Every few years, some brilliant young mind at an ad agency decides that the best way to promote the imaging capabilities of the latest and greatest upcoming smartphone is to create a series of campaign images on the phone. At this point, it’s a convention but proves the point: “This camera is so great that anyone can take great images with it. You know you want to be that person!”
The fact overlooked by consumers is that these images are ideated and executed by teams of creatives. Having experienced photographers working with exceptionally creative and talented models, hairstylists, makeup artists, fashion stylists, set designers, etc, will, of course, yield great results. Most phone cameras pretty much work themselves, and so, the real talent is designing everything around the scene to construct a beautiful photograph.
Gear Doesn’t Matter
Budding photographers, especially, like to discuss the capabilities of cameras. This one has better nighttime shooting. That one has better eye focus.
I’m not saying that gear doesn’t matter. Gear does matter. But gear only matters at the point where you are trying to do something and the gear you have at hand won’t allow you to do that thing. Tethered live view is a feature I absolutely adore in Capture One: it speeds up my workflow so I’m not moving back and forth between composing the shot and moving my products around when I do product imagery. In this instance, I could probably get by with Lightroom, but Capture One is so much more effective for my needs. In this example, gear helps me, but I could probably work around it without it. As another example, I can’t take a beauty macro shot with my 12mm lens. In this example, gear completely matters.
Working With Good Models
The camera is just a tool. The camera doesn’t take an image all by itself. An effective image is a point in time where all these things, at least in the case of portrait photography, lined up just right and the photographer pushed the button at just that decisive moment. As you progress further along in your photography journey, you’ll begin to surround yourself with creatives who are as passionate about their craft as you are yours.
In this article, I’ll talk about how to work with better and better models. You can probably apply it to any creative like hair or makeup, etc, but I’ll speak more to working with agency models. So, how do you get to that point where models are happy to work with you? That’s easy. You make good work. Fstoppers has some amazing tutorials on how to do just that!
I need to stress that I’m not talking about what someone looks like when I say “good model.” I very, very genuinely believe everyone is good-looking regardless of anything having to do with outward appearance. Things like race, age, height, body size — none of that matters. As a photographer, you should be able to showcase everyone in images that are flattering to them and make them feel beautiful or handsome and good about themselves. Knowing how to work different lights and angles means you can make anyone look good. (Again, check out the tutorial link above!) Instead, what I mean by a good model is someone who knows how to pose and can really help you achieve a creative vision as smoothly and efficiently as possible. I haven’t really broken these down into “tiers” so much, but rather a timeline, so to speak, as in, you’ll need to start more from your closer network before strangers may start trusting you enough to shoot with you. But I’d still stress that one category isn’t universally “better” than another but may be better for a particular situation.
Collateral is all your “marketing collateral.” It’s all the things that give you legitimacy, like a website (with a custom URL), social media that shows your photography, business cards, etc. If you have a local photography club, perhaps join that as well. If you’re a student, be transparent about that. You can’t just say you’re a portrait photographer; you have to actually show it. And you do that by having these things already in place, so when someone asks to see your work, you can give them an easy link or hand them a card. So, get this stuff sorted as soon as you can.
Family and Close Friends
When you first get a camera, this is likely the best place to start. These are your close family and network of friends, people you already spend time with, so it makes sense to start here based solely on accessibility. Your goal here should be to simply create flattering images. It doesn’t matter so much if these images are in the studio or outdoors, but outdoors is probably easier if you haven't worked with studio lights before. You’re just getting comfortable working with people and giving simple directions, so don’t get too arty with crazy lighting or shadows. The thing to note here, though, is that you have a pre-built rapport with this group: you know them in a certain context, and they know you in a certain context. It may be difficult to break free of that. You want to get two or three sessions in, get some decent images, and then move on as quickly as you can.
To clarify, I still take images of my nephews and nieces for their birthdays. It’s not work I get paid for, and they’re not images I use to get more work. I make these sessions a special occasion and really help style a location and clothing to match so their parents have a keepsake to cherish. For the most part, though, you don’t want to work with this group much beyond getting a few initial images to show to the other groups listed below. If your goal for the later groups is to work with adults, then you also want to stick to adult friends and family (avoid pets and kids).
So, imagine you’ve had a few shoots with your friends and family. Ok, that’s a lie. You’ve had a lot of shoots with friends and family. They were a bit flattered when you first asked them to shoot together, but now, they see you and they run. But hey, at least you have a few good images to show off on your site and socials.
