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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.

Image: Mallory Jansen New York: photo by Gina Milicia

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.

Image: Daniel Macpherson: photo by Gina Milicia

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.

Image: Lachy Hulme: photo by Gina Milicia

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).

Image: Shaun Micaleff: Photo by Gina Milicia

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:

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Gina Milicia
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.

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