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How to Direct Models (Or Any Subject) for Great Pictures

When I first started photographing portraits, I enlisted the help from a local model named Wendy. Wendy was one of the most requested models in our area. Sure she was beautiful and had a great physique, but that wasn’t why everyone requested her. She knew her stuff! How to pose, create emotion, where to look, the list goes on. The best part, she taught me how to interact with a model.

Photographer’s Job

A photographer’s job is to command the set, to be a leader. As a leader, we need to make sure our subject feels relaxed and comfortable. Trusting us to guide them down a path to produce outstanding images. One way to accomplish this is to clearly direct them on positioning their head, shoulders and body. To avoid confusion and misunderstandings, hand jesters will give them a visual on what you are looking for.

Hand Gestures

To have a subject move their shoulders into position, use your index fingers to represent their left and right shoulder. When you move one finger forward, you move the other back, just like their shoulders. Once they understand the concept use the flat of your hand to represent their body. When you angle your hand from one side to the other, they move their shoulders in the same direction. When you tilt your hand, they tilt their body. For the their head positioning, make a “C” with your thumb and index finger. Titling your “C” in one direction tilts their head in the same direction. Tilting it up or down does the same thing.

Add Motion

To avoid a staged look with a fake smile, have the subject either look away or close their eyes. When you give the command to look at the camera, have them slowly move into position or open their eyes. Time it and take the shot. Closing their eyes is another trick for subjects with sensitive blue eyes. This will limit the number of times they blink or squint causing you to miss the shot.

Create Emotion

To create emotion, have the subject put a thought in their head. If you want a serious look, have them think about something serious. If you are after a genuine smile or laugh, have them think of something funny then ask them what was their thought. As they tell you, they will start to laugh or show emotion, be ready to take the shot.

A word of caution. I once asked a model to act sad or somber. I created a story instead of asking her to think of one. My story involved a lost love and a heart burning with emptiness. The model showed incredible emotions with real tears. I’m busy coaching and snapping the shots loving the look until my assistant said, umm her boyfriend just left her an hour before the shoot. I felt terrible. Yes, I had great images but at an emotional expense.

We put together a short 4 minute video using these tips. Our subject, Erika Magin, is a talented 12 year actress and model. I’ve been working with Erika for the past 4 years. We have built a great collaborative rapport with each other. I often include her in the planning phase of our shoots and ask for her opinion when selecting images. She has developed into a real pro!

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