Thursday, January 12, 2012

Magic: Model Interaction - What You Don't Say

Listening. Cody. D3/50mm. 1/250th, f/2.8, ISO1250.

Continuing on Model Interaction, it's important that we discuss the boundaries of conversation etiquette. Why? Because some photographers have diarrhea of the mouth. Put them in front of a pretty girl and they fall apart. They say whatever comes to mind. About things that have no relevance to the matter at hand (shooting). Or worse, they become inappropriate and talk about things that are socially unacceptable and/or make the model uncomfortable.

No, no, no and no.

Some of these photographers lack social interaction on a regular basis. And when they get the chance to work with models, they run their mouth and talk about things that they shouldn't be talking about. Their excuse is that they're just excited. But little do they know, by running their mouth the photographer can destroy what little respect the model had for him/her in the first place.

So the first thing for us to discuss is what not to say. Later we'll look at the value of what you don't say.

While the more obvious topic would be "what to say" it's important to look at this topic from the other perspective because photographers don't consider the possibility that saying too much is just as bad, if not worse than saying too little. Of course saying too little is bad too because there's a basic level of "getting to know one another" that needs to occur. But just how well do you need to get to know your model for Magic to occur?

Honestly, not that much.

In fact, through my experiences the less you run your mouth and the fewer major life secrets you divulge, the better.

Why? Because people try harder when they're not completely comfortable. Which is to say people generally become complacent when they are too comfortable. The idea of Magic is built upon mutual respect and simultaneously some "friction". I don't mean "friction" in terms of conflict, but rather the solid and tangible contact that arises from two non-smooth surfaces coming into contact with one another. The opposite scenario would be two totally smooth objects coming together and not creating any frictional "contact". That's the kind of interaction I'd use to describe a photographer and a model that know each other too well. Two surfaces that are so smooth that they're never really frictionally connected. That kind of familiarity that can unfortunately lead to complacency and complacency is detrimental to Magic.

Now I know what some of you will argue. That the better you know someone, the more likely you'll be able to experiment with new ideas and then get Magic. That's simply not true. Some of my best shoots have been with models I've only worked with once and hence was the first time I'd ever shot them. Some of my worst experiences have been with models that I've shot repeatedly. Most of you have the misconception that you need to know someone 110% to be comfortable with "letting go" and "trying new things". What I'm saying is that "letting go" and "being completely comfortable" aren't prerequisites to getting Magic.

Because let's face it, human beings are creatures of habit. When you work with someone over and over again, those people will create "precedents". Patterns of behavior. Those patterns of behavior are hard to break and may get in the way of making Magic. For example, maybe after working with the same model a few times you discover that this model always needs to run through his/her 20 poses in order to get warmed up. And because they set this precedent the first few times they shoot with you, now it's how they always work when shooting with you. Is this long warmup really necessary? Perhaps not, but it's a routine that you're now pigeon-holed into because you let that precedent occur the first few times and now it's going to be all but impossible to break the model out of that pattern of behavior.

That's precedent.

And the more comfortable a model is with you, the more likely you're going to see some patterns of behavior that are hard to break. The irony is that frequency and familiarity can both be your enemy.

And it goes back to what not to say or what you don't say. Sure, there's a need for a basic level of understanding and comfort. The model needs to be comfortable enough to trust you as a photographer and try new things. But simultaneously, the model should not be so comfortable with the photographer that he/she doesn't try as hard to impress anymore.

The point of "what not to say" or "what you don't say" is simply that the model is not there to be your best friend. Hell, the model is not even there to be your friend. Therefore you should not treat the model in such a way that diminishes those boundaries. These boundaries are important. They're what keeps people on their toes. They're there to ensure that people are paying attention and are "present" during the shoot. There ought to be some "friction" by which mutual understanding and respect is created so that the working relationship is optimized for great photography.

Magic is not two people hanging out and having a good time. Having a good time is a byproduct of making Magic, but it's not the focus of the shoot. Otherwise you'll wind up sitting around and having riveting conversation without actually taking a single picture. While this has never actually happened to me before, I have heard this happen on many occasions with other photographers.

Going back to what you don't say. Basically if you run your mouth and tell the model about all the bad models you've worked with or how deep down inside you're never really confident about how the pictures from a shoot turns out... well you're just screwing the pooch. I mean what kind of impression do you think the model will have of you if you say these things? Do you think your model will be thinking, "Wow, this photographer is so honest. This is wonderful. I am really going to push myself harder now that I know all these things!" Or do you think your model will be thinking, "Why the hell is this photographer telling me these things? I should have done my homework. I didn't realize this photographer was so negative. Should we even bother shooting?"

Because once you expose yourself in that light (yes, pun intended) you can't take it back. Once you reveal your lack of self-confidence or how negative you are, you set a precedent. You pigeon-hole yourself as a photographer who isn't in control and isn't sure whether or not the pictures will come out well.

If you want a rule-of-thumb, a good one is simply not to plant seeds of doubt in your model's mind. Doubt begets doubt and doubt erodes confidence. Confidence is the stuff that makes great shoots. Most of you will never have the problem of having too much confidence going into a shoot. Even what you perceive as being over-confidence is simply a function of really not having enough confidence either about your experience, your abilities, your talent, etc. Don't mistaken confidence for arrogance and cockiness. Confidence can be quiet, it can be demonstrated without using any words, it can be embodied by slow and steady actions. Confidence is not diarrhea of the mouth. Because photographers that are truly confident have nothing to prove. They don't need to use words to demonstrate their value, merit or worth in conversation. People who are confident are great listeners because they don't need to make the conversation about them. If anything, you should err on the side of being a little less talkative and a little more receptive. Rather than running your mouth, just listen a little more and you'll find much better results from your shoots.

On the shoots where I talked less and simply listened and smiled more, I found that my models were much more receptive to what I had to say later. Particularly on set when it was time to shoot. These models interpreted my silence as quiet confidence. And strangely, this "mystery" only added to the aura of my "character", a character that they made up in their minds about who I was. And thus hidden deep in what I did not say, my models believed what they wanted to believe about me. That I was as good a photographer as they thought I was. That I was totally sure about everything that I did. They were filling in all the blanks that I was not offering to fill with gab. And in the absence of real information these models created mental fantasies about what kind of person and photographer I really was.

And it's been very easy to take advantage of those perceived conceptions real or imagined in order to create Magic.

Because in this day and age, your reputation precedes you, especially if you're marketing yourself on the Internet. Since you can't stop people from talking, all you can do is present yourself in the best light. Let the dialogue about you do the rest. Those conversations between people who either have or haven't met you, loom large and heavy over you as a real person. Which is why self-marketing is so important prior to meeting and shooting your model. If your reputation is good and people only have good things to say about you, there isn't much you need to add. Let the model believe that you're as good as she thinks you are. Why ruin her ideals with useless words?

So think twice before you offer some piece of useless information about yourself just to fill in what you think is awkward silence. Remember that what you don't say is just as important if not more important than what you do say.


  1. your blog gives not only inspiration but such amazing advice. I'm not trying to ego massage but your work attracted me to your site and then to your blog.

    I really appreciate the insight and your thinking. it makes sense to me.

    cheers for the posts and please continue...

  2. Thanks much for the kind words! I'll keep trying to give you guys the insight I've gathered along my journey :) Cheers!

  3. Solid insight and strong post. This is definitely a lesson that I need to apply to life in general.