What Do You Want from a Model?

Swimsuit Model Rachael Tinsley
Rachael - © Copyright 2011 by William Beem

Models.  It sounds so simple, and yet it can be so complicated.  You want to shoot some portraits, so you need someone to be your subject. It's deceptively simple if your wants and needs stop there.  Plenty of people will pose for you.  Some for free, others for compensation.

Of course, I'm not the kind of person who's smart enough to only want a person in front of my camera.  I have more wants, needs and desires.  That requires specific models to suit a number of reasons invented in my head. It's also quite likely why I give up on portrait shooting before I ever begin. So what are these criteria that I'm using to torpedo my own projects?


Let's start with the most obvious feature. I want a model that meets the physical requirements of my vision. Most often, that means an attractive, physically fit person. Why? Those are the people I like to see, and judging from the stats on the photos I've posted, those are the subjects that most people on the Internet want to see in my pictures.

Look around during your daily life. We see average looking people all day long.  It doesn't mean they're bad people. It's just that we're programmed to like certain features.  If you ever watch a TV show or movie, almost everyone looks great.  If you see someone who looks average, they're probably in it to fill a specific character role.  Otherwise, we want our actors to look better than the people we see every day.  Even the background extras look better than the people we see in the background of our lives. So it's not surprising that we want to see those folks in our photographs.

Trust me, even if I want to get some bald-headed, tattooed guy to be an axe murderer in one of my photographs, he's going to be a good looking axe murderer. He'll be the kind of person you'd want to see in your last moments, assuming you want to see a guy with an axe.


Let's face it, there are a lot of good looking people who have no talent. I'm sure of this because I've taken their photos, or had some other experience where the experience was less than the packaging.

As a photographer, you need to communicate your intention so the model gives you the portrait you want.  However, the model also needs to bring something to the collaboration. It can be very frustrating when you have a clear vision of the image you want, but the model just can't strike the pose.

One of the lessons I learned from a fashion photographer was this: “if it bends, bend it.”

Some of the most interesting poses are difficult and uncomfortable. When you tell a model to arch her back, twist her shoulders, move her chin up & eyes toward the camera…well, that's not something we do every day. Toss in the fact that you're asking a person to do this against brick, concrete or bark on a tree and it becomes even more uncomfortable. I can respect that it's uncomfortable, which is why I'd like to work with a model who can get the pose so I can get the shot, and then we can both relax.

There's a night & day difference between working with a subject who can strike interesting poses almost effortlessly compared to someone with stiff features, or poor angles. Sometimes you can tell that one model is trying harder than another.  Other times, you can tell the model just isn't getting it.  Maybe it's like dancing. I can sympathize with people who can't dance because I damn sure can't do it well. Perhaps posing is the same. Some people can learn, others do it naturally, and then there are people like me who will simply never be interesting. That's one reason I'm behind the camera.


I could have called this one something else, but let's go with professionalism.  I want a person who keeps commitments.  If we schedule the shoot for 8:00am, be there by 8:00, if not a little before that time. If you're a professional model looking to get paid, then you probably aren't getting paid for time when you're not there.  Be there and be prepared.  That doesn't mean you have to jump right in front of the camera, but it does mean you have the items you need to look appropriate for the photo.

On the site ModelMayhem.com, there's more than one discussion about “flakes” – a term used to describe someone who makes a commitment and then fails to keep it.

It's not just about showing up on time, though. It's about being cognizant of your role in making the photograph. For example, don't get sunburned at the beach the day before, either burning up your face or creating tan lines that don't work with the wardrobe.

The concepts I'm lumping under the title of professionalism could just as easily be called courtesy. Everyone has a role to play, and the whole thing breaks down if someone doesn't do their part. It's better to decline participation in a shoot than break a commitment.


If you want a great model, you may think you have to hire a professional model. That may work, or it may not.  The truth is that working for a living is no guarantee that you're good at your job.  Many of us have seen amateur photographers that we think are better than some professionals. The same thing can be true of models.  I've photographed from beautiful, naturally talented models who didn't earn a dime at it.  They did it for the fun of it.

I think your odds of getting a model who knows what to do are better with someone who has experience. Whether you have to pay for that experience or trade for services (photos, prints, etc.) may be a matter of what you can afford to give in return. Take a look at his or her portfolio and see what impression it makes.  Posing, expression – whatever hits you is good.  If you walk away from the portfolio without being impressed, then maybe you need to look somewhere else. After all, you're looking at their best work to date.


I think this may be the most important factor for my own collaborations.  Photography is something I do for fun.  If I'm not having fun, my photos are going to suck and I just want to get out of there. That's definitely happened to me before (mostly due to other photographers at a workshop, not the models). Honestly, I think I've been very luck to find a lot of very positive models.  At worst, I think I've run into some models who were complacent, but none that seemed to be in a bad mood.

Of those subjects, the ones who were in a good mood were the ones where I had the most fun during the shoot and, not surprisingly, got better images. Some people have more chemistry with each other, so it helps if you find a model that works well with you. Of course, that puts the burden on your to be likable.  Fortunately, I'm very charming. Ask anyone who ever met me.  They'll tell you that I told them I was charming.

When someone comes with a good attitude, you have to make sure that you don't destroy it.  I've watched other photographers reduce a happy model into a ball of blandness because of their own attitude. Not me.  I'll joke. I gave one model my iPhone and let her play with the Fart app, which apparently, was all it took to make her the happiest person in the world. You may not want or need a smiling face in every photo, but I think it's easier to get the expression you want from a model who is having a good time compared to one who feels pressured.

Allow for Improvement

When I look at my old photos, I see things that make me cringe, and I see some evolutionary progress.  What I don't see is the image I want next. My progress in photography has been a series of little challenges, review, and then repeating with new challenges.

Think about it.  We have to pay attention to the composition, the lighting, the things that are coming into our frame from the sides, the background, the pose, and more.  It's easy to spend too much time thinking about one element and neglect some of the others.  With practice, a few of those things become second nature and your photographs get better.

When I look at my photos now, I see the things that I wish I'd done.  For example, I want to see more movement or energy in the shots. I see basic poses that could have been better if I had a better grasp on things at the time.  So I expect my next shots to be better than my last, and I'm actively going to work on those improvements.

What makes a serious model any different? No doubt they want to improve their technique and craft, also. Despite the fact that some of my comments above may have seemed harsh, that wasn't my intention. Everything that I mentioned as a possible criticism of models could very easily be countered with criticism of a faulty photographer – and then perhaps even more criticism, too.

Instead, I wanted to provide an insight to the issues I've found that impact my ability to make the images I want to see. I've found things that work and some that don't. I don't plan on wasting my time repeating failures.  I have enough photograph where I didn't pay attention to a background and found a tree growing out of my subject's head.

Likewise, I'm not going to select a model that doesn't have the appearance that works for my image. I'm going to try and find someone with sufficient talent, but I'm going to allow for people who can grow into their role.  Most of all, I'm going to try and select models who are fun to be around and help make a good photo. That's what I want from a model.

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