You don’t have to hire models to capture successful lifestyle images. Check out these tips for how professional photographers use everyday people in their photography.

Top image via Look Studio.

There’s a fast-growing trend of using real people as models in commercial photography work. It’s a trend that is bringing authenticity back into branded content creation. This movement can be largely attributed to the growing amount of content that is needed to sustain a brand’s online media presence. Nowadays, brands need to be constantly active on social media, posting new and innovative content often if not daily. With a new need for extensive amounts of custom content creation, contract photographers are finding work in a wide variety of assignment and compensation types. While one may have an extensive budget that allows you to hire professional models, small budgets may not allow for it. Regardless of the type of contract you take on, you still want to ensure that you are producing the best work possible.

We spoke with 9 photographers on the Shutterstock Custom network who create custom content for brands through assignments on the platform. Some simple assignments have minimal model budgets, so photographers are opting to use real people that they have quick access to in order to complete these assignments.

Here are these photographers tips on how to photograph real people as models, and still produce professional, eye-catching content for branded work.


Kyle Cong

9 Photographers on Shooting Real People as Models — Kyle Cong
Image by Kyle Cong, a portrait photographer based in Coquitlam, BC, Canada.

Let them do something, and capture the moment

  • “My number one tip on shooting real people as models is letting them do what they normally do. Most people think they need to do something special to get the best version of themselves in front of the camera, but usually, this ends up making them feel even more uncomfortable or nervous.”
  • “I recommend photographers to let their subjects do something and capture the moment. This could be anything from sitting somewhere looking far way to walking and talking with friends. It may be a bit more difficult to compose and focus for the photographers, but we got true expression and natural pose in return. We can always keep practicing and getting better on composing and focusing but we should never expect every client like a professional model.”

Fanette Rickert

9 Photographers on Shooting Real People as Models — Fanette Rickert
Image via Fanette Rickert, a food and product photographer based in Washington, DC, USA and Northern Virginia, USA.

Have a conversation

  • “As a lifestyle, product, and food photographer, I hire real people as models to be the “lifestyle” part of my images. This can be the staff for a restaurant shoot, the owners of a business I am shooting for, or my friends when I shoot some stock images. I find that the most efficient way for me to capture real moments is to give them a short description of what I want to capture so they have a general idea, but instead of directing them as I would with a model, I start a conversation. If I have several models, I try to find a topic where everybody can participate. Once they start talking, they forget about the camera and I can then capture some real emotions.”

Lyndsey Thomas

9 Photographers on Shooting Real People as Models — Lyndsey Thomas
Image via Lyndsey Thomas, a portrait and lifestyle photographer based in Whitby, ON, Canada.

Use icebreaker jokes to get them laughing

  • “Make the models feel comfortable, and like they are just hanging out with an old friend. Chat with them, get to know them if you don’t already, and get them laughing! This is especially important if you are working with multiple people who don’t know each other! I ask about where they live, jobs, their families, and I often resort to bad jokes. One of my personal favorites is, ‘What do you call a fish without an eye?’ After a dramatic pause, I say ‘FSSSHHHHHH’ and they usually all end up looking at each other and laughing. At me, or at the joke, I’m not sure, but it serves its purpose!”
  • “I also make sure to let my models know they are killing it! They often aren’t sure of themselves or how they are looking on camera, therefore it’s important to give them lots of positive feedback and let them know how awesome they look!”

Kassy Davis

9 Photographers on Shooting Real People as Models — Kassy Davis
Image via Kassy Davis, a designer and photographer based in Vancouver, BC, Canada.

Create a comfortable environment

  • “I always try to keep the mood relaxed and light hearted to help models loosen up and be themselves in front of the camera. I also let them see what some of the shots look like as I’m shooting so they have an idea of how they look. It seems to build more confidence for models who are a little nervous to be photographed.”

Shoot for candid moments

  • “To avoid the ‘over-posed’ photo, I try to get my model(s) to engage with each other or the product the way they would naturally. If I’m trying to evoke happiness I like to get one of them to share a funny joke or story and I photograph their reactions. If it’s an engagement or wedding shoot, I’ll get them to play with each other’s hands to create an intimate quality. Candids give you a more authentic experience, thus you can get some really beautiful results!”

