How Fashion Photographers can get the most out of their Models

Not just a pretty face... being a model isn't easy.

As with any creative professional, most photographers would never call themselves the finished product. There are books to be read, lighting treatments to explore and software to learn. It’s a constant state of refinement. Yet fashion photographers have the added complication that the quality of their work is oftentimes beholden to someone else entirely: models.

So these photographers need to learn how to get the most out of their models. And despite what you might think, modelling is not an easy thing to do well...

The Man in the Mirror, Gilt Groupe, NYC

The Man in the Mirror, Gilt Groupe, NYC

It's an unforgiving environment & photographers can make it easier.

When on-set, models are on display in a pretty unforgiving environment: stylists are playing with their hems, photo techs are tinkering with lights around them, art directors are scrutinizing each shot, and everyone is eagerly watching the clock to make sure there’s no danger of running into overtime. All the while the model is on center stage being judged on something they really don’t have much control over - their physical appearance.

Even at the best of times, It’s pretty lonely standing by yourself in front of a camera. But with all these people milling about, it’s exponentially worse. To make matters worse, a lot of the models are young, in a foreign place (sometimes literally and figuratively) and very nervous. As a result, they may become introverted and hesitant. 

Where you want fluidity, emotion and drama you get cold, static and distant. An uncomfortable, unhappy model will ruin any shoot.

Now, it’s the photographer’s job to make sure the model is giving the camera their best. How? By instilling confidence. It doesn’t matter if you’re dealing with total newbies or seasoned pros - it all comes down to the model feeling comfortable and good about themselves, so that they open up and inject personality into the shoot.

So just how does the photographer instill confidence?  By being confident themselves.

And being prepared.

Photographers need to prepare themselves, and their models.

Imagine if you went to the dentist - a place nobody relishes going - and he didn’t seem to know what he was doing: he kept adjusting and readjusting the drill, wasn’t sure what height to have the chair and couldn’t get the light working properly. You’d be out of there like a bullet.

So for the sake of everyone else on set, a fashion photographer must be very prepared. The equipment has to be ready and working properly. Nothing should feel out of place. This is as much about building trust as it is anything else, with the photographer’s enthusiasm and confidence inspiring those about them.

(It’s worth noting, when shooting a celebrity, sportsperson or actor, then it is even more important that the photographer hits the ground running. The first frames have to be amazing. Many of these personalities won’t have the patience to hang about if they don’t think the set-up is ready. Digital photography means that images just shot are often blasted onto a screen visible to all on-set, including the talent. So it might be a clever idea to tell the techs not to leave any imagery on screen, unless it’s really good. If the talent sees themselves blinking or sneezing, then their confidence will slip.)

But just as the fashion photographer must be prepared, so too can they help the model prepare...

The eye of the beholder, New York City

The eye of the beholder, New York City

Earn the model's trust by explaining expectations ahead of time.

Before the shoot has even begun a good fashion photographer will have had some communication with the model. You want to create a rapport with them because you are about to be their dance partner, if you will. And the connections created now will translate into trust on-set. Have fun...joke…..don’t be stiff. The photographer should take this opportunity to brief the model: explaining what’s being shot, why it’s being shot and where the imagery will be seen.

The photographer will outline the mood of the campaign, and the personality of the talent - approachable & kind, sultry & seductive, fun & impulsive, etc. The best models are essentially actors, and the more you can help them create a story for their on-set personality, the easier it will be for them to get into character. “You’re Holly Golightly, exploring the shops on the Upper East Side of Manhattan - imagine your sense of wonder”. The idea is to help them lay a foundation for the shoot, so that they know their role from the moment they arrive, and they trust the photographer to make them look great doing it.

Positive reinforcement is a great way to make everyone happy.

At the beginning of the shoot the model should be allowed to do their own thing. Give them the opportunity to show their full range of looks. It’s like going on a run. The first hundred yards or so can be tough. Muscles need time to warm up.

It’s a good idea for the photographer to come ‘equipped’ with a couple of time-tested moves to show the model, and help accelerate the warm-up cycle. One favorite is a little hop-step.  The act of having to coordinate a jump and a step (potentially in high heels) throws the focus from whatever is holding them back - whether it’s nerves or they are just not quite awake yet.  The added benefit of a jump is that it makes the hair come alive, so when it pops up on screen the photographer will get some kudos from the team, and more importantly the client!

The Hop-Step in action shot for the New York Times, New York City

The Hop-Step in action shot for the New York Times, New York City

After a while the photographer should get a sense of whether they are going to get the shots they need. If not, then direction should be given. Perhaps a look is missing or a certain aspect of the clothes needs to be amplified, then the model should be coaxed through positive reinforcement: “You’re doing great. Try holding your arms out like this. Nice. A little more.” Build the compliments, don’t blow them all on your first frame!

You can tell when a set is working well. There are good vibes from all corners - with the model playing first violinist and the photographer conducting. And once the fashion photographer gets the model into a good flow, then it should not be interrupted. Even if the camera’s focus starts to slip, or the lighting feels a little off - it’s critical to keep the positive energy going.

Sometimes when the flow is working, everyone senses it and they want whatever part of the shoot they are working on to be perfect. And so the photographer has to deal with a stylist running in to fix a prop, for example. It’s a good idea to figure out how to deal with this...Perhaps yell something to that person that “it’s fine, we’ll fix it later in post”  Those magic moments are precious and they can quickly be undone. There will be breaks to readjust and realign; but don’t allow a moment to deflate, if it can be avoided.

Help your client grow their business, and you're more likely to grow your own.

A fashion photographer’s portfolio is going to feature models. And as we learned from our interview with Bradley Browder of Gilt Groupe, people who hire photographers can tell the mood on-set just by looking at the photos. Given the commercial nature of almost all fashion shoots, it is important for photographers to show they can get the very best imagery to help the brands sell their products. And this can be helped in a big way by having an engaged, focused and happy model.


It’s the fashion photographer’s job to get the best out of the model - and the most impactful way of doing this is by making them feel confident.