First model shoot, suggestions?

Discussion in 'Portraits and Fashion' started by john_ashby|2, Sep 23, 2009.

  1. I'm taking a course in Portrait photography and we have our first shoot coming up in a couple of days. The problem is the class hasn't covered actually composing a picture yet. For the purpose of the course, the teacher seems to think exposure settings are beyond us and that's what she wants us to focus on for the assignment. Composition wasn't even mentioned.
    I have very little experience taking pictures of people, particulairly positioning the person. How can I make the best use of the opportunitiy for my own benefit and some portfolio shots. The session will be 5-7pm outdoors in a historic neighbourhood. I'm not sure what the access to models will be like, it's about 8 photographers per model.
  2. John
    Let me give you a couple of quick compositional "rules" for general portraiture that will also work most of the time for model/beauty/fashion photography. It really is best to know the basic "rules" of composition. You can find all sorts of ideas on the internet or in books. What was once thought to be unique or “cutting-edge” portraiture is now so common as to be considered as trite by many. Think how often you see tilted (shot at an angle or later tilted) subjects or recognizable use of HDR. The more photographers try to be different, the more they become the same. Some photographers want their images to be unique -- to be different from what other photographers shoot. They try to move away from conventional composition and design elements. The elements of design or composition can influence how we perceive the picture. They have a predictable affect on viewers. The further you move away from the conventional, the further you move away from what is known to work. We get the term “ compositional rule” in photography because it is a design element that has been shown to consistently work. Once you know what you are doing you can break the "rules" for a reason -- a desired effect.
    I hope these ideas give you a starting point or at least some things to consider.

    1. Do not pose your subject straight on to the camera. Have her turn at about 45 degrees. This will make her look slimmer, more feminine and more graceful.
    2. Be careful of split profiles. You do not want the tip of her nose to come close to touching the far cheek line. You want to make sure the far eye is either completely showing or not showing at all. You do not want to have the bridge of her nose cut her far eye. If not making eye contact with the camera (viewer), the eyes should follow the line of the nose. Thoughtful or reflective posing works well in a storytelling portrait.
    3. Avoid having the flat of the hand towards the camera. The edge (side) of the hand towards the camera is thinning, feminine and graceful.
    4. Never crop at a joint. Always crop between joints. Never place an elbow on the knee. The line formed by the arm and the leg will look awkward.
    5. Be careful of foreshortening. Watch for anything closer to the camera than the body. Feet, knees, hands, elbows and shoulders will look out of proportion (larger than normal -- foreshortened) to the rest of the body, if they are in front of the body. You have to be very careful of shooting a close-up of the face with a lens shorter than about 110 mm (film or FX digital) or 170 mm (DX digital). Shorter lenses can make the nose appear excessively large.
    6. Your subject should have more room in front of her than behind. This allows her to be facing into the picture, not out of it. You want to compositionally balance the left and right sides of the photograph. The compositional "rule" for this suggests that you position the tip of the subject's nose in the vertical center of the photograph.
    7. Notice the neckline of her top. The viewer's eyes will go to the “V” of the neckline and follow it down and out of the photograph because there is nothing there to stop it. You should try to crop below where the neckline comes together so that the viewer's eyes have a place to stop.
    8. One reason to include a background in a portrait is to establish a relationship between the subject and the background. The idea is to take the likeness of the subject to a more meaningful pictorial expression of the subject. It adds a completeness to the picture -- it tells a story. Everything in the picture should coordinate with everything else. Everything that is in the portrait is there for a reason and should help tell the story of the subject. You should ask yourself if the background goes well with the subject and her outfit.
    9. If not making eye contact with the camera (viewer), the eyes should follow the line of the nose. It is natural to look where your head is pointing. If looking off to the side you should show what she is looking at or provide a reason that she is not looking where her head is pointing.
    10. One catch light per eye is preferred. If you have multiple catch lights, only one should be dominant. The ideal position for a catch light is at the 10 or 2 o'clock position. To achieve this your main light should be above and to the side of your subject.
