What You Need to Tell Models to Get Better Photos
Whether you’ve worked with models for years, or are absolutely an absolute beginner when it comes to model shoots, you can learn something from long-time expert Andrew McMeekin.
As a photographer or artist, working with models can be nerve wracking. (As we’ll soon learn, it’s just as nerve wracking for the models too!) How do you get the right pose to complete the image in your mind’s eye, or even more importantly, in your client’s brief?
Andrew McMeekin makes cinematic photographs with dramatic lighting reminiscent of works by Carravagio or Rembrandt. While he isn’t an “old master” per se, he has been shooting professionally for 12 years, specializing in fashion photography and portraiture, and keeping himself entertained with several series of historical photos.
I drilled down for a behind the scenes look at how McMeekin executes his artistic vision, respects the client brief, and keeps his feet on the ground in an industry that’s known to be a bit… dramatic.
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Let’s talk about models — how do you handle them? Do you know what poses you want to get in advance?
Most models you work with will be terrified unless this is their full-time job and they’re doing it every day for big magazines. A mistake a lot of photographers make on shoots is saying “Well you’re the model, pose.” And that’s really not what a nervous person wants to hear.
A model needs to know what you want them to do. If you don’t know what kind of poses you want, it means you haven’t done your research for the shoot. If you want to work on commercial shoots, you are responsible for providing the end-product. You have to have the direction and knowledge to say, “This is what they’re paying me to get, so this is how we’re going to get it.”
What are the differences between working with professional models and amateurs?
There are five different categories of professional model. High-end models are in category one, and a category five would be someone with no experience at all.
With a high-end model you have to handle their temperament and showmanship. Like photographers, professional models have a front to play to keep up appearances. But if you cut the crap, you can get the job done quickly with minimal drama. If you’re calm, quiet without spouting the stereotypical “Oh darling, it’s gorgeous, it’s wonderful,” et cetera, then they’re good to work with.
If you go down the scale to an inexperienced category five, it’s totally different. They’re generally shy and have no idea what to do. You have to remember, this person was chosen simply because they are attractive, not because they are experienced. But if you’re nice and have a calm environment, and provide some direction, the model will respond well and you get better pictures for it.
Directing models seems to require a lot of confidence. Can beginning photographers pull that off?
It’s all about how you handle a model. I find younger photographers have technical ability, but no confidence when directing. You need to cultivate the confidence to say, “Well, hang on a second, let’s do this and cover that another time.”
Get that right and you’ll immediately get better pictures.
When celebrities or people in the public eye come in for photoshoots, they have a perceived idea of what they want to look like — and it’s normally wrong. You have to work to represent them with more authenticity.
You also do studio shoots for private clients. What’s the biggest difference between fashion shoots and portraiture for you?
The style of lighting is the most important. For portrait shots, you need to bring in a more rounded style of lighting that doesn’t have any dark shadows. The last thing you want on a headshot is a shadow. You need to light everything very evenly.
Fashion shoots require more dramatic lighting because the brand wants the clothes to look sharp — it’s all about what the models are wearing and not the models themselves. When you do portraiture, it’s all about the person. Different situations, different lighting.
My biggest piece of advice: Don’t be in a hurry. I’m definitely not one of these photographers who takes thousands of pictures. Snapping every half-second puts people off. You need to get it right and take one picture. Models are more encouraged by that.
Do you find ways to express yourself creatively while working on commercial shoots?
At the end of the day, you’re doing work for a client. You always have to think “What do they want to achieve from this?” and then keep the answer in your mind’s eye. You need to deliver what the brand wants and needs. That’s what you’re being paid for.
On smaller shoots with a tight budget, you have to find the balance between the brief and creatives for yourself. But if they’ve employed an art director, you can push for what you want a little more. The art director’s job is to make sure that they deliver what the brand wants, so they’ll pull you back or push you further to serve the desired outcome.
I’ve just done a shoot for the Ocean Ambassadors that comes to mind. The topic was centered around marine life eating and dying from plastic. The brief was to make it dark and deep with a very strong meaning. They wanted it to be hard-hitting, with mermaids, and on the beach.
So we had these mermaids and merboys all done up on the beach and a whole team of people — prosthetics, makeup, and lighting all set up on the sand — it was quite a production! And we were all there to execute the vision we’d been working on. The photos came out striking and impactful. Needless to say, the client was thrilled.
How does your experience working with models translate into your personal passion of historic portraiture?
I have a very good model for these shoots, his name is Desmond (pictured above). He’s not a pro model, but he’s an absolute master at playing the part. He turns up with all these costumes, goes into our props room, and comes out as a completely different character. It’s amazing to work with him and he makes my job a lot easier.
One photoshoot I did with Desmond was almost a disaster (Dark Side of Desmond). We were shooting historic portraiture in the old underground tunnels of the Ministry of Defense Radar system. It’s miles and miles of pitch black tunnels underground the East Coast of England. It’s really atmospheric down there… it’s so dark and full of history.
So I was down there with Desmond in full costume, a bunch of heavy equipment and assistants. We walked quite deep into these tunnels to get to a good spot. And then suddenly, the [radio] triggers on the camera don’t fire! Turns out there’s something in the walls that blocks the electronic signal. It was a really tense moment — to click the camera and have nothing happen. It’s not what you’d call a ‘regular’ problem.
Desmond got claustrophobic and panicked a bit. So he went outside for a breather while we figured out the signal problem. We literally had to go nearer to the entrance and open a door to get the camera to work.
Photography wasn’t your first career. How did you come into it?
I started out as a hairdresser and did a lot of work preparing models for fashion shoots. When I finally decided to get photos taken to promote my salon, I couldn’t find photographers who did anything the way I wanted. Then I thought, Andrew, why don’t you just do it yourself?
I went on a very expensive whirlwind of a learning curve. I got the top people on the net and the top private photographers in my area to teach me how to use a camera. I was in the fast lane — it was all very quick. I knew the hair side, the makeup side, and the fashion side — in a way I was already half-way there. There are more parallels than you think.
“Hairdressing and photography are very similar in the way you see face shapes, you learn how to look at people and their aesthetics in a different way.”
I found that the top guys were extremely good at photography, but fell apart when trying to handle a model on set. If you’re not in the fashion industry, it’s like learning another language — and I already knew the language from hairdressing.
When people come in for a photo shoot, they have much the same psychology as someone coming into the salon for a hair consultation. There’s this hidden body language and psyche that you learn as a hairdresser.
If you’re quiet and listen then people relax and that’s good for getting repeat business.
Thanks to the hairdressing salon I started out with a big client base. In the beginning, I did lots of free photo shoots with competitions and things like that — and we just progressed from there. Now I have a big five-story building that’s a one-stop-shop.
Do you have any advice when it comes to creating an effective portfolio to show off your work with models?
Keep it simple. Don’t go on about yourself and about how you were a photographer when you were four and your grandma bought you your first camera. No one is vaguely interested in that story.
“People want to know what you can deliver for them. They don’t care if you’re clever. They just think, what can you do for me?”
If you check some statistics on websites, you’ve only got about 3 lines before someone gets bored and switches the page. So make sure your vision and portfolio is very easy to navigate.
If I employ you as a photographer, what can you do? For me? That’s the crunch line.
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