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Many photographers want to have a human being in their shot. They may ask friends or family to pose for them or may engage the services of a model, either paid or a TFP (trade for prints) engagement. If you have not spent any time in front of the camera yourself, then understanding the specific challenges of doing the work of a model is difficult.
My advice is to spend some time in front of the camera yourself, either posing for another photographer or doing some form of self-portrait work. This isn’t for you to learn about how to specifically pose a model for certain styles of photography (although this is absolutely necessary) but instead for you to understand what it is like to BE a model.
However, if you don’t opt for that valuable learning experience, take note of these tips instead:
Most people feel really nervous and uncomfortable in front of a camera. Even an experienced model cannot read your mind and does not know what your intentions are. So before you get started, sit down with the person and talk them through the plans for the shoot.
Explain your concept, share your goals, sketch out how you want the poses to look, and what mood or expressions you are after. One major mistake a lot of photographers make is to treat their model like a living statue, only there to be posed and take direction, and they forget that model is actually a person.
By discussing everything at the beginning, you give the person some structure, context, and understanding of the situation, which helps them be less nervous. It also gives them an opportunity to engage with the process, they may even have ideas of their own which could improve on what you initially had planned.
Making it a cooperative situation builds trust and engagement, lowers barriers, helps relax the model and hopefully give you a better outcome. Constant reassurance and feedback throughout the shoot are also important to keep them motivated.
Many model shoots often involve the model dressed in clothing that is not always suitable for the environment. When you are standing still in a cold wind wearing a bathing suit, it’s really hard to give off a relaxed summery vibe.
Be aware of the environment and temperature your person is modeling in, make sure they are as comfortable as they can be in the situation. If you have to do a nude shoot, try and do it in a warm heated room instead of outside. It’s really hard to look relaxed when you are cold and shivering.
Discuss your model’s strength and endurance with them in relation to the poses you are doing. Then schedule regular breaks and stick to the schedule. Posing can be quite physically demanding as many poses are quite unnatural to hold for extended lengths of time. Be aware of getting into the zone and shooting for too long and not allowing the model to take a break.
As well as the comfort of the model, consider the environment in which you are shooting. Is it inside and private? Is it outside and open to the public? Are they expected to get changed in the back of a car or are there some facilities nearby?
What can you do to make the model feel comfortable in the environment? Would they like some music playing to help get into the right mood? Is there a private space for them to go have a break? Blankets and hot drinks and somewhere to sit down away from the camera?
Perhaps it’s a hot sunny day and they need a break away from the heat and the sun? Have they been standing in front of hot studio lights and been constantly flashed while wearing sky-high heels?
Can they bring along a friend for support and encouragement? Are they able to feel relaxed and engaged and safe while they are working in front of the camera?
The way people naturally stand generally looks less than ideal when a shot is taken. Double chins become triple ones, elbows and knees are all awkward, hands on hips or arms crossed in front of the chest, etc., feel comfortable and natural to do, but don’t look so good.
The kinds of things you need to do to your body to get a pose that looks good can be quite uncomfortable to do and hold for long enough to get several shots. The classic “turtleneck” where you push the head forward to get separation at the jawline feels really odd.
So take the time to explain and demonstrate the pose to the person. Give them a chance to experiment and figure out how to get the hang of it. Usually, you will need them to do several things at once – stand in a certain way, tilt the shoulders, put the arms in position, move the head to the right angle, have the hair doing something, etc.
Demonstrate each pose and explain to them why it matters. If you show them the “before” and “after” they will generally understand and be more inclined to make the effort because they can see the difference.
Start with small easy pose setups to allow them to relax and master the basics before going on to the more complicated poses. That is unless you have a really experienced model who is on your wavelength, in which case, go nuts.
Generally, when people are being asked to do something new and difficult, they concentrate on the hard stuff so much that they forget about the unnecessary stuff around the edges. One of those things is their hands, and they can often end up being floppy uninteresting things stuck on the ends of the arms.
Bad hands can completely ruin an otherwise good shot. So pay attention to what their hands are doing, because the model may not know that they need to with them.
A lot of fashion photography styles use really artificial poses that look terribly uncomfortable to do. They don’t generally look achievable or attractive to the viewer either, but it appears to be the style of the moment. That might be your desired outcome and I hope you end up with some amazing shots.
However, one of the great things you can do when working with a model is to make them look good in front of the camera in a way they never have before. A lot of that is because people usually don’t know how to pose well in front of a camera. Creating images that make them look good means they then feel good about what is happening.
Being able to offer them some copies they can be proud to show people afterward is an added bonus. If they leave the session feeling valued and positive about the experience, they will be more likely to say yes if you ask them to model for you again.
Using a model as a living breathing mannequin is one way to have a model pose for you. For some types of photography that impassive detached style of posing is desired. However, if you want to truly engage the viewer, having some emotion present in the image is more effective.
Really good models can project a range of different emotions, that is what good professional models do and why they get paid the big bucks. Not everyone gets the option of working with models of that caliber every day, so when working with a less experienced model you may need to coach them around the emotional projection.
Asking your model to try and feel a particular emotion can be a challenge for them to do on top of all the posing you are asking. So this is a more advanced step that you may not always achieve.
Talk them through the concept of the shoot – is it a soft spring morning and they are enjoying a walk on the beach in the sun? Are they a cool crisp corporate executive about to give a high-level presentation? A couple of friends enjoy cocktails and nibbles on a summers evening? Help them get into the right headspace to project a feeling or emotion to fully express the pose they are doing.
Sometimes allowing them to move during the shoot or move into the final desired pose can add an extra level of engagement. Both the body and the brain are fully involved in communicating the external expression of the pose.
To get someone to stand still and look fantastic while doing it, allowing you to take an amazing photo actually requires a lot of work behind the scenes first. When working with a model, remembering that they are a living breathing person is important, they are not just a thing that’s there for you to manipulate into the desired position.
Taking care of your model, providing them with an environment and a situation where they can relax and be comfortable while working in front of the camera is important. Someone who is happy and enjoying their modeling experience is far more likely to provide you with great photos, than someone cold, stiff, miserable and uncomfortable (unless that is the look you are after).
Help them be a good model. Communicate, listen to their feedback, support them and you should both reap the benefits with some memorable images and hopefully a fun experience as well.