How would you guide an inexperienced portrait photographer to guide inexperienced models?

Not friends, but strangers you're shooting under time pressure (they're not getting paid and neither are you).

I found this question recently, which I looked up because of a recent experience I had: I understand exposure and lighting, which on several occasions was really perfect, but I had trouble getting the models to feel comfortable and look good. For example, they grimaced, or just looked not flattering, and I wasn't sure exactly what to say confidently to get them to look good. Sure, I was talking to them, but I was a bit lost myself. In the exact same lighting situation, I saw the more experienced photographers saying the most subtle things, chin up, turn a tiny it to the left, etc., and they were getting amazing shots with a happy, proud model. Mine looked like they had just bitten into a sour apple.

Meanwhile, here I am. Are there any tips, guides and tutorials that you personally recommend that I can study BEFORE the next time I'm in that situation. Sure, experience is experience, but I'd rather not leave at trail of tears in my wake while I gain that practice and experience. I want to feel confident to get them to look the way I want them to -- under time pressure, and I think that confidence will translate to a happy subject and a good synergy.

Did any experienced / pro portrait photographers experience something like this? How did you overcome the initial hurdle?

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    \$\begingroup\$ What's missing from the earlier question you link? \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Mar 8, 2013 at 20:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ Matt -- I thought I explained what's missing. The social aspect, and the part about links to guides. If you click on that link, you'll notice about 4-5 short bullet point tips, like squinting for three seconds in sunlight. There's so much more! \$\endgroup\$
    – Emmel
    Mar 8, 2013 at 20:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ I would recommend adding a bounty on the linked question. This is really a duplicate. Part of the problem is that the linked to question was opened 3 years ago when the site was just starting out. It is a community wiki which is generally not advised here. If it was asked again today it might get closed because an answer to it can easily fill an entire book. Also, questions for "tips, guides, tutorials, experiences" are difficult to keep on topic here anyways. \$\endgroup\$
    – dpollitt
    Mar 8, 2013 at 21:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ I think my question would beckon more interesting responses. Couldn't you just merge it before I add a bounty? I'm not convinced anything further would be added to that question I linked. Also - where's the community wiki for this? \$\endgroup\$
    – Emmel
    Mar 8, 2013 at 21:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't think merging before adding a bounty is going to do anything. It just closes this one and moves any answers from this to the other question. More info on community wiki meta.stackexchange.com/questions/11740/… and why its not a great idea: blog.stackoverflow.com/2011/08/the-future-of-community-wiki \$\endgroup\$
    – dpollitt
    Mar 8, 2013 at 21:10

1 Answer 1


Social is a big part of the picture. Forget about posing for a moment; there's only so much that can wrong there unless you're trying something very much out of the ordinary.

What you may have failed to notice in all of that subtle direction you were following is that direction was only a small part of what was going on. You need to appear confident yourself (and if you're not actually confident, work on faking it). Most people would rather be in a dentist's chair than in front of a camera, and if looks like you don't quite know what you're doing (they're not looking at the technical, but reading you for uncertainty), then they'd probably rather be in a bad dentist's chair (at least he/she graduated dental college). The "photography" should be a done deal — even if you have to make adjustments (to the angle or distance of a light, changing framing, etc.) you should look like you know what you're adjusting and be able to explain why.

Then you have a choice: be a "people person" or learn how to fake it convincingly. If you want a happy subject, you'd better be a happy photographer. Engage in banter. If you can get them really smiling (not the "say cheese" smile) or laughing, the job's in the can. You can start with a little bit of the ol' "chin this way" stuff and taking pictures before they're ready to rock, but that's more to put them at ease and check you lighting/exposure than to get pictures at first. Make them comfortable, and once they're comfortable, there's not a lot to the rest of the shoot.

You may not have anything like the session time of, say, a Peter Hurley to work with, but you could do an awful lot worse than to watch his videos. There are a couple of longish segments from The Art Behind the Head Shot on YouTube that are free to watch. If you're looking to make a buck at portraiture or head shots, you just might find it to be worth your while to drop $300 on the full four-hour video set. (I reviewed it, and it's worth more to a beginning portraitist than a fast "portrait" lens or another flash would be.)

As for "posing", apart from reminding the subject to keep their head forward (to tighten up a double chin), there are no real rules. Everybody's a bit different, and you want the pose to match the rest of the look (unless deliberate incongruity is your thing). Feel it out and make it happen. Going for the rules-based cookie cutter approach is the best way to get shopping mall pictures. Get in touch with the subject, follow them where they're going, and when they're heading for something promising, help them along the journey. But it all starts with making a connection, with breaking the ice. You can be the greatest photographic technician the world has ever known, but if you can't be a "people person" on demand, then portraiture is probably not your game. (Fashion and beauty are different; a lot of the time you're looking for something a little aloof and unattainable, and an Aspy-type tech can usually handle that just fine.)

  • \$\begingroup\$ I was recently on a cruise and talked to some photographers who work there. Apparently, they take a 3-months course where they study almost nothing but poses. techniques for photographing different people (i.e. making people look good ) \$\endgroup\$
    – Max C
    Mar 9, 2013 at 4:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 I was going to answer "be confident, or fake it" and to check out Peter Hurley videos. You have read my mind. \$\endgroup\$
    – MikeW
    Mar 9, 2013 at 4:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MaxC — the most important part of that course is the confidence it produces in the photographer, not the posing (which you can cover in an afternoon with time for shopping before supper). Get the technical out of the way and know that you can create a good picture, and you will. \$\endgroup\$
    – user2719
    Mar 9, 2013 at 5:26

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