Anatomy of a Modelling Session

Anatomy of a Modelling Session

This was taken with the Canon EOS-1D X and EF 85mm f/1.2L II. I had a 600EX-RT speedlite on camera to provide just a touch of fill. Exposure was 1/250, f/1.2, ISO 100.

I am often contacted by people who are interested in modelling, either as a hobby, or to build a portfolio to try and model professionally. It’s one of the more fun things I get to do with a camera, as it allows me to be creative and really direct things a bit.  Models can be great to work with- both to build their portfolio as well as your own.  Aspiring models are often looking to diversify their portfolio, and are willing to trade time for images. I’ve developed working relationships with several models so that when I want to try something new, they are usually game.  In addition, they will call me when they have an idea they want to add to their portfolio.  This type of relationship can be liberating, since you are creating portraits for a client who is paying, and depending on your for an image.  Rather, it’s a joint collaborative effort that yield phenomenal results.

The headshot above was taken within the first few shots of the session. This one was the next sequence. I backed off to shoot her full length. Exposure 1/1250, f/1.2, ISO 100. Lens was the EF 85mm f/1.2.

I enjoy working on location with models because locations can offer a variety of settings. They also offer their own set of challenges.  When I begin planning a model session, I propose several locations, as well as an overall concept.  It’s important to agree on these things ahead of time so you are both on the same page for overall direction.

Once the shoot and location is agreed on, I always hold a discussion with my subject, discussing the goals of the shoot, as well as any ideas I had.  I would ask the model to let me know if he or she had any ideas or shots in particular as well. Once the general concept is down, we discuss outfits. Many times the model will send me photos of outfits they have or want to try, and this will lead to more discussion.  Generally, by the time this exchange happens, both myself and the model have a very good idea of what we want, and what the plan is, that when the day of the shoot comes, we’re ready to go with no questions.  By the way, this process works great for my portrait sessions as well.

Locations present their own benefits. In this case, the lifeguard stand offered some nice options for posing. A reflector to the right of the model helped kick a bit more light into her face. EOS-1D X, EF 85mm f/1.2L II. Exposure is 1/640, f/2.8, ISO 100.

So we’ve discussed outfits, concepts, and location. Once I know what the model is looking for and what we want to do, I pack my bag.  Camera body, speedlites, spare batteries, lenses.  Which lenses? Depends on the shots I’m looking for, but  my go-to lenses for portraits and models are pretty much the EF 85mm f/1.2L II, the EF 100mm f/2.8L IS Macro, and the EF 70-200 f/2.8L IS II. Depending on what else I’m looking for, I’ll use a EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II for wider shots that become more of a landscape with a model in it than a portrait.  If I’m planning on using off camera speedlites, I’ll also bring however many I plan to use- usually two or three- as well as modifiers such as soft boxes. In addition, I ALWAYS have a reflector with me to use with both speedlites or natural light.  Right now, my camera of choice is the Canon EOS-1D X.

You’ll notice my go-to lenses are all f/2.8 or faster.  The ability to blur the background using a wide aperture is important to me, so anything distracting or unimportant can simply be blurred out.  I like to show a context without being literal about it.  So while you’ll see the sand and water in the background, it doesn’t have to be sharp. The furthest I’ll stop down, generally, is about f/5.6, but I normally will shoot at anywhere from f/1.2 to f/4.

When I do a model portfolio, or even a portrait shoot, I generally go in with an idea of the look I want to achieve. I try to maintain the same look for every file. When shooting on location, this assumes the light and the weather cooperate.  Invariably, there are times when the weather does not cooperate and you have to adjust.  The shoot that produced the accompanying photos are a case in point.  I planned a sunrise shoot.  I envisioned soft, warm, light on the model’s face, with orange glows on the sand and soft pink sunrise skies.  Instead I got fog and flat grey clouds.  Change of plans.

I pretty much decided when I arrived at the location that I was going to go for a monochromatic look.  The light was flat, the sky was grey, everything just “felt” black and white.  That’s not to say I didn’t do any color- but overall the look was for black and white.  Generally when I’m shooting a model my goal is variety.  If it’s for a portfolio, I want to be able to get several shots they can use for their book.  I’ll work wider for full body shots, then close in for tighter head shots.  I’ll generally let the model pose as he or she feels comfortable, tweaking the poses when I see something that needs to change- a tip or turn of the head, a repositioned hand, a stray hair.

I always have a reflector on hand. Even on a dull, cloudy day, a reflector can add enough punch to the light to create catch lights in the eyes, fill in the soft shadows around the eye sockets, and generally just make things pop better.  I use a two-sided reflector by Westcott, with one side silver and the other side uncoated muslin. On a day like the one the accompanying photos were taken on, I used the silver side of the reflector since it kicked more like back up than simply using the white side.

For this shot, I asked Yuliya to just pose in the sand. Rather than have her move, I moved around her 360°. She did her thing and we ended up with a few nice images. EOS-1D X, EF 85mm f/1.2L II. 1/250, f/2.8, ISO 100.

During the session, I try to mix full-length shots with tight closeups.  Once I think we’ve captured the essence of the current outfit, I’ll quickly ask the model if there was anything else he or she wanted from it that we didn’t do, and then suggest a change to next one. This avoids belaboring one outfit or using so much time on one outfit that you don’t get to the rest.

I will show the model what I’m getting periodically so they know what we’ve got.  The last thing I want to hear is that they wanted something we didn’t get, after the fact.  This feedback is valuable because if the model doesn’t feel they look right, it can be changed before it’s too late.  It also gives them an idea of what you’re capturing and allows them to modify their posing accordingly.