You’re ready to move on to tapping your broader network. These are your friends of friends — people you kind of sort of know, but not really. The difference between here and the previous group is that this group doesn’t know you. There is no context for previous interactions, so you’re building a fresh relationship. In my experience, when I work with people I know well, there is this sort of a built-up wall of how I behave based on how we’ve always interacted. So, working with strangers is a bit easier in that way. Additionally, with this group, you can be a bit more selective, so try to cast for people you feel will fulfill your creative vision.
You’re still working on directing and improving your skills, but with the bonus that they’re giving up their time to help you because they want to and not because they’re family and they have to. So, you can try to get a little bit more creative with lighting and styling and really investing time into thinking about those things a little bit more.
Dancers are the absolute perfect muse for a photographer.
I can not stress how much I love photographing dancers. I still seek out and work with performers as much as I can for some of my projects. They know their body and they know how far they can push something. They’re harder on themselves than we, as photographers, will ever be on them.
But this extends to a degree to other visual performers as well (actors, drag acts, etc.). But, as a caveat, this isn’t really a goal for this article, but more of a nice little detour. I’ll explain a bit more about this in the next section.
With this group, because they’re pretty much doing all the work in giving you something interesting to shoot, your job here is to conceptualize what it is you want to say and then provide the environment to say that. And in fact, that’s how you approach them. Conceptualize a project and get them as excited about it as you are. The images are art.
This is sort of the goal for this article. This has kind of always been the goal for this article. The reason this is the goal is that as a photographer, as you improve, your production on projects gets bigger. I don’t just rock up to abandoned train tracks and plop my partner on them for some arty images. I’m investing in connecting with others to create something that I can say I’m proud of making. Eventually, a big part of that becomes project management. The reason working with agency models works easiest for me is because instead of asking six of my friends to bring three outfits each and me having to coordinate that, I can just ask an agent to send me six models for a test shoot and ask my stylist to find outfits that fit our shared vision. It’s just about finding your core group who believes in you, supports you, and wants to share in your creative vision. It’s hard enough trying to create something; it’s important to delegate as much as you can to people who you trust and who trust you.
But, how do you get agencies to trust you enough to send you models? Well, it’s that really: trust. You work with friends, family, and your broader network of friends to create images that an agency can use. Be brutal with yourself and really find images that are clean and have a focus on the subject (don’t go crazy with lighting or retouching). You’ll want to have at least a dozen or so different shots (different subjects, clothing, hair, and makeup, with variations in location and lighting). Once you have that, you’ll pick two or three of the best ones and send them to a smaller agency along with your website and contact information and ask for models to test with, explaining who you are and what it is you want to do.
Most agencies have a "mainboard," which are the more experienced models who are already working, as well as "new faces," who are a bit more inexperienced models. If you are starting out yourself, most agencies will only offer you models from their new faces division, but once you've built up a portfolio as well as a rapport with an agency, you can begin to ask for mainboard models should you wish. The only real difference between the mainboard and new faces, in my opinion, is the experience of the model. You might need to direct a little bit more with new faces, but if you're new yourself, that's an added challenge that will help you grow.
I should backtrack a bit. A test shoot is a shoot where everyone comes together to create images that can be used in a portfolio. Everyone is there because they want to be there. So, with that in mind, it’s ok to try getting creative and crazy with lights and concepts and stuff, but be sure that during the shoot, you still get a few shots that really show off the makeup so your makeup artist has something to use, a few shots which show off the model so the agency has images to use, etc. You want to create images for yourself, but if they’re not helping those around you, you want to also fulfill their needs.
Facebook Groups and Instagram Models
No, I’m kidding. Kind of. I do tend to avoid these groups, as I find there to be a few issues here. Personally, my biggest concern with models in social media groups is there exists a culture of mismanaged expectations and difficulty in finding an alignment of these. Your experience may vary.
I do work occasionally with models on Facebook groups or Instagram, but when I do, it’s on terms that are specific to me. In these instances, I’ll write to them directly (and won’t put a blanket call out on these sites).
As a creative, I have specific goals with images I want to create or ideas I want to convey. Your goals may vary. Working in broad fashion and commercial settings, my goal is to create images that extend my vision but to do this in a way where I can focus on the image-making with like-minded creatives who want to share in that vision.
I’d love to hear your experiences with test shoots and working with models in the comments below!