    The most important thing is for you and your model to have fun. Respect and trust works both ways. Good luck and let me know how it went.
  3. "The most important thing is for you and your model to have fun."
    This is the single most important "RULE" to impliment
    Knowing when to follow guidlines and
    when to break rules will be a struggle we
    all seem to face every time we pick up our cameras
    This "photo" is a case in point - on a shoot with 8 Models and 5 other Photographers
    This model moved so fast many of the other photos came out blured
    and the other guys were getting a bit frustrated
    I ended up using my video camera (oh the horror!) LOL
    turned it 90 degrees handheld (another no-no!)
    and this is what I got - which both her and I am pleased with
    and in the end - that's what really matters! Good Luck!
  4. Also, head forward is better than head back.
    Also, consider the light. Ladies are best lit straight on, ie light is in front of their nose 45 degrees up.
    Also, consider using dramatic light if applicable. Simple light is like this:
  5. ...but dramatic light is like this (both from a model shoot two days ago):
  6. (more about this stuff on
    And have fun!
  7. Mark, those guidelines are the sort of thing I was looking for, so thank you. It's the simple things like 1 and 2 that make a big difference if I remember them. I wouldn't have considered 3, but I can visualize the difference you mean. Now I just need to figure out where to put the model's hands when she's standing in the street. 8 is why I'd really have preferred a studio shoot first, it's just one more dimension of complexity.
    Brian, fun is the most important part, not just because the whole point is to enjoy the experience, but because it shows in the pictures. Your sample image is a frame-grab from a video? I'm not sure how that helps with motion blur, won't every frame be blurred then? I'll be using a D90, so I will have movie mode available, but if I just want a sequence of frames to pick the one when the moving subject is positioned best, why wouldn't I use the 4.5fps burst mode? I like your composition, but I'd want to see more fill in her eyes.
    Michael, is there anything you look for in the head forward/backward position? I've seen people ask the models to tilt their chins down. I do like your second image better. Composition is my main concern now, but I'll take lighting advice too. My idea is use a fast shutter speed, set the aperture to meter for the sky and then use a speedlight to light the model. As far as equipment, I'll have the SB-800, 18-200 lens and the 50mm 1.8 lens. I was going to rent the 24-70 2.8, but given my level of preparedness, I think it would be wasted on me at this point. I think I'll mainly use the 18-200 just because the zoom will make it easier to compose and for a first shoot it's probably worth the small loss in quality to make it easier. So far I've been using a reflector and assistant to bounce the flash but I won't have that available at this shoot. And I won't bring a tripod because I'll be taking the subway and I don't want to carry a big sign saying I'm carrying expensive camera gear.
    I'll be sure to post some images next week.
    Thanks for your replies.
  8. John,
    I used my 70-200 exclusively at Monday's model portrait shoot.I used one stand and umbrella and one flash in that umbrella, and one flash on the camera. A hassle to carry so I don't blame anyone for not doing it!
    I usually start at f/8 and set time to make the environment one or two stops darker than it should be according to the camera. Then I use flash to lighten the face - even just one flash aimed at the model. If it's fill flash, it's OK...
    Head back SEEMS sexy, but generally isn't at all. Head forward, tilted just a bit, is great. Soyes - I do that too. Do watch out for double chins: cardinal portrait rule is only one chin each .
    Oh and.. focus on the model's closes eye - always!
  9. "won't every frame be blurred then? movie mode or 4.5 burst mode?"
    Motion blur seems to happen as I zoom or pan - But!, even handheld, once you get settled - you will have a bunch of sharp images to choose from (I shoot in 1080 x1920 24p) so 24 frames a sec! (if you don't need the higher pixel count?) I would say try both and see what works best!
    "I like your composition, but I'd want to see more fill in her eyes."
