How to work with difficult models

I think every photographer that works with models has one story about a difficult model. It’s challenging and sometimes it’s the photographers fault, sometimes it isn’t and sometimes it’s just a mush of both of you having bad days.

I’ve had my fair share, even with consistently good models turning up and having a bad day. Everyone has days where your head space is just funky, self conscious, bad mood, hormones, disgruntled, feeling trolled and everything in between.

So I’ve written a basic list of things I’ve found that nearly always help diffuse the situation and get things back on track.

Diffuse list

  • Make tea or coffee. The most British thing ever but it helps. If they refuse tea explain you’re making some anyway and encourage them to chat in the kitchen with you whilst you’re making said drink. I think the gentle clinks, familiar sounds and flowing chat helps wonders with 80% of tense situations.

  • Ask questions. Before shoving them into hair and make up straight away, chat with them. Ask them how their day has been, ask them how they slept, ask them how work is etc. See if your questions hit on something that might be bothering them (if they seem bothered of course) they might offer up the information and usually just letting someone know that something has happened, all that weight comes off them. Sympathise, empathise and let them chat about it. It barely eats into your shoot and could change the outcome drastically.

  • Make them laugh. Now science backs me up here. Releases endorphins and everyone is smiling. Making people laugh on a photoshoot, for me, is pretty essential. It keeps the energy up and everyone feels closer.

  • Make time for small breaks. If your model has had a really stressful time, emotionally or physically, or simply didn’t sleep well they will need breaks. A five or ten minute break to hydrate, eat a little something and relax does wonders. Without making it about them, I usually say I need a cup of tea, some water and can we all take a break rather than it being on the model. I’ve found models in general hate the idea of there being a break just because they’re struggling so I make it about me instead.

  • Hot water bottle. I will forever praise the magic of a hot water bottle. If your model is cold, it’s going to go downhill eventually and you won’t get them back! Hot water bottles provide comfort, warmth and care. It shows you care. It for some reason makes people laugh too, getting a hot water bottle out (I usually wrap it in a warm thick coat for them to wear too which is then warm from the hot water bottle).

I know, I’m not a counsellor, I’m not always a friend and I’ve heard of some photographers putting it as simply as “I’m paying them to do a job so that’s what they should do.” But models are people, helping you the best they can create your vision on screen. They have complex needs like the rest of us. The easiest thing we can do is look after them so they work better for us. Look after your models and they will look after your shoot.

Okay, sometimes, you will get a model and despite trying your best they are a pain in the ass. Whether it’s a bad mix of personalities or you both had different expectations. It’s usually a mix of both. There’s not much to salvage that. Even if I know I don’t gel with someone, I still do my diffuse list, so at least they can’t say I didn’t try.

And what about the ‘snotty models’

Oh yes, I went there! No one wants to talk about it right?! The models who think they are better than everyone else. Who usually 99% of the time, are not, they are generally weaker models. It’s such a hard situation to be faced with. I’ve had only a few of them. They fling around on set, pouting, posing and not listening to your directions and generally on breaks barely engage with the rest of the team, usually stuck behind their phones just mumbling one word responses.

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There is a big difference between rude and professional.

So I normally get into a bit of a bossy mode. I stop shooting and ask them directly for poses, asking them to hold it for one or two shots at least. These models I’ve found tend to move ALL the time not waiting for a shot or NOT at all until you tell them to move. I always have a previous shoot on hand with a good model to go through similar poses, showing them my expectations. It sounds harsh and like I’m comparing and in some ways I am. It helps bring them down to the reality of the situation, they aren’t meeting expectations doing it their way. This is when they usually respond in some way. Either they tone it down and actually realise they have to model differently and do so, I applaud this. OR the worst response, they don’t listen at all. There’s not much you can do at that stage, you cannot talk or direct someone who won’t listen. I just don’t use those models again and don’t recommend them to other photographers.


Was this helpful? Any tips of your own?

I’d love to know if you guys have any further tips to share and if you found this helpful too. Let me know by commenting below.