George Wilson: The Do’s and Don’ts of Subject Etiquette

Katelyn Crawford Do And Dont 1

We are awash in a world of “DIY” and “how-to” channels, videos and books. But when perusing the shelves of my local bookstore, there is a visible void in literature about photography etiquette. Specifically, how to manage the very important relationship between subject photographer. In our zest to capture the image, the feelings, emotions and even approval of the subject can be tarnished, damaged, trampled on or lost if the photographer is not courteous and respectful towards their subject. Perhaps it is because the camera can be an invisible barrier that isolates us from the event or person in front of us. It could also be that today’s society uses text communication and e-mails rather than picking up the telephone and talking to someone. Whatever the root cause, there are some pretty basic Do’s and Don’ts in my arsenal of people skills used to bring out the best in my subjects and garner a spirit of collaboration.

DO always treat your subject with respect.

Your subject may be working for you, even TFP (trade for photo) work is working for you, but that does not lessen their status in your session. Being on the opposite side of the camera from you should elevate their status. In every session I do, touching and directing by touch is not allowed. There are verbal directions and cues that will help you direct your subject. I typically come armed with a series of adjectives to describe things for moods or looks I am trying to incorporate into the session. I will often choose out of the ordinary words just to be able to explain them. This builds the partnership, as you will find more creative ways of working by discussing things with your model. Try getting them to portray real life events, like the expression a failing student would have when seeing a passing grade on their test.

DO know something about your subject prior to the session.

I have frequently worked with Katelyn (pictured below) so I know about her hobbies, hometown, her job and college major. She was also one of my photography students before she modeled for me. The start of a relationship, or having a relationship, puts your subject at ease, finds common ground and builds trust. Having a relationship with your subject and knowing something about them before the camera comes out is essential for better pictures. In simple portraits this is an aid to conversation. From an editorial standpoint this is critical for pictorial and storytelling purposes.

Do make them feel good during the session. Use compliments!

If your subject looks great in a shot then tell them. In fact, show them! It is really that simple. Be vocal, tell them it is a great look, “the light is fantastic, do that again”. Share your shots with them. Having your model excited about working with you, excited about seeing the results on your camera. This heightens their awareness and feelings that they are part of things rather than just the “subject”. Allowing them to be a part of the collaborative process will most likely bring you a repeat model and tear down the natural barriers of working with new models. Simply put – compliments where compliments are due!

DO ask them if they have ever thought of a way they would like to be photographed that no one has done before.

Be careful of this question! You may get a very wide spectrum of answers. Most will be “oh, I never thought of that before” which is perfectly fine. More importantly, like giving compliments, it begins to help you access their imaginations and build collaboration. You might just get that morsel or sliver of information that generates something special or even a future session. The day I shot this image of Katelyn, I asked that question. The answer has lead into a possible future session.

DO stick to the timeline. Say “hey I am really good at what I do” through actions.

Start, when you say you will and end, when you agree to. Everyone’s time is valuable, so respecting it is very important.

DO pay your models fairly.

If you have arranged the session and requested a model’s time, then pay them and pay them fairly. Katelyn has worked with me on numerous occasions and has always been paid. Yes, I have given her a raise too. If she has an idea for a session, I will do it TFP for her as an additional way of saying I appreciate her time. A few times she has traded modeling time for a seat in one of my workshops.

DO sign the release at the end of the session.

I do this for the comfort of my model. There is not a person in this world, who wants an unflattering or inappropriate image of themselves published or uploaded to the internet. By signing the release at the end of the session and sharing the images during the session, the model knows exactly what images are there. If there is one that the model does not like, I will delete it right there from the memory card. By completing the release at the end of the session, the model has a voice. In Katelyn’s case, she knows that by not signing the release I am not allowed to use any of the images for any purpose. If she is completely satisfied with the images produced, she will complete the release. This maintains the balance of the relationship through the entire session. Working with a new model or teaching a portrait class, I explain this before I even pick up the camera.

DON’T bring them into a messy or disorganized shoot.

There was a saying in my photojournalism days; “you can be two hours early, but not one minute late”. The same applies here, be organized, know your shooting sequence, know where your lenses are and have a plan. Being efficient and neat will build confidence in your model that yes; you do know what you are doing. It is even likely that your model will stretch the amount of time they have with you because they began to have fun.

DON’T spring things on your model during the session. Try new things within the scope of the shoot.

Explain clearly what your plan is before the shoot and stick to it. Surprises will only make your subject uncomfortable. When working with Katelyn, I am clear and concise with what I am trying to achieve. Her education is in theater, so she is a natural for broadening things during the session. In one class I explained the lighting I would teach and her starting position in relation to the set up. Katelyn started to do the poses associated with Disney Princesses. The students loved it and it is clearly something new within the scope of the session

DON”T spray images across social media – work with your model and release only the agreed upon images.

This falls back to completing the release after the session, so that your model is comfortable with the images captured. Double check with your model after post-processing to again verify that you have images they approve of. Courtesy and respect are more valuable than money.

DO have Fun!


George Wilson has more than 30 years of experience as a professional photographer, and his work has appeared in many national and international publications. Now focusing on nature and wildlife photography, George exhibits his infrared black and white landscape work and teaches photography at numerous art centers, botanical gardens and at the Walt Disney World Resort in his home state of Florida. A key element to George’s work is his dedication to traditional photography as his post processing is strictly limited to tools aligning with the traditional darkroom. To see more of George's work, visit wilsonphotographyfl.com

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