Jean-Marc Robin

Image via Jean-Marc Robin and Gillian Williamson, photographers at Studio Lumen based in Calgary, AB, Canada.

Be yourself

  • “It’s tempting to purchase something new to wear for a shoot, however that new item is often not comfortable, and it shows. Direct your models to find something in their wardrobe that represents their style and brand, and that they feel comfortable and confident in.”
  • “It’s best for models to look (and feel) like themselves. If they don’t wear a lot of makeup on a daily basis, it’s best not to go overboard. As photographers, you do, however, want to be camera ready, so taming loose hairs and removing shine is always advised. (Depending on the budget) a good photographer will supply a hair and makeup artist for touch-ups.”

Body language and natural poses

  • “A lot of people don’t think about this, but knowing what to do with a models hands will help your photo shoot. I like to think about how I stand when I’m chatting with someone in a professional setting, and advise the model to do that. Where do my hands go? What posture do I take on when I am trying to get to know someone? Body language plays a huge part in how we portray ourselves.”
  • “As photographers, we are always looking for poses that people just do on their own. Non-models do not really know how to make unnatural poses real. Keep an eye out for things they do naturally, and use those poses to help make the shoot more authentic.”

Ian Kiffin

9 Photographers on Shooting Real People as Models — Ian Kiffin
Image via Ian Kiffin, a corporate and event photographer based in London, UK.

Familiarize yourself with the shoot location

  • “Capturing people who are not used to it is all about putting them at ease with their surroundings. Before shooting at a particular location I would visit beforehand to make myself familiar with the area. Symmetry is also an important element when it comes to my work. In the image highlighted above, placing my model, Inga, central within the flowerbed makes for a strong image. Try to get to know your subject and your surroundings before shooting.”

Alexa Mazzarello

9 Photographers on Shooting Real People as Models — Alexa MaZzarello
Image of Alexa Mazzarello, a portrait and lifestyle photographer based in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Image via Brenna Louise.

Form authentic connections

  • “When I’m shooting real people as models I focus as much as possible on simply connecting with that person. This often means talking to them and being genuinely interested in who they are — then I shoot through the conversation as there is likely to be laughter, looking off into the distance (thinking), and many other emotions. Trying to get emotion and personality is key.”

Anthony Rayburn

9 Photographers on Shooting Real People as Models — Anthony Rayburn
Image via Anthony Rayburn, a commercial photographer based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Create real moments

  • “The best way to capture natural moments is simply to create real moments. Our first instinct in front of the camera is to pose and smile and most of the time this never looks good. Think of it this way: if you have to photograph a group of friends packing a picnic, then pack and have a real picnic. Make sure to anticipate and capture the raw moments in between scenes. Get them set up, sit with them and enjoy your picnic, take some photo breaks and keep alternating. Being a part of the scene will help your models be more at ease versus sitting on the sidelines. For the models that continuously pose, I focus on the before and after moments, the ones where your models don’t think you’re taking their photo. I just tell them you’re dialing in your camera, let them pose, then move on to the next scene.”

Kristin Moore

9 Photographers on Shooting Real People as Models — Kristin Moore
Image via Kristin Moore, a family and wedding photographer based in Doylestown, PA, USA.

Organization is key

  • “Make sure you have things well organized and planned out ahead of time. Choose your location, outfits, props, and shot list in advance of the shoot and have your models arrive right when you’re ready to actually start shooting. Especially when working with children, you usually have a small window of time when they are excited about having their photos taken so if you are well prepared ahead of time you can capitalize on their good mood and get right to making the images!”

Most importantly, have fun!

  • “Keep it fun and be encouraging! Adults can get nervous or stiff in front of the camera, especially if they aren’t used to having their photos taken. If you have a laid-back and positive attitude throughout the shoot it relaxes your subjects and helps to create more authentic images. This is especially true when working with children — if they are having fun the longer they will be willing to work with you and the better your images will be.”

We hope these tips help you on your next shoot where you are required to shoot real people as models. We can’t wait to see the content you create.