Working with models

There is no doubt about it, by far the best way to earn an income from stock photography is to shoot models. Just scan through the pages of a glossy magazine or newspaper and note how many pictures there are with people in them. People sell products and people sell services. Therefore, it is important to master the skill of taking pictures of people.

But there is a problem with photographing people. They need to give their consent. If you shoot people in the high street, for example, you can only use the images for ‘editorial’ purposes and not for fully commercial or advertising. The big fees from stock photography come from commercial and advertising use of images, not from editorial.

Thankfully, there is a solution. Use models and get them to sign a ‘model release’ form. You upload the model release with your pictures and hey presto, you can sell the rights for fully commercial use.

I will discuss model release forms in much more detail in later posts because it can often be a complex subject. For now, I will concentrate on the use of models, not the paperwork. But do remember to get your model to sign a model release form before you start taking pictures.

Find a model


So, let’s start with the model. Where do you find a willing subject. Okay, so your partner or friend could make a great photo model. A word of caution here though. I would never use a relative or friend for commercial stock photography.

The bottom line is, you never know who will buy your images or where those images will be featured. It is best to avoid conflict in the future should your partner or friend find themselves on the pages of a magazine advertising a product they don’t like. Of course, the same could be said of a paid model. However, the difference is that your model will have been paid and they will have accepted the terms of the deal. I would always say, if you are going to upload images of a person to a stock agency then always use a professional, or at least a semi-professional.

Another thing that I always advise is – to pay for your model. I realise this can be expensive and you might be taking a chance on getting your money back, but there are two good reasons why you should always pay a model.

Firstly, a paid model will usually have a track record. She will have been in front of a camera before and therefore she will be used to working with a photographer. A model that is being paid will be in the right psychological frame of mind. Imagine asking a friend to model for free. Although she might be willing, she will be less motivated than a person who is earning money from the shoot. I find that paid models arrive completely motivated and they stay in the zone longer than an amateur.

The other reason for paying a model is, again, psychological. You will perform at your best if you have paid out hundreds of pounds. You will be motivated to get a good set of pictures. Do not underestimate these psychological aspects of photography. Money helps to motivate!

There are many model agencies around the country. Some will only accept photographers if they have a track record and a good portfolio. Some will be a little more accepting of a newbie. The agencies I use allow the photographer to post a photo-shoot brief and then short-list potential models. Fees for a half day (long enough for your first shoot) range from £150 to £300 plus the agency’s commission. With a good set of pictures from the shoot, you can expect to get back five times that amount.

Which model should you chose?

The concept comes first


The choice of model depends on the choice of concept. For your very first model shoot, you should think about the concept first. Shooting stock is not about taking pictures of a pretty woman or man, it is about supplying images that tell a story. Think about your concept and write it down. Tinker with it a few times before you finalise your thoughts. For my first model shoot I came up with a very simple idea: ‘a young woman walking through a park while talking on her mobile phone’. That simple idea then allowed me to work on variations, which included: holding a brolly, sitting on a bench, and sitting on a swing.

After you have identified the concept for your shoot, you can then select the most appropriate model.

Before the shoot

It is important to contact your model before the day of the shoot. You need to convey your concept. Discuss your ideas with your model and the variations that you want to shoot. Discuss clothing, hair style and accessories. And, don’t forget to mention designer logos. Emphasise to the model that clothing and accessories should not have visible logos. The stock agency will reject anything that shows a brand name or logo.

Identify the location for your shoot. Public parks are wonderful places for photography. In springtime, the bright green foliage can contrast nicely with dark-skinned models, while in autumn the richness of colour and fallen leaves make an excellent backdrop. Summer is a great time for shooting activity-based concepts and winter is perfect for capturing models with scarves and big coats. Models can be photographed all-year, so pick your concept and away you go.

Just remember one important thing about shooting in a public park. Other people. It is easy to miss a young child running across your shot, or a dog deciding to relieve its bladder at the edge of your frame. I know, because I have been there. I remember taking a fantastic shot of a scantily clad model on a motorbike. The image was brilliant; great framing, beautiful lighting, and a great pose. But when I checked the picture on the computer I noticed a black and white border collie weeing against a tree in the background!

