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Working with models: the booking process, Part 1

As I was putting the finishing touches on my plans for a portrait shoot this past weekend, I thought it might be helpful to some of you if I broke down the process and walked through my own methodology. Booking a model doesn’t have to be complicated; in some cases it’s as easy as asking a willing friend or relative to step in front of the camera, and you easily spend more time shooting than planning.

But it usually isn’t that easy – for a good shoot, there’s a lot more planning involved. And for most of us, that all-important step of actually booking a model. Which in my experience can be the most difficult, or at least the most daunting.

The first step to successfully finding and booking a model (and in fact to having a successful shoot in general) is to have a plan. This sounds obvious, but it’s often overlooked with the assumption that if you throw someone in front of a camera, they’ll somehow know instinctively what to do and everything will just work. As assumptions go, this one is particularly bad. Maybe, if you’re working with an experienced (or very natural) model, it will work out. But it’s more likely that you and your model will stand there staring at each other, each growing more awkward and more frustrated as the “magic” fails to appear.

So at the very beginning, make a plan. Identify the purpose of the shoot. Who/what are you shooting for? Is it just for your portfolio (or just for fun/practice)? Is it for a client (the model herself or someone else)? Break it down until you know exactly who you are serving.

Half the battle in a model shoot is managing expectations. You don’t want to promise something you can’t deliver on and, just as importantly, you don’t want a model (or client) coming in with expectations that you don’t know about. Even when you’re just shooting for yourself – for fun or your own portfolio – it’s necessary to sit down and go over the same questions you would with a client. Identify the purpose of the shoot, how the images will be used, and what their final look should be.

If you’re shooting for your own portfolio then you know that you’re free to do whatever you want, so long as the model you book is comfortable with it and its logistically possible. Shooting for a client, on the other hand, buts boundaries in place that you need to know about up front, so that the rest of your planning can be done with them in mind.

For the purpose of discussion, we’re going to use my upcoming session with Sara. The purpose of this shoot is twofold: primarily it’s a chance for me to brush up on my own skills, some of which haven’t been used in a few months. I need to get back into the grove of working with a model, working with flash, and working with controlled ambient lighting. As a secondary use, the images and overall experience will be used for the portraiture section of my OM-D review series. (And finally, any great images will go into my portfolio, as always.)

So my needs are straightforward. I’m shooting to brush up and to have fun. Which brings us to the next step: style. This can be hard to define up front and can (and often does) evolve, if not outright change, once you’re shooting. Knowing this, I try to keep the style somewhat general. In this case, I want a summer look to the portraits. As I’ve mentioned before [link], I keep and inspiration file on my desktop, with photos that I’ve seen and like. This pre-shoot planning stage is the perfect time to go through that file and see what’s in there that I may want to try to emulate, or adapt, or draw inspiration from.

It’s really as simple as that. You don’t have to pre-plan individual shots (although you can – and sometimes should). I’m walking into this shoot the same way I do most of mine – with an open mind and a general outline. What happens specifically will unfold as we shoot, based on the conditions at the time, the model, and myself. If this sounds loose, it is. This is art, after all, and creativity doesn’t respond well to rigid structures. Some client shoots will be rigid and scripted, in which case you plan for it and work within the plan. But when shooting for yourself, or for high school seniors, or families, I find it’s best to remain lose and take opportunities as they come.

Which doesn’t get you off the hook for some planning. First off, you have to know where you’re going to shoot. This isn’t real estate, where location is everything – but it is important. While you can adapt almost any spot to photography, finding workable camera angles, using telephotos to remove distractions, etc, you’ll get the best results when you’re at a location that works with your images, as opposed to one where you’re constantly trying to work around it.

Parks are great for this. They’re generally public, safe, free, and convenient…so long as you’re looking to shoot outdoors, that is. (Shooting indoors comes with its own set of hassles, which I won’t get into here.) Parks are also designed to be attractive and even in the small ones, you can get a wide range of looks just by moving a few feet, changing lenses, etc.

So now I have a plan for what kind of images I want to make (summer portraits) and an idea for where I can shoot them (the local park). Now’s a good time to find a model. You’ll notice that we’re several steps into this process before I even mentioned finding a model. There’s a good reason for this – when you contact a model, you want to be able to tell them what you have in mind in as much detail as possible, so that they know what they’re getting into before they agree to work with you, or turn you down.

For example, it doesn’t do any good to skip straight to booking a model, then decide that you want to shoot swimsuit photos, then tell the model this only to have her drop out because she doesn’t do swimsuit shoots (or worse yet have a terrible shoot where the model feels uncomfortable the whole time!). You end up looking foolish (among other things) and you’re back to square one, where as if you’d come to the model with a plan you could have saved everyone some time and embarrassment.

This got longer than I expected, so I’m breaking it into two posts. Check back on Thursday for the second half, and then again on Saturday for some actual model shots!

Brent Pennington

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1 Comment to Working with models: the booking process, Part 1

  1. June 20, 2012 at 07:52

    Excellent, article looking forward to seeing the shots on Saturday


  1. By on June 14, 2012 at 09:01

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