    Natural light is great when your model knows how to use it - when we went through some of the footage last night - she realized what she will have to do to get better shots and so we will "play" with the sunlight more next couple of days! I guess we'll just experiment till we get it right! What can I say - It's a rough life! :)
  10. I think you are making too much of it and you seem a little want to walk before you run. You have little experience with shooting people. It is a skill to be learn and each photographer works different with their subjects when photographing them.
    Also if you have "8" photographers per model, you cannot have a shared vision when photographing your subject. So I recommend be a little assertive and polity vocal when shooting so you can get your photos in. Learn from your mistakes and forget to get portfolio photos. That is the benefit learning and making mistakes, now and not do them on your own and have to produce quality work.
    When I took a five day portrait class, first day was exposures, lighting meter, setting up studio lighting but nothing about working with a the models and posing them. The upside was compare to your class it was small and one on one time with a model for about twenty minutes.
    At the end of the course "none" of the photos I shoot could be used by me, but I learned from my mistakes and walked away from the course a better photographer when shooting on my own.
    One of things I recommend will recommend is not only watch the instructor shoot if he or she does, but your fellow students too as they can show you something to do or not do when working with people.
  11. Michael, I usually end up around F8 in bright sunlight which works well with my flash at 1/4 power around 8-10 feet from the model so it's probably the same ballpark as you just getting there a different route.
    Brian, the D90 does 1368x720 @24fps, so at 240 dpi, it's barely good for a 4x6 print. FWIW, I also lose my AF during the record. It's worth playing with but not that much changes in 1/4.5 seconds for a 12 megapixel shot :). I will need to figure out the flash in burst mode, so far it just disables the flash.
    Bill, walking before running is a good way to put it. 8 Photographers per model is 15 minutes of time to direct the model, so not that far off of your 20 minutes. And the class size is larger than normal, which means there's more budget for models but this teacher doesn't seem able to comprehend that. I'm still not sure what the format will be like. Even covering what you did the first day in your couse makes sense, but we didn't even do lighting or the light meter. She shows a lot of portraits from the 1920's of the style of 2 models standing side by side with their arms limp at their sides frowning/glowering/looking miserable, and horrible exposures, all grey with no detail or contrast (though that can just be age faded pictures). I have a similar picture of my grandmother when she was about 6. I'm not sure what the purpose is, the style of what people want to see in a photograph has changed immensely in the past 80 years. The assignment for this shoot is basically take 3 properly exposed pictures, one in full sun, one in shadow, and one backlit. Nothing was said about composition except that it factors into the mark. What I *want* to do is take some good, if basic, portraits.
  12. If you're new to balancing ambient light with flash then you should practice beforehand.
    Set up a dummy or something in the back yard so you can see how your camera and flash settings are turning out. Masses of information on this is available at (start at the Flash 101 section) but roughly what I do is this:
    • Get the flash off camera. Your SB-800 and D90 will work wirelessly. In the D90 built-in flash menu you need to set your on-camera flash to "commander" mode with power "--" (i.e. off) and on the SB-800 you'll need to set it to wireless mode on a particular channel. This might require some mucking about but getting the flash off camera -- even if you're just holding it in your left hand out to the side -- will make a massive difference to your shots.
    • Go to manual mode and switch the flash off. Dial in 1/200th shutter speed and vary your aperture until the background (ambient) looks nice. If the light is low, try 1/125th shutter. Basically you're trying to get the ambient looking nice by varying your aperture.
    • Put the SB-800 in TTL mode. Fire away at the model and check the results. If the model looks too dark or light, dial in flash exposure compensation (not overall exposure compensation, just flash -- on my D80 this is on the flash menu where I can set all the different flash groups).
    Using the Nikon Creative Lighting System like this enables you to get the camera to do most of the work lighting the model with flash rather than you needing to configure everything manually. If you or the model move positions the camera will figure out the new flash exposure automatically. If the ambient changes significantly, change your aperture. If it gets dark (i.e. dusk or sunset) you can start increasing your ISO to compensate.
