Wednesday, February 11, 2015

When Shooting Models, Soft Skills Often Count Most

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Just about anyone can learn to light a model. I don't say that in a cavalier way. It takes practice. Lots of it. But if you stick with it and practice, practice, practice, you'll become good at lighting models. All sorts of models.

Lighting for photography ain't rocket science, although it relies quite heavily on science. That's why almost anyone can learn to do it well. The cool thing about science is that it doesn't have mood swings. It doesn't, itself, need experience. It's not occasionally disagreeable. It performs in the same proven ways each time you employ it. It's repeatable. It's reliable. You can count on it.

While lighting is a very important aspect of model photography, it's not at the top of the list of those things which are important, most important that is, to successful model shoots. Not in my opinion at least. Neither is composition or a photographer's prowess in post-production. That's not to say lighting, composition, and post-processing aren't important to many, if not most, photographers' work. They are! But they each fall under the general category of "hard skills."  Not necessarily hard-to-learn skills, but "hard" skills in the sense that they are technical in nature. Certainly in their most basic forms.

"Wait a minute," you might be thinking. "Lighting, composition, and post can be very creative and artistic. They represent art, not science. Art is soft and subjective unlike science which is hard and objective."

I agree. Mostly. Those skills often are that way. Creative and artistic, that is. No doubt about it. But each of them relies, in many ways and to varying extents, on science and technical skills for their success in a photo. That's why I refer to them as hard skills. They have rules governing them. Those rules might not need to be strictly enforced each time you pick up your camera to shoot. You can break them, for sure. But breaking rules means there's rules in place, rules that exist and that can be broken: Hard, technical, scientific-like rules even if they're not absolutely required rule to follow.

Your soft skills, on the other hand, leastwise when it comes to shooting models, are your people skills and your people skills, your most-excellent people skills, will do as much (usually more) for your overall success as a model shooter, glamour models or otherwise, as your hard skills. That's because your "soft" people skills are the skills which get the most out of your models. They are the skills which inspire and motivate your models to call on something inside themselves, something they outwardly project to your camera and, by so doing, make your well-lit, well-composed, nicely processed photos even better.

When you're shooting models, you're not shooting animated mannequins or robotic, human-like, adroids. You're shooting warm, living, breathing, complex human beings. Beings who will best deliver the goods, the modeling goods, when the best and most appropriate people skills are employed by the photographer. Your terrific people skills will generally (and most often) trump lighting, composition, and post-processing skills most days of the week. At a minimum, they will enhance those other skills.

Here's something I've been told by a number of my clients. I've been told this, or a variation of this, fairly often in fact: "I don't hire you because you're a good photographer, Jimmy. There are lots of good photographers. I hire you because you're so good with the models, working with the models."

How or why am I so good? Leastwise, in my clients' eyes when I'm working with the models those same clients hire to be in front of my camera? It's not talent. It's not something unique. It's not because I'm a natural-born model shooter. It's because I consciously apply effective people skills when working with them, i.e., directing, encouraging, and molding them while I'm shooting them.  I remain constantly aware of my demeanor and it's associated people skills while I'm shooting. Those skills aren't who I naturally am with a camera in my hands. They are skills I learned and practiced through trial and error. A lot of errors, in fact.

You see, I have a shooting persona -- you might compare it to a doctor's bed-side manner -- that I adopt whenever I'm working with models. It's a practiced persona or demeanor. My shooting demeanor, persona, whatever you want to call it is all about -- that is, it's 100% focused -- on getting the goods out of the models in front of my camera. Let me repeat myself:  It's a practiced demeanor or persona, not necessarily a natural one. In fact, I've practiced it to the point that my on-set persona has become my natural state -- make that an altered state, albeit a non-drug-induced altered state -- via a well-practiced second-nature I can call on whenever I'm working with models.

So here's Jimmy's advice for today: Practice is wildly important! (It's certainly not the first time I've said that.) But practice isn't simply limited to things like lighting, composition, and post-processing techniques. Your effective, on-set, people skills, i.e., your shooting persona and demeanor, are your soft skills. Your soft skills need to be practiced as much (if not more) than your "hard" skills; practiced until they become automatic and second-nature. I don't care if you're shooting glamour models, company CEOs, kids, or formal portraits at a wedding or other event. When your shooting persona becomes as effective as your lighting, composition, and post-production skills, I guarantee the results of all your model or other portrait photography will be improved.

The pretty girl at the top goes by Jenna Presley. Whether she's related to the King of Rock & Roll, I don't have a clue, but she can put the rock in my be-bop anytime.  ISO 100, f/11 at 1/12th of a second with a Canon 5D. I know, I know... an odd, slow, shutter speed for shooting a model in a studio setting. I was playing around with producing a soft-ish looking image quality while still keeping sharp focus on the eyes.


benn8 said...

One can acquire hard skills through experience, books, tutorials, etc. I've noticed that successful photographers in my local area have "big", outgoing personalities. They constantly chat with the model and issue a variety of brief, supportive adorations. How does a quiet photographer get from here to there? I believe it takes a new set of skills that are not taught, but which may develop with sensitivity to the model's body language and uncommon, common sense. Being interested in the model's background and experience is a starting point. The soft skills are easy for some, but take time and effort for others.

jimmyd said...


Those soft skills do take time to develop for people who don't have "big" personalities." Course, some of those "big" personalities can be over-blown, over-done, and over-the-top... which isn't a big plus either. The key is communicating. Photographers who aren't naturally talkative need to be especially mindful that, for many models, it's lonely out there in the lights. As such, models are very focused on the photographer and what he/she is doing and saying. Model shooters don't have to become Mr. or Ms. Personality, but they do have to talk and communicate. And that talking/communicating should always be very lopsided to the positive side. Shooting sets aren't libraries or funeral parlors. Music, of course, can be a great help, not only in terms of loosening up the model but loosening up the photographer as well. Showing interest in the model's background, what she likes to do and that sort of stuff is a great starting point. Directing models should be a rather steady flow of communications from shooter to model. Lots of those "brief, supportive adorations" you mentioned are critically important. Even very experience models want to hear that stuff while you're shooting. It doens't matter if they don't sound overly sincere or they sound rote and repetitive, they should be forthcoming quite frequently during shoots. A big key, IMO, and I mentioned this in my update, is to be very conscious of your demeanor while shooting. Anything that goes wrong while shooting, even stuff like you just noticed you accidentally changed your shutter or aperture, will be immediately read by the model as something she did, something wrong that is. It's your demeanor when things like that happen that causes her to believe that. Yeah, these skills take time and effort to hone. But frankly, learning to light and compose or to make magic with Photoshop doesn't come overnight either. You just have to set your mind to learning and practicing. Thanks for commenting and giving me an opportunity to expand on this a bit more. I really do believe it's one of the most important skills for model shooter to learn and develop, regardless of how naturally it might come to them.

George P. said...

Thanks again for pointing out what is important in your reply to benn8. With today’s equipment, nobody can blame the tools for not getting a correct image. For just about anything other than landscape or still life, ninety-nine percent of the difference between a great shot and a technically acceptable one is a function of the people skills of the operator. Now, if only this skill had a manual like the one that comes with the camera.