“Collabs” are the new currency between aspirant photographers and content-pressured models. Both parties are looking for scroll-stopping images to gain attention as they rise up in their respective industries. What happens when the images don’t measure up to the expectations? Are models expecting too much from growing photographers who are shooting for free, or are photographers hyping up their skills and not delivering?
“Michelle, can I call you? You will not believe this!” I get my popcorn and sit back as my models and friends call me to vent. The stories I’ve collected fall on the spectrum of entertaining all the way to preposterous. Last week’s story included a photographer hanging his camera from a crane and trying to get an aerial shot as the wind blew the camera back and forth overhead.
I try not to laugh; I know it’s frustrating for the aspiring stars. The truth of the matter is I was once fumbling through the learning process myself. We all were. Still today, on year 14 as a full-time photographer, I stumble and fail though my ideas at times. That’s part of growth.
I look back at some of my earlier work and cringe. I had great ideas and a lot of passion, but I was missing many important skills, which I picked up one at a time over the years. It’s a process, and we must go through all those rookie mistakes to reach the mastery of the craft. In this article, I will relay the most common grievances that models share about working with rookie photographers and tips to improve in each area.
1. Be Personable and Make the Model Feel Comfortable
This was overwhelmingly the most popular response in my survey. One after the other, models brought up “awkward” photographers and how it was hard to feel comfortable in front of the camera if the photographer didn’t create a relaxed and positive space. Models expressed that when the photographer doesn’t create a space that’s comfortable, it’s problematic for them to deliver their best work.
You can create a good atmosphere for the client with a few simple steps.
- Play music. I choose my playlist based on the type of expression I want to extract from the model. Music has a way of instantly lifting the mood and injecting contagious energy into a space. Not every photographer is an extrovert, and if you’re not, this is a great tool for you. The music doesn’t have to be loud or disruptive to the environment you’re working in. You can launch a playlist and have the model place the phone in their back pocket as you go about your shoot.
- Give positive feedback. Always. I never say negative feedback. The horror stories I have heard make me cringe. If your subject is not delivering what you want, criticism is not the way to get it. Try redirecting them in a positive way: “Great, I got several shots of that. Now, let’s try a different approach. I want you to…” Always redirect in a positive way. In addition, if they do something successful, say so. “Oh, I loved that look — very powerful. Give me more of that. This is looking great!” You want to empower the model. That’s how you will get their best work.
2. Be Personable and Make the Model Feel Comfortable
Another repeated theme the models expressed was that it was common for beginner photographers to lack a developed concept for the shoot. Models expressed time and time again that they find themselves in situations where the photographer is asking them for direction and ideas. Jasmine Nichole expressed it well: ” Amateur photographers need better concept building. If they reach out to me first, I shouldn’t be the creative director too.”
Along the same lines, KJ added: “Make your photos more cohesive. Anyone can get one good shot, but cohesiveness takes experience.”
“Have a specific aesthetic for your brand,” Ann Neika stated, adding that photographers should work specifically with people who align with their aesthetic.
A big part of the journey as a photographer is finding your style. Painters go through this process as well. We all know the contorted cubist portraits by Picasso, but the earlier part of his 79-year career included the Blue Period, the Rose Period, the African Period, Neoclassicism, Surrealism, and a whole slew of art that reads like a curious copycat artist without direction. Part of learning what feels most “you” is trying things. It’s a natural process. The downside to it is that people don’t know what to expect from you. A photographer that follows me on Instagram recently asked me for an honest critique of his work. He had some great images, clever ideas, and a good base of skills. What he didn’t have was a defined style. After applauding his positives, I expressed to him: “If I’m thinking about working with you, I’m hesitant. Looking at your portfolio, I’m not sure what I’m going to get. These images I love, these images I really don’t like, and I’m concerned about what will be delivered to me.” You may still be on a journey of finding your unique aesthetic, but even in that process, be intentional about each shoot as you go into it. Have a defined idea, a specific style, and an outlined look you want to achieve.
3. Be Personable and Make the Model Feel Comfortable
Shadows are trending these days. From the pages of fashion magazines to the feeds of sports brands, shadows are getting the limelight.
It’s not as easy as it may seem, though. Many models chimed in that they’re being placed in patchy lighting, only to receive images with random hot spots and poorly placed shadows.
Shadows are a great concept to play with, but as in all elements of design, you have to use them strategically. Here are a few tips to file away.
- Use the highlights as a focal point of interest in the composition. Don’t place highlights and shadows randomly. Place your model so that the highlight falls on the point of interest.
- Expose for highlights. If you overexpose an image, you don’t have pixels to recover. When you’re shooting, always expose your image for the highlights, and if need be, you can easily brighten the shadows in post.
- You can still add light. Even if you’re playing with naturally occurring shadows, at times, the contrast is too strong. Try using a reflector to add a little fill light while still retaining the shadow play.
4. Be Personable and Make the Model Feel Comfortable
To show or not to show: that is the question. I’ve been back and forth on this issue myself over the years. There’s a certain insecurity we carry as photographers about showing unfinished work. Viewers don’t always understand the process.
I was on a food shoot once where we were working on a high-contrast, hard-shadow, editorial food spread on a white tablecloth. The marketing liaison for the restaurant hovered over me and commented many times, “that seems too dark.” I explained to her that blown-out highlights are unrecoverable, and it was essential to expose for highlights and lighten any shadows in post. She just could not let it go. Models, similarly, can be guilty of nitpicking. As photographers, we feel protective of our work. We don’t want to be judged on it while it’s still unfinished. All of those rationalizations standing, I’ve made the switch to allowing clients to see work as I’m shooting. As apprehensive as I feel about showing unfinished work, I know that most of my models really benefit from that feedback.
- Before showing a model a scroll-through, I hedge their expectations: “A successful shoot will mean you love about one in 20 images. Five you will hate, a dozen will be mediocre, and one will be killer.” This helps curb their expectations before you flip the camera around.
Now that we’ve gone through the most common complaints from models, let’s revisit the original question: Are models expecting too much from growing photographers shooting for free, or are photographers hyping up their skills and not delivering? This is a tricky one. I believe there needs to be space for growing photographers to learn and practice, even more so if they are shooting at no charge. Equally, the frustration of models taking time off work to collaborate is justified; they have the right to expect a certain level of ability. A model recently told me of a collaboration session where both parties split the cost of the two-hour studio session rental, but the photographer, who had little experience with off-camera lighting, took an hour and twenty minutes to get the lighting correct. I think Thurman Brown’s contribution is poignant: be honest about your abilities going into the shoot.
What are your thoughts? Do you show images as you shoot? If you identify as a growing photographer who struggles with some of these points (it’s okay, we all have), should you have the space to learn and fail? If you’re a model, what’s your standard that photographers should meet regardless of the price tag on their time?
The best part of the articles is in the comments below! I would love to hear your thoughts.