Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Model Direction as a Second Language

It's always a challenge directing models who speak little or no English, especially if the model isn't overly experienced. It doesn't happen too regularly but it happens often enough that I've gained some experience doing so.

Yesterday was one of those days where I found myself, camera in hand, facing a model who spoke only a little English. Very little! Her name was Cindy (pictured) and she was fresh off the jetliner from Budapest, Hungary. Since I speak no Hungarian other than the word "goulash," and Cindy spoke very little English, other than words like "yes," "no," "hello," and "money," I knew I'd have to resort to hand signals, demonstrations of poses and expressions, along with a mini-crash-course in English-as-a-Second-Language.

First things first: Figure out what body parts Cindy could identify in English. What she didn't know, I'd teach her-- And get your minds out of the gutter, I'm talking about body parts like head, face, hands, shoulders, arms, legs, and belly button.

Belly button?

Yep. A very important body part in terms of model direction, that is, important in terms of directing where it should be pointed.

"Point your belly button at that light over there," is a a direction I often give English speaking models. Pointing belly buttons away from the camera, of course, twists the model's hips away as well. It's a simple posing technique to thin hips, shave pounds, and reduce poochy less-toned bellies. Often, I'll then have the model turn her shoulders back to the camera while keeping the belly button pointed away.

Once I've quickly taught non-English-speaking models the English words for a few body parts that I'll be having her move, turn, twist, and bend, I can then use my free hand to indicate where that body part should go. I'll hold my free hand up, for instance, say a word like "shoulders," and twist/move my hand one way or another to communicate to the model which way to turn her shoulders and how much to turn them. Simple, right? Works for me.

With non-English-speaking models, I generally show them images on the back of my camera more often than I will with English speaking models. In this way, I can point at various parts of her body and give her critical feedback--usually via pantomime, expressions, and gestures--in terms of how that body part is working (or not working) within the context of the pose.

Emotion and expression is a little more difficult to direct with newly learned words and hand signals. This is where I rely on demonstrating, with my own face, the expressions and/or emotions I'd like the model to convey. Yeah, I sometimes feel like a clown when I'm doing this but, more often than not, it gets the point across. Emotions and expressions are fairly universal across most cultures in their use and meanings.

It's often surprising how quickly a photographer and a model can get on the same page without the benefit of speaking the same language. I guess photography and modeling has it's own universal language: One that quickly replaces spoken languages. Too bad I can't figure out how to do a Vulcan mind meld. That would make things even easier when the model speaks little or no English... and might be kind of kinky fun too!

The goulash-scarfing pretty girl at the top is Cindy. I lit Cindy, on a white cyc, with 4 Profoto Acute heads: The main, camera-left, modified with a 7' Photoflex Octodome; a fill, camera-right, modified with a medium, silver-lined umbrella; two kickers, either side, above and behind Cindy, modified with small shoot-through umbrellas. Canon 5D, 70-200mm f/4L, ISO 100, f/10 @ 100th. Minimal processing.


Corey Luke said...

I just thought I'd let you know, I really think it's cool that you share how you light your model's. I believe if your good at what you do, you wont lose any business by sharing your methods. If anything, you'll most likely gain. Thanks for sharing!

jimmyd said...

@Corey Luke,

Thanks! And you're right: I have gained from sharing. Quite a bit, in fact!

Bob said...

Jimmy, again I thank you for your lighting help!

I understand the placement of the lights but what are your ratios? I'm guessing you're shooting f/5.6 or f8?


jimmyd said...


I'm not much of a scientific shooter. I don't figure exact ratios and such. I meter my main light. Then I meter my back lights and adjust them to be a bit hotter than the main. Remember, there's that angle of reflectance thing so, depending on the angle the back lights are striking the model, relative to my camera, dictates how hot those lights are gonna read, i.e., how much the highlights will burn the sensor. There's also other factors like how reflective (from moisture or oil on the skin) that effects how those highlights burn. I usually start out by setting my back lights around three-tenths of a stop hotter than my main. Fill depends on what I want from it. Sometimes my fill isn't really a fill. It's like I have two main lights happening, both with the same power output and reading the same on the meter. Sometimes I want the fill a bit less than the main so I might set and meter it a stop or half-stop less. Ya know, chefs don't measure ingredients exactly. They go by taste. I don't like to get too exact with ratios and such. I find a starting point with the lights, a ballpark in you will, and then I adjust to taste. The image in the update was shot at f/10, btw.

MacGyver said...

I do the same thing when posing brides at Japanese weddings cause I only know two languages - English and bad English. ;-)

Seriously, though, thanks for the belly button tip. I'll have to remember that on my next model shoot.

And as always, thanks for posting the lighting info. :)

Original said...

Great tip on the belly button. I have found that with inexperienced models, I've had to resort to demonstrating poses and expressions. Sometimes makes me wish I exercise more.

Anonymous said...

Tying this post back to the "Right Gear" post -- With all the other "distractions" of your work I guess I could see you taking a 'meh' attitude toward the gear you use to light. I know, you are a pragmatist...
But when I read about you firing Profoto gear I'll have to admit that I get a little jealous. Kinda like hearing about that guy who is tired of driving his Ferrari... Do you really not have any feelings about using awesome gear...

jimmyd said...


Yeah, I think I'm quite pragmatic about many things, including gear. Maybe especially gear. (As well as the "distractions" of my job.)

Gear is secondary to many other elements that contribute to a good photo. The Profoto lighting is nice to use--they're not my lights, btw--but I don't see any difference in results regardless of whether I'm using the Profotos in studio or my Novatron monolights on location. The Profotos get the job done. My Novatrons get the job done. Both recycle quickly. Both hold color temp well. Both don't seem to deviate from where I set their power outputs. Both are reliable and well-built. One of them is WAY less expensive than the other. I guess that's why I own Novatrons instead of Profoto... or Hensel, Elinchrom, Broncolor, and others.

If I'm renting gear, I'll rent the best. If I'm buying gear, I'll buy the best, but only in terms of the best deal for the money, deals, that is, on gear that gets the job done adequately, reliably, and efficiently.

Any shooter worth his or her salt should be able to shoot things like glamour, fashion, portraits just as well with high-end lighting gear as they would with moderately priced lighting gear.

I do believe glass makes a big difference. I've upgraded all my glass and I'm seeing a quality improvement that I'm quite happy about, mostly in terms of the optical quality and what that means to the captured images.