How to Direct Models During Portrait Shoots

How to Direct Models During Portrait Shoots

directing-models.jpgIn today’s post Véronique da Silva from answers a question asked by a few DPS readers. “Could you give us some tips on directing models and everyday people for portraits?

A great portrait is not just a great face! There is much more behind it! I will concentrate on some basic ideas that will help you in either of these scenarios.

First off, the rules of engagement. How do you create an atmosphere of comfort that inevitably allows your subject to be photographed? I can only share the secrets that seem to work for me.


Most people are not used to being listened to. I love interacting with people and I am genuinely interested in their stories and experiences. I smile a lot and I listen. I promote discussion and an exchange of ideas where the subject feels important and supported. There is no judgment – only compassion, empathy, and understanding for another human being.


If you find yourself to be in a nervous or anxious mood, your subject will feel and respond to it by shutting down. The sooner you relax and check your insecurities at the door, the quicker you will both find yourself in a space of trust.


Trust yourself. Trust that you can always count on doing your very best. Mistakes happen, but you should not let fear of failure guide you. We have all been in situations where batteries fail, memory cards fill up, equipment breaks…. Perhaps the scariest one is when your creativity fails you, when you just cannot find the magic, when you run out of ideas. While we cannot always have fantastic shoots, remain positive and trust that your different photo experiences will make you grow!


Be grateful for these amazing moments in time you get to share with different individuals.

Now for the directing part:


Something I find very useful for women, is to offer them the opportunity of having their hair and make-up done. There is nothing like a little glam session to help a woman unwind. Now, I do say women because most of the men I photograph do not like the idea of having their hair and make-up done – but I do still offer it, and some truly love it. Make sure you trust your hair and make-up person – remember that they are there to assist you in getting a good image of your subject. Always have the make-up and hair person come to you, at your studio or home or wherever you will be photographing and be present while the glam is happening.

Proper clothing is essential. The clothing must fit well. It isn’t enough that the subject likes the item of clothing – if it does not fit properly, it will not photograph well, and in turn, the subject will not like the final image. Encourage them to bring a few items of clothing and sway their final decision towards something that fits them properly. It is all about helping your subject feel confident and comfortable.


Encourage your subject to feel confident! Talk to them throughout the photo shoot. Ask them about their favorite activity / book / sport. Ask them about their children.

Most people will clench their fists, tighten their jaw, or sweat when they are feeling uncomfortable. Remind them that they are doing just fine. I have also noticed most people will lean forward, or tilt their head down. I simply remind them to lift their chin and stand comfortably (I usually say “lean into your pose” which I can’t explain in words but I usually mimic standing comfortably). Talk, talk, talk! Notice angles and light. Notice how the light hits their face / body and adjust accordingly.

Remember body language and understand the power that an image has in conveying a message (e.g.: crossed arms might make your subject feel more comfortable but might send the completely wrong message).

*The last few tips are not necessarily applicable when photographing models. Models are used to being photographed and so your role will be quite different. There will be less of a need to ease your subject into the idea of being photographed. Most models are “on” as soon as they are in front of a camera. Your role will be more that of an artistic director – placing the model in a scene, effective composition, etc. You get to play and push yourself photographically!

Lastly, be sure to thank your subject when the shoot is done.

I hope these tips are helpful! It is tricky to explain as many of us have completely different approaches. There are no rules set in stone; it is all trial and error. What works for me might not work for you and vice versa. But I am sure you can rely on the first 4 tips….

about_blog_1.jpgAbout the Author: Véronique da Silva is a Portrait & Lifestyle Photographer.

Visit her site at this post shares more tips on how to take portraits with available light.

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Some Older Comments

  • Ausdoc October 4, 2011 04:36 pm

    Happy Background music!

  • Francisco B. Maciel November 7, 2009 10:55 pm

    No doubt this is a problem for novices. However, if you hold down the shutter button of your engine, you can shoot continuously (multiple expositions) to obtain different poses and facial expressions. And so, you can choose the better shoot. You must heve in mind: photography is experiment ever! The moment can turn you a master if patience, knowledge about your gear and the scenary works together!

  • CC November 7, 2009 04:56 am

    I love the advice here!! But what do you do if your subject won't STOP talking?????

