Respect and communication key to successfully working with models

Model: Eden Davis, Photographer: John Abrenilla

At some point in your time as a photographer, there will be an opportunity to work with people. Even hobbyists receive inquiries and there may not be a way to escape the inevitable. However, the good thing about working with talent is that the same core principles are consistent throughout every engagement: respect, establishing expectations, and clear communication.   

Respecting models is utmost important 

There’s a quote that made its rounds on the internet that goes:  

“Show respect to people who don’t even deserve it; not as a reflection of their character, but as a reflection of yours.” 

The origin of this quote was a bit challenging to track down and I’ve narrowed it down to either Dave Willis, a pastor, or Dave Willis, the creator of Space Ghost Coast to Coast.  I prefer to think it was from the latter.   

As a photographer, your character and reputation are the utmost importance, especially if you want to generate an income. Professionalism and respect throughout a photographer’s career is very important.  Starting off the on the wrong foot will come back to haunt and we’re seeing this with recent accusations in the film industry. The core fundamental when working with people, models, and artists is to treat them with respect, even if they don’t deserve it. Even if there are issues down the road, professionalism pays dividends as you work to resolve issues through the proper channels.   

Treating models with respect is to treat them as humans. Don’t objectify them. Take them as a partner in creating art, and ensure they feel good about the art being created. It is good practice to often ask, “are you happy with the outcome?” Spend time understanding what the model is proud to display and what they are comfortable shooting and future shoots will be easier to plan.    

Model: Eden Davis, Photographer: John Abrenilla

Establishing photo shoot expectations

Before each shoot, art project or engagement, the photographer and other parties involved need to figure out what the objective is and what the desired outcome is. When hiring talent, provide clear expectations of the:  

  • type of shoot  
  • location 
  • date and time  
  • compensation 
  • what the photos will be used for 

Any deviation from the agreed upon terms will likely turn into an issue. The first step in creating art with models is to find talent interested in the same results. When lack of talent exists, ask acquaintances politely and be descriptive and forthcoming with all the details.   

Establishing expectations is something that needs to be done with all phases of the project, not just the beginning and on location. Nightmare shoots consist of poor communication on both sites and unrealistic expectations. This could have been avoided by good communication and by establishing realistic expectations.    

Model: Eden Davis, Photographer: John Abrenilla

Communicate clearly and collaborate

The worst shoots had were the ones in which I didn’t communicate well enough to the model. Just like photographers, each model has a different level of experience and thus the communication style must be adapted. Models that have a lot of experience can take direction quickly and don’t need much to execute what the photographer wants. Those that are newer need more direction and visual examples. This is where communication style is important so that it is well received by the model. Respect that their experience may not be well-versed. Realize that each person responds differently to what they think looks good.   

Personal accountability is truly important when working with models. Take some time to understand perception and how others receive communication. The art of providing constructive feedback is important, especially when working with new talent. Some models appreciate direct feedback. Others prefer a softer approach, which is something the photographer will have to figure out.   

Give the model the mood, the emotion and the vision needed to pull off the shot. Some scenes require specific direction and others may just need the mood the photographer is looking for. According to Dawn Hewitt, “Projects take you off the beaten path and give your work focus.”  Start with a specific focus in mind and share this focus with the talent.

As a new photographer, working with a model can be nerve wracking but it doesn’t have to be. Treating models with respect, establishing expectations, and communicating clearly will lead to better shoots.  What are some of the things you’ve found to be useful when working with models?


  1. This article is really helpful, since I don’t have a ton of experience working with models. I think checking with them and asking if they like the outcome of a photo, consistently, is really important. Thanks!


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