When it comes to processing the images, I try to make sure the look of all the files is fairly uniform.  I want each session to stand alone as its own body of work.  I do vary certain things, but generally I will use the same styles.   Once all images are downloaded, I go through and choose the keepers.  Then I process each, retouching the skin, the hair, and the eyes.  To me, portraits and model photography isn’t about reality.  It’s about flattery. You want to make your subject look good.

These two images were taken with the EF 70-200 f/2.8L IS II on the 1D X. It's one of my favorite lenses because it allows me to start off loose and then go in tight without being in the model's personal space.

Read more from our category

Rick Berk is a photographer based in Freeport, Maine, shooting a variety of subjects including landscapes, sports, weddings, and portraits. Rick leads photo tours for World Wide Photo Tours and his work can be seen at and you can follow him on his Facebook page and on Instagram at @rickberkphoto.

Some Older Comments

  • poy February 13, 2013 03:36 am

    very good work rick. and very well written article.

  • Jeff February 11, 2013 04:45 pm

    Hopefully the event will enable me to try some ideas

  • Jeff February 11, 2013 04:44 pm

    Appreciate all the wonderful comments; I've located area group and Model Mayhem and will seek to join a session soon

  • Rick Berk February 11, 2013 02:43 pm

    @Jeff- Hagen has it right. Many times photo groups will hire a model that will pose for the group. Or there are ways of finding one on your own who may trade for images or pose for a fee. I have used ModelMayhem in the past, though I do less of that these days as many times the models seem to find me now.

  • Hagen February 11, 2013 01:45 pm

    Jeff: look for a local meetup organization. Here in Ottawa (Canada) there are three photography related meet ups: Ottawa Photographers Model Meetup (and this is where all the models, make up artists and portrait photographers hand out), Ottawa Photographers (where most of the landscape, documentary and other photogs hang out), and finally there is a Beauty and Fashion Incubator meetup group that does very edgy-themed photo shoots.

  • Hagen February 11, 2013 01:42 pm

    Sharing images during the shoot also involves the model: experienced models will see things you might have missed and they'll be able to make suggestions for reshoots or even new poses. But do't get bogged down reviewing everything.

    Also do composition bracketing: shoot a particular pose in landscape and then portrait: you might decide that you like the other one better at a later date or it might give you more cropping options later.

  • Jeff February 8, 2013 04:25 pm

    Rick, what advise do you have for the rest of us to find people to shoot( models or otherwise) and plan outings( local Craiglist or alternative?

  • Rick Berk February 8, 2013 12:32 pm

    @Ali, yes, I do use top of the line gear. However, when all is said and done, it's just a tool, and if you know how to use it, you can get great shots whether you use a Canon EOS Rebel or an EOS-1D X, or just a point and shoot. Maybe I'll try and do a session with a Rebel sometime and see what we get.

  • Ali February 8, 2013 08:19 am

    The gear used seem to be Canon's most expensive models in each category. I hope it doesn't create the wrong impression on beginners.
    Yeah I do envy some of those :-)

  • Rick Berk February 8, 2013 04:43 am

    @David- There is a slight difference between the 85 1.2L and the 85mm f/1.8. The 1.8 is exceptionally sharp, especially at that price point, but the bokeh is a bit different due to the difference in maximum aperture. That's not to say it's bad, but the 1.2 has a very distinctive look that sets it apart.

  • David Oliveras February 8, 2013 04:31 am

    There was so great advice here. Thanks for going through the steps clearly. It's good to see how another photographer gets a model to go from one look or location to another. I loved the shots in the sand and also the use of black and white. Beautiful model, all around great job.

  • David February 8, 2013 04:07 am

    Rick great shots and with that lens I am not surprised at the quality. Staying with the theme for a bit. I am only too aware of the benefits and tributes of a Prime Lens, especially the 85mm L.

    However, I cannot afford the 85mm L. Based solely on image quality is there much difference between the L and the standard?

    Your thoughts

  • rika February 7, 2013 06:11 pm

    Hi... im from jakarta,indonesia. Good article...... kereeennnn. Semoga bisa lebih detail lagi info nya.

  • Rick Berk February 7, 2013 01:18 pm

    Thanks everyone. @Brandon- I love the 70-200 as well. However, the 85mm f/1.2L II lens has a very unique look to it, that no other lens I've used has. I can pick out a shot taken with that lens from anywhere. It's that different.
    @Jacques- no she doesn't look happy, but that was what we were going for at the moment. It's not all about looking happy, or sexy. Sometimes it's simply about conveying emotion.

  • Brandon Shepherd February 6, 2013 12:41 am

    Great shots and write up! Just curious as to how you feel about the 70-200 compared to the 85? I have heard so many great things about both but I like the idea of being able to get in tight from a bit of distance that the 20-200 provides.

  • Jacques February 5, 2013 06:13 pm

    A good article Rick, and I think you did well with the weather not being what you were aiming for. Going for mostly B&W images worked well here.
    However I think the last image does not do the model justice, she looks decidedly unhappy.

  • Scottc February 5, 2013 10:13 am

    Great article, I've never photographed a model (just a poser or two) but this helps even in those circumstances. The reflector on a cloudy day is an interestin suggestion.

    Not monochromatic, but B&W.

  • Marc C February 5, 2013 10:09 am

    Very informative Rick, and quite a lot like the way I run through a photoshoot. Thank you.

  • James February 5, 2013 09:13 am

    Some great guidance and advice, Rick, thanks for sharing.

  • Jai Catalano February 5, 2013 03:05 am

    Beautiful girl and images but she looks quite angry in the last photo. Did you keep her a bit too long outside in the cold water? :)