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Friday, 20 February 2015

Working with models (without having to spend money)

I have been working with models I contacted online for about 1.5 years now.

Working with a model can be fun - it's a collaboration between you and someone else and, akin to a jam session in music, you can get very interesting results by having someone else's input.
As in music however, there will be great players and there will be ones that are just starting out. Talented ones and ones and less gifted ones. Ones that have high-tech guitars and amplifiers and ones that just have a 5$ beat up guitar and a loaned vintage amp. Ones that like jimmi hendrix and ones that love coldplay.. Ones that.. OK kidding - I think you got the drift :)

Since my memories of the first few times I had a collaboration like this are still rather fresh in my mind I'd like to share what I have learned so far with you.

Preparations on how to get a model to work with you for free

Having this kind of deal is usually called "TFP" in the photography world. TFP stands for "Time for Pictures". Basically the model lends her time to the photographer and gets images of what was shot in return.

In order to get a model to agree to shoot TFP with you, you already usually need to have images to show what you can do or what kind of photographs you produce.

source: Belovodchenko Anton
Now you see the catch 22 there right? But there is a solution. Ask friends, family or colleagues to model for you! I know.. sounds scary at first.. but you might find a way in to make it work. I should say, if you are not the very social type, taking pictures with people you don't know is kind of scary. But on the other hand - if you don't expose yourself to new challenges, you don't grow as a person (or photographer)! People photography can be very rewarding and it's worth the try, trust me.

Ok, so first step: get images of people to use in your first portfolio. If you are really good at being sneaky you can take images of random people on the street.. but this is both more difficult (as you have little control over the lighting and posing situation) and you will still have to do the challenge of taking images of someone you don't know at some point. My recommendation therefore: ask people you already know to model for you.

Now before you call that person at work who needs an updated facebook profile picture or your sister who needs an image for tinder: make sure you have some basics of portrait photography down! Otherwise you waste time and opportunity.

Here are three videos to get you started. Click on each of these videos and ideally make some notes for yourself on what you'd like to remember.

All these videos are geared towards using natural light first. That's just easier for you, easier for an amateur model (no weird flashes) and not bound to a lot of equipment. People do amazing things without flash. Check for instance Brooke Shaden's gallery..almost all of it is shot in natural light!

Sunset/rise portrait outdoors

Notes to this video: at the beginning, using a 50mm 1.8 is a great start. This is a very cheap lens on almost all systems and allows you to take images at a small aperture which separates the subject (focused on) much better from the background. If you want to improve, get an 85mm 1.8 (as recommended in the video) or, if you have a lot of bucks to spend, a 70-200 2.8. However: be sure to remember that the lens has actually very little influence on the overall impression that the image will make to someone who wants to judge your work.

windowlight portrait indoors

Notes to this video: Scott Kelby has a lot of great videos - this is one of them. The diffuser can be completely replaced (without any noticeable difference) with an ordinary white shower curtain. Seriously - shower curtains are great diffusers! Also: if there is an overcast day outside you don't need any diffusers. Clouds cast very diffused light.

retouching your portrait in photoshop

Notes to this video: This is a basic retouch from beginning to end on such a natural light portrait. Very in-depth, very sophisticated. Sometimes you don't need to do any of this, but if you want to get the most out of your images you can give this a shot.

Here I might also add that I have a youtube channel particularly geared towards retouching tutorials. You can check it out here.

Ok, so now you should have all you need to take nice portraits of your friends or colleagues, retouch them and build a small portfolio. For starters you don't need more than 3 or 4 images.

Making an online profile with a model community platform

Now that you have a basic portfolio you can get in touch with other people to model for you.

I recommend doing this by joining a website. Depending on the country that you are in you might have several options available to you. In most countries ModelMayhem is an option ( free, no limitations except for a maximum of 15 portfolio images).

