    Thank you. I enjoyed the post.


  • Sam January 31, 2013 04:08 am

    Great tips, thanks!

  • Mridula January 31, 2013 02:05 am

    Even though I don't think I am ever going to direct a portrait shoot I loved your post. It was as if you were talking to me!