3 Steps to Working With Models + Taking Better Portraits

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If you’re looking to push your portrait photography to the next level, here are a few tips from Moment shooter Alex Tan.

When I first started taking photographs two and a half years ago, I shot only on my iPhone 5s. Like many of you, I didn’t own a camera or have the slightest clue how they worked. I just enjoyed photography and was going to use whatever tools I had to get an end-product I liked. The limitations of mobile photography have really helped me grow into who I am today. I firmly believe that you don’t need more to make more.

As I navigate the waters of developing my own style, I’ve been focusing heavily on portraiture. This has taught me about styling, direction, and the art of complexity. If you’re on a similar journey, here are the top 3 pieces of advice I can share:

#1 - Know what you want

Before shooting, you should have a goal. Decide what you want to communicate through your images. Visualize which emotions you’re trying to capture, and decide whether or not the environment & styling makes sense in context.

Often times, you’ll arrive on set, and the model will ask, “What do you want me to do?” If you don’t have a good answer, it’s likely you’ll just hide behind your camera and start snapping. (We’ve all been guilty!) Ultimately, the photos will show a lack of forethought.

Before shooting, write down what you’re trying to accomplish. You will be infinitely happier with the results. Sometimes the result isn’t what you planned, and that’s okay too. Let serendipity happen. But having a vision creates a more comfortable, collaborative experience.

#2 - Take your time

Just slow down and breathe. Being anxious and rushing through anything you do in life is the best way to find yourself frustrated. I try to make sure that I don’t move on to the next shot until I get what I need.

Don’t fall into the trap of assuming that your models will be annoyed you’re taking your time. I know it can feel like that, but in my experience, that’s not true at all.

If the lightbulb doesn’t flicker on when you snap your first shots, just move to another location or angle. Some of our best sparks of creativity come from happenstance moments. So go for it: take a walk, or go get ice cream in the middle of shooting. You’re bound to come back and think differently than you did before.

#3 - It’s not that weird, even if it feels like it

We’re naturally drawn to things that feel out of the ordinary. Complex movements, expressions, colors, etc. It breaks us out of our everyday shell. I think a lot of us want to create the kind of images that make an audience feel something, but sometimes we’re too afraid to ask our subject to flail around with their arms waving in the air.

I get it. It’s kind of weird, and it will definitely feel weird in the moment, but that’s how great images are produced. Let go of your fear of being wrong.

If you’re shooting portraits of someone or a group of people, try giving concrete examples in your direction. I once had a friend tell a model, “Dance around like a bear with concrete blocks on your feet” She laughed. He laughed. Beautiful images were made.

You and the people you are shooting should be able to have a little fun. If you can laugh about what you’re doing, then you’re on the right track. Having a comfortable environment will set you at ease and allow you to capture your best work.

Alex Tan

Alex Tan is finance student drop-out, turned creative. He works as a Content Creator at a creative agency located in the heart of Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood. When he's not creating things at work, you'll find him running around Chicago with his friends pushing the bounds of their creativity.

Read more photography guides here.

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