  • AP Melo October 19, 2009 12:59 am

    Great article. I have not done much with portraits but hope too, someday. When I do, I'm sure I'll refer to these great tips. Thanks.

  • Melisssa Abbey October 10, 2009 10:23 am

    Thanks so much for these words of encouragement. I'm TOTALLY start-up and I needed to read this, especially after seeing your site! As I go for my official 2nd family photo shoot, after seeing what I didn't like with the 1st one I did, this gives me hope. So does the fact that I took the camera out again today to keep on practicing :) Thanks again!

  • Francisco B. Maciel October 10, 2009 07:22 am

    Really must be on air of quick intimate. A good Photographer knows about it and for the novices the good sense and school courses works during the years of battles. In the beginning surprises happens, but the ways can to show and create a psicologic workflow for.

  • Duncan Leung October 10, 2009 01:31 am

    Thanks for the post! I think I've also found the prep stage to be one of the most important in letting the model prep mentally too.

  • Sonica October 9, 2009 05:17 pm

    Thank you so much for the helpful tips! I've never tried studio photography before as I never know how to interact with the subject, but with your helpful tips I'm sure I'll get it right. :)

  • Jenn White October 9, 2009 06:15 am

    @tad2106 - there is a lot of good information on posing right here on DPS - try these posts:

    and a good off site link:

    I found all these posts useful teaching posing at my community college class, DPS is a great resource for my students!

  • Michelle Armour October 9, 2009 06:04 am

    Thanks for your tips, I had a model yurn up for TFCD shoot and was wandering what was going on as she was very tense, after talking to her she explained that she hadn't done much before. As it is I found out she is a dancer and was able to go on a separate occassion to talk photos of her as a ballerina which was a lot of fun.

    What I have found is that visual spatial and kinesthetic know how varies greatly. Some people are very easy to direct and understand how their bodies angles are happening and some people really struggle. Some women can't read maps, it is a spatial skill, they need to turn the map around to the orientation of real life, I have found that when I am working with someone who doesn't easily look at an image and "do the pose", if I move to beside them and demonstrate looking the same way as they are it can really help. I often use what I call stimulus images, these are ideas I have found to help when the inspiration is running dry, I always say "lets do our interpretation of this idea" so then it ends up as an idea and not set a set pose.

    It also doesn't hurt to make a comment about digital, and that it is ok to delete them if the idea doesn't work.

    Most importanty I can read a map better than my husband!

  • Maïa October 9, 2009 05:15 am

    Good tip Steve Gray !

  • Antoine L October 9, 2009 02:51 am

    Finally! An answer to a very important question! At least it is to me! I've been practicing some of the technique but never really understood just how to be comfortable and how to make the subject comfortable. Now Ihave a guideline. Thanks! :-)

  • Steve Gray October 9, 2009 02:49 am

    One thing I try to keep in mind is to keep the direction positive. Don't like a pose, or an expression? Take a frame or two, then suggest a change. Don't throw a wet blanket on the moment by telling the subject that you don't like what you're seeing. Let it go, and move on to what you want to see.

  • Matt October 9, 2009 02:16 am

    Hi Veronique,

    A very nice post here. One quick comment unrelated. Every time I have tried going to your portfolio site I get an Adobe run time error. Looks like you have a blu domain template set up. You might want to check with them. I'm not having this problem with other blu domain sites (my own is one as well). I think it may be in relation to the music file you have uploaded. Just thought I'd let you know. Thanks,

  • tad2106 October 8, 2009 01:04 am

    Veronique - thanks for the reply - I guess it is a bit 'go with the flow' and see what happens which I can see relaxes everyone! As with everything practice practice practice - LOL!

  • Véronique da Silva October 7, 2009 07:06 am

    Gene: Good question. This calls for the McDonald's assembly line treatment! Quick and painless. At this point it becomes a recipe. May sure your lighting is all set up, you and camera are ready to go. Know which angles work best with your lighting set-up (test before-hand), call in your subjects one at a time, place them in the angle you've previously determined, make sure clothing is sitting properly (dandruff test at this point as well) and shoot away. You will most certainly have under 5 minutes to get the shot. Make sure you introduce yourself and do try to strike up a conversation, even if about the weather, while you are shooting. Remind yourself that this is a shoot that pays the bills and most probably will not appear in your top 10 shoots ever - and that is OK!