In german speaking countries: (free, no limitations I know of)

There are several others - try searching google for "modeling community" in your local language and you should find something viable.

source: Mikhail Popov
I recommend having a look through other photographer's and several model profiles before you make your own. It helps to know what kind of people are registered to the platform and how you can stand out or separate yourself from some of them.

A common problem on such platforms is the "creepy photographer guy" who wants to shoot naked people. There usually is a whole industry built around that archetype. Be aware that some models will immediately put you in that category unless proven otherwise.

It is therefore good to point out a few things on your profile if you start out:

* You shoot outdoor ortraits
If you have a studio, no problem - but usually people are more willing to meet you in public than to meet you at home or in the studio... and they are perfectly right in doing so.
Most (especially female) models are constantly pestered by creepy photographer guys to allow them to shoot nudes. If you want to start out, please avoid being put into that category by excluding nudes on your profile. There is nothing wrong with shooting them, but it's not a great way to start out working with models in my opinion.

* You are OK with models bringing somebody along for the shoot
Remember: this is not online dating! Make sure to keep it professional and keep the model comfortable! The condition here is that the person does not interfere in the shoot.

* You inform the model about what will be shot and what your plans are
Do not change plans mid-shoot. It does not look professional if you do so and it can creep somebody out if you suddenly decide that this portrait would look much better with the shirt off if that was not agreed beforehand.

* You deliver your images after the shoot quickly
Nobody likes to wait for weeks to see the result of a collaboration project. Models are as excited as you are to see the outcome of the shoot - don't ignore that.

* Make a friendly, sociable and positive impression
Nobody likes to work with an unpleasant person. If you can, never say anything negative on a profile - even if you feel you want to. (Example: don't write "I hate it when people come late! I don't like blondes!")

Messaging a model

The next step is to browse through the list of available models and start contacting them for a shoot. Make sure you have a very clear idea of what kind of photos you would like to take.
Collect some links of photos that look like what you want to do and attach them to the message. The clearer you make it, the more likely people will agree to shoot with you.

Make messages personal. No blanket default messages. The recipients are people like you and you should treat them as individuals, not as a resource to be tapped into.
Example message:
Dear (model's name), I just found your profile by chance and I really like your images, particularly the one with (point out one image in the portfolio you like most).
I am currently starting out in portrait photography and would like to take a couple of images like this (link given to a photo you like - not necessarily one of yours)
Would you be interested in collaborating with me on a time for pictures (TFP) basis?
I would like to shoot outdoors at (location given.. preferably a public location and not too remote), the shoot would take about 1-2 hours. 
You are welcome to bring someone along with you on the shoot too if you would like to. Looking forward to hearing from you, have a great day, 
(your Name)
Send a couple of these messages to models you would like to work with and wait for an answer.

Sometimes you get no answer, sometimes you get a no. Sometimes you get insults (people have bad days..). All of these you ignore and don't send another message.

Sometimes you get a yes or a maybe.

If a yes: arrange a time to meet up for half an hour to talk about the shoot over coffee. No camera. This is to get an idea if the model is on time, reliable, you agree on what to shoot, he/she has additional ideas or other ideas etc. Meet up, chat, be friendly and then decide if you want to shoot or not and when.

If a maybe: clear up remaining questions or reservations and then proceed with yes or no (above).

Here are a few more tips on communicating with models.

The meeting

So why meet up and not shoot right away?

First: it allows you both to get a bit more comfortable before you have to shoot. Portraits are about expression and if you don't feel comfortable because you have never met the person on the other side of the camera this shows in the images.

Second: it gives you the opportunity to see if the model takes this arrangement seriously. A lot of models just don't turn up to shoots or come very late. If they can't make the coffee meeting in time you saved yourself a lot of time (and maybe money later on if you rely on make-up artists, transportation and rent equipment for a shoot). 

Third: it allows you to very clearly communicate what you want to get out of this and if the model is happy with that or not. If you want to do a shoot with, say, flour all over his/her face the model should agree first.

Make sure to be on time at the pre-arranged location. I recommend a local coffee-house, starbucks or something along these lines. Make it business-y.

