Much of the photography you see daily, from internet ads to magazines, includes a model. A model is simply a person who is in a picture for a purpose. Maybe the purpose is to sell something, maybe it’s to practice being a model, maybe it’s to practice making pictures. Whatever the reason for the picture, I have some tips about working with models. This is stuff from my own experience, growing from a hobbyist to a full-time contract photographer.

You Should Photograph Models

First of all, you should be photographing models. You need to practice lighting, camera settings and posing and you should not be practicing when you have clients in front of you. You owe it to yourself and to the photography industry to be as good at what you do as possible, and that means practice. Teddy bears and mannequins are useful practice tools, but you really need a live person at some point. Only Doctors are allowed to “practice” on their clients, so you have to be ready when your client arrives for a shoot. (I know not all of you work for paying clients, but a client is anyone whom you agree to photograph–neighbors, family, and especially your own kids deserve your best effort.)

Finding Models

A friend of a friend agreed to model for this story in a local magazine.

This is the conundrum, isn’t it? Well, it’s actually pretty easy to find people who will be models for you. I’ve only photographed professional models for one client–everyone else has always been a friend of someone or a client or an employee. The likelihood that you’ll be hired to photograph for a client who also hires professional models is really quite small (considering how many photographers there are and how many pictures are being made all the time).

A great way to find people to photograph is to ask your friends. Ask your friends’ kids. Ask your kids’ friends. There are people all around you and many of them are more than willing to be a model for an hour in exchange for pictures. If you ever get the chance, you’ve gotta take Vanelli to dinner and watch him work: it’s 99% likely that he will convince the server at the restaurant to be in pictures within the next few days. It’s amazing to watch him talk to people, explain what he does, why he needs their help, and then arrange a time. Basically, all you have to do is ask, and the worst that can happen is that the person declines.

Now, I’m assuming you’re not creepy because if you’re creepy this won’t work. I wouldn’t trust you with my kid or her friends if you’re creepy. I wouldn’t want to come myself if you’re creepy.

How To Not Be Creepy

The best way to invite people to come be a model for you is to show work you’ve already done. Yes, I realize the Catch 22 nature of this–you need someone to photograph in order to show work you’ve already done. Actually, it doesn’t matter if all your previous work is landscapes and flowers, just show that work and say, “I’d like to start photographing people, and I wonder if you could help…” This is great because those aren’t creepy pictures.

When you invite some to model for you, invite them to a public place. Saying, “I have a studio in my basement, wanna come model for me?” is creepy. Inviting someone to meet you at a park or campus is a lot less intimidating. Also, inviting more people is a great idea. Tell your prospect to bring a friend or two, or their parents, or make sure they understand that your own spouse will be there, too.

Don’t shoot nudes, and don’t show sexy pictures. There are many wonderful nude pictures out there, but as a beginning portraitist, you don’t need to practice shooting nudes. You need to practice posing and lighting and people skills. Showing nudes in your portfolio when inviting someone to model is creepy. I don’t recommend it. Tell your model to wear the clothes they feel most comfortable in, or the ones they get the most compliments wearing, and feel free to bring a change of clothes.

Shooting with a club is also a great way to learn without being creepy. I often invite people to come model for classes I’m teaching or for my photo club that meets each month. I make it clear up front that there will be several people there practicing and that they’ll be happy to share pictures, too. I have learned most of my best skills shooting cooperatively with my clubs and classes.

Model Mayhem, etc.

There are sites and Facebook groups where you can find people willing to model, and you can have good success there. Be sure to communicate clearly and completely all the expectations. The biggest trouble I’ve had with models from these sites is that they are more likely to flake out and not show up. When you’re making pictures with people you know, they have more reason to show up and not flake. Still, you’ll find many quality folks through the sites.


You should be photographing ‘models’ frequently. As I said above, I’ve only worked with hired professionals once, and it was good because we got the job done together really well and very quickly. But working with professionals won’t help you learn how to pose people or elicit genuine expressions because the pros practice doing these things and don’t need your help. You’ll get the most benefit from working with average people and helping them look their best in photographs. That’s a skill that will set you apart from others and you’ll be able to help anyone look their best. The most important thing to remember when making pictures with models is to have fun.

Portrait Tips come out each week, and you can see them all right here.