  • Gene October 7, 2009 04:49 am


    How would you handle the situation when doing a shoot with the same inexperienced group, in my case coming up about 8 board members for a City, they are on a time schedule where I will not get a chance to get to know them.

  • Véronique da Silva October 7, 2009 02:05 am

    tad2106: It is most difficult to photograph your own children! Especially your own teenagers! I would still practice applying rules 1-4 and you will definitely get moments where they will lose the "deer in the headlights" look.

  • colin parker October 7, 2009 02:04 am

    I like the article a whole lot, but did not get what I expected!

  • Véronique da Silva October 7, 2009 02:03 am

    Hi everyone!

    Yes, I agree, this post is WAY more about interacting than telling people how to pose.... Perhaps it is because I don't have a repertoire of specific poses that some other photographers might have, or maybe it is just because I usually let the person I am photographing guide me through the shoot (of sorts...). I think it's also because I shoot lifestyle, whether when shooting fashion, editorial, family or corporate, and this approach is quite a bit different than the classic approach. I know there is great information out there on classic poses, unfortunately it has never really registered with me :) I'll try to find some links to classic portraiture which might help and will post it here within the next few days.

    The important to me is to bask my subjects in their own beauty and being. I love being able to get that special twinkle in the eye, or that expression / body language that summarizes so well who they are. This is SO difficult to explain! So, although I do guide movements and tweak poses, I like to wait and see how the person is naturally and then just refine by turning them slightly or making sure they are breathing and not slouching. Upon reflection, I think the tip that works best for me during the photoshoot is talking to them - taking the camera out of the equation as much as possible and bringing myself to the forefront. The fear seems to melt away from their eyes at that point and the trust between myself and the subject is gained. Does this help? Such an interesting topic that I've never had to analyze! Thank you for this!

  • tad2106 October 7, 2009 01:07 am

    Sorry I should perhaps mention that I'm not intending to shoot models but would like to be able to direct my own teenage kids better before moving on to other people's!!

  • tad2106 October 7, 2009 01:06 am

    As one of those who asked this question - thank you for this - some great tips which I will try and remember!
    What I am also interested in is what poses to ask for, what do others find is the most flattering angle? What do you do with their hands? How do people get that great intense stare at the camera without the person looking startled? I guess as you said the "artistic direction" .

  • scott e. detweiler October 6, 2009 11:09 pm

    I shoot quite a large number of models, and trust is the big thing. I will often meet with them before the shoot in a Starbuck's or somewhere in public where we can chat. I can ask questions about the goals of the shoot (for spouse, model portfolio, etc).

    Here are a few of my shots that are work safe:

    Often you have to direct the model in not so obvious ways. Things like never keeping the shoulders square to the camera (unless you are rule breaking of course), and how to use a support and accent leg.

  • james October 6, 2009 10:08 pm

    These tips are more about interacting than directing. Good ones, but not what the headline promised.

  • Goodspeed October 6, 2009 05:43 pm

    Thank you for your tips. I´m shooting people for three years now and find some things of you very useful.

  • Can Berkol October 6, 2009 05:09 pm

    Great tips. I'm not a commercial shooter, and maybe therefore I do not always follow these tips but every time I follow these and other similar tips I get amazed.

    Especially, if you shoot a model for the first time, there is generally a huge tension. Both the model and the photographer have no idea about the other. Few exceptions exist but usually photographer is the one who needs to melt the ice. Making models talk, listening to them and of course providing a feedback, an input - basically showing them that you value them is very very important.

    Thanks for sharing :)

  • games         October 6, 2009 03:25 pm

    The concepts are very important and i am completely agree with all your five points mention in this blog and according to me Listen and respect is very important and interaction with people is much required thing in this type of activity.

  • Rick Castellini October 6, 2009 12:21 pm

    I have been asked by some of my daughter's friends to take their senior pictures. I did my daughter's, but was nervous about photographing a non-family member. Your tips will help immensely. Sure beats saying "work it, work it, smile, work it..."

  • Matt October 6, 2009 11:22 am

    Thanks for the tips, this is one of those areas where I am always looking for advice on how to improve.

    Does anyone know what the best way is to learn how to pose people for portraits?

  • Maïa October 6, 2009 10:38 am

    Good advices !