The gear that you select will largely depend on your concept, but I would suggest a very basic kit for your first model shoot. A DSLR with a 24-105mm zoom lens is the perfect tool. The zoom will allow close-up shots and full body pictures too. You should take lots of variations so a good quality zoom is ideal.

In addition to your camera and lens, a flash unit that can fire on a ‘high-speed’ setting is very useful. I use a Canon 5D camera with a Canon Speedlite as a very basic setup. The flash is set on high-speed sync and I use the camera on aperture priority mode. Depending on your lens, a wide aperture will give a very pleasing effect; a nice soft background to separate the model and the fill flash will ensure the model is perfectly lit.

Time to meet your model

Ideally, it is nice to meet face to face with your model before the day of the shoot but this is not usually practical. However, it is important to spend a little time with her before your camera comes out. Chat over a coffee for 30 minutes to get to know her. This is a good time to check for interesting features the model may have, and to ask her about previous shoots that she has done that might be relevant to your concept.

Your model may be nervous, particularly if she is new to photography work. Take time to introduce yourself and ask lots of questions about her. Find out about her life, her interests and, if she is not a full-time model, about her job. It is amazing how 30 minutes chat will benefit your shoot.

The middle bit is the best


With introductions and coffee over, it is time to get to work. Photoshoots, in my experience, consist of three parts; the first 20 minutes, the middle section, and the last 30 minutes. You are unlikely to produce your best work during the first and last sections, but the middle piece is by far the most productive.

During the first 20 minutes, you will both be quite nervous. It is important to give lots of encouragement during this time, even if your shots are looking rubbish. Praise and direction are two things you must do. Praise is incredibly important and so too is gentle direction. Don’t overload your model with instructions. Left hand out, right arm down, left leg in front, head tilted to the right! Far too many commands. A nice trick during this initial part of the shoot is for you to assume the pose that you are looking for. Models are usually quite visual people so they respond well if you demonstrate the pose to them.

The middle section of the photo shoot is when you will produce your best work. Both photographer and model will have relaxed by this stage and you can now get into serious picture creation. Keep praising and directing though. Show your model some of the pictures and always praise when doing this. I often say “brilliant, that’s exactly what I was looking for”. Your model will respond with a smile and she will be keen to keep going. Often, your model will pick up things you have missed so it is always a good idea to show her some of the pictures. Don’t show every shot, simply pick a few nice ones to get her reaction. When a model sees a nice picture of herself she will be more motivated to carry on. It is amazing what your model will pick out from a photo. A dress strap in the wrong position or a hair out-of-place will usually be spotted by the model before the photographer. Women, especially, look at themselves quite differently to the way the photographer sees them.

Finally, the cool down. During the last part of the model shoot don’t try to achieve too much. Both you and the model will be getting tired so you need to keep the workload to a minimum. It is a good idea to try usual shots at this stage. Inject some fun into the last half hour and try something different. On my first shoot, we were walking back to the car when I spotted an unusual swing. I asked my model if she would try one last shot and I only fired off five frames. One of those images has gone on to sell rather well.

Silence is a recipe for disaster

Keep talking during the entire shoot. I have already mentioned the importance of praise, but the photographer should engage with the model throughout. If you engage in conversation you will build rapport and you will encourage a sense of ‘in this together’.

I constantly talk throughout the entire photo shoot. However, I don’t micro-direct. I like to provide basic commands and let the model adjust herself. For example, I might say something like ‘slight tilt of your head to the left and look over the top of my camera’. The model will interpret this command in different ways and will provide a pose that is natural to her. I call this free-shooting and it is a technique that provides some pleasing shots. I have worked with many photographers who micro-direct, trying to get every part of the model’s body in the right position exactly how they want it. The danger with this type of direction is that you can end up with photos that don’t look natural. Let the model pose in her natural way. Basic direction with lots of little prompts will produce relaxed images that tell your story. Perfect for stock agencies.

And finally, thank your model for her great work.

I hope this post has inspired you to get out and about with a model. It can be quite nerve-wracking, but it can also be great fun. You just never know where those images will end up. Remember, get that model release form signed.

Good luck with your pictures. Send me some of your results.

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