  13. Mike, the off-camera capability is one of the main reasons I bought the SB-800 over the SB-600, I was using it in commander mode long before I ever put it in the hot shoe, and even now I keep the plastic shoe cover in the camera because I use the shoe so rarely. I do shoot in manual mode when I use the flash and your second point is basically what I do. I would have bought Nikon anyway, but the Creative Lighting System was a selling point for me, and a second SB-800 is pretty high up on my shopping list.
    Can the SB-800 work with a manual setting in commander mode? I'm talking a lighting course at the moment and one thing the instructor had us do was shoot a gray card against a black panel with the flash in TTL mode, just to see how badly it got the flash exposure. Of course, while doing this first model shoot, I should just set it to TTL mode so it's one less thing to concentrate on.
    How useful is the little white bounce card built into the flash? I've been playing with a full sheet of foam core as a bounce card and getting good results. I know this is something I need to experiment with for myself, but this shoot hasn't left me time to practice properly.
  14. Sure thing it can work in manual mode. But TTL ii sjust fine once you know it.
    The white card is really just to get catchlights into the subject's eyes. I prefer to use Honl flash modfifiers when I modify my flash. As I describe here:
  15. Actually the SB-600 works fine off camera since the D90 (and D80) have a built-in commander mode. The SB-800 is a more powerful flash, that's for sure, but the cheapest way to get into Nikon CLS is the SB-600.
    When you're in manual mode with the flash on TTL the camera is still figuring out how much light to put into the scene. It's like adding a fourth factor for the camera to control in addition to aperture, shutter speed and ISO. The camera will put enough flash into the scene to produce whatever exposure the meter thinks is right. You can do this on aperture priority or any of the other modes as well, but in manual you're locking in the ambient scene.
    In Hot Shoe Diaries Joe McNally describes using aperture priority and overall exposure compensation to get the ambient how you want it, then using flash on TTL with flash compensation to get the subject how you want it. Both techniques will work, I just learned Strobist style where pretty much everything is on manual.
  16. Michael, is there any value in setting the camera to auto-bracket the flash and then shoot the 3-shot bursts with a single button press with the camera in cH mode (for this model shoot tomorrow)? For that matter, does the flash work that way? I seem to recall the flash not working in cH mode, but that could have been the internal pop-up, or maybe commander mode which the internal pop-up couldn't handle. For flash bracketing, is it one button push = 1 exposure?
    Mike, recall the SB-600 not working with the pop-up flash in commander mode but it will work if you have an SB-800 in the shoe as a commander. Someone in my class has an SB-600 and D80 and I believe that's what their manuals say.
    I am using the camera in manual to lock in the light scene and I have been setting the flash to manual as well. But I only get good results if I really take a lot of time considering the flash power and my distances and I have a lot of trial and error where I see the flash exposure is out on the preview and have to adjust the flash and reshoot. TTL is probably the way to go even though it doesn't do that great a job either. So far, in bright outdoor lighting, I've been setting the shutter to 1/200th (the fastest sync speed on the D90) and then setting the aperture for the ambient scene. The I set the flash knowing that at ISO200. f8, distance of 8 feet gives me a good exposure with the flash at 1/4 power and from there I can calculate (double the distance, I need 2 stops brighter or the flash at full power -- stop down to f11 I have to boost the flash to 1/2 power -- etc) It seems to work but it's slow and since it's not that easy to estimate distance, that's why there's a lot of trial and error.
  17. Sorry for the slow response! I;ve beentaeching (photography).
    Flash bracket is possible for sure, but it works slowly since it needs to recharge every time between flashes.. not my preferred way to work, but that is a matter of taste.
    And yes it is, if you do like to work that way.
    I prefer to look at thehistogram after each flash.
  18. I had the shoot today. It was very overcast and dark enough that there wasn't enough available lighting. Our 2-hour shoot ended up being cut to half an hour when it started pouring. I was just starting to get some confidence interacting with the model. It was disappointing to have so little time and have it end so suddenly and I didn't get a lot of the shots I wanted. I have a couple of pictures from the shoot in my portfolio here.

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