Be friendly and positive but stay out of the flirt zone (just in case your usual mode to communicate with the other sex - or the one you are attracted to - is a bit flirtatious). If you have a significant other, you can casually mention that too, to make it clear that this is about photography and nothing else. Believe me, I have heard a lot of strange stories from models on photographers mistaking TFP shooting for online dating.

Ask the model what she ideally would like to get out of the session with you and see if you can make that work. Think of it like this: the model is something of a client (that does not pay you in money). If your client is happy she might want to work with you again or might recommend you to someone else.

It's also a good idea to try to find out which images of the model are his or her favourites. Let the model show you her/his favourite shot of all times. This way you can find out what features somebody likes or dislikes on his/her face or body or what to go for to make the model happy.

You should also bring up the topic of a model release form. This is a contract between you and the model that documents your agreement (the model gets images for his/her time etc.). This is also to ensure that the model was happy with how the shoot went. You basically want to avoid that, in hindsight, someone decides to say they actually never wanted to shoot this or that or were forced to do this or that (not likely in a portrait shoot but you never know).

Here is a resource where you can download an example model release form. Adapt it to your needs as you see fit.

The shoot

The most important rule: Don't be afraid to fail!

Don't panic if something does not work right away. Keep calm, stay in the zone.
Make it your priority to create a nice, pleasant, polite atmosphere between you and the model while keeping in mind what you want to achieve in terms of images.

You have taken pictures before, this is no different. If people stare at you two while taking pictures in a park (unlikely) just ignore it, relax and shoot.

Check on your camera display every now and then.. make sure your images are what you want them to be while shooting. You can always take another shot.

Make sure the model knows what you want to do, take charge of the shoot and direct the model (in a friendly way) if required. "Could you now turn this way please?", "This looks nice, now let's try something like this.".

Many TFP models are new to this and you need to know what you want them to do. Do not expect the model to do the best posing for you at this point.

If you are finished, let the model know until when he/she can approximately expect the images and that you enjoyed the session.

Finally, now is a good time to ask the model to sign the model release contract. It may seem like a bit of a downer after a day of shooting but it can help keep things professional and in order.

Post processing and wrap up

Now that you have all the images on your computer you can have a look and see how you did.
This is a learning opportunity for you. If some images are too dark or too bright - make a note on that to remember next time to check exposure settings more often. (get familiar with exposure compensation)

If images are too shaky make sure to check you have a faster shutter speed as you take images. You might also consider to set the ISO to Auto instead of forgetting about it (yes, you don't get coolness points for that, but it might save a picture for you!).

Your ultimate training goal should be to be able to take images that need no corrections and that could be used as is (in theory).

If you post-process images of a TFP model - make sure the result still looks like her or him. Retouching can enhance a photo - but it can also insult or hurt someone if you make them look something they are not (removing defining facial features like moles or excessive body "corrections" using the liquify tool in photoshop comes to mind).

It's important to send images in a timely fashion. Usually JPEGs, 1000 pixels on the longest edge is an appropriate resolution to send to a model.

Addendum: Notes from the battlefield

Sometimes models try to screw you over. Not often but it happens. Look out for these things:

Do not agree to transfer copyright to the model.
Copyright is yours if you took the image. If the model insists, don't agree to work together.

Do not send out RAW/max resolution files.
Requesting this is unusual and basically hints towards something fishy (somebody trying to steal your images or trying to make money off of them without your knowlege).

Do not agree for other people to retouch your photos after you took them.
This would bite you in the rearside later.. Imagine somebody does a horrible job re-retouching your image and then it has your watermark on it. Everybody will think you did it.

Do not give in to drama, strange demands or obnoxious behaviour.
Some few models are used to get whatever they want just because they are attractive people. They might make unreasonable demands of you or treat you disrespectful. In such cases I would weight if the shoot is worth it.

OK I hope this helps you get started in model photography! If you have any further questions or comments don't hesitate to let me know.

Take care and good light!

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